Until recent decades, the High Atlas region – and its Berber inhabitants – was almost completely isolated. When the French began their “pacification” of Morocco in the 1920s, the way of life here was essentially feudal, based upon the control of the three main passes (tizis) by a trio of “clan” families, “the Lords of the Atlas”. Even after the French negotiated the cooperation of these warrior chiefs, it was not until the spring of 1933 – just over two decades after the establishment of the Protectorate – that they were able to subdue them and control their tribal land. This occurred only with the cooperation of the main feudal chief, T’hami el Glaoui, who continued to control the region as pasha of Marrakesh.
These days, the region is under official government control through a system of local caids, but in many villages the role of the state remains largely irrelevant, and if you go trekking you soon become aware of the mountains’ highly distinctive culture and traditions. The longest established inhabitants of Morocco, the Atlas Berbers never adopted a totally orthodox version of Islam and the Arabic language has, even today, made little impression on their indigenous Tachelhaït dialects. Their music and ahouache dances (in which women and men both take part) are unique, as is the village architecture, with stone or clay houses tiered on the rocky slopes, craggy fortified agadirs (collective granaries), and kasbahs, which continued to serve as feudal castles for the community’s defence right into the twentieth century.
Berber women in the Atlas go about unveiled and have a much higher profile than their rural counterparts in the plains and the north. They perform much of the heavy labour – working in the fields, herding and grazing cattle and goats and carrying vast loads of brushwood and provisions. Whether they have any greater status or power within the family and village, however, is questionable. The men retain the “important” tasks of buying and selling goods and the evening/night-time irrigation of the crops, ploughing and doing all the building and craftwork.
As an outsider, you’ll be constantly surprised by the friendliness and openness of the Berbers, and by their amazing capacity for languages – there’s scarcely a village where you won’t find someone who speaks French or English, or both. The only areas where you may feel exploited – and pestered by kids – are the main trekking circuits around Jebel Toubkal, where tourism has become an all-important source of income. Given the harshness of life up here, its presence is hardly surprising.