Here in Morocco, a smiling nation on the north-west tip of Africa, folk speak Arabic. They also speak French and, for other tourists, a fait bit of English.
What they speak among themselves, however, is none of these. They speak Berber. Why? Because the people of Morocco are Arabs by inclination, but culturally and linguistically, they are tied to the ancient and original desert population that preceded Arab, Spanish and French domination.
The problem with Berber is that nobody else speaks it. So the television in every café, every hotel, is tuned to Al Jazeera. It comes from the opposite end of the Arab world, and so Moroccans brush up on their Arabic to follow events in Libya.
We have been riding here for two weeks now and Al Jazeera’s apparent continuous coverage has everyone transfixed. Some is just ordinary interest, of course, fascination with the problems of near neighbors, the end of another dictatorship. The papers here are neutral but show no sympathy for Gadhaffi. The few people with whom we have discussed the matter are in no doubt: “Gadhaffi is crazy. Crazy.”
But there must also be some introspection. It seems that “everyone here loves the King,” and his picture is everywhere, in the streets, cafés and hotels. He looks a sad and vaguely disorientated man, his face suggesting – whether it’s true or not, I have no idea – that he really didn’t ask to be king and would rather be left alone. But he holds abnormal power. There is a parliament, but he can dissolve it at will. And he can create any law he wishes.
And for all that “everyone” loves him. There have been demonstrations in two dozen cities since we’ve been here, and the king has seen fit to increase democracy. We thought the demonstrations accounted for the frequent police checks on the road. But we are getting over-excited: they’re to check truck loads and drivers’ licenses.
It doesn’t spoil the ride. We have been in the hard, rugged climbs of the Atlas mountains, on demanding ridge roads overlooking stupendous valleys and walled Berber villages on conical hills. Everyone smiles and waves and shouts greetings in French. The kids see us as a potential source of dirhams or pens but they are too cute to dislike, even the few who throw stones deliberately inaccurately to pass the afternoon.
Today we are back in Marrakech, where we started two weeks and a great deal of climbing ago. It’s an interesting town which acts out a daily circus for the benefit of tourists. There are snake-charmers and sad-looking monkeys and men telling stories we can’t understand. Tomorrow we’ll set off again, once more through the mountains and up to nearly 3,000m before heading definitively north for the ferry to Spain. We then have a whole new nation to cross, riding parallel to the Portuguese border as far as the Basque Country before no doubt racing over the Pyrenees to home.
By then, Morocco will be a distant memory, saved in words and camera cards. And by then, perhaps, the same will be said for Gahdaffi.