Josselyn and I just returned from a weeklong trip to Morocco and we are still reeling from many amazing experiences that we had. While I’d been to Africa many years ago, it was my first time in an Arabic country and I had prepared myself for going by reading as much as a could on the customs of the country – such as baksheesh, the need to wear modest clothes that would cover up my tattoos and the fine art of haggling down prices of goods that I would buy while there.
We entered the door of the Riad, placed our bags down in our room and were brought cups of what the locals like to call Moroccan whiskey, which is really just mint tea. I found it refreshing even though it was a little too sweet for my taste and ended up finishing Josselyn’s cup as well. It was already evening at this time so we decided to get the most out of the day by leaving immediately to look around the Medina and specifically the open air-market that we’d passed in the car on the way over. One of the Medina employees walked with us to this market so that we would know how to get there and return.
The first object of my desire there was a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice from the #41 vendor. Whether it was the American dance-pop on the speakers inside his cart or the hand waves to come over and drink that made me choose that particular juice cart I don’t know. But it was delicious. While I was drinking though, a woman came up to Josselyn and began a henna tattoo on her hand without her having asked for it. She was very scared by this, having seen the tube with which the dye is ejected and mistaking it for a needle. I shooed the woman away, she washed her hand behind the stall I had just bought the O.J. from and we continued to explored the medina. We walked not even a hundred feet and saw men with King Cobras and other snakes that were making themselves available for pictures with tourists. I had several such pictures with them and they started to bring the snakes to Josselyn, but she was very frightened by them so they left her alone. I gave them five dirhams, roughly half of a euro, for the pictures and was immediately told to give more. “Paper money” was there precise phrase they used.
The research on cultural mores that I’d don’t informed me that this price was more than sufficient for the pictures and when faced by seemingly upset locals in this situation, as I was, to just laugh away their invocations for more and say that’s all you’re willing to give. I stuck to this and soon enough they left me alone in order to move on to other tourists that were circulating the area and wanting to take pictures with the snakes.
As we were hungry and Josselyn was afraid to eat at the food stalls in the center of the square we ate couscous dishes at a restaurant that wasn’t particularly noteworthy but was filling and cheap. Josselyn than got some pictures with some monkeys and the situation with the snake men repeated itself, though where I felt comfortable having expected this she was put off by it and the actions of the henna tattooist. I comforted her as we walked along the different shop fronts and sidewalk displays placed upon fabric by minor street merchants. There was a wide selection of counterfeit goods available for purchase, from glasses to watches to purses, of varying quality amongst the regular stores. Several times we were approached, asking if we wanted “sheet” or “wakibaki”, which I later found out were terms used for hashish, one of the largest export products in the area around the High Atlas mountains. I was also told that because of the cultural norms dominant in Morocco it is acceptable to offer such wares in the public, meaning in the square around women and children, just so long as the actual purchasing is done in private. Thankfully the people here were more accommodating to our responses of no then they were in Lisbon and we didn’t have any of these people start to follow us around while walking and make us feel uncomfortable.
One of the reassuring aspects of being in public as a traveller in Morocco was the observation of Muslim cultural norms. In most of the major European cities that we’ve been to, Barcelona especially, there are numerous pickpockets that target foreigners. Yet here the legal prohibition is tied to a moral one that is actually followed. What this says something about Christianity versus Islam, metropolises versus small cities and uniform versus personal religious schools is something interesting to consider but regardless of one’s reading of this – I was relieved of having to always be on guard. We walked around, looking at a mosque from outside and eventually stopped to take in all the sensations the square could offer.
