Posts Tagged With: islam

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

One Hump or Two?

We had a comfortable night, punctuated by occasional sounds from the dunes of varying familiarity: a dog barking, percussive music wafting from some other distant camp, and braying by some wayward beast, either a donkey or a camel. And if darkness had a sound, the night would have been deafening, because it was dark, very dark indeed, eyes-closed-while-standing-in-a-closet dark, so dark that when you wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, if you don’t find the bedside flashlight you might as well just keep your eyes closed. 

Despite our diligence in keep the screens of our tent zippered, we nonetheless awakened this morning to find a microtome-thin patina of fine sand covering absolutely everything. Moreover, in the “unintended consequences” department, the camp staff did us a favor of leaving the power on all night so we could charge iPads and the like, which drained the solar-powered batteries, which in turn meant that the water pumps could not operate, which yet in turn meant that we could not shower this morning. So it was not only our room furniture, blankets, and clothing that were covered with Saharan dust: we were too, and would remain so for most of the day. So it goes; this sort of thing is just part of the landscape. Literally.

We awakened early enough to throw on some clothes and climb the nearest dune to watch the desert sunrise, which you can see below. There were tracks in the sand: fox, stag beetles, and something big, presumably last night’s braying Mystery Animal. The sunrise itself was evocative though not the colorful extravaganza that one might hope for: there was a layer of dust haze near the horizon that muted the illumination of the clouds. Still, how often will we see a sunrise over the Sahara? (Answer: once more, tomorrow.)

And here is a picture of Alice at the base of our sunrise-viewing dune, her smile belying the sandiness of her underwear.


Breakfast included a “Berber omelet” which is made with olives and a kind of local salsa. I would probably wax rapturous about it if I didn’t hate olives, as I have previously confessed. So I ate around them and joined everyone else in declaring my approval. Then we climbed into our convoy of 4 x 4s and made dusty tracks across the rocks and sand to our day’s first destination, a one-room Berber schoolhouse, pictured below. A slightly harried teacher was giving Arabic lessons to about 30 children, half of them girls.

I say “lessons“, plural, because she was teaching two classes at once, side by side in the room. The right half of the room, viewed from the back where we stood, seated about 10 fifth graders; the left half, 20 sixth graders. So in addition to answering our questions she was simultaneously ping-ponging her attention between the two groups. She spoke and wrote on the blackboard in Arabic, and the posters around the room were variously in Arabic and French. Until recently Berber was purely a spoken language, but under government auspices a project was undertaken about a dozen years ago to create a written Berber alphabet. It looks a bit like Greek, and reads from left to right like English (unlike Arabic or Hebrew). Some of the children had Berber reading primers.

I mentioned that half the students were girls. This is obviously a good thing. The problem is follow-up; it is not at all certain that most of those girls will still be in school a year from now, since, appallingly, they are getting close to marrying age.

Our next stop was (for us, anyway) the day’s main event: camel ride! The handlers divided us into three groups, each with its own handler and “train” of camels tethered single-file. (No, I have not forgotten that they are dromedaries, and I also have no idea whether “train” is a correct term.) We mounted them (not that kind of mounted, you pervert) by stepping on overturned plastic milk crates as the camels knelt on all fours, positioning ourselves in the saddle and gripping the T-shaped handlebar for all we were worth, as the beasts rose one by one. Then we bobbed off into the dunes. We were out for about 45 minutes, just enough time for our thigh muscles to start begging for mercy. Here are some shots of the experience, starting with Alice grinning naively after mounting and seconds before the beast lurched skyward by standing up.

..and now we are under way, Alice in front of me, then Thumper and Steve.

Here’s another part of our group. 

Now Alice is attempting to film her entry for World’s Shakiest Home Videos:

…while I bring up the rear. The rear rider bears the heavy responsibility of being the most likely person to have an article of clothing blown away by the wind, which I did. (One of the handlers recovered my bandanna.)

 And at the conclusion of the ride, we share a self-congratulatory moment with Steve and Thumper. So was the whole thing “touristy”? Of course. But was it nonetheless fun and cool as all get-out? Absolutely.

