Posts Tagged With: imam

Bargaining for Jewelry and Wives

Hold the pepperoni.

Today was a slower day than most… literally, since we spent a certain portion of it slowly wending our way up a tortuous mountain road to visit a scenic gorge. More on that in a moment, but first a word about Berber Pizza.

We were told upon departure this morning that we would have a mid-morning snack in the form of what Momo described as “Berber Pizza”. Whether or not this is the actual local term I have no idea, but we parked our bus adjacent to a small Berber family compound and were led to a dark smoky outbuilding where one of the family and her son were busy making said pizza, as you can see here. She had prepared a savory filling of meat and spices (coriander, cumin, and the usual repertoire of Moroccan seasonings) and was busy pounding out flat loaves, spreading the filling, folding them over, and inserting them into the poorly-ventilated earthen oven that you see in the photo.

We went outside and sat low stools to be served a batch that had been prepared earlier, along with the required tea. It was tasty, nothing earthshaking, though I would like to report for the record that a much more accurate term for the dish would be Berber Quesadilla.

An interesting part of the encounter was the conversation with the homeowner. We talked about money; the average Moroccan income — which is about what he makes — is around $4000 US per year. Obviously the cost of living is very low here, but even so it is a struggle for many people. The good news is that health insurance only costs $40 US per month.

Then it was on to the locally famous Dadès Gorge, for which visit we ditched the bus in favor of two large vans, the better to navigate the mountain road. The gorge is about 500 feet high, very similar in appearance to the Toudra Gorge that we visited two days ago (and which is only about 15 miles from here).  

As you may be able to tell from the picture, we are once again back in territory that strongly resembles the American Southwest, right down to the architecture. All of the buildings are adobe and have a squared-off appearance; constructed out of local clay, their color matches the hillsides in quite the same way as American pueblos. For this reason the drive, though scenic enough, seemed a little anticlimactic; we felt like we had more or less seen it all before.

Descending from the valley, we returned to the Berber village where we had eaten our non-quesadillas and parked the bus. Adjacent to the parking lot, though, was a jewelry store where Momo gave us (and by “us” I mean the ten women out of our group of 16) time to shop. But, he cautioned, with Berbers you must bargain, bargain, bargain. Take the price they offer, he added, then halve it, and halve it again. Seemed a little extreme, but in we went.

At this point I feel compelled to observe that Alice, despite her many virtues, is uncomfortable with bargaining in much the same way that Dracula is uncomfortable with sunlight. Indeed, in one memorable incident that I have been using to embarrass her for the last ten years, she once bargained a Tijuana jewelry vendor UPWARD from the price he quoted. (I should also remark in context that this woman had a successful career as a mathematican and system engineer at NASA, which just goes to show something, though I am not sure what.) in any case, she declared that I was in charge of bargaining. 

She found two pieces of jewelry that she wanted and I asked her how much she was willing to pay for them, in the sense that she would be willing to walk away if the price was higher than that. She considered this and declared the value of the items to her to be $100 (I will speak in US dollars instead of dirham for convenience). So we got the owner’s attention and asked him for the price. At this point Momo walked over and got in on the bargaining action. The scene played out like this:

Owner: <Speaks rapidly in Arabic>

Momo: <Looks disgusted, says something back, turns to me, and makes a finger-twirling motion at his temple> “He’s crazy. Says he wants $200.”

Me: “I’ll pay $80.”

Owner: (in English) It’s real turquoise and coral. $150.”

Momo: “What? Come on! <puts his arm around me> This man <i.e., me> is my cousin! Give him a break!”

Me: “$90”

Momo: “You heard him! $90! That’s all the money he has in his wallet! Go on, Rich, show him your wallet!”

Me: “Here.” <reaching nervously for my wallet, which holds considerably more than $90>

Momo: “That’s it. $90. Put the items in a bag. Rich! take the bag and go.”

…and that was that. $200 asked, $90 paid, which was $10 below our limit. My father, who loved this sort of thing and was very good at it, would have been proud. Even if Momo did do the heavy lifting. Seriously, my cousin?

