Archive for the 'Morocco' Category

August 19th 2008

Posted under Morocco

A modern air-conditioned train delivered us to Fes and back into the madness of the medina. Casablanca’s gentle sea breeze was noticeably absent in the dusty desert air. The taxi dropped us off at the bustling Bab Bou Jeloud gate to the medina (because cars are not allowed inside) and we wandered into the stone labyrinth that is the Arabic old town. Our hotel was spartan but well-located and the hypnotic hum of the medina soon drew us into its chaotic colorful corridors.

We sat for an early dinner at an outdoor café near the Bab Bou Jeloud gate and finally sampled the tajine – a hot pot stew of meat and vegetables, cooked in a cone-shaped terra cotta baking dish. The meat was grisly but the vegetables were delectable and we sopped up every last drop of the rich olive oil broth as we had seen the locals do in Marrakech.

As we watched the crowds of locals and tourists shuffle through the medina, our attention was drawn to the occasional provocatively dressed European tourist – they stick out like a sore thumb among the modest jellaba-clad locals – and I was reminded of a conversation that we had had in Marrakech regarding the differences between Moroccans and Egyptians. I noted the gentle nature, the lighthearted smiles, and the seeming acceptance of Westerners by Moroccans in stark contrast to the Egyptians with their suspicious, judgmental eyes and fierce cunning. Aaron suggested that perhaps we (our perspectives, that is) are different after a year of travel, a notion I dismissed initially but now reflected upon as I studied the uncomfortable looks of the naïve young women with heaving cleavage, only vaguely aware of their effect on the ravenous, sexually repressed pack of wolves lurking in the shadows. I gazed upon the bouncing bosoms, spaghetti straps, and short skirts, asking the flesh-bearers telepathically, Look around you. Why would you wear that?

And then I remembered a walk that I once took in some nameless village along the Nile where the two strong men at my side were powerless to stop the scornful, penetrating stares of the Egyptian villagers or the rocks thrown by a gang of brainwashed young boys. The shock, confusion and intimidation of that experience preceded our understanding of Arab-Islamic culture. At the time, I was adamantly opposed to succumbing to the oppression of women that I so despised, and offended by the notion that I should conform or be treated like a whore on the street, but such is the way of life for women in Arab cultures. The women cover themselves completely, even on the hottest days of the desert summer because the men are like animals, like dogs in heat with uncontrollable animalistic behavior incited by the smallest visible sliver of feminine flesh. In this culture, the abhorrent behavior of men goes socially and legally unchecked – women are hissed at, cat-called, groped in crowds – and there is no recourse. Women are still second class citizens – equal rights are yet a distant dream. The people are raised from childhood to believe that immodest dress makes a woman undeserving of respect. Such is life in Morocco. But understanding this crude, archaic social more makes walking the streets of Morocco a different experience. My spaghetti straps have long since been retired and, in crowds, I attach myself to Aaron’s hip because a woman walking alone in a crowd is a target for anonymous gropers. In the thickest crowds, I walk with my arms crossed over my chest to avoid any “accidental” contact. When we walk through the medina, entranced by the sights, sounds and smells, I can easily tell when Aaron has fallen behind by the hawkish muted advances of the all-male shopowners.

I find this aspect of Arab-Islamic culture vile and reprehensible. But where once I (clad in spaghetti straps) vowed to take on the beast of oppression singlehandedly by setting an example of an independent woman who is treated as her husband’s equal, I now realize that education and economic prosperity are better swords to wield in that battle than my insolent bare shoulders. While I stand by my original generalization that Moroccans are gentler and more tolerant of Westerners than the Egyptians, I also see that our perspective is different, worldly, more educated. Understanding breeds tolerance.

By the time we arrived in Fes, the atmosphere of the medina, with its mosques and medersas, had lost a bit of its luster. While we engaged in the requisite aimless wandering, we found ourselves seeking quiet refuge from the hustle and intensity of the streets. When you have the sponge-like desire for the sensory overload of Third World culture, the Moroccan medina delivers an explosion of colorful produce stalls, freshly butchered carcasses hanging in shop fronts, enchanting Arabic music, donkey carts, street hustlers, savvy rug dealers, burqa-clad women peering out through their narrow eye-slits, the constant engagement of shopowners beckoning you inside for a look, dark clandestine corners, aromas of fresh mint and cilantro filling the air…all in a buzzing kaleidoscope of stimulation. Even the sidewalk cafés are fair game for amateur tour guides, beggars and street performers. When you are weary of the chaos, you must find oases on elevated terraces, in high-end hotels and quiet internet cafés.

