THE LAND OF A THOUSAND EVERYTHINGS
The miracle of flight will never cease to amaze me. As the plane touched down on a spectacular canvas of yellow, red and brown farmland, I tried to prepare myself for whatever I might find in this exciting North African country.
After 18 days in Morocco, I realized the idea of ‘preparedness’ was entirely relative.
They say Morocco is the “Land of 1,000 Kasbahs.” I like to think of it as the “Land of 1,000 Everythings” — a thousand markets, a thousand ryads, a thousand skinny cats darting around the streets, and outside the tourist attractions — a million hungry people trying to get by.
There is a startling dichotomy in Morocco between rich and poor. Above the Atlas Mountains (where the European influence is strongest) lie great cities with millions of people. While some still struggle to earn a living, in the Villes Nouvelles there is wealthy and progressive middle-class enjoying many of the luxuries afforded to Western countries.
Below the Atlas Mountains is the Sahara Desert, home to an abundant supply of sand, rock, nomadic tents and free-range camels. There are small towns where drinking water, gasoline and flush toilets are to come by. Here, there is a much larger Berber population, many of whom live exactly the same way they did a thousand years ago. They make their living off the land, and while no one starves in these communities, no one has anything either.
Another striking feature of Morocco is its incredible range in geography. In Western countries, the word “Africa” is often used as an all-encompassing term for the entire continent, as if every African nation has the same mockup of tribal drums, safari trucks, beaded clothing. But Morocco looks nothing like the “Africa” that gets tossed around so casually in North America, and in only one day of driving, you can cross snow-topped mountains, dried-up desert, red canyon cliffs, lush green forests and end up in a beautiful palm tree oasis.
There are no lions, elephants or kitenge headdresses here. Instead, there are women in burqas, teenagers running around in imitation brand name clothing and people playing Farmville on Facebook as they sit on the steps of thousand-year-old palaces.
There is truly something to see for everyone — the shopper, the history junkie, the foodie — it’s the Land of 1,000 Everythings. I’m ashamed to say that throughout this trip, I kept thinking, “Canada is SO boring.” Determined as I am to see and experience everything possible, I often forget how incredibly privileged I am to live in a country like Canada. In Fes, I took a few minutes to speak with a street vendor who had sold me a carpet bag. I was gushing about how much I had enjoyed my trip and how much I loved Morocco, when he put a serious look on his face and said (in French):
“There is no freedom here. We have everything here in Morocco except that. That is why we go to Canada only for that reason. You are enjoying something more precious than words — freedom and human rights.”
He eased the tension by adding that this was the only reason Canada was better than Morocco. We both chuckled at this, which was when a comment was made about Morocco being simply too hot. When he admitted that our summers were more agreeable, I took his business card and left.
These words lingered in my mind for the rest of the trip and continue to do so as I write about it. Enjoy my photos and comments from the trip (though I promise they will not even begin to capture what Morocco truly has to offer), and remember that appreciating what you have at home is often the most important part of being a mindful traveller.
Rocking the Kasbahs
Though the famous song by The Clash is pretty catchy, I have to say the real kasbahs in Morocco are much more exciting. A kasbah is an old fortified city in North Africa where a leader would protect his people by constructing the citadel into rock or on top of a hill.
If you’ve ever pictured what Jerusalem or Nazareth might have looked like in Biblical times, you are probably imagining something close to a kasbah — ancient, brick-red houses with low ceilings and flat roof tops in the middle of a sandy desert or oasis. In fact, Morocco’s kasbahs are so famous for this image that many of them are used as movie sets, including Gladiator, The English Patriot, The Mummy, Lawrence of Arabia, Kingdom of Heaven and Jesus of Nazareth.
I visited several kasbahs in Ouarzazate, Tamnougalt, Telouet and Skoura. While they were similar in appearance (though some better restored than others), each had its own unique history. Some were Berber, others were Jewish, and some were reserved for slaves and women. Many contained relics of the past including ancient stoves, makeup, kitchenware and furniture. Several of them are still inhabited by small families who have been living there for centuries. It was incredible to walk into the living room of someone who, a thousand years ago, would have been sitting there sewing a goat skin bag or making Berber pizza with camel meat.
