Standing in front of the Tafilalt Oasis, it was hard to understand how anyone had called this an oasis. I tend to think of an oasis as a small patch of greenery given life by an equally small source of water. 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 deep canyon. 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.
Everyone who comes to Morocco visits Marrakesh and Fez. They explore their medieval alleys of ancient medinas, packed with donkeys, traders and the scents of Africa. They discover precariously-positioned kasbahs, those walled fortress dating back centuries and used to keep watch on intruders. Often times, an entire village lived within its walls. Many kasbahs are now abandoned but not all and we always make sure that you can go inside one and wander through a maze of corridors and empty rooms with a lavishly decorated interior.
But here at the edge of the desert, it felt different. 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. Although only crumbling walls remain, Sijilmassa had grown wealthy as a gold-trade-route city in the Middle Ages. Excavations have shown that the city once had a bustling ceramics industry and an intricate irrigation system. It was easy to imagine the caravans that had passed through, no doubt overjoyed to see this land of green.
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 was 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. After the boy completed his task, he spent some time attaching the canisters to the donkey. 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.
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 stalling, it occurred to me that we did a great discredit to our images of this animal.
What I saw in these small beasts was bravery, loyalty, and an inner strength that was hard to fathom.
It became clear that Moroccans valued their donkeys. For example, a few days before in Fez, I had stopped at the American Fondouk. This non-profit which opened in 1927 provides free medical care for the donkeys of Fez. My husband had been cynical before entering the fondouk, asking “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. 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. The camels stood patiently as they were treated. They did not flinch and 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. We continued on our way to the sand dunes where a comfortable tent awaited us. As we arrived there were four beasts of burden, not donkeys this time, but camels ready to take us on the next leg of our journey. Their long, thin legs plodded across the Sahara, that store-house desert of infinite mysteries and a rich bio-diversity.
That night as we sat around a fire listening to the sounds of Berber music surrounded by towering dunes, I wondered about the future of the donkey in Morocco and what might happen to the country’s soul if donkeys became redundant in the name of development.