In the medina, daily life is dictated by two things: religion and the sweltering heat. The notion of “nine-to-five” has no place here. The morning begins around 5 am with the muezzin’s resonating call to prayer. Laborious tasks begin early before the oppressive heat makes them unbearable. Shopowners begin the daily ritual of setting out their displays while restaurant owners make the day’s purchases from produce sellers. Men huddle around outdoor tables, drinking green tea with springs of fresh mint. In the sizzling afternoons, they can be found snoozing away in shady places. From dusk until dawn, the streets of the medina are most alive with bright lights, music and non-alcoholic revelry. Small children roam the streets at all hours of night, an initially shocking sight that quickly melts into normalcy. The street noise jolted us from sleep at all hours of the night until the muezzin’s call signaled the break of day and a new cycle of working, socializing, napping. Such is life in the medina. It is a different world, a world from which we are now eagerly anticipating our escape.

Morocco has been a sideshow on our European home stretch. The truth is that we are weary of the Third World, weary of the emotional albatross that is poverty, weary of the discomforts and the hustle. Morocco is interesting because it seems more like the Middle East than Africa. The people have a stunning golden complexion, similar to Iranians, and their language, style of dress, cuisine and mannerisms are characteristic of Arabs. But often enough, a “T.I.A.” moment reminds you of what continent you’re on.

My praise of the Moroccan train system was perhaps a bit premature, as evidenced by our final train ride from Fes to Tangier. Tickets were sold for an air-conditioned ride but the vents inside the cars blew only a whisper of cool air. If you held your arm three or more inches above the vent, you could not feel the air at all. In the blazing mid-afternoon heat, the train filled to capacity at the main junction near Sidi Kacem and sat there delayed for almost two hours while the passengers perspired together in the uncirculated hot boxes. Also at that junction, the train was oversold and many unfortunate passengers, including mothers with small children, were forced to sit on the floor between cars. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll just mention that the restrooms were utterly vile without going into my usual level of grotesque detail. T.I.A. This is Africa.

The locals all seemed to bear the discomfort and inconvenience with grace, as if this level of service was standard or perhaps because they understand an important truth: there are many worse things to bear in life than a little physical discomfort and inconvenience. Sometimes a petty difficulty, when put into perspective, can be a healthy reminder of the many blessings in our lives.

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August 16th 2008

Posted under Morocco

The real Casablanca is nothing like the movie. The movie wasn’t even filmed there, in fact; it was filmed in Hollywood and based on a hotel in Tangier. Casablanca is Morocco’s most cosmopolitan and industrial city. A taxi driver proudly informed us, “Casablanca is not for tourists. Casablanca is for business.” We arrived by train from Marrakech, a comfortable three-hour ride through the desolate Sahara Desert; and, upon reading that Casablanca’s restaurants serve up excellent seafood, we splurged on fruits des mer and another impressive bottle of Moroccan red wine at a French Provencal place near our hotel.

The French have left a lasting mark on Casablanca and much of Morocco in the form of language, architecture and infrastructure. After their native Moroccan Arabic, the locals speak fluent French, passable Spanish and bits of English. Our “functional French” seems to be better understood (or at least better tolerated) in Morocco than in France. Casablanca’s Art Deco facades, wide boulevards, public parks, sidewalk cafes, and efficient railway system are all French additions from the early 1900s when Casablanca was declared a French Protectorate.

There is a noticeable difference between the people in Casablanca and the people in Marrakech, particularly in the interactions between the sexes. More women, especially in the 20-30 age range, wear Western clothing and men and women socialize more freely in public. That said, there are still plenty of cafes frequented by locals at which women are unwelcome or too intimidated to patronize alone. While the medina hums with old Arabic traditions and lifestyles, the increasing opportunities and affluence in the port city are a catalyst for modernism.

The crown jewel of Casablanca is the Hassan II Mosque, set on a rocky outcrop of coastline. Completed in 1993, the world’s third largest mosque (after Mecca and Medina) is a decadent display of Arab-Islamic art and architecture, incorporating modern amenities such as a central heating system for warming the marble floors in winter, a retractable roof, and a laser beam that points toward Mecca at night. At 200 meters in height, its minaret is the tallest religious minaret in the world.

