Hot on the Trail of Nomads in Moroccan Desert

<i> Dolinger is a free-lance writer</i> /<i> photographer living in Miami</i>

For centuries the fiery sands of the Sahara have been called the “Garden of Allah.”

Those traveling by camel caravan along its ancient trails may see this desert as a gigantic cathedral of scintillating beauty and grandeur.

Its dome is the azure blue of a cloudless sky. Under the rays of a torrid sun, the hundreds of gigantic sand dunes are transformed into altars of shimmering gold.

In the night, beneath a star-flecked sky, an ominous wind may blow across the sandy wastes in tones low and vibrant like those of a mighty organ magnified a thousandfold.

For many, the lonely and foreboding Sahara is their only home. Although the life of a desert nomad is cruel and primitive, untold hundreds of caravans are still following dusty trails from one oasis to another.

Colorful Wanderers

Of all the desert wanderers, most colorful are the Tauregs, more popularly known as Blue Men because the indigo that they use to dye their robes rubs off on their bodies and gives them a bluish cast.

A matriarchy, the tribe is governed by its older women. Tales of their past are handed down from mother to daughter. Some of these stories sound incredible.

The Tauregs believe they are the descendants of the survivors of the Lost Continent of Atlantis and are destined to roam the desert until such time as Atlantis one day rises from its watery grave. Then they can return to their ancient homeland.

Although I have visited Morocco many times, I decided to return again and learn more about this tribe.

Flying first to Marrakech, I journeyed south by bus to the small town of Goulimine, where I had been told the Blue Men occasionally dispose of their livestock and make purchases before setting out again across the Sahara.

Town on Desert Rim

Goulimine, on the rim of the desert, is made up of a few dirt streets and one-story pink adobe buildings. There is little motor traffic, but moving about are burros, camels, goats and sheep, their plaintive cries breaking the stillness as they wind their way toward the camel market held each weekend in a walled square on the outskirts of town.

The desert people need little to survive--sugar and salt and a few other items that they buy at the kiosks with money from the sale of their animals and hand-woven rugs.

During weekends Goulimine is a meeting place for desert tribesmen of the south and sharp-eyed white-robed businessmen from the north, who wheel and deal with the nomads.

While wandering through the camel market I stopped at a kiosk where a Taureg woman was selling rugs. She spoke Spanish, having spent much of her time in Tan-Tan on the Spanish Sahara.

The Tauregs speak a language called Shelha , the origin of which is lost. At first Fatma eyed me suspiciously, but after I bought one of her rugs she became more responsive.

‘Four Days by Camel’

I told her I wanted to visit a Taureg encampment. After a bit of coaxing she invited me to join her on a trip to the oasis of Kazir. How far? She shrugged and replied: “Four days by camel.”

Early Monday I was on a camel heading southeast. Abdel, Fatma’s husband, led the way, followed by their two young sons, Mohsen and Ahmad.

Suddenly we entered another world of shimmering sand dunes that glistened like molten gold under the first rays of the sun.

The ride was anything but pleasant. Until I learned to relax and sway with the erratic movements of my camel, I felt as if I was churning about inside a cement mixer.

Three days later we arrived at Kazir. Scattered among the date palms were several goatskin tents.

Scattered Tribes

No one knows just how many Tauregs there are, but they run into the tens of thousands and are scattered throughout Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt and Sudan.

They are the best cameleers, and are one of several Berber tribes whose ancestors lived along North Africa’s Mediterranean coast but who migrated south to the desert.

The men are tall and slender, with strong angular faces. The women are extremely attractive, some with Mongolian features. Centuries ago the Taureg tribesmen were feared by other nomads as bandits of the desert. They are no longer hostile, though they remain aloof.

Unlike most Moslems, the women bare their faces. The men wear a black muslin tagilmust , or turban, wound several times around their heads and draped across their noses, providing protection from the Sahara sun as well as the tiny particles of sand that seem to permeate the desert air.

According to this tribe’s legends, the Tauregs once lived on a lush island called “Atlantiki"--or Atlantis--with green valleys surrounded by snow-covered peaks.

They were a happy, carefree people, and counted among them artists, sculptors, poets, philosophers and skilled artisans who excelled at delicate filigree work with silver and gold.

Link to the Past

If there is a single link between past and present, it might be in their folk dance, the quedra . From childhood every woman in the tribe learns the sensuous movements of this dance, which is performed only upon the knees.

Their graceful arms and flicking fingers seem to convey the secret message of a bygone era. As the dance progresses the body sways and writhes, while the dancer’s long hair is tossed wildly about the face.

Finally, exhausted, the dancer slumps forward and remains motionless for several moments.

According to Amin, the quedra was the most popular of all the dances performed by their ancient queen’s palace dancers during their sacred festivals. Its origin and meaning are mysteries.

I stayed with the Tauregs four weeks. While the men tended their animals the women kept busy by gathering brush for firewood, preparing meals, taking care of the children and drawing water from a communal well.

Most important, they spent countless hours at small, crude looms, weaving colorful rugs that they would sell at some distant village.

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Goulimine can be used as a base of operations while exploring southern Morocco. Fly into Marrakech or Agadir. From either city it’s a few hours’ drive by rental car through some fascinating countryside to Goulimine.

The town is almost deserted during the hottest months (June through August). The best time to visit is from October through March. Visit the Saturday or Sunday market, where nomadic tribes, including the Blue Men, sell their livestock.

Goulimine has no deluxe hotels but the 27-room Salam is clean and comfortable and close to the camel market. The Pension Ere Nouvelle has 12 rooms (and its food is a little better). Expect to pay between $20 and $35 at both. Newest hotel is the Mauritania, which averages about $30 to $45 a night.

If the hotels in Goulimine are full, you can stay in nearby Tiznit at the El Minzah, which has a small pool, the Tiznit or the Mauritania (different from the Mauritania in Goulimine). Prices average between $20 and $30.

Royal Air Maroc flies into Tangier, Marrakech, Fez and Casablanca from most major U.S. cities.

Train service throughout Morocco is generally excellent. It’s reliable, and food is often available.

Take a camel ride. On weekend nights you’ll be able to watch the Taureg women perform the quedra , either at your hotel or at a restaurant in Goulimine, Rendel-Vous des Hommes Bleus.

For more information on travel to Morocco, contact the Moroccan National Tourist Office, 421 N. Rodeo Drive, 2nd Floor, Beverly Hills 90210; (213) 271-8939.