I’m awake, and the silence is deafening.
Inside an open enclave of hanging rugs and heavy quilts, the sun is cresting over a towering dune in the distance, slowly hunting darkness from a mess of blankets and pillows lacquered in fine sand.
A camel cries out in the distance, crackling the stagnant soundtrack. All is still. The air is cold and dry at the fingertips, light mist clings to the edge of my nose. Wind carries sand across the valley in waves of shimmering gold that undulate and swell as they’re swept from one dune to another. Every gust shifts the mountain structures a minute amount, leaving the landscape in a state of perpetual motion. The hourglass is never flipped, it simply runs.
There’s so much nothing, it’s almost too much to take in at once. Each mass of sand looks different, yet altogether identical to the others surrounding it, spread out in every direction ad infinitum. Like being lost at sea while firmly on land. The desert imparts an overwhelming feeling of timelessness, as if it was all that ever was and ever could be. This arid wasteland cannot be mapped, colonized or conquered. The many gods it has witnessed only know how much blood the sand has swallowed over the centuries.
Mohammed and Aziz, our Berber guides, tie their brightly coloured turbans and ready the camels. We ride single-file out of the Sahara in complete silence.
I’m not sure what we came to Morocco looking for, or if we were even looking for anything at all.
Somewhere between the land of medieval Moorish Sultanates and Aladdin, lay the great divide, the Northern edge of Africa, the place where it finally came to an end. Morocco is also co-host to another monumental frontier of civilizations, the great Sahara Desert, that endless wasteland of sand and nothingness home to only the bravest flora and camel-herding nomads. From the outside, Morocco maintained for us a certain air of incomprehensible mystery, the kind only brought about by snake charmers and great merchant cities run amok with monkeys roaming wild through labyrinth markets shaded in hanging silk cloth.
Morocco’s history as a nation is plagued with a clash of cultures and ongoing struggles against vicious colonial powers, notably Spain and France. On the flip side, it’s also one of the few African nations that hold bragging rights over colonizing Europe before it was even cool to colonize. The Moorish retreat from the Iberian Peninsula during the Reconquista in the 14th and 15th Centuries marked the birth of what we understand as modern European states like France, Portugal and Spain. It’s a place where West and East have met for thousands of years, travelling, trading, and more often than not, violently vying for power. Between the Arabs, Berbers, Europeans, Christians and Muslims, the land has always been a lucrative possession worth holding on to.
A melting pot historical culture is all good and well, but present-day Morocco struggles with modernity as a function of authenticity versus commercially marketable tradition. In cities like Marrakech, the idea of Morocco is a puppet show propped up by an image of its former self, an identity the country desperately wants tourists to believe and buy. The street performers charm foreigners in the vicinity of snakes. The monkeys are all on chains, tethered to posts, poised for photos.
On the train to Fes, we meet a young Moroccan named Amine who gives us the lay of the land: “There are only three rules in Morocco: don’t steal, don’t sell drugs and don’t talk bad about the King,” he says, laughing. “Everything else? Do whatever you want! Whatever! As long as you have money to pay for it.”
The Kingdom of Morocco is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy, at least in principle, ruled by King Mohammed VI. The King’s honorific powers are granted by the constitution and secured by an almost religious observance of royal dynastic bloodlines. The King is both a secular political leader and the “Commander of the Faithful,” claimed to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad himself. Like most African leaders, his smiling photo hangs in nearly every commercial establishment and even some homes. Followers tout his benevolence and progressive leadership through a network of newly paved roads and a growing economy based increasingly on trade and tourism.
But the King is also a monarch. He appoints the Prime Minister and operates with the parliament on matters of government, but ultimately has final say over what goes on in the country. Despite its revolutionary spread across North Africa, the Arab Spring never really hit Morocco the way it did in Tunisia and Egypt. Amidst protests in 2011, the King won a referendum victory to reform the constitution, though its implementation has been slow, leaving many citizens increasingly frustrated over what they see as a long string of broken promises in a time that should be marked by great change.
There are those who disagree with his highness, but these are generally matters best left for private conversations between friends. Faissal, a young hostel worker we meet in Essaouira, has no problem breaking a few of Morocco’s carnal rules when he feels like it.
“People stand around and clap whenever the King walks by like he’s done something great. They film him giving food to the poor and show it on the news and everyone loves him. All he does is take money from people who work,” he says, sporting plastic sunglasses at night and gently inhaling from a large shisha pipe on the ground. “Do you want to know who I clap for? I clap for my mother when she makes me dinner. She’s the real hero, not this guy. Who made him King? This is not medieval times. The people rule Morocco.”
We drive through the countryside for hours as freezing mountaintops melt into arid deserts devoid of any human life, save for a few junk-selling roadside resto-attractions on the crest of scenic highway hills. Come for the view, stay for the lemon couscous. It takes us just under two hours to drive from Middle Atlas mountain towns (known as Swiss Morocco due to their insanely low temperatures and unpredictable snowfall), to the edge of the Sahara, where at every moment, the sun is trying to choke life from the ground.
Morocco is a land of paradoxes, a mix of many worlds that belong together, but often seem very far apart, a sentiment reflected not only by the landscape, but also the locals. Cities inhabited predominantly by ethnic Arabs look and feel strikingly different from those dominated by Berber descendants, in the same way that cities founded by colonialists depict the remnants of a different era than areas inhabited since antiquity. Casablanca and Fes might as well be on different sides of the desert when it comes to culture and economic development.
In its own way, modern Morocco is a series of time capsules buried at arm’s length in the sand, each desperately trying to claw its way to the surface above the others, claiming supremacy or that they were there first. None win, and it doesn’t really matter either way.
Back in the Sahara, a darkness creeps quietly across the sky in fading rays of pink and orange. We take turn trying to see how long we can go without looking up, as the night sky slowly unveils itself in webs of twinkling television static. We stare at stars we were always assured existed, but have never actually seen for ourselves. Bands of milky white glow stretch across the sky in gentle arcs and it’s a while before we realize they’re not clouds. There are no clouds.
I suddenly understand why people have been worshiping the sky since…well, the dawn of human consciousness. Why we call them the Heavens. When you consider the capacity of each star to bear its own system of celestial procession, as endless as the Sahara seems, it is not even a grain of sand itself in the great vastness of the universe. The thought makes me feel crushingly insignificant, yet immeasurably powerful at the same time.
I relax my eyes and try to draw my own constellations in the darkness. A chair becomes a horse, becomes a centaur, who becomes a winged warrior in a great battle across the sky. Mars flashes a heavy red grin.
The celestial arrangements I knew as a child are gone, nowhere to be found. Orion is somewhere else. Wicked Cassiopeia has finally been buried. The Great Bear hangs upside down, suspended in motion. All is quiet. The sand sings gently to me in the wind.