Monthly Archives: September 2015

A Visit to Tetuan, More Sheep, and Very Few Jews

We struck out this morning for a day trip to the seaside resort town of Tetuan, also spelled Tétouan and Tettauen. (But not Tattoine, the desert planet in Star Wars, whose scenes were filmed next door in Tunisia.) It’s a historically schizophrenic place because, being within spitting distance of Gibraltar, it has been more heavily influenced by Spain, and for longer, than much of the rest of the country. Indeed there is still a disputed island just off the coast, visible from town, that is claimed by both Spain and Morocco. One of the results of this influence is that Spanish is widely spoken here, as much a second language as French. Moreover, speaking Arabic does not work well here (not that I would know) since the local dialect is very different from the rest of the country.

But before we reached Tetuan, in a village en route we encountered a sheep market. (I know, I know, but I can’t promise that there will be no more sheep-related blog posts.) This took place in an empty, dusty field where assorted small groups of men had parked their pickup trucks and vans and had their wares on display: small herds of sheep and goats, prevented from wandering around by having their two front ankles (do goats have ankles?) tied together to hobble them. They could walk awkwardly around, but there would be no escapes today. Here’s the scene, including one breeder who was selling very fancy-looking — and unhobbled — angora-like goats, which he was quite happy to pose for me.


You do not want to ride in the van.


He wanted to sell me all four, but I only needed two.

Tetuan is about a half million people, more than twice the size of Chefchaouen, and has far more of a big city feel to it. There is a local royal palace (many cities have them, should the king happen to stop by for a day or two), broad avenues, a pedestrian mall/marketplace, and very French-looking architecture, right down to the cafés. And here is one of those cafés, complete with hybrid French-Spanish name (“Eight Rivers [Spanish] Tea Salon [French]”).


Notice something a little odd about this tableau? Hint: every person in it carries a Y chromosome. And this is the universal sight here. Men do not take their women to cafés, and single women never go alone for fear of being perceived as prostitutes. The upshot is that you see few women at cafés.

The pedestrian market — a street that is blocked off on certain days — was doing a lively business, especially at the stalls selling school supplies; I infer that we are near the beginning of the school year. Here are a couple of street scenes.

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In the neighborhood adjacent to the royal palace is the medina, the traditional city within a city that includes the local casbah, a souk, and the Jewish quarter. The latter is not a coincidence: the Jewish quarters in Moroccan cities are always adjacent to the local royal palace. Why? Because the rulers of old needed competent accountants and occasional financial backing, and the old Jewish stereotypes happen to be accurate on those particular subjects. No, I am not making this up. I am also not altogether sure how I feel about it.

But the point is kind of moot now. With only 3000 Jews left in the country, there are no more Jewish “quarters” per se. In Tetuan’s medina we have a dingy Jewish alley, home to something like seven Jewish families. I expect it’s not much different elsewhere.

(Speaking of Jews  — how did this blog post get all Jewish, all of a sudden? — there is an interesting fact about Chefchaouen that I forgot to mention yesterday, namely that the origin of its ubiquitous blue color is Jewish. There was a large Jewish population there in the 1930’s, and they all decided to paint their houses blue, that being Judaism’s semi-official color: look at the flag of Israel. The locals liked it, and it became a thing. The Jews all left in 1948 but painting buildings blue is now Chefchaouen’s schtick. Who knew? But back to Tetuan.)

tetuan-11The medina in Tetuan strongly resembles the souks in Chefchaouen and elsewhere: narrow streets crammed with vendors, customers, and tourists; ominously dank narrow side alleys, feral cats everywhere underfoot. The main difference is that the medina is a more permanent, self-contained unit where people actually live. There are dwellings and even at least one day care center, which we visited. It was a dim but cheery one-room schoolhouse with entirely typical kindergarten posters on the wall and several children sitting at tables doing 5 year old kind of stuff. The teacher requested that we not take pictures, but one rambunctious young guy who was just leaving school was quite insistent that I take his picture, so here he is.

