Posts Tagged With: musicians

Madrasahs, Medinas, and Souks, Oh My

I alluded to Steve putting on a performance of his own in the main square last night. You may recall that in addition to the rows of food tents and crowds of vendors, visitors, beggars, and pickpockets, there are also clusters of street performers, mostly musicians but also storytellers. There is also the occasional carnival game. Everyone is competing for the visitors’ dirhams, of course, some more successfully than others, and there is no angle left unexplored; better carry a pocketful of change if you want to take anyone’s picture. Steve, however, raised the stakes considerably by first sussing out a needy-looking band of musicians — these guys below — and then inserting himself into their act.

How? He owns a pair of “poi sticks”, which look like high-tech fluorescent light bulbs. What they actually are is a line of 80 programmable LEDs on a motion-sensitive linear mount. When you wave them they blink in accordance with their programming to display whatever image you have uploaded and thus appear to paint the image in the air itself. Steve had prepared a set of Moroccan-themed images — patterns, desert scenes, swords, and even the Moroccan flag — and promptly quintupled the musicians’ otherwise modest crowd with a New Age light show complete with dance moves. Here he is in action:

As you might infer, Steve is not a shy guy. (His wife Thumper is somewhat more introverted, though in private she has only two settings: “Quiet” and “Will you please calm the #%}&@$+ down?”) We like Steve and Thumper. In any case, if you are really extroverted, love high-tech toys, and have too much disposable income, you can obtain a set of these poi sticks for yourself for only $1200. They’re seriously cool. (No, I am not buying a set.)

Our first stop today was one of Marrakech’s best-known sites, the Majorelle Gardens and Berber Museum. They were designed by French expat painter Jacques Majorelle in the 1920’s and 30’s when Morocco was still a French protectorate. Basically, he was looking to create an oasis in the middle of the city, and succeeded; though it is only a few acres in size, the garden is a serene, manicured little forest of cactus and bamboo, home to something like a dozen species of endemic birds. It hosts a few burbling little fountains as well and it is easy to imagine it as a retreat from the chaotic city beyond the walls.

At one end of the garden is the Berber Museum (no photos allowed, alas), a boxy blue and yellow building (you can see it through the cacti in the lower photo) that houses a small but utterly spectacular collection of Berber jewelry, costumes, and artifacts. The jewelry room alone is worth the trip; it is a dark hexagonal room lined with infinitely reflecting mirrors and topped with a black ceiling dotted with lit stars. It feels like you’re floating in space along with a lot of eye-popping jewelry.

Berber jewelry has a very distinctive style. They do a lot of very fine filigree silver work, and they are big on turquoise and red coral. The color combination makes it look like a cousin of a lot of Native American jewelry from the Southwest, an unexpected correspondence that as I think I have mentioned applies to some of the architecture as well. There is a legend that the American Indians are the lost tribe of Israel; they say that about the Berbers as well. Hmmmm.

Majorelle himself has pretty much lapsed into artistic obscurity, but for two things. First, he invented a particular shade of cobalt now known as “Majorelle Blue”, which is of course the color of the building. And second, he had a big fan in designer Yves St. Laurent, who donated the money to have the grounds restored after they had fallen into disrepair, and whose ashes are scattered in the garden. There is a small monument to him in a contemplative little glade at one corner along the path; there are some benches surrounding a small Greek-style fluted marble column.

After leaving the gardens and museum we plunged back into the medina on foot, this time navigating our way through the metalworking district en route to the Ben Youssef madrasah (about which more below). I have spoken before about the clangor of the medinas and souks, and in this case the word applies literally: the alleys were steeped in deep shadow but filled with metal sounds, clanging and banging and tapping and grinding as the artisans turned out tea sets, belt buckles, candelabras, and — like this fellow below — even escutcheons, huge medieval-style locks that would go perfectly on the cells in your dungeon.

Few of the artisans were as cheerful looking or accomodating as this guy. In fact, none were. Most wore dark expressions of concentration, dark eyes glowering at me from the Stygian depths of narrow unlit workshops if they thought I was about to take their picture. I didn’t dare.

I have mentioned frequently how crowded, narrow, and uneven the alleys of the souks and medinas are. What I may not have made clear is that in addition to these attractions they are dangerous too, and not just because of the pickpockets. They are dangerous because the Bangladesh-level population density notwithstanding, they are still streets, which is to say thoroughfares in constant use by motorized vehicles. You rarely see a car in them — they are too narrow for that — but there are mopeds and bicycles aplenty, often carrying comically oversized and insanely unsafe loads as they barrel through the alleys at whatever speed the thousands of dodging pedestrians permits, which is almost always way too fast. The mopeds in particular are a genuine terror, and it is not at all unusual to be physically brushed by them as they maneuver past you; woe betide the unwary foreign visitor who has either insufficiently catlike reflexes or an inadequately developed precognitive sense of when to take a quick step right or left.

Compared to the mopeds, the bicycles are positively benign. What this means in practice is that you are less severely injured when you get hit. (Morocco has the sixth highest rate of road accidents in the world. My reaction to this is “Only sixth?”)

