Found in the Desert

One of our favorite Moroccan guides, Jalil Benlabili, reflects on his year when the world stood still during COVID-19.

Jalil writes, “COVID just as everywhere, hit Morocco hard and I went from being completely booked to no work at all. My livelihood is my country and I decided to start exploring areas I did not know.

A camel crosses the road in the desert in MoroccoI had been to the Sahara more times than I could count but always on the same program. Now I decided to dig deeper beyond even the feeling of peace the Sahara Desert has always brought me. It was very different, without travelers to navigate just myself through my own country. Driving through Southern Morocco, I was accompanied by a sea of emptiness and silence. I looked at the desert with different eyes and found it full of beauty, perspective, humility, patience and creativity. I discovered both ideas and places to share with future travelers.

Trees on a desert landscape with the sea in the background

A good read

Accompanying me on many of these journeys was the book by Captain James Riley – Sufferings in Africa. It details the true story of his journey through the Sahara after being shipwrecked off the coast of Western Sahara in August 1815. Captain James Riley’s story so fascinated Abraham Lincoln it was one of his top ten books in his personal library. It’s been a joy to rediscover the geographical and human diversity of the Sahara, magnificent new oases and 6,000 year old rock carvings that somehow I had missed. I wonder how many others have missed them too.

Bedouin man in the desert of Western Morocco with his head wrapped in yellow

Bedouin gentleman

The Bedouins

I was able to interact with desert Bedouins and experienced with them a simplicity and humility of life. Tasting their olive oil, I wonder why we so rarely hear about the exceptional smoothness of Morocco olive oil. Something about the air of the Sahara, perhaps?

The Saharan caravan route

I was particularly interested in the old Saharan caravan route between Sijilmassa, sheltered within Tafilalt’s immense oasis, and Timbuktu where gold was exchanged for Saharan salt. A poor bargain today but not then. At the time, salt was able to extend the life of food and gold was plentiful . Today the crumbling walls of Sijilmassa are all that remain. As I walk among them, I know that travel will soon return and I am looking forward to being able to share the gentle beauty of my country with all who visit.”