Our final stop of the day was lunch and a discussion at the family compound of a local imam. The world being what it is today, the word “imam” evokes mental images of wild-eyed bearded fanatics, at least to many Americans. But Morocco is a very moderate place, and this imam was neither wild-eyed nor bearded and seemed like a real gentle soul. He did not speak English, but served us a very nice lunch and then sat down with us to answer any questions we might have about Islam, with Momo interpreting.

The group had a lot of questions on a wide range of topics, including:

  • Extremism (he described the Islamist fanatics as “criminals” whose activities were highly un-Islamic, and averred that literacy and economic reform were the keys to combatting it); 
  • The attitude of the Moroccan clergy towards the liberalization of family laws and the empowerment of women (he stated that the changes are both welcome and consistent with the Koran); 
  • The Sunni-Shia schism (basically a continuing war of succession following the death of the Prophet Mohammed);
  • How one becomes an imam (various selection criteria including memorization of the Koran and seven years of specialized religious education);
  • What an imam actually does (leading religious services at the mosque, and personal counseling; however most imams in addition to their state salary have day jobs);
  • Sharia law (applied only to matters involving marriage, divorce, and inheritance);
  • ..and circumcision. (They do it, at anywhere from 7 days to 5 years of age depending on circumstances.)

It was quite the discussion, lively and interesting, and the imam was unfailingly patient and thoughtful. I decided to pursue the discussion about mitzvahs that I had had with Momo out in the desert camp two days, and asked a lengthy question about whether Islam had an analogous concept of an act of personal responsibility or good deed without expectation of reward, either now or after death. His answer came at considerable length as well, which I can pretty succinctly boil down to one word: No. Islam is very strongly oriented towards achieving paradise in the hereafter. He elaborated that faith (the first pillar of Sunni Islam’s five pillars) is much more important than deeds, but that ultimately it was all about getting into Paradise. In this respect it seems that Islam more resembles Christianity than Judaism. All in all, an interesting and enlightening chat. We all really liked the guy.

At the conclusion of the conversation we held an ambush Islamic wedding. That is to say, Momo and the imam selected one of the couples in our group, the very outgoing Michie (pronounced “Mickey”) and Tom, and “remarried” them to demonstrate an Islamic ceremony. It was pretty cool, and very charming. (I should also add that Michie was totally in her element here: she’s all about getting involved in things, and in fact was the organizer of 10 of the 16 people in this group. They are all part of her understandably large circle of friends whom she convinced en masse to come along on this trip, which they inevitably dubbed “Michie’s Camel Ride”.)

So. Michie and Tom were first dressed up in full wedding regalia. That’s the imam in the middle (wearing glasses) while Tom waits behind him. Notice the curved knife at Tom’s side… you can’t be too careful at a wedding.

Michie was properly veiled (but you can still see her smiling):

…and after vows are exchanged and the veils lifted (yep, that’s her all right!), the couple sits down with two witnesses (friends Jerry and Betty from the group) to negotiate the marriage contract. Seems to me that that is the sort of thing that one would do rather earlier in the process, but hey, we travel to learn things.

Tom offered as dowry his entire fortune, which he declared to be two camels. Michie demanded five. Tom countered with two camels and two poodles. (Poodles are not a typical Islamic medium of exchange. I gather that there is something involving poodles in Michie and Tom’s history; they have been married 19 years. Or nine hours as I type this, depending on which starting point you choose.)

The contract was written (in Arabic, of course) with a bamboo or wood stylus dipped in ink. Both witnesses signed it, and here it is in progress:

They got to keep the contract and the pen. So here is a final look at the happy couple just prior to their honeymoon, which consisted of getting back on the bus with the rest of us. But we did raise a toast to them at dinner tonight, at a very elaborately decorated and beautiful casbah restaurant.

How do you say “Mazel tov” in Arabic?

Tomorrow: on to Marrakesh. No “Marrakesh Express” jokes, please: we’ve already heard them.


Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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:

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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):

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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.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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