An Artist’s Retreat in the Moroccan Sahara

7 mn read

At 70, what kind of holiday do you look forward to? A weekend of culture sauntering around coffee shops and galleries with friends, braving the British weather? Queuing at an airport for a cheap flight to Orlando, to board a massive cruise ship and spend a week getting a taste of the east Caribbean? A family holiday in a villa in Majorca where it’s impossible to read a good book and keep an eye on the ever-growing tribe of young grandchildren playing in the swimming pool?

Having done the above, I signed up for nine days in Morocco with international artist Katherine Soutar-Caddick’s first post-lockdown art group.

Although I grew up in North Africa, I’d never been to Morocco – so this was quite an opportunity. Having not picked up a paintbrush since I was 18, I started painting when I found myself immured with my cat, Velcro, due to lockdown in April 2020, under the support online of professional Dutch artist Renate Van Nijen.

I started exhibiting and selling my artwork last year, and studying the work of other artists, which led me to Katherine’s beautiful illustrations. I wrote a couple of short stories for her forthcoming book – An A to Z of Fairytales – so being invited to join this group was exciting.

Booking a year ahead to fly to Marrakesh was a leap of faith. Getting to Stansted from St Albans at dawn was a problem, so I booked mid-term parking for my Fiat 500 – worth every penny. I booked my own riad stays on arrival and departure as well.

Meeting my fellow travellers at the airport, Jain – a retired primary school teacher and Heather, a retired corporate team trainer – was a relief as I didn’t fancy trying to locate the Riad Afrika in the depths of Marrakesh medina (or old town) on my own, because the alleyways are too narrow for taxis. It’s a red city – attractive, bustling and overwhelming for anyone who has never visited a Middle Eastern souk before. I’d never seen so many cats, but they all seemed to be well fed.

Together, we followed a baggage carrier to the beautiful riad or Afrika, where we received a warm welcome especially from the resident cat Miss No-Name who soon located the packet of Dreamie cat biscuits Jain carried around in her handbag. The souk itself is bewildering, an assault on all the senses. We leapt nimbly out of the path of innumerable motorcycles, admired the exotic fabrics, fruits and art on display, bargained good-naturedly with stallholders in French, Arabic and English, and by some miracle (and the fact that Jain had the foresight to download Google Maps before we left the UK) we found our way to the World Storytelling Café for a delicious vegan supper and the bewitching tales of Ibrahim, a professional Moroccan storyteller.

Meeting our third party member at the café, Maria, a lively professional storyteller from Cork, completed our group. Although Ibrahim walked us back to the main square, I felt quite safe in the souk. People were pleasant, curious and clearly happy to welcome back tourists – so important to their economy. We were not hassled in any way to buy. Being Ramadan, shops were open late and there was an atmosphere of celebration as the day’s fasting was broken by iftar – the first meal eaten after sunset.

Meeting our hosts, Katherine and her partner Abdul Rahman, for the first time was such fun. We piled into a minibus, driven with care and flair by Omar, who whisked us out of the hustle of Marrakesh as we headed towards the distant peaks of the High Atlas mountains.

Roads are well-maintained, and there was so much to see on the way. We stopped for fresh pizza lunch at Ait Ben Haddou, and had a further break at Ouled Othman, where I ventured into my first kasbah to explore the subterranean red clay walls and simple way of life once enjoyed by hundreds of inhabitants, many of whom have moved out and into modern, air-conditioned housing. Steep stairs, no bannisters, not for the faint-hearted – but intriguing.

We broke our journey at Ourzazade – once we were well clear of the Atlas mountains and the long and winding road. I should have taken wristbands or Kalms! A swim in the luxury pool at Les Jardins, and a delicious dinner with a bottle of robust Moroccan red wine, set us up for more adventures. I even played guitar with the resident musician, who accompanied me on his jazz harmonica for a tune or two.

Breaking our journey for a delicious outdoor lunch then exploring the art for sale down every alleyway, was fascinating. The colourful West African influence is clear but very different to the elegant abstract Islamic art of Moroccan tradition. As a pescatarian who prefers to avoid gluten, I was worried about what I would eat – but in fact, I’ve never eaten so well. Fresh salads, mouth-watering tajine casseroles of vegetables, and platters of oranges and sliced melon dusted with sugar and cinnamon were presented three times a day. Fresh natural yoghurt and bottled water meant that I had no digestive issues for the entire trip, despite dire predictions from friends and family.

