Sarah Hawkins – The Barghawata Heresy: Contextualizing a Berber Cultural Rebellion

Posté par Michael Peyron le 28 mai 2010

Sarah Hawkins 

Amazigh History and Culture

The Barghawata Heresy: Contextualizing a Berber Cultural Rebellion

The Barghawata reigned over Tamesna, the coastal plain home to modern day Casablanca and Rabat, from the early eighth until the mid twelfth century.  They ruled a fiercely independent kingdom for four centuries.  Not only did they enjoy freedom from outside political interference and Arab domination, one of their kings, Yunus (ruled 842-884), attempted to assert Berber cultural and religious autonomy by introducing a Berberized version of Islam.  While this new Islam only lasted as orthodoxy in their kingdom for less than a century, its mere existence, complete with a new prophet and sacred text, is a testament to the Barghawata’s determination to remain separate from the Arab conquerors, both politically and culturally.  Of the various Berber kingdoms of North Africa, the Barghawata were especially predisposed to leading a cultural rebellion in the form of Berberized Islam; their political and economic independence from the surrounding Arab-ruled areas brought them into constant contact with Arabs who sought to conquer them.  In addition, the Umayyad caliphate treated non-Arab Muslims very poorly, furthering Berber resentment of the Arabs.  The time that Barghawata Islam appeared, the ninth century, was a turbulent time when Berbers were wresting back control of their land from the Arabs.  The Barghawata religion sought to distinguish Berbers from the conquering Arabs, but did not consider itself a new faith altogether; this suggests that the people of the Barghawata kingdom (or, rather, its king) embraced Islam, but rejected a perceived ethnic Arab slant to the faith as it was practiced in ninth century Morocco.    


            The Barghawata kingdom was founded by Tarif in the early eighth century.  Tarif and his descendants were most likely Sufrite Khariji Muslims; some sources even posit that they promoted an extremely orthodox version of Khariji Islam.[1]  The Barghawata ruled a territory stretching from Safi in the south and Salé in the north, with the Atlantic Ocean as its eastern border and the territory of the Haha people as its western border.[2]  Tarif was succeeded by his son, Salih Ibn Tarif (b. 729/730-d. 793).  He was considered an extremely pious and just ruler, as was his son Elias (ruled 793-842).  Salih’s grandson, Yunus, took the throne after Elias’s death in 842.  In the same year, he announced that his grandfather had received a new revelation from God—a Quran written in the Berber language—and introduced these revelations as a new form of Islam.  The religion remained the faith of the Barghawata kingdom until 912.[3] 

            Some speculate that Yunus fabricated the new religion and its Quran in its entirety, then retroactively made his grandfather its prophet to take advantage of Salih’s lofty reputation and untarnished legacy.  Slightly more forgivingly, one source posits that the Berber Quran might have evolved from Salih’s commentary on the Arabic Quran (an early example of the lmazghi tradition—Berber language commentary on the Quran, written in the Arabic script).[4]  If we accept Yunus as the mastermind behind Barghawata Islam, it is important to note that he went on a pilgrimage to the East in 816, and some scholars speculate that he found the inspiration to create a new, Berberized Islam after visiting the Arab world. [5] 

            The largest difference between Barghawata Islam and Muslim Orthodoxy is their sacred texts.  The Barghawata had a Berber language Quran with eighty suras, which followers believed was the direct word of God as He had revealed it to Salih Ibn Tarif. As a result, Salih was considered the final and greatest prophet of Islam.  The Barghawata still believed that Muhammad was a prophet, but simply the prophet of the Arabs.  Salih Ibn Tarif was the prophet of the Berbers, [6] or waryawari, “the one after whom none other would come” [7]

            Barghawata Islam differed vastly from “Arab” Islam in ritual.  Many Muslim practices were maintained, but somehow adjusted.  Instead of fasting during the month of Ramadan, they fasted during Rajab; they assembled for collective prayer on Thursday, not Friday, and prayed an additional five times at night.  Their prayers occurred at no set time, and there was no call to prayer.  Men could take as many wives as they pleased.[8]  In addition to modified Muslim practices, we also see hints of Judaism and paganism in their religious practice, such as their taboo surrounding eating eggs and chickens, and the belief that the saliva of the prophet contained baraka, or, roughly translated, blessedness.[9]   

            This new Barghawata religion is wildly different from Muslim orthodoxy, but it still clearly considers itself a form of Islam.  Firstly, Salih’s position as prophet is partially justified by the mention of a Salih in the Arabic Quran in the Surat al-Tahrim: 

If ye both turn repentant unto God—for your hearts have swerved!—but if ye back each other up against him, verily God, He is the sovereign; and Gabriel and the righteous of the believers (salih al-mu’minin), and the angels after that will back him up.[10] 

               Here, “salih” is among those most protected by God; this was used as proof that Salih Ibn Tarif’s prophethood was foretold in the Quran of the Arabs, thus making Barghawata Islam more credible. [11]  In contrast, a typical Muslim would not go hunting for Muhammad’s legitimacy in the Bible or Torah.  This is our first indication that, while the Barghawata wanted to make a clean break with Islam as it was practiced by the Arabs, they did not seek to abandon Islam altogether.  Muhammad is also an important figure in the Berber Quran, appearing the in the very first sura, entitled the Sura of Job: 


In the name of Allah who has sent this book to mankind.  Allah has made plain His reports therein.  They have said that Satan (Iblis) had a knowledge of destiny.  Allah forbid it.  Satan has not the power to know as Allah knows.  Enquire of anything which will master tongues in what they say.  Allah alone is the One who commands the utterances of men’s tongues.  He does so by His will for the tongue which He has sent with the truth for mankind.  The truth has become straight and steadfast and well established.  Behold Muhammad!…when he was alive all those who were his Companions were upright until his decease.  Then men became corrupt.  He is a liar who says that the truth is sound and correct, yet there is no messenger of Allah…[12] 


           This first sura affirms that God has revealed truths to mankind, and one instance of this was Muhammad’s revelations in Arabia.  The Berber Quran uses Muhammad, not Salih, as an example of a human who knew God’s truth and lived piously.  Favoring Muhammad in this case is proof that the Arab prophet and his religious tradition would continue to be an integral part of this Berberized Islam, and that this was certainly not an unrelated religion. 

            In addition to these nods to the Arab Muslim tradition in Barghawata Islam, El-Bekri and others emphasize another reason that a Berber Quran could be an acceptable part of Muslim practice.  As stated in the first Barghawata sura, Iskander explains, “the truth could not be preserved without a Prophet whom they [the Berbers] could recognize.” This, he explains, blends well with the Muslim belief that God sent messages to earth in many different vernaculars so that all peoples could learn the truth.  In light of this belief, the Barghawata’s Berber Quran seems necessary and more legitimate; they had finally received God’s word in their language, and could now worship properly, having been delivered from ignorance.[14] 

            We have seen how the Barghawata’s new Islam was a break with orthodoxy, yet did not strive to be a completely new religion. However, this does not explain why this particular Berber kingdom, at this particular point in history, decided to introduce a radically different version of Islam.  

           When we examine the Barghawata’s political independence and durability as a regime, it seems only natural that they would be the Berber kingdom to seek a cultural emancipation from the Arabs.  They maintained an independent Berber regime for four centuries, starting less than one century after the Arab conquests.  Their longevity can be attributed to several factors.  Firstly, they had an advantageous geographical position.  A huge portion of their border was along the Atlantic Ocean, and only one nearby kingdom, Al-Andalous, had a skilled navy.  The Barghawata were friendly with Al-Andalous, meaning they were able to focus the bulk of their defenses on their land borders.[15]  Since they spent so little energy protecting their oceanic border, the Barghawata could afford to maintain an unusually large army to defend their land frontiers.  The topography of their land was complex, with countless winding river valleys, which made it difficult to navigate as an invading outsider; this discouraged neighboring kingdoms from invading.  

          We also cannot discount the importance of the Barghawata’s lines of communication, which made use of fire  signals and local rivers, in allowing them to have the upper hand over an invading army.  In addition, their strategically located territory had very fertile soil, permitting them to produce their own crops and minimize their material dependence on surrounding kingdoms.  The benefits of their geography—along an ocean with no nearby threatening navies, complex topography, and fertile soil—permitted the Barghawata to thrive for four centuries as a politically and economically independent Berber kingdom.[16] 

          The Barghawata defied the historical convention that Berbers were merely foot soldiers in the service of the mighty Arabs; this Berberized Islam serves as proof that, for a time, the Barghawata also sought to defy the notion that Berbers merrily abandoned their savage heresies in favor of Arab Islamic Orthodoxy.  In this context, it is significant that Yunus, the man who introduced this new Islam to the Barghawata, traveled to the Arab East.  While the historical record is spotty on Yunus’s trip to the East (the only readily available information is that he traveled with four other Kharijis, visited Damascus, and became addicted to mind-altering substances[17]), we can surmise that he was confronted with an Islamic culture that was very different from his own in Morocco.  And, being from a remote part of the Muslim world, his practice of the faith was probably mocked or perceived to be greatly flawed by those who inhabited the Muslim world’s epicenter.  After being mocked for his difference, Yunus was encouraged to return home and further promote this difference.  The emergence of ethnic identity has been explained in similar terms, in Gellner’s classic example of the Ruritanian who visits Megalomania.  A Ruritanian from a small village goes to his capital city, Megalomania, looking for work, and is mocked for his various cultural differences, which he had never noticed before.  Upon returning to his hometown, he is proud of his Ruritanian culture and preaches political emancipation from Megalomania’s rule.[18] 

           In this case, Yunus traveled from Morocco to the East, thinking himself a devout Muslim like any other.  Upon arrival, he realizes that he is different from the Arabs around him, and is possibly mocked or looked down upon because of this difference or Berberness.  Upon his return to Morocco he seeks to assert the Berbers’ ethnic difference from Arabs, and liberate them from Arab cultural domination, by modifying and Berberizing Islam. 

          The Barghawata’s unique historical attributes, such as long-lived political independence and Yunus’s trip to the East, made them an obvious breeding ground for the assertion of ethnic and religious difference.  However, we must still explain why their new religion emerged when it did, in the mid-9th century.  First, we must note the fundamental changes to the Berber universe with the first Arab invasions, carried out by the Umayyads in the seventh century.  The caliphate, and therefore Islam, reached northwest Africa excepting Morocco (Ifriqiyya), by the mid seventh century; Morocco was also under Umayyad control by the early eighth century.  The early Umayyad caliphate was tolerant of religious diversity, but had a demonstrated prejudice against non-Arab Muslims, called mawali.  This angered Berber converts to Islam; one Berber leader in what is modern-day Algeria, named Kusayla, reportedly vented this frustration by leading Berbers and Byzantines in killing an Arab commander in 680.  After this success, Kusayla continued on to Qayrawan and briefly became the regional political authority, but he was quickly chased out by the Arabs and ultimately defeated in 686.[19]  This is one of several early examples of Berber resistance to the Arab invasion, setting a precedent for the rebellious actions of the Barghawata.   

          For a time after the initial Arab conquests, Berbers mainly lived under Arab rule.  The first Arab rulers were the Umayyad Caliphate, whose capital was in faraway Damascus.  Although many Berbers had converted to Islam and had aided the Arabs in their conquest of Al-Andalous, they continued to be mistreated by the caliphate, in some cases being taxed heavily or even taken as slaves.  These inequities sparked a full-fledged Berber revolt in Ifriqiyya in 741.[20]  However, in the centuries following the Arab conquests, Berber-controlled states began to reclaim their sovereignty and authority.  The Abbasid caliphate, which took power in the mid eighth century, treated non-Arab Muslims much better than the Umayyads had, even ceding direct control of Morocco to the Idrisids.  While the Idrisid dynasty was founded by Arabs, its sultan intermarried with Berbers and lived in Morocco, as opposed to in the Sham;[21] this undoubtedly led to an improvement in the treatment of Berbers in Morocco.  In Ifriqiyya, there are also instances of Berbers gaining more autonomy from the Mashriq, such as the Hammadids.   They were a Berber dynasty located in modern day Algeria, who declared their independence from the Fatimids and renounced Fatimid Shiite doctrine in 1014.[22]  In the context of this Berber political renaissance, the Barghawata’s new religious tradition can be seen as a cultural rebellion from Arab domination, a logical compliment to their already successful political rebellion. 

