The highlights from my trip to Morocco were rambling through the medieval Medina of Fez and going on a camel safari into the Saharan desert…
There is something of a dichotomy between what appears on the outside in Morocco and what you find when you take a closer look inside. On the outside, the country seems bereft of colour and ornamentation. The one colour that is omnipresent as you travel through the countryside is ochre – whether its dusty roads, arid rocky mountains, or the shimmering sands of the Sahara. Most buildings in cities and villages are also painted some variant or the other of this shade so as to almost blend into the scenery.
It’s when you step inside some of these houses that you witness designs of an astonishing complexity and beauty. One of the most iconic aspects of Moroccan design is Zellige tiling. These brightly coloured, geometrically patterned mosaics are used to decorate everything from pillars and floors to fountains and furniture. They are found everywhere from ordinary houses to palaces, from mosques to madrasas. The same flair for artistry is found in the alleys of the famed Moroccan Medinas – in the vibrantly hued carpets, the spice souks, and the magical light patterns cast by intricately carved brass lamps.
The other dichotomy lies in the behaviour of the people. I was forewarned by my guide not to get startled if I came across people having a loud argument in the street. It’s considered quite acceptable to kick up a ruckus and raise voices in public to make a point. However as soon as you enter their homes Moroccans can be some of the warmest, most hospitable people you’ll ever meet.
One of the reasons Morocco is so popular with European and American tourists is it gives a taste of the exotica and mystique of the Middle East within a relatively liberal and peaceful society long accustomed to Western visitors. The Moroccan King, who bears the title “Commander of the Faithful”, spearheaded a policy of Islamic reform after the Casablanca bombings of 2003. Besides building infrastructure for the training and certification of Imams, they also keep a tight leash on independent preachers. At the heart of the reform policy is fighting extremist ideologies and promoting tolerance towards religious minorities. More audacious steps have included banning the production and sale of Burqas in the interest of security. Of course this has inevitably given rise to disgruntlement amongst some sections of society at the perceived dissemination of state propaganda via religious channels. Imams are very revered in the social fabric of local communities, often called upon to resolve disputes as well as offer spiritual guidance. I remember my young guide bemoaning the “sanitisation” of what they could and could not preach which invariably undermined their legitimacy in the eyes of some.
Local women can be seen wearing all manners of attire from jeans and t-shirts to full hijab. However one thing noticeable in the smaller towns is while it’s common to see men sitting at sidewalk cafes, gossiping, sipping coffee and indulging in people watching, it’s very rare to see women partaking in this cafe culture. My guide when talking about life in his village once matter-of-factly mentioned the only places there that women could socialise were hammams (communal bath houses) and by the river where they gathered to do laundry.
There were some aspects of Moroccan culture that reminded me of India like when he talked about how close-knit families were and how common it still is to marry people your parents chose for you. There were also words and phrases that I understood because they meant the same in Urdu spoken back home as they did in Arabic for e.g. the national motto of Morocco: “Allah, al-Malik, al-Watan” (God, King and Country).
I used a travel company I have used many times before, G Adventures, going on their 8-day “Morocco Kasbahs and Desert” tour in October 2016. The tour started in Casablanca, then went on to Fes via Meknes, then to Merzouga, Todra Gorge, Ait Ben Haddou, and ended in Marrakech.
Morocco Travel Diary Part 1: Volubilis
While my trip started and ended in Casablanca I didn’t actually get to spend any time exploring the city. My sight-seeing officially kicked off at the Roman ruins of Volubilis which are on the way from Casablanca to Fez. Slightly ironic that in the year I travelled to Rome and Pompeii, I ended up stumbling across the best-preserved mosaics of all in a tiny outpost of the Empire. Unlike in Italy where Roman ruins often elbow their way through bustling thoroughfares in the heart of urbanised chaos, the setting of Volubilis is half its charm. It overlooks rolling green plains which look little changed from the times wealthy Roman olive merchants who lived here might have gazed upon them.
Morocco Travel Diary Part 2: Fez
Our first night in Fez the guide took us to a riad, a large traditional house built around a central courtyard, for dinner, music and some inevitable belly dancing. The riad itself was ridiculously ornamental in its decor, every inch of it covered in a profusion of intricate designs carved out of plaster, marble and wood.
The ancient city of Fez has been a centre for culture and learning for centuries. In fact the oldest continuously functioning university in the world, the Qarawiyyin University, was founded here in 859 by a wealthy woman, Fatima Al-Fihri. The Medina (old town) of Fez was the highlight of my trip to Morocco. Unlike Marrakech which can often feel like a tourist trap, the Fez medina is very much a living, breathing community. The real charm here lies in the glimpses of everyday life captured amidst its bustling souks and labyrinthian alleyways.
