Posts Tagged With: mosque

The Turbanator

We left the hotel at about 9:00 this morning en route to an alfalfa farm (yes, there is a reason for this), and our first sight as we crossed a low bridge was a group of Berber women doing laundry in the river at the foot of the hill on which our hotel is perched.

No starch, please.

This gave us pause because we had sent out our laundry last night and thus could not altogether rule out the possibility that our teeshirts were in there somewhere.

Anyway, the alfalfa farm. Today’s itinerary is called “A Day in the Life of Tineghir”, and that day includes not only people doing laundry but people — which is to say, women — doing stoop labor in the alfalfa fields as well. We first picked up our local guide, a manic Berber named Mokhtar who knew the local ropes, had a 1000-watt personality, and whose clothing alone was worth the trip.

Mokhtar the Enthusiastic

You can see the fields — and three very out of focus women — behind him. Most local women, and a large fraction of local men, are adamant about not having their picture taken, at least not of their face, so this is about the best I can do. The most common exceptions are beggars, whom one can pay to allow a photo, and the families where we have our hosted visits.

This is backbreaking labor, scything the alfalfa at ground level with a small curved blade about a foot long, and laying out the sheaves for the men to pick up and load onto waiting donkeys. This being an organized trip, Mokhtar inevitably wrapped a couple of the women in our group in shawls, gave them a blade one at a time, and had them cut a few stalks while the rest of us took pictures and the actual working women no doubt muttered imprecations under their breath. Then Mokhtar drafted some of our men to pick up the bundles of cut alfalfa and carry them to a nearby donkey. I wonder if perhaps we could put together a tour group of Berbers, bring them to the US, and have them take pictures of each other pretending to be consultants or programming a computer.

Our next stop was a very old mosque and school that had fallen into disrepair and was now being rebuilt. Part of the reason it needed rebuilding was its location on a steep hillside, where erosion had pretty much eliminated the possibility of having any of the building columns remaining exactly vertical. But the place had a pleasantly ancient and spooky air about it, like something from an Indiana Jones movie. You can get the idea from these two shots.

It turned out, to our surprise and delight, that Mokhtar is a muezzin, the guy who chants the call to prayer from the top of a mosque five times a day. In the two weeks we’ve been here we’ve heard it dozens of times, of course, but usually at a distance and always in a cacophony of echoing calls from all the nearby mosques at once, competing as well with day-to-day noise from the street. But now we were by ourselves well away from any distracting sounds, and Mokhtar wowed us by chanting the call in the very room we were in.

He puts his all into it, drawing deep breaths, cupping his hands around his mouth, and closing his eyes to concentrate. It is far less jarring to hear it this way than in all the times we’ve heard it thus far. It seems to me almost a shame that it is almost always heard that way, because in these more intimate conditions its musicality emerged, and it was haunting and strangely beautiful.

Our religious duties fulfilled, it was time to go shopping for dinner. Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) is all about participation, so when I say that we went shopping, I mean that we were driven to an open air market and divided into three groups of five or six people each, each group given a shopping list and a 100 dirham note (about $10 US), and told to be back in 20 minutes with the goods. Bargaining would be necessary. Steve, Thumper, and we were the fruit group, assigned to buy 4 kilos (8.8 lbs) of apples and bananas and 3 kilos of oranges. Off we went.

Thumper brings home the bacon, or rather apples.

We thought the nearest fruit stand looked too touristy so we found another and were immediately distracted by pomegranates. We bought three big ones for the low, low prices of 7 dirham (70 cents US) because we could; at that price bargaining seemed superfluous and we still had 93 dirham left. So we looked first at the apples and decided that the quality was low, and maybe we were better off at the first fruit stand after all. We returned to it and, satisfied with the quality of the goods, started loading up plastic tubs with the required amount of each fruit. The stall had two scales, a modern electronic one and an old fashioned mechanical one with counterweights. We put items in and out of the basket till we had the desired weight of each of the the three fruits, and the tab came to 142 dirham.

