I close my eyes and will myself to remember Morocco. The memories come back in sensory pieces all jumbly tumbly and out of order – the sweet smell of mint tea, dual heat sources of desert sun on my scarf covered hair and camel fur in my hands, dampness on cobblestones and underfoot after a rain in Marrakech, cold shadows paired with scorching brightness in a river gorge somewhere between oases in the Atlas Mountains, our guide Abdel’s confident voice singing along with his dashboard drumming (sometimes a Bedouin tune I come to love but more often Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive) as we climb and drive and drive and drive crossing snow, desert, city pavement and casbah creeks. Then there is more mint tea – this time served in the shade of a Bedouin tent and the taste of Twix and Pringles – American luxuries found around the world and perfect delicacies to share with the guides who taught me how to really picnic (pita, tuna in tomato sauce, soft cheese and oranges, shady tree and good music.)
We came to Morocco after a feast of a trip in India, rounding out what would be a sort of Babymoon in a country that, similar to India, is a crazy beautiful land where modernity and reality are struggling on the brink of something great or something totally sad. India had assaulted our senses and sapped all our energy such that we arrived in Marrakech and proceeded to sleep for three days. Our Riad (private home turned B&B) kept us well supplied in tagine and all the mint tea we could drink and also introduced us to the peculiar dichotomies of Moroccan city life. The Home is quiet, peaceful, delicate and tactile, open at its heart while the City is brown, muddy, wonderfully loud and busy busy busy – a warren of streets and alleys and unknown destinations. Looking back on Marrakech, I realize it felt intriguing with little delights I hadn’t expected to find in North Africa – urban orange groves, wild roses, tasty family-style night market meals and some of my most favorite interior architecture.
Like our driver Rakesh in India, and our beloved guide Philipo in Tanzania, our driver Abdel became our barometer for everything we experienced. He picked us up in Marrakech’s famed Jemaa el Fna, a market square at the heart of the city, dressed in cap and plaid shirt, slightly formal and always deferential. As we climbed out of the capital and closer to the desert we saw him transform his clothing piece be piece until he was indistinguishable from the Berber men we would encounter while riding camelback over sand dunes. It turns out that Berber dress worn in Marrakech is a bit like wearing overalls to a nice dinner in America. So when in town he played the part of smart tour guide and back closer to his own people and real life he felt comfortable once again donning the headscarf and cloak of any properly dressed Berber man in the High Atlas. At times he wrapped our heads in scarves too and he indulged my every request to stop for photographs of camels, donkeys, the landscape and more camels. The Arab Spring was just erupting a few countries away and he translated the news for us while also predicting (correctly) that Morocco would not join in the great Arab upheaval to the east. A kingdom with democratic elements, life in Morocco is relatively modern and hopeful, full of connected entrepreneurs and a generalized spirit of Much is Possible. Abdel hinted at barriers to his own success here and there and I can’t begin to know what they are, but I do know that he is an optimist and his optimist’s heart filled my Morocco experience with restorative days, generous encounters, beautifully stirring music, and an all-around air of warmth marked by a feeling that with friends There is Always Enough to Share.
We had crossed a patchwork of desert, oasis, casbah and town for days when we came to a roadless wilderness of black rock that leads to Erg Chebbi, the iconic red sand dunes at the edge of the Sahara. We paused in the heat and enjoyed that picnic of Pringles and wood-fired pita. From there Abdel lead us to the desert and the camels that would lumber us over invisible routes to spend the night among the dunes. It was quiet and hot and wonderful.
That night the moon rose like a sun and we slept in Berber tents, sharing a pre-slumber meal with a multi-national group of fellow travelers and singing random songs we all knew around a pair of bedouin drums and drummers. In the morning we rode the camels back to the edge of the desert and had tea with a local before winding our way back to Marrakech, the proximity of which I could guess by how much less Abdel looked like a Berber.
I’ve written this account of our time in Morocco looking back across three Aprils, the words wholly brought about by the memories imbedded in the photographs. Despite the passage of time I can totally recall all of this and more because I have these images. And so, I have more faith than ever in the fact that photography can take us to our memories and be our words; Photography is a powerful medium I feel blessed to work in.