When I first laid eyes on a kasbah, I was surprised with how familiar it looked. I had always assumed that my favourite movies built their sets, modelling them to look ancient, sandy and ruined. The realization that there was never any set (I was standing in the place where they filmed The Mummy) was quite incredible. Its amazing to think that the some exotic places we see in movies truly exist — they are not built for the film, but are the real constructions of our human ancestors. Coincidentally, a Berber tour guide I met in Tamnougalt actually claimed to have been a sniper in the movie Babel when it was filmed there. I’ll have to watch it sometime and see if I can spot him.
One of Morocco’s great attractions are the Dades and Todra Gorges. If you’re into scenery and hiking, they are definitely worth a visit.
For my first hike in the Dades Gorge, it paid not to take a tour guide. I wasn’t was quite sure where I was going, but it was all part of the adventure. I waded across a river to get to what I believed to be some kind of trail, only to land in a giant herd of goats and sheep. I greeted the shepherd, snapped a quick photo and started on my way. I quickly realized I had company: a shaggy white sheep dog from the herd was tailing me. Soon, he was leading the hike with another canine friend, who joined in along the way. I followed the dogs over rocks, under rocks and around the mountains. They were accomplished climbers, and I had a hard time keeping up with them at times. I was a little nervous crawling under massive boulders that were only not crushing me because they were wedged in between two other boulders — highly unstable if you ask me. What courage I had left was lost after climbing into a cave and finding a rotting goat inside. My friends followed me until the end of the hike, and left me to find my own way back. It was a wonderful afternoon, and the dogs were certainly cheaper than tour guides.
The second hike took me all around the Atlas Mountains I had driven through for the past week. It was incredible to be right in middle of the scenery I had been taking photos of from hundreds of miles away only days before. I visited the melted-wax “body rocks,” so named because of their smooth, molten and sometimes finger-like appearance. This was a much more challenging hike— literally up and down the mountains. I managed to free-scale a few cliffs, climb through slot canyons and crawl through cave tunnels. I couldn’t have managed this time without a guide, who seemed to prefer taking the most difficult and complicated route possible. But by the time I was at the top of the mountain, it didn’t matter how hot and sweaty I was. What mattered was the jaw-dropping scene below:
It’s one of those things pictures just can’t capture.
In the Todra Gorge, I walked through palmeries, cool streams and crop fields. With the mountains as a back drop, these palm tree oasis’ were quite a sight. They were well-irrigated and more jungle-like in appearance than anything I had seen so far. Once again, Morocco proved how different it is from the stereotypical image of “Africa.” I had an interesting exchange with some local women I asked for directions, none of whom spoke English or French. I could tell they wanted to help, because they were laughing at my ridiculous hand signals and attempts at communication. My family and I were the only outsiders in this isolated part of the Gorge, and children who passed us by often giggled and pointed (though we’re not sure why).
Gorgeous scenery in the gorge:
Unlike Turkey, tourists are not permitted inside most of the mosques in Morocco. After being woken up at 5 a.m. every morning by the call to prayer ringing through city speakers, I wanted to learn more about Islam and see the stunning architecture of its places of worship. Needless to say, I was thrilled to be allowed into the Moulay Ismail Mausoleum in Meknes, where the famous sultan of the same name is buried. As a non-believer, I couldn’t approach the sultan’s tomb, but I took some great pictures after washing my hands in the central fountain.
The Mausoleum turned out to be just a warm-up for Casablanca, where I was able to tour the Hassan II Mosque. It’s the third-largest mosque in the world, where more than 82,000 people can worship from the carpets to the courtyard. The Hassan II’s minaret is the tallest in the world at 689 ft high. Built partially on the Atlantic Ocean (inspired by a verse in the Qur’an stating that “the throne of Allah was built on water”), the mosque features retractable ceilings (for aeration) and lasers that point towards Mecca at night. Over 6,000 master Moroccan artisans worked on the Hassan II using almost exclusively local materials over a period of seven years. Unfortunately, pictures can’t capture its grandeur — the building was so large it didn’t fit into my camera screen.
Djemaa el Fna
Another UNESCO World Heritage site, the Djemaa el Fna is the main square in the old medina of Marrakech. I wished at the time I had about ten more pairs of eyes. The square is full of the most exotic and bizarre things — snake charmers, monkey tamers, drummers, flute players and old men selling magical cures for mysterious ailments, including ostrich eggs, lizard pieces, and brains. About a thousand things demand your attention at once, from restaurant owners literally dragging you into their tents, fresh orange juice vendors shouting, or a someone forcing a monkey onto your shoulder for money. There are date, olive and spice vendors, shops, and dozens of horse-drawn carriages waiting to pick up passengers. You can’t do anything but walk in— photos of the locals will cost you 3 Dirhams. Sometimes if you even stare too long at someone, your interest will lead to a demand for money. I did my best to sneak photos when I could, but I got caught once or twice and was followed and shouted at for a good two minutes (Editor’s Note: I’ve since learned that it’s rude to take pictures of people without the permission).