Hmmm. We only had 93 out of our original hundred, and we didn’t want to front any of our own cash unless absolutely necessary. So we handed the vendor the 93 and said, in English and French, that that’s all we have. He thought for a second, handed us back the three odd dirham, and said (in English), “Twenty.” I fished a 20 out of my wallet and gave it to him, and the deal was done: 90 + 20 = 110 dirham ($11 US), about 20% less than the original price. We had fruit. We had bargained successfully. (I would also like to note that we paid $11 US for over 24 lbs of fruit, which seems like an awfully good deal in general.)

Our next stop was a school visit, a common feature of many OAT tours. (OAT is affiliated with the Grand Circle Foundation, a nonprofit that supports a number of educational and cultural institutions at their tour destinations; a small part of our OAT tour cost goes to them.) Our school of interest was a Berber boarding school of sorts; I say “of sorts” because it is not a school per se, rather it provides boarding and study facilities for poor students who are brought there to attend nearby public schools. It does have a study area and a very small library, seen here. Needless to say, they accept donations of just about anything. (While on our fruit quest earlier, we had bought some pens and notebooks from another market vendor to leave behind at the school.)

The facility has dorms that support 140 boys from 7th through 12th grades, and there is a sister facility down the street that houses 104 girls; the girls’ school is only 5 years old. Admission is selective and takes into account primary school achievement, poverty levels, and other factors. The facilities are basic, clean, and spare: the sleeping quarters are basically large cubicals with lockers, each area holding two two-person bunk beds. There was a soccer field and a basketball court; a dining area, and a grand total of three computers. The principal walked us through as he talked about their history, how they operate, and what they hope to accomplish. One interesting feature is their association with a nearby vocational school; students who can’t cut it in regular school are allowed to continue to board there while attending the vo-tech school. It seems like a very good model for bringing education to a large socioeconomic segment that would otherwise remain illiterate and unemployable.

Time for another home-hosted lunch, this time with a barely-middle-class Berber family whose income seemed to come both from a small garden farm and from these visits themselves; they host about four a week, for which OAT of course pays them.

Our host was Achmad, who was definitely a wild and crazy guy of about 40. He lives with his brother, two sisters (both well past marrying age, for reasons unknown), and his 80 year old father. They were warm and welcoming, Achmad doing most of the talking; his brother spoke a little English and his sisters and father less. (French worked, though, and we used it a fair amount.) Our gift to them, as we have done before, was some NASA paraphernalia that went over very well, as you can see from Achmad’s enthusiasm:

“To the moon, Achmad!”

Lunch was excellent, a lamb tagine preceded by a first course that was completely new to us: angel hair pasta topped with cinnamon and sugar. Yeah, I know it sounds weird but it was really good: try it! It has the additional virtue of allowing you to pretend that you’re not eating dessert before dinner.

Achmad went around the table asking where we were from, whether we had children, and what religion we were. He was excited to hear that I am Jewish, and ran to get an old coin that he had found in the mountains to see if I could identify it. Here it is:

 

It’s about the size of a US dime and is featureless on the back. I have no idea what it is. Let me know if you do. (For all I know it’s an old rabbinical shirt button.)

The fun began after lunch: it was Dress Up Time. (One gets the sense that the family has done this before, which I expect they have about 100 times. Still, they seemed to genuinely enjoy interacting with us in this way.) Achmad got the ball rolling with his Ultra Macho Triple Decker Turban:

Now THAT’S a turban.

And it was not long before everyone got into the act, including me

Without question, my new Facebook profile picture

Notice also that I am wearing a black robe with a gold banded collar. That is because at Achmad’s behest everyone went Full Berber:

No tourists here, nosirree. But at least I know what to wear to my next business meeting.

That’s Alice on my left, Steve and Thumper on my right, and two of our other travel mates, Dave and Patricia. Dave got shorted in the turban department because everyone agreed that the white skullcap looked exactly right on him.

And then the music started: Achmad on a recorder-like pipe, sister #1 clinking a jar with a spoon, remaining siblings providing percussion on the tabletop and a plastic bread bowl. It was a Berber Shop Quartet, plus Dad in the background clapping his hands. There was dancing. It was surreal. It was also a total hoot, and I have it on video to prove it.

