Posts filed under ‘Berbers’

Berbers on the Train

Trains don’t go to Essaouira, so we made our way back to Marrakesh just long enough to buy train tickets and food for the 7 hour ride to Fez. William managed to get the man squeezing oranges to fill the 1-liter Carolina Speakers water bottle while Katie and I bought bread, cheese, yogurt, and cookies.

There were two men in our compartment by the time we got there. I can’t remember how the conversation began, but one of the men, a physician, told us that the big problem in Morocco wasn’t religion, it was suppression of Berbers. He was unimpressed with the new effort to teach Berber in the schools. He was reading an Arabic newspaper, so I asked whether there were any Berber papers. He said no, it wasn’t important, and anyway, there were so few Berber intellectuals. I began trying to explain about Benedict Anderson and his argument about language, literacy, and culture being central to the development of national identity, but couldn’t find the words in any common language to convey the argument.

When the two men got off some hours later, we took over the whole compartment. I was half way through the book Ian had given me (Gaimon’s Neverwhere) when a young man took a seat with us. He told us that he taught History at Kairaween University, and proudly showed us photos of his wife and six-year-old son. I was completely delighted to meet a colleague, a Moroccan historian, so I asked him what he taught. I couldn’t quite understand his answer. I asked him what his research was about, and he seemed a bit angry. I decided he must be a graduate student, who didn’t want to talk about how his research was going. Then he explained that he really taught young children. Katie handed me the Lonely Planet guide, pointing to the paragraph that read, in part,

I didn’t pay much attention, and I was really curious. How do you explain Moroccan history and Berbers to your students? I asked. Well, he answered, there are Berbers in some places in Morocco. They live in caves. And some still live in the Rif mountains and a few places in the desert. My parents are Berber, he continued, and they taught me a couple of Berber words. He went on to confuse the basic chronology of Moroccan history, and I finally became suspicious. Poor man. It hardly seems fair to encounter a historian on a train when you’re just trying to get hired as a guide.

We have encountered “guides” in many places in Morocco. It is fascinating to hear them tell stories about places. Some seem quite freely to make things up that they think their employers would like to hear. Fiction as history does seem quite entertaining!

We spent our first day in Fez wandering the streets of the old city, literally downhill into the suqs. Main street of the old city survives as a major shopping area for local residents. You can find not only clothing here, but also shops specializing in buttons, others selling trim, one selling spectacular upholstery fabric. All the shops are small, and the variety of food, hardware, kitchen goods, clothing is quite astonishing. There are young men at every information sign posted, all offering their services as guides. Many of the monuments in the old city are also located in this labyrinth of streets, many in the process of being restored, a great thing unless you’re a traveler who wants to visit them. We did get a glimpse of the tomb of Moulay Idriss, and stood in the square of the copper-sellers where local lore has it that Leo the African stayed for a while.

The French legacy in Morocco seems huge today. I mean, in addition to killing many people. They created a category called Berber. They built new cities right next to the old cities, and I’m really curious about the consequences on the local urban and economic fabric. And Lyautay decided that non-Muslims were not to be permitted to go into any mosques. Was he worried that Christians would convert? Was he worried that they would take over the mosques and Muslims would be angry? Concerned that their own soldiers would desecrate holy places? Throughout Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean, it seems, anyone can go into mosques, a policy consistent with the historical universalism and interest in conversion that Muslims have embraced. Over many months with art historians during my dissertation research, I visited and admired many Ottoman mosques. Some French colonial ruler decided that Muslims should not enter mosques, and Moroccan officials seem to believe simply that this is the way things must be. So we have not been able to see, appreciate, admire any mosques in Morocco.


July 17, 2007 at 4:52 pm Leave a comment

Full Circle

Full circle, back in Marrakesh for two nights to return the car, regroup, and plan the rest of our trip.  This time, Marrakesh felt more familiar, certainly cooler, than it had seemed when we left it.  Now we had traditions, strange as that seems.  Back to the Jama al Fna for dinner, harira first.  This time, the man who had been pressing William a week earlier won out, and we had dinner at the booth of the one who always talked about Thomas Hardy and English writers.  After dinner, as we moved off to listen to a group of drummers surrounded by a circle of spectators, our host pulled William aside.  “You don’t believe me, do you?  I studied English literature.”  He pulled out his notebook and began reading his own poetry. 