The amount and variety of activity on the narrow stone streets, and the density of people, give the place a lively and occasionally overwhelming atmosphere that involves all of one’s senses (yes, including smell). We were simultaneously impressed and horrified by two guys manhandling an enormously heavy cartload of firewood up the street, forcing everyone else to flatten themselves against the wall. The guy in the front was working.


But of course, it is scenes like that that make the visit worthwhile. So in that spirit, here are a few other visually interesting people in the medina:


A shoemaker and his customer. Or maybe his disapproving mother…hard to tell.


A cheese vendor


A cat apparently buying hardware. OK, not a person…so sue me.


A vegetable vendor who insisted that I buy a gigantic squash in exchange for taking her picture. (I didn’t.)

Across the street from the medina is a crafts school that, decades ago, was a Jewish community center. These days the school educates middle- and high school age children of both sexes in (to them) gender-appropriate crafts: woodworking and leather for the boys, sewing and embroidery for the girls. Here are some boys being taught woodwork painting. (We were not allowed to photograph the girls.)


Following this, we headed back along the Mediterranean coast for a seaside lunch of grilled fish…a whole lot of grilled fish. First we were served a paella, and as we we were finishing that up and starting to wonder whether that was an appetizer or the main course, the waiter showed up with two trays the size of throw rugs, one filled entirely with sardines (which I love!), the other with giant prawns, calamari, whitefish, swordfish steaks, and sole filets. It was completely over the top, a veritable Grilled Fishtravaganza, and after complaining vociferously about the impossible volume of food, we finished off about 85% of it. Hey, we’re on vacation.

The setting for this meal was refreshing, especially after the claustrophobic souk and general crush of humanity. We were on a breezy terrace overlooking the Mediterranean, the water aqua close to shore but shading to cobalt a few hundred yards out. The day was sunny, the temperature in the upper 70’s, the hillsides dotted with whitewashed houses and vacation cottages. Next to us was the fleet of fishing boats from whence, presumably, at least some of our meal had been hauled.


We lounged around for a bit before heading back to Chefchaouen along a coastal road that gave way to a tortuous route through the mountains, snaking along a river at the base of steep limestone cliffs. The view was quite similar to many places in southern California, and not by coincidence since the geology is very similar.

We arrived back at the main square and returned on foot to our riad, resting up for a few hours before tackling the question of whther we even want dinner. (Answers: yes for me, maybe for Alice. And definitely not for Steve, who, alas, seems to have eaten some inadequately prepared eggplant last night and is now feverish and intestinally challenged. We fervently hope, and are reasonably sure that he will be OK, but it certainly complicates life for himself and Thumper at the moment.)

One final note before I quit for the evening. Did you know that the entire country of Morocco has only 20 movie theaters? Of course not, because how the hell could you possibly know that unless you are Moroccan? (At least one of my blog followers is in fact Moroccan, so M’hamed L, did you know this?) The reason for this, it turns out, has nothing to do with Islamic law as you might have guessed. Rather, it is because Morocco has no intellectual property laws. In other words, copyrights and trademarks don’t mean much here, so EVERYTHING is variously counterfeited or pirated. No need to go to the movies if you can buy DVDs of every single movie for next to nothing, right? My immediate concern about this is that there is a very slight chance that the genuine Dolce & Gabbana purse that I bought for ten bucks to give to my evil former assistant Angie might not be genuine. She probably won’t notice so, everyone, please let’s make this our little secret.

Tomorrow we leave Chefchaouen for good and head to Tanger. Maybe I will have some more sheep-related stories to relate.

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Chefchaouen Night Photos

We are heading off on a day trip to Tatouen today, a port town just a few miles south of Gibralter… full report later. But before we leave for the day I thought I’d post a few night pictures of Chefchaouen from last night.

First the view from our rooftop meal, taken at about 8:00pm. The orange-lit fortress on the left in the upper picture is the Akasaba, known to you as the Casbah. Every city has one, and they have varied in historical function, e.g. an army barracks. We visited this one yesterday and it was unremarkable, primarily a small local historical museum.

chef-night-01 chef-night-02

After dinner we walked through the main square. That’s Steve on the left and Thumper in the middle, walking next to Alice at right.