“No, dammit, you’re coming in late on the down beat. Now take it from the top.”

We get more Berber Immersion tonight, as we are having dinner at a Berber camp using the food that we bought earlier today. I’ll report on that in my next posting. (Postscript: never mind. The Berber “camp” turned out to be a hotel with a Berber-style tent next to it. But the meal was very good — we bought the fruit for dessert! — and the music, a three piece percussion band with castanets and drums, was excellent.)

We leave Tinighir for tomorrow for our next destination, the town of Ouarzazate. We will be having a discussion session with an imam there. Ouarzazate is also the home of Morocco’s native TV and film industry, and is thus known as — I swear this is true — “Mollywood”. I have no idea what kind of stuff they produce, but I can imagine some locally themed programming that might appeal: classic movies like The Sound of Muezzins, racy fare like Fifty Shades of Ochre, and TV series like How I Met Your Mullah and the crime drama CSI: Middle of Nowhere.

 

 

 

 

 

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Come with Me to the Casbah (Again)

As we suspected, our Rabat city tour today included a return to the Oudaya, i.e. the casbah whose Andalusian gardens we visited on our own yesterday. No matter. But before I get into all that I wanted to post a couple of photos from last night. The shipboard restaurant — appropriately enough called Le Dhow — is permanently moored on the Bor Regreb river that runs through Rabat, and although we did not see a large amount of boat traffic (despite the fleet of blue fishing boats that we never saw move) there is nonetheless a lot of activity on and in the river. People swim, people dive (for what?), people kite surf. And along the banks, people stroll, sell stuff, hang around, and — if you’re about 5 years old — drive around in little tiny electric cars:

Does this look like fun, or what?

And here is the restaurant itself, a few hours later:

Le restaurant s’appelle Le Dhow

Which brings us back to this morning. Our first stop was the Royal Palace. Now, I have already told you that many cities host Royal palaces should King Mohammed VI decide to drop by. But Rabat, being the actual capital, is home to the Royal Royal Palace, a sprawling 100 acre compound that, oddly, is accessible to foreign tourists but not to native Moroccans. Once through the gate, our bus heads down a long straight road flanked mostly by broad manicured expanses of grass; the are several buildings in the compound but they spread far apart from one another, giving the whole area the look of a particular nice suburban tract that is still waiting for some upscale real estate developer to build either a shopping mall or townhouses.

The palace itself looks like nothing so much as an exceptionally large community recreation center, so unremarkable in architecture that I never even tried to take a photo or panorama of it. So for your edification I stole one from Google Images instead. Here is the Royal Community Recreat Palace:

The Senior Center is around the back.

As you might be able to tell from the image, the only interesting part is the main doorway, which is tiled in a colorful pattern. It is also guarded by a number of impressively-uniformed people with guns, and we were only allowed to approach within about 100 feet or so.  The guards are drawn from all branches of the military, everyone wanting a piece of the prestigious action, and so the groups of guards look like this:

If they’re called uniforms, why are they all different?

Interestingly, this is the only place in the country where one is allowed to photograph soldiers and policemen, so I took advantage of that permission via telephoto. The guy on the right in the white pajamas and red belt is an actual palace guard, separate from any of the service branches.

And that was it, as far as the Royal Palace went. We were not allowed inside any of the buildings, so the drive past the huge lawns, and a view of the front door from 100 feet away, was the extent of our experience. It was a little unsatisfying, a case of palace interruptus. (Honesty and a fear of people bigger than myself compel me to confess that Steve gave me that one.)

Our next stop was an ancient Roman necropolis dating from about the 4th century BC. It has been variously rep riposted and updated over the centuries and from the outside looks much like the casbah itself, a sandstone-colored walled city. Two panhandling musicians greeted us at the entrance. You can see one here. He was a drummer.

