This is my last post on Morocco. The writing material the country provides is inexhaustible because, to me as a Westerner, it’s different in ways cultural, linguistic and religious, reasons I find Morocco so fascinating. I’ll conclude by writing down some loosely related thoughts and observations that together have contributed to my understanding of what makes Morocco unique.
Where’s the Desert?
I’d bet on what many people picture Morocco as being geographically—a desert. I know I did until not too long ago. This may come from the belief that the Sahara spans the entire upper part of Africa which might’ve happened geologically if it weren’t for the mountains that include the highest peaks in northern Africa. The Atlas ranges fortify northwestern Morocco like the Wall of the Seven Kingdoms against the encroachment of the Sahara.
Mountain ranges of Morocco (image from mapsoftheworld.com)
High Atlas mountain range, south of Ifrane
The cooling Canary Current makes Morocco as Mediterranean as its European neighbors across the sea. It could almost be regarded as a continuation of Spain and Portugal but for the Strait of Gibraltar. If I’d gone to Tangier, the coast of Spain would be only 17 miles (27 km) away. With a favorable climate, I shouldn’t have been surprised that agriculture is a significant industry.
My wife summarized it, “Morocco is so green.” She was referring to the forests around Rabat and Chefchaouen, alpine scenery around Ifrane with its distinctive cedars, olives trees, orchards and wheat in abundance and grasses and trees covering rolling hills.
We even came across fog and patches of snow at higher elevations.
Morning fog over Chefchaouen
Things did get much drier as we got to Erfoud, Rissani and Tinghir, yet they were dotted with amazingly lush palm groves (palmeraie).
Oasis, Tinghir (Tinerhir)
To the west were the spectacular gorges that the Todra (Todgha) and Dades Rivers carved into the eastern High Atlas mountains.
And of course there was the great Sahara. We rode into an encampment by camel.
Finally, the coastal cities of Essaouira and El Jadida had their own unique environments.
Morocco did surprise me, this, as the guidebooks say, a land of contrasts.
On our drives, Mustapha pointed out many of Morocco’s crops. From his van, I spotted fields or orchards of grains, stone fruits, apples, herbs, nuts, beets, citrus, grapes, sugarcane, onions. And there was a bounty of olive trees. I lost count of how many local markets (souks) I saw where all this is sold, not only in the medinas but in small towns as we drove past. With scarce supermarkets and home refrigeration, Moroccans shop at the souks almost daily. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised that meals I had were made with ingredients gotten at market not too long before, fresher than most food I could get back home.
Predictably, Moroccans eat a Mediterranean diet. Olive oil is used liberally in cooking. Meat doesn’t dominate the table; vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains and legumes do. Tajines are noteworthy not only for the cooking vessels but the impressive amount of vegetables (and legumes).
Throughout our trip, my wife and I ate Moroccan salad which is nothing more than cucumbers, tomatoes, mint, lemon juice and olive oil. Simple but delicious. The meat-free version of harira (chickpeas, lentils, tomatoes and warm spices), most popularly eaten during Ramadan, is now my favorite vegetarian soup.
Harira soup, Moroccan salad
Zaalouk is a combination of eggplant and tomatoes, traditionally served cold or at room temperature. It’s very much like ratatouille. The version I had at Riad Boussa in Marrakech was so extraordinary that it had me searching for recipes when I got back home.
Because Morocco has a long coastline, seafood is plentiful. I didn’t see much of it on menus, because Moroccans don’t seem to eat large amounts of it, restricting themselves mainly to sardines, tuna and shrimp. Predictably coastal residents eat more. Most of the seafood catch is exported.
I’ll Have a Meal with Those Olives
Like its Mediterranean cousins, an abundance of olive trees signifies the oils and fruit are important parts of the diet. There were olive groves everywhere, acres upon acres of them, from the hillsides surrounding Chefchaouen, down through the Middle and High Atlas foothills and westward toward Essaouira on the Atlantic coast.
Is it any wonder that cured olives are more than an occasional condiment? They were served at the first dinner in Casablanca fresh off the flight from Paris and the following morning for breakfast. Every day after that, all lunches and dinners were incomplete without them.
Every souk had impressive displays of olives, sometimes occupying entire stalls. And what variety: black, green and red mixed with different herbs and spices. At an average price of, say, 16 MAD/kg, that amounts to 80¢/lb here in the U.S. Not suprisingly, Morocco is also one of the world’s leading producers of olive oil.
The Romans are credited with introducing olive trees after they expanded their empire to North Africa.
