We visited Morocco for 6 days on the guided part of our 2011 holiday in Spain, Portugal and Morocco. Do not shortchange yourself with the one day tour of that amazing, welcoming country.
Rabat is the capital. King Muhammad VI is, like his grandfather Muhammad V was, a much loved and wise ruler. They are part of a dynasty that has reigned since 1631 – the Alaouite Dynasty, founded by Moulay (Saint) Ali Cherif, a descendant of the prophet Muhammad via the prophet’s daughter, Fatima and his cousin, Ali. The Alouites are Sunni Muslims.
Morocco was the first country to recognize the fledgling United States and has had a treaty of friendship with the US that is the longest standing T of F in existence.
Under then “Sultan” Muhammad V, Morocco was an ally during WW II. Sultans reigned in Morocco but at that time it was a colony ruled in bits by France and Spain. Promises of self-rule were made in return for help during the war, but these were not kept. Movements grew here as they did around the world, in support of workers and autonomy. Muhammad V cautiously supported the independence movement. The French rewarded him with exile to Madagascar in 1953. This caused such trouble with the people that he was back within two years. Shortly thereafter Morocco became an independent kingdom, with the popular Sultan now the King.
His son, Hassan II, became king when papa died in 1961. Hassan was not a nice King and more than one attempt was made on his life. Malika Oufkir, daughter of a general implicated in a failed assasination, was imprisoned by Hassan, an ordeal that lasted 20 years and spawned a wonderful book, Stolen Lives, that Anita and I enjoyed reading in our Morocco research before taking the trip. Oufkir and her close family members eventually escaped from their isolated desert prison.
Hassan II died in 1999 and Muhammad VI, his son, replaced him. While some, again cautious, reforms have taken place, Muhammad VI is not without his problems, one of which is an outdated Islamic penal code that resulted in the suicide of a rape victim faced with the decidedly unpleasant ruling forcing her to marry her rapist.
Looking away from Muhammad V’s tomb are the impressive remains of an interrupted (by his death in 1199) attempt by Sultan Yacoub al-Mansour to build a massive mosque (look at those columns!) and the largest, tallest minaret in the world. The red sandstone “Hassan Tower” was inspired by the beautiful Koutoubia mosque in Marrakech, also constructed under the reign of Sultan Yacoub al-Mansour. At the time the strict Almohad Caliphate controlled Morocco, a good chunk of coastal North Africa and southern Spain. By this time the Golden Age of Islamic Andalusia, which spread much culture, including Greek philosophy, throughout Europe had been taken over by this harsh way of interpreting Islam.
The gate was protected by two of these colourful guards. Green is the colour of Islam.
Above: The top of the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech.
Marrakech was a fascinating place. We visited Jemaa el Fna Square twice. Independently, with friends Tom and Ellen we revisited two bars in Tom’s favorite, and famous, hotel, La Mamounia, for cocktails: 15 euro gin and tonics.
The first time in the square was in the evening, when all the food, juggling, dancing, story-telling and snake charming is taking place – every evening. There’s no place like it. I didn’t get many photos because we were warned not to photograph the people or we would be bombarded with people asking for 10 dirhams – roughly a dollar. So I did stealth video for 18 minutes as our group walked around the square – just holding the camcorder closed at waist level. I got great shots of asses, elbows, backs and shoulders of our group members as well as a flavour for the sounds of the place. Few clips snipped from the 18 minutes lasted longer that 15 seconds.
Video Clips: Only if you’re keen; the quality isn’t good and they’re very short, but they convey an atmosphere:
We traveled from Marrakech towards the Atlas Mountains, stopping in a Berber home in a village near Marrakech. The lady of the house made tea for us with a dramatic tea pouring technique that is used to aerate the tea and improve its flavour. The family lived on the upper floor of the home that appeared to be built from adobe.
We walked by small stalls in which they kept livestock and then up the stairs to the living area. Outside the living area was a Berber hamam – similarto, but simpler than a four-room Turkish bath. Both involve water and scented hamam soap. Here’s a website if you are curious about it. Their large sitting room easily housed our group of about 20 thirsty tourists. I took some photos from their patio. The money the family made from visits like ours was probably helping to put a daughter through university.