Finally arriving at in M’hamid at Dar Al Fananna – The Artist’s House – opened the way to new adventures. The house is on the very edge of the Sahara desert – the equivalent of a Wild West border outpost – within sight of the Algerian border. The local river bed is dry because of the dam built upriver near Ourzazade, and it’s clear that water management by the Moroccan authorities needs urgent review, to allow the date farmers of these southern towns the opportunity to continue their traditional agriculture and commerce.

The home owned by Katherine and Abdul Rahman is a beautiful, traditionally built sanctuary of red mud walls around a small courtyard garden covered by morning glory.

The hospitality freely shared despite their fasting for Ramadan by Abdul’s nomadic Al Saharawi family was warm and genuine – his brother Ali’s cooking – three meals a day and unlimited mint tea or coffee nus nus made with milk, was delicious. We were lured away from our artwork by the head of the house – an adorable but firm Mother Cat called Bissbossa – The Beautiful – who rounded us up along with her four adorable new kittens every time food was on the table.

Up on the roof, the air was filled with birdsong, the bleating of goats, the scratching of chickens and the welcoming snuffles of the Home Boys, Campbell and Sami the camels – who would bestow tickly kisses in return for digestive biscuits.

I rode on Campbell’s back out into the desert to watch the sunset. It was unforgettable. The next day we took a four-by-four drive out to the dunes of the Erg Zahar. I was relieved not to have to walk for two hours, despite wearing a bright orange sheesha or turban, expertly wrapped by Abdul to eliminate the sun and sand. Camping on the dunes overnight was a magical experience. Abdul and his brothers made sand bread – baked in the embers of the campfire. We sang, danced and then retreated into our tents to avoid the attention of curious scarab beetles and rather large camel spiders. We left without leaving a mark – the Saharawi tribes and camel wranglers are scrupulous about cherishing the pristine beauty of their desert spaces. Along the way, we stopped to pick up two large garbage bags left by tourists from other agencies, who couldn’t be bothered to clean up after their trip.

On our return, we did more art including illustration with liquid charcoal. Luckily it all washed off in time to get our palms decorated so beautifully with henna by Abdul’s sister Farah’s best friend Kinsa. I smile every time I look down at my hands. That night, we were welcomed into Abdul’s family home by his mother and sisters, to have a four course Ramadan meal at 10pm– this was a rare privilege by a very private nomadic family who wanted to share whatever they had with us.

Katherine is a gentle, generous teacher, sharing her expertise to draw out the artist in each of us. She taught us a range of new print techniques and showed us how to explore and play to develop our artwork.

On the ninth day, with heavy hearts, we climbed into a big minibus to carry us back to Marrakesh – having lost all track of time at M’Hamid. Along the way we stopped off to visit fascinating, little known places that Katherine and Abdul wanted to share with us – well off the beaten track for most visitors. Th ancient Koranic library and family community of potters at Tamegroute, the superb mosaics at the Pasha’s Palace of the El Glaoui overlords at Telouet with its stork nests on the turrets and the private rooms to house his five wives and 80 concubines. Not forgetting a great gallery of photos of his guests, including Churchill and Charlie Chaplin! An overnight stop at the Kasbah of Temnougalte, home to the Al Qaide family for 500 years – was an opportunity for more singing and dancing with local musicians – but Maria and I were both so exhausted we curled up in our cosy beds and listened through the open windows while she told me stories.

We returned to Marrakesh to stay at a beautiful Riad Secret La Zoraida, but didn’t have time to enjoy the dipping pool or the hot tub because wanted to hurry back to the World Café for an evening of storytelling with Maria and other guests. I was even persuaded to take the spotlight for a story of my own, The Potter, sold to the BBC many years ago and turned into a televised musical in Bahrain.

If any of you dream of visiting the magical, chaotic spice souks of the Red City, Marrakesh – or adventuring into the high dunes of the Erg by camel or four by four … please message me and I’ll put you in touch with Katherine Soutar Artist – or you can look her up on

Don’t go with any other tour agency – use the real thing. You don’t have to be an artist – two of our group had never tried anything similar, and I had never done print – but Katherine believes we all have art within us – it just takes an extraordinary experience and a good teacher to draw it out.

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