Beyond blue jeans and plastic, journeys into traditional Morocco

I don’t blog often enough.  I’d like to.  I write a lot of things…in my head.  They are perfect little morsels, full of wit and truth, that seem to disintegrate by the time I am sitting at the computer.  I get bloggers block often.  Blogger’s blahs.  Since I write with my real name and make only very weak attempts at veiling my identity, blogging makes me vulnerable.  I think about all the people I know from the different spheres of my life reading this, good golly!  Instead of throwing caution to the wind, I wrap it closely around me.  The more people subscribe here or stop by, the more nervous I get about the next thing I am going to write.   (Then again, as my friend aptly pointed out, I’m not exactly Oprah Winfrey, when it comes to audience size).

What makes blogging even possible, sustainable and enjoyable is the feeling that the more I write, the more my true voice emerges.  (sounds so self-indulgent it makes me cringe).  It’s great practice anyway, even if “the voice” doesn’t always show up.  People respond well to true voice, it resonates with all of us.  I may not have a huge readership, but I always feel like you all who are reading this really engage with it and respond in ways that are deep, appreciative and real.  Just take a look at the comments you all leave.

I like to read a variety of blogs.   Some are witty, self-deprecating and sardonic.  Others are excellently word-crafted, obviously written by someone with actual literary ability.  Some contain spiritual writings.  Others are gorgeously designed and well-photographed.  Some blogs have all the bells and whistles, twitter feeds, giveaways, buttons.  I didn’t use to get blogging.   Why would we put so much loving labor into something that, for the most part, we are not paid to do?  But I get it now, it’s about taking a little extra time to savor life and share it with all those who might resonate with our way of seeing.

Now I’ll show you what I actually came on here to blog about.  Believe it or not it wasn’t about blogger’s block.  It was about travelling in Morocco, and how every time I travel I really appreciate this country.  There’s so much I haven’t seen, there is a lot of natural beauty and there are people living the old traditional ways.  Blue jeans and plastic haven’t yet taken over every inch of this planet, and we need to witness as much of the old ways as we can, in my opinion.   A recent road trip took our family to Tafraout (about 5 hours south of Marrakesh).  It’s located right where the mountains meet the desert, and it contains elements of both.

In Tafraout, the houses are built on, under or around boulders.

The landscape is both desert and mountain. The color palette is pretty much earthy brown and sky blue.  The houses tend to blend into the rocks.

A couple of doors.  When I was a kid I remember a lot of doors being made of corrugated metal like this.

See the windows in this house?  We were told how in these type of houses, the two larger windows symbolize parents, while the smaller one underneath is the child.

More doors and windows, the textures are so gorgeous.

On our boulder climbing adventures we found a totally fun mushroom shaped rock.

And managed to climb into it and get a peak of the village below.

There’s not much green in the landscape, the Argane trees are the only prolific shrub.  We saw thousands of them.

Inside one of the houses, the passageways were dark and sinuous…the one below struck me as especially symbolic, full of portent.

Every house had its own storage room for secret stashes of argane nuts.

Waiting to be transformed into liquid gold.  Each family has claims to a certain number of the wild Argane trees on the hillside.  The villagers all respect this code, and the families go out and harvest the Argane seeds when they are ready.  I’d always heard that Argane seeds are collected after goats have eaten them and left them in their droppings.  It turns out that this is somewhat of an urban legend.  The locals we asked assured us that that they harvest the seeds themselves.  The goat way leaves a certain “smell” to the oil and a real connoisseur can tell by one sniff if the Argane has been through a goat or not.

This window is just beautiful.

Funny story about the owner of this shop.  Even though we were 5 hours from Marrakesh in this remote village, the shop owner recognized me, we’d been to the same junior high in Marrakesh.  It turned out to be a serendipitous encounter as he was a big help to us.  He showed us around the area and took us to see the traditional mosque he was in the process of restoring at his own expense.

