> Morocco Field Report 1: The haggles, hassles and hustles of Casa & Fez
Morocco Field Report 2: Berber Belly Dancing and Barbary Apes
Morocco Field Report 3: Rocking the Kasbahs and Girdling Goat Trees
Morocco Field Report 4: Boats, Cats and Castles Made of Sand
Here at the Amsterdam airport, after an all-nighter from JFK. A strange way to spend Xmas. But really it’s our anniversary more than that—our 10th no less! Sucks to be in Amsterdam and not leave the airport. Flying really screws with your spatial-temporal reference frames. It creates discontinuous gaps, not allowing you to bridge geographies. Maps are little consolation. And airport culture is the same pretty much anywhere you go. Out the windows, and from what we could see on our descent, it’s foggy and flat here. Lots of canals. A country below sea level—imagine that. Inside the airport is smoky, of course. Europe. There are lots of different ethnicities traveling through, though I’m not sure this is representative of Amsterdam. The announcements in Dutch are pretty much the hilarious epitome of someone mocking a made-up language, at least to my ears.
On the plane I watched a Danish movie, can’t remember the name of it, except it was named after some French Island. There was hardly any dialogue, everything was quiet and atmospheric. It took place between the Netherlands (or Holland or whatever country Amsterdam is in, I get confused) and I think Egypt though they never specified, I imagined in my mind that it was Morocco. Nothing was specified or said, it was all implicit. I also watched The English Patient, which seemed appropriate. KLM rocks. They have all these movies to choose from and good food. I also read Paul Bowles Points in Time to get myself in the spirit. Speaking of plane travel causing gaps—he seemed to always travel by boat. Not much to say about the book, they were short little vignettes about Morocco. I would’ve read Sheltering Sky if I hadn’t already, but I did get it for Jess to read. Maybe I will read it again after she is done. Next leg is on Royal Air Maroc.
Arrived in Casablanca last night. Went through customs and impulsively got some tiny non-descript car when we thought of all the ground we wanted to cover. And here we are at a hotel near the shore, near the giant new mosque in Casablanca, the Mosque of Hassan II. Driving through Casablanca was a trip, especially considering that I have driven very little in the past 7 years, especially a stick as rentals are never stick though this was. For the most part things are pretty modern and people drive nice cars (the taxis are Mercedes), with the occasional Suzuki golf-cart truck loaded to the hilt with sheep or a donkey-pulled wagons in busy Casablanca traffic. People flock their sheep or goats right on the roads. And Morocco is definitely the most pedestrian-friendly place I have ever been. People walk two or three across on the roads and freeways and don’t give a shit about cars. They own the road and cars have to watch out for them. Bikes or donkeys will casually swerve right in front of you. You definitely have to be on the defensive and never assume you have the right a way.
Here’s the map of Casablanca we got from the rental car guy, who tried to explain it in broken French. This is pretty much all we had to go on:
We were supposed to count to five of something before doing something else, but we weren’t sure what we were counting or what we were doing if we did. Needless to say, we got lost. But wasn’t it Bowles, in regards to Morocco or Fez, saying you had to get lost in order to find where you are? Or did I just make that up? It was a good way to see Casablanca, though the traffic was crazy and the driving kind of stressful. At every intersection, lines of turning cars and donkeys and mopeds would inch their way precariously close to you. And they have those free-for-all roundabouts just like Mexico or maybe most places besides the U.S. Mopeds weaving in and out of traffic, and funny thing is, a lot of people ride mopeds (as well as donkeys) side-saddle. A lot of people ride bikes too.
We eventually got to a shore which was a good sign as our hotel was on the ocean. We just needed to figure out which way. Went one way and drove by the Mosque of Hassan II, mind-numbingly huge, with lots of open space around it, then back-tracked the other direction, eventually found our hotel just as it was getting dark. Didn’t notice too many people going to prayer though the speakers were blaring that they should be. “Casa” as they call it, is pretty cosmopolitan and westernized. Most women don’t wear hijab and we were able to sit in our bar after our long flight and have drinks, and there were Moroccan women drinking together with men, and watching racy music videos, reminiscent of Bollywood but perhaps even more racier, with plenty of skin. Good stuff, really, for what it is, way ahead of MTV. Nice bar, everything here is decorated to the hilt with geometric designs. And the Arabic script is so cool even if we don't know what it's saying.
