Crocus act (Olivia Gunning Bennani)

Harvesting saffron deep in the Atlas Mountains

"Khadouj, who believes she is at least 70 years old, can still touch her toes. Right now she's bent double, elbow-deep in a spray of purple crocuses. Showing half a mouthful of teeth in a sun-scorched, plumpish face with impressive furrows, Khadouj is smiling. She's happy because the annual saffron harvest has begun, providing much-needed employment for residents of Tnine de I'Ourika, a crumbling Berber village in one of the valleys of Marocco's Atlas Mountains.

During the three-week harvest, dozens of women from the community will reap 800,000 crocuses, extracting about 6 kilograms of the precious strands of saffron, a spice that can fetch up to $12 per gram. Khadouj and her workmates each earn about $4 per day.

Picking begins at daybreak, when the petals are still closed; inside are the filament-like structures called stigmas that, when dried, are known as saffron. "By 9 a.m. it's over," explains farm manager Mohammed Mador, as he ambles through gardens bursting with aromatic plants beneath olive and citrus trees. "Once the flower opens, the stigmas will be damaged by the sun."

The heaps of flowers are then taken aside and, one by one, the stigmas are extracted, a task seen as woman's work - ostensibly because their hands are daintier. "It takes 40 women to harvest one hectare of flowers and extract the three filaments from each flower," Mador says.

Back in the crocus patch, Khadouj is upright, holding her back; when asked if it aches, she shrugs. Her rugged hands reflect a lifetime of dough-kneading and clothes-scrubbing. Soon Khadouj is bent over again, as she and the others get on with the job in a gust of chatter and song.

- by Olivia Gunning Bennani

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