General considerations regarding the passage from orality to literacy

Posté par Michael Peyron le 15 avril 2010

Orality to literacy 

General considerations regarding the passage from orality to literacy 

 

Introduction

Students of oral literature should not allow themselves to be discouraged by suggestions that folk-lore is fake lore.1 This stems from a snotty attitude vis-à-vis oral tradition, rather like equating country folk with “country bumpkins”. Rather, modern literate man should regret that the marvellous faculty of memorisation or oral retention of a rich heritage, has, with time, become atrophied because of the overriding need to acquire full literacy. 2 

 

One of the chief characteristics of an oral tale is its changing silhouette. While remaining, to all intents and purposes, a faithful copy of the original, oral discourse is often considered to indulge in “weaving and stitching”,3 so that the numerous re-tellings result in embellishments and modifications; it “gets changed, shaped, altered by omissions; overloaded with additions, and embroidered with detail as it is handed along from generation to generation and from place to place.”4 This has happened to texts at various times and to varying degrees throughout the history of oral transmission, till they were at last enshrined in writing. There are instances, however, of oral transmission hardly altering with time, as in the case of Middle Atlas Berber tale “Ali Woullouban”, of which this writer has found a version, collected by Arsène Roux in the late 1920s, which bears a 90% resemblance to a later version gathered in the 1995. Thus, after 70 years had a tale undergone little or no transformation.5 In the end, of course, this material gets recorded in writing, this being the last stage of the passage to literacy. 

 

 

 

Chains of transmission

 

 

 

The transition from orality to literacy, however, is usually a lengthy, protracted process. This is certainly the case with early heroic tales such as “Gilgamesh” and “Beowulf”. The former, probably the world’s most ancient epic, after existing in purely oral form, was composed on clay tablets in the Sumerian age and then vanished from sight, only reappearing in the 20th century thanks to the archaeological endeavours of Campbell Thomson and Samuel Kramer.6 The latter, typical of the dragon-slaying theme, though the hero ultimately passes away, is “the first large poem in English to survive this transplanting from an oral to a literary mode”,7 and probably started life in oral form among 5th or 6th century Anglo-Saxons prior to their invasion of the British Isles, although the events it describes take place in southern Scandinavia.. 

 

Other attempts to ennoble oral literature have resulted in some stirring stuff. There immediately comes to mind the controversial manner in which, in the second half of the 18th century, James MacPherson re-visited the Ossian (Oisin) epic, the roots of which go back to the legends of Fionn MacCool in the pre-Christian days of Hibernia.8 Admittedly, MacPherson took such liberties with the original material, dressing it up with all the fine phrases and miscellaneous devices of the Romantic Period that he has been branded a forger by certain critics. His merit, however, lies in making these texts available to so many scholars of the period ; “le cycle de Finn, ou des Fenians, exploité et défiguré par McPherson, allait devenir le livre de chevet des grands romantiques. Par là, la tradition des anciens bardes rejoignait quand même Châteaubriand.”9 In this context, the way Fitzgerald translated  and adapted the quatrains of Omar Khayyam according to the canons of contemporary English poetry provides a striking parallel.10 

 

 

A similar process had no doubt occurred at a much earlier period to the oral material that was later arranged into the Iliad and Odyssey, with some 500 years elapsing between the original recitals of heroic poems and their eventual stitching together into overall epics. “The entire language of the Homeric poems (was) not an overlaying of several texts but a language generated over the years by epic poets using old set expressions which they preserved and/or reworked largely for metrical purposes.”11 

 

 

 

In the course of time and in a classic case of oral diffusion, the Homeric material travelled north-eastwards, surfacing in Ulster around the 1st century AD as the “Cattle-raid of Cooley” (Táin Bó Cualnge), often referred to as the “Iliad of the Gael”.12 Hardly less praiseworthy, though essentially local in inspiration and initially oral in form, are the Icelandic sagas of the early Middle Ages, which tell of a harsh, simple, feud-ridden life in that sub-Arctic land peopled by Norwegian and Irish immigrants.13 

 

 

The “matter of Britain”

 

 