At sunset we went out to see the famous Tafraout painted rocks.  It turned out that “painted rocks” wasn’t meant figuratively, like Arizona’s painted desert.  No, these were huge boulders painted garish blue and pink.  It hurt to look at them, and I refused to photograph them, except for whatever showed up in this photo.  Apparently some Belgian artist came along a while back and went out to the middle of nowhere and started this massive endeavor of painting boulders, you know, like a huge ugly art installation in the middle of God’s glorious creation.  This had the effect of drawing tourists to the area, and since that time, the locals have kept up the tradition by repainting the rocks when they fade.  My husband and I were speechless with dismay.  The rest of the landscape was really open, sandy, quiet, expansive, much like hubby’s native New Mexico.

After spending a few days in Tafraout, we went somewhere very different, Merlift beach.  Since it wasn’t tourist season, we had the town and the beach practically to ourselves.

Oh, and by the way, for those of you who read the Beirut post and this one, do you prefer to look at photos in a slideshow or just like this?

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Southern Gem

Our family of five recently took a vacation down to the south of Morocco, Agadir and the region called Souss.  It was special to be together and discover parts of Morocco we hadn’t seen before.  The kids are now at a great travelling age so there may be more and more travelling in Morocco posts on here, insha Allah.

There were a lot of gems on the trip, but as I was going through my photos this set jumped out at me.  It’s the tomb of a woman called Lalla T’ezza Semlalia.  We just came upon this in the middle of a pretty remote, deserted stretch of highway 2-lane road, and I was immediately drawn to the fact that such good care had been taken of this tomb.  In fact there is a  very large, lushly ornate mosque there that serves as a traditional center of Islamic learning.  I was heartened (in the very literal sense of the term) to see that this sort of center does indeed exist in Morocco.  We were told that anyone who wants to study intensively is welcome and will be given food and a blanket.

The Souss region is largely arid, mountainous, empty and open.  It’s gets more and more desert as you go south.  The Islam there is very traditional and strong, and seeing this tomb/mosque/school complex I got a feel for why this region produces many fine scholars.

What a jewel in the rough, no?

I’ve never seen anything quite like this, certainly not in the countryside.  A beautiful place to remember God and ask Him for a measure of virtue, mercy and nearness to Him, as He granted this woman.

The Arabic inscription on her tomb and also on the wall reads “every soul shall taste death”.  Although some may not choose to dwell on death, I appreciate any reminder, as one of my main goals in this life is to work towards what is called “husn al-khatima”, a good ending.

And then there was the mosque, with a large prayer hall inside and a very nice school and dormitory.

The serene interior, quiet now between prayer times.

I don’t know anything about Lalla T’ezza Semlalia, and didn’t manage to find anyone to ask in our short visit.  I’d be thrilled if someone who read this blog actually knows a story or two or about her.  Please share!

 

Road trip snapshots

Road trip in Morocco means roadside cafe tajines.  The best ones are prepared in the morning and slow cooked on charcoal for a good 3 or 4 hours.

Onions, meat, veggies and olives.  My favorite part is the caramelized/burned onions that you scrape off the bottom of the tajine.  When I was pregnant with my firstborn I craved nothing more than one of these beauties…alas roadside tajines are not common in California.

Agadir is one of Morocco’s newest cities.  An earthquake in 1960 completely destroyed the city.  Since then it’s been rebuilt, and it’s retained a newish, cleanish aura.  We went there at the end of December and found the resort town eerily empty, not the usual bustle of sun-seeking tourists.  Welcome to the worldwide recession folks.

I love a good stone/adobe wall.   Solid, real, beautiful.  Whenever I see one I get a good look, because this building technique is fast disappearing, giving way to the fast, cheap and durable cinder block.

Along a dusty alley in Southern village I discovered this giant bag full of Argan shells.  Once you go south of Marrakesh you see a LOT of Argan trees and the oil is sold everywhere.  You’ve heard this all before, but let’s give a recap on why Argan oil is such a high-profile oil.  For one, the trees only grow in Morocco and in some areas of Mexico.   And it’s supposed to be great for you, whether on your skin or on your plate.  I use Argan oil on my skin on a regular basis and the thing I like most about it is it’s a dry, non-greasy type of oil, unlike olive oil for instance.   It’s good, not miraculous, but good.