The only way for non-Muslims to see the inside of the mosque is through the pricey guided tour but when we gazed upon its stunning marble exterior, we knew it would be worth the price of admission. I am fascinated (obsessed, my husband might say) by Islam and I was pleased with the explanations and demonstrations offered by our English-speaking guide. Our tour began in the Prayer Hall, the most magnificent room in the mosque with its grand arches, elegantly carved stucco, rose granite pillars, Italian chandeliers, gleaming Moroccan marble floor, and carved cedar retractable ceiling. A balcony on each side of the hall was designed for women to pray, protected from the sinful gazes of men, behind a wooden lattice screen.

In Islamic communities, the muezzin sings a hypnotic chant over a loudspeaker, calling the faithful to the mosque for the five-times-daily prayer. Before each prayer, Muslims must wash their feet, hands, ears, nose and face to spiritually cleanse themselves for the ritual. Underneath the Prayer Hall, the Ablution Hall contains 41 marble fountains for performing the ablution, or spiritual cleansing. Interestingly, if one does not have access to water at prayer time, he can imitate the movements of washing his feet, face and hands and it is thought to achieve the same spiritual result. Our guide kneeled beside one of the fountains and demonstrated the ablution with the thoroughness and precision of lifelong practice.

Our tour concluded with a tour of two hammams – a Moroccan hammam and a Turkish hammam. A traditional Moroccan hammam contains four rooms, each kept at different temperatures. The bather begins in the hottest room to sweat out all of the toxins and works his/her way to the coolest room. The Turkish hammam, or Turkish bath, was a large, dimly-lit room almost entirely encompassed by a shallow pool. Unfortunately, the pool had been drained for cleaning, which detracted from the ambience. The hammams at the Hassan II Mosque are not working hammams; however, it was easy to imagine both bathrooms full of the steamy conversation and heated debates that are so characteristic of Arab men, huddled around an outdoor table or under a shady tree.

While Casablanca was nothing like the movie (and not exactly brimming with tourist sites) our visit to the Hassan II Mosque made the trip worthwhile. Most mosques are closed to non-Muslims so we were fortunate for the opportunity to view a work of such remarkable craftsmanship and to gain personal insight into the world’s most media-hyped religion.

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August 15th 2008

Posted under Morocco

After the decadence of the French Riviera, the parched Moroccan desert was a climate and culture shock, even for us. The arid desert air made us miss Arizona. We had booked three nights in a riad – a traditional Moroccan home – near the kasbah in Marrakech. Janice, the quirky English owner, gave us a warm welcome and was a wealth of information about Morocco. Three well-appointed guest rooms occupied the ground floor of the riad, surrounding a tiled open-air courtyard. A Spaniard named Juan was staying in one of the other rooms and invited us out for an evening walk in the Djemaa el-Fna, and although we were overcome with exhaustion from the day’s travel, we could not resist the allure of one of the world’s greatest spectacles.

The Djemaa el-Fna is a huge open square in the medina (Arabic old town) that explodes with colorful chaos at dusk. Open air food stalls serve up escargot, fresh seafood, skewered meats, tapas and tajines (traditional Moroccan hot pot stews). Diners squeeze in wherever there is room among the long, crowded picnic tables. All of the servers are male, a reflection of the 99% Muslim population.

Away from the food stalls, the remaining area of the square is utterly consumed by the equivalent chaos of ten circuses operating simultaneously in the dark with crowds of spectators gathered around each one. The performers – all men – make music and dance, perform plays and acrobatics. Within a twenty foot radius, you can get henna-painted hands and feet, watch snake charmers, get a custom-mixed herbal remedy for whatever is ailing you, and pose for photos with a monkey on your head. The days are so oppressively hot that seemingly everyone comes out a night – old women, families pushing strollers, and young boys – to witness the grand festivities. The air is bursting with music, laughter and energy. Your heart begins to race along with the tempo of the drums. It is madness!

After dining in one of the food stalls and a lap around the circus, fatigue finally overcame us, hindering our ability to see or think straight, and we followed Juan back through the desert pink maze of unmarked corridors to our quiet little street. The breezy desert night had caked our already travel-grimy skin with dust. Too exhausted even for showers we washed our weary faces and fell into a deep sleep.