Strangely enough, of all those who have played a significant role at the cross-roads between orality and literacy, none are more deserving than the bards of Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, who, during the Dark Ages (circa 500-750 AD) and well beyond, were able to maintain in circulation a corpus of oral tales, a curious mix of “myth, folklore, history and pseudo-history of Celtic Britain (…) creating a dreamlike atmosphere by telescoping Saxon- and Norman-dominated present into misty Celtic past of has been and never was.”14 This material, common to the Welsh and Bretons, known to scholars as la matière de Bretagne, broadcast far and wide through medieval France by Breton minstrels,15 retold and embellished by Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth in his mythological History of the Kings of Britain, was to nurture the Arthurian epic which, after formal treatment at the hands of Chrétien de Troyes,16 finally took shape in written form in England and Wales during the 12th century. The legends of King Arthur eventually acquired the proportions of a national myth, with the emphasis on chivalrous values of bravery, steadfastness, purity and succouring the weak that (strangely) was to serve as an ideal for the English during the Hundred Years’ War, whereas they had their origins in an obscure Celtic past.17 Here it must be repeated that certain famous episodes of this cycle, such as the deeply romantic “Tristan and Isolde” and the all-important Grail legend, undoubtedly have Welsh origins – respectively “How Trystan won Esyllt”18 and “Peredur son of Evrag”.19 However, other Welsh tales (and some Irish ones for that matter), can be traced back to Greece, attesting to ancient trade-links between the Celts and the Mediterranean region.20 

 

 

 

Christian/Muslim interaction

 

 

 

Simultaneously, their French opponents derived equal chivalric and spiritual inspiration from the “Song of Roland”,21 “Huon of Bordeaux”, “Ogier the Dane”, and many other Frankish legends, initially attributed to Bishop Turpin, but elaborated some two centuries later, usually focussing on earlier heroic battles against the Saracens in Spain, and surrounding an idealised Charlemagne.22 These famous chansons de geste, of course, were part of a plan to uplift the mind of the crude, loutish Frank knights, and would later help bolster them during their ill-fated crusading interlude in the Holy Land. 

 

Likewise, as a result of Christian and Muslim being at each others’ throats for so long, a rival, oral-derived literature had sprouted on the southern shore of the Mediterranean. This time, however, the villain of the piece is the Christian, as in “Sidna Aelqman” and the “Poem of the Young Camel” (ahellel n-ubaεr, in Tamazight), of which the present writer has both Arabic and Berber versions in his possession. Interestingly, in the former, the elderly warrior Aelqman is the exact counter-part of Charlemagne. Just as the Frankish monarch marries Bramidoine, widow of Marsile, the defeated Moorish king of Saragossa at the close of the Chanson de Roland,23 so does Aelqman take for bride the Christian Shoumisha, whose husband he has just killed in single combat.24 

 

 

 

Such situations are merely symptomatic of exchange between cultures, which, when it does not occur at sword-point, allows a considerable fund of oral lore to change hands. This undoubtedly occurred through the medium of Muslim Spain, whose Jewish and Moorish musicians used to visit regularly what is now south-west France. The Fin’ Amor tradition of Provence, which is no doubt largely native in inspiration, also owes much to Moorish love poetry with its insistence on courteous treatment of damsels, and/or to the influence of Plato and Ibn-Rochd.25 Some of this would have arrived from the Maghrib, many Imazighen having settled in Spain, given that the survival to this very day of Berber courtly love, at any rate in Morocco, and in oral form, has been amply documented.26 Much of this, also, came from the east (Baghdad), via al-Andalus, where this poetic material was being imitated.27 

 

 

Saving classical learning from oblivion

 

 

At this point, it appears relevant to raise a parallel problem. Among both Oriental and Western academics28 there is a certain school of thought which contends that, had it not been for the Arabs, who translated the material, the sum total of Latin and Greek thought would never have reached the west, before and at the time of the Renaissance. Now, to the present writer, this statement appears too sweepingly categorical to be taken at face value. 