The souk conforms pretty well to the stereotype of an Arab market, all twisty passageways and insistent vendors. The stand in the top photo is a nut vendor.



The passageways are filled with feral cats, by the way; the town is overrun with them, and we had one or two visiting us during dinner. This is a big plus for Thumper, who is a “cat person” in much the same way that Shaquille O’Neal is a “tall person”.  In any case, after wandering aimlessly through the souk for a half hour or so, we re-emerged — it felt like surfacing from a submarine dive — into the bustling main square, then headed back to the riad for the night. (That is a restaurant overlooking the square in this photo.)


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Patty Cake, Patty Cake

OK, OK, I might as well get this out of the way first and vaporize my Sophisticated Traveler credentials once and for all. Remember what I said about djellabas and sombreros being a thing? Here are Alice and me in an act of public self-humiliation:

Nope, we are DEFINITELY not tourists. Nothing to see here. Move on now.

Nope, we are DEFINITELY not tourists. Nothing to see here.

We will not speak of this again.  Moving right along….

You probably think of Morocco as an Arab country. You have a lot of company if you do, including the government of Morocco itself. But in fact the country is 70% Berber, a very loosely-defined and heterogeneous ethnic group that is not Arab and in fact views the Arabs as invaders…which they were, in about the 8th century. The Berbers came from just about everywhere in the hemisphere; some resemble dark sub-Saharan Africans, others lighter-skinned Europeans. There are even a smattering of Jews among them. (Though very few: practically all of the country’s 300,000 Jews left for Israel after its founding in 1948, and only about 3,000 remain. There are too few of them to even bother persecuting, unlike the Shia Muslims, which are somewhat second class citizens in this Sunni country.)

And by the way, do not call Berbers Berbers: their name for themselves is the Amazigh, or “free people”. The name “Berber”, in fact, is of unclear origin; one theory is that it is related to the word “barbarian”. They are not too crazy about this theory, as you might imagine.

We are in Chefchaouen right now, in the Rif mountains in the northern part of the country. This part of Morocco was long considered something of a backwater; King Hassan II, who ruled for about 50 years until his death in 1999, was very “south-centric” and an Islamic traditionalist. (The giant mosque in Casablanca whose pictures I posted yesterday is named after him. It holds 100,000 worshipers — that is not a typo — and has a 4000 car underground parking garage. I do not know if they validate.) His son and successor, Mohammed VI, as rather more westernized and very much the reformer. Politically, this northern part of the country now gets more attention; religiously, a wide variety of traditional Islamic strictures have been loosened, the mosques are turning out a cadre of more moderate imams, and women in particular have benefited from more educational opportunities and more balanced marriage and divorce laws. More on this topic later.

Chefchaouen (hard to get all those vowels in the right order) is a beautiful hillside town, the buildings variously blue or whitewashed, making it rather Greek in appearance, as you can see here:


We are staying in a beautiful restored traditional guest house called a riad. The floors are all tile, the rooms ringing a 3-story mezzanine onto a central skylit atrium. In the middle of the floor at the bottom, where the front desk is, overstuffed easy chairs ring a low copper and tile fountain. The front door opens onto the souk, the bubbly warren-like marketplace full of strolling tourists and insistent vendors. Leather, woodwork, clothing, and tchochkes are the order of the day, and the streets are all blue. We took an early morning stroll to see relatively people-free streets like these:

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Here are a few locals of varying ages:

chef-07 chef-06

The souk takes on an otherwordly air at night, the street lights mixing with the blue walls, the vendors importuning the strollers through the maze of alleys, and the calls to prayer from the muezzin echoing from the minarets. Here are some night scenes (I may post more tomorrow):

chef-17 chef-18 chef-15 chef-16

That last photo is worshipers exiting a mosque after evening prayers. This particular mosque has some political significance, as it is in the vanguard of training and dispatching moderate imams to counter the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. (The term “fundamentalism” is somewhat misleading insofar as even most conservative Muslims consider the jihadists’ doctrines to be an extreme corruption of actual fundamental Islamic principles.)