           There are clear reasons as to why the 9th century Barghawatas, as opposed to any other Berber kingdom at any other time, chose to introduce a radically different form of Islam, but one question remains: why maintain any vestiges of Islam?  Why not create an entirely new religion, which builds upon the previous monotheistic traditions like Islam builds on Christianity and Judaism?  There is no single explanation for this.  However, we can speculate that Yunus might have been concerned about the packaging of this new religion.  We have already seen his attention to this matter in the (supposed) decision to make his revered grandfather the prophet of this new faith in an attempt to lend it credence.  He was selling an extremely different, even blasphemous, version of Islam to his people, who probably considered themselves devout Muslims.  Yunus must have perceived that his people would accept changes in their practice, so long as they remained Muslims in title.  Even today, foreign Muslims would consider some Moroccan traditions, such as praying to a saint, to be heretical, yet Moroccan Muslims who visit saints would never consider it so.  Thus, it is not so difficult to envision the Barghawata reciting Berber text as they pray—a vision that would scandalize an Arab Muslim—while still considering themselves good Muslims. 

           The introduction, then disappearance, of Barghawata Islam is an interesting historical phenomenon that contradicts our common perception of the post-Arab invasion Maghreb.  We have been taught that the Berbers of North Africa welcomed the Arabs and their new religion with open arms.  However, the Barghawata’s new Islam proves that this was not entirely so, and that some Berbers sought to free themselves from Arab imperialism.  The Barghawata kingdom persisted for four centuries and was founded during the Arab invasions.  This means they endured the bulk of early Arab cultural and political domination, repeatedly defending their territory from Arab incursion.  Their political and economic self-reliance flies in the face of the perception that Berbers happily and passively served their Arab overlords.  The Barghawata’s introduction of a Berberized Islam also indicates that Berbers did not quietly submit to Arab cultural norms; instead, they tried to modify an ethnically Arab religion to fit the Berber experience.  Berberized Islam ultimately failed, but modern Moroccan deviations from Muslim orthodoxy, such as the cult of saints, remind us of the Berbers’ persisting determination to practice Islam in their own cultural context. 


Works Cited 

Abun-Nasr, Jamil M.  A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. 

El-Bekri.  Description de l’Afrique Septentrionale. Translated by Mac Guckin de Slane.  Paris: Imprimerie Impériale, 1859. 

Gellner, Ernest.  Nations and Nationalism.  Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.   

Iskander, John. “Devout Heretics: The Barghawata in Maghribi Historiography.” The Journal of North African Studies, vol. 12, no. 1 (2007): 37-53. 

Kifani, Abdelouahab.  « Berghwata, nos ancêtres les païens. »  TelQuel Online, 18 Nov 2006.  .   

L’houari, Bouattar.  “Le Royaume des Berghouata.”  Amazigh World, 19 Aug 2009.   


Naylor, Phillip Chiviges.  North Africa: A History from Antiquity to Present.  Austin, Texas: The University of Texas Press, 2009. 

Nicholle, David, and Angus McBride.  The Moors: The Islamic West 7th-15th Century AD.  Oxford: Osprey Publishing Limited, 2001.   

Norris, H.T.  The Berbers in Arabic Literature.  Harlow, Essex: Longman Group Limited, 1982. 

Peyron, Michael.  « Barghawata et Résistance. »  La Résistance marocaine à travers l’histoire, ou le Maroc des Résistances. (Mohammed Hammam & Abdellah Salih, eds.), Rabat: IRCAM, vol. 2 (2005): 165-181.

N.B. For technical reasons, the original end-notes have not been included in this version of the paper.

N.B. Miss Sarah Hawkins, one of 15 US students who attended my lectures on « Amazigh History and Culture » in Rabat during the spring of 2010, kindly gave permission for this paper to be included here.


Publié dans General Berber History | Pas de Commentaire »

Western High Atlas backpacking tour January 2009

Posté par Michael Peyron le 12 mai 2010

Western High Atlas backpacking tour January 2009

Mountain trip (Jan 23-27) 

This was a pleasant return trip to valleys of the Western High Atlas, refreshingly neglected by 95% of TO traffic, and long may it stay that way! 42 years after my early endeavours in the same area with Atlas pioneer Maurice Forseilles, I returned to the Seksawa with Grenoble-based Eric Hatt and Michel Mortgenthaler from Versailles, both mountaineering companions on many of my earlier trips. 

Day 1 (Jan 23) took us by bus from Marrakech to Imi n-Tanout in glorious weather, whence a local taxi drove us up along the swervery to Lalla Aziza. Humping heavy sacks we forded Asif Sembal, and commenced a gruelling climb through olive trees on the first stages of a path that would take us, so we fondly expected, to Tanesmekht by sundown. Luckily for us, however, our presence had not been undetected and after less than half an hour we had been caught up by two locals, one of whom made out he was the local “accompagnateur” and that the route chosen was a potentially dangerous one! Good thing he insisted, as the path disappeared after a while, leaving us to the tender mercies of our self-imposed guide. Slopes were actually quite steep, with path barely visible at times, past sheep hut complex, then over a rib with challenging views up-valley, first to Ras Moulay Ali’s immaculate pyramid; later to Tindri peak handsome in snowy apparel. Then a lengthy descent (some interesting moments on switchback path with heavy packs!) towards valley-bottom already in the shade and improbably cactus girt Tamzgourt village.           


Jbel Ikkis at sunset (photo: M. Morgenthaler)                                       

Tamzgout proved to be practically empty of men. Shown into a house we were made welcome by a grand-mother surrounded by a bevy of daughters, daughters-in-law and neighbouring housewives, providing heaven-sent opportunity for conversation in Tashelhit. We generously paid our guides who left almost at once on the long haul back to Lalla Aziza. After an excellent dinner and more conversation with a couple of sons who had arrived, we spent a restful night. 

Day 2 (Jan 24). Early start involved clambering down steep path through narrow vegetable patches to torrent, then crossing empty ssuq l-tlet, before following on up dirt road used by lorries. Long, hard grind that day, our packs beginning to take their toll as we twisted and turned up-valley. At Tansmekht considerable time lost; searching for trail. Finally, there was nothing for it but ford the asif and then climb right-bank path.                           


Fording Asif Sembal at Tansmekht (photo: M. Peyron) 

Sun beat down relentlessly while Moulay Ali and other snow-capped peaks shimmering in the heat haze to the south never got any closer. Thus past couple of other villages, meeting herds of sheep chased from heights by snowfall (having lost a few heads of sheep in the process) and making the most of sunny spell to make for relative safety of down-valley pastures. 

After lunch we approached entry to Ikkis vale, but as track wound on endlessly and shadows lengthened, it dawned on me that hoped-for day’s goal of Agersaffen was no longer really feasible. Switch of plan being called for, I proposed making up Ikkis side-valley on left to overnight in village of same name, then cross over col at valley-head into upper Asif el Mahl next day. 


Healthy afternoon plod aiming for foot of  Jbel Ikkis (photo: M. Peyron)     

To celebrate this decision we took the most energetic of all resolutions: having a well-deserved snooze in the afternoon sun, this proving the most popular decision since we’d hit trail that morning. Over an hour later we resumed stroll through cactus and stony fields till Ikkis village was reached, some time before shadows receded beyond southern ridge. We were almost immediately welcomed into spacious abode of Ba Hassine and his wife, a friendly couple who plied us with tea and biscuits. Contrary to what often happens lady of the house, called Aggou, remained in attendance with husband and eldest son making pleasant conversation till dinner-time. A peaceful night followed. 

Day 3 (Jan 25) left us in little doubt that we were in for a change of weather. Ominous grey clouds were marching in from west through a red sky as we said goodbye to our hosts at 08:20 and trudged off up corkscrew piste towards Tizi n-Mgayed. Compared to the previous day this was a blessing in disguise as it made uphill progress that little bit much cooler, what with our heavy packs.


Weather-front coming in over Seksawa hills (photo: M. Peyron) 

On and on we plodded as it became painfully obvious it would be a race to reach the pass before the weather closed in. The track narrowed till two or three yards wide, soon being covered in old snow, as we teetered on the edge of steep drops. Never got too hairy, though, enabling us to make good time till we found ourselves cloaked in wind, mist and driving rain that eventually developed into sleet. Last stretch below the pass, effected in near white-out conditions, did get a wee bit tiresome towards the end. At 11:20 we breasted Tizi n-Mgayed. 

Luckily, snow-covered track still visible, enabling us to drop rapidly down north-eastern side of col. Windy, sleety conditions meant that although we did get a little wet, we were at no time fully soaked; gradually track became snow-free and some shepherds braving the snows confirmed that we were on course for Isoukaln village.


Below Tizi n-Mgayed: on course for Isoukaln village (photo: M. Peyron) 

This proved to be a loose collection of about a score of dark-brown buildings clinging to a fairly steep slope, as we discovered at 13:00. Making for the nearest house and hoping for the best, our optimism was rewarded as the master of the house emerged and invited us indoors. This man was hospitality personified. Apart from covering us with rugs so we wouldn’t catch cold, he offered delicious home-bred honey direct from the honey-comb. Invited to escort us part of the way to the next village, our host pulled on a pair of gum-boots and, at 14:15, led us off downhill, a few inquisitive women looking out of their windows at these unexpected strangers who had come with the snow. 

That was an exhilarating afternoon walk along river-bank pebbles and through snow that lay several inches thick in the fields, while the heights behind us remained obstinately blanketed out by snow-clouds. As our tributary of Asif el Mahl escaped due north through gorges, our guide led us uphill to the right, over a steep ridge into another valley. Far down the hillside to our right we could barely make out the buildings of Azrou Mellen, that day’s destination. Eric continued on down with open umbrella, for all the world like a latter-day Hammou ou-Namir ready for take-off, which remark brought a guffaw of laughter from our guide. Shortly afterwards he said goodbye and turned for home, now that we were safely on course for Azou Mellen. We were shown into a spacious abode where we were able to get a change of clothes. 

Day 4 (Jan 26) dawned clear at Ighil Mellen and we were happy to share our breakfast with no fewer than six house buntings. By 9 am we had said goodbye to our kind host and, turning our backs on cloud-girt peaks beneath blue skies at valley-head, set off resolutely downstream. A certain Brahim Ougraich escorted us, our rucksacks now stowed away on the back of his donkey. What now ensued was a 6-hour descent of the valley of Asif el Mahl all the way to Imi n-Ddunit (Tawnghast), necessitating some 40 river crossings in all. Early on with weak current we kept our boots dry thanks to gaiters, but as main stream swallowed tributaries the torrent became swollen so that by Imi n-Ddunit we had our boots full! In fact we can fairly say that that was the day we won our river-hopping colours. 


Winning our river-hopping colours, Asif el Mahl (photos: E. Hatt & M. Morgenthaler)


We followed a lovely succession of villages, walnut trees and uninhabited stretches in the shade of cold gorges where snow still lay in places. After lunch, as we crossed Tasemlilt an amusing, talkative woman asked me: “Why visit this valley in winter? There’s only cold and snow. Come back in summer when everything is nice with almonds, walnuts and cactus pears (iknariyin) available!” 

It was a relief to reach Tawnghast; spoke to quite a few local women in Tashelhit and found people friendly and laid-back, pointing to obviously low frequentation level by tourists. School looked in pretty poor shape with broken windows, but everybody seemed to be kitted out with a cell phone (Nokia, Philips, Toshiba, etc.) and quite knowledgeable about how to get a signal (rizzu). Finally ended up in the spacious abode of a local notable, not far from the school. There was a short, somewhat ineffectual session attempting to dry socks, before sunlight disappeared behind the hills. 

Day 5 (Jan. 27) There was supposed to be a van going by some time between 7.30 and 8 am. However, after breakfast, we waited in the freezing cold from 7.55 to 8.35 till it finally a Mercedes van creaked into sight and in we got. Our original plan was to stop at Adassil, hire a mule and head up into the Erdouz massif. After an hour or so of a bumpy ride Adassil in the shade, with all the store-fronts locked looked unpromising to say the least. We were saved from a difficult decision because, as we emerged from the hills, Michel’s cell phone came back on rizzu and tinkled. It was his wife to announce that his mother-in-law had died and the funeral was for the following Monday, necessitating his swift return. We all immediately elected to cancel the Erdouz leg of our trip and carry on down to Marrakech.  


Near future Taskourt dam site; bringing more water to drought-hit Marrakech 

By 11:50 we were at the foothill market town of Had Mjatt, at point where adrar meets azaghar, full of Tashelhit-speakers. On the way we had time to admire outliers of the Erdouz massif, also to appreciate the roadworthiness of the Mercedes van which proved excellent at ploughing through muddy ruts and negotiating rocks in yard-deep river-beds whenever this proved necessary. Passed the Taskourt dam site, a project calculated to provide more water for Marrakech and its burgeoning urban development. Before catching onward-connecting taxi to Marrakech had a quiet snack of grilled chicken. 