There was a feast for the eyes in the sight of smoke rose from the restaurants in the square and wafted out in slow swirls, the sight of a throng of people in traditional dress whose paths were like a needle amongst the dozens of obstructions which prevented straight movement, the sight of people playing fair-style games of getting rings on strings around filled soda bottles to win a prize, horses with carriages lined up. There were also many light sources that made the view even more captivating. The lights of the battery-powered toys flying quickly into the air and slowly descending on florescent wings, the lights of the different sized wrought iron and glass candle-powered lamps flickering on the ground, the lights of the restaurants illuminating their small terraces empty of people as it was too cold and windy to enjoy a meal without some additional protection from the elements, the lights indicating the main street which went out into the residential area and the ones next to it which lit up the souks so that the light night shopper can see the myriad of locally crafted wares and spices, the lights of the motorcycles cutting through the pedestrian walkways. Along with all of this was the sound of Berber drums mixed with other instruments and the faint Arabic words of storytellers surrounded by eager listeners that gave a hypnotic feel to the movement going on in front of us. We stayed here for a while just looking on as our food digested and as we were starting to get tired returned to the Riad for a nightcap of port wine that I’ve bought at the duty free shop in Spain.
Based upon the recommendations found in TripAdvisor we’d signed up to take a combined cooking class and massage package early the next morning. We woke, had the typical breakfast of bland Moroccan bread with butter and honey and went at the Café du France to meet the driver who would take us to the cooking class. We drank café con leche while waiting and looked out at the square which while still busy was a shadow compared to the hustle and bustle of the night before. There were no men with exotic animals anymore, but instead a group of men that seemed to be talking with a foreman in hopes that they could hire themselves out for day labor. I finally spotted the car that was to take the two of us to the school and we entered in the car with a couple from England that was taking the same class.
All in all the cooking class was fun and would recommend it to anyone visiting, though I would suggest bringing a snack as Josselyn and I both wished we’d eaten more before going and that there was food to eat there for lunch rather than just a few pieces of Moroccan bread as both of us eat a lot and frequently. The class started with a smell-test of the typical thirty or so typical Moroccan spices and herbs. Despite the nasal and throat cold I had, I was able to identify most of the spices. Josselyn, who I’d started introducing to eastern spices since we moved in together, was able to surpass my recognition skills. The guide of this class, a former Parisian named Michel, then taught us how to identify good azafran from bad (by rubbing it on white paper and seeing how the only color on the paper is yellow), good argon oil from bad (placing it in a fridge to see if it is adulterated with another type of oil), and explained how Moroccans have an approach to food and spices that I found to be very similar to the Ayurvedic tradition in India.
I won’t go into the details of cooking bread, making salad or tangines – but will share the new friendship that I made with a cat that had been adopted by the cooking school, whose name was Couscous. An old man in cat years, he came over to me and while we waited for the last part of our meal to finish cooking allowed me to baby him in my arms. He was a sweetheart, as are all cats that hope to extract some meat from you in the near-future, which I indeed gave him. Our meal was served with a Moroccan wine that could easily have been watered-down cough syrup or a sweet soon-to-be-red-vinegar, but this didn’t matter so much. The food was good and the company of people there, all English speakers, soon gave way to conversations not about food but of the typical “what do you do when not here?” and “where have you been and where are you going?” themes.
After our meal we went to a hamam for some time in a sauna and relaxing massages. On the drive there we got to talk with Michel for the first time and get his perspective on Morocco. He’d left Paris as he was tired of the hustle of Parisian life and preferred the slower tempo of African life. He’d moved with his wife a few months ago and while critical of some aspects of Moroccan culture, such as the excessive use of sugar in teas that in conjunction with rampant hashish and loose-leaf tobacco smoking leads to the endemic dental problem readily visible, clearly felt more at ease here as there was less demands on his time. This preference for the gemeinschaft over the gesellshaft is a preference many people have voiced since the industrial revolution and here I saw it in a form vastly different from some of the small towns I’ve visited in the States before. In this place with a relatively large population base so many people knew each other and I was constantly amazed by the manner in which the people entering our orbits were constantly greeting and giving cordial remarks to other people.
After dropping off a passenger, who surprisingly enough lived in Williamsburg, New York, my old haunt, Michel parked the car and took us through a series of tightly packed cobble-stone back streets and entered an unmarked door. Inside we discovered a hidden oasis of beauty and luxury behind it.