After our morning stroll, we boarded our van and drove about a half hour into the mountainous countryside to have our first home-hosted meal. Our hosts were Mohammed (not the same Mohammad as our tour lead) and his sister Fatima; his wife was laid up in bed with a difficult pregnancy. They are a mixed Berber/Arab couple who operate a small farm/guesthouse, and upon our arrival put the women in our group to work helping Fatima prepare the meal. This included making the flatbread from scratch, followed by the couscous. This was all dutifully overseen by the men, who according to tradition and deeply-ingrained social custom did, well, nothing. One of our guys was selected to pour the tea, which is about the extent of the male role at mealtime and, indeed, just about any time. Meanwhile, the women were doing this: chef-10 chef-09 chef-12


   Alice keeps the home fires burning.

The bread-making involved a lot of patting and rolling and kneading and sifting and such (hence today’s title). In other words, we all enjoyed the benefits of rampant gender inequality. But the meal was delicious. In fact, here is a picture of one of the courses a vegetarian couscous:

We worked hard for this meal. Well, half of us did.

 We worked hard for this meal. Well, half of us did.

It is traditional to bring a small gift to the host on such a house visit. I brought along some NASA paraphernalia for this purpose: a NASA logo sew-on patch and a refrigerator magnet. Mohammad was very excited by this, and we had a pantomime conversation (he speaking no English) in which he made launching sounds and motions and was apparently asking me if I worked with rockets. I said yes. It later developed that he was actually asking me whether I was an astronaut. It was with great reluctance that I fessed up. But I still got major props:


Following the meal, Mohammed walked us around the property, down the hill to his neighbor’s scrawny marijuana patch. No, it is not legal here. No, he did not offer any to us, not even for the NASA patch.

We headed back to the riad for an hour or two break, then convened for an hour discussion with a local activist named Fatima (no, not the one from the farm), who works for an organization that is trying to modernize the situation of women in Morocco. Said situation being pretty bad at present, though not nearly so bad as in much of the Muslim world. There is in particular an enormous divide between urban and rural women (the population is about evenly split between cities and countryside): the latter are mostly uneducated, marry very young, and as I already indicated do pretty much everything to maintain the home regardless of whether her husband has a job (which a large fraction do not). The situation is changing, particularly since 2003 with the introduction of radically liberalized family laws. Women can now request a divorce (formerly solely a husband’s privilege), can require a prenup with a 50-50 property split, can demand alimony, and can have their husbands prosecuted for domestic violence. You will be unsurprised to hear that the divorce rate in Morocco has skyrocketed in the past 12 years. Fatima’s organization’s role in this liberalization process is promoting women’s education, particularly in the rural areas where at present a large fraction never go to school.

It was an interesting and animated discussion, attended by everyone in the group except one of the husbands, whom I suspect may be sleeping outdoors tonight.

We ended the day with a wonderful rooftop dinner, just Steve and Thumper and us, at a nearby restaurant recommended by our tour lead. It had the unfortunately schlocky name of “Alladin’s Magic Lamp”. But the food was excellent and we enjoyed it while overlooking the main town square during sunset, watching the nighttime town come to life and, once again, hearing the muezzins echoing from the minarets in every direction.

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About Those Sheep…

A few people were understandably intrigued about yesterday’s rather cryptic blog snippet, “men in truck with sheep (dowry)”. So here is the story.

The road between Casablanca (on the coast) and Chefchouen (to the north, in the Rif mountains) is pretty cleanly bisected by the town of Souk el Arba, which, were it relocated about 5000 miles to the west, would be called “Tijuana”. Indeed, the two towns are nearly indistinguishable: wide dusty streets lined with sketchy-looking pharmacies and auto repair garages, thronged with tourists and pushcart vendors and lined with trash; open air restaurants on every corner; and the din of every vehicle known to man, from tour buses to donkey carts. (The third photo from the bottom in the last blog post is a donkey cart on the middle of the intersection.)

Oh, and on the subject of its Tijuana-ness, I should also mention that this part of the country has a heavy Spanish influence. Remember my description of the female hajji wearing a djellaba and what seemed to be a sombrero? That was a sombrero: they are a thing here. (In fact, if you wear a djellaba and a sombrero whilst wearing Dutch wooden shoes and eating your food with chopsticks, you will achieve Peak Multiculturalism.)