Tried Casablanca beer which was good. Had all sorts of appetizers, salted nuts, homemade potato chips, and these incredible olives—our first introduction to a certain pungent, briny taste that seems to pervade everything. More on that later. Went to a restaurant near our hotel, which I can’t remember the name of the restaurant, but our hotel was Clûb Val D’Anfa. The décor was unbelievably intricate, all the way up to the ceiling and pillows. First thing they brought in was a cart of alcohol. And here we were fearing we’d have to dry out in Morocco! Got some wine (Guerrouane), which was pretty bad. I’d read somewhere that Morocco had good wines, French colony after all, but not a good start. I had a pigeon tajine, which was awesome, but a lot of bone-picking (with right-hand only of course). You can taste the French influence, at least in this restaurant, as the basis for the tajine is sautéed onions that made it taste onion soupy (or maybe the French stole that from Morocco?). It's cooked and served in the same clay pot with a lid that it was cooked in.
Jess had a prawn tajine, which was more like rock-shrimp but incredibly tasty, stewed with tomatoes, olives and these cured lemons (heriseh), which we were discovering was the basis for that ever-pervasive taste and smell of Morocco. They are lemon slices (with rind) that have been preserved in brine for months and are added to a lot of dishes, and olives are soaked with them, etc. I can still taste it now, the next morning, and smell it. It’s seeping into our being. For desert we had these things called m’hanchas, which were kind of like baklava—filo-doughy with nuts and honey, very tasty, and with mint tea (our first of many I’m sure) that was to die for. Our room is beautiful and relaxing even though it’s on a busy street, bustling now with morning traffic, but near the beach which we can see from our balcony. The primary purpose of the beach seems to be soccer. Everything in our room is decorated, everything everywhere is adorned with design. This is Allah’s will. If not iconic depictions or realistic art, then geometric designs and intricate abstractions. And the Arabic script makes our language look stilted and barbarian, though it doesn't help us find our way around!
12/27 – Fez
Woke up in Casa and walked on the beach. Then continued on. Didn’t want to spend too much time in Casa, we get enough of hectic city life. The city streets were bedlam. No order to the traffic. We were just trying to find the freeway to Rabat, along with the donkey-pulled carts, bikes, trucks packed with sheep, etc. All the signs were in Arabic, no rhyme or reason. Nobody had a map, stopped at gas stations and even a “Moroccan Auto-route” store, nothing doing. We drove 'til we found something that looked like a freeway. A nice one at that. All the roads have been nice so far, freeways and toll roads, funny though they are all nice and manicured and then there will be some guy herding his sheep on the roads or all the mopeds and donkeys, etc. sharing the road.
Drove up the coast and past Rabat. We thought to stop in Meknes but it sounded like a watered-down Fez (the guidebook said it was good to acclimatize yourself to Fez so it’s not such a shock to your system). We wanted to get right to the point. Got to Fez and tried to find the medina, but couldn’t understand the scripted signs, and half the city seemed to be under construction. Chaos prevailed again. Found our way eventually by trial and error.
The second we parked the car we were greeted by the notorious faux guides the guidebooks warned us about. Actually, they were hounding us before we even parked, like buzzing pests on their mopeds following you into the city. Screaming for you to stop. This one guy Aziz latched on to us even though we told him we already had a hotel and tried to lead us to the hotel even though we said we knew the way. We wanted to stay at a riad, which is a more traditional style of guest house of rooms centered around a courtyard, but they were all booked. The general philosophy of architecture here is that external looks don’t mean shit. You’ll see some drab and barren wall on a dirty alley, knock on the door, and suddenly you’re enveloped in extravagant gardens and courtyards with intricate and detailed tile work and design covering everything inside.
the epitome of the drab exterior, posh interior architectural philosophy
Some of the riads we saw were amazing (they’d show us around even though they were booked). Aziz didn’t give up on us. Besides speaking perfect English, he also spoke Spanish, Italian and of course French and Moroccan Arabic. Not as many people here speak Spanish as I was hoping, so it really helps to speak French, which we don’t really. At least not enough to understand Moroccans. I do understand enough French to know that the French of most Moroccans is pretty sloppy and hard to understand. Aziz led us to a bunch of amazing riads in the medina, though they were all booked. He kept taking us into these narrow alleys where you might expect to get jumped, but then there would be a nice riad through some little door.
We finally shook Aziz, but some other guy took his place. All the places were full—from what we could understand, there was some sort of sheep festival going on, where everybody was coming to town to slaughter their sheep, which would explain the inordinate amount of sheep in the streets and on the trucks. People were even carrying them by moped and on horseback. If only they were goat and not sheep, I don’t like sheep much. Then again if they are going to slaughter them, I’d rather it be sheep than goats. Though if they were real men, they might pick on something other than sheep.
taking the sheep to the slaughter
We ended up at the big hotel in Fez, hotel Batha, even they were full except for the honeymoon suite, so we ended up forking over something like $90 for a room, though we are supposed to switch to a smaller one tomorrow. The room is obscenely big, so big there are wings of it we haven’t explored, with mazes of long hallways leading to them. There are two entirely separate bathrooms, and closets that are as big as our NY apartment. I could go jogging in it. I feel like Richie Rich, or some sultan, though the problem is that it’s fucking cold here and its hard to keep this room heated. And what is there to do with all this space?
