Ribat el-Kheir

Thursday 6th October 2011, Ribat al Kheir, Morocco
Tonight we are staying with our American friends Doug and Karen. They have a flat on the top floor on a side road just off the main street through the town. Modestine is parked on the street outside just in front of a row of little general stores selling groceries, stationery and large gas canisters. More flats are being built around us and existing buildings are having another floor added as the owners' finances permit. The flats are all of concrete construction with flat roofs where residents dry their washing.

Rooftop view, Ribat el-Kheir

Rooftop view of the local mosque, Ribat el-Kheir

This evening we climbed up there to look at the moon and stars shining brightly over the black outline of the Atlas Mountains. As we watched several white egrets flew overhead, eerie white shapes silently silhouetted against the dark velvet sky. It all felt rather biblical. In really hot weather it is common practice for residents to sleep on the roof as the buildings hold the heat. Some sixty kilometres away the lights of Sefrou gleamed out of the darkness. This evening we watched in awe from the kitchen window as the scarlet orb of the setting sun sank rapidly behind the mountains leaving the sky diffused with crimson.

Sunset from the kitchen window, Ribat el-Kheir

Ribat el-Kheir is a provincial Berber town of around 15,000 people lying out in the foothills of the Middle Atlas Mountains. Its original name is Ahermoumou and it once housed an important military training establishment for officers. However, back in 1971 an unsuccessful coup was staged here against the King. In anger the King closed the military base and changed the name of the town to Ribat el-Kheir. This has led to significant unemployment while everybody waits in the vain hope that the King will eventually decide to reopen the base.

We arrived in the town shortly before lunch. We'd intended stopping along the way but there simply was nowhere to stop. We passed through some stunning scenery and several small villages with strange sounding names, such as Bir Tam Tam, but they were not places to stroll. Their streets were all busy with the usual chaos to be found in Moroccan towns. We glimpsed mountain views, a distant reservoir and the entrance to a gorge. Surrounding the town were plantations of olives and fruit trees while in the bleached dry fields there were many huge hay stacks, testimony that during the spring and summer the landscape is as fertile and beautiful as it is currently arid, burnt and bare. We drove into Ribat el-Kheir, finding our way with no difficulty, thanks to Karen's instructions, straight to their house. Pressing the doorbell was a strange experience. The culmination of over 1500 miles of travel in order to see our friends again and in just a few more seconds we'd be together!

Arid mountain scenery between Fez and Ribat el-Kheir

Olive groves and haystacks on the road to Ribat el-Kheir

On the road to Ribat el-Kheir

It was indeed a delight to be reunited after five years of us all travelling variously to different parts of the world and we have had much to talk about, not least the strange way of life our friends are living here, integrating with the local people, helping them to develop and market their small businesses. While Karen works with a weavers' cooperative of women workers, producing traditional woollen Berber rugs, blankets and silk scarves, Doug is involved with a group of women producing the traditional round, flat loaves that are baked here using local wheat. These are served with every meal and take the place of a knife and fork. The people eat with their fingers using the bread as a tool. The cooperative also produces couscous by rubbing the grains together with flour until they are exactly the right size and consistency. Neither of our friends spoke a word of Arabic when they arrived. Karen in particular has made strides in mastering the language and we were impressed at her ability to communicate. French is not so widely spoken out here and we have found it harder to talk to people than we have done elsewhere in the country.

For lunch today we went to the local restaurant. From outside it looked exactly like the other houses scattered around on dusty patches of parched earth where chickens scrabbled amidst the remains of vegetable scraps and discarded wrapping materials. Inside was one room with a few low tables where men sat, eating with their fingers and drinking water from a shared glass. A cheerful elderly lady was cooking directly over a couple of large gas cylinders in the corner from where there was a delicious smell. We climbed a few steep steps into a dark recess at the back of the concrete building and gathered around a small table where we were served bowls of chicken swimming in a delicious soup of spices and mixed vegetables with a pile of olives and chips on top! Ian opted for spicy beans in a rich sauce. A large basket of flatbread was placed on the table and a jug of tap water with a single glass. Karen is known at the restaurant and we were given spoons as a concession to western decadence. Ian had to remember to use his right hand for eating.