       Grilled chicken in Had Mjatt (photo: M. Peyron)


Changes observed Iseksawn/Igedmiwn 

Opening up remote valleys involves providing electricity; hence winding dirt roads at medium altitude to facilitate setting up power lines. Because of this senseless meandering easy to waste over an hour out of a possible 8-hour daily stage, thus imposing unacceptable penalties on hikers. Former intermediate mule-path/foot-paths less frequently used and now falling into decay (erosion, fouled up with stones, landslides, etc.). Resorting to valley-bottom implies punishing river-crossings. If no mule is available, even footslogger wearing Gore-Tex boots and gaiters will be unable to remain dry-footed after fording stream for umpteenth time. Despite superb hospitality, Berber houses have no drying facilities, so near impossible to don dry socks and boots following morning. In the event, we totalled two days’ walking in wet boots, so that on evening of third day (Jan 27) we actually drove into Marrakech in a taxi with socks that had turned from dry to wet since the morning through sitting all day long in damp boots! 

Tashelhit has become increasingly larded with Arabisms (εam for aseggwas; lyum for ass-a, etc.), especially among younger people, though elders still retain finer points of vocabulary. Due to influence of TV, villagers are exposed to UAR and Saudi channels with trash series in American English sub-titled in either Gulf or Intermediary Arabic, and barely comprehensible newscasts that deal ad nauseam with Israeli-Palestinian, Kashmiri or Agfghani conflicts in ways that portray we Westerners as indifferent and undeserving kafir-s, or “miscreants”! Thus, for better or for worse, is creeping Arabisation on the move, inexorably snuffing out Amazigh culture. Happily, local ashelhiy star named “Bachkchich” provides much-need comic relief! 


The TV set mercifully switched off, we relish dinner at Azrou Mellen (photo: E. Hatt)

Even locals acknowledge that socially-speaking TV has its down side since it kills conversation when several persons foregather. Incessant fiddling with ubiquitous cell phones, and obsession with obtaining signal, has become another unavoidable fact of life. On arriving in some village locals are prone to ask you: “Did you get a signal as you came over the col?” (is tumzd rizzu adday teγlid tizi?), rather than say “Hello!”, or inquire after you health, or whether you have travelled safely? 

Traditional implements are on the way out: butter churns, weaving looms, pilon/broyeur. Hence warm woollen homespun cloaks or blankets have been replaced by light, manmade fibre cloaks, nylon dressing-gowns, etc. Villagers claim they no longer have wool as in the past. Some still retain medium-sized herds of sheep and/or goats (50 – 100 head) but subjected to poor local grazing on nearby slopes, chiefly in winter (snow); hence obliged to migrate towards Marrakech azaγar. Mosques in most villages, though ttalb of Azrou Mellen actually lives in Tansmekht; mudden stands in for him when he’s away. 

Marrakech end-January 2009 

Basically, most street crossings have become pedestrian unfriendly. Need to keep constantly looking over one’s shoulder to avoid getting run over or knocked down by motor vehicles, also by mopeds and scooters whose riders appear oblivious to all safety considerations. However, quality of traffic lights and zebra crossings has improved. Hassle factor slightly on the downtrend, with fewer cases than usual of youths accosting you with the familiar “Hullo! You my friend!” 

Haphazard urban development has led to blossoming of housing estates for both rich and poor. Metallic palm-trees/phone relays actually not the eyesore they might easily have been; in fact they blend in quite harmoniously with the landscape. As for the roof-top bar of Hôtel Marrakech we definitely recommend it for a sun-downer! 

Marrakech railway station (mhaddat musafirin) has undergone a totally satisfactory face-lift,featuring spacious hall and shopping arcade. Further work on-going in area fenced off with hoarding containing environment-friendly messages couched in appropriately slick French jargon. 

Hôtel Ali: this glorified funduq appears to be becoming a victim of its own success. Place has become a going concern with both over-nighting TO groups and individual travellers from Tokyo, London,Paris and sundry other places. While prices remain acceptable (DH 400,- for a 3-bed room), breakfast arrangements get under way with some delay, while service definitely lacks the laid-back, friendly atmosphere of the early 1990s. At breakfast (07:00 > 08:00 Jan 28, 2009) there was no more orange juice, nor were any coffee, mugs or glasses available. Excuse was that early-rising French group had drunk it all (my foot!). At dinner help-yourself arrangements proved OK, though plate of couscous and vegetable was sometimes cold by the time one got back to one’s table. Diners who light up at neighbouring tables sometimes have to be asked to refrain from smoking. In this respect, Morocco remains something of a smokers’ paradise, especially for French who feel victimised at home – poor souls! – now they can no longer smoke in public places.


           Author chilling out in Marrakech (photo: E. Hatt)

If you check in at 2:30pm, and want to take a shower, don’t expect a bath-towel before 4pm, even if you remind the reception desk a couple of times! Room 108 of this establishment featured interesting toilet flush system that caused water to seep through bathroom walls onto tiles near door and even out into corridor! When informed, charmingly inefficient reception clerk appeared quite unruffled by complaint and certainly took no action. However, hot water was available, and that’s a boon for any hotel anywhere in Morocco; not to mention laundering facilities. Also good marks for door-keeper and baggage attendant, Si Brik, an old-timer in flowing robe and slippers who grants incoming travellers a friendly greeting.

Michael Peyron

Grenoble, November 2009

N.B. Unless otherwise stated, all texts and illustrations copyright by  Michael Peyron. Material from same may be quoted in compliance with current academic practice.

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Posté par Michael Peyron le 5 mai 2010


(One of my Spanish well-wishers, who is gallantly trying to convert his fellow-countrymen to a more environment-friendly approach to the Moroccan Atlas, kindly penned this translation of one of my earlier articles. For which my most heartfelt thanks!).


Esta frase, caracteriza en general a un tipo de viajero moderno, que siguiendo la publicidad de algunos Tour Operadores (TO) especializados en Marruecos y en el turismo de montaña, desconocen los efectos devastadores que estas prácticas ocasionan a las poblaciones locales. 

Este, se trata de un trabajo critico, muy critico de Michael Peyron, descubridor entre otras de zonas de Taroudant y Taza y defensor ferviente del mundo amazighe, empleando muchos años de su vida a esa pasión y que durante 27 años, no ha parado de denunciar ciertas actitudes y artimañas nefastas de los “pseudo aventureros de cafetería”.

Naturalmente y como acostumbra a pasar en estas situaciones, esas apreciaciones y criticas, fueron totalmente incomprendidas por un gran colectivo, pasando a estar en el punto de mira y señalado con el dedo, tanto por “responsables” del desarrollo duradero, promotores turísticos y sobre todo por el colectivo del 4×4 tanto de allí como europeos e incluso por investigadores inminentes y universitarios, como desde la misma asociación que el mismo fundó y de la que aún formaba parte. Porque todas sus apreciaciones, son consideradas como un pensamiento único, desmintiendo todas sus teorías y haciendo hincapié en que la evolución turística del país, es normal.

Vilipendiado por la mayoría de TO y bautizado de forma jocosa con nombres como “Megalo” o “Don Quijote del Atlas”, por haberse atrevido a opinar sobre la creciente economía de mercado sobre territorios amazighens y considerar que todos los responsables de esas actividades eran unos auténticos mercaderes de ese Tercer Mundo.

Sus primeros artículos (1979-1990) ya expresan la indignación, legitima, de alguien volcado a esa parte del mundo de forma pedestre, siendo casi un pionero en 1964. En esos artículos ya habla, de que no puede aceptar a los que, con sus cámaras de fotos al cuello y sus gorras multicolores, vienen a profanar este santuario y explotar a las poblaciones amazighes. De inmediato y después de esas criticas la arrogancia de los TO y con fines meramente comerciales, se pone en marcha, sin pensar en un solo momento, el enojo del mismo Peyron.

Por mediación de panfletos publicitarios, confusos y falsos, provocan entre su clientela una excitación ávida de sed de revancha en contra de Peyron, incluyendo en la Revista del CAF (Club Alpino Francés) vivero de clientes potenciales, múltiples informaciones sobre treks, tanto de montaña como alpinismo, situación ambigua ya que el club había apostado anteriormente a favor del voluntariado y el “esfuerzo gratuito” es entonces, cuándo esa Revista, abre sus páginas a fin de incluir publicidad, de los profesionales de la evasión.

Todo esto, es lo que empujo a Peyron a propuestas mas concretas y autenticas: una filosofía de viaje, basada principalmente, en el individualismo, el humanismo, sobre una aproximación respetuosa a las poblaciones del Atlas, exenta de todo placer sistemático por las miserias humanas o “Voyeurismo” a fin de “desfolclorizar” la montaña bereber, a fin de sacarle un mejor partido a su experiencia marroquí, ofrece a través de su Guía, la posibilidad de que el viajero pueda ser autónomo, sin necesidad de tener que viajar con esos TO, es así que nacen sus TopoGuias, primero en francés y después traducidas al inglés, con el único fin de suscitar y animar a la gente a conocer una forma más responsable, la belleza de todas esas montañas, de esa manera, el viajero, podría dejar de ser una cabeza más en esos rebaños organizados que se suelen ver por el Atlas, guiados por un pastor y cada cuál, dentro de su burbuja particular. A fin, de poder ser caminantes liberados, en compañía de amigos escogidos para tal fin, no sin esfuerzo, de esta manera, escribe “La Gran Travesía del Atlas Marroquí” (GTAM) – asociación esta de la que fue fundador- y en la que hace especial hincapié en la sostenibilidad y el respeto hacia todas las zonas, así como amplia información e historia de las tribus que habitan en todas las zonas de afluencia de trek, para que esas actividades tengan efectos mínimos sobre las mismas.

No contento con todo eso y de animar a pequeños grupos de 3 o 4 participantes, participa activamente en los programas de salidas del CAF-Rabat (Club Alpino Francés de Rabat) y dando a conocer la GTAM, es entonces (1981-1982) cuándo organiza treks para CAFistas de Francia, quitando así, una ínfima parte del mercado a los TO. 

Una segunda fase a todo esto llega años después (1990-2001) años, que marcan en cierto modo una calma momentánea, es cuándo Peyron, se da cuenta en definitiva, que sus TopGuias, sus artículos y sus conferencias, carecen de los efectos que el hubiese querido, solo una minoría de usuarios, se casa con sus tesis. La mayoría y cada vez más, continua contratando sus actividades con OT, ante todo esto, se vuelve menos virulento en su critica y se dedica a observar la escena y el estado de la montaña marroquí, un examen atento y exhaustivo sobre el terreno, le permite comprobar, por otra parte –consuelo de tontos- que la contaminación tanto turística como medio ambiental, esta circunscrita solamente a algunas regiones, precisamente a las regiones que todos los TO, se dedican a publicitar, aprovechándose de la ignorancia de su clientela, se atreven a programar circuitos por el Toubkal y el Mgoun, con la osadía de indicar que en verano, es la mejor época para caminar, al igual que las inmediaciones de Imilchil, al igual que con la misma osadía, indican el otoño o primavera para patear la zona del Siroua o Saghro, de esta manera, los TO se aíslan en los circuitos clásicos, hablando incluso mal a los trekineros de zonas concretas como la de Tounfite-Imilchil, alegando razones de seguridad publica y falta de interés.

Siguiendo un viejo proverbio inglés “you can’ t beat them, join them” algo así como “si no puedes vencer a tu enemigo únete” Peyron, intentará una tímida aproximación con un conocido TO Lionés intentando des esta manera organizar treks por el Atlas, dando su toque personal, sobre todo cultural y de conocimiento con el medio y de esta manera, influenciar en esas actividades, siempre bajo su perspectiva, de todas maneras, esa circunstancia, dura poco ya que el TO en cuestión, no esta por la labor.

Mientras, en Grenoble, nace una nueva revista de viajes Trek Revista, viendo allí un medio para poder ser oído, propone en seguida sus servicios a la redacción de dicha publicación y hace una entrega especial sobre el Atlas Marroquí y sus teorías sobre el senderismo y esto no acaba aquí, aún mejor, Gilles Bordessoule, a quien había criticado fervientemente en 1980 por su proximidad a los TO, le invita a reeditar una nueva versión de su TopGuia de GTAM. Peyron, se deja querer y como dicen los franceses en un proverbio muy conocido “le pone agua en su vino”, empieza a trabajar en su nueva guía, sin cambiar absolutamente nada y fiel a sus ideales, denunciando lo mismo que hasta entonces había denunciado y explicando todos sus conocimientos sobre la cultura bereber.

