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The Real Land of Oz

We weren't off to see the wizard but we were off to a place called Oz. Like Dorothy, we made new friends along the way who made our stay a pleasant experience. Their village is called Ouzoud, Oz for short. It is a small Berber community high in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. After leaving Marrakech in Central Morocco, there is one major city Beni Mellal that you will reach on your way to the larger metropolitan cities of Casablanca, Rabat, and Fes.

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Mmmm, fresh mint
But bigger doesn't always mean better so we stopped along the way in a small village called Olad Ayad in search of something special. There is one paved road through this small town, but it's not paved with yellow bricks. Instead, red dirt covers almost everything here. This road twists up around the dry mountain and through the desert valley for hours. All along the way small red dirt houses lie perched on mountain-tops and along the cliffs. Villages like this are scattered throughout the mountains as far as the eye can see, away from everything, quiet and content, hidden in the mountains.

Vocabulary Box

pastoralists: shepherds
valiant: brave
subservient: to be of a lower standing, subordinate

The Berbers are considered the original people of what is today Morocco. But little is known of their origins, except that they were mainly pastoralists. Due to the imposing Rif and Atlas Mountains, they remained relatively separate from the Phoenicians and Romans (roughly the 4th century BC to the 4th century AD). Their location, however, was also very strategic to the Trans-Saharan trade route, which linked the powerful kingdoms of North and West Africa with goods from Europe, via the Berber settlements.

Unfortunately, the isolation that had kept the Berbers independent began to give way to stronger outside forces, namely Christianity in the 3rd century and Islam in the 7th century. By the beginning of the 8th century, all of North Africa and most of Spain was under Arab control. In the 780s, the Arabs formed the first united Moroccan civilization, the Idrissid Kingdom.

But the Berbers did not give up so easily! During the 11th century, the Arab kingdom had become fragmented. The Berbers revolted against the foreign domination and for a short while they regained control. Nevertheless, despite their valiant efforts, they were no match against the well-armed and very forceful Islamic army. Morocco is also known as the doorway to the desert, as it is the place traders would come to as they returned from or began crossing into the Sahara. By this stage, the Arabs were so powerful they would seize and raid the trade caravans upon their return. In fact, this is why the medieval capital was named Marrakesh, which means "pass through quickly." Defeated, and with no livelihood, the Berbers had no choice but to retreat. They fled into the High Atlas Mountains, where they still live today.

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Hold on!
Nowadays, there is no hostility between Arabs and Berbers. There is one king, whom everyone adores, and a united Morocco peacefully exists. The Berbers live very humble lives and have adapted well to their desert mountain habitats. The few cars you might see are taxis that shuttle villagers up and down the mountains from one village to the next. But no one is in a rush here so you will find most people walking or riding a mule if they have something to haul. My friend, Khalid, joked that we are "too busy in America to live a life like this." He is right in a way, the pace here is slower than even the small southern towns of Georgia where my grandmother was born. I wondered how it would be to live here, out in the mountains. They spend the day going down to the valley river for water, raising sheep and goats for food, drinking delicious mint tea (the national drink) and the evenings talking under small shade trees.

People stopped and stared, shocked to see strangers in their village. They smiled shyly as we waved. Most of the secluded villages we passed through are not frequented by tourists or visitors. The role women play in this society is very conservative and completely subservient to the men. The women wear robes that cover their entire bodies and faces. Monica and I noticed there were no women on the streets after dark. There is a very specific role women play - they are mothers, and they take care of the homes. So, in addition to looking very different, we were women, out of the house and without escort, which I assume was very surprising to the men. They too stared at us as we passed by. One guy even shared that we should be glad to have this opportunity because Moroccan women would not be able to do what we were doing. When I asked why he just replied, "They just can't, they're not supposed to." You would never see a group of men and women together the way that Monica and I were sitting with these men. Women keep to themselves and their children, and are protected, respected, and loved by the men.

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The Ouzoud Falls
Finally after two hours of twisting high up in the mountains we arrived in Ouzoud. Despite its distance, this particular village is highly frequented compared to the other villages we visited. Maybe it's the name; Oz is always such a magical place to visit. And this Oz didn't let us down. Instead of being disappointed by fake wizards, we made our wishes in the crystal-clear, fresh water well at the bottom of the highest waterfalls in North Africa, the Cascades de Ouzoud (the Ouzoud Falls). I can't tell you what I wished for, but if Monica wished we could fly, her wish came true. I don't know how she talked me into it, but before I knew what was happening, we were flying hand-in-hand off of a cliff into the waters below. Kids, don't try this at home! It was thrilling, but chilling as well, since the water was super cold.

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After splashing around for as long as we could, we followed the falls as they turned into the river we had seen earlier. The area around the falls was lush and green, unlike the dry red clay desert around the other parts of the mountain. The villagers used the water to irrigate their small gardens, which were chock-full of fresh veggies, fruits, and plenty of sweet smelling mint for tea. We had dinner with food from the garden and slept under the stars with the rumble of waterfalls in the distance. The land
of Oz was also home to wild monkeys, frogs and beautiful birds that live in the caves behind the falls. Everyone and everything all together, living peacefully in the land of Oz --what a nice life.


Kavitha - A Marrakech Fairy Tale: Snake Charmers and Princesses
Abeja - I'm Sittin' on top of the World!
Team - Moroccan Women... Caught Between Two Worlds
Abeja gets M.A.D. -- She's Making a Difference

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