Mohammed harvesting mussels and running away from the waves
Mirleft is a town of about 5000 inhabitants on the southern coast of Morocco, about an 11 hour bus ride south of Casablanca, and the buzz on the street was that today was going to be la grande marée base, or what I’d translate as the big-ass low tide. Everybody was talking about what they were going to harvest, from mussels to clams to octopus to sole to this random mollusk I don’t know what is called in English, but in French it seems to be pousepille and in Spanish it is percebes. Yesterday the folks went out in the morning, and in the evening there were mythological tales being told of what was harvested from the sea. All were ready for today, where the tide was going to be even lower than the day before, exposing the rocks and small tidal pools where the biggest mussels are and the octopus have their dens. Last night I was invited to go out with numerous people to experience this grand event, but when it came time to fix an hour and a place to meet this morning, the best that I could get was an insha allah I’ll see you at your house (I’m actually renting a small apartment with two French Canadians that I randomly met, and it’s great to have a kitchen). So this morning I woke up at 5:22 am with the first call to prayer, turned on the porch light, packed my bag, opened the front door, and waited drinking tea.
Mohammed was the first person to arrive. He came with a faint and timid knock that I only heard because I was actively listening for it. We left with two others, whom I knew from before but am having a difficult time remembering their names (I’ve been meeting a lot of people during my time in Mirleft). There was a calm and heavy air extending over an empty plateau of desert shrubs, deserted plastic bags, and red rocks, which blended with the blue-grey Atlantic horizon ahead. You could see the faint silhouettes of others wandering towards the shore; their walk seemed so peaceful amongst this pastel backdrop of the first light that it could have been a pilgrimage.
It was quite the scene. People; mothers, children, young men, old men, grandmothers and fathers, backs bent over and arms outstretched holding chisels, all over the rocks, scavenging the fruits of the sea. They were mostly collecting mussels, and would chisel them off of the rocks, and holding the end of their tee-shirt in their teeth to create a nice pouch, they would stash the bounty. When they had collected enough mussels to either fill their tee-shirt pouch, or enough weight to hurt their teeth, they would transfer the mussels to their burlap bag, and continue on with their work.
My job was to help Mohammed, and also to enjoy the scene. I carried a plastic bag that Mohammed would put the mussels in, and I would then transfer them to a burlap bag we had stashed on some higher rocks behind us. In such a way, we were able to work off of the furthest seaward rocks, or the place where from time to time big waves would roll in and over the rocks (and anything else, including human or burlap). We made a good team, or probably the only team, because it seemed like most everybody else worked alone.
The morning continued as such, with people slowly leaving as their burlap bags reached maximum capacity and the tide rolled in. We all retreated to the back of the beach, admiring our bounty as we loaded the bags onto donkeys. Mothers escorted the donkeys and men carried long poles with hooks on the end, used to pry octopus out of their dens, and plastic canvas bags with the octopus inside.