It’s the day before the festival, and all along the Asif M’Goun, people are preparing for the party. Halfway along the valley lies the village of Hdida, a cluster of terracotta houses framed by crimson peaks and the blue thread of the river. It’s a hive of activity: girls sit cross-legged on the steps, stringing roses into bracelets, necklaces and heart-shaped garlands, while women stick labels onto rose water bottles and pack dried petals into canvas sacks. On the streets, farmers load crates of flowers onto the backs of battered trucks, before puttering off for town with a crack of the exhaust and a cloud of black smoke, waving to children peeking from gateways as they rattle past.
Everyone in the village has a task to do, and Naima Mansouri is no exception. Head shrouded in a pink jellaba, hands traced with henna tattoos, she’s making pot-pourri for the festival. She packs canvas bags with dried petals, tying each one with ribbon and adding a sticker for the village co-op. At the back of the room, petal-filled baskets are piled against the wall, and a copper still glints in the shadows.
“This year has been good,” says Naima. “The roses have grown well and we have plenty to sell. And this year we began distilling our own rose water,” she adds, pointing to the still. “Would you like to see where the flowers are dried?”
She climbs up to the rooftop where a carpet of petals is scattered across the concrete, drying in the sunshine. In the distance, the M’Goun River snakes along the valley, a strand of silver-blue in a sea of red rock. Along the horizon, mountains loom, glowing like coals in the afternoon light.
“It takes two weeks for the flowers to dry. These will be ready tomorrow for the festival,” Naima explains. “Now it is time for tea.”
She heads inside, and soon emerges with a tray laden with a teapot, glasses and a bowlful of rose petals. She lifts the lid and adds the flowers to the pot, stirring it with a long spoon. “We drink rose tea at this time of year,” she says, raising the pot high as she pours to create bubbles in the glass. “It is good for the digestion and the circulation. And it tastes nice, too.”
She sips her tea and watches a mule cart loaded with pink flowers clatter along the street below. Before the construction of the road, villagers used a network of old paths through the mountains, and even now, many people rely on their mules as their primary form of transport — although these days, the old paths are mainly used by hikers and trekkers, who are seduced by the wild grandeur of the High Atlas: a world of crumbling kasbahs, gorges and mud-brick villages, where storks nest on the rooftops, and peregrine falcons and snake eagles circle in the sky.
“Welcome! We are glad to have you at the Festival des Roses!” announces shopkeeper Brahim Tichki, clapping his hands in delight. Around his hole-in-the-wall shop in Kelaa M’Gouna, 11 miles south of Hdida, the shelves are piled with rose products, all wrapped up in shocking-pink packaging. There are soaps and perfumes, shampoos and eaux de toilette. There are ointments, and of course, there are bottles and bottles of rose water and rose oil.
“Try, try! It is good for the hair! Good for the skin! Good for the heart!” Brahim trumpets, brandishing a spray-bottle with which he puffs rose water onto the faces of unsuspecting customers. “It makes you smell sweet, too! Your wife will be happy!”
On the streets outside, the festival is in full swing. Festival-goers throng the pavements. Street vendors sizzle kebabs over charcoal. Salesmen tout rugs and ceremonial swords. Traders holler for business, and policemen make a valiant attempt to marshal the traffic, blowing hard into their whistles, barely audible above the din of truck engines and drums.