“Hi, my name is Moulay!” said the mysterious man as he walked into my hotel lobby, the brilliant morning sun reflecting off his ivory teeth. With a broad grin, he continued “I will be your guide today!” As my gaze went from head to toe, I took in the full extent of his interesting mix of attire: Yankees baseball cap, designer sunglasses, traditional loose-fitting robe and desert sandals. Touching his heart with one hand and holding a mobile phone with the other, it was then that I knew my trip would be anything but predictable, singular or stereotypical. I had arrived in a land that blended modern and ancient, reformist and conservative, far western and near eastern so thoroughly that it created its own unique identity in the world. Welcome to the majesty and magnificence of the Kingdom of Morocco.
Old and New Combine
My gateway to Morocco was the legendary city of Marrakech, so historically important that it gave its name to the country. At several times the capital of Moroccan dynasties, Marrakech remains today one of the nation’s principal centerpieces of cultural richness and architectural wonder. While chatting on our way to the city center, Moulay and I discussed culture, tradition and religion – three subjects interwoven so tightly in the fabric of society here that they cannot easily be distinguished by visitors yet have completely separate features. This country that somehow embraces modernity yet clings to tradition is exemplified by scenes in crowded markets, where women sporting t-shirts and designer jeans mingle freely with those wearing full facial veils and body-length robes.
By far the most endearing and recognizable symbol of Marrakech is the Koutoubia Mosque whose spectacularly designed minaret soars 70 meters (230 feet) above the staring city below. Dating back to 1162, the mosque is considered a masterpiece of Islamic architecture with its simple yet intricate decorative features carved out of shimmering pink stone. The Koutoubia minaret rises from Marrakech’s famous medina (‘enclosed town’ in Arabic), the old walled town where towering ramparts watch over the city. The medina is a fascinating place where one can easily spend a day just exploring all its infamous souks (specialty craft markets) and narrow cobblestone streets, timelessly winding with a new spectacle awaiting at every turn.
Back in my hotel, exhausted and sticky from the day’s activities in sauna-like weather, I am fumbling with the room’s air conditioning unit trying to get it to work, horrible visions of a long night of mosquito attacks in a sweltering room playing in my head. When I call the front desk for help the attendant casually says: “Oh, sir, we control all the A/C from down here”. Ah, so this is the alternative meaning of ‘central’ air conditioning!
“Merci!” said the cheerful desk clerk as I checked out of my Marrakech hotel. One of the things I had to get used to was the rather odd phenomenon of Moroccans constantly speaking to me in perfect (as I far as I knew) French and I, the categorical ‘westerner’, not understanding any of it. But this is Morocco, where stereotypes do not apply! Not knowing either Arabic or French made be feel double helpless but at least people sympathized with me. The dominance of French as a pervasive mainstream language in major urban areas is due to the legacy of the Protectorate era (1912 – 1956) when Morocco was effectively controlled by France. France is still Morocco’s number one trading partner and French is still a mandatory language in school.
Although the French aggression – and also that by the Portuguese and Spanish – typified European colonial ambitions in North Africa, in the case of Morocco cross-continent meddling swung both ways. For nearly eight centuries, Moroccan empires partly controlled the Iberian Peninsula, at one time conquering much of present-day Spain. This Moorish occupation and the centuries-old ‘Reconquest’ would prove to be a major flashpoint in Christian-Muslim battle for dominance in the Mediterranean that can still be felt today. However, the marvelous cultural legacy of this Andalusian (derived from Al-Andalus, the Land of the Vandals) period has been perpetually carved into the rich foundations of the Spanish cities of Cordoba, Seville and Granada. Conversely, as if to send a message never to set foot on its lands again, an enduring Spanish presence near Morocco surprisingly still exists in the form of Madrid’s control over the coastal enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, annoyingly embedded a mere stone’s throw from Moroccan soil. The two countries seem inexorably linked for eternity.
