By Jalal Al Makhfi ,AFP
MERZOUGA, Morocco — As the morning sun rises over the golden dunes of Erg Chebbi in the Sahara, men and women dig holes for tourists who want to bury themselves in the sand. Decades ago, tribal nomads settled here, living a traditional desert existence that has now had to adapt to changing circumstance. The dunes of Merzouga tower over the small community in southeastern Morocco, where the Berber Ait Atta tribe now makes a brisk living from tourism. The formerly nomadic tribesmen have for years been running hotels and restaurants in Merzouga, a key stop on the Moroccan tourist trail on the edge of a sea of sand dunes.
Now they’re even turning to the sands themselves to attract visitors. For around 10 minutes visitors are buried neck-deep in the hot sand for therapy said to cure those who suffer from rheumatism, lumbago, polyarthritis and some skin disorders. The therapy has the same effect as a sauna session, helping purge the body of poisonous toxins, according to those tribesmen such as Abdessalam Sadoq who now work in wellness tourism. “We offer every type of tourism here, but especially for health,” he said. Making a living was not always easy for the descendants of the Ait Atta nomads, and over the decades the sons and daughters of those who roamed the desert on camels have had to attune themselves to more modern ways. The Ait Atta once accumulated riches from trans-Saharan commerce, but now all that remains of this past is a road sign pointing towards Timbuktu, a mere 52 days away by camel. Their way of life ended after Morocco became a French protectorate in 1912, with the development of mining in the region, the emergence of urban centers and demarcation of the nearby border with Algeria. Once-nomadic tribes had to find a new livelihood, and turned to cultivating date palms and tourism in the second half of the past century. Visitors in search of a cure do not come only from abroad: many Moroccans also firmly believe in the power of the desert. “I really feel much better, and each year I come back here to spend a week,” said sciatica sufferer Ali Kallamouche from the central town of Beni Mellal.