A Sojourn in Morocco

Off the beaten track

It did not take much effort to plan this trip once we had set our minds to it, and we were lucky to find a travel company that then worked with their Moroccan counterpart to provide a decent package. Pretty soon, we were on an Air Canada flight across the Atlantic and headed to the Western fringes of the African continent where a Moorish adventure beckoned. It sure turned out to be one, as the flight to Montreal was delayed and we just managed to clamber on the Casablanca flight, all revved up and ready to leave. The mad dash through immigration in Montreal, with a lot of help from the airport staff across gates, and exhortations and wishes to catch the onward flight, got us through the vast terminal, panting and with heaving chests into the comforting seats of a warm widebody 787. As it was weighted down by inches and layers of snow, elaborate deicing procedures were required, but we took off without any more issues, headed for the warmer climes at the lands adjoining the Sahara.

I had touched upon the subject of Morocco, a few years ago while writing on the ship of the desert – the Camel, where I mentioned the trans-Saharan gold trail (7th-14th CE) one which originating in mines and towns of Ghana, snaked through the large cities of pre-medieval Morocco or the Berber Kingdom it was then, to Alexandria in the Egyptian East. At that time, the Berbers were the indigenous occupants of Morocco (derived from the town Marrakesh or the usage Moors depending on who you discuss with), and Berber (the nomadic Amazigh tribes) was an unkind term – signifying Barbarians, coined by the early Greeks. They used a script looking somewhat like Greek, called Tifinagh, which is now finding a resurgence in Morocco, in student curriculum and sign boards. I mention this since it was quite a surprise seeing Greek-looking scripts on signboards after we landed in Casablanca. Most people speak French and the local Arabic dialects though, and a smattering of English due to the many tourists.

Soon we were headed to Rabat, the capital, after the flight which took us through the night and across the wide ocean, landed at sunrise in Casablanca. Mohammed our friendly driver, quite fluent in English, seemed very competent at the wheels, and we were sure the next seven days would be OK, with him. Though Rabat is the present capital, each of the major cities of Morocco, which are frequented by visitors, namely Fez, Marrakech, Meknes, etc., were previously imperial capitals (actually there were three more, which most people do not know - Hajar al-Nasr, Taroudant and Aghmat). I was surprised to note that the present American Ambassador to Morocco has Indian origins, and is Mr. Puneet Talwar! A couple of hours later, we were in Rabat and headed to its Medina.

While most people ask for traditional hotel accommodations, our planner suggested staying in what is known as Riads. Riads are located in Medina’s and well, being reasonably sure that the lay reader or traveler does not know either term, I have to elaborate briefly on what they are. The old city center is the so-called Medina and is laid out differently from most cities. “Medina” means city in Arabic, and are walled towns, characterized by long, narrow, winding alleys with a few entry gates. They cannot be accessed with cars, but noisy motorcycles, bicycles, and donkey carts pop up to startle you now and then. Mohammed dropped us at the entrance of the Rabat medina and a glum-looking porter lugged our suitcase nosily through the labyrinth to our Riad.

So, what is a Riad? Well, it is a large house with many bedrooms, with entry from one of these alleys through a single gate, with no signboards announcing its existence. The wealthy Sidis’s home has been remodeled and the interiors are quite like modern hotel rooms. The courtyard is where you eat breakfast and some of the very large Riads have in-house restaurants too. The only daunting part is finding your way to the right gate at night, with little lighting in the alleyways! But Google maps works reasonably well, and we managed nicely, though the first night was a little perturbing. You know, I was reminded of the Alibaba story (I used to narrate it to my children!) where the thieves mark his door with an X, and Morgiana, Alibaba’s trusted slave, places X marks on all doors, to foil them and save her master from certain death. Now I can understand how important that X mark is when you have 10-20 identical doors on a long alleyway and it is dark at night, with no streetlights! Food was not a real problem if you are used to Arabic and Lebanese food, but cumin overrides most other spices here, and the fare is somewhat bland. Plenty of vegetarian dishes abound, and if you know French, ordering is easier.

Rabat, of course, has the modern side as well as the ancient Medina and is close to the ocean as well as the Kasbah (fort), its ramparts, and the old city walls. The Al Hassan tower etc., are of some interest to intrepid visitors. As the calls for prayer from the muezzins in the many nearby mosques rang in our ears, the bursts of wind brought us the many smells of cooking, barbecues, and freshly baked bread.  Soon we came to know that three things were part of any medina quarter, a large communal bakery, the mosque, and a hammam where the people went to bathe.