 Es a partir de entonces, cuando cada año organiza circuitos cortos de 4 u 8 días con amigos (la mayoría guías de la GTAM) marroquíes y nacidos en zonas de influencia de montaña, a veces en esos grupos, también asisten amigos europeos, es a partir de aquí cuando nace su obsesión por el Alto Atlas Oriental y el Medio Atlas.

Combina sus estancias primaverales en Ifrane con viajes a la región de Midelt- Imilchil y al macizo del Toubkal, queda asombrado en la situación en la que se encuentra la montaña, ha empezado la degeneración, todo asumible a las malasacciones imputables a los trekk de los TO, tal como ya había predicho y criticado en 1979-1982, esos males están basados principalmente en la masiva frecuentación, polución medio ambiental, choque cultural, síndrome del visitado (Chiquillos y no tan chiquillos pedigüeños), empobrecimiento del tejido social y de las edificaciones, la desorganización de la vida rural clásica, la alteración de la hospitalidad tradicional, pauperación galopante de la montaña amazighe, una desilusión, una gran desilusión, provocada única y exclusivamente por el turismo de masas, por el mal turismo

Es evidente y una vez más, que los TO a través de sus viajes repetidos, han cavado su propia tumba, a fuerza de ser ensuciados, pisoteados, machacados, lugares que tenían un encanto especial, han dejado de tenerlo. Un dinero “aparentemente” fácil y que separa al pastor de su rebaño, el campesino, dejará de lado su mula y su arado y preferirá convertirse en mulero para cualquier TO (pan para hoy y hambre para mañana), se abandonan los campos, se destruyen los igherman, los lindes de los terrenos, se venden los nogales y los pastos desaparecen, esta es una gran lacra para el mundo rural del Atlas y su autonomía o autosuficiencia, mal entendida por muchos como pobreza, todo eso siempre provocado por los famosos TO, pero lo malo siempre esta por llegar, eso no es nada , comparado con la proliferación de rallys de 4×4, quads y motos, sobre todo de quads, que bien es conocida su destrucción en el medio ambiente razón por la cual, empiezan a estar prohibidos prácticamente en toda Europa, pronto, prácticamente YA!!! Ningún valle del Atlas, estará al amparo de la presencia embarazosa de esos artilugios y sus pilotos con sus conductas deplorables y sus consecuencias medioambientales. 

Cada año y coincidiendo con la Semana Santa en España, una autentica legión de norte a sur de 4×4, motos y quads ibéricos, seguidos de sus colegas británicos, así como galos y una nueva incorporación de portugueses atravesaran el país y todos esos rincones. Es fácil seguir sus rastros, encontrar vestigios de sus bivouacs en las fuentes del Oum Rabia, en Agelmam Sidi Ali o alrededor de los lagos de Imilchil, según Peyron, desde el 2001, el radicalismo de ese colectivo en el Atlas es cada vez mayor e inacabable. 

Fervientes quejas y denuncias han sido puestas en Ifrane entre el 2002 y el 2005 al respecto, denunciando el inmovilismo y apostando por un turismo ecológico, la percepción es prácticamente nula y se prevé un fatal desenlace. Es necesario mentalizar a la juventud marroquí, favorecer entre ellos desde los cimientos una imagen positiva de la naturaleza, es su país, por lo que a fin de cuentas, son ellos los que deben revelarse en contra de todo eso, Peyron mientras tanto y desde la Universidad Al-Akhawayn, colabora con ayudas y conocimientos para que todo eso tenga un buen fin, con acciones como ejemplo con alumnos de los institutos de Ifrane, en campañas de limpieza de la Val d´Ifrane y organiza salidas de sensibilización con la naturaleza con profesores y alumnos. 

Una vez más, los TO y conociendo estas acciones, se suben al carro y venden a cambio de limpiar su consciencia un turismo “dulce” “duradero” “equitativo” o “responsable” el cuál y como con un golpe de barita mágica han transformado después de años de maldades, volviéndose así de golpe respetuosos con las poblaciones y el medio ambiente, de esta manera se responsabilizan de su paso o mejor justifican su deontología medioambiental y su visión hacia la montaña.

Evasivas!!!!! Ecologismo de bricolaje, a fin de cuentas, mientas la lógica mercantil este a la altura del ladrillo, mientras las alternativas de respeto hacia el medio ambiente no sean aplicadas sobre el terreno, no saldremos de todo eso.

Mientras en Marruecos un esfuerzo real de sensibilización ecológica no sea emprendido, desde la educación primaria, el medio natural continuará sufriendo ataques que podrían revelarse irreversibles a medio plazo. Conferenciantes de chaqueta y corbata, no paran de exponer sus ideas bien intencionadas, evocando el pasado e intentando un turismo respetuoso con las poblaciones y el medio natural, pero pienso que nada de todo eso se hará.

Cada año, hacemos expediciones, para bajar cubos y cubos de basura del macizo del Toubkal, los TO continúan ciegamente cavando su tumba, mientras las comunidades de la montaña, enamoradas de un bienestar gratuito que les proporciona la modernidad, buscarán entre hormigón “butagas” “burtabl” el alquitrán, el plástico en medio de su ilusorio alto valle. Mientras los turistas, habrán contribuido inconscientemente a saquear un destino, recopilaran sus fotos, olvidaran egoístamente Marruecos y esperaran de nuevo las próximas vacaciones ojeando folletos de los TO en busca de otro nuevo destino “virgen” para dejarlo en estado lastimoso.

MICHAEL PEYRON GRENOBLE, septiembre de 2006——————

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Tour Operator Watch 9 May 2010

Posté par Michael Peyron le 4 mai 2010

            Tour Operator Watch 9: May 2010

                   (Spring 2009 – spring 2010)

                                           By Michael PEYRON 

Last hike to Imilchil (May 2009) 


Fred and Bashir emerging from Tiboulkheirin forest; Ighil ou Ahbari (3042m) in background (photo: M.Peyron) 

Wednesday, May 20. Now that the upgraded Tounfit-Anefgou road-link bypasses Aqqa n-Wiyyad, via Tamalout and Sloult, we felt it was time for a last bash along the classic three-day Tounfit-Imilchil route. By taxi from Ifrane to Tounfit we headed, yours faithfully and two ideal companions – Fred the friendly Frenchman and Bashir the congenial Pakistani. Then, encumbered with our back-packs and trekking poles, came the hot afternoon grind to Assaka through Tiboulkheirin cedars, the crawl up to and along Amalou n-Tezra ridge proving particularly tedious. In Assaka were made welcome by Sidi Lho – quite like old times!

Sidi Lho explained that Anefgou people had slighty overdone things, taking advantage of child deaths in winter of 2006/2007 to prize benefits out of central government, just as the Ayt Abdi n-Qusar had done in early 2009. Though the deaths were real enough, countless other Atlas mountain communities, such as Assaka and nearby villages were just as badly off and equally deserving of official help, especially when winter snows caused roofs to collapse, let alone hardship in various other forms. Not that Assaka itself had been forgotten: a telecommunications mast now adorned a nearby knoll, at least allowing locals to obtain rizzu (a signal) on their mobile phones, thus guaranteeing a link with the outside world.


  Afternoon plod along Amalou n-Tezra; Lemri village on left (photo: M. Peyron) 

Thursday, May 21. Melt-water was swirling almost knee-deep in Tadrout canyon, but Sidi Lho saw us safely as far as gorge exit. Further on, logging trucks had churned up the soil to such an extent that we missed turn-off up through cedar forest to Tizi n-Ayt Brahim. Two fruitless forays later, involving unhealthy foot-slogging up and down side-ravines, we were finally back on course. Peyron, you old bastard, you’re losing your touch!

After Bashir had at times lacked balance on final gradient to col, we treated ourselves to a well-earned rest. South-west the mountains unfurled unimpeded to the Lakes Plateau. Not the slightest hint of TO presence in the area. In fact, for logistical and other reasons the big outfits appear to have more or less abandoned this stretch of the Atlas Mountains, leaving it to small private parties. This could prove a positive development.

In this respect, must tell of our priceless meeting with a lone French back-packing couple in Aqqa n-Wiyyad. They had forestalled us to a piste-side hut at foot of Tizi n-Ayt Brahim descent, and which serves as impromptu tea-shop. Tea-glass in hand they taunted us from the shade of a nearby tree, smugly pointing out:  “Ha! Ha! We got here before you! I say, for walkers you’re not packing very big packs, are you? As for your boots, they’re pretty light-weight for conditions around here!”

“Don’t worry”, answered Fred in French, “our gear is adequate for the purpose!”  (« Vous en faites pas! Notre mathos est à la hauteur, pour ce qu’on veut en faire! » ). I couldn’t believe my ears. Unbridled one-upmanship of this sort was typical of the exchanges you hear at the top of some Dauphiné summit when alpinists of the weekend category make value judgments on each other; but not in the Atlas. Such pathetic attitudes probably stem from the uptight Frog approach to leisure sport.

These two were certainly taking their walking seriously. Spick-and-span, without one speck of dust or stain on their clothes, wearing immaculate boots and “plus fours”, they looked as if they’d just stepped out of the Vieux Campeur, a well-known, trend-setting Parisian sports outfitters’ catalogue. How on earth could they maintain such high sartorial standards, here in the wilds! By contrast, with our tousled hair, sweaty, unwashed bodies, dusty clothes and grimy footwear we looked decidedly like the B team!

As we resumed our downvalley plod Bashir fell in step with the heavil-laden Frog couple and, since the lady had some English, was able to learn that they were from Pau at the foot of the Pyrénées; both worked in higher education. Making leisurely progress, they would be setting up their tent each evening and eating what they carried in their rucksacks; they apparently aimed to spend another three days on the Imilchil trail.


At Anefgou, “the times they are a-changing”; road construction work goes ahead (photo: M. Peyron) 

Taking leave, we pushed on for Anefgou, getting there shortly before sundown. Luckily, a friend was at home and put us up in his spacious abode, providing a comfortable substitute for the somewhat spartan Anefgou café, which would have been the fall-back solution. Accommodation-wise, incidentally, we had noticed one small refuge in Aqqa n-Wiyyad, and next morning we were to see another one, rejoicing in the name of Hôtel Fazaz, just beyond Anefgou.


Hôtel Fazaz between Anefgou and Tirghist (photo: M. Peyron)

Friday, May 22. The third day saw us complete with further ado our final leg to Imilchil. For the opening half-hour of our climb to from Anefgou to Tizi n-Isswal we were rubbing shoulders with hundreds of sheep and goats making for summer pastures. As we turned off from the main piste up to Tizi n-Iswwal, we got a few long-distance waves from a party of trail-bikers that were churning up the dust, Tighedwin way. Huts at the Tizi were already in use with small herds (new-born lambs very much in evidence) scattered all over the hillsides.


 Lake Isly’s wind-ruffled waters (photo: M. Peyron) 

After replenishing our water-supply at bottom of Igran n-Igenna ravine, despite encouraging signs to the contrary noted a few years before, we found that eastern Lakes Plateau pastures had resumed their inexorable return towards dust-bowl status.  There were also signs of reinforced human presence at foot of Msedrid: permanent sheep-enclosures and a profusion of leafy, recently planted poplars. Couple of Ayt Hadiddou families were met en route; the former resignedly agreed that pastures were declining; the latter proved unhealthily camera-shy, rudely breaking off conversation when Fred aimed his binoculars at a passing hawk, as they probably imagined they were going to become targets for candid photography. Banks of Lake Isly totally deserted, its waters ruffled by wavelets driven by a freshening, westerly wind. Beyond it we settled down to a mirthless road-bash, bowed down against the head-wind. Process was increasingly painful until we hit pastures N of Tislit, under lee of surrounding hills that afforded some protection from the breeze.

Upon reaching Imilchil we put up at Bassou’s inn, finding that at DH 170 per head, demi-pension including comfortable room, hot shower, dinner and breakfast compared more than favourably with Moha’s dilapidated accommodation, with which I had been more than a little dissatisfied in 2008. There were only about half a dozen other tourists at our inn, all motorized, middle-aged or elderly. Mercifully, no group and a mere handful of 4-WD vehicles! End-May is a pretty lean time of the year for TOs, anyway. Only snag – dinner was slightly long coming. A restful night, however, more than made up for that.