The meal was fantastic and the ambiance impossible to describe properly. Dark, bare walls, no table cloth, napkins or cutlery. Nobody spoke French so we were reliant on Karen's burgeoning command of Arabic. We were both very impressed with her. The staff had difficulty working out the bill for four of us but it cost about £1 each! It's perhaps the most authentic meal we can remember eating.

It really bought it home to us what a steep learning curve our friends have faced moving to an isolated Moroccan town with no command of Arabic or Berber and only very limited French. They've had to discover everything for themselves and cope with the curiosity of the local people as they walk around the town. Their every move seems to be known about but the people have also come to accept them. Frequently as we have accompanied them, people have stopped to shake their hands and wish them es salam alaykum.

During the afternoon Doug worked for his cooperative on his computer from home while Karen took us to visit her weaving cooperative. The few ladies working at the looms were friendly to us, showing us their work. A couple spoke some French - enough for us to understand their explanations of what they produced, how long it took to weave a Berber blanket, how the wool was dyed using natural colours from plants gathered in the springtime on the hillsides surrounding the village. They were charming ladies, excited to have Karen's friends as visitors. One was thrilled to discover her French improving as she spoke with us. She thought she'd forgotten it completely.

Weavers' cooperative buildings, Ribat el-Kheir

Wool dyed with Camomile flowers, Weavers' cooperative, Ribat el-Kheir

Some of the looms have been provided as part of the project with which Karen is involved. It offers employment and training to women in REK who would otherwise have little opportunity of self fulfilment in this rural town. The general hopes of the young apprentices though seems to be to master the art of weaving and move to live and work in Fez, which offers more possibilities to women than can be expected here. Others said they just wanted to get married. Once they become engaged they are expected to give up their employment or training and stay at home, even before marriage, in case they are looked at by other men!

Loom at the Workers' cooperative, Ribat el-Kheir

Loom at the Workers' cooperative, Ribat el-Kheir

Berber textiles, Ribat el-Kheir

Berber textiles, Ribat el-Kheir

One very sweet young woman showed us the rugs she liked best and modelled a large woollen Berber blanket as worn by a bride for her wedding. It is a world away from western wedding dresses! This thick rug is tied around the bride's shoulders over the top of her normal, colourful robes and fixed rather shapelessly around her hips. It is covered with long cotton threads on the outside, the inside folded back to reveal the woven pattern. We asked if we could photograph her but she and all the other ladies got very giggly and confused. We couldn't quite grasp why but it seemed to be that their families would be cross if they had posed in wedding clothes for western visitors. So all we can show is the wedding garment which they laid on the floor for us to photograph.

Berber rug to be worn by a bride on her wedding day, Ribat el-Kheir

During the evening a fellow American Peace Corps worker joined us for supper in the flat where we shared the bottle of Spanish champagne we'd been given when we bought our ferry ticket in Algeciras. Pete is a young volunteer who has been working with the children of REK teaching them English for the past two years. He is due to return to the US very shortly. He studied Arabic before he came and hopes to continue with it at higher education when he gets back home. He says that sadly, the hope of most of his students is to marry an American and move out of Morocco.

So ends our first day here. Our hosts have made us wonderfully welcome and offered us an insight into a way of life most visitors cannot possibly imagine when they frequent the usual tourist places of this country of contrasts.

Friday 7th October 2011, Ribat el-Kheir, Morocco
Today is the Muslim holy day when special efforts are made to attend the mosque, the muezzin's call to prayer is extended, public buildings are closed for longer during the day and everybody eats couscous.

This morning the air felt fresh and comfortable. High in the hills it is cooler than down in Fez but the core of the day really heats up. Karen says Morocco is called the cold country with the hot sun, a sentiment she completely agrees with. In the winter she says she cooks with her gloves on in the flat and their breath can be seen across the room! The views of snowy mountains are apparently stunning but the pain of the cold almost unbearable. Their concrete walled apartment has cracks around the flimsy windows, the electricity is frequently cut off and there is no heating. They bought a gas fire but have to carry the enormous cylinder of bottled gas up four flights of steep stairs before they can cook, heat water or take the chill off a single room! One wonders what the local people imagine about these strange Americans in their mid sixties living amongst them without a command of the language, working for the Moroccan minimum wage and suffering greater privations even than the local community who do at least know where to find what they need and how to ask for it. Perhaps they imagine employment is so difficult to find in the US that our friends are here as immigrants trying to earn a living!