After a pleasant night, and a sumptuous breakfast (a real spread every morning with eggs, many types of bread - including mini-Malabari style parottas, pancakes tasting like vattayappams, cornbread, fruits, olives, dates, juices, coffee, and whatnot!), we were headed to the second leg – the blue city popularized by Instagram, Chefchaouen.

After a long drive up north, on a good road and minimal traffic, we reached our destination after passing many salt pans. On a hillock, with houses built on its side, Chaouen is characterized by the blue color of most home walls. An enduring mystery, nobody knows how it came about. The local guide attributed it to Judaism, for the locale had many Jewish mellah’s (quarter), and they painted their buildings blue, apparently after the sky (Some of you may remember that the ancient Jews used Tekhelet, the blue dye for priestly clothing, tapestries, tassels, etc. After the second temple’s destruction, it lost importance as dye makers drifted away, though blue remained an important color, associated with Jews). But I didn’t think that was the reason. A second guide told us that it had nothing to do with any ancient custom, but it was all due to a Chinese lady who lived there for a while, and wrote a book about the place (more likely at the time when the trade pact between the governments in 2016 was signed, making it a sister city to Kunming) and made it popular in China. This is the only place where you can find some Chinese restaurants and they celebrate the lantern festival etc. But post-COVID, the Chinese interest seems to have waned.

Still unlikely I thought, and then a third guide told us that it was due to the presence of a particular Berber tribe (Tuaregs) who applied indigo on their faces and feet to ward off mosquitoes. The area had a river and lots of mosquitoes and the people decided to paint the lower walls blue to ward off mosquitoes. Interestingly, it has been scientifically established that blue color keeps mosquitoes away (remember the use of blue in our Kerala home whitewash?). Yet another said it was the color used to ward off an evil eye…So much for the blue, but it made the area unique and attractive, and it became very popular with hordes of Chinese tourists who popularized it on Instagram.

Anyway, the place has a lovely medina snaking through the hillside, lots of shops selling trinkets, and some nice food at the square. The strategic importance comes from the fort built in the 15th century to resist Portuguese occupation. The Riad we stayed at was, of course, painted in blue, quite attractive, and provided a lovely breakfast too. The Kasbah and its dungeons are worth a visit. As somebody said, it is the only Moroccan city with a bohemian appeal, where you can sit and sip a great glass of mint tea and well, wander around, doing nothing much!

By this time, we had driven quite a good distance up North, and heading farther in the same direction would have taken us to Tangiers, but was not in our plans. Instead, the next day, we drove a good 4 hrs South towards Fez, stopping at Volubilis and Meknes. Volubilis is a city that was once headquartered by the Berber Romans, but now just a lot of rocky ruins and bits of mosaic flooring, to remind you of its lost opulence. The fertile plains and the good olive crop were the reason for the Romans to settle down here, making it its southerly border town. It developed from the 3rd century BC onward as a Berber, then proto-Carthaginian settlement before becoming the capital of the ancient kingdom of Mauretania. After another 300 or so years, it disintegrated, following continuous attacks by various tribes and no longer defensible, the Romans lost interest and went away. It was in this area that Islam in Morocco first took root when Mullah Idris came by and decided to stay. Idris was the great-grandchild of Hassan, who was the son of Fatima and Ali and the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. In 789, he arrived in Tangier before going to Walili, i.e., Volubilis.

Meknes, hosting a large palace, the usual mosques, and medina, plus high walls, was undergoing a lot of repair work, and other than seeing all these from a distance, we could not do much. Before I forget, let me tell you that the minarets of Mosques in Morocco (the entire Maghreb region) are unique in the respect that they are square and not circular in cross-section. And, well, Morocco was never under the Ottomans, so developed quite differently from all the Ottoman-controlled regions, but was later conquered by the French, the Spanish, and occupied in parts, by the Portuguese.

By this time, we had a good idea about cost, prices, margins, etc., and the use of the local Dhiram (credit cards not accepted), as well as tipping. Seafood at Rabat, the local favorite the Tajin (stewed veggies and meat in a characteristic pot), the spicy Harissa sauce, the omnipresent fresh pomegranate juice, and so on, had all been sampled and relished.

