This weekend, I had the opportunity to check a life-long dream off my bucket list: to go to the great Sahara Desert. Reaching the Sahara from Rabat was no easy feat. To reach the most popular town to access the dunes, Merzouga, I first had to head to Meknes (near Fes) to take an overnight bus South and East over the Atlas Mountains and to the edge of the Algerian border. The total travel time was about twelve hours each way. My excitement was significantly dwindling by my 5 a.m. arrival, and I groggily made my way to the hotel from which my “Sahara camel tour” would be based. Thankfully, the tour would not begin until the early evening, so I slept late into the morning.
After I woke up, my energy and excitement were renewed. My tour guide, Mohammed, I gave me a tour of the local village. I was staying in a village next to the larger and more touristy Merzouga, but it was clear that almost every business was still specifically geared to cater to tourism. Every building boasted some advertisement for souvenirs like the iconic scarf-turban worn to protect the face from the sand and wind, or for desert activities like ATV tours over the dunes.
I also got my first peak at the dunes. The Village lies in an oasis dotted with palm tree and sits some miles in front of the Atlas Mountains, which form an impressive distant skyline. The line of the trees and shrubs ends and after a number of yards, and there the dunes begin. The effect is difficult to explain or capture in pictures, but it is mind-boggling to see the mountains of sand begin so abruptly and extend far beyond human sight. For the rest of the day, I waited out the peak heat of the sun next to the hotel pool. At five, I went with my group to meet our rides into the desert: the “desert taxis” as Mohammed called them.
Atlas Mountains in distance with Oasis
Riding a camel is not particularly comfortable or fast, but the views as we crested tall dunes further and further from “civilization” were incredible. We arrived pretty soon at the camp, which was a sturdy group of decorative tents equipped even with electricity and a porta-potty type toilet. Though we were surrounded by dunes, we were clearly never that far into the desert, as was made apparent by my working cell reception on top of the adjacent dune. Additionally, the abundance of usual comforts in the camps (even some benches set on top of the dune) and the many clusters of neighboring camps dotting the desert landscape made for a funny feeling of being simultaneously in a cushy resort and in the middle of nowhere. The reminders of the tourism industry in no way spoiled my time, however. Though it was not the exoticized and wild Sahara experience of the Western imagination, the landscape and the people were authentically incredible in their own right.
My tour guide and the rest of the local townspeople are Tamazight/Berber, but different from the Tamazight people I met in the Atlas Mountains. Although I told Mohammed that I was studying Arabic, he preferred to speak to me in English because Arabic was not a first language for him either. In fact, he spoke just about every language imaginable to communicate with any potential tourist. It surprised me how much he emphasized his identity as “African.” In Rabat, the identity of Morocco as an “African” country or of Moroccans as Africans is contested. Some people prefer to identify as “Arab” based on their family lineage, or more broadly as “Moroccans,” and some recognize a Tamazight family history. It depends on the person. However, the refrain in the desert was always: “This is Africa,” “Welcome to Africa,” “How do you like Africa?” Of course, some of this refrain could be influenced by a desire to capitalize on the exotic image tourists look for when they visit the desert. Still, there was an unmistakable distinction in the difference between language, dress, and affiliation of the people I met there from the Morocco that I am used to in Rabat. Mohammed himself mentioned his frustration with some of the influences of the urban centers on his town and way of life, including the cell tower that now gives reception to the desert camps, or the DJ that an adjacent camp brought along for a desert party at night.
My trip to the Sahara was a highlight of my time here, and honestly of my life. Despite the exhausting overnight trip, and even though the experience may not align with my childhood imagination of a wild place removed from civilization, the astounding beauty of the landscape and the warm hospitality of my hosts will stay with me forever.