Saturday, May 23. Next morning was ssuq-day at Imilchil. After a substantial breakfast we spent half the morning in the sun, feigning interest in a few faded rugs and other trinkets at some of the vendors’ stalls. Imilchil was no longer the picturesque, remote tribal ssuq I had delighted in some thirty years earlier.


   Oult-Hediddou women at Imilchil ssuq, March 1978 (photo: M. Peyron)

In the interval, modernity had stepped in. With few exceptions the striped woollen tahandirt, which gave local women such a commanding appearance, had become at worst a thing of the past, at best a tourist product.


   Observe modernized attire of Oul-Hediddou women, Imilchil ssuq, May 2009 (photo: M. Peyron)

Ayt Hadiddou women were now relegated to drab coton dresses and nondescript headgear, many of the younger ones openly sporting hijab-s. This all fitted in with earlier observations reflecting the overall, national trend towards anonymity and standardisation, not to mention – like it or not – fall-out from the preachings of a certain confraternity in beards, sandals and skullcaps. Yes, even up here, in what used to be the back of beyond…

Otherwise, we noticed half a dozen foreign back-packers probably doing a spot of shopping. Which reminded us that time was flying and we needed to corner one of the taxis to Aghbala n-Ayt Sokhman before competition from homeward bound marketeers left us stranded. And it was a good thing we did. By 11:30 we crammed into the rear seats of the last northward-bound taxi to leave that morning. An antiquated 405 Peugeot it conveyed us in two hours to Aghbala. Rarely had we travelled in such acute discomfort, wedged between roof, window and back-pack, our necks askew, with five other fellow-sufferers.

We wasted little time in Aghbala. After a brief pause to admire Toujjit peak and the Melwiya sources, an onward taxi connection landed us in Tighessaline shortly before 3 pm. Here too, it appeared to be market-day and the busy scene was ours to admire from a kerb-side café. Actually, there was such a crowd that the ladies of the night for which the place is famous were barely visible – though Fred did make a short-lived expedition across the road, apparently to buy fruit. Ifrane was finally reached, and with it the evening cool, after a change of taxis in Azrou.

Baddou expedition (Asif Ghriss, June 2009) 


 Aari n-Baddou from Asoul, January 2008 (photo: M. Peyron) 

Aari n-Baddou (2917m), where Ou-Skounti and his die-hards had braved four French army groups and implacable thirst for three weeks in the summer of 1933, was missing both from my list of summits and catalogue of Moroccan Atlas resistance period battle-sites. This was the third of three attempts (2006-2008) to approach the mountain in winter, all of which had failed due to the presence of snow above 2200m, while actually getting to base camp, even though on tarmac all the way, was an undertaking of some magnitude. It involved the long haul down from Ifrane, then on beyond Midelt and Tizi n-Telghemt to the right-hand turn-off at Rich before aiming for Mzizel, the barren plateau of Ikhf Aman and Amellago. Even then, you weren’t quite finished as a couple of hours of swervery lay in store: up the Ghriss gorges to Asoul; finally, across Azaghar n-Sidi Bou Ya’qoub to riverside camp site of Aghbalou Lebni with shady poplars and generous spring.

Monday, June 8. On this occasion, we of the advance party (Youssef,  Bassou and Meriem) reached the lodge of Saïd Ou-Sri at Amellago in Assou’s car on Saturday evening (June 7) around 6pm, fully expecting the rearguard (Haddou, Aïcha and Zrouri), who were approaching from Kelaat Sraghna, to be waiting there for us. It was not to be. Actually, they’d come to a brilliant decision after Beni Mellal: better to short-cut thru Imilchil and the upper Ziz, instead of making the lengthy detour via Midelt. For the next three hours or so, by erratic mobile phone contact, we charted their laborious progress across the High Atlas. Now it would be: “We’ve stopped near Imilchil to let Aïcha take a few shots of a kasbah!” Now we would hear: “Ah! It’s just got dark so we have to drive more slowly!” At 10 pm, as tempers were getting a wee bit frayed, we decided to grab some dinner. An hour later, the rearguard finally turned up and emerged from their vehicle, all of them as cool as cucumbers. Bassou was furious with the way they had let us stew in our juice for hours and told them so. The upshot of the ensuing argument was that nobody was in bed till midnight; though not before vaguely agreeing that next morning we’d move on upvalley. The expedition couldn’t have got off to a better start!

Tuesday, June 9. After breakfast Saïd explained that he’d called up his chauffeur Muha to come with his venerable Renault van and pick up our rucksacks, plus bivouac gear (‘igloo’-style tents, foam-rubber mattresses, mats, food, bottled water, etc.) so as to establish base camp. He did this, TO style, whenever he was escorting groups of tourists from France. Muha was a long time coming, so the sun was pretty high in the sky when we finally loaded up and moved out. While Saïd came with Bassou and I in the cramped, clapped-out Renault, Youssef left his car at the gîte and, with Meriem, joined Zrouri and Aïcha in the other car. However, on starting up his motor Zrouri made an interesting discovery: his radiator was practically empty… Solution: fill up several empty 2-litre bottles. Thus equipped they made off up the valley, Zrouri often stopping before Asoul, each time he was on the point of boiling his radiator. Asul’s scant resources, so it turned out, proved unequal to fixing a leaking radiator, so we pushed on after Zrouri had topped up again.

Thus did we complete the final kilometres to the bivouac site, situated around 1900m at a point where cultivation gives out and Asif Ghriss emerges from shallow gorges. Baddou lay to our left, occupying 3/4 of the skyline to the south. Saïd, Muha and his aide set up camp, a tasty al fresco lunch materialising shortly afterwards at ground level, complete with plates, forks, knives and salad bowl. Eating half squatting, half grovelling, folding my inordinately long frame as best I could, I thus experienced at first hand precisely what countless Atlas-trekking tourists annually pay good money for, just for the dubious privilege of culinary discomfort, TO style!

By the time we’d finished lunch, with a brace of Trumpeter finches paying us a brief visit, it was practically 3 in the afternoon, leaving us several hours for a tour of the left-bank escarpment opposite camp. A leisurely scramble took us up to a flat-topped hill, where we found traces of military outposts dating back to 1933: low stone parapets, smashed glass from beer and wine bottles that spoke of Foreign Legion presence, etc.  That evening, after a light dinner and setting the alarm-clock for 5.30am, we crawled into the claustrophobic confines of our ‘igloo’ tents; luckily, thanks to the foam-rubber mattress sleep came quickly.

Wednesday, June 10. Next morning, the moon was still shining when we showed a leg. However, what with washing, dressing and breakfasting (including a lengthy philosophical discussion about nothing in particular), it was broad daylight when we finally got under way at 06:20. Saïd led off up shallow Agererman valley, as we were soon stubbing our toes against rive-bed gravel. We were grateful for Baddou’s bulk which mercifully shielded us from the sun’s early rays.


  Baddou: advance party during early morning walk-in (photo: M. Peyron)

After an hour or so of this it became painfully obvious that trail-wise we were not a homogeneous group; while one batch forged ahead behind Saïd, another was several hundred yards adrift back down the valley. On we went as barren slopes steepened about us, raw juniper, gorse and boxwood the only vegetation, with an occasional Sardinian warbler to grace the scene. Sun’s blazing shafts finally reached us as we paused to regroup at bottom of large cirque around 8am. Above us loomed a precipitous escarpment. Soon, step by weary step we zigzagged up slopes covered in dry, wiry grass that gave way to profuse boxwood higher up. As we breasted the escarpment, another long pause was called for. Overhead wheeled an immature Bonnelli’s eagle, one of the few birds of prey we were to see throughout the entire trip.


Baddou: pause on top of escarpment among stunted boxwood bushes (photo: M. Peyron) 

This time, the stragglers (Haddou, Aïcha) wisely opted for limited progress beyond the escarpment, while Bassou turned back to camp; the rest of us pursued our gruelling hike towards Baddou ridge main slopes. This entailed detouring via a path that led right, passing just below a lone Ayt Merghad tent, trending SW to reach foot of apparently gentler slopes. It proved to the right choice as we in fact followed a path that climbed southward up gravel and tussock slopes. After passing thru residual stands of weather- and man-beaten thuriferous juniper, it was 12:30 when we eventually sat down astride the divide, gasping for breath at Tizi n-Wanou (2650m).

Far away and down to the left we recognized a blob of faded green – the walnut-tree gardens of Itto Fezzou where we had spent a freezing night a couple of winters back; by contrast, below us an occasional nomads’ tent shimmered in the heat, relieving the drab emptiness of the surrounding hillsides. Reaching the main, 2917m-summit of Baddou was clearly out of the question. That would have to await another day! In fact, it was all we could do to tuck into the provisions Saïd had bravely brought up here in his back-pack.


Our party at Tizi n-Wanou; Baddou main summit in far background (photo: M. Peyron)

After an excellent picnic lunch and well-deserved rest began the long-drawn-out retreat to camp. So long as we stayed above 2200m or so conditions proved bearable. First there was a long rest in the shade beneath an overhang, followed by a shorter pause at Anou n-Baddou, where an Oult-Merghad woman was carding wool while her sons watered her camels and flocks of sheep and goats.


 Young Ou-Merghad watering a camel at Anou n-Baddou (photo: M. Peyron) 

That was where we left Zrouri, Haddou and Aïcha. With Youssef, Meriem, and Saïd, eager to rest up in camp as soon as possible, we ploughed off down-valley.  Although were in first week of June, the pre-Saharan heat had to be felt to be believed.  About an hour from camp, the sight of a mother partridge devotedly steering her little ones out of harm’s way provided a charming respite. By 1600, we were lolling in the shade of base camp poplars. Well over an hour later the rearguard finally joined us, having rested in the shade on several occasions to take the sting out of the sun’s withering afternoon heat.

By common consent a strategic withdrawal to Saïd’s gîte at Amellago was decided upon. Only snag was that, though summoned by mobile phone, it took Muha a couple of hours to drag his dilapidated Renault van back to the camp site. Finally loaded up and shoved off well past 1900. Predictably, having again nearly boiled his radiator several times, Zrouri finally made it back to Amellago half an hour in arrears. The conversation that evening round the table was pretty subdued as we dined on sardines and spaghetti – though with little gusto  given the potent heat still coming off the walls! The next day, well, we could visit some abandoned mine tunnels near Agouddim Ikhf Aman, said some; other,s more prudently, suggested that fixing Zrouri’s radiator might be the absolute priority.

Thursday, June 11. It was. Over breakfast the following morning a consensus miraculously emerged in favour of heading back home, via Rich and Midelt, providing Zrouri with a more than reasonable chance of coming across garage facilities. We paid up our bill at Saïd’s, took a series of photos of Zrouri topping up his radiator and hit the road. Zrouri was sent out in front, while Youssef’s car followed after a 10-minute interval. We never saw them again that trip…

We heard later that they’d kept going all the way back to Zawit ech-Cheikh, frequently stopping to replenish their radiator; thus had Zrouri avoided inflicting permanent damage on his engine. As for us, we made a couple of photo stops, securing an unexpected close-up of a Short-toed eagle. After a light snack in Rich we made it to Midelt by mid-afternoon. We were able to spend a restful night at Auberge Ja’afar, there being only one small group of Australians. 

Friday, June 12. At Auberge Ja’afar heard this remark from elderly Aussie tourist in breakfast room to sleepy-looking, non-Berber-speaking Amazigh Tours guide: “Well, young man, the sun’s been long up! Whatever happened to that early morning stroll we were supposed to have had?!” Guide’s answer: a sheepish grin. This fellow, it seemed, wasn’t exactly “on his toes” when he ought to have been! The episode convincingly demonstrated shortcomings in efforts by local Tour Operators to market the “Berber” element for the benefit of tourists. 

We were in Rabat the next day and drawing conclusions from our failed attempt on Baddou. Obviously, a largish party with a mix of differently-motivated walkers and non-walkers was a poor recipe for success. Added to which the sheer size of largely waterless Baddou massif posed logistics problems. Hiring mules at or near Asul, equipping them with jerry-cans of water and setting up advance base camp somewhere above the boxwood escarpment would have made better sense. Instead of that we charged in from too far out and too low down, being ultimately defeated by a combination of heat, altitude and distance. If it had been a failure as a mountain walk, even less had been achieved in terms of survivors’ accounts (or children of survivors) of the Baddou battle, let alone finding on-the-spot evidence of fighting. The past appeared to have evaporated; there was far less atmosphere about the place compared to Tazizawt; we’d definitely have to return. 