While the day still felt comfortable we took a walk around the edge of the town from where there are stunning views down to the floor of the plain that stretches away to range after range of mountains rising blue towards the high Atlas. The path skirted the military base, closed for forty years now but still controlled by uniformed guards. We spoke in French to the one on duty, a pleasant young man who shook hands with us and informed us we could not look inside the grounds or take photos. He lived on site and his job was to guard the gate. Nothing ever happened however and he agreed when we said it sounded like the ideal job.

Surrounding landscape, Ribat el-Kheir

Surrounding landscape, Ribat el-Kheir

Surrounding landscape, Ribat el-Kheir

Later we passed an oil mill where the olives are crushed between grinding stones turned by a donkey. The resulting mess of oil, pulp and stones is then piled onto flat round woven grass baskets and squeezed so hard only a dry, powdery mess of useless pulp remains, to be spread on the fields. It is not yet the season for pressing the olives but our friends helped with the harvesting and watched the crushing process last year.

Oil mill, Ribat el-Kheir

Karen and Jill, Ribat el-Kheir

Doug with Karen beyond

Our stroll continued past the school where the children were all setting off home for lunch. They start around 9am returning home from 11am until 3pm when they return until 6pm. They mill all over the roads and there seem to be hundreds of them.

Coming home from school, Ribat el-Kheir

At the coffee shop on the corner we stopped for a shady rest and a coffee. Karen and I were the only women but with Ian and Doug with us it we did not feel uncomfortable. From here it was enjoyable to watch everyday life in the locality. A lady in a long pink dress pushed an empty gas cylinder to the hardware shop in a battered metal wheelbarrow while a young girl of around thirteen carried her baby sibling tied to her back, dangling in a cotton papoose. A man with a large box of Gaulois cigarettes went from table to table selling them individually while an elderly man in a turban and long hooded cloak crossed the dusty road in his soft leather slippers.

This afternoon we all decided to drive in Modestine to Sefrou. Given that the various taxis carry people hanging on to the outside or clinging to the roof we reckoned it would not matter that I have no rear seat belts and for once our friends were not crushed up in a taxi but could spread as much as they wished. We stopped several times for photos of the stunning scenery – a distant reservoir serving Fez and a steep sided gorge cutting through the bare red and gold rockface. The long ride to Sefrou was worth it just for the views.

Between Ribat el-Kheir and Sefrou

Between Ribat el-Kheir and Sefrou

Karen and Jill on the route to Sefrou

We parked near the medina and were swiftly sucked into the teeming streets crowded with little stalls selling spices, dried fruits, dates and nuts.

Bab el-Maqam gate, Sefrou

A narrow river splits the Medina into two. Across the bridge is the more neglected former Jewish quarter where the characterful but dilapidated houses have the remains of old decorated balconies. Nowadays there are very few Jewish people living there as most of them left after the Seven Days War in 1967 when they emigrated to Israel. Today the area looks and smells very run down and dilapidated.

Gateway to the Mellah or Jewish quarter, Sefrou

Jewish houses in the Mellah, Sefrou

Inside the Mellah, Sefrou

Balconies on old Jewish houses in the Mellah, Sefrou

Unfortunately we were badly pestered by a persistent tout who would not take no for an answer when we told him we did not want his assistance. Full marks to him for persistence! We used French, German, Arabic, English and Spanish between us to ask him politely to sod off. Ignoring his existence did no good either. When he then wanted money for guiding us round I exploded. If he could be so rude and intrusive to us then why should we all feel rude speaking our minds? After that he disappeared rather abruptly, leaving us in peace to find our way back out from the maze of identical streets to the medina's entrance gate.

Bab Merba gate, Sefrou

Outside the Bab Merba gate, Sefrou

The drive home took about an hour along winding roads where children walked home from school, men rode on donkeys, an old lady led her cow home for the night, a van passed with half a dozen goats penned into a cage on the roof and men peddled bikes home without lights in the gathering gloom after the sun had set.