Gateway to the Sahara
Straddling the edges of the mighty Sahara Desert itself, the arid countryside is dotted with mud-clay buildings so intermixed with the very soil they are born from that sometimes it is difficult to see where the earth ends and villages begin. This is the land between mountains and desert known as the southern oases, and we are making our way to the provincial city of Ouarzazate. Imposing kasbahs (fortified houses) rise from palm groves and sand dunes like earthen castles from a fairytale dream. Such is the magic and allure of these medieval-like edifices and their exotic surrounding landscape that the area has become a sort of Hollywood of stereotypical North African and Middle Eastern scenes, with hundreds of films being produced here including Lawrence of Arabia, Jewel of the Nile, Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven.
As I am huffing and puffing my way up the sandstone hill that cradles the ancient fortified village of Ait Benhaddou, I am shocked as a 70-something Berber woman passes me almost effortlessly. The Berbers are still somewhat of an ethnic enigma – they are thought to be a complex mixture of origins, including Asian, Saharan and European. Although overshadowed by the Arabs since the seventh century, the proud and feisty Berbers had at times staged fierce uprisings and even ruled some long dynasties. These days, Morocco is one of the few countries where they still have a significant presence, actually making up a large portion of the population, and have retained their unique cultural identity and language.
Meanwhile, I contemplate taking a photo of the elderly yet thoroughly energetic lady, with her charming traditional cape and hat, who has by now completely left me in her dust. But then I remember hearing that many Berbers are highly superstitious, including believing that getting their picture taken means their soul has been stolen. Not wanting to be responsible for the grand theft of one’s personal essence, I instead chose to engage the woman at the top of the hill and discover some more about her and her people. Alas, after not really getting anywhere with my usual animated salutations, I decide to change tactics and apply that international, time-tested motivational method: flattery. Using my guide as an interpreter, I playfully tell her that judging by her high physical ability she must be around 35. After receiving a rather indifferent reaction, I ask Moulay what happened. He said: “Actually that wasn’t much of a compliment…her superstition takes that remark as a death warrant!” Gee, sometimes you just can’t win.
For those of you wishing to take in the nostalgia and intrigue of 1930s Casablanca, as in the infamous movie of the same name, you may be disappointed. While As Time Goes By still plays on in our hearts and minds, modern Casablanca is Morocco’s economic and commercial capital and the only Rick’s American Café you are apt to find is perhaps a second bit hotel bar rip-off. Though the large and bustling city offers quite worthy sites of its own, for the first-time traveler wishing to experience the legendary culture of Morocco, historical Fez or Marrakech are your best bets. However, what you will find anywhere you go in this awe-inspiring land are friendly and accommodating people. The colorful, spirited and passionate Moroccans are known for their warmth and hospitality and seem to have an uncanny sense of themselves in the context of history. Aside from the breathtaking landscape and wondrous architecture, in the end it is the people who define the character of this fascinating country.
A Perfect Blend Endures
From brazen snake charmers in the squares of medieval medinas to posh stucco villas near the deep blue sea of the Mediterranean, from trudging camel caravans in the weary dunes of the Sahara to stout Berber tribesmen in the snow-capped mountains of the High Atlas, Morocco is a swirling cauldron of geography, culture and ethnicity that defies pointed summarization. A proud and persevering tree whose roots lie in Africa, trunk stems from Arabia and branches venture out to Europe and the Americas. A nation that combines so many elements of so many worlds so seamlessly, it is if they had never been separate. More of a tale than a country; changing yet static; fanciful yet purposeful; a place where legends persist and reality resist; whose people point east at prayer and face west at rumination. As the challenges of an ever-changing world continue to gnaw at its foundations – evidenced by challenging economics, ideological debates, and an unresolved dispute over the Western Sahara – Morocco will continue its tradition of cultural absorption and self-resolution to refine the unique national identity it has worked so tirelessly to carve out of the fine woods of the world itself.
An avid explorer, John has visited over 60 countries, including the entire Far East of Asia, and speaks conversational Mandarin Chinese. Specializing in travel writing, he has been published over 20 times, including for the Straits Times, Shanghai Daily and Bhutan's national airline magazine.
Photo courtesy of John S. Hamalian
Read the full publication online by clicking here.