Perhaps my love for ghassool, Morocco’s wonder lava-clay has to do with its creamy chocolate, pudding like texture. But in reality I know that it is ghassool’s healing and anti-aging powers that have made me fall in love with this rare, ancient clay. In fact, I have been covering my entire body in ghassool for nearly a decade.
I have recommended it to numerous desperate mothers looking to rid their poor teenagers of terrible acne outbreaks. I myself have used the amazing clay a number of times to get rid of my own hormonal acne when nothing else worked. I have used it to purge and soften my face, wash my hair, detox and the list goes on and on. I could only dream of the day when I would view the source of this miraculous clay for myself. Having ended up in the wrong part of Morocco just six months earlier, I was nervous and a bit in disbelief as I approached the low Atlas, the only place in the world where ghassool Moroccan lava clay is found. We stopped several times in deserted little towns to make sure we were headed in the right direction. Unlike many parts of Morocco, this place was scarcely populated.
Rarely did we pass a car, a donkey or even a pedestrian. Not much greenery to be seen, we were surrounded by shades of browns and reds. We finally approached a small building on our right. There were several wheelbarrows and dumpster like containers. It appeared we had finally hit our target. We asked about the exact location of the mines. The workers wanted to help but at the same time were hesitant. They were not sure that we had the proper official permission we needed to enter the area. They directed us down to their next processing station. We again were greeted with the same hesitation, but they agreed to call the engineer of the mine to try to secure our entry. One of the workers got in the car to take us to the road that would lead us to the mines. There were no signs from the road otherwise.
I tried to take in the scenery as we neared the mines, but I was too nervous. Camels dotted the terrain. Low, sandy colored mountains spread across the backdrop. What a wonderful place for sniper fire! As morbid as this sounds, I expected bullets to spray at us any moment. We were approaching a secure area. A possession of the Moroccan king, I expected armed guards to appear from behind the mountains in black tanks in pursuit of us. But alas, my adventure would not be so eventful. All was silent as we approached the single bar that separated us from the great mountains of ghassool.
This was the moment of truth. The whole way I kept telling myself that we couldn’t possibly get access to the ghassool mines. Firstly I didn’t think that my driver would actually know how to get there. He surely didn’t know how to get there six months prior. Secondly, unlike my last visit, I didn’t have official permission to enter this time. Thirdly, this was too grandiose of an idea to ever reach fruition. I prayed the whole way there. I prayed at the gate. This is not the first and probably won’t be the last time I found myself in this situation. Beyond the clouds of doubt, deep inside I knew that even when things looked bleak and weary, I was always blessed enough to come through victorious. With the exchange of only a few words, the man who had popped out of a canal below, pulled out a key and opened the padlock to remove the bar, our only physical barrier.
In Morocco one says “Alhamdulilah”, meaning “All Praises are due to the Creator.” I couldn’t believe we were actually approaching the mines. Only one more hurdle. We didn’t have government permission to be here and now we had to face the mines’ engineer. And face the engineer we did. The scowl on his face was the first obvious sign that he was not at all happy to see us here. For thirty minutes the engineer and the driver went back and forth in what looked like a skilled display of chess.
I couldn’t quite understand what all was being said, but with his usual candor my driver used his charm to make several advances. But don’t worry; I used some charm of my own. I sat innocently in a chair and smiled when referred to. I drank my tea with humbleness and gratitude. My videographer (my eighteen year old son), came in with some “salams” and it quickly became apparent that this twenty-eight week pregnant woman and her young videographer were totally non-threatening. But don’t be fooled. Throughout my curtness I continued to pray.
Suddenly, rather surprisingly the engineer’s attitude changed. He smiled at me and said that he would get permission from the minister in Fez himself. Before I know it the minister asked to speak to me. I am very phone shy, but what was I to do at this moment? I spoke to a very charming gentleman who was rather warm and friendly. I was invited to visit their factory in Fez. What an invitation! I found this to be exceedingly kind of him. I thanked him for his invitation of kindness and told him on my next visit I will make sure to visit as we had already passed Fez the day before.
