Tangier, Casablanca, Rabat, Meknes, Fes, Berber camp near Erfoud, Ouarzazate, Todra Gorge,
Taroudant, Tafraout, Essaouira, Marrakesh
STRAITS OF GIBRALTAR
When the veiled woman dropped to
her knees in prayer next to our backpacks, we knew we were in a new world.
Along with two friends, we were traveling on the early morning ferry from
Bogus customs officials and
"licensed" guides swarmed us as we got off the boat in Tangier. We'd
been forewarned by the guidebook, so pushed right through
to the street - where Lou negotiated the taxi fare from 1000 dirhams
(about $10) down to 300. Pretty good for a beginning bargainer. We bought train tickets to
Everything imaginable was for sale. The sights and smells were alternately wonderful and awful - pungent piles of saffron, turmeric and paprika; braids of dried figs; elaborately arranged displays of olives and dates; whole sheep heads hung by their upper lips; ropes of entrails and globs of tripe; live chickens waiting to have their necks wrung on the spot; platters of silvery fish; bunches of mint and cilantro; colorful tangerines. (Funny that we'd never associated tangerines with Tangier!)
Stalls were piled high with
plastic washtubs, cheap cooking utensils, soup bowls straight from a factory in
The four of us were comfortably
settled in a second-class compartment when a young Moroccan couple entered. We
protested that it would be difficult to find room amidst all our belongings.
They replied "Difficult, but not impossible!" and plopped themselves
down. They chatted to themselves in Arabic sprinkled with French, and at some
point we realized that they understood English very well. (Rare in
As we rode along, one of the extremely obese women we had noticed on the train station platform pushed her way down the narrow train corridor. We tried not to stare, but pitied the poor woman - who obviously had a serious thyroid problem. A second terribly fat woman followed, then another and another. We were in a train car with at least eight women weighing about 400 pounds each! How could this be? Was an entire village afflicted with thyroid disease? We pressed our Moroccan companions for an explanation, which was totally unexpected.
The women were smuggling fabric,
and were wrapped around and around with many meters of synthetic silk from
We learned another lesson from this experience. One of our friends had a video camera, and began photographing the women after they exited the train and were met by men with trucks. One man appeared very angry at this, and began shouting and shaking his finger "NO!" One of the Moroccan translators was also upset, and said that if someone pointed a camera at her she would break it. She said that her image was her own and that others should respect that. This comment was from a woman with a master's degree from a respected university and not from a superstitious villager, so it gave us pause. Joan said something about it being a cultural phenomenon with which we weren't familiar and that our friend didn't mean any disrespect. The Moroccan woman strongly rejected this idea. She said it was NOT a question of culture, but of ethics.
As we journeyed through
A "SOFT ADVENTURE" TOUR
We usually travel independently,
except for a few specialized tours such as in Alaska, when it was necessary to
travel in a group (
Several times our Moroccan guide, Samir, made agreements with local people that no photographs would be taken of them, yet some in our group could not resist the temptation to surreptitiously use a telephoto lens to "take" a photograph on the sly. One day Samir promised a group of women seated outside a kasbah (old clay fort) that our group would not photograph them, asking us to photograph only the building. One tour member, however, began to shoot them anyway, so Joan deliberately stepped in front of her shot. This was undoubtedly judgmental of her, but we were distressed to witness repeated acts of this kind of cultural insensitivity. On a lighter note, we thought there would be no harm in photographing ourselves in their clothing. An enterprising shopkeeper tried to persuade us to buy these garments once he got us into them. No such luck. (Did you ever see such a woebegone sheik as Lou? Maybe it's because he's just looked at his wife!)
Our group tour began in Casablanca - big, bland, Westernized and boring - where we only stayed long enough to see the magnificent Hassan II Mosque, balanced between sky, earth and sea (part of it rests on pilings in the water). This enormous mosque is the world's largest religious monument after Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. Its vast prayer hall holds 25,000 worshippers and is large enough to house the cathedrals of Notre Dame or St. Peter's comfortably. Below is the mosque's minaret, where the muzzein calls the faithful to prayer five times a day.
Biblical times surrounded us just twenty minutes down the road from Casablanca. Looking out the bus windows, we could see jellaba-clad men and veiled women plodding along with heavily-laden donkeys and camels. We passed adobe houses, women washing clothing in irrigation ditches and mule-drawn carts. We even saw a farmer plowing his field behind a wooden plow hitched to a tandem team of mule and camel. Strangest of all, we passed through stretches of barren landscape filled with thorny trees - on TOP of which were grazing goats! The only hint of modernity was pollution - shreds of black plastic film clingging to scraggly desert shrubs in every direction.