Two-wheeled terrors or not, we walked through the alleys till we reached the Ben Youssef madrasah, the largest Koranic school in Morocco (though it has not been in use as such since 1960; it is a historical site and museum now).

Ben Youssef dates from the 14th century, though it fell into disuse and was restored about 200 years later by one of the Saadi sultans. (Remember the Saadi tombs from yesterday?) As madrasahs go — they’re usually a couple of rooms — this one is vast, with 130 claustrophobic student dorm rooms about the size of a half-decent walk-in closet and overlooking an ornately carved courtyard. The carvings are marble and stucco, and the ceilings of the larger rooms (not the dorms, of course) are cedar.

One of the most common carving motifs is Arabic calligraphy, seen on the photo below. It is essentially identical to what you will find in Andalusian Arabic architecture elsewhere, notably in the Alhambra in Spain. Arabic sculptors make the most of their repertoire of geometric patterns and letters; Islam does not allow the depiction of human or animal forms, so you will never see a carving or sculpture of a person. (They do get away with cheating a little when it comes to animals, though: you will occasionally see a stylized peacock’s tail, though not the bird’s head.)

Alice looks out over the courtyard from a room that she would not have been allowed to enter in the 14th century.

This pretty much winds up our stay in Marrakech — in the nick of time, since Alice just returned from the souk with another couple of hundred dollars worth of jewelry — and we move on tomorrow to the coastal resort town of Essaouira, our final stop before coming home. We’re not all going to Essaouira, though: the 10-person “Michie’s Camel Ride” ensemble is returning home tmorrow, leaving just the six of us who were on the first leg of the trip back in late September. We are also losing Momo, our trusty and genial tour lead, and we will have a different shepherd for this final stop. So tonight will be a farewell dinner for the group as a whole, before we fold our respective tents and the caravan moves on.




Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Getting Our Just Deserts

I’m typing this from our tent in the middle (more like the western edge) of the Sahara desert on Wednesday October 7, but it will be at least a couple of days before I can actually post it, there being, well, nothing here.

This morning we left our beautiful hotel in Erfoud with a certain amount of reluctance, knowing that we would be trading our enormous comfy air conditioned rooms for extremely non-air-conditioned tents located far deeper into the middle of nowhere than we already were. So I had this brief word with the staff, shown below, thanking them for their hospitality. (How many hotels do you know keep camels on the grounds?) And so we set off, divided up into a convoy of four 4 x 4s instead of our bus because the latter would not do so well on sand dunes and generally functions much better when there is an actual road.

“And next time, don’t forget the mints on the pillows.”

This region is known for its fossils, and so our first stop was a place that receives the quarried fossil-rich slabs of sedimentary rock (not granite) and turns them into exceedingly cool tabletops, counter slabs, fountains, etc., all swimming with the particular Precambrian creatures that were endemic here. They fall mostly into three types: ammonites (which look like nautilus shells), trilobites (which look like giant sow bugs), and a long pointy cylindrical squid-like creature. (We would actually have gotten our own granite countertops in this style, but they were astronomically expensive.) in any case, the factory guide showed us the raw stones, the cutting and polishing process (diamond drills), and so forth, all culminating in the inevitable showroom where they assured us they would ship to the US. There was in fact a lot of interesting stuff, and several of our group bought things Steve and Thumper bought a set of fossil-laden dishes, while we bought a couple of small ammonites variously for Alice and the teenager who lives across the street from us and looks after our house while were away.

“Huh, I could’ve sworn we had Han Solo frozen in here.”

Our next stop was a Berber town where we visited a rather poor household, of which there are many. This was a family of a mother (at left below), father, and five children, two of whom were grown and married while the other three were still at home. One of those three had Down’s Syndrome, which led to a discussion of how they handled and treated him. And the answer was: they don’t. It is considered a failure, essentially a mark of shame, to have had such a child, and so they let him wander the streets, sometimes not seeing him for days at a time. This is arguably an improvement of how some local families treat such children, which is by chaining them up in a back room so no one can see them.

This led to a discussion of health care — Momo translating all the while — which is free in this country if your income falls below a certain threshold (which hers does).

Our hostess’ husband is a porter, who earns very little. She makes ends meet by weaving and selling fabrics and dresses, one of whom she demonstrated on one of our group, as you see here. It was wound pretty tight; our travel partner/dressmaker’s dummy reports that she would have a hard time moving around in it.

I should mention that no visit to a Moroccan home is complete without achingly sweet mint tea, and this was no exception. We smiled with pleasure as the enamel of our teeth dissolved, and thanked our hostess for her hospitality. (More about the Berbers later.)

By this point we were far enough into the desert that the rate of camel sightings was climbing noticeably, and so it was no coincidence that our next stop was a camel farm, one specializing in camel milk. They had a small herd of the beasts, the lactating females penned with their offspring but kept separate from the males, who were uninterested in the milk but very interested in — wait for it — humping. (Rim shot) So to milk a camel (an activity that thankfully they did not offer to teach us), you first have to shoulder the hungry camel children out of the way so that you (the farmer) can grab the teats and spritz the milk into a waiting metal bowl. It took two guys, as you can see here: the guy with his back to us is holding the shiny bowl while keeping the disgruntled juvenile (at left) out of the way, while the guy on the far side of the camel is spritzing. It’s a lot: it only takes a minute or two to get 1 1/2 liters (~3 pints), and you see the result in the picture that follows.