The engineer handed us each a hard hat and we drove a short drive to reach the site of a current excavation. I took note of how barren the region is. Only small rocky mountains fill the landscape for miles, and I was about to experience how “rocky” the mountains actually are. We get out of the car and walk to the side of a mountain wall. At this point I realize we are standing on top of the mine, not being driven around to it. A few seconds of panic sit in. Oh boy! Well, no time to stand there and fret. From time to time I have been faced with moments where I questioned my sanity. “What? Are you crazy?” I know the answer is already yes so no point in dwelling on it. The men are already half way down the side of the mountain. It is not too far down but it is very, very steep. I am wearing an ankle length dress. The winds are blowing fiercely as a storm closes in from the High Atlas. My scarf constantly blows in my face blocking my view and occupying one of my hands. Fact check: do you remember reading the part where I am twenty-eight weeks pregnant? Well, there is no turning back now. My son maneuvers the side of the mountain with the video camera in front of me. I was pleased that he captured my fall on camera. No need to fall in vain. My boot slipped on one of the numerous loose rocks. I feared I would slide and begin to spiral uncontrollably to the bottom of the mountain side. I knew I had to gain control fast. Very thankfully I was able to grasp a few things on my way down and my fall didn’t last too long. Now- if only I could get up before the men in front of my turned around to find me in a not so upright position. Thank the Creator I managed to make it safely down the rest of the way. But now my second challenge was about to begin.
Now that I finally made it to the bottom of the mountain, I figured the worst part of my adventure was over. I forgot, however, that I am claustrophobic. The matter of the fact is that I try not to be claustrophobic, but my mind seems to take over, not leaving with much decision in the matter. I follow the engineer and my driver, two very tall men, into the mouth of the mine. In order to do so I had to bend completely in half. I find this position a little difficult at seven months pregnant.
A few feet into the mine and I am assuming the oxygen level drastically dropped. I was fine going into the mine, but all of a sudden I find myself barely breathing and I start to panic. I had to calm myself down and take purposeful deep breaths. Flashbacks came back to me from a few trips to Morocco prior. I could see myself trapped in a tiny elevator with my children, one a baby in a stroller. I remember how I had to calm myself down and force myself to breathe “normally”. I had to realize that although I was trapped in a small space that I could still breathe. Oxygen still existed in the environment although I couldn’t imagine for how long. I told myself that this mine has been here for quite some time and hasn’t caved in yet, so it “most likely” won’t cave in just because I am in it at this particular moment. I finally retook control over my mind and everything was just… fine.
Once I convinced myself that I wasn’t going to die, I then understood why I had to wear this ridiculous looking hard hat. In fact, I got to understand it several times. The hard hat definitely took the blow of me constantly banging my head against the wooden logs that supported the tunnel of the mine. Oddly, I seemed to be the only one hitting my head up against the ceiling. A few moments later we reached the end of thte tunnel. There was a rounded area carved out from the walls of the cave just large enough for me to stand in. It was a little creepy and dirty, but I felt that I was in heaven. Weird, I know, even to me, but I guess it was because here I was at the very heart of something that formed millions of years ago. I know that a lot of the earth formed millions of years ago and I could just as easily feel in heaven in my own back yard, but here I was at the source of an ancient clay which I have been enamoring for well over a decade.
I picked up a pick ax from the corner of the cave and began hacking away at the soft walls. Sometimes I picked away large chunks, and sometimes only a small chunk or two. Anytime my chunk was small I got coached by the men at how to better aim with the pick. Along with the chunks of ghassool I also mined lots of gypsum. Sadly, I didn’t find any diamonds. After having my fill of mining, my new favorite occupation, I signal that it is time to leave. This has been an enchanting moment that will call for me to revisit for many years to come. Walking out of the cave is much easier than going in, although I am still the only one to continuously hit my head and be reminded why it is important for me to wear this ugly looking head gear. I also gained new found respect for hard hat wearers everywhere. I felt such a sense of accomplishment and a huge sense of relief knowing that I hadn’t died inside the mine.
Upon leaving the mine the engineer, who was now overly flattering, took us on a tour of their facility. And of course, we drank more tea. I was on cloud nine. I was very grateful to the Creator for making this event take place and moreover go smoothly without too much injury to myself.
Once we left the ghassool region, we were again back at the processing center where the ghassool is prepared for trucks to drive it all the way to Fez, many, many hours away. I got a special treat. I actually got to “make” the ghassool. We poured the large chunks into metal containers and added water to make the ghassool into a muddy slosh. The mud was then drained through fine sieves unto a large concrete slab where it was allowed to dry by the sun and air.
It was quite chilly actually, but soon enough the ghassool dried and cracked into little sheets. I was handed what looked like a garden hoe and was given the privilege of scraping the ghassool into piles.
This fulfilled my mission. I had traveled thousands of miles via air and four by four to mine with my own hands an ancient beauty remedy that has touched the lives of millions for thousands of years. I was one of a privileged few to go inside an ancient mountain to experience firsthand an archaic formation transported via camel back throughout Africa and the Middle East long before the creation of modern cleansing chemicals. And although all around me were really muddy, we all knew the secret. Just a little water and we'll all be squeaky clean.