Archive for July, 2007

The South


We rented a car on July 4 and drove south.  Our first stop was Tellouet, kasbah of the Glaoui Pashas, whose collaboration with the French first elevated then destroyed them.  The kasbah was pretty impressive.  It had been home to a very large household of guards, retainers, family, and servants.  The first structure, now in ruins, dated from the mid-18th century.  The custodian took us around the most recent building, completed only in the 1940s, with its spectacular zilij (mosaic) walls, carved moldings, and painted wooden ceilings.  We got to see the second building, finished shortly before World War I, with the kitchens and guest accommodations. The French occupiers wanted a ruler who could keep the trade routes and resistant tribes in the south under control; the Glawi leaders wanted to rule the region.  When the French gave them new kinds of weapons in the 18th century, both realized their desires.  For almost two hundred years the Glaoui Pashas ruled the region, putting down rebellions and securing the routes.  They built fantastic kasbahs, the latest of which was the one we visited at Tellouet.  But when the French were thrown out after World War II, the Glaouis were destroyed.  In the Middle East, collaborating with foreign occupiers brings rewards only as long as the occupation continues. 

From Telouet we drove through Ouarzazate, the Hollywood of Morocco.  As we turned around each bend in the hghway, it seemed, we saw a new scene straight out of the Orientalists’ fantasies: palm groves against desert backgrounds; kasbahs rising out of the mountainsides, nomads’ tents pitched in the rocky desert.  The movie industry has taken advantage of the scenery, filming blockbusters based out of Ourzazate.  Star Wars’ Tatouine seems to have been near Ourzazate, parts of Lawrence of Arabia were filmed here, Alexander the Great, Gladiator, and the list goes on.   We drove on to  Ait Benhaddou, where we checked into the hotel where David Lean had stayed while filming Lawrence of Arabia.  The hotel was right across the valley from the old village, restored for use as a film set.  The population of the village had moved down the road a bit to a new site with electricity and running water.  We would see this again: the old village site was abandoned as people moved into newer buildings close by, still near their fields, to take advantage of the amenities that make life so much easier.  The old buildings, made of mud bricks, gradually fall back into the ground. 


We were in Berber country, and spent the next few days driving, walking, and meeting people in villages set among spectacular mountains, perched over dramatic gorges, and overlooking miles of palm groves.   Berbers.  Daoud, who speaks at least five languages and leads tours in the desert in his new Toyota Land Cruiser, claims they make up the majority of the population of Morocco.  The children of his village learn Arabic when they begin school; within a few years, they will learn French and English at the secondary school in the town 27 kilometers away. (They come back to the village for weekends and holidays.)  Only in the past few years have the schools taught literacy in Berber, a result, he claims, of the new King’s mother’s ethnicity. I asked about this term, Berber, introduced by the French to indicate non-Arabs,  in order to try to divide the local people against each other during the colonial period.  Daoud explained that there are actually three distinct groups, which they distinguish among themselves.  For outsiders, though, they seem to have accepted the name Berber.  But the effort to divide Moroccans wasn’t successful.  This seems different than the Kurds, who claim to be “from Turkey,” .  “We are Berbers,” he told me (and we heard again and again), “and we are Moroccans.”   


Muhammad, a friendly man we met in Todru Gorge the next day with a bum foot and a bit of English, offered to  took us on a walking tour of the palm grove, and in the process explained a bit about how their town worked.  From above, the palmerie looks like a simple grove of palm trees along the river.  Inside, it is an extensive garden with a very complex organization.  Each family has a part of the property to farm.  Even if one sells his/her house in the village, the land stays within the family.  The irrigation system is extensive, long main channels flowing from the river, and subchannels into each field.  People are growing tomatoes, peppers, mint, alfalfa, potatoes, wheat (just harvested), cabbage.  We haven’t seen any of the parsley or cilantro so often in the food, but mint grows everywhere on terraces or in yards as well as fields.  Muhammad explained that the trees (almonds, walnuts, date palms, pomegranate, figs, peach, apricot) are available for anyone to come, pick, and eat, but you can’t take the fruit away.  The guy in charge (the chief or sheriff of the palmerie, William couldn’t figure it out and neither could I) would demand payment for things you take that aren’t from your own garden.  He would also fine you if you stepped on someone’s fields–we walked on the raised areas between farms.  I don’t know how he is appointed, but it seems he sees all.   It’s much cooler in the palmerie.  I was impressed with the number of people down there.  It was hardly a place to be alone, though it appears both hidden and private.  Many children were playing–a group of boys seemed quite excited about a snake they had caught in one of the irrigation channels.  People farm in what we have come to call French style; the double-dug gardens with partly raised beds are planted close together to discourage weeds.  The soil is so rocky, it must have been exhausting to create such an extensive farming system, especially when the main implement is a device that looks like a hoe, but with a head the size and shape of a shovel.   


