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Sahara

Day 11: Marrakesh

Asni, Morocco 
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Public transport in the High Atlas. The local truck is the only way to reach the highest Berber villages.
Michael Palin - SaharaAround 30 miles from Marrakesh we stop, to my relief, at a large village called Asni. Outside the cafés, tagines simmer on charcoal braziers, salesmen offer us an assortment of knives, rings, fossils and crystalline rocks, and Berber women, wearing long green cloaks and white headscarves with lacy fringes, pass by with loads of undergrowth on their backs.

I learn from Amina that the Berbers (the word comes from the Greek for barbarians) were the original inhabitants of Morocco. Some say they came from the Caucasus Mountains but no-one disagrees that they moved into Morocco long before the Arabs. Ibn Khaldun, the great fourteenth-century chronicler of Arab history wrote of the Berbers: 'the men who belong to these family of peoples have inhabited the Maghreb since the beginning'. The Arab word Maghreb means 'the lands of the west' or 'the lands of the setting sun'.

Despite the fact that Berber speakers make up 40 per cent of all Moroccans, they have been traditionally repressed by their Arab conquerors and largely confined to rural mountain areas like the High Atlas. Amina says that things are different now. There are Berbers in the cities. They're hard-working, ambitious and creative. She seems uncomfortable with direct questions about Arab-Berber relations. Maybe it's because Morocco is anxious to avoid any equivalent of the recent violent protests by Algeria's Berbers over the suppression of their culture. Maybe it's because Amina, it transpires, is a Berber herself, from the south on her mother's side and from the Rif Mountains on her father's side.

Beyond Asni the road rises so steeply that we have to exchange our Mercedes for a pick-up truck, squeezed in the back with a group of villagers.
Imbil, Morocco 
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The air gets cooler and fresher as we leave Imbil far below.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 11
  • Country/sea: Morocco
  • Place: Asni
  • Book page no: 48

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