Thursday, January 5, 2012

Morocco: Final Thoughts

The need to write and talk about our visit to Northern Africa has been visceral and I find can’t move on to Italy until I get Morocco out of my system. So, a few final sounds, images, smells, feelings and tastes, none of which I ever imagined I would experience but each of which assaulted our senses and evoked mini-explosions of reaction deep inside...

1. The Sounds...

The call to prayer: About two hours after our arrival, I heard what sounded like a pack of European motorbikes slowly revving up outside our hotel room windows. As the droning built to a persistent hum, I realized that we were actually listening to our first adhan, the five daily calls to prayer broadcast by the muezzins from the minarets of the neighborhood mosques surrounding the riad. The ritual and pervasive summoning of the faithful reached us from near and far for almost 15 minutes; and while quaint at first, after multiple repetitions the overt reverberation of the state religion was a bit unsettling.

2. The Images...

The Berber cave dwelling: About an hour south of Fes are the Middle Atlas Mountains. We took a private van tour with a most gentle guide named Driss to visit the Atlas countryside including the Berber town of Imouzzer. Driss was anxious for us to stop in this hardscrabble town so that he could introduce us to an elderly woman who lived in a cave, the traditional dwelling of the Berber people, with her family. He lead us through the muddy market stalls and down several dirt back streets until we turned down a narrow walkway carved into the ground. Joe and I gave each other quizzical looks that asked, “are we really up for this?” and then followed Driss down the rocky steps into the Berber cave. A spacious home built into a cliff face this was not. It was a humble, one-room, all-purpose abode that had literally been dug out of the ground, oval in shape, with a ceiling about six and a half feet high and all the walls whitewashed. There was a small wood-burning stove at one end of the space on which a large teapot of water boiled. It was a pleasant-enough little spot, actually, except for the absence of electricity and running water. The warm, bright-eyed family matriarch (who Driss told us owned the family home) invited us to sit down as her middle-aged daughter and adolescent granddaughter poured us some sweet louiza tea (the two of them bickering as mothers and daughters are wont to do about the tea’s proper preparation), a lovely lemon verbena infusion scented with freshly picked leaves. After just a few minutes of questions and answers, with Driss as translator, the grandmother decided it was time to dress me up in full, traditional Berber regalia and enthusiastically draped me in a white, woven cloak, black babushka and chunky red necklace. We have the images to prove my transformation into a Berber princess, but had she attempted to dress Joe, I guarantee he would have allowed no photographic evidence. We stayed with our kind and generous hosts about twenty minutes, then left with an effusive ”la shukran,” and in accordance with Berber tradition, gave some dirhams to the matriarch for her hospitality. We left our visit with these three lovely women, appreciating that they are proud of the hole in the ground they call home, have no embarrassment about their way of life, and were happy to have shared it with us. For these women, their village of Imouzzer is all they know of the world – no US, no western world, no reality outside their village. We left with just one unanswered question, which we hadn’t dared pose: where were the men in the family and where did they reside?

The medina from above: The panoramic view of the surrounding medina from the riad’s rooftop terrace included the expected green (revered as the color of life by Muslims) minarets and the flapping laundry and outdoor gardens on the flat tops of the ancient buildings. While the residents of Fes are certainly not rich by Western standards, the people we saw appeared relatively hardy and hale. And judging from the vista afforded by the terrace, every residence in the medina, even those that are unstable and crumbling, can afford multiple rooftop satellites. A gentleman we met described the field of white devices, their faces all turned in the same direction just as blossoms follow the sun, as “the flowers of the medina.When ancient and modern worlds collide, the result is thousands of satellite dishes sprouting from primeval homes. The juxtaposition was jarring but was actually kind of attractive in a science fiction kind of way.

In the streets of the medina: The main attraction in Fes is the medina itself: people living their everyday lives as they have for centuries, crowding the narrow alleys buying and selling goods in the local souks (markets), greeting their neighbors and delivering their bread to public wood-fire ovens for baking. Our first stop was the Bab Bouljoud, commonly known as the Blue Gate, a monumental, tiled horseshoe gateway for all kinds of human and animal traffic into and out of the medina. Amidst the hubbub of a busy Friday morning, we stood there with our guide, looking foreign and out of place as we gazed into the depths of the forbidding lanes ahead. We read that there are nearly 11,000 individual retail businesses in the nest of medina alleyways, many of them family-owned and most of them in cramped stalls that line the main streets of the souks. Each shop is rarely more than a couple yards wide and only a few yards deep. Larger retailers have a narrow corridor entrance, with the bulk of the premises, packed to the rafters with merchandise, tucked behind multiple other tiny storefronts. Within the medina, no freight is delivered by truck, thus it must be carried by donkey, mule-cart, or handcart, or on human shoulders. Once inside the medina, we were pushed aside by many a burdened donkey carrying seven LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) cylinders, the maximum load for a single donkey, which made them nearly as wide as the passageways themselves.