Feeling rejuvenated we started to walk back to the Jnna el Fna but soon discovered ourselves quite lost. While in these back streets we encountered a few shady characters typical of large, poor cities that are unhappily dependent on tourist money for it’s sustenance. Thankfully, however, while going down a dead end we encountered a Moroccan, Mou Mou, that spoke English and works for UPS and gave us direction to the main road, suggested that we take a taxi and invited us to call him tomorrow and come visit his house.
On his suggestion we took a taxi back to Jnna El Fna and Josselyn went back to our Riad in order to organize a trip for tomorrow into the Sahara desert while I ate in the square. I went to the #1 stand in the market and sat down for a nice soup and chicken tagine. By the time I’d arrived back everything had been worked out for our trip and Josselyn then left with Ismail, one of the Riads employees to go get food and buy a knockoff Longchamps at the proper price. Not quite yet ready for bed, I picked up a book in the Riads small library.
The works of Honore de Balzac has repeatedly found their way to me through little to no effort on his own. Several years ago someone purchased his book “The Lost Masterpiece” for me on my Amazon wishlist and two and a half years ago I read Pere Goriot after finding it for free in a give-a-way box when people were moving out from the NYU dorms. In the library I found a 1987 Penguin copy of Cousin Bette that looked as if it have never been read and started giving it the attention that it deserves while waiting for Joss to return. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to bring it on the drive out to the desert. While there were many sights that caused me to stop reading during the drive and I found myself unable to read while going up and down the curvy roads of the High Atlas, the book was a lifesaver during the six plus hour drive through heat so strong that it left the back of our clothes slightly sweaty and cold so strong that at one point in the drive it started to snow heavily. Josselyn wasn’t fortunate enough to have a book with her, but with her small size and ability to sleep anywhere experienced only the parts of the drive that she wasn’t tired and those that I work her so that she could see some of the natural beauty of the landscape.
We stopped at Aït Benhaddou, shooting site of some two-dozen Hollywood films such as Prince of Persia and Gladiator, to look around the fortified city. It was very attractive and pictures do more justice than my words can. The only thing that I didn’t like was that one of the tourists with us was an obese British woman with asthma that was having such trouble walking up the steps that I was afraid she might die there or have some sort of attack that would result in death as we were hours from any medical facility. We ate an overpriced restaurant that I assume the guide had an arrangement with and then continued on our journey. Our next stop was to take a camel ride in the “doorway of the Saraha” to a Bedouin camp in the desert. Josselyn was extremely excited to be able to ride a camel for the first time and as the camels came into view she started to cry. The camel ride would have been more enjoyable had I been wearing the proper clothes, but as the sun was setting I wasn’t able to fully enjoy the beauty as my teeth were chattering together from the extreme cold.
Ours was the first group to arrive to the red and black tents arranges in a square and we were so famished that our hosts took pity on us that they served our food earlier than the groups slowly making their way into the dining area. Many of those arriving were Spaniards travelling during Semana Santa and British women in the school system taking advantage of their weeklong holiday. We had an interesting conversation about the current cuts in education respectively plaguing our countries. For desert we were served oranges and shortly after finishing this the Bedouins began playing instruments and inviting others to join in. I, however, didn’t hear or partake in this but only heard about it from Josselyn as after eating I immediately fell asleep and didn’t wake up until the morning. After gathering our belongings in the tent we mounted the camels again and took a different route back to meet up with our car. On the way one of the camels dismounted the Italian woman on it, which caused Josselyn to became so scared that she got off her camel “Blondy” and instead lead us through the desert while wearing wedges.