Fez was the endpoint on the 3rd day and the Riad at the entrance to the Medina was quite large, well, I must say massive, as an erstwhile nobleman’s house. We decided to brave it out in the Medina on our own that night, phew – it was certainly many times larger than the covered bazaar (Kapali Carsi) in Istanbul and crowded. But it was ok, and the whole of the next day was spent wandering around the city with the guide, taking in the sights and sounds of Fez. Palaces, forts, pottery, and ceramic units, the ancient leather tannery, the ancient Madrassa, the cloth dyeing areas, etc., there was so much to take in. The tannery visit was something to remember, for you cannot forget the stench – now one must note that this is supposedly all organic, with no chemicals, and it was the use of pigeon poop for its ammonia that stank up the area. They give you a large bunch of mint leaves to smell, and avoid puking!! The lunch was unforgettable, and the superb salad spread, followed by the Pastilla, a bread filled with meat and dry fruits, a little sweet for our liking, but good, nevertheless.

Each Medina had something equivalent to a Turkish Caravansaray – where merchants and their animals which formed the caravan, rested and traded their goods. Though being happy, simple, and hardy people, you will be surprised to see donkey and mule carts vying for road space with Renaults and Audis (we spotted a Bentley parked outside the Pasha homestead). There are very few Indian tourists, though larger cities have one or two Indian restaurants. Rice is difficult to come by, and bread is a staple.

A long drive the next day took us southeast to Marrakech, and the next Riad, this one quite French in its remodeling, replete with a pool and a spa, and trees inside! Marrakech is where most tourists end up and is the most cosmopolitan, plus boasting the largest medina and souk. The marketplace or central square - Djemaa El Fna hosts many thousand people, hawkers, shops, henna, street food, juice shops, musicians, magicians, and snake charmers et., every evening, and is the place to visit. The trick is to get in early and find seating at one of the terrace restaurants for a lazy dinner, whilst looking down into the square. A visit to YSL’s garden (created by artist Jacques Majorelle) was in the morning plans, and it was here that we got a decent idea about the Berbers. The afternoon was a leisurely walk with the guide through the Medina, and the many other historical sites. Not that different from the medina at Fez, but much larger, I thought., with even more food options! By this time, we could get around these Medina labyrinths with some ease, no longer with fears of getting lost.

Days had been flying by, and finally, it was time to head back to Casablanca, where we stayed in a traditional conference hotel. The Corniche, the diplomatic areas, the French and the Spanish settlements, the Portuguese, the Jewish Mellah’s, and finally the gigantic Hassan II Mosque are all worth the visit. The humongous Hassan II mosque, one of the largest in the world, can house about 105,000 worshippers at a time, and is built on reclaimed land!

Sadly, we missed the fictional Ricks café (simply forgot it in the hurry). Incidentally, there was no Ricks café originally in Casablanca and was created in Hollywood, for the movie, but an enterprising Englishwoman recreated it in Casablanca and most tourists head out there for a photo-op.  The city was an important place during the WW-II and the Allied world leaders met there in 1943 at the Anfa hotel. To get a feel for the Casablanca of the 40s, see the movie with Humphrey Bogart and the lovely Ingrid Bergman, my all-time favorite.

Meredith Hindley, author of ‘Destination Casablanca’ states (Times of Israel) - While the film “Casablanca” is immortalized for its story of World War II refugees seeking freedom from Hitler, the real-life history that inspired it is arguably less well-known — but no less dramatic. After the fall of France in 1940, “Casablanca became a way station for refugees because of its location,” Hindley said. It was the largest Atlantic port in Africa, and, with Lisbon, it transformed into a jumping-off point for North America, South America, and the Caribbean early in the war, she said. But departure was difficult. Refugees were required to obtain hard-won immigration visas, as well as exit and transit visas, which were all issued by different governments, she said. “Getting those to line up — they all expired after a set period of days — could be nerve-wracking. That’s how many refugees ended up stranded for months or sometimes years in Casablanca,” she said, giving the example of Esti and Sophie Freud, who were stuck in Casablanca for nine months until they could obtain new visas.

Morocco has two mountain ranges, the Rif, and the Atlas, and in the Atlas mountains, you have snow. It is between Marrakech and the Atlas that you have Ouarzazate where many Hollywood and some Bollywood movies are shot. Just on the other side of the mountains is the Sahara desert which many tourists visit. Many Moroccans watch Bollywood movies, especially Amitabh Bachchan flicks, and would happily hum or sing Kabhi Kabhi mere dil mein, if asked! Shah Rukh Khan is well known, so also most actresses.