Anyway, amidst these lively and seedy surroundings we had an excellent meal consisting of the local fresh oven-warm flatbread — somewhat like pita but airier and with a crunchier crust — been kebabs cooked over an open air charcoal grill, and vegetable tagine, a Moroccan specialty that is sort of a stew.

We left Souk el Arba, driving past wilted fields and salt evaporation ponds, and drove for about another hour before taking a break at a pleasant café. By this point the terrain was starting to change, as we approached the mountains. The road became uphill and windier and the surroundings greener. It was still punctuated by low villages full of seemingly unfinished houses with rebar sticking out everywhere, pods of young men milling around among farmers in horse and donkey carts. Every such village is overlooked by an Andalusian-style mosque (meaning that the minaret is square instead of round) that is always the tallest structure. The minarets are usually painted in soothing Mediterranean colors such as white and aqua.

It was shortly after we left the café that Steve asked the van driver to back up: he had spotted (and heard) a flatbed truck full of musicians and wanted to get some photos. And indeed, we thus found ourselves among the preliminaries of a wedding:  a flatbed trailer being towed by a farm tractor, the tractor occupied by a driver, a two other men, one of whom was a dour-looking 30-ish man in a Western suit, pretty clear the groom and not obviously happy about it. (“But Mom, she can’t cook and she’s only got one leg!” “Shut up Ahmed! You’re 30 years old and you’re lucky she has *any* legs!”)

The groom may not have been altogether on board, but the musicians on the flatbed were having a grand old time. They were lounging on the flatbed along with two sheep, which we assume were the dowry. (At least, we hope they were the dowry.) They were laughing and blaring away for all they were worth on some shrill oboe-like instruments, and were more than happy for us to take their pictures (hence the close up photo of the guy blowing his instrument right at me). I even climbed up onto the tailgate to get the shot of the guys with the sheep. Everyone was having a grand time until Grumpy Groom climbed down off the tractor to yell at us and clearly indicate that we were not to take pictures. So we left, and raucous party faded into the distance.

And that is the story of our encounter with the dowry sheep and the musicians. Go to bed now, children.

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Casablanca to Chefchouen (Gesundheit!)

Well, I was just finishing up a long elaborate blog post and about five minutes from the end — after an hour and a half of work — my WordPress app crashed and took the post with it. I have not got the time, energy, or motivation to rewrite the whole thing, but I’ll tell you what: here are the pictures that were in it, followed by the bullet list of notes that I was working from. You can take it from there:

70% Berber, not Arab (Berber cognate of barbarian)

Mohammed VI a modernizer; Hassan II focused on south (below Atlas mtns)

Polygamy still legal but first wife must give permission

Overall illiteracy 40%, very high among women

Hassan II mosque…spare space with ornate windows. Highest minaret in country 200m. One of largest mosques in world, can hold 100,000. Country is Sunni…Shia are second class

Dry fields interspersed with sugar cane

Long dry stretches interspersed with small towns, each with square minaret…tallest structure,square cross section (Andalusian architecture)

Many half finished bldgs…rebar everywhere.

Straig narrow hwy, one lane each direction…invitation to accidents (which we saw)

Donkey carts, horse carts

Souk el Arba for lunch…looks like Mexican border town. Tagine and beef kabobs on charcoal out on street. Lively intersection with vendors, tuktuks

Salt pools outside of town

Wedding musicians at gas station….sheep in truck (dowry).

Chefchouen a melting pot: Berbers, Arabs, andalusians kicked out of Spain (Muslims and Jews). There are Jewish Berbers. (Only 3000 Jews in country, used to be 300,000 but they all left for Israel in 1948)

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Mi Casablanca es su Casablanca 

Our flight to Paris was uneventful and reasonably comfortable, we having plunked for an upgrade to what Air France calls “Premium Economy”, which air-travel-amenity-wise is pretty close to business class. Plus, Air France serves edible food. Once in Paris we met up with our friends and traveling companions Steve and Thumper during the layover for our flight to Casablanca. Their journey started in San Francisco so they were already pretty well exhausted.