We made a clockwise journey around Morocco, beginning with the imperial cities of Rabat, Meknes (with a side trip to the Roman ruins at Volubilis) and Fes. The latter is famous for its handicrafts, and is our favorite town in Morocco. Then we drove south and east to Erfoud, the staging site for a trip to the famed sand dunes of Merzouga. We had our own private bivouac here, set up by Berbers. As we traveled around the dry, hot landscape, we occasionally passed a town huddled next to a green oasis.
The remaining stopping places were Todra Gorge, Dades Valley, Ait Benhaddou (the huge old kasbah used in the filming of "Lawrence of Arabia"), Ouarzazate (ugly town, but a useful stop on a long stretch of road); Taroudant, Tafraout, then to the seaside town of Essaouira and, finally, the teeming bazaar city of Marrakesh. We'll use the latter to describe something of the flavor of a Moroccan city.
LOU'S CARPET CAPER
FES: We'd been warned to watch out for the wily Moroccan carpet dealers. No problem. We weren't going to buy a carpet, anyway. Such innocence. Samir took us to one of the finest carpet shops in Fes, located in a magnificent room - formerly a 15th century palace courtyard. Along its thirty-foot high walls was a stunning display of gorgeous carpets. On all sides were smaller rooms containing hundreds of rolled up carpets, all handmade and vegetable-dyed by a network of 1300 women.
After explaining the various types of carpets to our small group, the sales manager divided the group, handed the others to his assistants, and took the two of us into a side room. This plumpish man was in his mid-40s, elegantly attired in a creamy jellaba. He was friendly and efficient - showing us 15 beautiful carpets, which we finally reduced to three for serious consideration. (How quickly our determination to resist dissolved!)
Lou asked the prices of the three carpets. The sales manager said 5,360, 6,780 and 7,800. When we didn't flinch at these prices, he apparently thought he could sell us a more expensive carpet, so he brought out a one-of-a-kind work of art. This carpet incorporated the weaver's life in a luscious red and orange woven diary. It was 14,500. We conferred privately. At 10 dirhams to the dollar, this price was a bargain for such a fine carpet; we decided to offer 9,000. He responded with 13,500, and - after much-feigned hand wringing and good-natured bargaining - we reached agreement at 10,500 including shipping. What a deal! We were elated, and our friends were awed by the vibrant carpet. The owner, too, was impressed with our selection, and brought out his album to show photos of the U.S. ambassador who purchased a carpet somewhat like ours. Furthermore, he had recently sold a similar carpet for 25,000! The sales manager congratulated us, saying that he showed such works of art only to people with exceptionally fine taste.
When we travel, Lou carries an
American Express card, while Joan carries Visa. The shop preferred the Visa
card, so Joan dug the card out of her money belt and went into the office to
pay. A young clerk ran the card through and filled out the voucher. Joan signed
and took it to the owner, asking: "Where does the slip indicate the amount
charged?" The owner, in a fit of anger, yelled in Arabic at the clerk, who
beat a hasty retreat. Then the owner tore up the sales slip, wrote up a new one
and showed Joan the amount in the upper right corner. Joan nearly fainted.
She hurried to Lou, pulled him aside and gasped, I think we just paid $10,500
for this carpet!" Lou was totally shocked. The prices he had been quoted
were in U.S. dollars - not in dirhams! We apologized profusely and
attempted to slink out of the shop as rapidly as possible. The quick-thinking
sales manager spread out our second and third choices on the mosaic floor.
(Earlier, we had been unable to decide which we preferred - a 6x9' carpet at
5,360 or a 5x10' at 6,780.) He offered us either one of these carpets for
$5,300. At this point, things were moving fast because the bus was loaded and
waiting and we were the only ones left in the store. Lou pleaded that he could
not let our friends wait any longer, at which point the sales manager came down
to $3,800. Lou further pleaded that this amount was still way out of our price
range. As we edged towards the door, Lou indicated that $1,100 was his maximum.
The manager put one hand on Lou's shoulder, warmly shook his hand, and said
"D'accord." In two minutes the carpet was rolled, wrapped in burlap,
tied and in our arms! (The carpet we bought after all the fuss is on the
(The carpet we bought after all the fuss is on the right.)
