Reasons to go live in the Moroccan desert

Karen Hadfield is a veteran of the Australian performing arts. She’s been a singer and performer in theatre troupe Crying in Public Places; she’s toured, she’s managed; she’s spent many days of her life filling out funding applications. For a long time she was artistic director of Melbourne’s Big West inner city community arts festival.

But that was all six years ago. Since then she has built a house in small village in the Moroccan desert seven hours by car to the biggest centre (Fes). She has started an artists’ retreat, is President of the village association, and once a year turns her compound into a medical facility for 300 locals. She plans to stay.

She told Daily Review why she moved to Morocco and how her writers’ retreat, Cafe Tissardmine, works. 

You’ve been an artist, producer, manager and festival director. Had you had enough of that life?

I think it was the last ten years as a festival director that caused major burn-out. Too many years of making a silk-purse out of a sow’s ear — the usual story.

I tend to pour my heart and soul into whatever I am doing and that took its toll.

But it wasn’t just the work that prompted this shift. I was living in Collingwood in Melbourne and after a few years of being woken at three in the morning by drunks fighting outside my window, I had had enough.

Why Morocco?

I hadn’t intended on moving to Morocco, I just wanted to move out of Melbourne.

I resigned from my job at Big West and started to consider my next move, Castlemaine maybe, maybe establish a desert festival in Australia; all possible, but none really grabbed me — then I went on holiday to the UK which included a short side trip to Morocco.

After visiting Rabat and Fes, my cousin and I headed down to the desert and took a two day camel trek into the giant dune of Erg Chebbi. The first morning out there I climbed the dune at sunrise and this idea came to me, start a retreat for artists in the desert — easy!

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Did you think long about moving there?

My first visit was January 2010, I bought the place in May 2010 and moved in October 2010 to start to build. The initial move was swift but then I had to build the place so I was here (in Morocco) or a year before I shipped all my stuff over.

What were the challenges in moving there?

On my first visit, I was extremely lucky in meeting the Bouchedor family who have been helping me since day one. Youssef helped me find Tissardmine, build the place and taught me so much about the life here.

It was a huge undertaking to get everything built and very frustrating at times and many mistakes were made but little by little we are getting there.

Can you describe where you live?

Tissardmine is a small village of about 15 houses, the population is Amazigh (Berber) who mostly rely on their yearly date crop for their income.

The village is on the River Saf Saf and is about 30kms from the market town of Rissani where we shop two or three times a week. There are no paved roads–just sandy piste until you get nearer the town. So a trip to town is about 40-45 minutes. My place is at the edge of the village by the river which flows three or four times a year.

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What is the landscape and weather like at this time of year?

The landscape is varied, flat stoney desert, black volcanic desert, small mountain ranges and then sandy dunes. It is littered with fossils and even dinosaur teeth. The weather right now is glorious! Two days ago we had a sandstorm followed by a thunderstorm! So it’s variable. But between November and March it is generally warm and sunny and very cold nights — my favourite times of year are November and February.

Are there challenges living in the desert?

Yes indeed, but I like a challenge so it’s fine. Life is unpredictable, like the weather, so you can make plans to a certain extent but one must be able to be flexible and spontaneous. Insha’allah (God willing) is used at the end of every sentence. That is the approach to life.

Are there challenges in being an independent western woman there?

When I first arrived in this very small and remote village there was some suspicion about who I was and why I was here, especially from the older women.

Over the years I have been fully accepted as part of the life here, It’s like they have decided I am genderless — at weddings and ceremonies, and indeed in every day life, the women and men rarely mix except within close family.

I am able to mix with the men and the women equally. I dance with the women, sit around the fire with the men and flit between the two groups. I feel safer here than in any other part of the world I have lived or visited.

Do you speak more languages since you’ve been there?

I believe we are inventing our own language at the Cafe. Our sentences are a melange of French, English, Tashlehiyt (the local berber dialect) and Arabic. Plus a smattering of mime. Business is conducted on French which is an enormous challenge for my conversational schoolgirl french.

Would you recommend moving there to others?

I would recommend following your dream.

How involved are you in the local community?

Very! I have instigated many projects (building a new community centre, fundraising and supplying a new pump for the village well).

We work closely with a Spanish architect and engineer who is trialling new studies in dune movement and weather monitoring as well as introducing new methods in building for cooling houses: (well. re-introducing an old method that has been forgotten as western ways overtake the local knowledge).

Through the charity Coeur Du Gazelles, we run a clinic once a year, our entire place is transformed into nine surgeries and a pharmacy that provides health care and education for over 300 locals. I am currently President of the village association.

Tell us about your house and the compound where you invite artists to stay

We built the place from scratch starting with a house with a salon, bathrooms, kitchen and three bedrooms. Then we dug a well, put in a water tower, store rooms and a sheep pen.

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Over the time we added a four bedroom guesthouse and a five tent bivouac — all ensuite. Artists are accommodated in the rooms as they are long term guests and the tented accommodation is better suited to short term stays.

Who stays at the artists’ retreat? 

We have hosted around 200 artists; some solo, some in groups. Some come with specific projects in mind — others just want some respite from the western word and all its demands.

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The average stay is three weeks. Several exhibitions have resulted from people’s time here. Currently we have eight filmmakers in residence as part of the Weight of Mountains project.

They are all independent filmmakers and their interests are diverse. Over the two months they have been here, they have produced film using date mash as the developing medium, lived with nomads to make a record of daily life, made soundtracks from natural sources (wind, sand, dry branches etc).

Tonight another five filmmakers arrive who are going to install a sculpture in the desert and film the process…we have also had inflatables drifting through the dunes.

Do you assist or guide them?

We definitely assist them but never guide in the artistic sense. We try to expose them to as many experiences in their first week so they understand the range of possibilities.

We encourage them to get involved in the village life and the female artists usually all end up going out to tea in the afternoons at someone’s house. We encourage exchange but mostly encourage them to leave their western ways behind them so they are open to listen and learn.

Where do most artists come from and what are the costs?   

This all varies but a three week residency in 2016 costs 700 Euro full board.

Artists come from all over — at present we have two Canadians, an Icelander, an Ecuadorian, Portuguese, an Australian and an American. The five arriving tonight are Swiss.

What are the local sources of income? 

This is an Amazigh village. The main source of income is from the dates in the Oasis. We employ two people full-time and two to four part-time.

Tourism, building and mining are other areas of employment. Often men leave the village for weeks or even months at a time for work.

Do you miss the cultural scene of western cities?

Nope! Having said that I get my regular art fix when I leave here for the summer.

Where does artistic inspiration come from for you now?

It still comes from the place I am in.

Is isolation a help, a hindrance, or neither in developing creative ideas?

That is so very dependent on the individual, but most who come here know they need the isolation to free themselves from distractions that can interfere with the creative process.

Have you long term plans to live there?

As long as I am healthy I will stay. Even then, I will stay!

This is an Amazigh village. The main source of income is from the dates in the Oasis. We employ two people full-time and two-four part-time. Tourism, building and mining are other areas of employment. Often men leave the village for weeks, or even months at a time for work.

Do you miss the cultural scene of Western cities?

Nope! Having said that I get my regular art fix when I leave here for the summer.

Where does artistic inspiration come from for you now?

It still comes from the place I am in.

Is isolation a help a hindrance or neither in developing creative ideas?

That is so very dependent on the individual but most who come here know they need the isolation to free themselves from distractions that can interfere with the creative process.

Have you long- term plans to live there?

As long as I am healthy I will stay. Even then, I will stay!

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