In the course of our medina meanderings, we passed any number of open-air butcher stands with a variety animal parts hanging on hooks and bleeding into the street. These meat purveyors differed from those in Paris and Barcelona in that there were no bright lights and antiseptic white counters, nor were labels needed to identify the offerings. Rather, the medina butchers operated out of small, dark stalls with wooden cutting boards out front and the origin of the meat was no mystery. A still-attached animal head, hide or hoof helped identify the bloody piece. Joe pointed out a six-pack of animal forelegs with the hoofs intact -- for soup stock perhaps? Across the alley from the hoof display, was the vision that continues to haunt me. We saw a goat being butchered, its head on the chopping block and blood pooling on the ground below. We Americans prefer not to think about how the meat we eat reaches our plates but in Morocco, there was no disguising the process. The medina was a dizzying, and often disgusting, sensory overload, and that was even before we got to the Chouwara Tannery.

3. The Smells...

The tannery: The highlight of a trip to the Fes medina is the visit to the Chouwara Tannery, the largest of the tanneries inside the city walls. We had heard and read about this anachronistic sweatshop, seen pictures in guidebooks and on the Internet, and believed ourselves prepared for the experience. How naive we were! The tannery made its presence known even before we started up the multiple, cramped staircases that led us up to a broad wooden terrace that overlooked the open-air operation from two stories above. The stench was overpowering with smells so foreign they made us gag as we pressed the sprigs of mint we were given on arrival to our noses. We gawked over the color-filled tannery tableau, mouths hanging open, and were instantly transported back to the middle ages. What lay below us was positively medieval – a hide curing and dying process that is as manual today as it was in the 1200s when the tannery first opened. Dozens of four-foot square earthen wells, like so many finger-painting pots, were filled with various foul liquids and animal hides were being stomped on by barefooted laborers in shorts. The camel, cow, goat and sheep skins have smells of their own and when combined with the tannery’s special curing cocktail of cow urine and pigeon guano, the resulting rancid smell is overwhelming. The hides are then stretched, scraped and dyed by hand in the next series of honeycombed pots before being laid to dry on the tannery roofs. The accumulation of what we saw and smelled at the tannery was almost too much to absorb all at once. I breathed through my mouth and covered my nostrils with the mint leaves I’d crushed with my fingers to release its refreshing scent in an attempt to disguise the powerful reeking from below. As we stood staring out over the medieval tannery, I turned to Joe and imagined him thinking, “Babe, I can't believe I let you talk me into going to Morocco,” because, of course, this detour to Africa had all been my idea in the first place. We finally left the tannery, realizing that we might never again see another place like it and attempting to temper our misgivings and comfort ourselves with the thought that the tanneries remain one of the critical sources of income for the people of Fes.

Hides for sale: Just off the street against the medina’s outer walls, we passed a disturbing sight on our car tour of the ramparts. Initially it wasn’t clear what we were seeing but as we circled closer, our guide, Mohammed, confirmed our suspicions -- it was an animal hide market. A two-acre muddy lot was stacked high with recently harvested sheep and goat hides awaiting transport inside the walls to the tanneries. Mohammed explained that the skins were especially abundant because of the recent Eid al-Adha celebration (The Festival of Sacrifice), which commemorates Abraham’s willingness to kill his son at God’s request. Allah eventually intervened and provided Abraham a sheep to sacrifice instead and thus, Muslims recreate this narrative by themselves slaughtering an animal, typically a sheep or goat. The piles of pelts were shocking, the odor overpowering and luckily our driver had no plans to stop. We passed as quickly as traffic would allow but the smell and the scene lingered long after we’d returned to the refuge of our hotel.

