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A secret glimpse in Morocco’s High Atlas

In the High Atlas, chill winds whirl down off the mountain peaks with a cloud of dust, like a horde of djinns, to assault the weary traveler from all sides.  The contrast of cold wind and sunshine is striking.  It often happens that the sun will be shining brightly as a chilling rain falls.   This can be unsettling, but still befitting the medieval landscape of these Moroccan mountain valleys where mud-walled villages perch like castles on spires of rock, tiny green fields dot the valley floors, and eagles soar over barren rocky crags all around.

We took refuge in a tea house set up by the roadside in a giant tent.  Heavy black woolen cloth stretched across a maze of tent poles,  pegged somehow to the rocky ground, making a pitching sea of haphazard triangles against the stormy sky.   The space within was equally angular, low ceilings falling to even lower walls leaving little room to stand.  The delicious fragrance of hot flat breads served with honey wafted like smoke among the tent poles.  Busy young boys in short embroidered jackets served tangy snow white sheep’s yogurt, sweetest medjool dates and plump purple grapes on platters to customers sitting cross-legged on thick, heavily worn carpets on the floor.  The sweet sharp fragrance of chai was pervasive, layered atop the dust and the sweat of the crowd of large, warmly clad men who filled the low space below the tent cloth from wall to wall.  The tent seemed almost a thing alive, ruffled and shaken by the wind, agitated enough to rattle and snap at the gusts that buffeted it from every direction, grumbling with a disgruntled muttering, occasional shouts and laughter.  The warmth within was welcome.  We were chilled to the bone from hours of hiking, our feet were sore, our backs were tired.  We dropped our packs in an empty corner, sat, and looked around.

On every platter sat a simple, graceful tea pot with a curved spout affixed to a jolly pot-bellied bowl.  The lid was small and round.  A serving boy poured our chai into tiny glasses from a great height, filling each glass with a yard long stream of dark sweet tea in an instant, spilling nary a drop. Next to us, two men chatted casually as one broke off a huge lump of sugar from a cone shaped mold and tried repeatedly to find a way to pass the mass into his teapot. The lump of sugar was almost as big as the pot itself.  I watched him attempting to force this massive square peg into the small round hole of the pot for several minutes before I lost interest when a wild figure hobbled into the tent and stood at the edge of the crowd, glaring at the other travelers.

Brown and dusty as the mountains, craggy faced and alert, his one eagle eye gleamed as it roamed across the crowd.  His back was bent as he stood askew upon a single leg, propped on a staff of olive wood.  He grasped the staff as if he were hanging on to life itself.  The stump of one arm clasped it firmly under his armpit, while his remaining hand was a claw wrapped like a talon upon the round knob of the cane.  His clothes were colorless rags, and the tail end of the rag wrapped around his head drooped across his face.  He tossed his head to keep it away from his only eye. One eye, one arm, one leg, and a body twisted and broken and bent; was this the result of an accident, or some unspeakable act of cruelty?

Despite his wretched appearance and air of hopelessness and desperation, there was an energy apparent in the man, a fierceness, burning like the fire in his only eye, animating his twisted limbs with a wiry strength, creating the sense of an explosion imminent.  He stood a few minutes, ignored by all, then spun about, surprisingly agile, and disappeared through the tent flap as though he were nothing more than a disturbing thought, come and gone and forgotten, leaving behind only a feeling of unease.  His departure went unnoticed by the crowd; their cheerful banter continued unabated.

We paid a few pennies for our tea and our bread, picked up our bags, and weaved through the crowd to the doorway.  Outside, the chill wind struck, and we felt the mountain cold sinking again into our bones as it sinks even into the stones.  Only small villages survive here, a few despairing inhabitants scrabbling a living from small patches of thin soil scattered about the hillsides and the valley floor, hoping this foundation of their sustenance will not be blown away by the relentless winds or disappear in a flash flood.  The land is barren, and life is hard.  The mud walls of these little towns, hidden in the remote valleys of the High Atlas, must hide many sorrows.

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