After getting back to Marrakech Josselyn and I stopped by the Riad to check that our travel plans for tomorrow had been arranged and then went to eat and look in the souks that had been made famous in Sex and The City 2. We ate kebabs and a host of other delicious food tapas style then spent some time with several of the hostel workers, Mohammed, Ismael and their friend in the upstairs seating area. Conversation was a little difficult, as only Mohammed’s English was very good and their friend didn’t speak English at all. We discovered, however, that we both had studied German so then began to converse in this language. This was admittedly poorly as the focus of my studies lately have been Spanish and it’s been several years since I last spoke German with regularity. I found myself searching for words and using Spanish rather than German. While I would immediately recognize my mistake shortly after saying it, pause to think for the correct word, and then say it this situation provoked some hearty laughter on behalf of everyone there. An hour or so passed here before we finally said our goodbyes to our gracious hosts and we grabbed a cab to the bus depot to catch our overnight to Fez.
The bus was, to use the idiomatic phrase that Josselyn had heard from several males “very nice”. She was able to sleep most of the way there, not finding the two seats to be too confining for her, whereas I kept waking up with a sore neck or back. The last hour or so of the trip I read more of Cousin Bette. A short and cheap cab ride to the hotel gave me some time to catch up on sleep before going to Fez’s Medina.
The Medina of Fez is the largest of such markets in the world and visiting there one can easily understand why it is a UNESCO World Heritage sight. Many of the facets of this areas beauty cannot be captured with cameras as unmarked but commonly understood social prohibitions that maintain an iconoclastic environment prevents picture taking. The larger merchants with elaborate displays and expansive shops will not shy away from violating these in the attempt to obtain business, however the people in smaller shops and around the mosques will signify to those about to take pictures that photos are not allowed. In a way it preserves the mystery about the place, as unlike so many other cities so much of it is not captured by photos and readily available for viewing from far away.
Since entering we were followed around by a young man who was pressuring us to go to the tanneries. I’d read enough in various texts speaking to the normality of relations here to not be really worried by this, but it was extremely aggravating at first, as Josselyn and I simply wanted to get lost in the Medina and not have him there. I politely asked several times for the youth following us to leave, but to no avail. I then took a more brusque approach but this didn’t work either. I then asked one of the security guards in Spanish to ask him to leave us alone, but to no avail as he only spoke Arabic and French. I finally asked him if I paid him if he would leave and he said no, he would not and then called me a Jew for, these are not his precise words, monetizing this experience and forbidding him from practicing English. At this point we’d gone to a rather poor section of the medina where the grinding poverty was more evident than in the buildings – besotted people with threadbare clothes lording over a pair of shoes, a few dirty toys or other items that looked like they’d been pulled from refuse bins. While I was scared, this wasn’t the place we wanted to see while here and as we both did want to see the tanneries Josselyn and I finally decided to follow him to the tanneries.
Abdul explained to me the process of treating and dying the leathers and I was amazed at the resourcefulness of their leather production process, informed as it was by an ecological and social concerns. They used only naturally sourced chemicals, such as the nitrates from pigeon droppings for softening and poppies for dye and the entire works was collectively owned and run by 250 families that had been involved in the patrilineal work for over five hundred years at this very spot. As we spoke about the history and relations of the place, a sudden torrent of rain came down and I was very grateful to be under the canvas overhead.
We chose the sandals we wanted and started to bargain down the prices. They’d first asked for 500 Dirhams, which was ridiculous given the production capacity that I’d just witnessed from above and cost of hourly wages typical of labor here – even if it was all done by hand. My first impetus was to offer 100 and end up paying 250-300, but I was so happy from the friendly service in the short time that I’d been there I started at a price I was more willing to pay – 300.
Josselyn taught one of the shop assistants adjuring her to “dance Berber”, meaning to shake her hips very provocatively, some ballet and then did a few moves on her own. Everyone laughed at his ineptitude and of course admired the skill and poetry with which Josselyn danced. At this the female clerk agreed over the objections of Abdul that 350 was a fair price and we went away happily with out purchases. I felt that I could have got the price down to my original offer had I low-balled my original offer, but I figured with the experience and hospitality that I was just shown this was a fair price – especially since a similar purchase in America or Europe would easily have cost double.