Our Casablanca flight consisted largely of Steve and Thumper, ourselves, and a planeful of hajjis returning  from their pilgrimage to Mecca. (This being about two days after 700 pilgrims were crushed in the crowd.)   The hajjis are easy to spot, the women in white djellabas, sometimes modestly but colorfully embroidered, and the men in unadorned white full-length tunics (called a kamees). My favorite sight by far was a woman in a djellaba sporting a garish sombrero complete with multicolored ball fringe, as though she had made a wrong turn and taken a pilgrimage to Tijuana instead of Mecca.

Casablanca airport is modern and efficient, as befits its location; Casablanca is the largest city in Morocco with a population of about 6 million. Despite all the hajjis the airport was not particularly crowded and we moved pretty quickly through passport control and baggage claim, then easily spotted our tour lead. He is of course named Mohamed, a large burly local with a rolling gait and a likely heart attack in his future. (Actually, “local” is not exactly the right word: he is from Fez, which will be one of our destinations.) His English is quite good and like the other Overseas Adventure Travel tour leads in our experience is very well-informed and a continuous font of useful information.  Among the latter was an admonishment not to eat the salad at dinner; we are very definitely in “don’t drink the water” territory, and eating uncooked fruits and vegetables is a decidedly bad idea.

The four of us were the only tour members on our flight, and so there only us, Mohamed, and our driver in the minivan on the half-hour drive to our hotel. The outskirts of the city, between the airport and town, look like a downscale version of Arizona or perhaps some place in northern Mexico, all scrubby desert and low stucco buildings among half-cultivated fields with the occasional grazing herd of goats. (There was a promotional video playing on the plane called “Morocco: Lands of Color”, although at this point the colors would be about ten shades of brown.)

Further in, however, Casablanca looks like an actual cosmopolitan city, many of the streets lined with royal palms. There are few high-rise buildings — I don’t think we saw anything taller than about ten stories — but there’s a modern-looking light rail system and a lot of activity on the street. The men are clad in everything from djellabas to western suits, and the women in everything from hajibs to spangled stretch pants. It is quite a diverse scene, especially near the heart of town at Marichal Square, named after the first French governor of the country. But despite the modernity there is a certain air of seediness: peeling paint, cracked stucco, litter in the streets.  Practically all signs are in both Arabic and French, which is good news for us since we can get by with the latter.

We are staying at the Imperial Casablanca Hotel, distinguished by having been Gen. Patton’s headquarters during World War II. It’s modern-looking, with dark marble walls in the lobby and high-ceilinged hallways lined with black and white photos from the country in earlier days. Those hallways are long, high, and very dark: the ceiling lights are controlled by motion sensors and so the lights turn on and off as you walk down the hall. This is all commendably energy-efficient, of course, but it also means that you are always walking uncertainly ahead into an ominous pool of darkness and thus imbues the weary traveler with a vague unease á la The Shining. However, our room is well-appointed and comfortable and there is no blood seeping through the walls.

Dinner was buffet-style and oddly eclectic, the main entrees consisting of lasagna and paella. We met up with the other four members of this part of the trip, two 70-ish couples. There are only these eight of us for the next few days, after which we join up with eight more people for the main part of the tour.

Steve suggested taking a walk after dinner . The women were not interested so it was just the two of us; Mohamed offered to accompany us but we declined,  figuring we would explore a bit; Mohamed then directed us where to walk and, more importantly, where not to. (It was 8:30pm by now, and dark.) We went about three blocks and didn’t see a lot: shuttered stores, a bar with some guys hanging out, some dark office buildings. Somewhat to my surprise it was not exclusively men out on the street, though they were the only ones actually hanging out; the women all seems to be moving more purposefully.

We got some local cash from a nearby ATM; Morocco’s currency is the dirham, worth about ten per US dollar. We decided to end the day with a quick reconnoiter of the hotel rooftop to see what kind of nighttime view we could get of the city. That tuned out to be not much, the hotel being only five stories tall. Other than a pair of huge brightly lit cruise ships in port, a mile or two from our hotel, the view was unrewarding. Tomorrow we will see more of the city before heading out for the long drive to Rabat.

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