Bahia Palace the next day, another structure with outrageously impressive ornamentation: carved wood ceilings, carved stone decoration, zilij tile mosaics, inlaid marble floors.  In 1912, French officers took it over as their Marrakesh headquarters.  Only part of it has been restored, part is now used by the King. 

When it began to cool off, we spent a bit of time in the market next to the square.  Katie bought a new purse to replace the one she got last summer in Turkey, worn out from a year of constant use.  This one had already begun fraying.  We picked it up from the man who had sold it to her.  Muhammad talked with us about fabrics and prices, then sent us down the shops to a man who sold very nice jalabas.  This shopkeeper used to be a Math professor, but when the university switched from French to Arabic, he explained, he couldn’t continue.  “I’m Berber,” he explained. Now a designer, seller and exporter of caftans, jalabas, jackets, and blouses, he loves his current work. 


For our last evening, we returned to the square, to the booth we had visited our first night in Marrakesh.  Her husband told us that Rashida, one of the cooks and the person for whom the space was named, began as the first woman cook on the square 24 years ago; she was still only one of two women who worked at the food booths.  She has a huge smile, a big hat, and I’m sure she must have heard me that first night exclaiming that we needed to go to the booth with the woman cook–she seemed terribly amused then, and again seeing us a week later.   It seemed the crowds had grown even larger, and there appeared to be more musicians.  But the performer that still intrigued me most was the story-teller.  Constantly surrounded by large audiences and accompanied by three musicians, he seemed every night to delight his listeners with new tales.  They smiled, then laughed, grew serious.  Watching their faces was quite remarkable.  The square has been named a UNESCO World Cultural Site for the oral traditions on the square.  I wish I could tell stories even a small part as well as he does. 

Greatest missed photo: the woman covered in gray from head to toe, only her eyes visible behind eyeglasses, gloved hands, riding a motorbike.

 We lost power around 10, as we were packing to leave Marrakesh.  That meant an even earlier start for the bus station.  We waited to check our bags as the ticket man greeted his friend, who showed him the front page of the paper: photographs of Morocco’s king, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri.  Both men told us how angry they were–bin Laden, they said, was not only targeting the King for encouraging Western tourism, but targeting the whole country. It seems this does not make friends, at least among some newspaper-reading Moroccans. Goats in trees on the way to the coast.  We walked all the way through the walled city of Essouira to arrive at our hotel, in a courtyard not far from the Atlantic Ocean.  This beach town is a fraction the size of Agadir, with small hotels and easy beach access, a former Portuguese naval stronghold from the 17th century.  If Casablanca is the white city, and Marrakesh the red city, Essouira is the blue and white city. 


It was a wonderful weekend, a much-appreciated break from the heat of Marrakesh and the desert.  Essaouira still seems to be a small fishing town, with lots of tourist infrastructure.  Unlike Agadir, though, most of the tourists seem to be Moroccan families.  An early morning walk on the beach, where groups of twenty- and thirty-something men were playing soccer, a lesson in making mint tea from a 14-year-old teacher, walks through artist galleries and along the city’s ramparts, watching Moroccans on vacation–a good, quiet weekend before moving on to Fes.  We celebrated our anniversary at a small restaurant; when we told our young waiter it was our anniversary, he grinned enormously, and wished us a large family!


July 16, 2007 at 6:39 pm Leave a comment



Zagora is hot. Russ looked it up online: at 6 pm, he said, it was 102, presumably in the shade. But there isn’t much shade.

This was the end of the line–or the beginning, depending on which way your caravan was headed. I remember reading that the Sahara was more like an ocean, encouraging, not forbidding, trade. People, merchandise, ideas, styles passed through the desert for centuries. The diversity of clothing style and skin pigment make the centuries of connection quite apparent. Like Timbuktu at the southern end, Zagora at the northern end became a center of Muslim learning.

