I had been feeling sick and was happy to be in a guesthouse with few guests in a village that warranted only one paragraph in the travel guide. In front of me was a steaming bowl of pumpkin soup, sweet with onion and nutmeg, the perfect thing for a queasy stomach.
I’d had enough of destination travel. For the next couple of days, I thought to myself, I could stay right where I was, the town of Bhalil (pop. 12,000) in the Middle Atlas region of Morocco.
I had been visiting a friend in the northern city of Tetouan, but he had no time for sightseeing. I had rented a car, headed south and visited Meknes, Volubilis and Fez for a week. Now, I was heading back, looking only for a place without much traffic. Lonely Planet called Bhalil a “curious village … worth a visit if you have your own transport.”
My 44 hours in Bhalil turned out to be the most memorable time of two weeks in Morocco. It was also a testament to the idea that travel without a plan is sometimes the best plan.
I was in the old part of town, in a stucco guesthouse called Dar Kamal Chaoui Maison d’Hotes. The only other guests were a couple from Germany with two children, who had eaten earlier. Now it was dinner time for the staff — my Moroccan host, Kamal, and his cook, Naima — and me.
As we finished the soup and prepared for the next course — chicken tagine with pears — a knock came on the door. Naima answered it. After a minute she returned and whispered to Kamal, her lavender scarf framing her pale face.
“There are three girls at the door — students — who want to ask me about the history of Bhalil,” Kamal said, turning to me. “Do you mind if they come in?”
Of course not. Now I wouldn’t have to ask all the questions.
A history lesson
Three girls — 13 and 14 years old — entered the room and sat at the far end of the table. They were a picture of Moroccan demography — one Arab, one African, one European. The girl named Selma had a notebook and pen and sat in the middle.
Kamal asked about the assignment. “To write and recite, in French, something about Bhalil’s history.” When was it due? “Tomorrow” (which was Tuesday). When was it assigned? “Friday.” Kamal broke into “Monday, Monday” by the Mamas and the Papas, chiding them for procrastination, although I think I was the only one who got the joke.
He tested their French with more questions, and when he judged it inadequate for the urgency of the task, launched into a lecture in Arabic about three things that make Bhalil unusual.
No. 1: caves formed by the Atlantic Ocean, which the original inhabitants incorporated into their houses.
No. 2: buttons for djellabas, the traditional caftans worn in the region. A single garment can have more than 100 of the buttons made from knotted thread. Bhalil is where they’re made.
No. 3: the conservatism of Bhalil. This required more explanation. Seventy years earlier, the town fathers had refused to allow a highway to be built through Bhalil — a missed opportunity the place still feels. Kamal put it down as “peur des etrangers” — fear of strangers — but he told me it was more than that. “There were worries it would bring prostitution and alcohol, but I didn’t get into that,” he said, nodding to the girls.
When he finished his talk, he called the girls to the head of the table. He asked them to repeat, in French, what they had heard. He corrected their grammar and took dictation in Selma’s notebook. (“My English is not good, but I am mad for French,” he said in a stage whisper.) When they were finished he pointed to his eye and said: “Watch me” and read the whole thing in a radio voice. He had each girl read one of the parts. Then we all had dessert to a chorus of “merci beaucoups.”
Houses in limestone caves
Bhalil consists of several inhabited hillsides, the guesthouse on one of them. Looking south from Kamal’s third-floor deck you can see a ridge with houses partway up, then rocks and cliffs, and at the top a flat band of ocher earth. For a fee, Kamal will take you on a walk in that direction — four hours for $58, or eight hours for $92. (For $23 more you can get a barbecue at a farm.)
The next morning, I opted for the short walk. We headed off at midmorning, Kamal carrying nothing but two cellphones. He was dressed in black, with his glasses tipped up onto his head of black hair, giving him a movie-star look.
Kamal’s neighborhood still had some houses with rooms carved out of limestone caves. (“Troglodytic dwellings,” they’re called.) The paths aren’t wide enough for motor vehicles other than miniature excavators and front-end loaders, several of which were repairing a water line.
The lanes nearby were noticeably free of litter, and many of the houses freshly painted. This was no accident. Kamal is a one-man improvement association, urging neighbors to paint their houses and sometimes doing it for them. He picks up trash and shames those who don’t.
The road soon became a narrow trail winding between pockmarked limestone boulders. There were no distractions and I could ask questions as we climbed.
