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What happened to Morocco’s desert nomads?

The country’s Berbers have moved to towns and cities, but they’ll still show you round their old digs

What happened to Morocco’s desert nomads?

Text by Matthew Lee / Photos by James Bowden

These trees are far too pale,” says Mohamed Boulfrifi, pointing to a cluster of sad, skinny palms, yellowing in the sun like old newspapers. “When I was a child they were green and full of life. There was once water in the desert.”

We are in M’Hamid, which is where you end up if you drive east out of Marrakech and keep going until the road ends and the Sahara desert begins. Although the journey can be done in a day, it’s worth slowing down if you’re not in a rush; the road takes you through the magnificent Atlas Mountains, high above beautiful green date palm oases. There are several must-sees en route including the glorious kasbah of Telouet and the famous film-making city of Ouarzazate, where Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator were shot.

Here in M’Hamid’s old kasbah, we’re standing on the crumbling terrace of an abandoned building, trying not to fall through the gaps in the floor. The sickly looking palms in front of us, Boulfrifi says, are symbolic of how the area has changed over the past 30 years. Afterwards we meet some of Boulfrifi’s friends, Berbers who once lived in the » desert but now have homes in the town. Like our host, they work in tourism and have travelled widely in Europe and North America, yet they all say they could never live outside Morocco. It’s important to them to be near the desert.

Boulfrifi himself lived in the desert with his family until he was 20, when it became clear that life in the Sahara was no longer sustainable. Many other Berbers, the indigenous people of the region, reluctantly also left.

For hundreds of years, the desert had provided everything they needed – water, food and the materials to build simple shelter. But the construction of a dam near Ouarzazate exacerbated existing problems such as deforestation and climate change, and turned the steady flow of water from the Drâa river into a trickle. It was no longer possible for them to stick around.

For Boulfrifi, tourism offers an opportunity to retain a strong connection to the desert while promoting and sustaining Berber culture and customs. He’s a co-founder of the Erg Chigaga Luxury Desert Camp, which allows visitors to temporarily leave the modern world behind and enjoy the calm, meditative bliss of the Sahara’s red dunes. “Although we no longer live in the desert,” Boulfrifi says, “our hearts and souls will always be there. There we are at home and at peace.” 



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