We were there not only because it’s the northern end of the trans-Sahara route (a sign on the south side of town claims it is 52 days to Timbuktu–see above, with Ibrahim). William had spent a month in the town in 1995 and wanted to go back with the family. We arrived Saturday evening and immediately met Ibrahim, one of the men he had known 12 years earlier. Back then, William had asked where he could get a black shesh like the one tied on his head; Ibrahim immediately sold it to him.

Zagora has expanded enormously in the intervening decade. The city to the south of the gates has remained six blocks wide and a few long, but a huge amount of building has gone on north of the gates. And a large, apparently brand new regional army headquarters has been built between the town and the river.

Saturday evening, we went with everyone else to the river. Groups of young men walked and rode motorbikes along the road and the river. We saw a couple of older men doing their prayers by the water. Young women walked together, the variety of dress still surprising me. Western clothing was everywhere, shirts and trousers on both men and women. Both also wear jalabas, long gowns with hoods hanging down the back. Some women wear a very long piece of cloth that is tied so it looks incredibly graceful as they walk, functioning simultaneously as a skirt, shawl, and head covering. Women with bare shoulders walked and talked with women who covered their heads, as everywhere we’ve been so far. The European and American effort to class covered and uncovered women as two distinct groups seems quite far from the mark.


Ian writes to describe the market we found on Sunday morning in the center of Zagora. “The market was like something out of a movie scene-you know, the one where the main character is looking for something in the bustling middle eastern market. There were rows and rows of stalls selling all kinds of things, from garden implements to music to spices to ten foot poles and ladders to produce to buckets made out of old tires. Some of the stalls were covered with expanses of slanting burlap, but most of them were open to the sun, and the heat baked the entire scene. Even more interesting in some ways than the things being sold were the people there to buy them. You had an absolute throng of humanity there, with covered women wearing elaborate and beautiful wraps brushing past young men wearing US army surplus pants that were too short for them with Charlotte Hornets t-shirts. You had men wearing jalabas and turbans with big knives stuck in their belts, and other men with impressive beards that looked like they hadn’t seen a sharp edge in months. It was an absolutely incredible scene.” William bought one cassette tape he heard playing in the market.

The sun was overwhelming, and I had to quit before the others were quite ready. After a brief rest, we drove south to Tamegroute to see the library. I don’t know anyone who has worked in this library, but Lonely Planet makes it seem an incredible resource for medievalists, with a collection containing “illlustrated religious texts, dictionaries, astrological works”the oldest dating to the 13th century. The town was a religious center from the 11th century, and the zawiya (17th century) includes a mosque, a school, a tomb, and the library. We couldn’t get in–we waited until it was supposed to open at 3, then were told that the person who opens it was busy. We did see the school’s courtyard, then drove far enough south to see some dunes and collect some Sahara sand.


When we returned to town, William went in search of his friend Lasan, who had managed the establishment where he stayed for a month more than a decade ago. He found Lasan in great spirits–his Japanese wife had just had a baby girl in Japan (a bit early) and he would be leaving in a few days to join her and hold their first child. We all went to his new “camping” to meet him, an incredibly warm man with a huge smile and lots of energy. He insisted we stay for coffee, and told us about his new apartment he was finishing for people wanting to stay longer-term in the new establishment he owns south of town. (Looks like a great place to stay to do research in the nearby library.)

Leaving Zagora was a bit difficult. We had planned to drive to Taroudannt, but the small, walled town (street sizes to population about the same as Avignon during the summer festival) seemed just overwhelming after the small mountain and desert towns, so we kept driving all the way to the Atlantic. William got to show the kids how to change a tire by the side of the road.

Taroudannt had been teeming and crazy busy on market day. Agadir was busy in an entirely different way. It is clearly a very successful tourist resort city. We heard very little Arabic, and walking along the waterfront (which one couldn’t get to because of the huge hotels) we saw an English pub, a taco restaurant, an invitation to supersize one’s meal, many boutiques. The new Agadir seems a European resort more than a Moroccan city. It does have a constant reminder of its past, though, in the huge mound that reads in Arabic “God, Country, King” slightly to the north of town. The 1960 earthquake did such extensive damage that people moved the city instead of trying to reconstruct it.

July 13, 2007 at 2:36 pm Leave a comment

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