In Southern Morocco, the local people maintain simple, happy lives connected to each other and the land, says Natural Happiness writer Alan Heeks
It seems that modern life in Britain pulls us ever further away from the roots of happiness: it’s getting faster, more complex, more connected with screens and technology than with other people.
The contrast in Southern Morocco starts with the way people greet you, seeking a real connection: with eye contact, a slow warm handshake, and the traditional blessing: Asalaam Alaikum, peace be with you.
I’ve been fortunate to visit this part of Morocco many times, and I’m always struck by two things: this quality of real personal contact, and how closely daily life is connected to the Earth. It’s humbling to realise how badly we in the “developed” West need reminding of these basic qualities.
The daily rhythms here are rooted in human contact and the land. The bright early mornings see fruit and veg coming in from the country to the town on donkey carts. And when you want food or supplies, you go to the souk: alleyways of stalls displaying everything imaginable. There’s no online remoteness here: social chat and buying things are delightfully merged.
In Morocco, you feel that daily life is not dominated by money and materialism. Families and communities remain close-knit, and faith is woven in. The call to prayer, five times a day, is a vivid reminder, and I know enough of Prophet Mohammed’s teachings to know that he urged tolerance of all faiths, and regarded Jesus as a great teacher.
I don’t imagine everyone in Morocco is idyllically happy: there are big shanty towns in the cities, and climate change impacts on farmers. But Morocco is 33rd in the Happy Planet Index, one of the highest rankings in Africa, and above the UK at 34th. The Berbers in the region we’re visiting are among the happiest people in Morocco.
I’ve had a love affair with North Africa ever since I hitch-hiked from Tangiers to Tunis with a friend when I was 17. There are many things that make Southern Morocco extra special. One is the vibrant ethnic mix: here you find the original Berbers alongside Arabs and black Africans. Another is the amazing landscapes: spectacular mountains, and the edge of the Sahara.
I can still recall a family holiday in Southern Morocco in 1985, when my kids were 6 and 8. In those days, Marrakech didn’t get so many tourists, and two little blonde girls with koala bear backpacks caused much delight on the bus to Essaouira. These days, places like Agadir and the former sleepy fishing port of Essaouira are pretty swamped by mass tourism. But you don’t have to go far to escape it: for example, the charming small town of Taroudant, only an hour inland from the coast.
In November this year, I’m co-leading a holiday-retreat in Southern Morocco. Our main centre is Taroudant. We’ll be staying at La Maison Anglaise, conceived by a British woman, Jane Bayley, who is passionate about sustainability and Moroccan culture. I care deeply about eco-tourism, and Jane’s Holidays with Heart ticks all the boxes. They are Green Key certified, and they support various local community, crafts and conservation projects, which we can visit. We’re picked up from the airport by their own drivers, and looked after by their friendly staff throughout the trip.
The Sahara, bigger than Australia, is an extraordinary place, which can give you an almost unworldly sense of expansiveness. This trip includes two nights in the desert, as well as two nights in the beautiful Anti-Atlas Mountains.
So much in modern UK life pulls us into technology, individual needs and materialism. This trip is a chance to learn how to deepen your roots in nature, community, and in the daily rhythms of the local people who are hosting us.
Alan Heeks is a natural happiness author who runs workshops and retreats to help people grow their wellbeing and resilience, learning from nature. The 10-day Roots of Joy holiday-retreat, co-facilitated with sacred dance leader and musician Cordelia Jilani Prescott, runs from 10-20 November, and costs around £1033, which includes everything except flights. For full details, see www.naturalhappiness.net/the-roots-of-joy/