The Poetry of Plastic

Plastic is everywhere, and if you live in Marrakesh, you are constantly reminded of that fact.  I don’t in fact think that Moroccans consume more plastic than elsewhere, but for some reason our trash is just more visible to us, it’s not all neatly hidden in landfills.

For me, plastic is just another thing on my list of things to feel guilty about.  I always forget to take my shopping bags with me so I end up lugging things home in micas.  On the rare occasion I refuse a plastic bag, the shopkeeper will get this amused look on his face .  This unconventional foreigner is going to walk home with her loaves of bread all exposed to the elements and to people’s curious eyes.  What a rebel.  At home we have a special cupboard whose sole purpose is to house all the plastic bags we bring home.

So when I stumbled on an art show under the theme of MICA (plastic in Arabic) I was intrigued.  I was walking in Casablanca, which is a highly unpleasant and yet energizing experience.  I happened to walk by a place called Villa des Arts and dropped in to see what it was all about.  Why am I bothering to blog about it?  Well for one, I don’t get out to many art shows, so I found this inspirational in its pure playfulness and freedom of imagination.  Granted I prefer classical beauty to this type of art show, it’s nonetheless creative and funky.  This post fulfills the artsy cultural quota for this otherwise straight talking, plain Jane blog.

If you are an artist and you ever run out of inspiration, don’t panic!  Grab the nearest thing to you: a flip-flop, some pencil shavings or a plastic bottle cap.  Now multiply times a million.  Voila!  Instant art show!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If plastic could talk…it would be singing this ditty:

See above for instructions for instant art show.   The commonplace item reproduced here for shock and awe effect is none other than tofita, the world’s cheapest candy (1 dirham  or 10 cents will get you 10 of these).   Don’t quite know how this relates to plastic, and I think I don’t want to know. 

As hard as I try to appreciate the random beauty of this, and not apply my bias against trash, I just can’t.  Can you?

 

I do appreciate that someone took a fresh look at trash bags washed up on the beach, I really do.  It’s still gross.  I’ve walked on these beaches. My kids swim in this.  

 

 

Something else to discover:

 

Then again, maybe it’s all a matter of gaining the right perspective:

 

Feel free to share your own feelings on plastic, trash, art shows, art shows made of plastic trash, beaches, or gaining perspective, in the comments!

Essaouira, Morocco: a Sanity Break

Marrakesh is a bustling, energetic, beautiful city, no doubt.  I find I appreciate it most by escaping on a regular basis.  A mere 3 hours southeast lies a sweet little fishing village by the name of Essaouira.  It’s as charming as the guide books say, because in Essaouira you can:

  • Eat fish so fresh it basically jumped out of the ocean and onto the grill.
  • Walk fearlessly in the traffic-free zone of the old city and markets, so liberating when you have precious young ones with you.
  • Speaking of young ones, ours spent all day in the ocean.  They only came out for food or, with great reluctance, when the sun went down.  It’s a famous surf spot too.
  • Shop with very little hassle.  This means a lot to me coming from Marrakesh where the shopkeepers’ persistence is more of a deterrent than an invitation to buy.

The port at sunset (to take this picture I had to actually turn away from lifeguarding the kids as they frolicked in the waves.  They survived my momentary neglect):

The view from our hotel window.  Riad Mimouna.  At high tide it felt as if the whole place could just float away.  The sound of the ocean is purifyingly primordial.

morocco blog essaouira beach view

One little sunburned monkey smiling with all his might:

essaouria morocco blog

Most of the remaining photos are organized under the theme of, wait for it, arches.  I came up with that.

essaouira morocco blog

Outside the hotel.  The bicycle made this snapshot worth taking, for some reason.

essaouira morocco blog

The hotel courtyard…

morocco travel blog

The cart used to transport luggage through the narrow street.  This one is especially festive.  I love when attention to detail is put into the simplest things, like this:

morocco travel blog

The hotel courtyard again..

morocco travel blog

Essaouira “roofscape”:

morocco travel blog

This next photo is a nod to the cliche photos of the Famous Blue Doors of Essaouira.  What you don’t see is the hoard of tourists behind me taking the exact same shot.  Pondering these doors got me to thinking of Leonard Coehn’s moody song from the ’70’s Famous Blue Raincoat.  The mind wanders.

morocco travel blog

A week

This last week I was honored by a visit from Christina.  We had met in Amman where we were both attending the Danish-Arab women bloggers workshop.  Christina and I found that although we were from very different worlds, we both had similar curiosity about the world and each other which inspired many conversations.  Luckily, the wonderful Danish organizations that funded our workshop also funded the bloggers to spend a week in another city.  So Christina and I were able to continue our conversations, this time in Marrakesh.

