J. Murcio, a very good client of ours, recently returned from a journey to Morocco. We are happy to share this beautiful image he captured along with some comments on his adventure.
A noisy storm just spared the city – and us – and has moved to the Merinid Tombs and the hills beyond, where we were just minutes ago. The view of Fes alone is unforgettable, with the city and its intractable medina below us and in the distance the promise of the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara behind them. It is hard to select the one picture which best captures our trip, given the variety of landscapes, peoples and cultural riches we saw in this amazing country. For me, however, this may be the one. As I watched from the terrace of our Riad (Fes, as it were), the fading thunder reverberated in the hills around, while the curtain of water falling from the sky perfectly divided light from darkness and calm from violence, it seemed. In itself, this was wonderful, but then, just as the perfect ray of sun broke through the clouds and alighted this rainbow on a minaret, the afternoon call to prayer began from one minaret to the other, until the whole city joined in a chorus of muezzin, repeating from the dozens (hundreds?) of mosques in this most magical of cities. The timing could not be more perfect: prayer replacing thunder, bringing to the picture the serenity of tradition.
Unfortunately, pictures cannot capture taste, sounds or smells, key senses in our memories. A shame, when I think of the madness of the aromas in the spice souk in the medinas, or the beguiling taste of the first b’astilla or a briouat, the warmth of tagines and meshoui, the fragrance of mint tea, the lute playing Andalusian/Arab music in the restaurants. But we can try. This picture cannot replicate the sound of the rising prayer and the fading storm, but the experience was unforgettable, believe me. This was the electric moment, the epiphany.
Two weeks allowed us to travel through a large section of Morocco, which we found, in many strange ways, very familiar (Mexico, the Spain of Al Andalus) and new and mysterious at the same time. Perhaps the medinas are the best embodiment of this charm: medieval labyrinths where one, seriously, travels back in time among the traders and craftsmen of a thousand years ago, and where soon you learn to pay heed to the balak, balak! Warning that a fully loaded donkey, or cart, or motorbike, is charging behind you in impassable alleys. These narrow ways and forbidding walls give nothing of the secrets hidden behind nondescript doors. There, just like that, you step in and riads and medersas and art filled palaces straight from The Arabian Nights appear in the middle of the frenzy. Calligraphy and design have more than made up for the lack of figurative representation in Islamic art. Their intricacy tried the ability of the best of carpenters, tile makers, carpet makers, sculptors and painters, all anonymous now, whose work fills these hidden patios and rooms. They clearly rose to the challenge centuries ago and succeeded in making each place more beautiful than the one you saw before, if that is at all possible. And yet, some of the mystery continues, for mosques are out of bounds to most of us, so we can only imagine…
Fes from above, as in this picture, reveals nothing of these secrets. As the rest of the Morocco, they unveil slowly and all of them are amazing: snowy mountains and desert dunes, valleys and oasis, ocean coast and palm plantations, alpine forests and deep gorges. And the people make it all unique and special, friendly and with centuries of tradition behind their garb and every gesture. After all, they are used to seeing much of the world pass by their territory since time immemorial. The location of Morocco is in itself mind-blowing, with Africa pushing from below and meeting with its old territories in Europe across the Hercules gates, at the western end – Al-Maghrib, one of its official names – of the routes of Arabia and the Levant, with the Atlantic and Mediterranean allowing trading and invasions – in both directions – in the past. Much of the trade was by caravans, with the patient camel – dromedary in these regions – as the vehicle of nomadic routes. We rode some of the poor beasts in the Sahara, much to their humiliation, as their ancestors transported exotic cargo and not well fed visitors (food deserves a section of its own, I am afraid). A sign for sale in the Marrakech medina says “Timbuktu: 45 days by camel”. Inviting, seriously.
As you travel around, the variety of costumes surprises at every turn, although after a while the knowledge of every traditional dress, so well defined by regions, begins to blur. Was that Berber or Arab? A kaftan or a djellaba? One thing it stays in the mind is the Berber blue, however, unreal. And you still see nomads on the other side of the Atlas, by the way. This was a nation of traders and, to this day, the amount of food, goods and crafts sold, bartered, and certainly subject to bargaining, in the souks is dazzling to see. Hard to tell old from new, but all of them are beautiful and desirable and all exotic to us. The work of Berber women making beautiful kilims gains respect when you learn about their function and meaning. Silver and amber jewelry only a strong neck and head could wear, leather of impossible colors, ceramics and tiles of intricate shape and decoration, textiles made of my familiar agave “silk”, different types of wood joined into a single design, metal lanterns to light the way to the riad, acres of rugs and (flying?) carpets, all an endless, tempting list, for sure. Next time, bring empty suitcases, and a camel, maybe.
Morocco is a poor country, although not in a way I have not seen in many other countries, including, shamefully, mine. The challenges ahead are enormous, and education is a major one, in particular for young women. We were glad to run into several organizations looking to advance in that area, and we wish the youngish, reformist king, will continue to push for change, a huge endeavor when you see the weight of tradition – it also has its drawbacks – everywhere you go. The embarrassment of unwillingly scaring, or offending, a woman sitting on the ground selling her wares and hiding her face with a discarded newspaper as she mistakenly thought I was taking pictures with my camera dangling from my hand will never leave me. Impossible to know but, would she ever be convinced that in my world she does not need to cover herself? And that she is not subservient to men? Morocco’s location and these troubled times among its neighbors should help us realize that the West cannot afford to lose this country, one in only a couple of relatively stable nations in Mediterranean Africa. So, back to our picture: I think rainbows also represent hope and a promise. My best wishes to this country.
We visited a Morocco of imperial cities (Rabat, Fes, Meknes, cosmopolitan Marrakech), Roman outposts (Volubilis, where a tornado almost caught us in the ruins), sardines fishermen (Essouira, where the supply dropped a bit after we tried the first grilled sardine in the food stalls by the old fort), the Sahara dunes (Merzouga), valleys and mountains (Asni and Ismil, embodiment of Shangri-La at the foot of Mount Toubkal), and kasbas and oasis (Tinghir, Skoura, Ouarzazate). And we survived the Tizi n’Tichka pass. And yet, there is still much, much more to see. Hopefully, we will return.