Oh, I started to read Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalamai, but lost it. I think I left in our hotel in Casa, which is a shame, as it seemed appropriate enough for this trip. It follows a group of Moroccans as they cross the straits of Gibraltar for Spain. But that’s as far as I got was them swimming the last distance to Spain, so I’ll have to buy the book again to find out what happens after that. [We did stand on the same wall where the cover photo was taken in Essaouira, if that amounts to anything].
This morning we met Aziz’s brother, Ahmed, for a tour of the medina. Call us suckers. We figured we needed a guide, if anything to keep the other faux guides at bay. And he was certified by the city and all that (with ID to prove it) and spoke English. Not that the faux guides aren’t as good, I’m sure they are even better, but evidently Fez is cracking down on them and even throwing them in jail if they are caught! It really kind of spoils it. I mean the whole fun of a place like Fez’s medina, is to wander the alleys and explore, aimlessly, without purpose, get lost even. But the Paul Bowles days are gone, it has been Disneyfied just like everything else in this world. And speaking of Disneyfied hypocrisy, people here seem to love Coke and McDonalds, if they want to put their money where the mouth is and reject western culture, then you’d think that would be a good place to start. Coca-Cola signs are so prevalent it was probably the one Arabic word I recognized.
We started our tour driving (good thing we had our own car), Ahmed in the front pointing exactly where we should go, preceding everything with “excuse me, sir”. We saw the king's palace and the Jewish quarter, the mellah, which looks totally different than the medina, they actually have window and balconies and ornamentation on the street side, almost look liked bourbon street in New Orleans or something. Of course it’s not really occupied by Jews anymore and they count who’s left like they are some sort of endangered species that are good to keep around for the sake of tourism. Every time we stopped to check something out, Ahmed kept the parking cops at bay, so if anything he was worth it for that (his charge was like $15 for a four hour tour).
King's Palace wall and detail
We drove around the walls of the medina and entered the opposite end from where we were staying. It’s so big it would supposedly take you all day to walk across it, though that seems somewhat of an exaggeration. I wish they had medinas in America, where the streets are too narrow for cars and everyone had to walk or ride bikes (or in this case donkeys).
A “tour” of the medina basically amounts to being led to shop after shop—leather, pottery, rugs, spices—that the tour guides know and that will give them kickback. Even if you say you don’t want to go in shops they’ll ignore you. There were droves of tourists in the same racket, visiting the same shops. Really it was what we saw on the way, and from our wandering on our own, that was most amazing.
We started at a pottery factory, where they make pottery, tile and mosaics. We saw the whole process (Ahmed had passed us on to an in-shop guide at this point, and waited at the door along with all the other guides and faux-guides), from getting the clay to spinning it, to firing it to painting it. The mosaic making was particularly interesting. Of course the tour leads you right into the show room where our guide was pointing out all the things to buy, some pretty good stuff actually, so of course we bought a bunch.
kiln fire from below (burning olive pits!) and smoke from above
whose making that Moroccan pottery and chipping the tiles for the mosaics
Then we went to the tannery, same thing, “excuse me, sir, Mohammed here is going to now show you the process by which leather products are made,” saw them processing and dying the leather in this network of pools. Pretty nasty conditions they work in, with the caustic dyes. They made a big deal about the smell, warning you repeatedly, and a lot of the tourists were dramatically holding mint leaves to their noses, but we couldn’t smell anything. Not that the guys below working the freshly dead animal hides can’t smell it, I’m sure it’s horrifying and they go home with that smell on them. We bought a camel leather foot stool and some shoes and I think a purse, I can’t remember.
It got to the point where I felt like we may as well just hook up hoses to our pockets that sucked all the money from our pockets as we walked along our "tour." The primary motive of every interaction was to get your money. To get a tip, to get you to buy something, to pay for a service, to pay to witness something. The level of greed and hassle was dizzying and really distracted from the experience. You’d think paying a guide up front would resolve that, but it doesn’t. He’s just the tip of the iceberg, the middleman that introduces you to all the other aggressively greedy merchants. This is what the corruption of tourism does to a society, really, doesn’t have much to do with Moroccans. Who can blame them? So really what was mortifying was not so much the hassles and greed, but that by our presence here, like it or not, we are inevitably contributing to all of this.