As we started to leave the formerly accommodating clerk, stopped me and started asking me about the jacket that I had declined to purchase. When going into it his spiel asking why I didn’t want to purchase it his eyes flared wide, the pupils went to the back of his head and he looked quite monstrous. While this was a very different tack then his previous attempts to obtain a purchase from me, I realized that this was simply the highly emotional means of expression typical to Arabic culture, laughed and reminded him that it was hot in Florida, where I would soon be living, and added the humorous rejoinder that if I did buy the jacket that I liked I would need to buy a motorcycle to go with it and thus the “deal” that I was getting there would turn into a much more expensive purchase later. He smiled at my response, laughed and gave me a pat on the back before walking us out, thanking us for our business and encouraging us to return.
As we left Ali, our guide, offered to show us around to some more shops and rather than fighting it we went with him. We went to a herbaria and a fabric shop and would have gone to a small pottery studio if at this time we weren’t getting hungry. Before we left, Ali invited us up to a café overlooking the Medina that “no one knows about but us”, and had some tea while looking over the city. To say that the café was beautiful is a cliché without giving form to it – but going into details about the wrought iron work adorning the rooftop, the intricate tiling of the floor and walls, the earthy tobacco smoked by natives in the section below us, describing the near-birds-eye view of the rooftops, the refreshing nature of the tea after having been on our feet for several hours also does not do it justice. It was one of those experiences best understood by actually being there and being present for it.
After having this tea we left our guide and decided to eat at McDonalds as the food we’d been eating had been causing upset to both of our stomachs. While my stomach still hurt after eating this, it was preferable to the effects of the tagines and couscous.
We woke up late the next day and decided to walk around the section of the city that had been built since the arrival of French colonialists. While the tri-color was no longer present, the structure of the streets was clearly made via the abstractionist style of French architecture. We walked to the Prince’s palace, around his and some other gardens, Mosque AL Hamra, Kasbah Chrarda, Medersa Bouananiya and several other charming areas. Josselyn was less than attracted to some of the places as they weren’t kept up was a depository for locals trash. I agreed that it could be prettier but shared with her an attitude that I’ve developed since I started travelling at a young age: It’s always important to see the squalor as well as the glamour of a city to understand its origins and contradictions. The attitude can take form in a refusal to turn away from the people smoking crack around the subway of Můstek in Praha and see that part of the beauty one sees in one places incurs a cost in another. It started to rain and as we were both tired we took a taxi back to the hotel for a siesta. After an hour or so nap, we returned to the Medina and ate atop a restaurant in the Kasbah Boujloud section. After a delicious mean we started to walk to the Museum der Batha – only to find that it was closed. We walked to the crafts galleries maintained by the Government, only to find that it too was closed. As we’d seen the spiritual triangle the day before and most of the other sites of the area, we decided to slowly walk back along the Avenue de L’UNESCO and enjoy the views it had.
While walking to our hotel I mentioned to Josselyn that this would be the first time that we’d be going to on a trip and not visiting a museum. Not five minutes after pointing this out we found ourselves in front of an art gallery that was having an opening. The Islamic prohibition against iconic art was evident in most of the works, however several of them were of people and pastoral settings and very attractive in it’s use of technique.
Like so many of the Miami and New York galleries they served refreshments, however these were of mint tea rather than beer or wine. We drank this before some eminent personage gave a short speech. Tired and needing the rest for the bus-plane-bus-subway trip we’d have to take the next day to return home, we decided to call it an early night and go back to the hotel so I could teach Josselyn how to play poker with better mathematical insight.
The next morning we dined at the hotel then took the 16 Bus to the airport. On our way we conversed with a Slovenian girl on the way found it equally amusing that our bus driver stopped at one point so the man selling tickets could run across the street and buy him a bag of oranges. She said she was staying in Morocco for 27 days and wished us a pleasant stay in Slovenia when we go. Hopefully her benedictions will come true.