Entry inside the Royal Palace is restricted (it’s still a functioning residence for the current King) so tourists have to satisfy themselves with photo-ops in front of its arched golden gates.
Another beautiful building I could only take a peak of from the outside was the Zaouia Moulay Idris II – a shrine to the founding ruler and patron saint of Fez.
Fortunately the Bou Inania Madrasa, arguably the most gorgeously decorated building in Fez, is one of the few religious buildings that are open to non-Muslim visitors. One can spend a pleasant afternoon oohing and aahing and straining one’s neck muscles to take in the designs around its black and white chequered courtyard.
Less pleasant is the pungent stench around the leather tanneries in the Medina. Here animal hides are still dyed in large vats stacked together in an open square and then left to dry on the walls and terraces of the surrounding houses. The proprietors do offer you, rather ingenuously, sprigs of mint to sniff at which masks the smell as you take the tour.
Morocco Travel Diary Part 3: Night in the Sahara
From Fez we went on to spend a night in the Sahara. Most tours arrange for the camel ride into the desert to start just before sunset and the ride out just before sunrise the next morning. This way the heat is not too overwhelming for folks with a propensity to go lobster red when exposed to the desert sun. As someone with such a hopeless sense of direction I can often be found turning around in circles trying to pivot myself in the direction of the blue dot on my Google map, I couldn’t help wondering how on earth our camel guides were orienting themselves amidst the endless shifting dunes around us with literally no landmarks in sight.
We reached the campsite at twilight and a cosy fire had been lit around which our Bedouin hosts were setting places for dinner. As with restaurants and cafes, the desert in Morocco is strictly BYOB but we had prepared in advance with a pit stop at a supermarket to stock up on wine. As we tucked into heaps of hearty tagine our guide talked to us about local customs and rituals. The one I remember most clearly was about beheading sheep right on the doorstep of homes. This happens not just during the annual festival of Eid ul-Adha and special occasions like marriage ceremonies but can even be done as a gesture of apology to make up with someone you’ve fallen out with!
I chose to abandon the tent prepared for the night and slept on a mattress outside. The deafening silence felt unsettling at first as not a creature stirred in the ocean of sand around us. Gazing up at stars which were startlingly clear against an ink-black sky, time seemed to come to a complete standstill for a little while.
Morocco Travel Diary Part 4: Ait Benhaddou
As we made our way from the Sahara to Marrakech a charming stop along the way was Ait Benhaddou – an ancient fortified citadel or Kasbah made almost entirely of clay. The Kasbah looks like a giant sandcastle shaped out of the hillside. Though it is mostly abandoned a few families still live here selling clothes and souvenirs to visiting tourists. The cerulean blue kaftans strung up on lines are often the only splash of colour in the village’s earthen alleyways. The surrounding landscape is quite dramatic – arid, mountainous and almost completely bereft of vegetation or human habitation bar a small green oasis along the banks of a mostly dry riverbed.
Morocco Travel Diary Part 5: Marrakech
I don’t know if it was because my anticipation was so heightened by everywhere else I had been on the trip so far but my last stop, Marrakech, was slightly underwhelming for me. The bazaars of the medina seemed to hawk more generic wares lacking somewhat the artistry I found in Fez. The famed Djemaa el Fna square was a bit scary after nightfall with teeming crowds jostling for space around street performers, fortune tellers, musicians and story tellers. Large parts of the square were very poorly lit as a result faces seemed to materialise and then melt into the darkness. The air reverberated with Arabic chatter and traditional music – tambourines, Bedouin drums and the mandolin-like Oud. The benches next to the food stalls were packed, the square is clearly a favourite with local families as well as tourists. You do have to be wary of touts – this was the first time in Morocco I felt the nuisance of being hassled as a tourist.
The highlight of Marrakech for me was the Bahia Palace. Amidst the usual cornucopia of Islamic designs – geometric patterns, Arabic calligraphy, coloured glass windows, tiled floors and carved cedar wood ceilings – what I remember the most were the beautiful arched doorways. I marvelled at the designs painstakingly carved into these. Gates and doorways are a bit of a national obsession in Morocco. The humblest dwelling in the poorest neighbourhood will often boast, if nothing else, a beautiful doorway. I wonder what the reason is. Is it because they are the first thing people see when they enter a house or the last thing they see when they leave and hence the most crucial to focus on when trying to make an impression? And make an impression they certainly do, some of the most vivid amongst the many left by Morocco.