Out of the desert

The garden of Eden was probably a bit like this. A patch of cool greenness amongst a rocky, barren landscape. It is extraordinary what a drop of water and a lot of hard work can achieve.

Words: Rex Vacherot

Pictures: Alessio Mei

You don’t really expect gardens amongst this sort of landscape. You expect what you can see here: sheep and goats wandering around scavenging mouthfuls of scrub where they can but not gardens. But they are there, little patches of fertility amongst the rocky sand.

This is Morocco. Not the bustling medinas and souks of Marrakesh and Fez but another world on the other side of the Atlas mountains where people eke out a life pretty much unchanged for a couple of millennia. They live in the same mud walled houses, cook in the same way and grow the same crops.

Except, of course, that there is now solar powered satellite television. And Manchester United.

Come into the B’hyra, Maud

The Desert gardens are all similar in construction: a simple shovelled earth wall surrounding irrigated beds of vegetables. They go by the name of B’hyra and every village has one – without the well and the gardens there would be no village!

They are not oases – which (if you are interested) occur when the water rises to the surface unaided by man or machine to form a sort of pond around which Omar Sharif can pitch tents and smoulder.

The gardens are surrounded by the scrubby desert – the silvery plant in the foreground is a native shrub which comes in very useful when drying clothes as it stops them blowing away all over the desert.

Hooray for Henna

To get these extraordinarily beautiful pictures Italian photographer Alessio Mei, and his wife Charlotte, lived in this village with a Berber friend (and his family of thirteen). The village is called Kssarr Tagourromte, you probably won’t find it on the map but it is home to about thirty households who scrape a living selling fossils and jewelry to tourists or as builders and farmers.

The plant growing here is Henna which, ground into a paste is used to dye hair or decorate skin for weddings and other special occasions. The Berbers believe that it protects against illness and the evil eye (See Hotspot).

Should you decide to make your own the procedure is that dried leaves are ground into powder and mixed with tea or lemon juice. The rule is that the greener the powder, the more effective it becomes at dyeing skin red.

Photographer's story

Aleisso Mei

“This is one of the two doors to the Sahara, from Merzouga. It took us nine hours to get there from Marrakesh, crossing the Atlas mountains at 2600 metres. The first time we went was August. The heat lay heavily during the day (45-55 degrees centigrade) and they sky was almost white. This time we went in November and the air and colours were much clearer.

We shared life with with a Berber family living in an ancient, dark mud kasbah opening onto a valley facing the desert in the distance. It was like going back in time: all the women of the family work continuously from dawn to night at the domestic jobs including cooking, using the same methods their ancestors. The Berbers have an almost spiritual connection with the soil visible in not only the way they work but also in the way they sit.

The aim of our expedition was to explore the unexpected variety of vegetables and fruit grown there and the techniques used by the locals to tame this apparently barren land. We also wanted to illustrate the contrast between the geometry and colors of the cultivated fields in the relationship with the natural desolated environment. Thanks to my trusted friend we got into hidden kasbahs and gardens, meeting people who would have impossible to visit without his help.”

Hats off to the Berbers

This is a hard country. Unbelievably hot and dry summers and winters that are not much different, every plant and animal has to struggle to survive. There is not much at all in the way of wild animals to speak of as the land is too unforgiving although there are owls and birds of prey further into the mountains..

This chap’s name is Youssef. He survives by subsistence farming and lives in an isolated house about 8km from the main road. Berbers do not celebrate birthdays and do not keep account of dates so we have no way of knowing how old he is.

The earliest evidence of the Berber people are some 12,000 year old cave paintings in Southern Algeria. Since then the Berber people have spread across most of North Africa and have been involved in most of the more exciting incidents in the region. They were occupied by the Romans, ran slaves from the Barbary Coast, were conquered by Arabs (who brought Islam), invaded Spain and lived through colonisation by the French. Today about half the Moroccan population are Berbers.

Included among the list of famous Berbers are: Augustine of Hippo, Adrian of Canterbury, two Roman Emperors, three Popes, Edith Piaf (through her grandmother) and footballer Zinedine Zidane.

No frills living

Most of the houses in villages like these are ancient and built of an earth and straw mix rammed hard into walls. In Morocco it is known as pisé. Berbers, and many other civilisations, have been building like this for ages and (especially in dry areas like this) the mud walls can stand for centuries.

The houses are almost completely empty apart from small straw rugs, a couple of cushions and maybe a low table for tea cups. Oh, and a solar powered satellite television: football is incredibly important to all Moroccans.

Every precious drop

Unsurprisingly the secret to gardening in the desert is water: with barely enough rain to fill a toothmug everything – people, animals and plants – relies upon the wells. Most of the desert gardens are supplied by hand dug wells about 12-18 meters deep. This is, as I am sure you can appreciate, no mean feat. In previous generations the water was pulled up in buckets but nowadays they can depend on diesel or solar powered pumps.

Water sources like this are, however, notoriously fickle and can dry up in which case there is no choice other than pack up and make a new garden elsewhere.

Running away with it

The water is allowed to run down channels which are regularly dammed and redirected to ensure an even distribution of water to all parts of the garden. The soil is kept going by using manure and, increasingly, modern fertilisers.

Fruit and nuts

A lot of the things that are grown in these gardens would be instantly recognisable if they turned up in a western supermarket: turnips, peas, onions, peppers, carrots, aubergines and sweetcorn for a start.

They also grow apple, olive, almond and pomegranate trees which also give some much needed shade to growing seedlings. Unsurprisingly they also grow a wide range of herbs (including normal worldwide garden stuff like rosemary, fennel, basil, mint and Santolina) for tea.

Produce that is not eaten by the villagers is taken to market.