The rug shop was the worst. They bring you in as deep into the place as possible, even after you insist you are not interested, up to the fourth floor, in to some dark chambers, they bring you mint tea, have you sit down, ask you about your apartment, what kind of floors you have, etc. Even when we said that the rugs were bigger than our apartment (which is true), the guy was trying to tell us that we can resell them at an auction and make a lot of money, and we’d keep saying over and over that we didn’t want to do that and tried to push the idea of eBay back on him. And each time one vendor would finish his spiel, another would step in to give it a try. We literally were guided along by 5 or 6 different men in the rug shop, each time they would introduce themselves and play this elaborate charade, and you just have to sit there and nod and say the rugs are pretty but we are not interested. They’d physically put themselves between you and the door. God help the people that actually ask for prices, because then when you say no they act insulted like you think they are charging too much. It was all quite unsettling and exhausting. But yes, the rugs are quite beautiful.
We were really hungry and just wanted to eat something, but Ahmed would be like, “excuse me sir, lets just stop in this metal-working shop” or a Berber jewelry store. At one point, after our spice shop “tour” we caught him wolfing on a communal tajine and tangerines (which looked really fucking good) with these other guys and we had to wait while he finished eating. We were pretty irritated at that point. But through it all, trying to ignore all that and absorb the sights and sounds, and the smells, it really is a buzzing hive of activity, beyond the tour circuit. Sheep being guided, donkeys coming up behind you, plowing you over if you’re not watching out. Ours senses were bombarded.
no shortage of things to consume! (and me watching from the bottom right corner)
In the embroidery shop we got the full version of the Abraham story from the Muslim point of view, this is what all the sheep were about (Eid ul-Adha), but instead of Abraham it’s Ibrahim, and instead of Issac, it's the other son Ishmael he sacrifices, or is going to sacrifice before the angel intervenes, saying his intentions were good enough and that they’d settle for a sheep. Poor sheep. As the Berber embroidery man (that’s the other thing, is everybody claims to be Berber, and tells you you look Berber, and that they’ll give you a Berber price, etc.), Ibrahim was the father of everything, of both Isaac and Ishmael, of Islam, of Judaism, of Christianity, and he’s probably right about that. It's all the same the story and we are killing each other over it, not to mention sheep.
The finale was Ahmed taking us to a restaurant. At that point we were really hungry and excited to just sit down and eat. We tried to say goodbye and part ways before we went into the restaurant, after he declined our invitations to eat with us, but he insisted we go in and sit down and called the waiter over and everything. It was a nice place, the courtyard of a beautiful medina, full of tourists. They handed us the menu (this is lunch mind you) you and the set meals were between 600.00 and 900.00 dirhams (with the zero decimals as they tend to do here). I thought maybe my eyes were playing tricks with all the zeros. That’s like $75 to over $100 per person. I’ve never spent that much for a meal even in nice NY restaurants, and wasn’t about to start here. The waiter was corralling us, asking what we wanted to drink and Ahmed was standing over our shoulder recommending dishes. We got up, in the middle of the restaurant and just said it was too much and walked out, with Ahmed in tow.
His disposition changed dramatically after that. He didn’t even pretend to be nice. He stopped at some cigarette shop to get a cigarette and was stalling, talking to the guy like he was trying desperately to plot something else. We handed him his money (without the tip I was planning on giving him) and walked away. Never have we felt so used. It’s worse than prostitution. It took us a while to recover. I’ve been to a lot of places where you endure hassles, Jamaica or Mexico, or Indonesia, but never where their intent was so genuinely motivated strictly by greed and hypocrisy. Where you felt like the blood was being sucked out of you. Usually you can at least make friends with people while they are taking your money. So far we have not met anyone here (in Fez) that has taken an interest in us as humans sharing the planet with them. Sure they make small talk, ask where you’re from, etc. but its all an angle to sell you something or scam you for something. Okay, maybe the Berber embroidery man, he did tell us the sheep stories even after we had agreed on a “Berber” price. But that says something about Berbers I think.
camel head ... donkey head
couldn't resist one last donkey shot!
We found our own restaurant (café medina, just outside of Bab Boujeloud), a family run place, had some amazing pastilla, a kind of large pastry stuffed with minced pigeon meat, olives and spices, and covered with powdered sugar and cinnamon. We were too busy devouring it to take pictures (though here's the idea). Sounds strange and it was sweet, but really good. Kind of like eating a meal and dessert all at the same time. And it was $7, not $70. Washed it down with orange juice and mint tea. Everywhere you go here, they have fresh orange juice that is to die for. And the mint tea (Moroccan whiskey) deserves the hype, though I think people exaggerate the heights from which it is poured. Then we explored around the medina on our own.
>> onward to Morocco Field Report 2: Berber Belly Dancing and Barbary Apes
(c) 2007 Derek White and Jessica Fanzo. Please just ask before using photos or words elsewhere.