This Is Not the Middle East
Morocco, Mustapha pointed out, was the first country in the world to recognize the independence of the United States from Britain. I thought it was France. It wasn’t lost on me that even then Morocco was a monarchy (sultanate), part of the Alaouite dynasty that still rules today.
It would continue to surprise the world on the political stage when Mohammed V refused to give Vichy France a list of all its resident Jews. “We have no Jews in Morocco! Only Moroccan citizens,” the king reportedly said. On the tours of the medinas of Fes, Chefchaouen, Essaouira and Marrakech, it amazed me that the Muslim guides included visits to the old Jewish quarters (mellah). Our Essaouira guide gave us a tour of the home and synagogue of rabbi Haim Pinto to whose grave Jews from all over the world make a pilgrimage.
Rabbi Haim Pinto’s synagogue
A gate in Essaouira is decorated with Arabic Koranic inscriptions and the star of David.
Morocco recognizes the contributions that Jews have made to its history and development. Arabs and Jews had been co-existing since the Spanish Inquisition. Morocco even goes so far as to restore many synagogues even after the departure of most Jews from the country. The striking blue paint that covers Chefchaouen could very well be a combination of the symbolic colors of Judaism (blue) and Islam (white). Revealingly, over 50,000 Israeli tourists visit Morocco annually.
Moroccan Berbers now make silver jewelry whose craft was passed down by Jewish artisans (Centre de la Bijouterie Mâalem Ali, Essaouira)
Today Morocco doesn’t deport Syrian refugees who seek political asylum from the Assad regime, even those who may have entered the country illegally.
Call to Prayer
The muezzins sing out the call to prayer five times daily. It used to be that they climbed to the top of minarets and used nothing but their voices. Nowadays, amplifiers and speakers help do the job. The adhan, as the recitations are called, I heard throughout Morocco, their sonority a contrast to city noises. With two mosques nearby, one muezzin could begin a moment after the other. The asynchrony has its own melodiousness.
Bab Souk Mosque, Chefchaouen
The feeling of adhan reminds me in its sound-over-the-city way of the tolling of church bells I heard throughout Italy.
This Is California
Mustapha pointed out a section of Rabat that looked strangely familiar. “This is California,” he said, driving through an exclusive neighborhood. It had an uncanny resemblance to certain residential areas of the Golden State with their large stucco homes, winding streets, palm trees, lawns and bougainvillea. Every large city in Morocco has an enclave called California where the well-heeled live. The designation is more a status symbol than Morocco’s climate being likened justifiably to Southern California’s. So what do American Californians do? Their developments are named like Spanish haciendas and ranchos.
Parlez vous français?
Even if France occupied Morocco for only 40+ years, its influence remains strong. Other than Darija (Moroccan Arabic) and the Berber dialects, French is widely spoken in government, education, commerce, the tourist industry and professional circles. It is a required language in schools. The largest ex-pat community is French and tourism from France remains Morocco’s foremost. I had trouble communicating with some riad staff. In français, things would’ve been much less bumpy. My two years of college French taken long ago did little good. I could only pick out words here and there. I tried to order a cocktail at Kasbah Tizimi’s poolside bar but thought better of it after the bartender’s quizzical looks and ordered bière instead. Fortunately, we got by everywhere because there was at least rudimentary English spoken by someone.
With the rapid rise of visitors from other countries, especially the big English-speaking ones (United States, Australia and Canada), English will become more important because, for better or worse, it’s the de facto universal language. I have to say though that this continues to get us Americans off the hook to learn another language.
Tout Les Touts
The one thing I dreaded most before arriving in Morocco was being harassed by armies of touts as many guide books warn. Fortunately, it never became much of a problem. The usual advice is to politely and firmly say ‘no,’ which served us well. The hawkers were most aggressive in Marrakech, whom I still managed to avoid eventually.
But one incident had to make me chuckle. Each stall in Marrakech’s Jemaa el-Fnaa square has a number, which is posted on a sign somewhere above the stall. We walked through one group offering mixed grill when a hawker got in our face to eat there. We said no and walked on. He followed us. “No food poisoning,” he promised us. “Maybe later,” I said as we pulled away. Within earshot, he yelled, “Remember, 75, still alive.”