We had arrived on threshing day. Katie, Ian and I, out for a walk in the afternoon, stopped to watch as men attached a mechanical thresher to the Massey Ferguson tractor.  Women carried wheat stacked along the road in hand-tied bundles to the thresher, and a man in his late 20s wearing a sunhat fed the bundles into the machine.  Two women at a time carried grain away in baskets, while more women put the next basket under the thresher.  The hay came out into a large sheet they had attached to the other end.  Women carried huge bundles of the straw attached to their backs in these sheets–I wondered whether more pack animals would be what they wanted most. 

We stood a bit away on the shadier side of the road to watch.  Other women were using short straw brooms to sweep the street from the previous threshing across the street, children and old men were watching, along with the men who brought the thresher and tractor.  One woman smiled and suggested we help, which, to their apparent surprise, all three of us did.  After a few armloads, they indicated we should stop and seemed amused and pleased.  Katie took a few photos of the threshing.   Daoud told us later that night that he had been helping his own family with their threshing earlier in the day–each family plants and harvests its own wheat and brings the bundles to the road.  Each family pays for the use of the thresher. 


The kids and I had talked earlier in the day about how much more difficult this process is without combines: in Kansas, the wheat stays in the field and the combine cuts it in place, separates the grain from the straw, throwing both into separate trucks to be driven off.  Here, the family has to cut the stalks, bundle them, carry them to the road, feed them to the thresher, carry off the grain in baskets and the straw in sheets.  But in the evening, Daoud talked about how easy the new process is!  His family used to have the donkey walk for hours on top of the cut wheat.  Then, he explained, you had to spend hours going like this, moving his arms together quickly over his head.  The thresher really made the work much easier.  Families sometimes had enough for their use all year, sometimes more and sometimes less.  The grain was milled into flour in a nearby village, and the flat, round bread people eat here is baked in the local hammam.   

When we left Todru Gorge for Zagora on Saturday, temperatures had climbed.  I thought we were just unaccustomed to the heat, but the hotel manager explained that the heat wave had begun three days earlier (about the same time we left Marrakesh), and would likely continue for three weeks.  The man who sold us water at a gas station as we headed out of town asked how we were tolerating the heat.  With that send-off, we headed south, toward Zagora in the Moroccan Sahara.

July 11, 2007 at 1:48 pm Leave a comment

Gardens and Squares

Gardens are a big thing here.  Seems any available space has plants.  The roof patio of our lodging has plants so vigorous that we need to push away branches to get to our door.  We sat at lunch on a terrace overlooking the Saadi tomb complex and the storks that have made their homes on the walls, and saw cactus gardens on a neighboring roof.  The sun is very hot, the city is very dry, and the green seems to be everywhere, and everywhere welcome. 

Yesterday we walked all the way into the new city in the continuing search for Katie shoes.  Then we walked, and walked, and walked up Muhammad V Street, trying to find the Majorelle gardens.  Built by a French artist expatriot in the early twentieth century, we had read about these gardens, and they sounded better and better as we walked past the large (red) hotels, office buildings, and malls of the new city.  By the time she saw the gate, Katie said, she just hoped that’s where we were headed because she would have entered in any case.

Majorelle garden3Majorelle gardenMajorelle garden2

The garden was spectacular.  We have a fiddle-leaf ficus that pretends to be a climbing vine in the two-story front of our house.  This garden has one that must be a 60 foot tree with a huge trunk.  Turtles and large goldfish swam in the water-lily pool.  The cactus collection was amazing, situated in the center; the bamboo forest was around the edges.  The Museum of Islamic Arts attached to the garden had terrific examples of Moroccan doors, jewelry, carpets, and very old pottery.

We decided in the afternoon to try to find the Suq Cuisine [sic], but instead found a commercial area of the old city that had no other apparent foreigners.  I’ve always loved getting lost.  One man found us and led us to the most remarkable collection of herbs I’ve ever seen.  It was a wholesale place specializing in remedies, perfume ingredients, even incense. 

