Bedouin women in the Sahara offer female travellers a welcome respite from their harsh surroundings and a community dominated by men. PAULA CONSTANT stays with Saharawi nomads.
MHamid el Ghizlaine is, quite literally, the end of the road. After winding through the Tizi n Tichka mountain pass and alongside the palmeraies (oasis-like farms around towns) of the Draa valley, this is where the ribbon of tarmac simply peters out, and the Sahara begins.
It is also where Saharawi nomads, the proud Bedouin of the desert, sell day- or week-long treks out to the dramatic dunes of Erg Chigaga – tours that can also take in the ancient and intriguing world of the tent-dwelling nomads who still call the desert home. For women in particular, after the endless harassment and innuendo that can characterise travelling in Marrakech or Fes, the gentility of the desert dwellers can provide a welcome respite – especially if a few courtesies are observed.
The Saharawi have roamed the desert places of Morocco, the Western Sahara, Mauritania and Mali for nearly a thousand years. A proud race famous for their warriors and strict adherence to Islam, they came across to northern Africa from Yemen in the 11th century. Thousands live to this day in the Bedouin tradition of their forefathers, deep in the Sahara. On this trip we are walking near the dunes of Erg Chigaga; there is an oasis here, and many nomads are camped in the vicinity – it rained recently, and the grazing is good. We stop the camels, and I am welcomed into the tent by the women.
The walls of the tent are covered in rich materials, stitched together to form a colourful patchwork. The roof is lined with a thicker, heavier material, embroidered with gold thread. Woven rugs form the floor, on which rest plump cushions, are also heavily embroidered. Camel hair blankets are stacked neatly on the periphery of the tent, next to the locked metal chests that contain the family goods.
There are three generations in this tent. When a Saharawi woman marries, she joins the camp of her husband. But it is really the women that she will be marrying; she will eat, socialise, and relax in the women’s tent, joining the men only rarely. It is the women who run the camp, roaming the desert plains with herds of goats, cooking in the small kitchen tent, building fires in the sand to bake bread, and caring for each other’s children. They work like a military operation, delegating tasks and supporting each other.
On the dreamy three-day camel trek out to the big dunes, it is possible to pass many of these nomad’s tents, which often seem shabby from the outside, in contrast to the richness of the cool interior. If you are fortunate, you will be invited in for tea; otherwise, the guides themselves can take you through the delightful ritual. Often the guides will be flattered if you express an interest to see the camps, and will approach the nomads to see if a visit is possible – the overwhelming hospitality of the Saharawi will mean it is not only possible, but obligatory.
If you do plan on visiting a tent, there are some courtesies that may allow you to enjoy the experience more. While never judgemental of the strange habits of Western women, Saharawi, like all Moroccans, appreciate female visitors keeping arms and legs covered in loose-fitting clothes. Except in large cities, you will never see a Moroccan woman without a long top that covers her backside, and in the desert this is all the more important. In MHamid, ask one of your guides to take you to a boutique and buy you a melekhva – women in the desert are always clad in these long swathes of brightly coloured material, and they help not only to protect you from the sun and keep cool, but to gain interest and respect from local women. Many tourists simply buy the turbans they see their guides wearing. Unfortunately, in Saharawi culture these are strictly for men. There is no worse combination than a female tourist in shorts and a singlet top, wearing a turban and sunglasses, and riding a camel. Choose your clothing carefully; Moroccan women dress with an eye to femininity and comfort, while remaining totally covered. Try to emulate them.
I stay for tea in the women’s tent. Tea is always a long ritual in Morocco, but here in the desert it is close to a religious experience. It is customary to stay for three glasses, which can take up to an hour. But the relief of being in the wonderful oasis of the women’s domain, where men are forbidden, means it is an hour of indulgence and relaxation; a rare treat for the lone female traveller. The women, clad in their colourful melekhvas, throw perfumed crystals on the coals after the tea is brewed and stand over them, airing the swathes of beautiful material. They unwrap my own melekhva and, as is customary in Saharawi culture, slather me with creams and spray my clothes with perfume, neatly re-wrapping me afterwards. They walk me back out to where the camels wait, laughing and slapping hands at the tourist walking with the camels, but their laughter has no animosity, and their smiles are warm as they press my hands in farewell.
The morning after our visit, we pack up our camels and begin walking through the glorious desert dawn. We pass the place where the nomads were camped, but the tents have gone. In the distance, a colourful figure driving a herd of goats appears on a hillcrest. I recognise one of the women from yesterday, and wave. She raises her arm in a gesture of farewell and then she walks away, into the Sahara that is her home.
• CTM Buses to MHamid el Ghizlaine depart daily from Marrakech in peak season (£8). In off-peak (June to September) take the CTM bus to Zagora, then a grands taxi for the last 100km to MHamid.
• Accommodation at the Hotel Sahara (+212-61-871 644; email@example.com) starts at £5 per person per night. Camel treks can be arranged at the hotel and start at £15 a day.
Both the UN and the International Court of Justice have declared the right of the Saharawi to self determination in the Western Sahara. Although more than 200,000 Saharawi refugees live in camps in southern Algeria, more than 70 countries worldwide support the Saharawi government in exile and not one country supports Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara. For further information on the Western Saharan situation, go to www.wsahara.net.