Back in the bus we apologized to our fellow travelers for keeping them waiting an hour. We explained that we unwittingly and out of sheer naiveté had worked our way into a very embarrassing situation - and the best carpet deal of the day. We'd paid only 19% of the initial price instead of the usual 60%. Samir - who'd been laughing at us for the past half hour - said that we'd probably gotten our carpet at the dealer's cost. From this point on, we all called him "Berber-man Lou" in honor of his (inadvertent) success in bargaining with a man who came from many generations of rug merchants and traders!
ALI BABA'S NIGHT OUT
He had another name as well. Wherever we went in Morocco people called out: "Ali Baba!" Lou's beard may have gotten him into the spotlight at a restaurant we visited in Fes. With our two friends, we decided to avoid the hotel dinner one night and strike out on our own for a good restaurant. Left to our own devices, we would have taken a taxi, but Samir - worried about losing his clients down a dark alley - insisted we go in the bus. So there were the four of us - sitting in the front rows of a 30-passenger bus, accompanied by the driver, Mustafa, and his assistant, Ebrahim. This was a stretch limo taken to extremes!
The restaurant was amazing. Hundreds of years ago, it was the reception room in the palace of Moulay Yousef, King of Morocco. Immense in size and in excellent condition, it was incredibly decorated in tile, marble, carved cedar and stucco. Wow! The center of the room was a 35-foot cube. This area was surrounded by ten huge marble columns, with a mosaic tile fountain on one side. A rich red Moroccan carpet lay in the center of the gorgeous mosaic floor. We had a sumptuous meal. The pastilla (pigeon - bones and all - in a pie with almonds and powdered sugar) was an interesting, never-again experience.
Entertainment was provided by a series of musicians (lutes, violins, tambourines, many types of drums), folk dancers (one tapped Lou for a dance, and they ended up on their knees, wriggling shoulders), a belly dancer (he wishes she'd tapped him, too!) and male dancers with drums and swords. However, the main event was yet to come. Without explanation, a waiter beckoned to Lou to follow and led him up three flights of stairs to an attic room. Here, four Moroccan women were preparing two French tourists as "brides" in a wedding. One was to be an Arab bride, the other a Berber bride. Guess who was to be the groom? Yep. They slipped Lou into a jellaba and fez, and he and his two brides were led downstairs to make their grand entrance. The brides and groom were formally presented to us as if we were the guests at the traditional Moroccan wedding. The first bride sat cross-legged on a palanquin, and the four women lifted her high and paraded her around the restaurant. She was elegantly adorned in a crown-like headpiece and formal robes, and was, as the Arab bride, appropriately reserved. Then it was the vivacious Berber's turn. In her peasant bridal robes, she was more demonstrative. When it was Lou's turn to be paraded around, he was still more effusive, and even doffed his fez to the applauding guests. Normally, a groom would have only one bride, but he had two - with a third in the audience! This was totally tourist silliness, but Lou's enthusiastic participation made it fun to watch.
Camping out in the desert with the Berbers was the highlight of our time in Morocco. Our group of 14 climbed into three Land Rovers for the trip out into the dunes. Lou needed more film, so Samir stopped at a small shop. The attendant wasn't there and we were in a big hurry. Samir told us to take what we wanted and we scurried back to our waiting vehicle. Even though Samir promised us we'd return the next day to pay our bill (which we did), we felt he was a modern-day Ali Baba and we his thieves! As we drove further into the desert, our Berber driver turned at a sign that said "To Africa" with an arrow pointing south. We complimented him on finding his way to the continent, and told him of our renewed confidence in his leadership. He thought this was very funny. It turns out that most Moroccans actually do not think they are in Africa because they are ethnically Caucasians, with roots in the Middle East and Europe. For them, Africa is the area south of the Sahara Desert.
Our campsite was nestled in a cluster of sand dunes. There was a ring of low-slung sleeping tents, made of dark camel- and goat-hair and supported by crooked tamrisa branches. Berber carpets covered the sand on the floor of each tent, which held twin beds covered with white, sequined wedding blankets. Between the beds was a small table with a candle in a metal lantern. Outside in front of the tents, were more lanterns, and large carpets were stretched end-to-end in one continuous path around the ring. O.K, Maybe this was just a Berber dude ranch, but it was great fun!