 

 

That Europe is indebted to those Arab scholars, who took the trouble to read Plato, Aristotle and other Greek philosophers, for the translations that were thus made available, there is little doubt. To claim, however, that following the barbarian invasions of Europe nothing had been saved of the rich classical heritage of Ancient Greece and Rome is to downplay, nay, to ignore completely, the contribution of Irish bards and monks. This is a comparatively little-known phenomenon. Towards the end of the Roman Empire, with barbarians knocking at the gates, there occurred a forced emigration of Gaulish scholars to Ireland. They brought with them “a learning that was still to the full extent the best tradition of scholarship in Latin Grammar, Oratory and Poetry, together with a certain knowledge of Greek – in fact the full classical lore of the 4th century.”29 They found there a challenging state of intellectual ferment with “traditional oral schools”30 that continued to flourish side-by-side with monasteries whose Irish monks, also products of the native oral learning, but fluent in Latin, were committing to writing important oral works, and painstakingly copying in long-hand the bible and great philosophical works, for they were among the few left in Europe also to have a command of Greek. Thanks to this injection of knowledge and unbridled intellectual activity, there came about a fusion of classical and vernacular literature, unique in Europe, that produced some priceless master-pieces, such as the beautifully illuminated Book of Kells, and was ultimately to have lasting effects on the British Isles in general and English literature in particular, in terms of enrichment, freshness, inspiration and refinement of thought. This “Golden Age” of enlightenment and literature was to last some 400 years, until unfortunately snuffed out by the Viking invasions of the 9th century, mostly from Norway which is referred to in oral tradition as “Lochlann”,31 when many monasteries were sacked by Norse raiders, although some of the written material and nearly all the oral material has survived. Thus to claim that the Arabs alone saved classical learning for the west falls somewhat short of the truth; in fact, a recent book by Thomas Cahill brings convincing evidence of a somewhat different version – How the Irish saved Civilization.32 

 

 

 

Motifs of oral tradition: anathema to the literary process

 

 

 

Before committing an oral text to writing, let us see what we are losing. Indeed, for the sake of belles lettres we have to throw overboard the very devices that characterise orality, such as tedious repetitions, redundancy.  “In oral delivery, though a pause may be effective, hesitation is always disabling. Hence it is better to repeat something, artfully if possible, rather than simply stop speaking while fishing for the next idea.”33  In order to stay focussed and maintain momentum and rhythm, it is sometimes helpful to move one’s arm or body, as does the Kirghiz bard reciting an epic poem belonging to the genre known as manas

 

Oral cultures grant relative attention to plants and animals, but only to those that are useful; the rest are catalogued as “unimportant generalised background”.34 Hence for Moroccan Atlas Berbers, the term agdid n-waman (‘water bird’) will apply just as well to a Sandpiper as to a Dipper; when showed photos of the Great Spotted and Green Woodpecker, a Berber who lived at the foot of a cedar-covered hill was unable to give this writer separate names for the two birds. This shying away from concrete definitions is fairly typical of people in a region of massive residual orality, whereas hard and cast definitions are precisely one of the hallmarks of literacy. 

 

 

Metamorphosis, also referred to as transmigration or shape-shifting, is present in most tales of witch-craft and magic in the Maghrib and Celtic regions.35 As is the notion of the life-token, such as a loving plant springing from the lovers’ grave, a widespread motif with examples in Deirdre (Ireland), kan ya makan (Morocco), etc.36 

 

 

Another typical trait is the name taboo,37 which involves addressing people in a certain way, especially formidable characters such as giants and ogres; in Berber tales, for example, flattery is of the essence. Also you should greet an ogre before he greets you; otherwise he will be entitled to devour you on the spot… 

 

 

All this is based on the memory, a faculty that oral persons keep alive through constant exercise. However, the moment they embark on the road to literacy, they begin to lose their previous skill, for writing destroys the memory as it precludes need for effort of memorisation 

 

 

From the above we may infer that both orality and literacy contain inherent yet incompatible skills. What we consider today as literacy, perceived as a cause for pride in the modern world, is the end-result of a long-drawn-out process with continual interplay between the spoken and written word. While deriving satisfaction from the state of literacy, we should never look down on those who still thrive in an oral society. We should envy them for their skill at memorisation and recital, allowing as it does so many gems of orality to survive. 

 

 

 © Michael PEYRON 

 

 

 

 

                                                                       NOTES 

 

 

1 K.M. Briggs, A Sampler of  British Folk-tales (1977), p.3. 

 

2 S. Marshall,  English Folk-tales (1981),  p.11. 

 

3 J. Ong, Orality & Literacy (1982), p.13. 

 

4  S. Marshall, op. cit., p.25. 

 

5 Cf. Roux archive, file 56.3.5., H. Stroomer & M. Peyron, Catalogue des archives berbères du « Fonds Arsène Roux », Köln : Rüdiger Köppe Verlag, (2003), p.60. 

