This week, our SIT journalism group packed it up for an excursion to the south of Morocco, visiting villages and soaking in sites far removed from the busy old medina and urban atmosphere of Rabat. The Sahara desert and Marrakech were just some of the scheduled stops for the 5-day trip on which we logged over 20 hours driving in a bus. We rode through the Atlas Mountains (a North African mountain range bordering the desert) and passed by many rural communities along the way. Seeing these southern villages was to come face to face with rural Moroccan society, a part of the country we hadn’t been exposed to yet.
What follows is stop-by-stop rundown of our excursion, interspersed with personal highlights and informational tidbits of what I found to be an incredible experience.
Fes (not Fez) was our first stop. The former capital of Morocco, Fes is also the religious hub of the country and hosts the oldest medina in North Africa, dating back to the late 8th century. Our bus stopped near the king’s gorgeous royal palace (one of over 30 in Morocco), which we couldn’t enter but could take photos of. Taking pictures of the imposing officials standing in front of the palace was also a no-no, as a member of our group found out after one of the gun-holding gentlemen blew his whistle and ordered her to delete the photo she’d snapped of him from 30 meters away. The palace’s exterior was stunning, with intricately designed wall patterns and wooden doors that stood 10 feet high. I think it’s safe to say that the king lives a pretty good life.
Right around the corner was the Jewish quarter. Jews have a long and rich history in Morocco, coexisting with Muslims for centuries and comprising a sizeable chunk of the population at many points in time (only 3,000 or so Jews live in Morocco today, as most left for Israel when it became a state in 1948). Many synagogues remain and Jewish cemeteries are preserved. The Fes quarter, now a residential area and market where no Jews live, is emblematic of the sophisticated buildings that Jewish Moroccans constructed to, as our Fes tour guide explained, express their beauty on the outside. As a Jew, I felt comforted knowing that Jewish people lived like they did in Fes, existing peacefully aside Muslims and thriving in the community. The history of Jewish-Muslims relations in Morocco, I think, can be used as example for dialogue between Jews and Muslims in the world today.
The old medina was our next visit. We rode up to a peak overlooking the huge cluster of centuries-old buildings and market streets and then drove down and entered. Located between the two Moroccan mountain ranges, the Rif and Atlas, the medina is the reason why Fes is the handicraft capital of the country. Rugs and metalwork shops are located at every corner of the market, sitting aside food stands, shoe tents and clothing outlets. We visited a leather shop and tannery, which reeked of tanned sheep, camel, cow and goat skin. The multicolored display of shoes, belts, handbags, wallets and leather-bound drums in the shop struck the visual sense as well:
I tried on a black leather jacket that was so silky and so smooth it was like fitting on air. Around the corner was a cotton shop full of scarves and dresses and caftans and other fabric products that we stopped in. A cotton device sat in the back of the store, with criss-crossing lines and wooden beams that looked like the inside of a piano. We also went to a Berber pharmacy and jewelry shop before peeking into the oldest university in the world, now a working mosque. Like the king’s palace, the architecture was meticulously designed with intricate mosaics and striking calligraphy:
Another highlight was the metalworking corner, where guys welded metal products with rocks and rudimentary tools, preserving practices of first generation Fes artisans. Their rhythmic pounding demanded the attention of passersby and was impossible not to tap your feet to. Ultimately, walking in the Fes medina was like being transported back in time one thousand years. The architecture, much of it Moorish in style, was incredibly well-preserved and a beauty to look at. The market was crowded and hectic and colorful and full of exotic scents and sounds. Like every market in Morocco I’m realizing, it was also easy to get lost in.
We left for Azrou, a small town just south of Fes where we would stay for night one of our excursion. On our way, we passed through the town of Ifran and the northern stretch of the Atlas Mountains, a show-stopping sight that was our first introduction to the ecological diversity of Morocco.
Sitting in the mid-Atlas mountains and surrounded by a cedar forest, Azrou is small community know for its Berber heritage including music, food and folklore and for hosting the first college in the Berber region. The Berbers are the first inhabitants of Morocco, and most Moroccans claim at least some Berber ancestry.
Because we were only in Azrou for one night, we didn’t have much time to explore, save for a brief trip to the downtown market. At night, the barely visible outline of the mountains looked like an imposing creature, waiting to attack but never leaving its position in the dark. That view complemented our dinner at the hotel, a scrumptious mix of vegetable salad and beef tajine that was the perfect way to round off the busy day.