As soon as we stashed our packs in the tents, we were introduced to our camels. Aside from their strong odor, we liked these strange creatures. (Later in the trip we happened upon a couple of copulating - maybe we should say "humping" - camels. Talk about strange! The male chewed his cud and looked bored, while the female panted excitedly. )
Camels are known for their cranky dispositions but these seemed to be well-behaved, if a bit aloof. They observed us with a quizzical, almost snooty tilt of their heads, but their haughty smiles gave way to loud groans when asked to rise from a resting position. Wearing jellabas and zifs, young Berber guides from a nearby village helped us to mount, led us on the camels for a few hundred meters, helped us dismount, then walked with us to the top of a tall dune to watch the sunset. Joan's guide, Yousef, was an amicable youth of 16, who has been supporting his retired parents for the past 6 years by guiding tourists and polishing fossils dug up around here. No more schooling for him. He expects to polish fossils the rest of his life.
When the camel caravan returned to camp, there was a huge campfire burning in the center of the ring of tents. Around it were five dark-skinned Berbers in white jellabas: two with drums and three with metal bar-bell-shaped clappers. They greeted us with a "gwana" performance. Gwana music originated in Ghana and was brought north by slaves in the 16th century. As night fell, they built the fire higher and the music pulsed stronger. Eventually we got the rhythm and joined in clapping and dancing around the blazing fire.
Later, we gathered for dinner in the dining tent. The Berbers brought in a whole roast lamb, which was kneeling on a huge platter as if in supplication. Samir instructed us to dust each bite of lamb in a pile of cumin and then a pile of salt. Incredibly good! The second course was couscous with chicken, turnips and pumpkin. We finished with fruit, chocolates and the ubiquitous mint tea. All of this was served on white linen tablecloths with cloth napkins and a full set of china and goblets. Rich red carpets adorned the walls and covered the sand floor of the tent. Elegance in the desert!
We finally headed back to our tent, lit the candle in our tin lantern, lifted the white sequined spreads, slipped into bed, blew out the lantern and slept comfortably - until 3:45 AM, when Lou rose from his warm bed to pee. As he opened the tent and stepped out, he was astounded by the clarity of the dark desert sky. Orion and The Pleides had drifted from the eastern horizon to high in the western sky and the Milky Way, so bright when we had gone to bed, had all but disappeared. He was absolutely stunned by the incredible landscape glowing by the light of the moon - the golds, ochres and terra cottas of the sand below the mauves and lavenders of the night sky. Standing there, he thought of Henri Rousseau's painting Sleeping Gypsy (Museum of Modern Art in New York.) Rousseau never saw the desert, yet his imagination fully captured its lonely magic. Lou awakened Joan, and together we stood transfixed - surrounded by silent dunes under a chilly, star-dappled sky.
Leaving our campsite behind, our group spent time hiking in the Atlas Mountains and wandering through remote villages before turning northward to our final city.
We were awakened at the earliest light of dawn by the haunting sound of the Koran being chanted from the minaret of a nearby mosque. The muezzin has a weirdly beautiful voice, electronically amplified in four directions from the tall tower. Soon, the Koran was sounded from other mosques until we were enveloped in a chorus of Arabic singing from all sides! This musical tapestry continued for nearly 15 minutes, after which the call to prayer came - "Allah is Great!" and silence descended.
Marrakesh is a fascinating blend of the new and the very old. We used an Internet cafe presided over by a young Arab who speaks good English and is very computer literate. Many of the passersby are in Western business wear, including quite a few young, unveiled women. On the other hand, we emerged onto a main thoroughfare from our very Westernized hotel to see a raggedy, mule-drawn vegetable wagon rattle by next to some of the omnipresent Mercedes taxis! The cafes are full of men sipping sweet mint tea; we have never seen a single woman in an outdoor cafe or in a bar - not even in the large cities. And many of the older women are completely hidden by veils. All-in-all, an interesting mix. Wonder how the city will look in 5 or 10 years?
The final dinner with our small tour group was in a fancy Moroccan restaurant. We enjoyed 15 small dishes of Moroccan "salad" (all spiced or herbed differently, including: fava beans, carrots, tomatoes pureed with honey, eggplant, olives, peppers, wild spinach and beets) followed by a huge platter of chicken baked with olives and preserved lemon, flat bread, wine, honey-filled pancakes and the omnipresent mint tea. We finished by toasting each other and thanking our guides, who responded with toasts to us.
