The Kingdom of Morocco / المملكة المغربية in Arabic / Royaume du Maroc in French / Al-Maghreb - literally ‘the place where the sun sets’ or simply, ‘the West’, by virtue of it being the most westerly area of the Arab World.
Photography & words by Henri Cooney | @henricooney
This small pocket of land bordered in the North by the Mediterranean Sea and to the West by the Atlantic Ocean, has for a long time been the centre of an African, Arab, European and Islamic hybrid cultural explosion, an incredible linguistic richness, a land rife with conservative and religious tradition and a colourful canvas for dream makers, filmmakers, photographers and creators. It has also suffered greatly at the hands of French Colonialism and an Arab/Islamic Conquest and still pains from ongoing territorial war and a chronic identity crisis.
Nevertheless, keen to discover some of the architectural, cultural and natural treasures held by this land in the West, but also to try and grasp its complex and oftentimes tumultuous history and political situation, I travelled to Morocco for three and a half months to continue my Arabic education in the relaxed coastal capital city of Rabat. Whilst my weekdays were filled with tutoring and lectures in Arabic, my weekends, much to my thrill, were free for endless travel and exploration. Throughout my time in Morocco I had the pleasure of visiting most of the major cities, as well as the Sahara Desert, the Atlas Mountains and both bodies of water bordering the country. Needless to say, this is a place as rich and varied in its natural and anthropological wonders as it is in both language and history, and I was certainly blown away by the diversity of landscape and people alike. The Atlas Mountain range is just as much dry, barren and rocky as it is lush, thriving and green, whilst the Sahara Desert is fiery and unforgiving but also cool and bountiful in the many oases that rise up between the dune crests. Casablanca, Tanger and Rabat are humid, and the smell of the sea lingers low in the air, meanwhile the inland Imperial cities of Fes and Marrakech serve as the country’s cultural and historic centres, and here dry, hot spices, Frankincense and Oud, freshly-baked bread and motorbike fuel enshroud the humble visitor.
Due to my being in Morocco for three months, I couldn’t possibly squeeze every experience into this piece of writing, so I’d like to share one, from my very first journey into the Sahara, which began on a Friday evening in September as a group of us piled into a minibus to begin the thirteen-hour drive into the lower quarter of the country, where the desert begins. It is on drives like these that I come to realise the sheer expanse of the world, and how its natural forces shape the human experience so powerfully. Unforgiving terrain covers much of Morocco’s South-East corner and it’s no surprise that very few live there. Finally, we arrive in Merzouga – our last stop by road. The rest will be travelled by camel. Before we begin, we are treated to some local Gnaoui music; percussive, rhythmic and a decidedly manifest symbol of Amazigh culture, this was an eye onto the cultural shift in this part of the country. A powerful storm is scheduled to strike the entire country, and the desert will see water for the first time this year. The camel trek left a lot to be desired in terms of aching legs and groins, but the camp was something to behold. Black fabric tents in the middle of the desert, with absolutely nothing to keep out the incoming deluge of rainwater – this area was to receive over half the average rain in a year, over the course of my fateful night there. We braced for Moroccan Harira, a thick, stew-like soup to calm the anticipation of the night ahead, whilst our guides drowned out the noise of the thundering showers with their rhythmic music, dancing to each strike of lightning.
A five o’clock rise and nothing but clear, dark skies await outside; the storm and its plumes of lightning can still be seen rampaging in the distance. Sitting on a dune crest, completely isolated, the unique character of this place comes alive. There is a vibrant energy that pulses through the waves of the ridges and humps, like a landscape frozen in the sands of time, and with only the promise of utter silence and the greeting of a new day to come. How lucky we are to be here, staring into an endless plain of shifting gold; the largest desert to cover our planet, under great swathes of the most beautiful dark, star-studded sky. No one says anything. Nothing can be more important than simply appreciating the forces of nature in all their magnificence play out on this, the most beautiful of stages. This is a light show like no other – deep reds and oranges cast out the highs and lows of the dunes as the sun peeps over the undulating horizon, casting a long shadow over a man in the middle of the emptiness, clad all in white and walking his dog through the dunes. During my time in Morocco, I learned a proverb in Arabic:
أَنت فِي المغْرِب، فَلا تَسْتَغْرِب
In English it means, “You are in Morocco, don’t be surprised”. Of all the things I expected of the desert, rain certainly wasn’t one of them, and the man and his dog did unwittingly take my cosied mind by surprise! It is experiences like these, and the experience that Morocco offered me as a whole that were able to push the idea of the norm, challenge my boundaries and defy my comfort zone. It encouraged openness to acquiring such valuable cultural lessons as respect of one’s way of life, traditions or beliefs, regardless of background. We are all human, but ultimately, we are all residents of this great planet – born to the earth and set to die on the earth – the trillions of grains of sand in front of my eyes were reminder enough of my insignificance in the face of something so much bigger and more powerful than myself. Such a realisation is a unique part of traveling. To travel is to break the rut, to push the mind and body and to discover the human and natural rewards available to those who seek them, but it is also a collective responsibility to encourage mutual respect amongst us all. It is an opportunity to not be surprised at the good and the bad, the beautiful and the sublime, and these are in abundance in Morocco.