Morocco is a land of many pungent aromas, some of which are tantalisingly fragrant and caress your nasal senses, while others are downright nostril-invading stenches. I’m sure such an aromatic diversity exists in many other countries and in my experience I’ve found that the hotter and less affluent a country is, the more frequently you are bombarded with the foul smells that heat enhances. Ineffective drainage systems or overflowing rubbish bins contribute to how much more you savour pleasing smells when they penetrate the stink barrier and waft towards your nose, like the redolence of a Tagine lazily simmering over a charcoal burner; now to me there is nothing more drool-inducing than that smell, especially when it is coupled, as it so often is in this country, with the tummy-rumbling aroma of freshly baked bread. Unfortunately, at the opposite end of the scent spectrum, there exists the eye-watering acridity of stale sweat, the overpowering whiff of undiluted bleach and the rancid odour of rotting animal corpses: all smells I encounter with some regularity and most definitely do not savour. Deodorant is unaffordable for many villagers. Bleach is cheap and destroys all germs in its path, and dead animals are disposed of in the quickest and cheapest way possible, so I appreciate why these malodours exist, but that doesn’t make them any easier on the nose!
I don’t know about you, but sometimes even just the merest hint of a scent is enough to transport me back to a particular point in my life, and can be far more likely to conjure up memories of events, people and countries visited than a faded photograph ever will. I have a very sensitive nose and can often detect an odour, pleasant or otherwise, far more quickly than anyone I happen to be in the company of. When I catch a whiff of an odour I cannot quite place, I have a rather embarressing habit of sniffing the air like a wild animal trying to detect the scent of its prey, as I endeavour to identify the mysterious aroma.
When we first moved into our house in the village and I was exploring our garden and roof terraces, a farmyard smell seemed to follow me wherever I walked, which was somewhat puzzling as I hadn’t noticed any buildings or land nearby that resembled a farm. As curiosity began to get the better of me, I climbed up and peered warily over one of the walls, (not wanting to be caught in the act of tompeepery by my new neighbours!), and could hardly believe what I saw. In a small and muddy straw-strewn enclosure leading off of our neighbour’s house stood two huge grey cows, an elderly-looking donkey, two goats and five or six sheep. Squabbling and flapping at their feet (or should I say, hooves!) were several chickens and a turkey with chicks. Aside from the occasional bleat and squawk though, the animals were very quiet and had I not have sneaked a peek over the wall, I might never have known that they were there…although goodness knows what I would have attributed the smell to in their absence?!
A local person once told my husband that there are more cows resident in the village than there are people, which never ceases to amaze me as it is rare to see any animals grazing on the land, and I was often left wondering just where these elusive beasts were. Soon however we discovered that the majority of homes in the village keep small numbers of livestock in their gardens, yards, garages and even on rooftops, and that although some of the sheep and goats do graze the land outside of their enclosures, many of the larger animals, like cows, never see the light of day. The land in this region is so barren that there is precious little for the animals to graze on, and much of what you see men and women in the field, bent over double and picking by hand, is fodder for their livestock.
Should I happen to be walking past a house whose garage doubles as a cowshed and hear the deep and soulful moo of a cow resonating from behind the doors, I can’t help feeling a little sorry for these giant, gentle-looking beasts, whose only glimpse of the sunlight or sniff of fresh air occurs when the corrugated doors are opened briefly for the dung to be shovelled through, which, incidentally, is left in steaming great mounds outside the houses.
It would be all too easy to label this practice cruel, but these huge doleful eyed creatures are kept to help feed poor families and provide them with the nutrition that they might not otherwise get. For me, it’s a little like seeing a donkey stumbling along on buckled legs in the midday sun, laden down with heavy baskets of fodder, its tongue lolling pathetically from the side of its mouth, while being urged along by somebody walking at their side brandishing a stick, or worse still, sitting astride the poor animal. I am instantly overcome with sadness and anger, but how easy it is to forget that the person trudging alongside the beast, or riding it, had to spend hours bent over double in the scorching heat picking the greenery that now fills the baskets, while the donkey rested under the shade of a tree. The lives of the working animals of Morocco may well be hard, but no less than those of the people who tirelessly work the land in order to survive and feed their families.
So, do I think that I will remember this country in a fond fragrant light when I leave? Well, I think that all rather depends which way the wind is blowing!