Salam Aleykoum! It’s the 1st Friday of the month so I welcome you back to another Moroccan Friday, a series in which I aim to shine a light on the country I grew up in. The series strives to explore various topics, swaying between reality and legends, geographical wonders and curious traditions. You can discover previous posts here.
There are many tribes in Morocco. I have previously written about nomads and their declining lifestyle and although I focused my old post on the Ait Atta, nomads can be found amongst other tribes. One of them is particularly dear to me because my two main characters belong to it – it is the Arib tribe.
Before I continue, let me remind you how rich and diverse Morocco is with the following map. I have used it before and still find it a powerful tool. If you click through to the link, you can hover over every parcel to discover all the tribe names. But for now, let me tell you who the Arib are and why I chose to depict them in my novel.
The Arib tribe is what many have called a protean tribe but I prefer the word “shape-shifting” – it conveys their versatility and incredible ability to adapt throughout the centuries much better. They made their first appearance in the Sahara around 1607 but that is only an approximate. Throughout the years, they have been desert raiders, shepherds and oasis owners, spanning from the southern course of the River Draa all the way to Tuat – a natural region of desert in central Algeria, punctuated by a set of small oases.
But that is not all. The Arib were also great traders and caravaneers, crossing the desert from M’hamid El Ghizlane to the remote salt mines in Mali and further into Timbuktu. The Trans-saharan caravan trade ran twice a year, in spring and autumn. The Arib led caravans as large as 1,000 camels (some, especially in the earlier centuries, were as large as 12,000 camels!), laden with tobacco, dates, sugar, tea, cereal and products manufactured in Europe (mostly firearms, gunpowder and fabric).
The return journey was filled with gold, ivory, ostrich feathers, spices, salt, camels and slaves. The latter have actually settled in the southern edge of Morocco and formed a tribe on their own. But this could well be a topic worth-exploring in a future post.
In the early 20th century, as colonisation began in Algerian Tuat and Adrar and Mauritanian Chinguetti, the Arib tribe was forced to move north, towards the Saguiet el Hamra described in Le Clezio’s atmospheric novel Desert and the Draa valley in Southern Morocco.
In 1937, a few caravans were still intercepted between Mali and Timbuktu but ten years later, the Arib were settled in M’hamid – the so called Gate to the Desert. No longer powerful, they employed a considerable number of slaves to guard their camels, a privilege they ended up selling (the camels, not the slave) in order to buy a house and walk out on the nomadic lifestyle.
The Sand War did not help matters and slowly, after the permanent closing of the Algeria-Morocco border in 1994, those who were once caravan leaders had no choice but to relinquish life in the desert. One generation later, one particular sub-tribe of the Arib – the Nwaji – have now become desert guides for tourists. Following old Saharan routes and their ancestors’ invaluable knowledge of the desert, they search for wells and explore new circuits, some dreaming of emigration to Europe, others, reminiscing with nostalgia about the freedom only the desert could provide.
Those desert guides have been the inspiration for my Ismail and Salem, the two brothers who, while searching for an old well, will see their lives turned upside down – a fleeting moment that will ripple across decades and impact other lives in the process.