Morocco’s Dades Valley sits at the foot of the High Atlas Mountains some 100 kilometres northeast of Ouarzazate. Each May, the region’s Shilha speaking inhabitants descend into the valley’s capital village of Kelaa M’Gouna to celebrate the rose harvest. Large vans frequently leave the town centre along the path that leads into the valley. The driver ventures deep into neighbouring settlements, leaving the travelling families and residents nestled in the orchards.
Most dwellings in this region, endearingly termed the Valley of Roses, are century-old kasbat – bucolic structures made from baked earth that blend into the ochre-toned valley. The festival coincides with the harvest of the valley’s cherished rosa damascene, which blooms just once a year. Now late spring, the endless thicket of almond, walnut, apricot and fig trees are still ripening in anticipation of summer.
The flower’s oils are most powerful in the morning, and are therefore picked early in the day. In this region, ‘to stop and smell the roses’ is also a doctor’s order – the scent of damask roses is known to alleviate depression, stress, stomach ailments and insomnia.
‘The rose is not merely an agricultural product. It is cultural. It is this region’s nationality,’ says Nasser Bouqssim, the director of the annual Rose Festival. He adds that even when the valley’s native rose is replanted and flowers elsewhere, the new crop lacks the fragrance and potency of the roses cultivated in the Dades Valley itself.
Each year at the festival a malikat jamal al ward (rose queen) is crowned and leads a parade through Kelaa M’Gouna to bless the harvest. According to Bouqssim, ‘The pageant associates rose products with beauty.’
This association, however, has roots far deeper in time and tradition than the festival’s annual pageant. The water of damask roses – cultivated in Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, India and Morocco – is revered for invoking beauty and cleanliness. Rosewater is often used by Muslim men and women during ablutions before prayer and to wash the holy Ka’aba in Mecca.
‘The purpose of the festival is not just to celebrate the rose but to promote its agriculture,’ adds Bouqssim. He notes one sign of success is that the agriculturists themselves – the rose producers – have begun to value their own crop more highly.
Saïd Bouamine, who operates the Oul Rose cooperative distillery where women unload their straw baskets following the morning’s picking, explains that the price of fresh roses has doubled since last year’s harvest. ‘Last year we paid the women fifteen dirhams per kilo of roses. This year it was thirty.’
The first to distill roses for their attar, their pure essential oil, was Persian philosopher and scientist Ibn Sina (known in Europe as Avicenna). Ibn Sina perfected the process of steam distillation in order to release the aromatic oils in the petals of damask roses. The pressurised vapours, once condensed, generate both rosewater and a small amount of potent rose oil. Ibn Sina’s ‘Al Qanun fi al Tibb’ (The Canon of Medicine) details the bounteous applications of rose attar in medicine, crediting its cooling, antiseptic and pain-relieving properties.
Bouamine’s distillery produces and bottles pure rosewater from these fresh blossoms. The small amount of precious rose oil generated from the distillation process is used in miniscule amounts to create fragrant sprays and lotions. It takes approximately four tons of roses, the quantity usually gathered by the distillery during an entire harvest season, to create a single litre of rose oil. The by-product, of rosewater, is easier to come by. A litre of rosewater is produced from only a single kilo of fresh roses.
Beside the festival’s frenetic carnival is a large white tent in which the atmosphere is far more subdued. Here, local cooperatives and associations market their fresh rosewater, soaps and lotions to interested visitors.
Bouqssim feels that one of the festival’s greatest successes lies in bringing visitors into contact with the local cooperatives that harvest the rose. ‘The rose festival has become more than a four-day celebration. Rather, it is a year-round transformation of agriculture in the region.’ This year’s festival, sponsored by the ministry of agriculture, drew over 400,000 attendees.
Prior to 2013, the valley would celebrate its treasured rose with a traditional moussem. These regional festivals typically honour a local saint or harvest – such as the moussem of dates in Erfoud, cherries in Sefrou, clementines in Berkane or cotton in Beni Millal. Lacking large-scale sponsorship, the moussem features small tents where farmers can show off their rose products to the public. Entertainment at the moussem is centred around gouache, a ritual of percussion, call-and-response vocals and dancing unique to villages in the south of Morocco.
Mohammed Lahlou, a resident of nearby Tinghir who attends the festival each year, expressed his nostalgia for the waning traditions of the moussem. ‘The rose moussem is not about selling rose products or these things that tourists like. It is about this region – our culture, the aouache.’
Though the rose festival has absorbed many cosmopolitan features, it carries on the tradition of the tborida, also know as fantasia. Tborida – literally ‘powder-game’ – is an exhibit of bravery and splendour by Amazigh horsemen, evocative of by-gone desert skirmishes.
The cavalry stem from far-reaching corners of Morocco. Each rider sports a stylish crème-coloured djellaba and bright temag (cowboy boots), with a moukehla (musket) housed neatly in the crook of their elbows. This year, they have set up camp along with their families in a row of modest tents just beside the arena. Now in the late afternoon the tents are full of those seeking shade, sleep or a glass of hot tea. Men and women, many with children strapped to their backs, surround the arena and excitedly chat among themselves in Shilha while awaiting the tborida. Clutching a handful of gunpowder, the muqaddim trots over to his troop. The performance begins and the horses surge forward, entrancing the crowd.
‘We decided to include the fantasia in the festival because it’s an important tradition in Morocco. And it gives people a reason to remain at the festival for many days,’ says Bouqssim.
This article can be found in Brownbook’s July/August 2014 Issue.
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