At 5:30 a.m., I woke up to run with three fellow students. Our aim was to witness the sunrise over the mountains, and did we ever.
Though long, our drive from Azrou to the desert town of Rissani was filled with visual highlights. The snow-capped Atlas Mountains in the distance beyond the long stretches of arid farmland, where abandoned buildings and shacks and kasbahs (fortressed communities) popped up every half mile or so, was something to see. The desolateness of the desert combined with the enormity of the mountains provided what I thought was a stark contrast in ecology. Though both the desert and mountains are more or less uninhabited, they each comprise huge amounts of area in Morocco.
After driving up and down winding mountain pass roads and through a palm, olive and almond tree oasis, we came to Rissani. I noticed two things right away: bikes are the main means of transportation and the town looks like one you’d see in a old Western film, dirt roads and tumbleweeds and all. Rissani is at the crossroads between north and south, one of the last major towns before miles and miles of desert directly south, so it was fitting that we came here before our night in the desert.
We were treated to lunch in a hotel: Moroccan pizza, a calzone-style breading stuffed with beef and onions (but no tomato sauce). We also purchased sarawis, headscarves that desert dwellers don to protect their head from the sun. To top it off, we split up into three small groups and climbed into Land Rovers, in which our drivers, decked out in traditional Berber garb, rocked Berber music on the radio, whose muggy rhythms and wailing calls provided the perfect soundtrack for our drive into the Sahara.
We stopped in Merzouga, a tiny but thriving community. Thriving because it is home to an association that educates local women, providing them with opportunities to learn to read and write Arabic, embroider and get started on agriculture projects, some of which are funded by the government. It’s one of many such centers in Sahraha communities. We had the pleasure of walking in on an in-session class, where women from all walks of life sat, clearly happy to be in a learning environment and proud of their status as students. For some women who go through the association, we were told, their receiving of an education is often seen as shameful by others in their home communities, so they hide their books under their dresses when walking to classes. It was inspiring to see their beautiful embroidery on display, proof of their determination to learn and make better lives for themselves.
A half mile away from the association, further into the desert, we were treated to an on-hands presentation by one of its founders (who, I came to realize, is an amazing individual) about the tradition irrigation system that Merzouga families use. How it works is ingenious: water from sand dunes is channeled to where people are by flowing it on a downward angle, essentially a way to control the water in the desert. In Merzouga, that water is put to use in an oasis where palm trees and plant plots crowd together, making up a sort of community garden in which families contribute equal amounts of time and work. Despite this well-thought-out and prosperous system, water is becoming increasingly scarce here, a result of desertification. Poverty, too, is prevalent: I was affected when three young boys, no older than 18, rushed to kneel down at the end of the oasis as our group walked out, quickly unraveling key chains and trinkets from dirty cloths and putting them on display with the hopes that we’d buy them. I made eye-contact with one boy, and the look on his face was one of desperation and sadness.
We boarded our SUVs again and took a fast and bumpy ride away from Merzouga, over sand dunes and on pre-tired tracks. On either side, the desert stretched as far as we could see. Our driver cranked up the Berber radio, rolled down the windows and would speed up whenever we went over a dune.
Finally, there it was, slowly coming into view: a hotel. Or, as it’s often called, the Hotel of 1,000 Stars, a place where outdoor tents serve as rooms and, if you’re lucky, where you can see nearly every star in the sky (we didn’t have that fortune; it was a foggy night). Surrounding the stylish building were Winnebagos and trailers in which tourists stayed, dining tables on top of sand dunes and camels on which we rode out into the desert the minute we arrived. We rode a good half mile away from the hotel, and to be out there was like wading in the middle of a vast, still ocean. As the sun set on our returning camel entourage, we could feel the chill of the thin desert air.
Dinner was extraordinary. The buffet, which included beef, chicken, fish, potatoes, tomatoes, rice, pasta, many traditional Berber dishes that I didn’t know the name of and oranges, bananas and dates for desert, was overwhelmingly delicious. A food-lover, I’ve been consistently pleased and impressed with Moroccan gastronomy.
