Fragrance in Travel Literature-Morocco, by S.L. Bensusan

Morocco, by S.L. Bensusan



This little corner of the world, close to the meeting of the Atlantic and Mediterranean waters, epitomises in its own quiet fashion the story of the land's decay. Now it is a place of wild bees and wilder birds, of flowers and bushes that live fragrant untended lives, seen by few and appreciated by none. It is a spot so far removed from human care that I have seen, a few yards from the tents, fresh tracks made by the wild boar as he has rooted o' nights; and once, as I sat looking out over the water when the rest of the camp was asleep, a dark shadow passed, not fifty yards distant, going head to wind up the hill, and I knew it for "tusker" wending his way to the village gardens, where the maize was green.

We rode past the low-walled gardens, where pomegranate and apricot trees were flowering, and strange birds I did not know sang in the deep shade. Doves flitted from branch to branch, bee-eaters darted about among mulberry and almond trees. There was an overpowering fragrance from the orange groves, where blossom and unplucked fruit showed side by side; the jessamine bushes were scarcely less fragrant. Spreading fig-trees called every passer to enjoy their shade, and the little rivulets, born of the Tensift's winter floods to sparkle through the spring and die in June, were fringed with willows. It was delightful to draw rein and listen to the plashing of water and the cooing of doves, while trying in vain to recognise the most exquisite among many sweet scents.

I looked out of my little room that opened on to the patio. The arch of heaven was swept and garnished, and from "depths blown clear of cloud" great stars were shining whitely. The breeze of early morning stirred, penetrating our barred outer gates, and bringing a subtle fragrance from the beflowered groves that lie beyond the city. It had a freshness that demanded from one, in tones too seductive for denial, prompt action. Moreover, we had been rising before daylight for some days past in order that we might cover a respectable distance before the Enemy should begin to blaze intolerably above our heads, commanding us to seek the shade of some chance fig-tree or saint's tomb.

Straightway men and beasts made their way through the narrow cobbled lanes. Sneering camels, so bulked out by their burdens that a foot-passenger must shrink against the wall to avoid a bad bruising; well-fed horses, carrying some early-rising Moor of rank on the top of seven saddle-cloths; half-starved donkeys, all sores and bruises; one encountered every variety of Moorish traffic here, and the thoroughfare, that had been deserted a moment before, was soon thronged. In addition to the Moors and Susi traders, there were many slaves, black as coal, brought in times past from the Soudan. From garden and orchard beyond the city the fruit and flowers and vegetables were being carried into their respective markets, and as they passed the air grew suddenly fragrant with a scent that was almost intoxicating. The garbage that lay strewn over the cobbles had no more power to offend, and the fresh scents added in some queer fashion of their own to the unreality of the whole scene.

We had ridden in single file through a part where the lotus, now a tree instead of a bush, snatched at us on either side, and the air was fragrant with broom, syringa, and lavender. Behind us the path closed and was hidden; before us it was too thick to see more than a few yards ahead. Here and there some bird would scold and slip away, with a flutter of feathers and a quiver of the leaves through which it fled; while ever present, though never in sight, the cuckoo followed us the whole day long. Suddenly and abruptly the path ended by the side of a stream where great oleanders spread their scarlet blossoms to the light, and kingfishers darted across the pools that had held tiny fish in waters left by the rainy season. When we pushed our horses to the brink the bushes on either hand showered down their blossoms as though to greet the first visitors to the rivulet's bank. Involuntarily we drew rein by the water's edge, acknowledging the splendour of the scene with a tribute of silence. If you have been in the Western Highlands of Scotland, and along the Levantine Riviera, and can imagine a combination of the most fascinating aspects of both districts, you have but to add to them the charm of silence and complete seclusion, the sense of virgin soil, and the joy of a perfect day in early summer, and then some faint picture of the scene may present itself. It remains with me always, and the mere mention of the Argan Forest brings it back.

