After a quick coffee in Tiflet Othman dropped us at the toll “peage” on the outskirts of the town. A policeman approached us and after asking our nationality he tells us the best place to catch a ride, then proceeds to approach cars to help us arrange a ride toward our next destination – the small traditional mountain village of Bhalil. When we are dropped some miles from town it is already getting dark and the sky is threatening rain. Luckily we are picked up by two young men who insist on driving off their route and right into town, clearly concerned for our safety and questioning where we will sleep for the night. We assure them we will be fine. Though as we clamber out the car into the buzzing old town we realise it may be more difficult than we hoped. Definitely nowhere to pitch our tent we stroll into a cafe. All eyes are on us.
From what I had read, this village does not get many tourists, especially two girls with backpacks wandering around lost, late into the evening. The owner of the cafe, Yusaf, approaches us and we order coffees (though somehow Tanya gets only a glass of warm milk). His English is near perfect and we ask him if there is a cheap hotel in town. He tells us there is a hotel close by and he can take us there but we soon realise the price is way out-with our tight budget (this is apparently the only accommodation in town). Perhaps the cool night will be spent taking turns each sleeping in a damp doorway while the other keeps watch.
Clearly seeing our options are running out Yusaf kindly offered us to stay with him and his family for the night. Ten minutes later, we have a bed made up and after the traditional welcome of milk and dates we are sharing a meal “my family eat together, and you are now part of my family!”, Yusaf tells us. We all chat away in a mixture of broken languages, Yusaf assisting the conversation with much translating. We thank them for inviting us into their family home and they thank us for bringing the rain from Scotland (apparently there has not been rain in some time and it started the moment we wandered into town).
It is beautiful to hear Yusaf talk of his family and the love for his wife and mother. He describes a pyramid with Allah at the top, family in the middle then life, business and home at the bottom. A home and work is important to hold up the love of the family and God. He also talks rather frankly of the marital arrangements, causing his young wife to blush when he explains the tradition of the wedding night (exactly one year ago that day!)
Later he takes me aside and I receive the same advice we have had many times before, and will hear many times again – be vigilant and don’t trust everyone; we are two young woman putting ourselves in vulnerable positions and many people may try to take advantage in many ways, he explains. I thank him for his advice and reassure him that we are always aware our situation, trust our instincts and will not take any unnecessary risks.
Raising early the next morning only Yusaf’s mother is up. She has been hard at work in the kitchen preparing a meal. We are invited to eat with her while the rest of the family stay sleeping. Along with the usual khobz we have crepes and fruit, accompanied by home made honey, jam and a type of nut spread (not dissimilar to peanut butter) and, of course, plenty good strong coffee. With a belly full of food and the rest of the family still sleeping we head out to explore the village.
Bhalil is a beautiful mountain village set back some distance off from the highway with nothing but mountains surrounding it. Because of it’s secluded location it has kept it’s traditions more so than most other towns and villages in Morocco which, with better connections to the cities, bring in modern life and tourism.
As we explore a warren of streets and alleyways luck strikes again and we bump into Kamal Chaoui. He comes across us as I am taking a photo of the stunning contrast between an old crumbling building and the bright colourful doorway next to it. He explains in perfect English that, like us, he sees the beauty in places others do not. Kamal is actually the owner of the guest-house we were recommended the previous night and leads tours of the village for his guests. He describes, with pride, the things that make this small village so unique and offers us to view one of the 500 ancient caves that are still used today (around 100 of them as homes). As we descend down into Abdel Latef’s workshop it is like entering Aladdin’s cave. There are artefacts ranging from old Ethiopian sculptures, photos and paintings from all corners of the earth, records and tapes, jewellery, old electronic devices, beautiful crockery and about anything else you can imagine. My eyes didn’t know where to look! He is a carpenter and artist, doing much work for Kamal both in the guest-house and around the village. Though he is clearly a collector of, well, almost everything at heart. As we exit the cave Kamal appears again and invites us to view his guest-house and the incredible views from the roof terrace. He introduces us to a woman and asks us to share our email and blog details then, again, off he runs. The views from the terrace are wonderful but it is the stunning attention to detail in the guest-house that really amazes me. Delicate hand crafted woodwork and traditional art bring real life to the many rooms and hallways.
The following days are spent slowly making our way through the scenic Atlas mountains, where we are picked up by various cars and trucks. Two young men from Fez are out for a drive and offer to take us to Ifrane. As we drive they ask about our countries and how they compare to Morocco. They talk of people in non-Islamic countries having bad views of Muslims. I insist that the majority of people do not hold these ignorant opinions. We agree that in any religion, race or nationality, of course there are some who do bad but a very small minority. They talk of injustice and racism in countries like America and UK. It is saddening that they have this idea of what my home country believes. Not as saddening, though, that for some it is true – this is what they do believe. I promise them that though we cannot change the world I will share the stories of the goodness we have received from Moroccan people.