What followed was one of those special things you know will never happen to you again, one of those things that you know you’ll never forget. Even though we were informed before the excursion that we’d be treated to a private, nighttime performance by a gnawa music group in the desert, the impact of those words didn’t hit me until the band struck their first chord. Gnawa is deeply religious musical tradition from West and North Africa. The music is associated with Sufism, Islam’s mysticism, whose adherents work in mediation with saints and prophets to come closer to God. Performing gnawa is one way to do that, and gnawa players often repeat in song the names of prophets so as to invoke their presence. The instruments used by the musicians are traditional and highly symbolic. Castenants, heavy iron percussion objects, represent (and look like) the shackles worn by West and North African slaves centuries ago. Three-string guitars, know as gimbris or sintirs, symbolize the end of an era of slavery and the beginning of an era of freedom. Drums keep the rhythm alive and the drummer is the leader of the group. These instruments have been used by generations of gnawa musicians, as they are part of the cultural heritage of their people. Hence, the role of gnawa players is to preserve and keep the music authentic just as their ancestors did, in turn transmitting what they learned to their own children. The six-member band that performed for us played those traditional instruments, and the music that came out of them was remarkable and absolutely stirring, unlike anything I’d ever heard. Seeing them perform was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life.
Describing their music is difficult, but I’ll try: skeletal two-step rhythms of handclaps and bass drums, with the added clanking of castenants, twangy plucking of guitar, and wailing, impassioned vocals make up a given song. Here are two photos I took that, I hope, complement my description:
We slept outside in the tents, where the temperature was cool but not too biting. Rising in the morning and overlooking the Sahara desert was a to view a picturesque scene straight out of a movie.
A final, much slower ride through the sand dunes (a “morning massage,” as our driver called it) put us back on the road to Rissani, where we caught our bus and set off for our next destination.
Our stay in Tinghir was brief, but it merits mention. We stopped in this medium-sized village, tucked away in the high Atlas Mountains and full of irrigation channels and abandoned kasbahs, plus a long, flowing river, for lunch. We ate in yet another hotel, this one located in a sort of valley-gorge, similar to national parks in the Western U.S. With mountain structures rising above and all around us, the scene was sort of like the downtown of a big city, where impressive skyscrapers shrink all walkers down below.
On our way to Ouazazate (“were-za-zet”), where we would spend the night, we went by countless stone and adobe kasbahs, some of which were in ruins and some of which were restored. The kasbahs in this part of Morocco have a deep-seated cultural heritage, as they were used by families and full communities to protect themselves and their possessions from outsiders. Like the Fes medina and many other sites on this trip, seeing these edifices was like going back in time.
Ouarzazate is the most important city in the south of Morocco, a strategically located center of activity that stands as the gateway to the north, south, east and west. It also boasts the title of “Morocco’s Hollywood,” as many filmmakers have sought out its stark desert scenery and exceptional kasbahs (Lawrence of Arabia, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven and Babel are just some of the films shot there). Some small movie studios are still in use.
We stopped and unloaded at Association Tishkah, an all-girls school for students living in and around Ouarzazate that offers a variety of vocational programs. Before having dinner with some of the students, we split up and explored the city for a few hours. To get the best sense of my new surroundings, I took a run through the streets and let myself get lost. I found Ouarzazate to be like a hillier and more urban Rissani, with mountain ranges providing a wonderful backdrop in the distance.
Back at Tishkah, we met with 70 or so students and staff of the association. Speaking with these girls made me realize that youth social dynamics are far different in Moroccan than in the U.S. They asked me personal questions from the get-go, openly expressed their desire to be Facebook friends and took photos with me no less than an hour after meeting. I felt welcome and was flattered by their reception but, as a guy, felt a little out of place and uncomfortable.
The next morning was a real treat. Still driving along the high Atlas Mountain range, we came to the highest of passes, hurrying up and up curving roads until we were half a mile above sea level. Unlike the other mountain passes we drove through, this one was covered in snow. Scanning the mountains range from such a high peak was the equivalent of looking at a black-and-white photograph, a still image of a never-ending white landscape with dark, silhouetted trees and shrubbery occasionally popping up to interrupt the paleness. It was quite the sight.
As the third largest city in Morocco (behind Casablanca and Rabat), Marrakech certainly has a lot to offer. Its history of Sufism and association with spirituality, not to mention its famed Jemaa el-Fnaa market square, the busiest in Africa, has made it the most popular tourist destination in Morocco for decades. Marrakech was by far the most urban of our stops, a bustling affair of sprawl and spending. But, admittedly, I wasn’t too thrilled with it.
