Lunch with Nomads
Our white Land Cruiser rolls to a stop. We’re deep in the desert outside Merzouga, a Moroccan town known to travelers for camel rides at sunset and ATV tours across the impossibly-high rose gold dunes that line the horizon to my left. We’ll trade the Land Cruiser for a pair of camels later tonight, but for now we’ve reached the spot I’ve most looked forward to on this four day trip across Morocco — a couple unscripted hours spent with a nomadic Berber family.
A little girl is waving to us as we walk toward the mud brick house, and my guide Mohamed hands her a yogurt. Her eyes light up and the two of them exchange a few words as the little girl’s mother emerges from the house.
After asking (and receiving) permission, Mohamed shows us around the small home while the mother goes about her daily chores and her daughter savors the yogurt. Life clearly isn’t easy here. In the first room, used primarily as a pantry and eating space, a car battery hangs on the wall with dozens of wires leading from its terminals. This is the only source of power. There’s no furniture, no table or chairs or stools. Just old cans of powdered milk sitting next to jugs of olive oil and sacks of flour on the dirt floor. A row of immaculate silver teapots hangs on the wall.
Back outside, the mother leads us to the only other room in the house, maybe ten square feet and built mostly of bamboo and blankets, which Mohamed explains is the bedroom for the family of six. As she opens the door a baby goat escapes from its makeshift pen and darts around the corner of the house. The little girl, laughing, chases the goat and tackles it, then cuddles it like it’s an overgrown kitten with hooves.
We see the family’s kitchen, a separate low building, again built of mud and bamboo and blankets, where a pair of clay ovens and a propane stove provide the main methods of cooking. As the mother starts a fire to bake the daily bread, Mohamed leads us to a low-slung tent a short distance away. The fabric and ropes of the tent, like most of the other textiles the family uses, is woven from camel hair. Its made in a loose weave for airflow, Mohamed explains, but on the rare occasions that it rains, the fibers swell, essentially making it waterproof.
It feels about ten degrees cooler in the shade of the tent, and we sit on colorful Berber rugs and drink mint tea. The mother brings us a mug of goat’s milk and hands it straight to me to try. It’s so fresh it’s still warm, and thick in the way that only raw milk can be, like heavy cream. I smell the sourness before I taste it, but I take the biggest mouthful I can handle and swallow it down. I can’t help but be reminded of the time in Afghanistan, on my third deployment, that I was clearing a room and one of my teammates spilled an entire bowl of goats milk on my leg. My pants stunk of sour milk for the rest of the night and my working dog wouldn’t stop trying to lick them. I was pissed then, but it’s fun to laugh about now. Unfortunately I still haven’t exactly learned to enjoy goat milk. So I choke it down and smile to our host. “Shukran, shukran, it’s very good,” I say as I pass the mug to Hassan, our quiet driver. I quickly rinse my mouth with more tea and wish I’d learned a few words of Berber before our trip here.
The mother shares some of their bread with us, still warm from the coals of the fire, and I sense that it’s almost time for us to leave. Remembering a box of dates we have in the Land Cruiser, I jog back to the truck and bring them back to the little girl, who immediately opens the box and starts counting them, a huge smile on her face.
As we pull away, the little girl sits cuddling her goat with one arm and waving with the other.
Mohamed tells me later that when he was a kid, growing up in a nomadic family like this, he always loved seeing cars driving through the desert. Twenty years ago he says he usually only saw one vehicle per week, a truck that would bring staple goods from the nearest town for his family to purchase. Those memories are why he always brings something for the kids when he visits here, and as we continue our trip through the desert, he passes yogurts out to a half-dozen more kids that smile and wave as we pass by their homes.
We drive deeper into the desert and stop under a gnarled old tree. The four of us start gathering wood for a fire and I realize we’re about learn how to eat like nomads.
The fire hasn’t been burning for long when an old Berber man comes into our camp. He saw the white Land Cruiser sticking out in the stark brownness of the desert and wandered over to see who the visitors were. Mohamed and Hassan tell him to stay to eat with us, and in a way it reminds me of home, with this man helping to prepare the food between munching on fresh chicken kebabs and drinking mint tea made with water boiled on the coals of an open fire. Despite the language barrier I laugh because I know the old man is chiding Hassan as he struggles to flip over the Berber pizza (or, more correctly, madfouna) that’s baking on the hot coals. I’m sure the old nomad is saying he could’ve done it better, but he’s enjoying himself as he reclines back in the sand, sipping tea while flies buzz around his sandals.