Very fresh, yet strangely unappetizing

It is very white and creamy looking, and tastes — yes, we tasted it — rather like plain old whole milk.

I should say something about camel vocabulary here (I mean out vocabulary, not the camels’, which is mostly limited to FNAAAAUUURRRRNK, though I may be spelling that wrong. The main point that I need to convey is that these are not actually camels, but rather dromedaries. In the immortal words of humor poet Ogden Nash:

“The camel has a single hump, the dromedary two. / Perhaps the other way around / I’m never sure, are you?”

It is in fact the other way around: dromedaries have one hump, and those are the guys you see around here. The two-hump animals are technically Bactrian camels. But everybody seems to call the dromedaries camels except when they’re trying to look smarter than you. I’ll continue to call them camels for convenience. (But I reserve the right to correct you if you call them camels, because I am a hypocrite and want to look smarter than you.)

As we headed deeper into the Sahara we saw more and more of less and less. Here’s the view out my window as we drive; the other car is one of our convoy. We tend to drive in staggered formation so as to avoid eating each other’s dust, of which there is an infinite about. The terrain is mostly flat, a mixture of hard-packed orange sand and black volcanic rubble. There is an occasional milkwood tree or patch of rough scrubby grass. The Atlas Mountains lie in the distance, and there is the occasional field of sand dunes, some the size of small mountains. We traverse a few of these, which is great fun in a roller coaster sort of way, but overall it would be an understatement to say that the landscape is uninviting. The weather is of course hot, though not blisteringly so: no higher than the mid-80s, time bone dry. But the sunlight is like an ultraviolet laser that fills the sky, very very intense.

And of course, amidst the expanse of nothing, there are camels:

We stop for a lunch at a restaurant that incongruously emerges in the midst of a filed of sand dunes. Here’s the scene as we arrive:



The walls are canvas over a frame, the interior walls and ceiling embroidered hangings. The interior space is appointed in traditional style, and if you have a mental image of Aladdin walking among cushions and the embroidered walls to round tables with ornate silver tea sets, you are pretty close to the mark. Lunch was quite good, a beef tagine.

We continued on til a stop at another Berber village, these Berbers being if rather different ethnic heritage. Remember that Berbers are ethnically very heterogeneous, some being pale skinned and of European provenance, others descended from sub-Saharan Africans. This group is descended from slaves imported from Sudan and Mali, and they put on a musical performance (“colorful native dances”, as we cynically characterize them in these trips) in which they played drums, castanets (that’s what they’re holding in the picture) and a stringed instrument. They danced a shuffling line dance while chanting nostalgic songs about the pre-slavery era, e.g., about returning to Timbuktu (which is in Mali, to answer a question it may never have occurred to you to ask).

The performance involved inveigling the audience (i.e. the 16 of us) into getting up and participating in a circle dance,my he Sudanese version of Hava Nagila. I gave in, but frankly would rather have been in Timbuktu myself.

Still further on we encountered a Berber cemetery, seen here. Primitive and sad, with way too many 4′ long graves, indicating that children were buried the. The headstones are I carved rough stone, with no information at all about the deceased. The only fact that each grave conveys is the sex of the departed, which is indicated by the position of the headstone: when positioned in the way that you (the reader) are used to, there lies here a male; when turned 90 degrees, a female. You can see a few of the latter in the photo, e.g., all the way in the back, about a quarter of the way over from the right.


We reached our camp at about 4:15PM, a cluster of a dozen semipermanent canvas-walled one-room tents at the edge of a field of sand dunes. They’re primitive looking from the outside and basic but comfortable on the inside: the canvas hangs on a wood and wire frame, and the floor is wood with a large carpet. Each room has a flush toilet and very basic cold shower. There is a generator or solar-powered batteries in the c amp (I don’t yet know which) so we have electricity at night; there is a single lightbulb but also an electrical outlet so we can charge our various devices overnight. So in ither words, extremely basic but not altogether roughing it. The main problem is the sand, which is everywhere and gets into everything; we have zippered screen doors front and rear that work reasonably well to keep the outside outside.

Not the Hilton.

But make no mistake, we really are in the Sahara desert. If you need any additional convincing, here is the view out our back door.

You might correctly infer from that image that strolling into town to do some shopping is not a realistic option. But it is all very exciting and interesting. We received a cooking lesson (tagine) in the late afternoon, followed by a very good dinner (tagine, do you see the pattern?). The skies are quite beautiful here as you would expect, the Milky Way a glorious highway from horizon to horizon across the zenith. So I gave a little astronomy lecture, enthusiastically received, and led a star party, pointing out constellations and stars to end the evening.

Tomorrow: camel ride! We have been cautioned to wear long pants for this, so I suspect that some apprehension may be warranted.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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