A lot of the excitement of the Djemaa el Fna is a show for tourists and represents true Moroccan culture very little. Yet every night, locals gather in the square for music, story-telling and people-watching. Kids chase each other in circles while the adults sit on the ground to chat. I originally thought it odd that everyone comes here every night, but I suppose if you live in a small alleyway with no windows and 15 people sharing a tiny space, you have nowhere else to be. The square is a place for people to stretch their legs, and be part of the excitement (which, unfortunately lasts until about 3 a.m. every night, and can heard from any hotel within a mile-radius).
I walked through the square each night in Marrakesh, only to be hassled by henna artists and food stand owners. Cat-calling is a regular feature of Morocco, but I give credit to the men of the Djemaa el Fna for coming up with the most creative names, which included “ginger,” “Shakira,” “coco,” and “gazelle.”
I saw three different graveyards over three weeks. The first were the Saadien Tombs in Marrakech, where the son of the great sultan Ahmad Al-Mansur (1578-1603) is buried. These tombs had a very eerie feel to them, and their greenish glow and cold interior easily sent chills up my spine. So I let myself be distracted by a mother cat and her litter of kittens, who wandered into the graveyard outside the tomb. They were adorable of course, but I laughed as the other tourists lined up to take photos of them instead of the tombs, as if they didn’t all have cats where they come from. To each their own, I suppose.
The other two graveyards I saw were in Fes. The first was the Merenid Tombs, situated on a hillside just outside the medina (old city). I wish my Arabic were better — it would have been marvellous to be able to read their inscriptions (although I could tell who the important people were by the size and colour of the tomb). I also had the opportunity to visit the Jewish quarter in Fes, which is now almost entirely populated by Arabs. I was told only about 20 Jewish families remain in the city, the rest having left after the formation of Israel. It was heartbreaking to walk through the graveyard and see the tiny tombs of hundreds babies and children, almost all of whom died from the typhoid outbreak many years ago. It is traditional in this cemetery however, to leave a small pebble on the tomb of someone you have visited. I saw many candle-lit graves with little rocks sitting on them.
Medinas are the old cities of Morocco, encompassing the markets, tanneries, alleyways, and maze of unlabelled streets and shops. Many of the larger cities like Marrakech and Fez both have a medina and a Ville Nouvelle, where the wealthy live a less traditional lifestyle. Those who cannot afford to move out of the medinas stay there, and many try to scrape a living from begging, shoe shining, selling or tourism. Most medinas are smelly and falling apart, but capture the essence of average Moroccan living.
In the medina is where you will find hunched-over old women with Berber prayer tattoos on their foreheads, begging for spare change, and a blind, bone-thin mule hauling an impossibly large load of leather skins through the narrowest alley. You’ll see the red, henna-stained feet of women in burkas as they drag their children through the medina. You’ll also find an old man kicking a cat off of his doorstep, while another sews leather slippers together with expert precision.
The medinas are beautiful and simultaneously disturbing. I know that accepting the culture of a country you visit is simply part of travelling, but as a woman, a journalist and a human rights advocate, I found this challenging in Morocco. The power difference between men, women and children is most visible in the medinas, where the standard of treatment is much lower than what I have experienced as a privileged Canadian white woman. It was an important lesson for me, and in retrospect, set the tone for much of my travel to come.
Morocco’s world-famous leather comes its tanneries, hidden deep within the maze of the medinas. Despite the rancid smell of slaughtered animal skin, it’s a fascinating place to be. The colours for the country’s popular jackets, wallets, bags, shoes and pashminas come from the some of the most unexpected places: saffron for yellow, or green seashell as purple, for example. Goats are the primary source for leather skins in Morocco and looking at all the colours almost made me wish I liked leather enough to buy something. Working in a tannery is back-breaking work, and I was told by a shopkeeper that work in a tannery is inherited. The men I saw working the leather were doing so as their birthright for being part of a family that has operated a tannery for centuries. Nothing about the way leather is made in Fes has changed for hundreds of years — a beautiful resistance to mass production and 21st century commercialization.
