Nomads of the Sahara
The Moussem de Tan-Tan, a Berber festival in the Sahara Desert of Southern Morocco, is the largest gathering of nomadic tribes in Northern Africa
Berbers charge during a fantasia at the moussem de Tan-Tan, Morocco.
A dozen Berber horsemen thundered toward me across the Sahara sands. Their pale blue drâ'a robes billowing behind them, they rode with their rifles raised in the air, ululating a war cry.
When the turbaned sahraouis were almost upon me, their horses still at full gallop, they lowered their guns toward me and fired.
All I could think was how warm and friendly these nomads had seemed an hour ago when one group invited me into their black tent to sit cross-legged around a communal platter and join them in sopping up camel stew with hunks of fresh-baked bread.
Le moussem de Tan-Tan
The author and some of his Berber horde buddies at the moussem de Tan-Tan, Morocco.
The great Saharan leader Cheik Mohamed Laghdaf died in 1960 after decades of fighting French and Spanish colonial occupiers. His tomb, outside the town of Tan-Tan in what was then the far southern reaches of a newly independent Morocco, became the focus of a great moussem, an annual gathering of nomadic tribes.
It was a festival of religious worship and a chance for the tribes to parlay, engage in song and horse competitions, swap stories and herbal remedies, and do a little camel trading on the side.
By the mid-1970s, turmoil in the area forced skittish authorities to suppress the moussem, and Tan-Tan—a bland administrative city and desert outpost—became more famous as the staging point for the "Green March." In 1975, some 350,000 unarmed Moroccans walked 50 miles south to occupy what most maps (expect those in Morocco) still mark with a dotted-line border as the disputed lands of Western Sahara.
In 2004, UNESCO (www.unesco.org) teamed with the Moroccan Ministry of Tourism (www.visitmorocco.org) to revive the moussem de Tan-Tan as a "masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity," and it has once again become the largest gathering of nomadic tribes in northern Africa.
Berber nomads sing traditional songs at the moussem de Tan-Tan, Morocco.
Which brings me to why I was standing in the Sahara watching an armed band of desert warriors bear down on me at alarming speed. This was a fantasia, a choreographed reenactment of a Berber attack charge—clearly designed as a not-too-subtle hint that you never wanted to be on the receiving end of a real one.
I was invited to the festival by Prince Moulay Rachid, brother of Morocco's King Mohammed VI. Actually, a bunch of Western investors were invited; I was merely using my press pass to tag along—and to share the sumptuous midday feast involving entire spit-roasted sheep.
The speechifying by dignitaries was accompanied by a procession of camels, a phalanx of tribes people singing traditional songs, and lines of women in elaborate costumes clutching brass teapots, wooden bowls, and other accoutrements of nomadic life in hands covered with delicately patterned henna tattoos.
The camel parade at the moussem de Tan-Tan, Morocco.
We were surrounded by the 800 tents of somewhere between 40 and 60 nomadic tribes from all over the Sahara —not just from Morocco but from as far afield as Mauritania, Mali, and Niger. Several tents held thematic displays on Berber tribal life: cooking, marriage ceremonies, weaving, popular games, the teaching of the Koran, and the nomadic lifestyle.
Though a few tents offered some chunky Saharan silvery jewelry for sale, most commercial transactions were limited to the camel souk where around 2,400 dromedaries had been brought to trade; the prince later bestowed the "Camel Prize" on the owner of the finest herd.
A city of traditional Berber tents by the Oued Chbika, Morocco.
Our group stayed about 30 miles south of Tan-Tan at Oued Chbika, one of the few breaks in the undulating cliffs where the flat, rocky hammada landscape of the desert meets the sure, strong currents of the Atlantic Ocean.
The inlet of Oued Chbika was marked by a properly Saharan-looking pile of sand dunes to the north, and a low plateau and ridge to the south. In between the plateau and the ridge was slung a depression, and in the depression was a sea of dark brown tents serried in ranks between colorful walkways made of Berber rugs.
Following a dinner of pigeon pastilla, fish tagine (a spiced Moroccan casserole), and glass after glass of super-sweet mint tea, groups of Berber musicians gathered on the plateau to perform traditional songs. I clapped along, and even danced a bit at the encouragement of an ever-smiling man from Laâyoune named Mahmoud, who hitched up his swirling red robes to chicken-leg through a series of complicated dance steps.
Tent sweet tent; the author's traditional Berber lodging by the Oued Chbika, Morocco.
After a while, two tribes began trying to outplay one another in a sort of Saharan battle of the bands. I left soon after someone in Mahmoud's lot put aside his traditional lute, broke out an old Fender guitar and plugged it into a battered amp to gain the upper hand, at least in volume.
I retired to my tent —where the billowing wind made the walls breathe in and out and carried with it the smell of the ocean, tagine spices, and camel—to read by lantern light. Soon, the sounds of guitar, drums, and call-and-response chanting faded, and all I could hear was the washing of waves and occasional keening of sea birds.
I turned out the lantern, lay back in bed, and tracked the spot of the full moon, filtered through my roof of loosely woven goat wool, as it slowly make its way across the Sahara sky.