  Loading up the van at Base Camp after failed attempt on Baddou (photo: M. Peyron)

Off the beaten track in Oulmès 

It is refreshing to record that Oulmès (Walmas), once a much-frequented holiday destination has become a quiet backwater for local tourism, with reasonably comfortable yet adequate Hôtel des Thermes occupying pride of place. 

This my wife and I discovered after a 2hr 30 drive up from Rabat, via Tiflet, crossing rolling countryside up to Ma’aziz, followed by unceasing swervery through pleasantly wooded hills and the final broad-sky expanse of an upland plateau planted with lavender. Our friends  Klaus and Dagmar we’d arranged to meet up here arrived a quarter of an hour later from Casablanca. Access to our second floor bed-rooms was guaranteed by an old-style lift, actually functioning and probably the only one of its kind within a hundred miles. If we thought we’d have the place to ourselves we were in for a shock, two fairly large parties (one of French diplomats, the other Spanish technicians) also checked in shortly before sunset. Meanwhile we’d had time to stretch our legs and take in the sunset over the western hills. Came a substantial and well-cooked dinner accompanied by standard red Guerrouane house wine. In the heated room, the bed was comfortable and conducive to deep sleep.


All shiny and welcoming, Hôtel des Thermes, Oulmès, morning of March 27, 2010 (photo: M. Peyron) 

Next morning an excellent breakfast was served in the spacious dining-room; before that there’d been a slightly iffy shower, nonetheless with hot water, and a visit to the Spartan yet adequate loo. By 9 we were off across the plateau, turning south-east down the Agelmous road. The next two hours took us down a winding road into a valley, across a recently-mended bridge, then gradually uphill again to emerge onto the wide-open spaces of the Zaïan azaghar. This was a treat for the eyes with vast flower-studded carpets stretching to the horizon, grazing sheep and donkeys, and an occasional small farm that bespoke of human presence. 

Thus we continued past dusty Agelmous, its streets crowded with market-goers; across more valleys that heralded the approach to Khenifra, and over the brow of a steep hill, Bou Hayati, from which skilled Berber marksmen used to take pot-shots at passing French army columns during the 1914-18 war. Khenifra, hot and sunny, offered little more than a baker’s for bread and a filling-station to top up our tanks for the next leg to Midelt. 


Neglected “neck of the woods”, green hills of Oulmès, March 27, 2010 (photo: M. Peyron)

So far we’d seen plenty of evidence of road-damage, due to recent torrential rains and flash-floods, in the shape of collapsed portions of road, not to mention sand and/or gravel all over the place. On this section, between El Herri and Kbab, however, there had been mayhem: on the approach to a ford just before Lenda an entire land-slip had smothered the road, obliging us to detour via a rough, hastily bull-dozed track. The steep climb beyond Kebab, however, granted rewarding rearward views over the azaghar; beyond Sidi Yahya ou Sa’ad we stopped for sandwiches washed down with poor man’s sangria (house wine + Fanta orange!). At Tanout ou Filal pass we stopped the cars and walked smartly towards for the skyline, expecting to be rewarded with a glimpse of Ayyachi. Nothing of the sort: an all-encompassing cloud screen of haze and/or dust blotted out the hoped-for view. 

By 6 we had reached Aubergfe Ja’afar just outside Midelt. Over a tasty dinner of kus-kus and standard issue Gerrouane we made plans for the morrow: hire an off-road vehicle to visit the Ja’afar gorges and other Ayyachi foothill sights. 

TO watch in Ayyachi foothills (end-March 2010) 

Sunday, March 28. At last dawned the day on which we really earned our keep in terms of keeping tabs on polluting TO outfits; a day which was to give purpose and meaning to the entire Tour Operator watch exercise! The period couldn’t have been more propitiously chosen. The vacances de Pâques of my fellow-countrymen were still a week away, but with simana santa en Espana  a couple of days old, Iberian mountain-bike, trail-bike and 4-WD exponents were out in fully cry. Quite a few of them, in fact, had left their trailers together with various back-up vehicles outside Saïd’s auberge, for a few days spent burning up Atlas pistes.

The day got off to a quiet start. Shortly after 9 my friends, my wife and I piled into a spacious 4×4 driven by Salah (Saïd’s son), and followed the track past the Bou Admam Forestry Hut. After three quarters of an hour of jolting and bumping we emerged atop Tizi n-Tmerwit with a grandstand view of the whole Ayyachi range.


Tizi n-Tmerwit with Ayyachi massif in background  09:45 March 28, 2010 (photo: M. Peyron)

What we saw proved a poor excuse for what had once been the finest stretch of scenery in the Atlas Mountains. Not one oak tree was left  up here where forty years ago grew a fine forest; down beyond the cirque the cedars too had taken an undeserved bashing; strangely though, evergreen oak formed a conspicuous matorral. Ther rot had started in 1969 when, acting on a recommendation put forward by French cedar specialist A. Pujos, the decision was taken to raze the Ja’afar oak forest. The oaks would grew afresh within ten years, so ran the rationale, the end-result hopefully being a re-invigorated tract of woodland. Except that it never had time to happen. In the interval, furious erosion on bare slopes, worsened by record summer thunderstorms, plus more indiscriminate hacking down of trees contributed to the present man-made desert. A sorry sight indeed…


What it used to look like: Tizi n-Tmerwit with surviving evergreen oaks, December 1968 (photo M. Peyron)

While we were taking in the vast vistas of the haze-enshrouded, snow-covered main Ayyachi range, a couple of Spanish trail-bikers roared past, then plunged down the deeply-eroded track leading to the bottom of the cirque of Ja’afar. Salah suggested it was time we moved on  to take a look at the Ja’afar gorge, so back we went down the 30% stone-slide, before turning left off the track towards Tagouilelt. Minutes later we stopped on the edge of the gorge; onward progress down a steep, stony slope was out of the question. Josiane elected to look after our parked vehicle while the rest of us headed into the gorge on foot. Some eroded rocks of the Demoiselle coiffée-type on the left reminded me that with my companion Dourron and mule support, we had returned towards Bou Admam through this bit of country in late-May 1976 after a Ja’afar-Imtchimen traverse on skis. Nowadays, few mountain skiers frequent this part of the range… Which doesn’t apply to mountain-bikers, though, as we were reminded a few minutes later, when half a dozen or so Spanish cyclists in helmets, short-sleeved shirts and shorts came charging through!



“Mountain Bike Alicante” tourists in Ja’afar gorges 10:30, March 28, 2010 (photo: M. Peyron) 

Thinking nothing of their presence we waved to them good-naturedly and headed on up the gorge. Half an hour later we emerged at the foot of cedar-covered slopes that climbed towards the main range of Ayyachi. As gorges go these were unremarkable (compared, say, to the Tadrout gorge above Assaka beyond Tounfit), but could no doubt next time be worked into a interesting circuit taking in Tizi n-Tmerwit and Tagouilelt. Returning to the vehicle we freed my wife, who had managed to lock herself inside, and made off northwards along the track in the direction of Ayt Oumghar to a picnic site some 10 minutes’ drive from there. Interestingly, we noticed that the sparse oak and juniper forest to the right had been fenced off, no doubt to keep out nomadic Ayt Merghad sheep-herders who, during the drought of the late 1990s, had inflicted considerable damage on trees around here.

Driving on, we reached a paved road just short of Ayt Oumghar. Here, we had a close-up view of Asif n-Ounzegmir, which was running high. Salah suggested we take a look at the Tamalout dam situated some 10 miles upstream, so we turned left and headed back in the general direction of the main range. Soon we finished the plateau section covered in esparto grassand were climbing back into the foothills. Next thing we knew we were back in familiar country, which I recognized as the Mitqan crossroads (just below the similarly named Forestry Hut), a point we had passed through several times in the early 1970s during ski expeditions to Ayyachi – except that in those days we had a tough piste to contend with, especially punishing for the saloon cars we then used! But what was this?! Seemed to be some activity going on… Parked right against the cedars lining the road were several off-road back-up vehicles (one of them marked « Mountain- Bike Alicante ») and some cyclists that they seemed to be supplying with provisions.

The road next took us over Tizi n-Ayt Ayyach and past the village clusters of Imtchimen till we reached the entry-gate to the Tamalout dam construction site. Unfortunately, the barrier was  closed and, as a solitary guard reminded us, it was Sunday and the place had shut down for the weekend. It was no go; we just had to turn back. First, however, we decided, to pay a visit to a village where Salah had relatives and this allowed us to take tea with a delightful family whom we hope to re-visit on some later occasion. Just as we were leaving the village (Ayt Bou Izgarn), we sighted once more the Spanish cavalcade we had twice seen earlier, the  mountiain-bikers out in front (we recognized the same as in the Ja’afar gorge) and the back-up vehicles bringing up the rear, one of them marked « Mountain-Bike Alicante »).


Dog eating refuse left byMountain Bike Alicante” tourists, Mitqan cedar forest, 5pm, March 28, 2010 (photo: K. Mertz) 

Imagine our feelings of righteous indignation when, on passing back through the Mitqane crossroads, we discovered a small-scale rubbish-tip at the spot where we’d earlier seen the Spanish party. Hungry and thirsty bikers had not hesitated to delicately dump their discarded beer cans and sandwich wrappers, both along the roadside and even well into the cedars. Luckily, Salah had a bin-liner in his vehicle and all five of us got out and did a quick clean-up of the place.

This was going way beyond the limit! I had long heard stories about this kind of wanton pollution, even seen waste matter left at off-road bivvy sites such as Lake Tislit near Imilchil, but never anything quite so disgracefully provocative as this! One would expect mountain-bikers of all people to be a bit more respectful of the environment, especially in such a vulnerable, highly sensitive, already threatened eco-system as the Ayyachi montane cedar forest. Let alone showing a wee bit of courtesy towards Morocco, the host-country which they were visiting as pampered guests!

No, this was  merely an unpleasant reminder that so-called « eco-tourism » can easily cause damage to the area visited. It then qualifies as « ego-tourism »!



Proof of the cerveza is in the drinking, or Spanish polluters caught red-handed! Mitqan, March 28, 2010 (photo: K. Mertz) 

The accompanying illustrations tell their own story and require no further comment! This episode left us somewhat subdued on the homeward run to Midelt, as the distasteful evidence sank in; we had been witness to a gross act of environmental misdemeanour. Probably not the first, nor the last, as a short visit to the web soon confirmed. The offending Iberian TO apparently has been programming Ayyachi for several years now and  (this is the bad news!) plans more trips, usually around Easter. At least we now know what to expect, what to look out for in terms of environment-friendly behaviour on the part of some visitors from southern Spain. A sobering thought…

Rabat, May 2010

PS – Although a certain Spanish TO clearly emerges as the villain of the piece,we are nonetheless confident that this outfit’s antics are far from representative of the behavioural standards obtaining in that country.

N.B. Unless otherwise stated all texts and illustrations copyright by Michael Peyron. Material from same may be quoted in compliance with current academic practice.

Publié dans Tour Operator Watch | Pas de Commentaire »

Promotion and protection: eco-tourism in the Moroccan Middle Atlas

Posté par Michael Peyron le 1 mai 2010








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Sustainable Technology for Rural Tourism Development 

International Workshop on Cultural Impact on Technology Development in 

European & Islamic countries, held at Al Akhawayn, Ifrane (Morocco)


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Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, 30 November – 2 December 2003 


Promotion and protection : eco-tourism in the Moroccan Middle Atlas 

Michael PEYRON 


“For some time it has been obvious that there are no satisfactory short-cuts to higher standards of life in developing countries through projects (often conceived and executed in a hurry) which are unrelated to a scientific assessment of their ultimate consequences.” 

G. Mounfort, Portrait of a Desert (1965). 


This paper (1) purports to examine strategies to reconcile development of rural tourism in the Middle-Atlas eco-region with the implementation of urgently needed conservation projects. Recently, off-road activity, combined with eco-tourism-related walking has become increasingly popular and could develop into a growth industry. While the Middle-Atlas boasts superlative scenery, and a vast potential for eco-tourism, not to mention associated forms of activity (white-water canoeing, fishing, skiing, bird-watching, back-packing, and pot-holing) these very assets are under multi-directional threat. Would it not therefore be unwise to kill the hen before it can lay that proverbial golden egg? 