When we finally resurfaced around 9:30 the next morning, we lazed around the riad, lingering over coffee and long showers, and mentally preparing ourselves for the hassle and hustle of the Third World. As we have learned in our travels through Africa and India, you must be sharp. You must constantly be on guard for everything is a negotiation – everyone wants your money and they’re not shy about asking for it: beggars, hustlers, taxi drivers, fruit sellers, and random people on the street who offer directions and then demand a tip. You must have your game face on at all times or fall victim to the hustle.

Hunger finally pulled us from our quiet oasis and into the streets. Walking toward the Djemaa el-Fna, we found a restaurant with shaded outdoor tables and a decent-looking menu and sat down for lunch. During our one-hour stay, no less than six elderly beggars approached our table with their hand out. Poverty is rife in Morocco with the average daily income around US$3.25, but the faces of the people – indeed the only visible part of the body through the traditionally conservative Moroccan dress – possess unexpected warmth. I had anticipated the fierce, penetrating, mistrusting eyes that dominate my memory of the conservative Muslim Egyptians but, in the eyes of Moroccans, I sensed none of the contempt or suspicion that made me feel so unwelcome in Egypt. Not everyone has the same experience however; a sweetly naïve young British girl on holiday with her boyfriend reported that a burqa-clad woman pulled aside her face-concealing veil and spat at her on the street.

We spent the afternoon checking out a few of the sites around town, the most fascinating of which were the Ali ben Youssef Medersa (aka madrassa – a venue for teaching theology, law, and Arabic literature) and the Musee de Marrakech, a beautifully restored 19th century palace turned museum. Both buildings displayed traditional Moroccan architecture with open-air courtyards and stunning artwork: Colorful zellij (mosaic tilework); rich woodcarving; linen-colored stucco carved into patterns of fine lace with Arabic calligraphy embedded in the designs; ornate arched doorways, water features, and opulent painted ceilings. The sights had a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere. Once you paid your admission at the entrance, there was no one inside but other giddy tourists, exploring the artfully decorated and extraordinarily photogenic nooks and crannies.

On our way back to the riad, we wandered into the souk – an enormous, maze-like bazaar adjacent to the Djemaa el-Fna – but quickly realized that we didn’t have the energy to get lost in that dizzying world of “Come look my shop! What you want? I have it! Special price!” Instead we walked “home” through the big square – a much tamer animal by day – and soaked up the quiet of the riad for a few hours before charging back into the irresistible madness of the Djemaa el-Fna for dinner.

By our third night in Marrakech, we had the medina and the main square pretty well figured out. We took in a few more sights around the kasbah and regrouped at the riad. We were joined by the young Brits whom I mentioned earlier and Juan who had returned from a camel safari in the outlying desert. Janice, our lovely hostess, had generously sent down a couple half-bottles of surprisingly delicious Moroccan wine which warmed our spirits for our final night out in the Djemaa el-Fna. Wandering through the intense revelry, I strained to memorize every sight, sound and smell. Clouds of smoke from the grills billowed through the night air, blurring the bright lights, burning my eyes, filling my nose with tantalizing aromas. The beating of the drums folded into one unified rhythm. It felt like a wild dream.

The five of us unwittingly sat down at the end of one of the long picnic tables edging the walkway between the food stalls. We ordered calamari, meat brochettes and greasy French fries. The foods are all prepared ahead of time, piled high under a big awning, so our order was delivered in less than five minutes. As we ate and conversed, young beggar boys approached, pointing at our meat. When we shooed them away, they snatched meat from our plates and ran. Across the walkway, I watched an old woman and two teenaged boys hungrily devouring the remains of someone’s tajine, sopping up every bit with bread. At the end of our meal, another old woman asked for the two rounds of bread left untouched on our table, which I happily gave. I had offered them first to one of the little meat thieves but he’d had a one-track mind. While our meal on the outer edge was more disrupted than in the buffered interior, we were reminded what a privilege it is to enjoy such a meal. Some boys endure their entire youths without ever tasting the luxury of meat outside of that which they manage to snatch from someone’s plate in the market. It reminds us to be thankful for what we have and gentle with those who have not.

To be honest, I was dreading this brief return to the Third World after indulging in the comforts of Europe, but Morocco has already begun to win my heart. From the art and architecture to the fantastic chaos of the Djemaa el-Fna to the muezzin’s five-times-daily call to prayer echoing through the stucco walls in the maze-like medina, Marrakech is full of life. With adventurous spirits and open hearts, we dove in and immersed ourselves in its wild, colorful, chaotic charm.

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