Standing in front of the Tafilalet Oasis, it was hard to understand how anyone had called this an oasis. For as far as my eyes could see there was green, and when I say green, I mean green in all its infinite shades of green. It was as if someone had taken a great green comforter and thrown it across the bottom of a deep canyon leaving the sides of the ochre colored walls of the canyon bare. Now, as the sun was setting, those canyon walls threw a golden hue across the whole landscape. No person or guidebook had prepared me for this view and I felt almost ashamed that I did not know that this largest Saharan oasis of Morocco was once a prosperous region and part of the great Saharan caravan route from the Niger River to Tangier.
The Ziz River cuts its way through this lush landscape from the river’s fertile beginnings at Meski to a climax amid the rolling sand dunes of Merzouga where I would soon be heading. Nestled against the sides of the canyon walls were the mud-baked houses with their flat roofs. Peering down I could see a young boy on a donkey slowly moving, his body jostling from side to side with the donkey’s gait. They stopped, and I could see the boy take out six red plastic canisters that he filled from a modern well, conspicuously ugly against this timeless landscape. Having completed his task, he spent some time attaching the canisters to the donkey and I watched as the donkey, burdened down by the weight of the water, struggled to move forward. On the return, the boy walked alongside his donkey, presumably having decided that the donkey should be spared his weight, as slight as he was.
Donkeys are Morocco’s soul. They are the beasts of burden that allow everything to be transported in every souk in every Moroccan city. As I watched the donkey below me, struggling with his burden but never once complaining or stopping, it occurred to me that we did a great discredit to our images of this animal. What I saw in these small beasts was a bravery and loyalty and an inner strength that was hard to fathom. What became equally clear was how the Moroccans I met, valued their donkeys. A few days before in Fez I stopped at the American Fondouk. Perched above the city’s medina, this non-profit which opened in 1927 provides today, as it has for all these years, free medical care for the donkeys of Fez. Before we entered, my husband had been cynical. Why help animals when there are people that need help? Any doubt about the usefulness of their work was quickly dispelled as we watched the dedicated team in action.
People had walked for miles to bring in their sick donkeys and we watched as the staff evaluated each animal. What struck us was the care that each owner showed towards their animals. I have no doubt that there is cruelty, but we did not see that. We saw genuine love as they held on to their donkeys unwilling to leave them. Talking to Naima, one of the vets, I learned that often families will want to camp in the center unwilling to leave their animals alone. Again though it was the donkeys who were the heroes. They stood patiently as they were treated. They did not flinch. They did not bray. It was as if they knew someone was trying to help them. I saw one old man, almost in tears as he left his donkey. Getting close to the exit, he returned one last time to say goodbye to his beloved beast – the beast that gave him a life.
As the sun set, I watched the boy and his donkey disappear into a house and I wondered about the future of the donkey in Morocco and what might happen to the country’s soul if donkeys were made redundant in the name of development.