An interesting note about the tanneries is how hard it is not to go see them. No matter where you are in Marrakech or Fes, someone will point you in the direction of the tanneries. Almost daily, small children or teenagers pointed one way and said to me, “Big tannery, this way, this way!” Minutes later, someone else would tell me the tannery was in the opposite direction. If I had taken instructions from all of them, I never would have found anything! I wonder if the misdirection of tourists is something they do for fun, or if they’re simply hoping I’ll pass their carpet shop if they tell me to go a certain way. Either way, it seems as though everyone wants you to go see them, and after days of insisting I was not headed towards a tannery, I finally saw one, and it was worth it.
Meknes, Moulay Idriss and Volubilis
We hired a driver for the day to take us from Fes to Meknes, with stops in Moulay Idriss and Volubilis. The drive was of course, stunning.
It started with a two-hour ride to Volubilis, which features the best-preserved Roman ruins in this part of Northern Africa. Another UNESCO World Heritage site, Volubilis is remarkable in that it was still populated right up until the 18th century. Excavations only started in the early 1900s, when dozens of unique (and in some cases provocative) mosaics were discovered in the ancient city.
It is also believed that this land was once home to lions, which can no longer be found in any part of Morocco. Though the ruins in Volubilis weren’t quite as spectacular as the ones I saw in Ephesus, I still found it humbling and almost eerie to walk through a city that has existed for thousands of years, and whose residents have all been dead for centuries.
More beautiful ancient ruins:
From there, we drove to Moulay Idriss, the holiest city in all of Morocco. Entrance to the city by non-Muslims was forbidden until recently, when it opened its doors to tourists. Moulay Idriss is the resting place of the great-great-great-great grandson of the Prophet Muhammad – the famous Moroccan saint for which the city is named. I didn’t go into the town, but took my pictures from a respectful distance. It is said that six pilgrimages to Moulay Idriss during the annual festival honouring the saint is equivalent to one Hadj to Mecca.
The final stop in the trip was Meknes, a large city in Morocco with a population of about one million people. Meknes is named after a Berber tribe called Miknasa, and it was here that I visited the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, the first mosque I was permitted to enter in Morocco. I also saw the famous Bab Mansour gate, whose marble columns were actually stolen from the ruins of Volubilis.
It was much grander than the Bab Lakhmis, another 17th century gate that guards the entrance to Meknes. I got horribly lost in the souks here, and my brother got horribly lost in the Graners of Moulay Ismail – ancient horse stables that would have kept 20,000 animals hundreds of years ago.
(From left to right: An ablution station, the Mausoleum, Bab Mansour, and Bab Lakhmis)
Barbary Apes of Ifrane Forest
In Ifrane’s beautiful cedar forests just outside Azrou, lives a healthy population of Barbary Apes. Seeing the little monkeys was definitely a highlight after a long day of driving, and I was delighted to find a whole host of them hiding in the trees. There were three babies, a newborn still clinging to his mother and several adult males. Eventually they came down from the trees, and once I was quiet, I was surprised to see how close to them I could get. Considering that you can visit the forests without seeing a single ape, I think I was quite lucky.
The food in Morocco is some of the best I have eaten — a true compliment considering how picky I am. Every meal (including breakfast) starts with a basket of homemade bread, served with a plate of tomatoes or olives.
If you’re in a nice place, you might then choose harrara (a tomato-based Moroccan soup) or salad as your appetizer. Morocco’s interpretation of salad is interesting – it can mean usually one of two things: (1) mayonnaise-covered potatoes, cabbage, cucumbers, beats and tomatoes; or (2) vinegar-covered tomatoes, green peppers and olives. Never, ever does a Moroccan salad come with lettuce.
As a main course, I indulged in chicken tagine almost every night. This traditional dish is made in a special pan with a dome-shaped lid, and can be found everywhere across Morocco. The chicken (covered in lemons and olives) stews in oil over a period of time, while the mountain of carrots and potatoes that cover it soak up all the flavours from the meat and lemon. It is a fantastic dish, that no matter how hard I tried, I don’t think I could ever make it as well at home. At one of the hotels, a traditional Berber plate was served. This plate, if possible, was even more delicious than the tagine, as the flavours of peppers, beef, rice and spices mixed together in every bite.