This event was followed by the standard two minute camel ride, which we declined on. Camels do make photogenic subjects, however.
We opted against Insight’s included tour of the Fes medina, opting to hire a personal guide for a full day. This gave us more time there and much freer movement. We decided this before leaving Canada. I found a superb young man, named Younes, through a very helpful woman on Lonely Planet’s forum, who visits Fes annually. I communicated with Younes initially by phone and then we worked together on what we wanted to see, arranging this by email.
I made it clear that we did not simply want to be brought around to places where we would be expected to spend so that Younes could get a commission. This must be clear from the start. When we got to Fes I phoned him from the hotel on his cell. We had connection problems so just quickly said, “We will meet you at 10:15 at the hotel as agreed by email,” and hung up.
As our group was about to board the bus for supper, Younes showed up and somehow found us. He went out of his way to assure us that he would come for us in the morning. Our up-tight Insight tour director flipped out when we told him our plans. He threatened to call the police until we explained how we had pre-arranged the whole thing.
Below are three photos taken at Al Karouine University founded in the ninth century, which claims to be the oldest continuing university in the world. While we walked, Younes talked of having guided Nicholas Cage, Leonardo DiCaprio and Julia Roberts during his time as a guide. He was very impressed with Julia Roberts, who had some very specific things she wanted to see. Apparently she is involved in charitable and educational projects to do with young people in Fes. Since he humbly admitted, even though a student in university, that he couldn’t read the 9th century calligraphy I’m inclined to believe him about the celebrities.
A colourful highlight was a major leather tannery in Fes, where we specifically asked Younes to take us. They gave us a sprig of mint to hold near our noses, but the smell wasn’t that bad. The leather goods were amazing, but, even after touching the wonderful softness of the vividly coloured jackets, handbags and other beautiful items, we somehow resisted. Right: We passed by a shop in the metal working area. This was a noisy highlight. There you go; if I include our delicious lunch, there’s something for all five senses in the medina.
Miscellany: An early photo of a square before entering the narrow streets with Younes, patiently waiting for me, on the right. A prayer niche in the restaurant where we lunched; it must have been a very luxurious home at one time. On the right a patient and colourful donkey.
Last Fes group: Left: Carpenters at a factory where wedding seats are made.
Centre: The sacred shrine of Fes’ patron saint, Moulay Idriss, who re-founded the city and ruled Morocco between 807 and 828. Moulay means saint. Idriss means Idriss. Non-Muslims cannot enter the shrine. As the young woman in this frame stolen from video exited with her mother and sisters I respectfully put my camcorder down. After they were out of sight I resumed my video, only to have her pop her smiling face into my camcorder’s view. We laughed and chatted with them outside the door in French. She went in and lit a candle for Anita. A magic moment that would have been missed if we had taken the free medina tour operated by Insight.
Right: This photo proves we had a good time. I should have asked someone to take a photo of the three of us. Silly me.
Next post, perhaps: Marrakech and the capital, Rabat.
On our way to Fes from Tanger in March 2011 we stopped at Assilah, a resort town on Morocco’s Atlantic coast that Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young missed, resulting in their song, Marrakech Express. They were too high to remember to get off the train, and ended up in Marrakech. French is Morocco’s second language; if you speak it you will meet even more nice people…
We were on a guided tour run by Insight Vacations. These photos were taken from the roomy Mercedes bus, hence the slight glare. My polarizing filter came in handy to reduce it. If you have an older SLR, here’s a trick I learned to use when in a bus: I select shutter speed priority of around 1/1000th s. Then I use 0.3 exposure bracketing, forcing the camera to take three shots in rapid succession. This usually gives me at least one shot without a passing “telephone pole” ruining it.
If all the people who mistrust Muslims could be persuaded to spend a few, all-expenses-paid, days exploring Morocco, much healing would result. My humble suggestion: Take some of that money spent on high-tech weaponry and do something really good with it…
The next travel post will focus on Fes, Morocco’s holiest and most historic city with a most amazing medina, or old town. Fes boasts the oldest surviving university on the planet. It was founded by a woman.