The forest was left behind, the land grew bare, and from a hill-top I saw the Atlantic some five or six miles away, a desert of sand stretching between. We were soon on these sands—light, shifting, and intensely hot—a Sahara in miniature save for the presence of the fragrant broom in brief patches here and there. It was difficult riding, and reduced the pace of the pack-mules to something under three miles an hour. As we ploughed across the sand I saw Suera itself, the Picture City of Sidi M'godol, a saint of more than ordinary repute, who gave the city the name by which it is known to Europe. Suera or Mogador is built on a little tongue of land, and threatens sea and sandhills with imposing fortifications that are quite worthless from a soldier's point of view. Though the sight of a town brought regretful recollection that the time of journeying was over, Mogador, it must be confessed, did much to atone for the inevitable. It looked like a mirage city that the sand and sun had combined to call into brief existence—Moorish from end to end, dazzling white in the strong sun of early summer, and offering some suggestion of social life in the flags that were fluttering from the roof-tops of Consuls' houses. A prosperous city, one would have thought, the emporium for the desert trade with Europe, and indeed it was all this for many years. Now it has fallen from its high commercial estate; French enterprise has cut into and diverted the caravan routes, seeking to turn all the desert traffic to Dakkar, the new Bizerta in Senegal, or to the Algerian coast.

We passed the graveyard of the Protestants and Catholics, a retired place that pleaded eloquently in its peacefulness for the last long rest that awaits all mortal travellers. Much care had made it less a cemetery than a garden, and it literally glowed and blazed with flowers—roses, geraniums, verbena, and nasturtiums being most in evidence. A kindly priest of the order of St. Francis invited us to rest, and enjoy the colour and fragrance of his lovingly-tended oasis. And while we rested, he talked briefly of his work in the town, and asked me of our journey. The place reminded me strongly of a garden belonging to another Brotherhood of the Roman Catholic Church, and set at Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, where, a few years ago, I saw the monks labouring among their flowers, with results no less happy than I found here.

Alas, that modern knowledge should have destroyed all faith in old legend! The fabled fruits of the Hesperides turn to oranges in the hands of our wise men, the death-dealing dragon becomes Wad Lekkus itself, so ready even to-day to snarl and roar at the bidding of the wind that comes up out of the south-west, and the dusky maidens of surpassing loveliness are no more than simple Berber girls, who, whilst doubtless dusky, and possibly maidenly as ever, have not inherited much of the storied beauty of their forbears. In spite of this modern perversion of the old tale I find that the oranges of the dining-table have a quite rare charm for me to-night,—such an attraction as they have had hitherto only when I have picked them in the gardens of Andalusia, or in the groves that perfume the ancient town of Jaffa at the far eastern end of the Mediterranean. Now I have one more impression to cherish, and the scent of a blossoming orange tree will recall for me El Araish as I saw it at the moment when the shroud of evening made the mosques and the kasbah of Mulai al Yazeed melt, with the great white spaces between them, into a blurred pearly mass without salient feature.

As it happened, Djedida was the steamer's next port of call, so we made haste to return to her hospitable decks. I carried with me a vivid impression of Dár el Baida, of the market-place with its varied goods, and yet more varied people, the white Arabs, the darker Berbers, the black slaves from the Soudan and the Draa. Noticeable in the market were the sweet stores, where every man sat behind his goods armed with a feather brush, and waged ceaseless war with the flies, while a corner of his eye was kept for small boys, who were well nigh as dangerous. I remember the gardens, one particularly well. It belongs to the French Consul, and has bananas growing on the trees that face the road; from beyond the hedge one caught delightful glimpses of colour and faint breaths of exquisite perfume.

Wealthy merchants had brought their horses within the shadow of the sok's[6] high walls and loosened the many-clothed saddles. Slaves walked behind their masters or trafficked on their behalf. The snake-charmer, the story-teller, the beggar, the water-carrier, the incense seller, whose task in life is to fumigate True Believers, all who go to make the typical Moorish crowd, were to be seen indolently plying their trade. But inquiries for mules, horses, and servants for the inland journey met with no ready response. Dár el Baida, I was assured, had nothing to offer; Djedida, lower down along the coast, might serve, or Saffi, if Allah should send weather of a sort that would permit the boat to land.