 White-water canoeing Oum er-Rbiae upstream of Khenifra (photo: M. Peyron)

It has yet to be fully taken on board in Morocco that certain wild, remote areas of the Atlas, with their unique alti-montane environment (as in Bou Iblane and Ayyachi), specific flora and fauna, not to mention shrub-land, woodland and wetland avifauna – much of it endemic – have become a resource in their own right. Unless firm action is taken to implement existing legislation on wildlife protection, irreversible losses will be sustained in the field. Hit by drought, poaching, massive deforestation, soil degradation and overgrazing, some of the most promising eco-tourism locations are rapidly losing their glamour. Upland pastures are giving way to man-made desert, (2) while the shore-lines of Agelmam Sidi ‘Ali, Agelmam Azgza and other lakes are receding dramatically, and the cedar forests are under threat. A situation compounded by speculation involving stock-breeding, a mini-population explosion and runway urbanization resulting in glorified favellas that pose grave environmental problems connected with garbage disposal, hygiene, depletion and/or contamination of the aquifer. 

Worse still the region itself, with its minimal hotel infrastructure and ageing road network, has, for various socio-political reasons, suffered from neglect over the past fifty years. Now is the time for deeds, not words. Let us accordingly examine some of these problems more closely and suggest remedial action. 

Existing problems and possible remedies 

1/ First and foremost, what is needed at this stage is a sea-change in the mindset of both rural and urban populations à propos of the environment. This can only be achieved through better education all around, thus creating full awareness as to the environment being a beneficial resource. This, of course, begins in primary School. It involves, amongst other considerations, teaching school- children not to throw garbage out of a car-window, or over the garden-wall;not to swing on tree-branches till they break.



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This has been fully acknowledged by Abdeljalil Belkamel of Marrakesh, who unequivocally states: “Man belongs to an ecosystem. He has begun to destroy it, thus forgetting that he is destroying himself (…)That’s why I organise workshops for school-children to create awareness about botany.” (3)

As a possible follow-up to this it is refreshing to record that the Association Touristique de Montagne du Moyen-Atlas (AMTM) is planning organisation of education tours to promote environment-friendly interest in the area at the national level. (4)


Promoting interest in wild-fowl among Moroccan girl students, Agelmam Wiwan, April 2008 (photo: M. Peyron)

2/ Gîtes and rest-houses In the worst cases, tourist quarters in Berber villages constitute tiny, dedicated enclaves complete with foam-rubber mattresses, shower baths and other mod cons, the walls adorned with posters showing ‘typical’ Moroccan scenes. (5) 


Tafouyt inn and restaurant, ruined kasbah in background, Imichil, April 2003 (photo: M. Peyron)

The phoney side of the arrangement is further high-lighted by the organisation of ‘Berber evenings’, in which specially-groomed locals will perform folk-dances by moon-light, inviting tourists decked out as ‘pseudo-Saharans’, or ‘Blue Men’ to join them! Sustainable rural tourism is probably better off without the facile glamour and sensationalism generally offered to run-of-the-mill package tourists. (6)


 Kasbah-style guesthouse south of Rich in Ziz valley, Feb. 2003 (photo: M. Peyron)

A shrewder bet would be to set up basic, clean, functional, and strategically located guest-houses (such as the kasbah-style auberge at lake Tislit, Imilchil). Such establishments should employ properly trained personnel; a good cook, in this connection, being an important asset. 


« Peeping-Tom » tourists photographing all and sundry from roof of Imilchil hôtel (photo: M. Peyron)

3/ Training local, environment-friendly guides to accompany eco-tourists on wildlife photo safaris. If most mammals and reptiles have been decimated, there are birds and butterflies in profusion, requiring a dose of expertise in natural history on the part of local guides. Strangely, probably through lack of information, there appears to be a dearth of qualified guides in the Middle-Atlas. (7)

Interestingly, in 1998, the few that do operate in the Imilchil/Errachidia region, were, contemplating setting up their own association, separate from the ANGAM, a move that seems to have resulted in the creation of a body calling itself APAME. (8)

For rural tourism to remain user-friendly and durable, efforts have to be made on both sides to lessen potential friction. It is a truism to state that tourists’ behaviour has an impact on locals. While the locals sometimes need to improve their standards in certain sectors (accommodation, catering, hygiene, etc.) tourists should avoid voyeuristic camera-clicking heavy-handedness vis-à-vis Berber women, (9) ostentatiously drinking alcohol, wearing ultra-short shorts, stripping to the waist, handing out pens, pencils and sweets to children. (10)

Though Moroccan tour leaders will caution foreign adventure trekkers on this and other points, visitors feel entitled to ignore such recommendations merely because they have shelled out a sizeable sum of money. Clearly, problems of this kind require implementation of some sort of behavioural code. (11)

4/ Addressing problems caused by the market economy. Most noticeable among repercussions on the mountain environment is in the area of stock-breeding with absentee herd-owners instructing shepherds to maintain animals in highland areas on a year-round basis. This has led to permanent occupation, especially around Agelmam Afenourir, Timhadit, Beqrit and Jbal Tichoukt, with ‘sedentarization’ of former transhumants, (12) placing adjoining areas of pasture and woodland under permanent threat. 


Sheep pasturing around Agelmam Afennourir, Middle Atlas (photo: M. Peyron)

This can be partially offset by a) reducing the number of goats to an environmentally acceptable level; b) cordoning off specific areas for replanting of trees and grass – a measure already in place on Jbal Tichoukt, near the Zad pass, between Dayet Ashlaf and Aïn Leuh, between Ja’far and Mitqane. In this connection, implementing specific remedial action for cedars is a national emergency. The Middle Atlas cedar forest has been suffering from various abuses for far too long. The pay-off came in the spring of 2002 with numerous trees of varying ages suddenly drying up and dying, including the ‘Gouraud’ cedar and, in particular, some specimens in a comparatively protected environment on the AUI campus, from which Barbary Apes are notably absent. (13)











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Allegations that bark-stripping by Barbary macaques is chiefly responsible for this state of things require qualification. This writer’s in-the-field experience is that the primate is frequently cited as a convenient scapegoat, both by local populations and the Forestry Commission whenever the topic of cedar degradation is raised. It may, admittedly, be in part responsible. However, drought-induced climate change, treetop- and branch-cutting, slash-and-burn, and felling by the locals are equally, if not more to blame; the monkey should therefore not be made to carry the can. Furthermore, plans to relocate ‘surplus population’ of macaques – and here we are talking about a ‘vulnerable’ species – near Chefchouen, in Bni Znassen, Tazerkount, and the Tizi n-Test, in eco-regions largely devoid of cedars, are apparently being envisaged without impact assessment on target areas. If Moroccan macaques have changed eating habits this is due to man-made biodiversity changes in the cedar forest; (14) with further research revealing that bark-stripping is linked to water scarcity. Also, far from increasing, the macaque population has actually declined by “about 40% in the last 20 years”. (15)

Two closely-related ecological problems: a) Curtailing speculative orchard development that, in dry years, draws too heavily on water-table, especially around Dayet Aoua. Here again, though, given the business interests at stake, some convincing arguments will be required to achieve any measure of success. b) Also, in Immuzzar-Kandar area, assessment should be made of fall-out from waste matter discharged by units for mass-produced poultry, which can eventually inflict serious environmental damage; as in Brittany (France). 

5/ The need to set up Nature reserves has never been much in doubt in Morocco. Despite delays in implementation largely due to funding, the Middle Atlas now features a reasonably successful ensemble: the Tazekka national park with its Barbary sheep, reintroduced Barbary deer and numerous species of birds. Other developments have witnessed the creation of a farm near Missour for breeding the Hubara Bustard, a small zoo near Nzala n-Ayt Izdeg on the Midelt-Errachidia road, while a project to reintroduce the Atlas lion into the Sefrou area has been aired recently. Culling would be allowed once this and other species had been built up to a reasonable level, part of the reserve then developing into a “controlled shooting area”, (16) an arrangement that has proved satisfactory in several countries, whatever the misgivings of dyed-in-the-wool environmentalists. 

With some of the larger mammals confined to museums or zoos, a considerable proportion of Morocco’s fauna (including endemic and rare species) hovers between the ‘vulnerable’ and ‘endangered’ status. (17) On the fringe of the Middle-Atlas eco-region, in a unique environment of montane forest with great development potential, lies the Tirghist game reserve belonging to the Parc National du Haut Atlas oriental (PNHAO), with its Barbary Sheep and Cuvier’s gazelle.


 Barbary Sheep terrain, Jbal Hayim, PNHAO (photo: M. Peyron)

Unfortunately, due to insufficient study of impact assessment on locals, the latter are totally unaware as to the positive fall-out from a properly managed game reserve. Hence the need for appointing qualified park rangers to reinforce action of existing Foresters, emphasizing the pedagogical rather than the punitive side of things. (18)

6/ Upgrading modest, down-hill skiing facilities at Jbal Hebri and Michliffen along with outdated, almost non-existent infra-structure. Since its long-delayed opening, the Aghlias hotel at the Michliffen ski-centre has functioned intermittently, largely because of fickle snow-cover. There are, however, some encouraging signs of imminent action by Ifrane municipal authorities, with talk of the much-awaited national park. Local skiing talent needs encouragement, so that more lads and lasses may step in the foot-steps of Samir Azzimani and Sara Ben Mansour, subsidies awarded to Moroccan Ski Foundation at present proving insufficient to generate significant sporting activity. (19)


Cedar, cloud and snow at Jbal Habri, Middle Atlas, February 2009 (photo: M. Peyron)

In order to introduce recreational diversity, there is a crying need to create parallel activities : mountain-biking, guided walks on foot, and excursions on snow-shoes and/or Nordic skis, both feasible with scant snow-cover. If the existing Middle-Atlas ski-areas were better organised they might hold greater appeal for tourists, while the largely untapped ski-mountaineering potential of ‘Ayyachi and Bou Iblane remains a vital asset. 


Ascending Saïd ou ‘Addi on skis, Jbal ‘Ayyachi (photo: M. Peyron)







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7/ Fall-out from 4-WD tourism. With off-road vehicles becoming highly fashionable in Western countries, the Atlas has become a not-so-happy hunting-ground for the off-road brigade. However, repeated visits by motorcades of 4-WD and trail-bike exponents fail to fit in with the environment they cross, at best contributing noise and dust, and incommoding back-packers; at worst involving the locals in accidents. (20) Mountain guides in the Tounfit area, lamenting the decline in numbers of mountaineering and trekking parties, have been forced to switch to off-road activities. Unfortunately 4-WD tourism, though exceedingly non-environment-friendly, is here to stay because; a) it is a high-profile, status-symbol activity with a maximum-publicity angle; b) ‘big money’ is involved, and it is common knowledge that in this kind of situation commercial logic will prevail. One can only hope that off-road enthusiasts will develop greater environmental awareness and refrain from “indiscriminate driving of vehicles across vulnerable surfaces”, (21) as, for example, on the Lakes Plateau (Imilchil) and Meskeddal grazing-grounds (Bou Iblane). 


Backpackers entering Meskedal gorges, Bou Iblane area (photo: M. Peyron)

8/ From highland castle to high-rise block. Many people of mountain origin have moved to foot-hill towns such as Zeïda, Zawit Esh-Shikh, Khénifra, Ayt Shaq, Tighessalin, Mrirt, Tounfit, Boumia and Midelt, (22) and are now residing in uncomfortable, often insalubrious apartment blocks. A side-effect of this creeping urbanization is appalling waste-disposal problems, unchecked accumulation of plastic and other debris. An obvious solution would be to set up small, economical garbage disposal units. Here one should go for user-friendly, low-tech battery-operated incinerators rather than more expensive, sophisticated equipment with potential maintenance problems. As a rider to that, one could add: use the available Moroccan resources in vegetable fibre to stage a dramatic revival of basket-weaving so that housewives need no longer take their groceries home in plastic bags. 

Also, make more trash bins available, as at ‘Gouraud cedar’, between Ougmès and RP 21 road, though not without providing instructions for use on a clearly-visible notice. In a word, problems concerning rubbish tips and all-pervading litter need to be addressed urgently. 

9/ To minimize branch-cutting for firewood, make small Kerosene, or Butagaz cooking stoves available to locals at knock-down prices. This would give forests a much-needed respite as they are suffering badly enough as it is. It is not always appreciated that every day much of Ayyachi’s relict montane forests comes down to Midelt (just as Burnham wood came to Dunsinane in Shakespeare’s Macbeth!) in the shape of small convoys of 4-5 faggot-bearing donkeys. (23)

10/ Finally, necessity of improving awareness among Morocco’s decision-makers as to exact locations of areas ear-marked for protection under the Protected Areas Management Project, initiated in the early 1990s, together with relevant faunal inventory, nature of required protection measures and full implications of sustainable tourism. (24) Subsequently, instituting national and international mult-media promotional back-up of tourist-related conservation programmes. 



