Dreams in the Desert

The allure of Morocco, with its unpredictable mix of exuberance and artistry, has seduced adventurous travelers for decades


Curled up under blankets inside my goat-hair tent, I thought I was settled in for the night. But now, drummers are beating a jazzy rhythm outside and women’s ululations pierce the night like musical exclamation points. The Brides’ Fair at Imilchil, Morocco’s three-day Berber Woodstock of music, dancing, camel trading and marriages, is in full cry. Sleep? Out of the question.

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Squeezing inside a large tent overflowing with revelers, I do my best to keep up with the crowd’s staccato clapping. A woman stands up, holding her skirts in one hand and swinging her hips alluringly to the beat. Another woman leaps up, dancing in mocking, provocative challenge. As the two of them crisscross the floor, the crowd and musicians pick up the pace. This spontaneous, choreographic contest makes me feel I’m being allowed a backstage glimpse into Berber sensuality. The women keep swirling as the drummers sizzle on until the music reaches fever pitch, then everyone stops abruptly as if on cue. Momentarily exhausted, dancers and musicians collapse into their seats, and the tent hums with conversation. Minutes later, the sound of distant drums beckons the merrymakers, who exit en masse in search of the next stop on this rolling revue.


In Morocco, there’s always something luring you to the next tent—or its equivalent. This unpredictable mix of exuberance and artistry has enticed adventurous travelers for decades—from writers (Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles and William Burroughs), to backpackers and hippies, to couturiers (Yves Saint Laurent) and rock and film stars (the Rolling Stones, Sting, Tom Cruise and Catherine Deneuve). Morocco’s deserts, mountains, casbahs and souks have starred in such popular films as Black Hawk Down, Gladiator and The Mummy as well as such classics as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.


I was drawn to Morocco as well by its image as a progressive Muslim country, a staunch American ally since Sultan Sidi Mohammed became the first foreign ruler to recognize an independent United States in 1777. Since assuming the throne in 1999 on the death of his father, Hassan II, the young reformist king Mohammed VI, now 39, has helped spark a remarkable cultural revival. Tourists from America and Europe keep filling its hotels to wander crowded alleys, trek the Atlas Mountains, visit the Sahara and relax inside Marrakech’s palatial houses.


Westerners can hardly be blamed these days for being concerned about safety when traveling in parts of the Arab world. But the State Department, which alerts U.S. citizens to dangers abroad, has listed Morocco as a safe destination for years and continues to do so. Mohammed VI was among the first world leaders to offer condolences—and his assistance in rallying the Arab world to the war on terrorism—to President Bush after September 11. Moroccans have staged demonstrations in support of the United States, and American diplomats have praised Morocco’s cooperation.


About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

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