 

6 N.K. Sandars (ed.), The Epic of Gilgamesh, Harmondsworth: Penguin’s (1985); cf. also Y. Blanc, Enquête sur la mort de Gilgamesh, Paris : Éds. du Félin (1991). 

 

7 M. Alexander (ed.), Beowulf, Harmondsworth: Penguin’s (1986); cf. also H.A. Guerber, Middle Ages: myths & legends,
London: Senate (1994), pp.1-17. 

 

8 J. Jacobs, Celtic Fairy Tales (1962), p.244; J. Markale, Les Celtes et la civilisation celtique, Paris: Payot (1981), p.191; T.V. Rolleston,  The illustrated guide to Celtic Mythology,
London: BCA (1993), pp.75-89. 

 

9 J. Markale, op.cit., (1981), p.192. 

 

10 C. Grolleau, Les Quatrains d’Omar Khayyam, Paris: Ivrea (1996), pp.22-23. 

 

11 J. Ong, op. cit., p.19. 

 

12 K. H. Jackson, A Celtic Miscellany, Harmondsworth: Penguin’s (1980), pp.30-48; N. Chadwick, The Celts, Harmondsworth: Penguin’s (1981), pp.266-270; cf. also T.W. Rolleston, op. cit., pp.55-73. 

 

13 The best-known of these Icelandic hero-tales are “Egil’s Saga”, “Njall’s Saga”, “Laxdaela Saga”, and “The Saga of Grettir the Strong”; all are available in Penguin’s paper-back. 

 

14 J. Gantz, The Mabinogion, Harmondsworth: Penguin’s (1981), p.10. 

 

15 Y. Brekilien, La Mythologie celtique, Marabout université (1981); G. Jones, Welsh Legends & Folk-Tales, OUP: Puffin’s (1982); J. Markale, L’Épopée celtique en Bretagne, Paris: Payot (1982); R. Barber, The Arthurian Legends, Woodbridge & Rochester (NY): The Boydell Press (1991), p.45. 

 

16 A. Hoog (ed.), Perceval ou le Roman du Graal, Paris : Gallimard (1974); J.-P. Foucher (ed.), Romans de la Table Ronde, Paris : Gallimard (1975); Chrétien de Troyes, Arthurian Romances, (trans. D.D.R. Owen), London &
Melbourne: Everyman  (1987). 

 

17 Cf. P.M. Matarasso, The Quest of the Holy Grail, Harmondsworth: Penguin’s (1975) & J. Cable, The Death of King Arthur, Harmondsworth: Penguin’s (1982); J. Markale, Le Graal, Alençon: Retz-Poche (1989); A. Hopkins, The Chronicles of King Arthur, London: BCA (1993); M. Godwin, The Holy Grail: its origins, secrets, & meaning revealed, London: BCA (1994). 

 

18 G. Jones, op. cit., p.134-137. 

 

19 J. Gantz, op. cit., pp.217-257; J. Markale, op. cit. (1982), pp.182-210. 

 

20 In particular “How Kulwhch won Olwen”, which is an embellished Welsh re-telling of “Jason & the Golden Fleece” and also one of the distant sources of the Grail lengend; G. Jones, op. cit. pp.85-133; J. Gantz, op cit., pp.134-176; J. Markale, op. cit. (1985), pp.137-151; T.W. Rolleston, op. cit.,122-125. The fabled Brendan voyage is no doubt inspired by Odysseus and his wanderings after the fall of Troy; cf. G.O. Simms, Brendan the Navigator,
Dublin: O’Brien Press (1989). 

 

21 J. Bédier, La Chanson de Roland, Paris : Union Générale d’Éditions (1982). 

 

22 T. Bulfinch, Mythology, N.Y.: The Modern Library (1863), pp.595-778; H.A. Guerber, op. cit., pp.162-240. 

 

23 J. Bedier, op. cit., p.331. 

 

24 For a Tamazight version, cf. A. Roux, Proverbes, contes & légendes des Beni Mtir, Rabat, 1942. 

 

25 R. Nelli, Troubadours & trouvères, Paris : Hachette (1979), pp.15 & 27. 

 

26 M. Peyron, 1° Isaffen Ghbanin/ Rivières profondes, Casablanca: Wallada (1993); 2° “Further research  on timawayin from Central Morocco”, The Journal of North African Studies, vol.2, n°1, (summer 1997) pp.72-80. 