Kamal grew up in Fez, moved to France after his baccalaureate and studied chemical engineering in Normandy. He got a master’s degree and worked in France, and then 10 years in Germany, for Hewlett-Packard. He learned German (which is one of the draws of the guesthouse). He married a French woman and they had two sons and a daughter. In 2002, homesick and tired of urban life, he and his wife, Beatrice, returned to Morocco. Kamal had no connection to Bhalil, but it was close to mountains, which he likes, and close enough to Fez, his childhood home.
Today, he’s a man on many missions, not just an anti-litter campaign. He believes in neighborhood solidarity. He thinks Bhalil is undersold as a tourist attraction. He promotes three things — environmental consciousness, tolerance and civic engagement. “I believe I have a duty to improve my country,” he said without embarrassment.
At a terrace on the hillside we stopped to catch our breath and look down on the town. The buildings were boxy, rust-colored, tan and white. They looked like the brush strokes of Cezanne.
We passed a sheepfold with dry stone walls, a roof of scavenged tree trunks and plastic, and two padlocked doors. In the distance, Kamal saw two men and shouted a greeting. “I have seen these men before,” he said. “They wonder what I am doing.”
The top of the ridge was a windy plain. Kamal opened his arms like a child. Rocks covered the ground. After I crossed the plateau, I descended to a dirt road below the brow of the hill and saw Kamal talking to a boy of about 15. He wore a blue polo shirt buttoned to the top.
“This is Mohammed Kandar,” Kamal said with great animation. “I am so happy to see him. I will tell you a story about him.”
Four years earlier, a Canadian couple stayed at the guesthouse. They had flown to Lisbon, ridden south on bicycles, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco and then ridden to Bhalil. They offered the bicycles to Kamal as partial payment for their room on the condition he would find someone who needed them.
At the time Mohammed was going to an elementary school close to the settlement where he lives. Kamal gave him one of the bikes. The boy now attends high school in Bhalil. He said he still has the bike, but doesn’t take it to school because the climb out of town is too steep for riding. Kamal held the boy by the sides of his head, and then clapped his hands in front of his face, as if to set him on his way.
The art of Bhalil
I was feeling better the next morning, but there was no time for further exploration. The drive back to Tetouan would take at least 4½ hours. I brought my bags down to the front hall. Kamal was in the office on the computer and said he wanted to show me a few things before I left.
We headed down his lane to the paved street. “This is the house of one of the richest men in the neighborhood,” he said, pointing to a house that was lavender the first 4 feet above the paving stones and above that cream. “He kept saying, ‘Oh, no, I don’t have the money to paint it.’ So I just did it for him.” Nearby were houses with yellow walls and pink highlights, green doors and magenta utility boxes — a street of walk-through Rothkos.
We stopped at the workshop of Latef Abdellaoui, a carpenter and artist whom Kamal has on a retainer. He had made a series of paintings of local people that Kamal had set into the exterior walls of the guesthouse.
His workshop, in one of Bhalil’s repurposed caves, was as full of alluring objects as a cartoon treasure trove. Kamal climbed onto its roof with a ladder and opened two shutters under a tiny awning. Inside was a mixed-media painting of storks nesting on a minaret, made by an artist who had sojourned in Bhalil for a month. It was art for the neighborhood, open for business.
Naima appeared on her way to buy milk, wrapped in a mauve scarf that matched a section of the wall where she waved to us.
Where the lane hit the paved road was a red house. Along one of its walls were boxes of plants — geraniums and chrysanthemums, basil and hot peppers. Soon after he opened the guesthouse, Kamal had put out planters in the neighborhood. He was told that people would steal them, and he had said, “That’s fine, let them.” However, he hadn’t expected a request for plants from the woman in the red house.
As he was telling the story, a young woman in a headscarf walked down the hill on the paved road. Kamal recognized her. She was 17 or 18 and going to a university in Fez four days a week, studying chemistry.
“Why do you cover your beautiful hair?” he asked.
“My mother wants me to,” she said glumly.
We could have talked to passersby all day, but it was time to go. Back at the guesthouse, Kamal totaled the bill. It was 2,684 dirhams for two nights, two dinners, a mountain trek, parking, bottled water and city tax — about $280. This was expensive by Moroccan standards and a bargain in every other way.
During one of his anti-litter diatribes, I had asked Kamal whether he had thought of putting out trash baskets and paying someone to empty them. He could think of it as an experiment in consciousness-raising, and ask his guests to chip to help pay the labor costs. He liked the idea.
After we settled up, I gave him another 500 dirhams. “For the trash baskets,” I said. He came around the desk and gave me a hug.
Now I have a reason to go back to Bhalil. But it’s only one of many.