Samir's speech was especially heartfelt. He speaks fluent English, in addition to Arabic, French, German, plus some Berber, Spanish and even a little Japanese! He's tall, handsome, full of enthusiasm and has a wonderful sense of humor. When he tried to make a speech at the end of dinner, this elegant and articulate man broke down in tears after one sentence, and said that this was one of his best tour groups in his 14 years of guiding, and it was people like us that made his work worthwhile! (This photo shows a dapper Samir playfully dancing with the waiter in a rooftop restaurant.)
Samir's emotional speech was particularly important to those of us who had engaged him in an hour-long discussion of Arab/Western relations. He translated portions of a book he had with him, which was written by a prize-winning Moroccan historian who lives and works in Paris. This book gives the history of the Crusades from the Arab perspective, including a few gruesome details conveniently omitted from Western history, such as the fact that the marauding Crusaders (most of whom were probably more like pirates than priests) not only killed the men and raped the women as they conquered Arab towns, but also rotisseried and ate the Arab children. (This is corroborated, if underplayed, by at least one Western history book.)
Apparently, the hundreds of years
that have elapsed since the brutality of the Crusades are as yesterday in Arab
memory. They are deeply suspicious of the West, and especially of the U.S. in
recent years. Samir's account of the Gulf War, for example, is vastly different
from the news reports we had in the U.S. (And his understanding of the
situation was corroborated by the five Canadians on our tour; they feel
Americans get a very distorted picture of what the U.S. government is doing on
the international scene.)
According to Samir, Iraq and Kuwait had a quarrel, and Iraq went to the U.S. ambassador and said they would like to settle the problem. The ambassador (a woman whose name we don't know), said - in effect - that's your affair, we aren't interested. Yet the minute Iraq acted, we responded militarily within 24 hours! It looks very suspiciously as if we helped provoke the problem, or at least gave the green light to Iraq, so that we could intervene and keep Iraq from consolidating any more power.
What was of particular concern to us was that Samir, who is a warm and moderate person, Westernized and well-educated, became upset and vehement as he described all the problems the Arab world has had with the overpowering influence of the U.S. If Samir could be that upset, what about the militant Islamic fundamentalists?
This trip to Morocco took place in 1999. Samir's speech - in hindsight - explains a lot about the mindset of the Islamic terrorists who attacked America in 2001 and the response of the Arab world to America's subsequent invasion of Iraq - and to President Bush's gaffe about the U.S. being on a crusade.
2000 TRIP: ASIA
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
GUIDEBOOK: Morocco (Lonely Planet)
BACKGROUND READING: On Photography, Susan Sontag
FILMS: Lawrence of Arabia was filmed at the fabulous kasbah of Ait Benhaddou in Morocco, but Casablanca was filmed on a Hollywood stage set!
TOUR COMPANY: 17-day
Eldertreks tour of Morocco: $2895, plus airfare to Morocco. Send for their
Which do we think is better - a tour group, a private guide or independent travel? Each way of traveling has trade-offs. A packaged tour takes care of logistical hassles. A good tour will get you into places you might not have gone otherwise. In Morocco we visited private homes, abandoned kasbahs, isolated oases, and went on the Berber camping trip. We didn't need to lug our two carpets around the country with us, but could stow them on the tour bus. On the downside, even a laid-back tour such as this one has schedules to meet and requires that you move with the group. Independent travel makes for more flexibility. You can stop when you're tired or sick or want to be alone for awhile.
Another way to see Morocco is to hire a licensed National Guide who has been tested on culture, architecture and history, speaks English and has a car. Two experienced travelers could use a guidebook to plan an itinerary and occasionally hire a private guide to visit Morocco for less than what we paid for the tour ($150/day apiece.) We highly recommend our guide Samir, who has left the Moroccan company used by Eldertreks, and is now a free-lance guide. Contact him via e-mail. (He's often on tour, so it may take awhile for his answer. His spoken English is better than his written English) firstname.lastname@example.org
FES: Palais de Fes - The infamous carpet shop where Lou's Carpet Caper took place. Excellent carpets, wonderful rooftop restaurant. Watch out for the details of the sales pitch, though! 15, Makhfia (next to Cinema Amal) Ph: 7615 90; 76 26 95
FES: Les Remparts de Fes - The palatial restaurant where "Ali Baba" was paraded. 2, Arset Jiar Bab El Guissa. (05) 63 74 15
Joan and Lou Rose email@example.com