 

27 W. Montgomery Watt, A History of Islamic Spain, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (1967), p.72. 

 

28 Among these are De Lacy O’Leary, How Greek Science passed to the Arabs, available on:- 

 

http://www.amazon.com/How-Greek-Science-Passed-Arabs/dp/818750245 

 

& Barbara Buehner, “Transmission of texts: from Greek and Roman through Arabic”, Neh Institute,

 

Univ. of Michigan, July 7, 2002, available on:- http://umich.edu/~iinet/worldreach/assets/pdf/neh-units/Buehner.pdf

 

29 A.P. Graves, “Anglo-Irish literature”, in The Cambridge History of English Literature, (A.W. Ward & A.R. Waller, eds.), Cambridge: University Press (1932), p.302. 

 

30 T.G.E. Powell, The Celts, N.Y.: Praeger (1958), p.61. 

 

31 Cf. story “The High King of Lochlann and the Fenians of Erin”, in H. Glassie, Irish Folk-Tales, Harmondsworth: Penguin’s (1987), pp.245-255. 

 

32 T. Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to Medieval Europe, N.Y.: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (2005); cf. http://allaboutirish.com/library/bookrev/rev-saved.htm 

 

33 J. Ong, op. cit., p.40. 

 

34 Ibid., p.52. 

 

35 Wimberly, op. cit., p.34 

 

36 Ibid., pp.42-43. 

 

37 Ibid., p.88. For example, among the Imazighen, it is unsuitable to mention the word uššen (‘jackal’) in the morning; you should say war iberdan (lit. ‘he who has no paths’). 

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Moroccan Berber lifestyle and Atlas mountain ecosystems under threat

Posté par Michael Peyron le 5 avril 2010

Moroccan Berber lifestyle and Atlas mountain ecosystems under threat

This brief article, part of a series (cf. working paper IIa) devoted to the Atlas Mountains, provides further insight into the ongoing drama that is being played out up there. As previously stated the Berber lifestyle, as well as a broad spectrum of unique Atlas mountain ecosystems, is coming increasingly under threat from one of the worst manifestations of the World Tourism Order (WTO). Adventure trekking is the name of the game as played by gaggles of gawking, garbage-generating, camera-toting pleasure-seekers with full back-up of mules, mess tent and cook. Each participant moves within his bubble, nurtured by an imaginary concept of the voyage he is consuming, and cocooned from the real world by fellow-trekkers, tour leaders and interpreters. Biblical scenes are there for him to photograph and sunsets to relish, with the rough camaraderie of the bivouac to fall upon should he be unable to raise a signal on his cell-phone for that vital call home before snuggling into his sleeping bag.

Thoughtless activities such as these, aided and abetted by Tour Operators (TOs), solely aimed at short-term profits, are now becoming the rule rather than the exception. People indulge in them with a clear conscience given that they expose remote societies to the supposed advantages of the market economy and its attendant material well-being, perceived as the ultimate good. Anybody suspected of criticism is at once labelled by agents of the WTO as a subversive killjoy. Arguably, however, financial gains that accrue from tourist-derived revenue – initially a blesing – can contribute in the long run to untold damage, best defined as the self-destruct factor. True, free-wheeling visitors bring in new ideas, create envy and aspirations to modern consumerism, together with other forms of socio-economic fall-out. Many mountaineers, especially youngsters, feel tempted to abandon their humdrum rural existence and head for the bright city lights, thus paving the way for depopulation of mountain villages in the medium term. Others, who chalk up a profit from tourist-related activities, generally belong to the wealthier families in the valley. Yet others, however, failing to get in on the act, are content to perform as bit-players in folklore events, bringing in bitterness, cultural debasement and an uneven distribution of new-found gains. The sum of these causes, potentially leading to the disappearance of traditional Berber villages and lifestyle, together with vernacular architecture – normally a source of pride to the locals – would make nonsense of TO brochure talk, as these aspects of local lore are specifically the things that are on offer. That the visitor wants to see and sample. That he’s paid for.

