One of the definite advantages of living and working in southern Morocco is that any trip north toward greater civilization, be it for leisure or work, generates an opportunity to be creative with the route by which one arrives there. On this particular occasion, being needed in Rabat, I took the opportunity to swing around to the right and visit the East/North. My first stop was Figuig, the Moroccan equivalent of the American Wild West.
The word “fuq,” in Arabic فوق, is pronounced somewhere between “fuck’ and “fook.” It usually means “top” or “above.” For example, my apartment is fuq, indicating it’s the top floor. Of course, since it sounds very similar to a profane English word, every time it’s used, there’s a childish part of me that is amused. Once I learned the word was humorously applied to a city, it was destiny that I go there.
The city of Figuig is so far removed from the everyday Moroccan experience that few Moroccans actually travel there. It is located in a far-removed corner of the country in the middle of open desert. So, to say something is beyond amazing, colloquially they say it is “fuq Figuig,” meaning it is beyond the extreme; it is superlative; it’s past the frontier.
Nearly surrounded by Algeria, Figuig is a geographic anomaly, of sorts, and with current and ongoing tensions with its neighbor, its situation is sometimes tenuous. Because of its long history and its thriving, water-filled oasis, it became a political focal point during border disputes between the two countries. In fact, at least according to local anecdote, the airspace is actually Algerian, while the land itself is Moroccan. Though there used to be a busy border crossing in Figuig, especially since there were few to begin with, it has been closed for around ten years. The only somewhat open border crossing between the two countries is in Oujda, to the far north.
Nearly all of Figuig’s population is of indigenous Amazigh decent, though over the centuries other groups, such as Jews and Arabs, have lived there. In fact, while I was there, I was given a tour around the old Jewish “melhah,” or quarter. I was shown the rabbi’s house, the old synagogue, and even the ritual bath.
There, of course, is a larger Islamic contribution to the culture of the town. Most prominently, there is an eight-sided mosque minaret made of stone from the thatth century that still stands and is used. Near the Jewish mellah is an even older mosque dating from the 11th century.
The name Figuig comes from the Amazigh word, Ifyyey. Historically, it has served as both a source of produce and a key stopover for traveling traders. Though technically not the easternmost area of Morocco (there are land claims that extend a bit further east), Figuig is the most easterly city. It’s fair to say it’s in the middle of nowhere. The trip there was long and beautiful, and odd at times, especially when, near the town of Bouanane, the only thing separating the bus from Algeria is a large berm along the side of the road.
As is the custom for intercity buses, if they have room aboard, they stop for whomever needs a lift — even in the middle of the desert. On this particular trip, we stopped nearly 40 times. Sometimes, it was for a man standing by the road without a visible habitation in sight. Sometimes, it was for a little girl to run off into the desert to pee. Sometimes, it was for the bus assistant to be handed a bag of something which was then left at a seemingly random location 10 kilometers hence.
The city is divided into upper and lower Figuig, with upper Figuig being newer. Much of the lower area is agricultural and ancient residential, while the upper area is primarily for business and government, though there is more modern housing there as well. Much of the lower area is made-up of palmeries and farms surrounding an ancient ksar, or fortified city. It’s a labyrinthine maze of blind turns and dead ends, but most everyone is kind enough to guide you out. Along most of the walkways are water canals that divert water to whomever is scheduled to receive it during that hour.
Perhaps the most interesting, yet bizarre moment of the trip was sitting at a café in upper Figuig, looking out over the farms toward Algeria. It felt like I was eavesdropping. I could see vehicles moving along the adjoining road, but knew there was nowhere it could cross. There are no fences, but there are multiple military stations interspersed every so often and a breech of the border is taken very seriously — at least in the south. The north is a different matter, but more on that later.