Coming from sub-zero temperatures in Denmark, Christina appreciated many things in Marrakesh that I take for granted.  Birds singing in the morning, smells of lemon trees and the daily appearance of the sun.

We did a little site seeing too.  Made more interesting (in my opinion, and I think hers too) by the fact that we took between 1 and 3 of my kids with us wherever we went.  The children have a way of bringing a place to life and interacting with it in new and creative ways.

At Jardins Majorelle for example, the boys set up their playmobils in different places.  A few people spotted them and promptly took photos of them (the playmobils, not the boys).  It was like a happening.

jardin majorelle marrakesh blog
jardin majorelle marrakesh morocco blog

Group photo of the now famous playmobils:

marrakesh majorelle gardens

Group photo of Christina, Amin and Yousef:

marrakesh morocco majorelle jardinsThank you Christina for sharing this fun, chaotic, sunny week with us.   You can visit Christina’s blog here, she also blogged about her visit…in Danish.

PS: last day or so to vote for this blog over at www.moroccoblogs.com I also voted for Itto’s Living Faith under Best Culture Blog, and for The World is her Playground under Best Expat Blog.  Thank you for all your support.

Edited: Ok I guess the voting is closed.  Thanks for trying.

A tour of Marrakesh

I had a chance to go on a great tour of Marrakesh a few days ago.  We hit all the major tourist sites, which of course I almost never do, but I should because it was an enriching and beautiful experience.  It renewed my connection with this city that I’ve called home for so long.  I’m sorry I’m not great with dates and history, if I don’t take notes then it evaporates almost instantaneously off the surface of my brain.  Not to mention the late, late hour that the blogging itch strikes me, which is not a peak time for cerebral activity.  I’m going to have to fall back on good old “a picture is worth a thousand words”.

But let me just say this, these places are beautiful in and of themselves.  And if you can find a great guide to connect you with the richness of Moroccan history, so much the better.

These first two photos are at Medrasa Ben Yousef, which was one of the first examples of governmentally institutionalized learning in 1550.   Before that, students would simply find a teacher and learn what they wanted to learn.  This Islamic college was hailed by some as a positive initiative, and decried by others who felt the government should stay out of the business of education.  I guess the home-schooling debate is not as recent as we think!  Anyway, this college fell out of use in 1960, after the French had installed their own educational system in Morocco.  Sigh.

Marrakesh Morocco blogMy mother, who is an artist and has studied Islamic art, points out that this following picture contains four out of the five elements of Islamic art.  And they are (from bottom to top): complex star polygons, arabesques, repeat linear patterns and calligraphy.  Brownie points if you can name the fifth element of Islamic art, not in this picture.

Marrakesh Morocco blog

The Menara basin and pavilion…used to be an swimming school…and now is a great place to catch a view like this with the Atlas mountains as a backdrop, or feed some of the colossal fish that swim in the murky waters.

Marrakesh Morocco blog "Menara gardens"

Marrakesh Morocco blog Menara pavilion

The Koutoubia mosque, which I talked about before:

Marrakesh Morocco blog mosque islam

And here are some of the storks that live on the wall of the Bahia palace.  Stork in Arabic is “laq-laq”, and if you’ve ever heard the sound a stork makes, you’ll understand exactly where the name comes from.

Marrakesh Morocco blog Bahia palace

PS. Voting is still ongoing over at www.moroccoblogs.com If you can spare 30 seconds, please hop over there and vote for this very blog “Life in Marrakesh” under Best Overall Blogs.  Thank you, shoukran, merci.