Around 7 p.m., as we arrived at our lodge in the heart of the Moroccan countryside, I heaved a huge sigh of relief. We had flown and drove a trip totaling nearly 20 long hours from Nairobi to our destination, where I was to spend eight days with the production crew filming the Berber community in the High Atlas Mountains.
The Berbers, or Amazighs, are an ethnic group made up of several nations, mostly indigenous people from North Africa. Morocco, and more particularly the High Atlas Mountains, is said to be home to the largest Berber community in North Africa.
The drive from Marrakech airport to the Atlas Mountains is an experience in itself. Despite the gruesome seven-hour drive, along narrow, curving roads, clinging to the side of steep, steep slopes, the view from the mountain is breathtakingly beautiful.
What caught my attention the most was the Berber architecture. They have houses hewn vertically or horizontally in the limestone on the slopes of the hills.
According to our Moroccan repairman / interpreter, the houses are environmentally friendly as people use stones and clay bricks that have been dried in the sun to build the house. The style of the structures varies by region.
Early the next morning, we drove to a desolate place to meet a nomadic Berber family who live in a cave, for our first production shoot.
The Berber family was waiting for us in a dry, rocky and barren plain, at a place with caves obscured by smoke, which had been hand-carved into a riverbank over generations, made up of different rooms for the family and merging into in enclosures.
The Berbers are the most hospitable people I have met. On arrival we were greeted by our host with small glasses of a unique type of mint tea, often referred to as ‘Berber whiskey’ by locals.
This traditional Moroccan mint tea contains no alcohol, it is made with fresh mint, sugar and water. There is even an art of pouring it: the taller the teapot, the better the taste. According to Berber culture, every visitor is obliged to accept it.
The Arab influence is still present among the Berbers today. On their heads, the men wear wrapped cloth turbans, and the women cover their hair with scarves and their faces with a veil.
Our host’s wife and daughters were dressed in a colorful traditional Berber outfit known as a ‘djellaba’, although very welcoming, they appeared shy and uncomfortable in our presence.
A djellaba is a loose, unisex outer robe of varying length, the color of the garment indicating the marital status of the wearer.
By late afternoon, we had managed to film various scenes of our characters, doing their daily chores, mostly done by women and girls, such as milking goats, tending to herds of animals, fetching water and look for wood used for cooking.
The family survives by raising herds of goats. Berber men are responsible for going to the local market to sell their products.
Preparing dinner is also time consuming for women, as food is normally cooked slowly over a charcoal fire. The food is cooked in a traditional, cone-shaped Moroccan cooking vessel made of unglazed ceramic or clay known as a tagine, which is why the food is also referred to as a tagine dish.
At sunset, before our crew returned to the lodge for the night, we were treated to an appetizing Moroccan Berber lamb tagine mixed with spices and vegetables.
A makeshift tent to accommodate family and visitors has been set up outside as a dining room, with brightly colored Berber rugs laid on the floor for seating. Berber meals are eaten seated on the floor, legs crossed and with the right hand
The meals are very convivial, everyone gathers to eat on a large common plate, placed in the middle, shared by the family.
Despite the sitting posture, which we are not used to, the food was amazing and delicious, what we were left with was a good night’s sleep after our first day of filming in Morocco.
Nowadays, many Berbers live and work in the cities.
The pressures of modernization are forcing the Berber way of life to transform from wandering herders, on difficult mountainous terrain, to settlers, and have also seen them offer their children a formal education.