If I didn’t go through culture shock during this trip, I certainly went through meat shock. All over Morocco, in small and large cities alike, open meat markets could be seen selling more body parts than I knew even existed in an animal. Meat in Morocco has almost no limits, I thought during the trip, as I passed a bloody, severed camel head with the spine still sticking out. The smell from these shops was toxic, and for all I know, the meat was too. Most of it was crawling with insects or going bad. Heads, brains, tongue, feet – anything goes in Morocco, as long as it isn’t pork. In fact, most of the menus we looked at had a chicken, beef, or “meat” option. We don’t know what “meat” means, so we assumed it was goat or other, and didn’t touch it. Kudos to Moroccans for virtually eliminating food waste. As a side note, the french fries in Morocco are also fabulous, though the sandwiches and milkshakes leave something to be desired.
My senses were accosted as I explored Morocco’s world-renowned souks in Marrakech and Fes. In both these cities, handbags, leather, carpets, jewellery, spices, sandals and hand-dyed pashminas tempt you wherever you go, and the shopkeepers waste no time in exploiting the weaknesses of browsing tourists. Everyone wants you to come in and have a look at their wares simply for “the pleasure of the eyes — no obligation to buy.” But as masters of the art of hassling, you’ll often come out with a handful of over-priced, unwanted souvenirs. Even those selling illegally imported, leopard, alligator and lion skins know how to catch a tourist’s attention, claiming each exotic product to be a mystical remedy for some kind of ailment.
I particularly enjoyed visiting the metal souk in Fes, where men hammered away at copper, tin and other metals to make light cases, vases, drums and bowls. Many of them coordinated their strikes into a musical number, which made the noise a bit more tolerable.
I also went to a dyer’s souk, where hundreds and hundreds of pashminas hung in the sun, or lay soaking in all imaginable colours. It was here that I learned how to wrap a Berber headdress, a skill I later tested on my less-than-willing father. The vendor then worked his magic on my mother, who caved and bought a beautiful but overpriced blue pashmina. The most eye-opening souk by far however, was the Old Slave Market in Marrakech – a former platform for buying and selling human capital from Mali. Here I found live animals for sale, including baby owls, lizards, tortoises, hawks, chipmunks and crabs. There were some creative stories and beliefs tied to such wares, and I was fascinated by all of them.
One of the more unique things about Morocco is that nearly all the products for sale (aside from the animals) are actually hand-crafted in Morocco. Unlike many African countries where goods such as bead and woodwork are imported from neighbours, in Morocco you can watch the artisans make their craft in front of you. It was hard to get pictures of them, but in peering into many shops I saw men, women and children carefully stitching slippers, painting pots, or sewing together leather bags.
Although many of the shops sell exactly the same thing, most of the vendors were quick to tell me their product could be found nowhere else. They are clever, inventive and persistent, so haggling is a must. Don’t be fooled by exotic tales of the product’s history, or the “free” make-your-own-Berber-headdress lesson the scarf sellers offer. Everything has a price.
Fortunately, I was well-prepared for the treatment I would receive as a tourist carrying a wallet-full of cash, and with a strong will and a sense of humour, I managed to get by (most of the time). Looking back however, I still feel as though I paid a little too much for the beautiful metal Hand of Fatima wall hangers I bought.
Tourist Tricks and Travel Tips
Though many Moroccans in the tourism industry have tricks up their sleeves, that doesn’t mean that none of them are genuine. One more than one occasion, I made the mistake of assuming someone was trying to scam me when they were actually trying to be helpful.
BUT — I still recommend you travel with a healthy sense of skepticism so you don’t fall prey to any of the following top five gimmicks I encountered:
1. “I have no change.” (This is rarely, if ever true)
2. “My car is broken, can you drop me off in the next city?” (Code for: Let’s stop at my conveniently-located carpet shop along the way)
3. “It’s free to look.” (Looking is free, but photos are not!)
4. “The tannery is this way!” (It probably isn’t, but their carpet shop is!)
5. “The (insert restaurant, hotel or shop) is dirty, they will scam, they don’t shower!” (A method to prevent price-shopping)
Keep on your toes. If you’ve never travelled to a country like Morocco, the place will both test and shock you. Mind the speed limit signs very carefully, don’t drink the water and layer up on hand sanitizer like it’s your job. Remember, you are a guest in someone else’s house. Don’t sweat the little things, because not everything on your trip will go smoothly, and for heaven’s sake, bring lots of sunscreen.