We stopped at our hotel for a pleasant lunch, after which we took to the Marrakech streets, armed only with a plan to find Jemaa el-Fnaa. Getting lost happens a lot in Morocco, and that held true for us in Marrakech. Eventually, we stumbled upon the square, which is inside the old medina, and, as we shoved our way through the huge masses of people, we feasted our eyes on snake charmers, physically disabled individuals on display, crowds circling around street performers to watch and snap photos and hundreds upon hundreds of vendors who were never shy to get in tourists’ faces and lure them in to their money spending lair. It was overwhelming to say the least, and by the time we exited the square to catch our breath, only to lose our way in the medina streets trying to get out, we’d had enough. So, naturally, we went to McDonalds for dinner to relax. I ordered a McChicken sandwich and it tasted great.
Unsure of our plans for the evening, our group split up after getting our McDonalds fix. Four friends and I heard word on a café nearby and found our way there in half an hour. It was a hip, cozy little place in the upstairs of a hotel, replete with a used bookstore full of English-language literature and nonfiction, plus some French novellas. The mostly young customers were plugged into their laptops, writing away and hanging out and listening to classic rock on the radio. We exchanged pleasantries with the café owner, a New Yorker who taught English in Morocco for three years and settled in Marrakech with her Moroccan husband after she finished her tenure. It was great experience just sipping some tea, reminiscing and browsing the bookstore, getting a taste of hip Morocco nightlife in the process.
I have mixed feelings about Marrakech after our visit. On one hand, I appreciated the big city atmosphere and loved that café we went to. But the unashamedly tourist part was very off-putting. As a foreigner, I didn’t feel nearly as welcome or comfortable here as I have in other Moroccan cities.
The excursion ended on a high note in Essaouira, a port city west of Marrakech. Departing immediately after breakfast, we took a relatively short drive there, with one stop on the way at a female co-op specializing in making products with oil, which in turn comes from Argan trees. Such foliage is only found in Morocco, and it produces Argan fruits that are in turn grounded up and made into oil for medicinal and cosmetic products, in addition to food. We received a tour of the compound, witnessing women workers as they produced oil from the fruits by hand (in what was a flattering greeting, they busted out into song when our group entered). I purchased a bottle of Argan oil-infused honey, which is delectable.
Like Marrakech, Essaouira is a hot spot for tourists, but it’s much, much smaller. A number of famous people visited there, mostly musicians, including Jimi Hendrix and Louis Armstrong. Jews have a remarkable history there; during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they comprised nearly half of the city’s population. Of all the towns and villages and sites we saw, Essaouira, I think, was the most beautiful. It is home to a pleasant community and, sitting on the Atlantic Ocean, encompasses breathtaking scenery.
Lunch was served at a seafood restaurant on the dock, where a fantastic view of the ocean made me forget that I rode camels in the desert, miles away from a body of water, just two days ago. The dock was ringing with nautical sounds: seagulls calling, clinking vessels, longshoremen shouting, waves crashing rhythmically on the side and a brisk coastal breeze, all supplemented by a strong aroma of freshly caught fish. The restaurant was appropriately sea-like, too, with bottled wooden ships and artwork of barges and Moroccan sailors, plus jazz 78s and a barrelhouse piano. Chefs plopped fish on the awning outside and seagulls flocked to eat the delicacies. For lunch: tuna salad, sardines and marlin – quite different from other meals we’ve had in Morocco.
We made our to the beach that afternoon for a game of soccer against students in another SIT program (we won, despite protests by our opponents). A game of ultimate Frisbee and dinner at a nearby hotel (in which photos of Orson Wells and his movie posters decorated every room) rounded of the day’s activities.
We woke up and packed our bags one last time and ate breakfast and boarded the bus and drove home to Rabat.
On a personal note, this trip couldn’t have been half the success it was had it not for the nine other individuals in my program. Spending time with them on the bus, where we swapped stories, joked and got to know each other better, kicking a soccer ball around and playing Frisbee during our rest stops, hanging out at night in hotels and travelling these Moroccan cities with them was truly a pleasure. If travel is best experienced with a compassionate, kind, exciting and bold group of people, I had the time of my life. With just over two months left in Morocco, I can say with confidence that I’ll be having many more great experiences knowing these folks will be by my side.