Back to Jama al Fna for dinner last night.  We ate our harira (soup almost as good as Sahar’s version) at long tables with many other people.  Then wandered looking at the various options for dinner.  (“Ali Baba!  Ali Baba!”)  We tried to figure out the nature of the various stalls, some were empty, others completely full.  The most popular was selling merguez sausages to Moroccans two lines deep.  Moroccans were also patronizing the shops with sheep heads and boiled egg sandwiches.  We chose the only one that had a woman cooking; they sold vegetables, grilled fish and kababs, all quite good.  Katie decided to try cinnamon tea and cinnamon cakes, which this young man was delighted to provide.  It was so strong I could barely sip it.

SquareCinammon tea

The crowds were even bigger last night.  The celebration on the square is clearly for the people of Marrakesh, and the biggest audience was for a story-teller accompanied by two stringed instruments and a drum.  Foreigners are warmly (sometimes too eagerly) welcomed, but the show is hardly for us.

Today it was the Saadian tombs and palace.  The palace was quite destroyed, but workers were putting up stands and a stage for the music festival to be held here next week.  The tombs are quite remarkable.  All the artistic elements I associate with Spain were, of course, present at the tombs and in the restored minbar housed inside the palace complex.  Muslim conquerors came in waves from Morocco to conquer Andalusia and put a stop to the decadent lifestyles of earlier Muslim rulers of Spain; as ibn Khaldun found, it took only a few generations for each to begin their own massive building and beautification projects, inviting another group with pious rigor to take over. 

A remarkable scam artist met us at the entrance to the old Jewish quarter.  He was trying to explain Jews to us.  You know, Jews pray at a synagogue on Saturdays (“Shabbat Shalom” he added), Muslims pray in a mosque on Fridays, Catholics pray on Sunday.  Where do the Catholics pray? I asked.  On Muhammad V, he answered.

July 3, 2007 at 3:55 pm Leave a comment


William (a.k.a. Ali Baba) seems to be viewed as a rock star here.  Everywhere we walk, people call out to him (Ali Baba, Ali Baba) smiling.  He returns their enthusiasm and their affection, clearly feeling quite comfortable in the remarkable, stunning, singular environment of the old city of Marrakesh.


If Casablanca was a white city, this one is clearly the red city.  Instead of white buildings, even the new high rise hotels, old city and new, are painted red/pink.  Casablanca seemed little different than any other European or Middle Eastern city I had visited.  I have never seen anything like Marrakesh.


I asked Ian to describe the scene for me as we left one of the suqs, and realized it would hardly be believable.  I get what all those Orientalist travelers were about—it isn’t difficult to portray this place as completely different, as everything non-Europe.


Of course, it isn’t.  The residents of Marrakesh eat and sleep and shop and have families and pray and work.  But they do it in such style!


Jama al-Fna is the center of the old city.  It seemed a pretty calm place when we arrived in the afternoon for coffee.  It’s only a few meters from the place we’re staying, an old house converted to a 12-room bed-and-breakfast.  To get to the square, we had to dodge bicycles, motorbikes and donkey carts.  (Ian jumped aside for an oncoming fez-wearing man on a motorcycle; I remarked on the young covered- “veiled”- woman roaring down the street on hers.)  At four, the square hosted half dozen orange-juice sellers (fresh juice is 3 dirhems; a dollar is 8 dirhems). 


When we returned around 8 pm, the square had been transformed.  It was jammed with tourists and locals.  (William commented that we had seen more tourists here in the few blocks from the train to the hotel than we had in three days in Casablanca.)  We walked through rows of tables and lines of food-purveyors that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.  (I have to watch this process!)  We were greeted at each invisible line dividing one establishment from the next, each host inviting us to sit at his table.  Men sold snail soup from large pots, fried fish, grilled meat, couscous combinations, cooked sheep heads.  The smells were as overwhelming as the crowds.  At each table, it seemed, men came to greet William, grinning, urged him to eat at the closest booth, grabbing his hand, demanding his friendship.  It’s probably no more than they would have offered anyone else equally interested—and William quite obviously loves this place and these people.


Away from the tables, women offered to henna our hands, to tell our fortunes.  Men sold herbs for a variety of uses.  Beggars set themselves up among all the others on stools and blankets around the square.  Groups formed around men who told stories, did acrobatic feats, played music; when the performance ended, another circle formed around another performer.  But a snake charmer?  The naked little boy of the Said cover (Orientalism) was, thankfully, not part of the scene.  But if one is looking for the mysterious east of the old Orientalist travelers, Marrakesh seems to be the place to find it. 


For our young geographer Katie, Jama al-Fna is a wonderful example of the potential use of public space, more varied than a Prague beer garden, more extensive than an American street festival.  She grinned, reminded me that she is energized by this kind of public event, and began speculating about how late she might be able to stay awake tomorrow night.


July 1, 2007 at 4:20 pm Leave a comment

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