Once inside the walls, the grounds themselves are ruins, mostly collapsed walls and columns. Many are tagged and the is some kind of surveying operation going on, perhaps a prelude to some reconstruction. One of the more unusual features is a dark, shallow pool, lined with granite blocks, to which antiquity has ascribed restorative properties. In particular, it is supposed to restore fecundity to women who are having trouble conceiving; and to add a big, heaping dose of Freudian symbolism to this particular juju, there are a number of eels swimming in it.

Up until today our tour lead Momo has been dressed in Western garb, usually a casual short sleeve shirt and slacks. He went native today, however, wearing a djellaba that, somehow, seems to suit him better. So here he is at the necropolis:

 

Our next stop is known as the Unfinished Mosque, because it is, well, unfinished. A 140′ sandstone tower (half its intended height), the mosque was begun in the late 12th century by Sultan Yacub al-Mansour and was intended to be the biggest, best, etc., etc. But he died in 1199, and the succeeding powers have up on the project. It sits today at one end of an enormous square, hundreds of yards on a side, filled with a grid of half-ruined columns ranging up to about 15′ in height, as though they are all paying observance to the tower. 

Now at this point in the narrative, those of you who have been following this blog for a few years might observe, “Hey Rich and Alice, you’re always complaining that whenever you travel somewhere the historical structures are covered in scaffolding! But that hasn’t happened on this trip!” Yeah, about that. Guess which 140′ ancient World Heritage structure was covered in scaffolding?

Fortunately, a beautiful structure that was not covered in scaffolding sat at the other end of the square, namely the tomb of King Mohammed V, grandfather of the current king. Here are some shots showing the exterior and interior of the tomb, as well as one of the colorful guards.

Look Ma, no scaffolding!

 

We are not amused.

Our penultimate stop of the day was the Oudaya casbah, where as I already wrote about the four of us had spent a pleasant afternoon yesterday. Now part of the larger group, covered a lot less ground today than the four of us did yesterday, so I have not got much to add. Here, then, are a few photos of the place.

Exterior courtyard, with kids playing soccer


Some local ladies enjoying the Andalusian garden

 

Making bread in dark and cramped quarters on a side street

I mentioned yesterday that there was a large cemetery adjacent to the casbah, on a hillside overlooking the river. Turns out that it’s a pretty exclusive place: you have to be rich and/or powerful to be buried there, in addition to being dead. The burial custom is that the corpse is interred laying on his/her right side, facing Mecca. Here is a small section of the cemetery.

Merely being dead will not get you in here.

We ended the afternoon at the Mohammed VI Museum of Modern Art. This was quite the departure from just about everything else we’ve seen, being as contemporary as can be. A lot of the art here would be right at home in MOMA in New York City, or in Baltimore’s Visionary Art Museum. And a lot of it would be right at home in a landfill, too. But the building was modern and airy, all glass and steel and open space, with an Isalmic ambience:

And here is a modern wife in silhouette on the main staircase:

We didn’t last terribly long there, but the museum was only two blocks from our hotel so it was an easy walk back. Dinner this evening was at a local traditional Moroccan restaurant called Dar Rbatia (that is not a typo) in the heart of the souk. We had to navigate through a crush of humanity this time, not just crowded streets but packed ones, complete with chanting, blaring music, and a generous supply of pickpockets. It was straight out of a movie, hard to capture in still photos. But I shot a few minutes of video as we pushed throug the street, camera held over my head and drawing a fair number if remonstrances from some of the people; Moroccans do not like having their picture taken. It was quite the experience, and I will post the video after we return home. And dinner was outstanding, with about four traditional courses. If you’re ever in Rabat, go there. 

The drive back to the hotel was interrupted by some excitement, as we encountered the tail end of a wedding party out on the street, complete with bedecked bride and groom. The bride was feeling expansive and invited us to come and take pictures, but the rather less gregarious groom had other ideas. So, no pictures. Can this marriage be saved?

Tomorrow we move on to Fez, stopping en route to see the a roman ruins of Volubilis…and also to meet Momo’s wife!

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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.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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:

casablanca-01casablanca-02casablanca-03casablanca-04casablanca-06casablanca-07casablanca-09casablanca-08
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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