I went to Morocco because I’d loved the way Anais Nin described it in her diary and I’d loved The Arabian Nights as a child, and later the 19th c. adventurous heroines (such as Isabel Burton) described in The Wilder Shores of Love seemed intrepid in their venturing into the mysterious Arab world. Anais was only in Fez for a short time. She focused on the “hammams” (baths), talking to the women about their cosmetics. Her distaste for their ample, ample flesh is palpable but then she was petite and slender. She found in the densely winding corridors of the “medina” a metaphor for the labyrinths of the mind. (I met a man who said she had Berber blood).
While travelers in the 19th century tended to go in caravans so do enlisters in Grand Circle, Elderhostel trips and other tours. Travelers together are as in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, each looking for something, each with a story to tell (to be taken with a sense of humor, or else there will be trouble). I wanted to learn about a world so different from my own.
Our entourage consisted of a couple from Missouri, who dressed like models from a Travel Smith catalog. Farms were held by their family for generations but they were not farmers. The eldest woman on the trip turned out to be the mother of my favorite friend in 1st-5th grade. One couple had worked in Saudi Arabia 20 years, another in S. Africa. A Dutch woman had been in a Japanese concentration camp as a child. One woman was from Florida, widowed, wanted a man to tell her what to do, and converted to Muslim. Over two weeks of shared meals, people talked and talked about their lives. A number of them had traveled extensively. Two women’s luggage didn’t arrive until the end of the trip; since I’d overpacked, I gave them a bunch of clothes.
Asiz was our guide. Brownskinned, with a straight prominent nose, wide flat lips, and strong medium-height build. He wore a royal blue caftan in Fez (the city color, he said) and maroon in Marrakech, along with a “fez” on his head. In the Sahara Desert though he wore jeans, a sweatshirt, and a baseball cap that said, “I survived Y2K.”
In Fez he took us to his home. His very pregnant wife greeted us but her English was not that good (our Arabic was nil). She taught literature. Their five-year-old daughter danced about, singing a song, amusing us. Their housemaid served us mint tea and cold pancakes as we sat on royal blue banquettes that lined a room set aside for guests (common even among cave dwellers).
On this trip Asiz took us to important mosques (e.g. the grandest one in Casablanca, King Hassan’s tomb in Rabat), medinas (tightly packed market and living areas), and artisans’ homes. We saw men and women weaving cloth but not the rugs. Turbaned and robed men hawked the rugs, saying how women (hidden) poured their hearts and dreams into them. The women were seen often gathering feed (sagebrush) for animals and washing clothes in a river.
The ceramic places are the source of the overwhelming artistry of the walls and ceilings of the mosques and other sacred places. Eight-year-old boys sit on cement floors marking bits of clay for cutting. Older boys cut and shape. More experienced men make objects. Smoke spews thickly into the vegetation. Conditions are unhealthy but the craftsmanship is superlative, the only wealth of the country.
No art uses “graven images” – living beings – as that would be a sacrilege to Allah, the Creator. Asiz spoke of the Koran and its seven gates. Going to Mecca is the last. A traditional Muslim feels endowed by Allah to decide their moral issues and is not dictated to by the Koran . The Fundamentalists speak about rules. The conservative women wear veils and live passively, just as some women in our country put a lid on themselves and let their husbands make the decisions.
We watched bakers spoon loaves on long-handled shovels into flaming ovens. Leather-makers cut hides, soak and dye them in huge vats. We had meals of many courses served by men and women in decorated robes and turbans. A suited man was more likely to be in charge of the money at the hotels.
Djellabas (the caftans of various fabrics) were the rule and practical they are, protecting from dust, cold, heat and dirt. Moroccans often sit on the ground. Shaped by having to defend themselves against marauders and having to work hard to survive, they look hardy, persistent, pushy, calculating, many say very intuitive.
I had a number of experiences with that promptness. For instance, one day I was walking along, just thinking I’d like a cab, when a driver pulled over to stop for me. Another time I was just thinking about sitting at a café where a group of men were sitting at tables, and one waved me away.
At a “casbah” (an extended family household with courtyard) a young woman hennaed my hands with an elaborate design in seconds. Many natives noticed them and were delighted (as was I).
The most common dish is the “tagine”, cooked and served in an earthenware dish and a tall pointed cap. In it are cooked couscous or rice, meat, carrots, potatoes, spices galore, and perhaps prunes, almonds, garbonzo beans. My favorite dish was a grand concoction that looked like phylo stuffed with ground meat and spices.
Moroccan men have names like: Mustafeh, Habib, Omar, Abrahim. I know little about the women! I rarely see a woman.
Land Rovers bore us over hard, uneven roads in and around the Atlas Mountains, through Berber villages, where houses seemed to fit like lozenges into the cliffs. Our tents were set up on picture postcard sand dunes in the Sahara Desert. We explored the desert during the day, rode camels, and walked. Piles of stones marked places where nomads had pitched their tents. Nights were very cold and starry and sometimes the wind would blow hard. Desert rats, scarabs and insects left tiny prints. Once as I struggled to climb up the highest dune (pushing my feet through sand was enormously hard), a Moroccan man showed up just then to help. Also in the desert were a French Foreign Legion camp and auberges (from the French occupation) where one room was filled with mats for travelers to sleep on.
Life in the desert was dangerous, subject to marauders. Asiz told us about Pasha Glaui, known as the “lord of the Atlas (mountain range)”, who had a huge castle (where Winston Churchill liked to paint landscapes), and he kept numerous concubines and slaves. Given the chance, they fled like freed animals.
Went to a place where huge stones are collected, then split apart. Water is thrown on them to put any fossils into relief. Fossils of the most ancient organisms are found from the time when Morocco was covered with sea.
Marrakech’s lovely rose facades and horse-pulled buggies seemed very romantic. At Yves St. Laurent’s lavish gardens and stunning collection I found a larger version of the Berber necklace I’d bought, a nice confirmation. Went to a gallery featuring Matisse’s work of Morocco and found a wonderful man willing to talk to me about Moroccan art. For instance, all art is decorative or functional. No paintings or sculpture appear until after European occupation.
My favorite final scene: full moon appearing over the tallest minaret, a rosy glow, and the call to prayer resounding. Allah is great and so is Morocco.
Still hidden to me is the Arab soul — and women. I have much to learn, read, and see (beyond Paul Bowles and Fatimah Mernissi).