A Joke in the Desert

My favorite parts of Darija (local Arabic dialect) class are the little Moroccan jokes inserted in our book. Our teacher, a small, grandmotherly and bubbly lady, excitedly explains the punch lines over and over until we finally understand, or at least until we satisfy her with our confused laughter. Until this past weekend, I assumed that these jokes were intended to serve merely as a taste of the culture or perhaps good-natured entertainment.  The important and useful parts of class were the dialogues and vocabulary for purchasing fruit and vegetables or reserving a hotel room. My trip to Merzouga this past weekend showed me otherwise.

Traveling to the Sahara desert is a serious trek. Merzouga, the town adjacent to the largest dunes in Morocco known as Erg Chebbi, is a train ride and overnight bus away. The only reason to make this over twelve-hour journey is for a camel ride through the magnificent dunes, which draw tourists from all over Morocco and the world. We arrived before the dawn call to prayer, and other than fellow groggy passengers and a few waiting guides, the town was deserted. Our camels were leaving for the desert in the cooler evening, and we spent the morning and afternoon hours napping with intermittent excursions to the dusty streets of the town.

Dusty Merzouga

Dusty Merzouga

In Merzouga itself there is not much to see outside the mud-walled houses, a few souvenir shops selling the meters-long iconic blue scarves, and a bunch of turbaned-men lounging and sipping on sugary tea. We spent most the day in the shade, drinking water and looking forward to our expedition into the desert. As the temperature began to slowly drop, our guide called us, and the trip began.

Getting on a camel is an experience in itself. The trouble starts once atop the sitting camel, as the dromedary stands on its hind legs first, causing the rider to lunge forward, tilting at a dangerous angle and holding on for dear life. Then the front knees rise, throwing the rider violently backwards, until equilibrium is reached with the camel standing upright. I thought that was the scariest part, until I had to get off the camel. This process in reverse is much more terrifying.

Camels in the Desert

Camels in the Desert

Once on the camel and away from town, the brief hassle of mounting the camel immediately faded away. Rolling dunes of warm, reddish sand stretched as far as the eye could see. The desert is too beautiful to try and express in words, but I hope the pictures do it justice.



As the sun set over the desert, we settled in for dinner in the small tents nestled between the dunes. Our guide, a young Amazigh man from Merzouga, invited some friends over, and we all shared a delicious tajin. We discussed the proper length of the scarves (they thought that anything shorter than 5 or 6 meters was useless), learned some words in the local Amazigh language, and were implored over and over to eat more. After dinner and some drumming, our guide declared it was time for telling jokes. They shared some local jokes, which can only be fully appreciated by people who live with the sand, heat and dry wadis of the desert. When they ran out of jokes, we were asked to share. Tentatively, I began telling the one from class, using darija mixed with words in Standard Arabic, some English, some Spanish, and a healthy dose of hand motions. At the punch line, they actually laughed, probably as much from the joke itself as from my attempts at saying it. For me, the success of the joke transformed the situation from just tourists coming to see the dunes, to fully experiencing not only the landscape, but also the people and culture as well. A little darija, even in the desert, can go a long way.


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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Eli Philip, Morocco, Rabat

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