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Meeting the Tuareg Nomads

Mountains wrap the perimeter of the hard scrubbed desert landscape and acquire a bluish tinge in the afternoon light. This is the southern tail of the Anti-Atlas mountains (named Djebel Bani) in Morocco, about 350 miles southeast of Marrakech. After six years of drought it’s hard to imagine anything living having been here. The few remaining trees look like they were torched and left for dead. All that’s missing from this scene is a lone camel ridden by a desert nomad. In this part of Morocco that would be a Tuareg, or blue man as they’re called, because of the blue garments and long blue scarf or tagilmust they use to swathe their heads and faces.

We traveled south by bus from Marrakech, arriving late the night before for the yearly camel market in Goulemim, officially known as the ‘gateway to the Sahara’.

The following morning while walking we saw men dressed in various styles of traditional blue-man robes. Some say they’re not actually Tuareg, the Berber nomads who wander between oueds throughout the Sahara in search of water (south and east, through southern Morocco or Western Sahara; Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya, and Algeria). But we heard that years of drought had driven them north from the deep Sahara to do business in the old medina and souks in Marrakech.

We joked about dressing appropriately for the occasion – beige linen for the heat, and for venturing into the midst of traditional Muslim culture, long sleeves. Between my companion’s long-standing relationship with this country and my own first-hand travel experiences in so-called third world countries we knew the importance of keeping respectfully covered. We always carried shawls, though we weren’t sure if our elegance matched theirs.

The indigo-dyed garments worn by the Tuareg, from which they were nicknamed ‘blue men of the desert,’ are most prized. Because water is scarce in the desert, the indigo is pounded, instead of boiled, into the cloth. This method of dying the fabric imbues the cloth with a shimmery blue-black patina. With wear, the color seeps into the pores of their skin, casting a bluish-violet hue. Since indigo is precious and expensive, their bluish skin has become a status symbol among them: the darker blue a man’s skin, the wealthier he appears.

As it turned out, there was no camel market as our guidebook promised. The market was also smaller than we’d anticipated – maybe 25 shops in total. We were the only foreigners, the only tourists, and in fact, the only women not working in the stalls or in front of them, selling reproductions of old designs in metal or leather.

We decided to investigate the tailor’s souk, lured by the graceful sight of blue-robed men in the streets. Goulemim is one of the trading towns where the Tuareg come for supplies and to have their robes made. We saw one older man whose garment had large stylized stars of Solomon woven into fabric that had the sheen of many years’ wear. Though we searched for that pattern, we only saw variations of it.

Eventually we entered a shop fronted by a long glass counter, behind which sat a tailor and his young helper surrounded by piles of fabric amid two sewing machines. Shelves piled with folded blue garments lined the walls. From the ceiling hung various robes, mostly blue, but interspersed with white ones (worn for camel races and special celebrations). When we expressed interest in looking at what was behind the counter we were welcomed in and the tailor began unfurling robes, holding them up for our perusal.

Some men wear dra’a, an open poncho-style garment that can be rolled onto the shoulders to allow the air through. Others don long-sleeved robes called gondoras, with slits set into the stitched seams at hip level that open to a man’s trouser pockets.

Some gondoras have intricate machine-embroidered necklines, others have simple deep v-necks whose inside pockets open from the v’s angles. All the garments are cotton in tones ranging from sky blue to indigo. The quality and weight can vary widely, reflected in the price. We saw exquisite Egyptian-style cottons smooth as satin, and many cotton brocade variations with moon-and-star designs. The stars are usually five- or six-sided and considered amulets, protecting the wearer against evil or disease. Surprisingly, much of the cloth these days is imported from Germany.

We tried on several long-sleeved moon-and-star gondoras until we found two that weren’t enormous, and then the tailor took measurements. Tea was ordered and brought to the shop, and as we sipped and watched, he cut and sewed the sleeves and hems to fit.

We continued on to the huge, mostly empty parking lot where the bus left us the night before. Two men approached, one of whom spoke some English. They wanted to drive to Sidi Ifni, close by along the coast, whose name, roughly translated, means ‘the saint of coming to the end’. We’d also planned to go there, attracted by its history as a Spanish territory until 1969. Our two acquaintances needed money for gas and in exchange offered to drive us there. We considered the alternative: cramming into a taxi – six passengers plus driver, the usual style for longer distances. We thought it might be crazy to accept this offer by two strangers, possibly even dangerous, and even suspended haggling over the price to consider the consequences. In the end it sounded more comfortable. And I had a feeling it might at least be interesting.

Our acquaintances both introduced themselves as Mohammed, a not uncommon occurrence. The driver wore sunglasses and a blue gondora over western-style clothing. His friend wore dra’a, his head and part of his face covered. Minutes into the conversation another man arrived and introduced himself as Mubarek, proprietor of an antiques shop in Sidi Ifni. He spoke better English than his friends and claimed to have traveled to the desert many times to trade with the Tuareg. When we expressed our interest in them he exclaimed “Aji aji” (here, here) and motioned for us to follow. He strode across the parking lot, slid behind a hardware seller and a man selling loose cigarettes, then turned down a narrow street. We caught up just as he began to kiss and embrace a man around his age whom he introduced as his cousin, named – what else? – Mohammed.

If you’ve never seen this display of male bonding before, it’s fascinating to observe. It can be extensive, depending on the closeness of the relationship, or lapse of time between visits, with no less than three kisses to each side of the person’s face with accompanying hugs, sometimes as many as five or six. You’re more likely to witness this enacted between men, and less frequently, between women, than between men and women in this culture. And it’s not unusual for the men to continue holding hands or drape their arms around each other’s shoulders while catching up with family news.

Hanging outside a friend of Mohammed number three’s stall was a rack of blue-man scarves, ranging from thin, gauzy cotton to starched muslin cloth. They use these scarves as veils to cover their heads and faces, leaving only their eyes exposed. They’re dyed cobalt or indigo blue at both ends, a lighter shade in the center. Customarily they’re 20 feet long as Tuareg men believe it impolite for their mouths or noses to show. They wind them loosely around their heads and faces many times – temperatures can climb to 120 degrees during daylight in the desert – because layering the fabric adds extra protection against heat, sun, and sand, which finds its way into everything here.

After admiring various scarves, we each bought several and headed back with Mubarek and the Mohammeds to continue our journey.

It must have been at least 95 degrees when we drove past Goulemim’s rose-red earthen walls, and although the car windows were open, there was no air. We couldn’t imagine this ride squeezed into a collective taxi. Scratchy sounds bleated and blipped from the car radio, vacillating between too loud and barely audible as the road turned and ascended. Mohammed number one played a tape of local music.

Shallow canyon walls etched with lacy bronze-colored patterns, sometimes called desert varnish, cut through the ochre-hued oueds. Goats crowded among the twisted branches of the indigenous argana trees.

Along this stretch of road in searing midday heat we never saw another car. Smoky purplish hills appeared tattooed against startlingly clear sky. Azure feels too formal a word to use, too perpendicular. The colors broke in horizontal strata on the brick red walls. On this stretch we saw no trees, just rolling hills and sand. A world scrubbed clean. Except for the dust, which swirled through the open car windows. I pulled a blue scarf from my bag and covered my mouth.

Laurie Price

Laurie Price is a poet, jewelry designer, and native New Yorker who has worked as a TEFL teacher, editor, and translator, among other things.