The days were long and scorching and the nights nearly as hot and long, and there we were, in Ouarzazate, someplace in the inland desert of Morocco. Furnace-like winds flew like the music of discordant, battling bands past our heads and across the nearby hills and around lonely kasbahs and hilltop mud brick towns. I love the Middle East and have traveled there for many years, but perhaps no place is as unique as this small oasis city.
Ouarzazate has been called the Hollywood of Morocco, even the Hollywood of north Africa, but maybe Cannes is more like it, because of the French tourists who run around nearly naked, except without the water.
Why make movies in Morocco? There’s more sun than you’ll ever need, cheap labor, mountains and desert, historic cities, ruined fortresses, and picturesque villages. And Europe is minutes away by air. Way back in the 1940s, Orson Welles filmed his strange, dreamlike Othello in the streets and public baths of Essouara over on the Atlantic coast, draping his actors in sheets because he couldn’t afford costumes. At least, Essouara has the breezes off the sea, but today movie companies flock to the inland desert, where they make epics like Lawrence of Arabia, The Mummy, and Gladiator and exotic pictures like Sheltering Sky, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and that one where Michael Douglas crashed a plan into a kasbah wall. More recently, parts of Inception, Pope Joan, Body of Lies, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Of Gods and Men were filmed in this north African country.
Ancient as it is, Ouarzazate is bordered with modern hotels that rise like fortresses above the old city, places that cater to movie casts and crews, as well as occasional tourists. A wide street curves like a dry river bed down a sunburned hill to the historic medina and ancient kasbah. Not long ago, this boulevard of sticky macadam didn’t exist, but now it’s banked with shops and even an athletic club, although the club and half the stores close if there’s no picture shooting.
The first place you reach as you climb the hill is the walled Club Med compound for those who can’t wait to expose their pale skin to the carcinogenic rays of the Moroccan sun. We were staying in the hotel next door. The day we arrived, a classic car club touring that part of north Africa had arrived, scores of automobiles corralled in the hotel parking lot, a 1940 Continental, a 1936 MG, an antique Jaguar and BMW, a couple of Citroens, a Ford with a rumble seat, a red Austin Healy, and a lot more that I could never afford.
That evening, we wandered downhill and plunged into the shifting caramel tints of the medina with its massive Kasbah, now being restored with money from the movie studios. Hard-packed red earth under our feet, above us stark mud walls dotted with tiny square windows, we sought out our restaurant. Roofs flowed into terraces above shadowy tunnel-like alleys and courtyards. Wires dangled and swayed like lazy serpents and black-garbed Berber women in brilliant kerchiefs shuffled ahead of us. Handprints imbedded in the dried mud gestured from the uneven, leaning walls.
A few days later, we loaded up our gear and followed the ancient caravan route over the rugged Anti-Atlas range into the desert with a driver and guide. The Sahara is growing, we’d been told, and the seas are growing. The world is becoming salt water and sand. What’ll the corporations do then? Sell sand to the sea or salt to the desert?
At night, we slept in black goat hair tents, deep-hued carpets and cushions spread on the sand, lanterns glowing in the dark, and the stars brilliant overhead. After washing with basins of water brought with us, we ate spicy mezze, golden cous-cous, chunks of lamb and chicken, and drank Moroccan red wine. A scorpion, barbed tail aloft, passed by, then vanished into the desert.
Delphine, the heroine of my latest book, was happiest in this part of the world, from Morocco to Turkey, Egypt to Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine. She lived here and loved here and fought for justice here.
Someday, I’m going to write more about the beautiful and surprising land of Morocco and the people who live here, the families in the historic medinas and hidden Berber villages, the nomads with their goat herds and black goat hair tents, the men and women who work in the towns, catering to visitors from Europe and America, the boys who study in the traditional medressas, the Moroccans who carry on the traditions left behind by the French colonists of the past, and of course the rugged landscape and the ever-changing music of the hot winds blowing over rock-studded mountains and desert sands.
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press.
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