Our next stop was a fossil bed, or perhaps more accurately, The Mother of All Fossil Beds. A paleontologist might find the whole thing rather pedestrian, since the variety of fossils in this region is pretty limited… basically the three sorts that I mentioned yesterday. But for sheer numbers, I have never seen anything remotely like it. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that every rock was covered in mineralized squids, nautilus-like ammonites, and — much more rarely — trilobites, all more than 300 million years old. The things were literally underfoot as we walked upon intact little ammonites a half inch across. Here are a couple of examples: for scale, the rock in the first photo was about 3 ft across;the big creature in the center of the second photo was about a foot long. (To put things in perspective, the largest one of this type ever found was a 40 ft monster in Israel.)

We probably spent about a half hour there, spreading out over the small plateau and into the shallow valley that were littered with little fossil bonanzas. Sound carries extremely well in the desert, and for that half hour the plateau echoed with our shouts to each other: “Hey, come look at this!”  “Look what I found!” “Look at the size of this one!” 

It’s a protected area, as you’d suppose, and commercial harvesting of the fossils is forbidden. (God knows there must be vast numbers of them around since every fly specked backwater souvenir store sells them.) But Momo said that taking a few small ones was not a big deal, and so we somewhat guiltily pocketed about a half dozen tiny ones, the biggest about 3/4″ long. Those included two completely intact ammonites, perfect little stone snail-like spirals less than a half inch across.

Our last stop of the day was at the canvas dwelling of a truly nomadic nomadic. No semipermanent corrugated aluminum walls and satellite dish for this 51 year old nomadic widow: she lives in the home that you see here for a few months at a time, then literally folds her tent and moves on. 

She lives at present with her 20 year daughter and granddaughter; the daughter’s husband is a shepherd who was away tending his flocks for long periods. The daughter was baking bread in a tiny outdoor “beehive” oven while we were there, a little stone or clay dome perhaps two feet high, identical in concept to what we saw in the mountains near Chefchaouen but much smaller. The bread came our of the oven steaming hot and irresistibly appetizing in appearance, crusty and puffy. After removing it from the oven and letting it cool for, oh, 30 seconds, she scooped it up on a blanket and handed it to Momo to allow us to sample it. And so we did, including Momo, one by one burning our fingers because that loaf of bread was way too damn hot to touch, let alone eat, because it looked to good to wait for. It was indeed possibly the best bread we have had so far, and I’m sure our fingers will heal quickly.

After all this driving around it developed that this particular nomad was about a half mile from our own camp, so we made the two minute drive there and basically rested up for an hour or two. (Happily, the camp batteries had since recharged and we once again had running water.)

In a couple of days we will be having a discussion session with a Sunni imam, so to give us some background for this (and possibly to forestall the likelihood of anyone sticking a religious foot in his or her mouth), Momo lectured us for about 45 minutes on the precepts of Islam. We had already inferred that he was a very moderate, live-and-let-live sort, and he confirmed this at length, giving us not only some Islamic history (including the Sunni-Shia schism) but making it abundantly clear that he regards all the current flavors of Islamic extremism as evil and stupid.

The conversation was interesting and led to a a uprising observation — one might even say epiphany — from Alice. During the discussion Steve asked Momo about the origins and justification of jihad as a weapon of Islam. Momo explained that jihad as currently defined is a perversion of its Koranic definition. According to him, the Koran defines jihad as a struggle to perform godly acts; these may include self defense (but never offense), acts of charitable sacrifice, and the imperative of providing for and defending one’s family. Whereupon Alice leaned over to me and said one word: “Mitzvahs.” So think about that connection for a while.

After the discussion I sought out Momo and asked him if he knew what a bar mitzvah was, which he did not. So I explained the whole thing to him, including the concept of a mitzvah. (Note to Gentile friends: a mitzvah is a godly act, a good deed of any sort, performed without the expectation of any kind of reward, simply because God commanded that everyone should do good deeds, period.) He saw the connection immediately and lit up, shaking my hand delightedly before we returned to our tent. Alice went barefoot as we walked, and so I took my sandals off too. Everyone should walk barefoot in the Sahara at least once.

We leave the tent camp tomorrow morning and drive to the town of Tineghir, which we are told is an oasis. So I guess we’ll learn (a) what an oasis is in practice, and (b) whether they have wifi.

Postscript: RAIN! About 20 minutes ago as I type this, the wind picked up ferociously. Sand came blowing throug the screens into our tent, and the space between the two rows of tent was snaking with windblown serpentines of fine sand, sidewinding  down from the dunes. The clouds had been building through the day and finally coalesced into dark and pendulous omens, and just now the wind reached a crescendo and the rain started. It’s not heavy, more of a wind-driven drizzle, but the fact that it is happening at all is pretty neat.

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