4. The Feelings...

Selling on steroids: On our medina tour, we discovered that perhaps a good map would have been better than a guide. Rashid, our chaperone for the day, dragged us to the shops of all his friends where they pounced on us with abandon and a selling fury known only to timeshare pushers. It became clear that even official guides receive commissions on all sales they bring to the retailers. Our first hard sell was at the tannery where I received a full court press to buy a $300 suede jacket and after 15 minutes just wanted to scream, “What about NO don’t you understand?” After we left, Rashid had the nerve to ask me why I didn’t want the jacket. “Was there something wrong with it?” We firmly told Rashid we weren’t in the market for buying anything (especially a $300 blue suede jacket) and we thought he heard us but we were wrong. Our next stop was a woman’s carpet cooperative where we understood we would be shown how the merchandise is designed and fabricated. No such luck. We ended up being plunked down for sweet green tea in a tiled showroom awash in carpets, and although beautiful, we were not in any way prepared to buy one. My mistake was being nice and commenting that they were lovely. That was it – they had their target in their sights. All the attention was focused on me as the decision-maker and Joe was promptly marginalized. Before we took the first sip of our tea (again, to be polite), we were presented with several dozen rugs of various sizes, designs, weaves, and colors, each rolled out, one by one, by four workers in front of us. We were soon knee deep in carpets, the entire production narrated by the head honcho -- a fast-talking schmoozer and consummate salesman in a colorful djellebah, who revealed he was a lawyer (I definitely wouldn’t want to have him arguing a case against me!). Each time we protested, stating that we didn’t want a carpet, his only response was to roll out more of them. “You’ll buy one,” he insisted, “we just have to find the right one.” Joe was increasingly annoyed, but all I could do was fight the urge to flee. Feeling trapped and claustrophobic, I just wanted out and barely heard what was being said as I plotted our escape. It became apparent that the master marketer’s tactic was to embarrass us into a purchase since they had done so much work and rolled out enough carpets to upholster all the lanes in the medina. When he finally took a breath, we told the guy outright, with no room for misinterpretation, that we weren’t buying this morning, this afternoon, tomorrow, with cash, on credit, on layaway, with delayed shipping. No carpet. No rug. No nada. La shukran. Rashid was absolutely no help at all -- he just sat there next to me extolling the virtues of every single carpet they presented. When we finally broke free, sweating and agitated, into the alley, we repeated to Rashid, in no uncertain terms, “We are not going to buy anything.” Did he hear us this time? Apparently not. We weren’t in the market to buy anything but he kept trying to drag us back in, kicking and screaming. Our next stop, after a bit more lane meandering, was a Berber workshop that Rashid presented as a place where we could see Berber carpets being made on traditional looms. Learning from my mistake of being nice in the previous establishment, I said not a word of praise during the tour and we promptly left before the sales pitch could begin. My flight or fight response had become overwhelming and feigning exhaustion, we begged off further sights, asking to return to the riad. Perhaps to help Rashid save face or perhaps because I imagined that the tour would end only when we made a purchase, I bought a $20 bottle of argan oil in a tiny cosmetics stall staffed by Rashid’s crony. I had read about this peculiar oil and its skin-healing properties and I was curious. The oil has an unusual provenance. Goats climb argan trees, endemic to Morocco, to reach the fruit on the upper branches; Berber women then collect the undigested argan pits from the goat waste and then grind the kernels to release the precious, nutty oil. Rashid and friend tried to push additional emollients on us, but I grabbed my oil in a definitive statement of “it’s time to go.” Our medina tour/peddling session ended after a very long three hours. We learned the hard way that it’s excruciating work saying “no.”

5. The Tastes...

Sweet and savory: The sensory overload of Morocco ended on a tasty note. The food was simply delicious and we loved every bite of what we ate. While hardly a representative sampling since every bit was eaten in our hotel restaurant, L’Ambre (sleek and modern in design and dimly lit to my liking), Moroccan cuisine has pushed Spanish fare even further down the Gap Year Culinary Scorecard. France is on top with Morocco in second place and Spain a distant third. The Moroccans actually got it right very early on (like centuries ago) with the sweet and savory craze and have long understood the appeal of mixing these two tastes. We tried all variety of traditional, Moroccan appetizers including candied carrots, spicy diced quince, chopped eggplant and red peppers, mashed curried cauliflower, minced zucchini and green peppers, lima beans with lemon zest and olives, and pumpkin puree with cinnamon. All were delicious and uniquely spiced. Our main dishes included pastilla, a sweet and savory phyllo dough pie with shredded chicken, nuts and powdered sugar, and several delectable tagines (Moroccan stews with attitude): kefta (lamb meatballs in a piquant tomato gravy), beef with olives, carrots and preserved lemons and shrimp and in a slightly sweet pepper and tomato sauce, all exotically flavored and served with a side of couscous. We drank lovely local wines, both white and red, and for dessert, there was briouot with honey (Morrocan baklava) and pastilla with cream (a Moroccan mille-feuille). All these dishes were listed on cafe menus in the medina but we were only brave enough to try them at Riad Fes.

Absolutely final thought: I’m certain this advice has been said about a multitude of places on earth, but should you have a need for adventure and a desire to travel to Northern Africa, see Morocco before you die, but see it only once. 

Pictures of our adventures:

1 comment:

  1. I so love reading your blog Marianne. What a lifetime of adventures you are and Joe..and you are taking me along with you as I read your thoughts. When you mention a certain place (ie Fes medina) I google it and look at the pictures of where you are...amazing! Keep writing...I miss you. Love Ginger - HAPPY NEW YEAR TOO....BTW...Tressa is engaged!!