Taffert Hut, Bou Iblan (photo: M. Peyron)

So far, the Middle-Atlas has been the Cinderella of mountain-related development in Morocco; this apparent neglect, however, should be seen as a blessing in disguise. In terms of mountain tourism, the Middle-Atlas area is fortunate in having been spared the ‘honey-pot’ effect one usually associates with Toubkal, Mgoun, Sirwa and Saghro, though the Imilchil region is beginning to suffer from this affliction. Whereas the spotlight has been on the big-name destinations, our Cinderella stands to gain from experience (both positive and negative) obtained in those areas the better to get her own act together. In other words, learn from mistakes made in those areas, especially regarding rubbish-disposal, (25) gîte management and custodianship of high-altitude huts (26 )(as would ultimately become necessary in both Bou Iblane and ‘Ayyachi massifs). Her selection of valuable ecological assets are a trump card she should now play carefully, and, given the present focus on eco-tourism and since its very future hinges on their survival, existing assets should be placed under maximum surveillance and protection.










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Locals should continue to receive assistance in land-use-related problems and, as remoter areas are opened up to the outside world, be further made to realise what they stand to gain from preserving the environment rather than destroying it. For this purpose, presence of ALD agents could be recommended because of their useful pedagogical action vis-à-vis the target population. (27) All of which will entail despatching dedicated task-forces into the field to take stock and address the above-mentioned problems; submitting feasibility reports and impact assessments. 

Finally once all the admirable recommendations have been made by the various experts, not to mention solemn declarations of intent and undying commitment to the environmental cause, it is imperative that a duly appointed Steering Committee use clout to ensure implementation of measures suggested within a reasonable time-frame.


(1) For reasons of socio-cultural similarity and close proximity, the area between Midelt and Imsilchil has been included here as an extension of the Middle-Atlas. While containing much new material, the present paper naturally draws, to some extent, on some of my previous papers and presentations at Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane; also at the Institut de Géographie Alpine, Grenoble (cf. bibliography). 

(2) Cf. Housa Yakobi, “Faces & places of the Atlas”, Proceedings of the Amazigh Days conference, March17-18, 2003, AUI, (in the press). 

(3) A. Belkamel, Médina, Jan-Feb/2002. 

(4) Atlas-Hébdo, n°4-5, p.10; cf. also

(5) L. Pezelet, 1997, p.375. 

(6) It is largely due to massive frequentation by national/international visitors, either individually or by the bus-load, that scenic spots such as the the Oum Rabia’ sources and Ouzoud falls have become thinly-disguised tourist-traps. Cf. E. Millet, Guide des Merveilles, p.117-118 & 129. 

(7) When I visited the Rural Commune of Tafadjight in the Jbal Bou Iblane area, together with IGA-Grenoble & Cadi Ayyad University (Marrakech) delegates from a conference being held in Sefrou, on September 8, 1998, none of the locals appeared to have heard of the CFAMM (Ayt Bou Gemmaz Mountain Training Centre), nor did they seem to be particularly upbeat about training mountain-guides. 

(8) Association Provinciale des Guides de Montagne d’Errachadia. Cf. Maroc: Tourisme en Montagnes et au Désert, Ministry of Tourism, Rabat, 2000 ( ?). 

(9) Instance of woman near Boumalne-Dadès holding up rags and plastic to veil her head from the prying eye of Courtney-Clarke’s camera; cf. Imazighen, p.178. 

(10) This was due to misguided directives, as in A. Le Panot’s guide (1990, p.359), urging tourists to take with them provisions of coins and ball-point pens for distribution to Ayt Hadiddou women at the Imilchil musem. This early-1990s trend, that proved highly detrimental to the rapport between tourists and locals, has since been reversed, tour leaders now strictly discouraging this practice. However, the damage has been done and will take months/years to eradicate. *

(11) Cf. Notional ‘Mountain Charter’ initiated by “Kasbah du Toubkal” hotel in Imlil, a highly environment-conscious, up-market, Anglo-Irish operation set up in late-1990s in Imlil. 

(12) G. Fay, 1986: 153; Bencherifa & Johnson, 1993: 108; S. Boujrouf, 1996: 47; also G. Maurer, 1996: 55. 

(13) M. Drihem in Le Matin, April 15, 2003. 

(14) E. Millet, 2003, p.104 & 107-109. 

(15) Conservation Biology, February 2001; research conducted by L. Martinoli, C. Capiluppi, M. Arahou & M. Mouna; available on, cfm. 











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(16) G. Mounfort, 1965, p.171. For arguments in favour of hunting in Sefrou province, seen as a high-quality, job-creating industry, cf. L. Jennan, 1998, p.16-17; regarding lion-hunting project: “Des Espagnols sur le projet d’une réserve de chasse”, L’Économiste, January 17, 2003, p.35. 

(17) F. Cuzin, “Les grands mammifères sauvages du Maroc”, 1996, pp.108-109 ; also « Animal Info – Morocco » (1999), available on 

(18) For Tirghist reserve and PNHAO, cf. A. Billand, RGA, n°4/1996: 97 ; also A. Bourbouze, “Des agdal et des mouflons” (1997), available on 

(19) Mustapha n-Ait Lho, Atlas-Hébdo, n°4/5-21 March, 2003: 16. 

(20) Dogs and poultry are frequently run over, muleteers injured through falling off frightened steeds. A young bystander was killed at Bu Wzemmou on 15/05/98 during the « Rallye de l’Atlas »

(21) G. Mountfort, 1965, p.169. 

(22) M. Kerbout, 1994, p.100. 

(23) Based on this writer’s frequent on-the-spot observations (December 1983, February 1998, April 2001, May 2002, etc.). Must be confessed, however, that in April 2001, as partial atonement for this deforestation, young tree-planting volunteers were met at work on north-east fringe of Taarbat hill, an ‘Ayyachi outlier. 

(24) Which is apparently not always the case. To quote AMTM President, Abdelhamid Ghandi : “Les décideurs ne donnent aucune importance au tourisme rural, malgré leurs discours prometteurs.” (“Whatever promising noises they make, decision-makers grant little importance to rural tourism.”) Interview conducted by Abdellali Darif Alaoui for Maroc-Hébdo, available on 

(25) To preclude necessity for voluntary mammoth clean-ups as in Toubkal massif (2000 & 2002). Several 100-litre bin-liners, filled to the brim with Kleenex tissues and hygienic towels, were manhandled down to Imlil. Hopefully, an incinerator at the Toubkal hut, able to burn 300kg of waste per week, will now cope with the problem. Cf. Trek Magazine, n°15/ December 2000: 16-18. 

(26) This has been an unqualified fiasco in Bou Gemmaz-Mgoun area with Tilibit n-Tarkeddit and Izoughar huts vandalised by tourists and/or shepherds, and only the Assemsouk refuge functioning more or less satisfactorily; see also M. Peyron, “Quel avenir pour le tourisme en montagne”, (1995: 110), & A. Bellaoui, RGA, 1996: 18. 

(27) ALD stands for Animateurs Locaux de Développement, Azilal Mountain Environment workshop, 1991, p.10. 




A. Bellaoui & J. Herbin (eds.),La Montagne marocaine: développement et protection, special issue of Revue de Géographie Alpine (RGA), Grenoble, n°4/1996. 

A. Bencherifa (ed.), African Mountains and Highlands: resource use and conservation, Rabat, Faculty of Letters, 1993, (proceedings of conference held in Rabat, 19-28 September, 1990). 

___________ & M. Aït Hamza (eds.), Mutations socio-spatiales dans les campagnes marocaines, Rabat, Faculty of Letters, 1994, (proceedings of conference held in Rabat, 17-19 May, 1991. 

A.Billand, “Développement touristique des parcs de montagne au Maroc: principes de zonage et d’aménagement”, RGA, n°4/1996: 94-108. 

S. Boujrouf, « la montagne dans la politique d’aménagement du territoire au Maroc », RGA, n°4/1996 : 37-50. 

M. Courtney-Clarke & G. Brooks, Imazighen : the vanishing traditions of Berber women, New York: Clarkton Potter, 1997.

F. Cuzin, « Répartition actuelle et statut des grands mammifères sauvages du Maroc (Primates, Carnivoires, Ariodactyles) », Mammalia, t. 60, n°1/1996 : 101-124. 









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G. Fay, « Unités socio-spatiales et développement rural », Revue de Géographie Marocaine, Rabat, vol. 10, N°1-2/1996 : 149-165. 

H. Gumuchian & N. Boumaza (eds.), La Montagne et le Savoir ; special issue of Montagnes Méditerranéennes, Grenoble, n°12/2000, (proceedings of the CERMOSEM colloquium at Le Pradel (Ardèche, France), 18-20 September, 2000. 

L. Jennan, Pour un développement du tourisme et des loisirs dans la province de Sefrou, May 1998, (un-published report). 

L. Jennan & G. Maurer (eds.), Les Régions de Piémont au Maghreb: ressources et aménagement, Fascicule n°26, Tours (URBAMA),1994, (proceedings of the 9-11 April 1992 colloquium, Sefrou). 

M. Kerbout, « L’évolution récente de la, population rurale dans le Moyen-Atlas et le basin de la Moulouya », Mutations socio-spatiales dans les campagnes marocaines, 1994 : 96-104. 

G. Maurer, « L’homme et les montagnes atlasiques au Maghreb », Annales de Géographie, n°587/1996 : 47-72. 

E. Millet, Guide des Merveilles de la Nature: Maroc, les plus beaux sites naturels, Paris: Arthaud, 2003. 

G. Mounfort, Portrait of a Desert : the story of an Expedition to Jordan, (Foreword by Sir Julian Huxley), London: Collins, 1965. 

A. Panot, Le, Guide du Maroc, Paris : M.A. Éditions, 1990. 

M. Peyron, « Les rapports ville-campagne au Maroc : le cas des massifs orientaux de l’Atlas », L’Évolution des rapports villes-campagnes au Maghreb, Rabat, Faculty of Letters, 1988. 

________, Great Atlas Traverse, 2 vols. ; Reading (UK) : West Col, 1989-1990. 

________, « Mutations en cours dans le mode de vie des Ayt Yafelman (Haut Atlas marocain), Les Cahiers d’URBAMA, n°7/1992 : 79-98. 

________, « Continuité et changement dans une zone de transition au Maroc : la Haute-Moulouya et le Haut-Atlas de Midelt », Les Régions de Piémont au Maghreb, Tours, Fascicule n°26 (URBAMA), 1994 : 71-79. 

________, « Les inadéquations entre savoir et développement : le cas du Moyen-Atlas Marocain », Montagnes Méditerranéennes, n°12/2000 : 49-51. 

L. Pezelet, Dynamique sociale dans le Haut Atlas Central marocain : quelle production sociale autochtone du sens de l’espace dans un contexte de sollicitation touristique inter-nationale ?, Doctoral thesis, Grenoble : Institut de Géographie Alpine (IGA), 1997. 

B. Tag, « Les potentialités de développement du Moyen-Atlas oriental et leur appréciation par les acteurs locaux », RGA, n°4/1996 : 51-60. 

Miscellaneous sources 

Brochure on Mountain Environment workshop: « Promotion des économies montagnardes et protection de l’environnement dans le Haut Atlas », Azilal, 13-16 March, 1991. 

Brochure on 7 ème Mousem des Pommes de Midelt : « Province de Khénifra, vie économique et sociale », septembre 1995. 

Proceedings of Internation Colloquium : « Quel avenir pour le tourisme en montagne au Maroc », Marrakech, 18-21 November, 1995. 

Various unpublished reports by M. Peyron in Journée “Action Intégrée”, November 25, 1998, I.G.A. Grenoble: 1/ “Moyen-Atlas & Haut-Atlas oriental: une région uniforme”; 

2/ “Compte-rendu de tournée dans l’Atlas marocain (septembre 1998)”; 

3/ “Aperçu sur le Haut Atlas de Midelt et d’Imilchil (8-15 October, 1997)”. 

“Rural Tourism in the Atlas mountains”, British Days Conference, Sustainable tourism workshop, AUI, March 2002 (unpublished).

N.B. Unless otherwise stated, all texts copyright Michael Peyron. Material from same may be quoted in compliance with current academic practice.

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