An Exotic, Unyielding Land, All But Forgotten


THE road from Agadir winds around southernmost range of the Atlas Mountains and into a Morocco that is all but forgotten. A world away from the colorful markets of Marrakech and Moorish castles of F`es, life on the edge of the desert is a rough, picturesque anachronism in a high-tech world.

Following the pattern of centuries, desert Berbers, descendents of nomads who lived here before Islamic conquerors swept across North Africa in the 7th century, gather grain by hand and tend flocks that survive on the sparse offerings of a withered-looking, hardscrabble landscape.

Here and there, reminders of the 20th century intrude: a television antenna atop an adobe house; a pickup truck loaded with a gangly camel. Farther south, in the disputed Western Sahara, the longest conveyor belt in the world carries the region's one plentiful resource - phosphate, used for fertilizer - to waiting ships.

But for the most part, the desert people have learned to survive on little in a land that offers little.

Anciently, caravans used to hug the coastal region, stopping to rest and replenish their supplies at fortified oases before launching out into the desert. Today, in towns like Tan-Tan and Goulimine, the camels of modern nomads mingle with jeeps from the other Morocco north of the mountains.

These remote places seem never to have seen a tourist. But Bedouin shepherds, clearly experienced at bargaining for tips after being photographed by visitors from far-off places, convey another impression.

The forbidding steppe land near the coast is a bridge that links the lush mountains with sandscapes that abut the deserted beaches and high cliffs of the Atlantic coast.

Together, they constitute a still-exotic aspect of modern Moroccan life.

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