From caravan leaders to desert guides. #MoroccanFridays


Original photo by my dearest friend and talented photographer – Lina. (Adapted by Writer’s Caravan)

Salam Aleykoum! It’s the 1st Friday of the month so I welcome you back to another Moroccan Friday, a series in which I aim to shine a light on the country I grew up in. The series strives to explore various topics, swaying between reality and legends, geographical wonders and curious traditions. You can discover previous posts here.


There are many tribes in Morocco. I have previously written about nomads and their declining lifestyle and although I focused my old post on the Ait Atta, nomads can be found amongst other tribes. One of them is particularly dear to me because my two main characters belong to it – it is the Arib tribe.

Before I continue, let me remind you how rich and diverse Morocco is with the following map. I have used it before and still find it a powerful tool. If you click through to the link, you can hover over every parcel to discover all the tribe names. But for now, let me tell you who the Arib are and why I chose to depict them in my novel.


Map of Moroccan tribes. (picture source)

The Arib tribe is what many have called a protean tribe but I prefer the word “shape-shifting” – it conveys their versatility and incredible ability to adapt throughout the centuries much better. They made their first appearance in the Sahara around 1607 but that is only an approximate. Throughout the years, they have been desert raiders, shepherds and oasis owners, spanning from the southern course of the River Draa all the way to Tuat – a natural region of desert in central Algeria, punctuated by a set of small oases.

But that is not all. The Arib were also great traders and caravaneers, crossing the desert from M’hamid El Ghizlane to the remote salt mines in Mali and further into Timbuktu.  The Trans-saharan caravan trade ran twice a year, in spring and autumn. The Arib led caravans as large as 1,000 camels (some, especially in the earlier centuries, were as large as 12,000 camels!), laden with tobacco, dates, sugar, tea, cereal and products manufactured in Europe (mostly firearms, gunpowder and fabric).


The return journey was filled with gold, ivory, ostrich feathers, spices, salt, camels and slaves. The latter have actually settled in the southern edge of Morocco and formed a tribe on their own. But this could well be a topic worth-exploring in a future post.

In the early 20th century, as colonisation began in Algerian Tuat and Adrar and Mauritanian Chinguetti,  the Arib tribe was forced to move north, towards the Saguiet el Hamra described in Le Clezio’s atmospheric novel Desert and the Draa valley in Southern Morocco.

In 1937, a few caravans were still intercepted between Mali and Timbuktu but ten years later, the Arib were settled in M’hamid – the so called Gate to the Desert. No longer powerful, they employed a considerable number of slaves to guard their camels, a privilege they ended up selling (the camels, not the slave) in order to buy a house and walk out on the nomadic lifestyle.

Modern day caravan – The Erg Chebbi Dunes, Morocco. Photo by Robbie (CC BY-NC-ND)


The Sand War did not help matters and slowly, after the permanent closing of the Algeria-Morocco border in 1994, those who were once caravan leaders had no choice but to relinquish life in the desert. One generation later, one particular sub-tribe of the Arib – the Nwaji – have now become desert guides for tourists. Following old Saharan routes and their ancestors’ invaluable knowledge of the desert, they search for wells and explore new circuits, some dreaming of emigration to Europe, others, reminiscing with nostalgia about the freedom only the desert could provide.

Those desert guides have been the inspiration for my Ismail and Salem, the two brothers who, while searching for an old well, will see their lives turned upside down – a fleeting moment that will ripple across decades and impact other lives in the process.


Thanks for reading.
Hop on my Facebook and Twitter caravans.


19 responses to “From caravan leaders to desert guides. #MoroccanFridays

  1. I’ve missed my Morocco fix. You write so evocatively, and your characters obviously emerge from deep knowledge. The music is a bonus, for this woman of words. You’ve filled Africa with a way of life I knew nothing of.


  2. What a wonderful way you have found with your Moroccan Fridays to acquaint us with the country you grew up in! I tried your map of tribal names,but it is was unresponsive. Have a great weekend, Elissaveta!


  3. Caravans of 12,000 camels? Did they have to move at all? I almost feel like they should have been able to transport the goods from one city to another just by passing them from camel to camel! In all seriousness, though, it must have taken a lot of work to look after that many animals. Very impressive!


  4. Morocco may be fascinating in itself, but you have to have the right mindset to see that. Believe it or not, I have been to Morocco, but it was for all the wrong reasons – i.e. and 18-30 holiday. I was 19, and I just went because it was cheap, so I wasn’t really interested in the Moroccans themselves, their way of life, their history or their culture. And, if I’m perfectly honest, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to be interested even when I was your age – so take all of the credit for that, as well as for then sharing it with us in such an evocative way.

    PS If you’re flattered by that, that’s okay, I don’t mind. But it is true


  5. Wow, this post is fascinating. Do you know of music like the sound cloud piece you attached, on CD?? I don’t hear lyrics in music, so often find myself listening to music from other countries or classical music and I love it – any album recommendations would be greatly appreciated.

    P.s. 12,000?????!!!! :O think of the poop! I can’t imagine the work caring for them.

    Liked by 1 person

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