Story by Manos Angelakis
Photos by Barbara Angelakis
Food and camel photos Manos Angelakis
The Berbers of Morocco
Still living the same way they did 10 centuries ago, the Berbers of the Western Sahara and the Atlas Mountains are both a tourist spectacle and an international lesson on “how to live in harmony with the land Allah gave you”.
The Arab invasion of North Africa during the seventh century brought about the Arabization and, eventually, the conversion of the Berbers to Sunni Islam. However, the Berbers still retain some of their ancient beliefs and customs. They call themselves the Shilha people or Ishelhien, and are an ethnic subgroup primarily inhabiting the High Atlas, the Sous Valley, the coastal regions of Morocco and the Northwestern Sahara. Although the Ishelhien gradually adopted Islam, they have held on to their traditional language, culture and religious customs to varying degrees.
Living a traditional nomadic existence in the Moroccan dessert, they still use camels as a mode of transportation as much as they use 4-wheel drive Land Rovers and Jeeps. They are from the same ethnic group as the Tuareg, the Kabyle, the Shawia and the Guanche.
Moroccan Berbers retain their traditional life and many still live in tents, with the floor covered by hand-woven kilims created by the women on home-made, primitive looms.
The majority of men still wear the traditional blue cloth turban of the Tuareg, though nowadays one can see some using different colors like orange or white. The turban is used as a head covering but during a sand storm, cloth from the turban will be used as a filter to keep the fine sand from being inhaled into the lungs of the wearer.
Modern tourism has brought the Berbers in contact with other nationalities and ways of life. The older generations still cling to their nomadic life and traditional djellaba robes, living in tents made of woven camel hair or straw covered huts; the men and boys of the younger generation have adopted blue jeans, khakis and sneakers. Most of the women still wear the traditional Islamic all-covering garb and head scarves as well as partial face coverings.
The tajine is the preferred method of cooking including meats and vegetables cooked in this traditional conical implement. But other dishes like chicken kebabs with savory spices roasted in an open fire are also part of the desert menu as much as is roast camel's head and sun-dried and salt-preserved camel hump (sic) covered with a spicy red pepper and garlic paste (bastirma).
The more popular tajine dishes include a cooked carrot and green-olive cold dish; “Russian” salad of cubed potatoes, cubed carrots, shelled brazed peas and brazed celery slices in a mayonnaise, studded with oil-cured black olives; roasted green peppers; pastina in tomato and onion sauce; angel-hair baked in chicken stock, studded with corn and pumpkin-seed kernels and sprinkled with ground cinnamon; baked eggplant slices covered with melted cheese; roasted potato and apple slices spiced with cinnamon, ground cloves and cracked black peppercorns in a light tomato sauce… their mainly vegetable based diet creates some very interesting and savory dishes.
Their desserts are much simpler such as ripe dates, dried black figs or dried apricots reconstructed in a light sugar or carob syrup.
In the above photograph, three generations prepare honey-cakes using a hand powered stone grinder to grind a blend of wheat and barley, ground cinnamon and cloves and wild honey.
For tourists, there are luxurious camping sites with tents, featuring wall to wall carpets and king size beds with fine Egyptian linen. Tented dining rooms have air-conditioning and linen covered tables and chairs.
When we returned from our camel ride to our camp site, Berber musicians greeted us with traditional drumming and singing.
If any of these are of interest to you, contact the local representative of the Moroccan National Office of Tourism to get information about their programs or how to book one of the more comfortable tourist camps at the edge of the Sahara or consult you travel professional.
© January 2022 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.
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