I went to Morocco with little research and few expectations, instead preferring a fresh experience which, of course, was ameliorated because I was joining my son Aaron, daughter-in-law Tammy and granddaughter Mali who had already been there a few months. My first adjustments were to jet lag and living in ‘Charlie,’ their camper van. Then it was to French- and Arabic-spoken and printed signs everywhere around us, and a different monetary system which was approximated by moving the decimal one place to the left: so 1,000 Moroccan Dirham = $100 more or less. What a relief to have family to guide me through it all.
My first impressions included the flat roofs on every buildings many serving as solar driers (where the clotheslines are hung). Ancient and modern walls are constructed from straw and mud meant to last only about three generations, thus we saw many kasbahs (castles) in eroded, deteriorating shape. I only saw two women in burkas (full head to toe covering including a veil), but many more brightly colored and elaborately embroidered long dresses called jellabas. Many men also wore jellabas, long robes of more subdued camel or sheep wool. Only about half the women and girls covered their hair. There were many people dressed in western clothing as well, especially in the cities.
Healthy cats were everywhere, considered clean by Moroccans as opposed to dogs. A certain hue of blue (from the nomadic Berber tribes from the Sahara) was everywhere on signs and buildings; I will always think of it as Moroccan blue. They claimed that color kept the flies at bay and it was true we observed few insects but we were there at the end of their winter. Just as in America, cell phones were everywhere from city business men to shepherds with their flocks of sheep in the field, though I saw no students with them. Finally, the brilliant sunlight enhanced every hue, the shadows still bright in reflected light. I was constantly taking off and putting on my sunglasses as I navigated the medinas (old walled cities of alleys lined with permanent vendor stalls).
Surprises included vast beaches under superb 70 degree weather and having my preconceived notions (thanks to the American press) of a culture 95% Muslim drastically changed. Another surprise was the sensuality of the first souq which is like our Saturday market. Bright conical piles of dates and olives, spices and oranges are vivid in my memory. Another impression seared in my memory is the crazy, dangerous driving on primitive roads (either rough or hairpin narrow turns with cliffs on both sides) and city traffic of all sorts including donkey carts, motorbikes, bikes, and cars blithely going the wrong way in our lane. As Mali put it, “Lane lines are just suggestions!” With my daughter-in-law navigating by iPad, my son seemed to master city traffic in our 18’ camper rig, even the frequent roundabouts with different yield patterns.
Another surprise was the dichotomy of traditional rural living and the modern city. It felt like we stepped back in time when we traveled the countryside despite the more modern toll highways. There was also a huge disparity between the highly developed historic Moorish architectural style and the amateurish commercial paintings we saw in a the tourist markets.
The camel ride into the Saharan Desert was everything I’d hoped and more, the overnight stay in Berber tents (complete with ensuite toilets!) magical. Aaron, Tammy and Mali spontaneously drumming after our dinner with our Berber hosts will never be forgotten. Picking up large, recognizable nautaloid and crinoid fossils of Devonian age from the pre-desert floor was also a rare treat for this geology nut.
As some of you may know, we indulged in a guided tour of the Imperial Cities (various capitals through several centuries) for ten days of my five weeks in Morocco. This allowed us several things: relief for Aaron from driving and having to find camping sites, and perhaps more importantly, it provided us with an informative guide who expanded our sense of historic time (the U.S. is so young!).
One thing we learned is that Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States as a country in 1776, a fact of which they are very proud to this day. Our learned guide and his charming family, who entertained us one evening in their restored ancestral family riad (inn) with a seven course traditional Moroccan dinner of seafood pastilla and vegetable tagine, afforded us a glimpse into the modern life of Moroccans. On our tour the luxurious accommodations with flush toilets (!) were a well-appreciated break from the Spartan lifestyle of ‘Charlie” camping. But by the end of the tour, I was done with seeing beautifully appointed mausoleums and mosques. I had taken several hundred of pictures of beautifully crafted and mostly restored Moorish décor.
Occasionally our days would be interjected with a humorous note when a particular muzzein’s call to prayer from the nearby minarets more closely resembled a motor bike revving through its gears than the more pleasant, sonorous incantations they are intended to be. Surprisingly, I saw only one man on his knees facing east on a prayer rug, unlike my observation in Egypt on another trip. There were also goats that climbed Argan nut trees. We snapped pictures of them standing on the branches near the road. Argan oil’s nutty flavor is highly prized as a salad oil and is also used for cosmetics.
In the name of efficiency another strange custom was cows riding on truck roofs. The adult cows rode in the bed of a pickup, then a shoddy roof was constructed over their heads and the calves rode on top making for a top heavy load which swayed on the highway. Tammy called them ‘hamburger helper.’ We saw American companies in the large cities: Samsung, Kentucky Fried Chicken and the golden arches identified as “Chez McDo”.
Apparently neighbors of orange groves are allowed to trim the orchard and keep the branches (complete with oranges on them) for fuel which resulted in two-wheeled orange bushes biking down the road, the driver all but invisible. Very few Moroccans seem to have grasped the necessity of wearing a bike helmet, but we observed they were almost all on backwards.
We enjoyed olives of many hues for breakfast, lunch and dinner and meat cooked with fruits such as dates and prunes. They had fresh Moroccan raspberries, strawberries and blueberries in February! In the walled old cities called medinas, we saw camel motels called caravanserai.
When vendors discerned we were speaking English, they would try to guess our nationality: British? Australian? Kiwis? South African? Canadian? In only one encounter did they say ‘American?’ Once we told the others we were from the U.S., they were effusive in their welcome. Few of them knew where Alaska was located but most knew it was cold.
Now that I am back in Alaska, the first thing people ask me is “Did you feel safe?” I can unequivocably state I never felt threatened or unsafe. Moroccans are very respectful, outgoing and curious. Of course in the markets vendors would encourage us to look at their goods, but they are required by law to leave us alone once we said “La shokran” (no thank you) twice to them. It was much more comfortable than other experiences I have had as a tourist in countries such as Egypt or Mexico. However I have yet to master bargaining a price for an item.
There are so many more things to relate but the takeaway is that Morocco is an undiscovered, exotic destination of gentle, friendly people. It is a second world country catching up fast and an example of a society with all the best aspects of the Islamic religion. Being at the corner of the Saharan Desert, the parts we traveled were surprisingly agricultural with the careful preservation of water and centuries old irrigation techniques. The huge effort at restoring their historic sites, upgrading their status of women, building safe modern roads and relaxing the more rigid tenants of Islam are quite apparent to this American. Two discouraging aspects of their modernization are the plastic bags blowing in the wind across the countryside and, getting down to basics, they are slow to upgrade their squat-style toilets. But their friendliness and excellent cuisine more than makes up for these problems.
I would urge anyone to go see Morocco for themselves before it is assimilated completely into the twenty first century.
-written by Susan Oesting, photographed by Tammy and guide Lazrak