Salam Aleykoum! Welcome back to another Moroccan Friday. It has been a while since my last post in this series so I have decided to make this one special. If you fancy a virtual trip to Morocco, you can discover previous posts here.
As many of you already know, my childhood in Morocco inspired the novel I am currently working on (in slow motion). But when I began writing it, a specific location imposed itself. It started of course with Casablanca, the city I grew up in and still the setting where the story takes a new turn. But soon enough, a second location emerged, spontaneously, almost like a revelation: M’hamid El Ghizlane, otherwise known as “La Porte du Désert” – the Gate to the Desert.
M’hamid has a rich heritage. It was once an important post in the Trans-Saharan trade, a place for the caravan leaders and nomads to regroup and stock up in water before they entered the desert. Formerly knows as Taragalte, M’hamid celebrates the nomadic culture every year during its 3-day open-air International Nomad Festival.
Here is a fantastic, short documentary on the subject for those who have 20 minutes.
M’hamid is a place I have not been to. (Anyone feel like sponsoring a trip?) It is a place I have dreamed of and read about, a place me and my mum have planned to visit on multiple occasions while we lived in Casablanca. It is a place I have not seen with my own eyes and yet, since I began this novel, a place where I feel at home.
You see the truth is, there are many pictures of the desert on the internet. And quite a few article on M’hamid and the surroundings. But the real gem, the pearl of the pearls, is my virtual encounter with a local I’m going to call M. It all started with a bunch of emails I sent out to potential “informants”, desert guides around, travel photographers with portfolios showcasing the Sahara, etc.
Then came along M. He replied to my email with such kindness and eagerness to help I was actually speechless. M. was born near M’hamid. His grandfather was one of the last caravaneers who led salt caravans to Timbuktu before droughts and the permanent closure of the Moroccan-Algerian border made this task impossible. M. now owns his own travel agency (Desert Bivouac) with his older brother, they are desert guides who go off exploring, searching for new wells and drawing new circuits for adventurous tourists.
We agreed on a Skype chat which lasted over an hour and was followed by multiple WhatsApp conversations, all brimming with priceless bits of dialogue and information no article could ever convey. M has been a revelation. He has been my eyes and ears, a secret door to a world only a few of us have had a glimpse of.
So this is it. This is where my novel begins and where the ball starts rolling. This is the gate to the desert, where the road ends and the desert begins. This is the fine line between civilisation and the barren land. A place so rich yet humble. A town that was only electrified in 1999! This is M’hamid – the foundation upon which my novel was built.
NB: I don’t believe I need to specify this, but I was in no way paid for writing this article, advertising M.’s travel agency and my opinions.