– W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming” (1921)
When rain falls in the winter in the Anti-Atlas Mountains of south-western Morocco, almond and wild pistachio trees bloom in the spring, their foliage dusted with dirt as the heat increases in summer. Juniper bushes dot the mountainside. In the summer the heat obscures the height of Adrar Tisfane (Mount Tisfane) to the west and Adrar Toubqal to the north. In the dead of winter, the peaks punctuate the bright blue sky, and the late afternoon light tinges the walls and earth a deep salmon.
Most years, in both the Anti-Atlas Mountains and the Souss Valley, rain is scarce or absent altogether, heat is dense, and dust covers everything.
Brushing off the dust – from floors, tea glasses, clothes – is constant and instinctual, like waving at a fl y on your lip, but just as futile. Some areas of the mountains are blessed with scattered almond or Argan trees, and when it rains, fields of barley sprout bright green in the spring. Most years, however, drought prevents even a modest harvest, and everything in sight is the color of parched earth. Resident women curse global warming, believing what they have heard on the radio about the earth getting hotter as evidence of their wretched lot and fuel for their desire to leave for the city.
You scan the dry landscape for flora, and notice the telephone and electricity poles that pass through the countryside without servicing it, en route to the towns. You notice the pink and yellow-painted cinder block houses, the half-constructed villas that encircle the stone villages. Then you wonder where the men are. Boys leave for the cities by the time they reach adolescence, joining the men who did the same in their youth. Women are alone with each other, their daughters, their young sons, and their daughters-in-law in these dry mountains. In the mornings, they collect fodder and wood, dressed in ankle-length navy wraps (tamlh.aft-s) over layers of colorful dresses, skirts, and pants, their heads wrapped in more color or in the traditional black. In the late afternoon sun, they perch like multicolored birds on the door stoops, chatting in the long shadows of their stone houses. Children scamper about or cling to their mothers’ backs if they are too young to play.
The omnipresent mountain woman at the end of the twentieth century was iconic of the Ashelhi Berber ethno-linguistic group, an entity for whom both language and land have become contested terrain in this post nationalist phase of the post-Independence period following the French Protectorate (1912–56). For both emigrant men in the cities and the broader Moroccan citizenry, the Berber woman came to personify the rugged, stoic, yet vulnerable homeland and its inseparable twin: the persistent, ancient, hearty, yet threatened language. In this set of associations, women effectively acted not only for themselves and their families, but also for the whole of the ethno-linguistic group. Women bore both the material and symbolic responsibilities for maintaining the land and the Tashelhit Berber language so closely associated with it. Emigrant men leaving the mountains for the cities, in particular, demonstrated to me that they considered the Tashelhit language as key to a moral universe whose values were expressed in talk, song, and non-verbal behavior, attesting to men’s continued relevance despite their infrequent presence in the tamazirt (homeland, countryside or rural place; pl. timizar). Through their native language, emigrant men maintained authority over family and community affairs, marked group boundaries, and delimited a geographical space in which the social and linguistic hierarchies favored them, a sharp contrast with the cities where Arabic held symbolic capital. This order of things entailed both responsibilities and privileges for women, as it became apparent to me during three and a half years of residence in Morocco (1995–9), three of them based in the market town of Taroudant from which I moved into the Anti-Atlas mountains and Sous plains for research and participated in national and religious rituals, agricultural cycles, school years, and life-cycle events such as engagements, weddings, circumcisions, and funerals.