We would be driving in the middle of nowhere when suddenly we’d come across a sparkling new town with new construction, including apartments, and wide paved boulevards flanked by sidewalks and the most beautiful light posts. Absent were the narrow streets of older towns teeming with people and traffic that had to pass each other cheek by jowl. My wife and I were puzzled. There were several such towns like Errachidia. When we asked Mustapha about this, he told us that the government subsidizes their development to help Moroccans find cheaper housing. Many Moroccans see it as a way to escape the big cities. Government support could also be part of the its effort to encourage agricultural development.
And what about electrifying these far-flung, isolated places? On our way to Ouarzazate, Mustapha told us about Noor I nearby, the first phase of a massive solar power plant project (Ouarzazate Solar Power Station) which when completed will be the largest in the world. Noor I will provide power for nearly one million Moroccans. Noor II and III are on their way. Of all the Arab-speaking countries, Morocco is the most dependent on Middle East oil, so shifting toward energy independence can only help. If all goes as planned, Morocco will become an energy exporter in the near future with the help of renewable sources.
I could swear there were gendarme stations every mile or so on the Moroccan highways. I’m exaggerating of course but there certainly were several checkpoints along any of our long-distance drives. Roadside gendarmes have the authority to randomly stop any vehicle and ask for papers. The gendarmerie is charged with policing and maintaining the nation’s security. They’re more concentrated near the Algerian and Mauritanian borders and near military installations. It occurred to me that law enforcement vis-à-vis travel within the U.S. is not so restrictive, that Americans wouldn’t put up with such interruption to their freedom of movement.
Whenever we got stopped, which may have been a half dozen times, Mustapha had to show documents. My wife and I never once were interrogated nor asked for our passports, which I thought curious. I just wonder if we were ‘off limits’ because tourism is very important to Morocco’s economy.
As you might’ve guessed, I owe much of this post to Mustapha, our driver who took my wife and me all over Morocco. He picked us up at Mohammed V International in Casablanca and drove us in a great clockwise circle through Morocco, providing insights and pointing out things that surprised me, educated me. Here’s a man who went to university to get a degree in English linguistics. Not language, but linguistics, the scientific study of languages. I gathered he is an avid reader, having mentioned several books or articles he recently read. Even if I thought another profession might better use his talents and education, he appreciates his job. He undertook the 17-day assignment while suffering physical ailments. He smashed his thumb in a car door the day before picking us up and experienced a long, debilitating allergy on our trip. But he soldiered on.
I made the mistake of asking him if it was boring to take tourists over the same route time and again. “How can I get bored when I can see this beautiful country?” As he drove us out of Chefchouen and into the Rif Mountains, he’d point at the valleys and say, “Look how beautiful!”
Mustapha was more than a driver; in many ways he was a guide. He would talk about many things Moroccan. All our wonderful city guides who led us through the medinas were arranged by Mustapha. On the road, he’d identify various agricultural crops along the way, knowing I was interested. “My time is your time,” he said several times. By that, he meant whatever we wanted to see or do, all we had to do was ask. I regretted that I didn’t ask him more about Moroccan history, for he seemed capable of teaching me that as well.
Not once but twice I forgot to return room keys to the front desk (both in Skoura and Taroudant) after checking out. They were in my pocket, well on our way to the next stop. Not to worry, Mustapha said. He arranged to have the keys returned by other drivers who were going the opposite direction.
I don’t know how drivers like him do it, not getting sleepy despite long hours behind the wheel. On occasion, he requested to stop somewhere to get coffee. “It is needed,” he’d say wryly. And, yes, I would get bored driving over the same route repeatedly, so for his stamina and service I applaud him.
Despite his terrible bout with allergies, he refused to take meds in the morning to avoid drowsiness. The next time I make the long drive from Seattle to Los Angeles on I-5, I should refrain from saying how boring the California stretch is. Yeah, that’ll really be a stretch.
Going to Morocco was out of my comfort zone certainly, but so is travel to any foreign country. Westerners especially seem concerned that Morocco is an Islamic country. Any look at the news shows that there is much less upheaval in Morocco than other North African countries, let alone parts of the Middle East. There never was a moment when I felt uneasy or threatened. Safety for my wife and me never became a concern—except crossing the street in busy traffic or avoiding motor scooters in the alleyways of Marrakech’s medina quarters.
I knew little about Morocco before arriving except what I read in Lonely Planet. But now, having seen and experienced much of the country, I’ve gotten a better understanding. The people were friendly and gracious, as people all over the world tend to be. But, here’s the difference. Almost without exception, when meeting someone for the first time, “Welcome to Morocco.” I rarely heard that kind of greeting anywhere else.
With that, my fond farewell to Morocco.