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  In Souf Ifendasen cedar forest, Bou Iblane area (M. Peyron)

The only way to avert this calamity would be for the agencies involved to achieve some form of self-imposed scale-down of their activities. In other words, each TO would have to comply with a moratorium on the number of treks programmed per season. A move that they could never stomach, running counter as it does to their staid capitalistic notions of turning a fast buck. Failing this, the commercial operators press on regardless, merely hiding behind official clean-up exercises of Toubkal and Mgoun areas and pious declarations of commitment to Responsible Tourism, with code of practice, avowedly aiming at self-proclaimed ‘high’ environmental standards, as if this were sufficient to undo decades of ecosystem degradation! Especially when one decision would be to limit the size of groups to 22 – still far too high a figure !!! Furthermore, in an ideal situation a sizeable percentage of the sustainable revenues netted in the area should be ploughed back into conservation. Easier said than done! In other words, adventure trekking in the Atlas is not about to take a downturn. Far from it; things will even get worse. As if this were not bad enough, at least three other threats are looming.

1/ Off-road tourism

Coupled with surfacing of former pistes, off-road tourism has taken off in recent years chiefly due to the ‘Gandini factor’. Gandini, a prominent French 4 x 4 exponent, has been producing guide-books on North African dirt roads at the rate of one a year since 2000, thus unleashing the 4-WD brigade upon countless new destinations. This phenomenon is bringing disturbance to peaceful valleys and causing irreversible damage to valley ecosystems. Frequent use by 4 x 4 vehicles is damaging to piste surfaces, not to mention the noxious exhaust fumes produced.

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Off-road bivvy near Berkine, Bou Nasser in background, May 1990, (photo: M. Peyron) 

Luckily, there are limits to 4 x 4 access. Excessively muddy conditions, as on some Middle Atlas tracks in springtime near Beqrit (an attempt is currently being made to de-Amazigh this place-name by calling it Baqria!), or simple erosion as on Gandini’s piste des cols from Bou Ouzemou to Anargi, can eventually bring even off-road vehicles to a halt! Latter piste is actually impassable at time of writing.

Off-road bivouacs, like those near lakes Tislit and Isly (Imilchil region), also leave an unenviable legacy of un-disposed garbage. Added to this, trail bikes and quads now bring noise and pollution to ever remoter locations. Spreading tarmac also makes it easier for logging trucks to penetrate ever deeper into the hills, with catastrophic impact on already badly hit cedar forests.

2/ Indiscriminate logging

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Furtive logging near hollow between Michliffen and jbel Hebri, spring 2008 (photo: M. Peyron)

A less then acceptable dose of double-think surrounds most environment-related problems in the country. A case in hand is protection of Morocco’s cedar forests. Frequent conferences are held at which officials and guest speakers in suits, white shirts and ties (looking as much like field workers as arch-bishops!) carefully reiterate a series of measures taken to protect this unique Mediterranean ecosystem, followed by communiqués with all sorts of immediately applicable recommendations. Then everybody goes home basking in the satisfaction of a job well done. Trouble is that on the ground nothing happens and, next morning (and the morning after), felling of Atlas cedars is carried on unabated. In fact this activity is being taken to well beyond sustainable limits.

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Another view of timber rustling site between Michliffen and jbel Hebri, spring 2008 (photo: M. Peyron)

Actually, there seems to be a kind of nameless logging lobby in Morocco which is allowed to operate with almost total total impunity. Its visible participants, clearly identifiable on the ground, include would-be respectable loggers and saw-mill owners, Moroccan handicraft merchants, furniture makers and carpenters, the Forestry Commission, and gangs of timber rustlers. It is, however, more difficult to establish any visible relationship between these diverse agents. Yet related they are! The Forester who, at best, turns a blind eye when the timber rustlers go past, or at worst, pockets a fine, may actually be in cahoots with the rest of them. In cedar areas beyond Bou Iblane, at the foot of Ayyachi, or on Jbel Tazizawt – conveniently out of sight of officialdom – small gangs of unemployed locals maintain a lucrative trade. 