Taking the livestock home for the night. Road back to Ribat el-Kheir

Taking goats through the mountains. Road back to Ribat el-Kheir

We reached home to discover the entire town was suffering from a power-cut and we had to unearth our torches and candles in order to find our way up the uneven stairs to the fourth floor to gather ourselves together for a supper invitation from Pete, the young Peace Corps worker we met yesterday. He meanwhile managed to cook a wonderful spicy dish of chicken and rice which we ate in the traditional manner, seated around a low table, all sharing from one large Moroccan dish in the centre of the table. It was delicious though we did all use spoons rather than our fingers. The meal was all the more magical for being shared by torch and candle light.

Saturday 8th October 2011, Ribat el-Kheir, Morocco
Today was spent discovering everyday life in a small Moroccan town cut off from public transport links. There are no buses and the train station was closed following the unsuccessful coup against the monarchy in the early 1970s. It was part of the retaliation measures taken by the king along with closing the military base and forcefully changing the name of the town from the Berber Ahermoumou to the Arab Ribat el-Kheir. Now, in order to get anywhere beyond the town it is necessary to hire a taxi, which, although cheap by our standards, must really isolate many of the residents.

During the morning we returned to Karen's weavers' cooperative where we met the French-speaking president and watched the techniques involved with forming the traditional Berber patterns in the rugs on the looms. It can take weeks to produce an elaborate rug and they are usually made on commission - which is where Karen's skills are used. She attempts not only to market the goods, set up internet publicity and organise exhibitions, but also to influence the workers in the choice of colours and styles that are most acceptable to European and American tastes. Workers are highly skilled but do not quite appreciate that pretty pink stripes across an otherwise acceptable design are not to the taste of non-Moroccans. They are also rather fond of incorporating sequins that invariable pull out and fray the fabric.

Weaving a Berber rug, Ribat el-Kheir

We wished to buy something as encouragement and as a memory of our time here but really it was difficult to find anything quite suitable. Some workers, unable to read or write, are perfectly able to incorporate their names in western letters into their designs – something that did not appeal to us. Eventually we discovered a small rug in darker colours that we both liked and which we can enjoy in our home when we return. Everybody was happy, as the picture shows.

Our Berber rug, Ribat el-Kheir

Returning home we stopped for lunch, once again in the town's only restaurant. Granny was still stirring cauldrons simmering over the gas canisters while her pretty teenage granddaughter served the customers and worked out the bills. Today we were offered goat in a sweet gravy cooked together with whole potatoes and chunks of green courgette and orange pumpkin. Doug and Karen opted for lentils in a thick soup with hot chilli peppers. Having accidentally discovered the hard way that tap water is not wise to drink, we opted for a large sealed bottle of Coke to share. Once again we caused confusion by asking for extra glasses and spoons to eat our meal. Around us others were sharing bowls and glasses, eating with their fingers which they wiped clean on their bread.

Only restaurant in town, Ribat el-Kheir

Karen, Doug and Jill enjoy haute cuisine the Moroccan way, Ribat el-Kheir

During the afternoon we took a short drive down into the valley below the town. Everywhere was dried up and arid. The river where Doug swam in the springtime was a brown, muddy trickle, the rocks along the bank too hot to touch and the landscape no more than burnt dust that blew up in clouds as we walked. We returned to the cool flat with gratitude.

Muddy waddy near Ribat el-Kheir

Approaching Ribat el-Kheir

Cemetery, Ribat el-Kheir

While our friends worked on various reports and business plans, we unloaded Remoska before going to the market to buy assorted vegetables – quite an experience. Returning home we stopped for coffee at the cafe downstairs and joined all our unemployed male neighbours people watching. Car horns, banging of drums and general mayhem along the main road through the town announced the second day of a wedding. They last three days here. According to our friends they are not very interesting with the women and men spending their time in different places. There is no religious ceremony and as at least fifty percent of the population is illiterate even a signed document is not a legal requirement! So we are baffled to know what safeguards the women have in such an arrangement.

Decorating the wedding car, Ribat el-Kheir

In the evening Remoska cooked us an easy supper while we all sampled a smuggled bottle of French wine on the roof as the sun went down.