The five of us eat together sitting on a blue rug, gathered around the massive stuffed flatbread, gorging ourselves on the incredible food that tastes simultaneously familiar and unlike nothing else I’ve eaten in my life. It’s hot and doughy, and streams of grease run between my fingers and down my beard as I struggle to fit bites of the thick pizza in my mouth. The soft texture and sweet flavor of the inner part of the flatbread mixes with the crunchy, slightly bitter exterior that’s been charred by the fire and I wash it all down with long drinks of water and I think that life really can’t get any better than this. Certainly there is no way to get closer to the culture of the nomads than this. We’re eating, not talking but all smiling, using our hands the same way and sitting more or less the same way, and this — this right here — this is why travel is amazing.
When the meal is finished we clean everything up using sand as soap and send the old nomad off with a plastic bag full of leftovers and one of our big 1.5 liter bottles of water. I wish I had something to offer him, to maybe make what I’m sure is a tough life a little easier, but I have nothing in the truck that would be useful for him. The best I can do is to hand him another bottle of water, which he refuses. The look in his eyes says what words can’t — he has enough. He doesn’t need a lot.
I watch him fade back into the desert and I wish I could’ve gone with him. I’m sure he knows a lot more that I could learn.
Moroccan tourism seems purpose-built for the social media generation. Given that I’m a daily user of the platform, and that you probably found this essay from the link I posted on my Instagram feed, I understand the irony in that statement. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m just saying that it’s almost shocking how perfectly curated so many places here seem, from the blue doors in Chefchaouen to the tanneries in Fes to the zellij mosaics in Marrakesh. Morocco is a photographer’s dream.
The problem is that, in a world dominated by social media, it can be hard to find authentic experiences. In a landscape of perfectly curated places, ready to be framed in a photograph, I’ve found myself seeking moments that are organic, that I can use to learn more about a place than what you can read online or in a guidebook. And when people ask why Kira and I are traveling right now, that search for authenticity and that desire to learn about a place are my reasons. I found that in Merzouga, thanks to Mohamed and Hassan.
I learned that a lot of what you read about predominantly Islamic cultures is dead wrong. The nomadic Berber man that we shared lunch with ate with both hands, and didn’t blink an eye at Kira’s tattoos. In fact, we learned that it’s actually traditional for Berber women to tattoo their faces and hands, largely based on their marital status. And unlike what guidebooks and blogs might try to get you to believe about traditional people in Middle Eastern countries, at the end of the day they’re people, a lot like you and me, and they don’t get offended by little things like which hand you eat with or use to hold a cup of tea. They’re mostly just happy to see you.
As I’ve said before, it’s hard to write about deeply moving experiences, and the day we spent in the desert with the Berber nomads was, and still is, incredibly moving for me. I think that ability — the skill to capture a moment and convey its emotion to readers — is what defines truly great writers. I’ll never claim to be a great writer, and while I hope I’ve done a decent job of telling the story of our travel over the past few months, I’m sure what I’ve written is average at best. But as I’ve said over and over again on social media, I hope that my decision to share these experiences inspires others to seek them out too. And I hope that you find them.
Note — I owe a lot to a lot of people, and I’m realizing that more and more on this trip. I’m not embarrassed to talk about those that I look up to, from childhood idols that inspired me to travel (some real, some not, like Indiana Jones), to adult icons that have helped me learn how to do it (some that I know, and some that I never will, like Anthony Bourdain). And of course I owe more than I can explain to my parents, whose decision to look after our dogs has made this extended adventure around the world possible. But for this specific trip, I owe an incredible debt to Mohamed and Hassan for showing us the best parts of their country and culture. Mohamed, thank you for answering my endless questions; Hassan, thank you for your impeccable driving skills and for the hug when you left us in Marrakesh. Thank you both for your hospitality, and for what I hope you also now consider friendship. I hope I can see you both again soon. In the meantime, if you’re interested in taking a similar trip across Morocco as the one I’ve written about here, reach out to Mohamed at https://moroccofabuloustravel.com and he’ll set you up.