  38mutilatedcedartazizawtmay2007.jpg

    Wanton cedar demolition by timber-rustlers, Tazizawt, May 2007 (photo: M. Peyron)

They fell cedars at night, returning to chop them down to size, loading the resulting logs on to specially-equipped mules and heading for the nearest saw-mill or official logger willing to buy their cargo on the quiet. The illegally procured wood is then resold for a profit to town merchants, thus becoming perfectly respectable, and ends up at the local Co-opérative artisanale, or adorning the ceiling of some bigwig’s villa. Everybody knows that the racket is going on; nothing or little is done seriously to throttle it.

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Cirque of Ja’afar in happier days when cedars still grew there, May 1969 (photo: M. Peyron)

Not that the Forestry commission is totally inactive. Fresh plantations of cedars, however, are usually sited close to main roads (Zad pass or Tizi n-Tanout ou Filal), in a kind of window-dressing operation to demonstrate to all and sundry that the Forestry people are up and running! In other instances, young cedars are not always planted in ideal conditions, i.e. on NE-facing slopes and suitably close to Mediterranean oaks, which provide cedar saplings with shade during the early stages of their growth. Young cedars on one SW-facing site on Jbel Misouguine (Bou Iblane) were in pretty poor condition when observed in March 2004.

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Young cedars, Jbal Missougine, Bou Iblane, spring 2004 (photo: M. Peyron)

3/ Mammoth development projects

Typical of environment-unfriendly development projects is the 1.4 billion dollar UAE-sponsored package aimed at revamping the Oukaimedden ski resort. An 18-hole golf course, 25,000 square metres of business premises, shopping malls with Gucci-style boutiques, eleven 4* and 5* hotels are planned, together with a massive upgrade of ski facilities that will include extending the ski area and ensuring a November-April ski season with the use of blowers and artificial snow. Typically, Amazigh culture will be misrepresented – a bogus water-front complete with artificial palm-trees and ‘Berber’ kasbahs (the ultimate eyesore) features on illustrations of the project!

Those in favour of the project are waxing eloquent over hoped-for fall-out. Hundreds of jobs will be created, and the entire Marrakech area will take off economically! What’s more, they claim, global warming will soon be putting Alpine resorts out of business, while Ouka and some unknown resort in Israel (of all places!) will unaccountably attract jet-set skiers. A ludicrous piece of information that totally disregards the sobering reports of weather experts to the effect that Morocco will be getting hotter and hotter as the years go by! Either way, trickle-down benefits for local inhabitants are likely to be insignificant with job opportunities limited to the car-wash, general stooge, parking attendant, and night watchman categories. As a result, locals will have next to no empowerment; hence, they will be absent from decision-making process and benefit sharing, whereas they should be involved at all levels of the project.

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Oukaimeden artifificial lake and snow slopes, March 2006 (photo: M. Peyron)

The Ouka pastures are used as an agdal by local stock-breeders every summer. Now, this activity will be drastically curtailed. Any opposition by shepherds will be swept aside, no doubt thanks to some token financial compensation to sweeten the pill. Anyway, most local Berbers connected with the resort are reportedly enthusiastic at the idea of the project, one reporter even shrewdly observing that many Berbers would no doubt willingly swap their picturesque yet harsh existence for the relative comfort of an Austrian-style ski resort existence.

There is no escaping the fact, however, that waste disposal, especially concerning plastic, already a headache for the present small resort, will pose real problems during peak periods with several thousand tourists in residence, including possible contamination of water supplies to down-valley villages on the Ourika side. Water facilities will be strained to the limit for toilet flushing, hot showers and artificial snow. Worse still, the existing Ouka road, narrow and winding as it is, and quite unsuited in its present state to the heavy traffic that development work will entail, will need a total upgrade.

It’s not hard to visualise other, seedier aspects of this Disneyland of the heights! The comfort of Ouka’s wealthy clients will have to be satisfied round the clock. Once they will have exhausted the possibilities of ski, golf and window-shopping, bored bachelors will want to head for the pub and their early evening pint. Night-club teasers will invariably be in strong demand for more serious after-dinner entertainment, with professionals from Eastern Europe no doubt on hand to bolster locally recruited talent. Talk about a sun, sex and snow ambience…

Michael PEYRON

           

 

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