Strangely, it is quite difficult to find alcohol, Morocco is quite traditional though not very strict or too devout, you do get wines in some upmarket hotels. Argan oil is a staple product, and the food is very good – the tajines, tangia, pastillas, soups and juices, olives and pickles, salads, and of course sweets, but not to forget couscous dishes (semolina – like our upma). Those who like to shop can bargain for carpets, gowns, kaftans, furniture, and all kinds of pottery, leather, and trinket selections.

But now – I have to tell you how the Hammam is important in Moroccan family life, as explained by our last guide. By tradition women in Morocco (though quite modern today) in the old times, were only permitted to see men in their immediate family. That is why Riads have no windows and open into the courtyard, and not into the alleys, save the great double door with two slats (one to admit the man and horse, the smaller gate in the women on foot). Moroccan doors have two door knockers which sound different.  If a guest uses the knocker that’s mounted higher on the door, the woman inside will know that it’s a man, and will make sure she’s properly dressed!

As you can imagine, Men and women have separate hammams where they have a steam bath (usually once a week) and per tradition, are unclothed while at it. Now, when the son is ready to get married, his mother (or an elder sister) takes over and gets to work, and surveys the hammam. When she spots the right girl, with the right geography (the very words our guide used!), color, looks, etc., the momma calls her over to scrub her back, while keenly observing her for any imperfections. In the traditional hammam, Moroccan women and men ask their friends or people sitting next to them to help scrub their back or the entire body. The girl’s behavior and upbringing come to the fore, at this juncture.

In the hammam, no amount of makeup can hide imperfections, so it is the right place for a minute inspection! If momma is satisfied, she asks questions about the girl’s family, and finally offers the girl some nuts (walnuts or almonds) to chew – to check that she has good teeth. Good teeth mean good digestion and a good kitchen at her home!! If the girl passes the examination, the next steps are taken and the families meet, to discuss the engagement and a nikah! How do you like that!!

A snippet from history - there is an important connection between Morocco and India - One of the most prominent visitors to India, especially Malabar (1342-1347) was the globe trotter Ibn Batuta, who covered some 117,000 km in 30 years. He was a Berber Maghrebi from Tangiers – Morocco and left behind classic descriptions of Calicut and many other locales in India.

There is so much more, but well, it is time to wind up these ramblings…

After an exotic week in that unique land, it was time for us to bid goodbye to Mohammed, our driver and newfound friend of seven days, and catch the return flight via Montreal. Well as luck would have it , it was delayed and we spent a day cooling our heels in Montreal, in the care of Air Canada, finally reaching back in Raleigh after Thanksgiving, concluding quite a fascinating trip, to say the least. Thanks to KimKim and Orion trek voyages…

Before I conclude, an interesting bit of trivia - Morocco was the first country to recognize the newly independent United States, opening its ports to American ships by decree of Sultan Mohammed III in 1777. The US Congress ratified a Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two nations in 1787. Renegotiated in 1836, this treaty is still in force, constituting the longest unbroken treaty relationship in U.S. history.

Tajine pic – Wikimedia courtesy Bawdeep2010, all the others are mine




Calicut Heritage Forum said...

Thanks for the rich details of your Moroccan trip. Makes one want to visit the place. What a rich culture they possessed. It’s a pity, though, you couldn’t visit the hometown of Calicut’s most well known friend, our own Batuta!

Maddy said...

Thanks CHF- we crammed as much as we could into those 8 days, and like Mohammed said, plan for Tangiers and the Sahara, plus a trip to the Atlas for the next time…he added - always leave something so you will think about it….and maybe you will come again!!!

So sayyid Ibn Batuta, you will remain in our thoughts…..

harimohan said...

Interesting tale of an exotic land, though only a week we could get the soul of the country

Maddy said...

thanks hari..
hope you get to go there..

namita said...

Absolutely loved reading this piece . The smatterings of trivia were such a joy and my fascination for Morocco grows further!
Also, the use of color blue to ward off evil - one more thing that came to mind when I read that was the use of haint blue color for antebellum porch ceilings in the American South ( a tradition that stems from the Gullahs)

Maddy said...

Thanks Namita,
It’s a fun place for an open mind and very enjoyable if you have a little understanding of ancient Islamic cities. Some people may be overwhelmed by the crowds in the souks, but we r very used to all that after many years in Turkey and the Middle East!
Overall , very friendly people..

Maddy said...

And i was not aware of the blues in the south- hv to check that out

Thomas said...

Hi Maddy, love reading your work. Just finished reading your work in Darragh Smail in Trvancore. Thank you for your painstaking research. Coincidentally I was in Morocco for 2 weeks around the same from Nov 5-20th. Used OAT travels. Had a fantastic time.