The Ait Bougmez Valley has held a fascination for me since I saw an exhibition of illustrations from Titouan Lamazou’s account of an almost-year spent in the valley in 1981-82, “Onze lunes au Maroc.” Although the people lived – and still do live – so simply and with so little material wealth, Lamazou’s pen and ink drawings and photographs portrayed a life rich in culture in an environment which was clean and bountiful. Little wonder, then, that it is also known as the “Happy Valley”.
Many lowland Moroccans have not even heard of this Maghreb Shangri-La hidden in the High Atlas Mountains. This is at least in part to its inaccessibility: during the time Lamazou was there – and until the construction of a tarmaced road in 2001 – the valley was totally cut off in winter. Even getting there today is a white-knuckle ride of steep inclines and hairpin bends, stuffed like sardines in the typical local public transport of a Mercedes ‘grand taxi’ or minibus.
Popular among hikers and climbers due to its altitude and proximity to M’Goun (Morocco’s 2nd highest peak over 4,000m after Toubkal), the Ait Bougmez Valley is worth a visit even for non-mountaineers. We visited in the autumn when the valley floor was lush and verdant. Under the trees, away from the babbling stream where the women chatted and washed their families’ clothes, we could literally hear a ripe walnut fall to the ground. The Lonely Planet has called the Happy Valley ‘nature’s Prozac.’ With each hair-raising kilometer travelled along the winding mountain road, past hamlets built of mud, we felt further removed from the bustle of daily life. Once we got there, gazing at the panoramic* views, breathing the clean air, wandering through fruit and nut orchards and cereal fields, paddling in the brooks and even exerting ourselves for the short walk up to Sidi Moussa, had the calming effect of a thousand hammam massages or a year of meditation.
The kids here are always ready with a smile and a wave. They may not have the mod cons of kids in Casablanca or Marrakech, but they are growing up close to nature and with a rich cultural tradition that city youth have lost. The shrine of Sidi Moussa (Moses) is a case in point. On the summit of a strange conical peak, and watched over by a caretaker said to be 120 years old (he’s probably closer in reality to 70-something, but who’s counting?), this was originally a pilgrimage point for Jewish Moroccans. Through the ages and the complex cultural loom of Morocco, it became a communal granary and at some point gained the reputation of offering the blessing of fertility. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, its Jewish roots are all but forgotten, but in these Berber heartlands, the practice of visiting a shrine in the hope of getting pregnant is not exactly Islamic either…
This distance from the ever-modernising commercial centres of Morocco has been of advantage for the Berber inhabitants of the Valley. They have been able somehow to manage the pace of change and find ways to develop in tune with nature and in a way which is sensitive to their traditional practices and lifestyles. This is not to say that life isn’t hard for these people. The nearest healthcare and amenities are in Azilal – 1.5 hours in a car between life and death for the sick or injured. The Sunday souk in Tabant is the main opportunity to buy a week’s or even a month’s worth of provisions, depending on the distance travelled, the means of transport and the weather conditions. Nonetheless, a vibrant selection of local coops, associations and NGOs focusing on agriculture and handicrafts has emerged in the area, alongside an appreciation of the merits of sustainable tourism (taught in the government-funded mountain guide school). The development of this social capital – based around 13,000 people in around 20 villages – has been instrumental in supporting the human development of the region, creating income and employment. Hopefully, it will also enable them to preserve the essence of the Happy Valley.
* The images in post are entered into a photography competition organised by Blacks and under the theme ‘panoramic’.