Come into the Kasbah

10th November 1995 at 00:00
Tony Binns on fieldwork opportunities in Marrakech and the High Atlas

In the "swinging Sixties" Marrakech meant hippies, flower-power and colourful images conjured up by the music of Crosby, Stills and Nash ("Marrakech Express"). Since then, it has not lost any of its colour. The imposing red walls of an old city, the labyrinthine souks (markets) and the vibrant Place D'Jemaa-el-Fnaa, with snake-charmers, story tellers, acrobats and medicine men, have changed little in centuries.

Only three hours by air from Heathrow, yet worlds apart, Marrakech and the High Atlas mountains now provide an ideal setting for school and university field studies. Such fieldwork has been made easier to organise following the opening, a fortnight ago, of an impressive new field centre situated close to Imlil in the High Atlas mountains, under two hours' drive from Marrakech.

In addition, fieldworkers can now draw on the experience of geographers at my own department at the University of Sussex, who have been taking students to the area for more than a decade and have just published a book on the field studies opportunities there.

A typical week's fieldwork might involve two or three days in Marrakech, undertaking a comparative study of the old city and the very different French city, built during the colonial period between 1912 and 1956. Urban structure and development, markets, transport, craft industries and food processing can all be examined. There is also a wealth of historical detail to see, in this, one of Morocco's "imperial" cities and one-time capital, which grew in size and prosperity at the northern terminus of the trans- Saharan trade routes from West Africa.

The second part of a week can be spent in a totally different environment, yet only 50kms away from sub-tropical Marrakech. Heading south across the semi-arid Haouz Plain, the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas mountains draw ever closer. At almost 2,000 metres, and in the shadow of North Africa's highest peak, Mount Toubkal (4,165m), is the Old Kasbah Field Centre at Imlil, recently restored by Discoverer Ltd to complement its Eagle's Nest centre in the French Cevennes. Between January and October this year up to 30 local workers were busy reconstructing the ruined Kasbah, once the fortified home of the local chief. The centre can now accommodate upwards of 30 people in comfortable living and sleeping areas, with home cooking provided by Arkia, the Moroccan chef, and her team.

October 24 was a great day for the people of Imlil and surrounding Berber villages. Singing, dancing and eating went on well into the night, as some 500 or more villagers flocked to the Old Kasbah for the grand opening. It was a most colourful and memorable occasion, when the local communities were thanked for their support of this new venture, which will bring students, trekkers and much-needed employment to the area.

Imlil and the Old Kasbah provide an excellent base for studying micro- climates, rivers, intricate agricultural and irrigation systems, and rural settlements which cling to the mountain-sides. Discover has experienced tutors and local guides on hand to do as much or as little for student parties as teachers require. The Old Kasbah can also be used as a centre for trekking in the High Atlas, including the ascent of Mt Toubkal, which is easily accessible.

Until recently very little has been published in English on Marrakech and the High Atlas region. But, to coincide with the opening of the Old Kasbah, geographers from my department at Sussex University have produced a new book that sifts through much of the French academic literature and provides a wealth of detail on the potential for fieldwork in the area.

The new field centre and the book provide strong justification for fieldwork in a region which has hitherto been little known and inaccessible. But more than this, Marrakech and the High Atlas is an exciting, exotic and colourful location for fieldwork which can really fire students enthusiasm.

The Old Kasbah Field Centre, Imlil: details from Discover Ltd, Timbers, Oxted Road, Godstone, Surrey RH9 8AD. Marrakech and the High Atlas: Environment and Development in a Moroccan context, edited by D C Funnell and R B G Williams, published by Campus Press, 21 Surrenden Crescent, Brighton, BN1 6WE. Pounds 10 plus 75p pp, cheques to 'Campus Press' Tony Binns is a senior lecturer in geography at the University of Sussex, and past president of the Geographical Association.

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