The Waking Dream: Exploring Morocco
by SUSAN KOSTRZEWA
We lounge on soft carpets spread over sand, a swath of bright stars overhead. Around us, a reverent silence resonates, disrupted only by the sound of a scurrying scarab, or the soft humming of our Berber host. Our camp is pitched for the night. Gilded glasses of mint tea warm our hands. Tents flap gently in the Saharan winds.
Though my husband Cris and I recline just a few dunes from civilization in Morocco's eastern Erg Chebbi region, we feel a million miles from modern life. Ghostly images of snaking caravans, laden with gold from the sub-Sahara, rise from beyond the flickering lanterns. We seem to exist in two worlds--then and now--between which there is no delineation.
At once a land of civil modernity and ancient mystique, Morocco has mesmerized travelers for centuries. Flowering courtyards and mosaic-tiled chambers beckon from behind towering walls and wooden doors... though gracious, Morocco does not reveal itself instantly. As we found on our 14-day journey from sea to desert with Heritage Tours, unparalleled cultural riches reward this patient unveiling.
For Cris and I, the journey was our first in a predominately Muslim country. "What was it like?" many friends and family asked us after our return.
Throughout our trip, we encountered many instances of compassion and respect. Elderly people and children were given special care on the streets, even by strangers. In the frenetic markets, people politely made way for each other, careful not to jostle. As guests of the country, we were treated with dignity-never crowded, harrassed, or pressured into any situation.
The essence of Morocco lies in its cultural and historic diversity. Situated in the northwestern corner of the African continent, the 274,461 square-mile country has linked Europe to Africa since prehistoric times. Though its earliest inhabitants were indigenous Berbers (tribal nomads), a litany of foreign invaders has settled in the strategically located land over the centuries--first Romans, and later Arabian Arabs, who introduced Islam in the 7th century.
Following the rule of various Berber and Muslim dynasties, the country became a French and Spanish protectorate in 1912. While French funding strengthened and modernized Morocco's infrastructure with roads, trains, and electricity, sovereigns were stripped of independent control. The arrangement proved unacceptable to Moroccans, who finally won independence in 1956.
Today, European, Arabic and Berber influences permeate the country. Tradition and progress co-exist as veiled women haggle over poultry at market and university students in stylish togs chat trilingually at local cafes. Politically and religiously moderate, Moroccans nonetheless look to their new king, Mohammed Ben Al Hassan, to remedy national challenges such as illiteracy and unemployment. Although some people live simply--even basically--few would find themselves without food or a home due to strong, extended family ties.
Our trip began with visits to the magnificent Mosque Hassan II in Casablanca and Rabat's atmospheric Oudaya Kasbah, a 12th-century town built on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. However, it was really with our explorations of Volubulis, site of extensive 1st to 3rd-century Roman ruins, that we began to understand the melange of culture and history that characterizes Morocco.
Once home to 20,000 Moroccan, Greek, Roman, Syrian and Carthaginian townspeople, the town prospered from trade in olive oil, wheat, and wild animals for Roman games. Today, visitors wander an extensive plateau packed with crumbling villas and towering columns. Broad streets and the reconstructed north gate survive as testament to the city's prosperity, as do the many homes whose courtyard fountains, dining room mosaics, and spas suggest a lifestyle of wealth and repose.
Amazingly, traces of daily life remain, such as the indentations in stone made by rolling doors, and the fragmented olive press found in one of the villas. Always ready to entertain, our site guide Mustafa posed in an empty whirlpool, no doubt pleased with the thought of himself as some portly patriarch enjoying his afternoon soak.
Continuing on through olive groves and the wooded Middle Atlas mountains, we arrived in Fes, the spiritual capital of Morocco and home to over 500 mosques. From our balcony at the sprawling Palais Jamais hotel, we made a game of spotting the green minarets dotting the ancient landscape of the old town, though the 3:30 A.M. call to prayer left no doubt of the number of mosques surrounding us.
Wandering through the labyrinthine medina of Fes-el-Bali, we were transported to a medieval world where merchants hawked nuts, olives, live chickens, and spices, aged men in flowing jellabas (hooded robes) rode donkeys on cobbled stones, and elusive women with henna-painted hands disappeared behind doors adorned with talismans. A virtual maze to any foreigner, the market is best navigated by an official guide, though adventurous souls will eventually end up at one of the surrounding gates.
As we soon discovered from our guide, Driss Yacoubi Rashidi, the medina is not only about squawking poultry and goatskin lanterns. Nestled in the humming humanity are ornate medersas (Koranic schools) and fondouks (lodging house for visiting merchants), recently restored after centuries of decay.
In the 14th-century Bou Inania Medersa, a sense of peace and piety is evoked in the intricate courtyard, decorated with zellijs (cursive script carvings), mosaics, and exquisite wooden screens, called musharabiya. In the center, a small ablutions fountain (Muslims wash themselves before prayer) still stands. Traditionally designed with mosaic tiles on the first level, stuccowork on the second and cedar carving on the top, Moroccan architecture is a sensory overload, and incomparably beautiful. While most mosques are off-limits to non-Muslims, many medersas are open to tourists, offering a valuable glimpse into this private world.
In contrast to the populated pulse of Fes, vast, barren landscapes and serene silence typified our foray into the Sahara Desert. Heading southeast through the mountains and along the Ziz River, our surroundings soon resembled a moonscape--rocky, dry, seemingly without end. Like a splash of neon paint, the green palms and plants of the Tafilet oasis sprang before us, and we imagined the relief weary caravans must have felt upon entering its shaded borders.
Abandoning our van in Erfoud, a lively but sparse town on the edge of the desert, we climbed into a rugged 4 X 4 and began our jostling journey to the Auberge Kasbah Derkaoua, a charming lodge run by an expatriate Frenchman. As we sped off-road over miles of monochromatic sand and stone, an occasional kasbah (stone fortress), eroded and abandoned, reminded us of former trade outposts and isolated lives on the periphery of civilization.
After a visit to the rural market town of Rissani (where goat markets thrive and visitors park their donkeys in a large lot), we headed east to Erg Chebbi, the highest sand dunes in Morocco and our home for a night. Climbing cranky camels, we were lead by Berber guides into the desert, their deep blue robes flapping dramatically behind. From a high dune, we watched the sun set along the sand, a huge orb sinking into waves of dunes tinged pink and orange by its rays.
Our deluxe encampment, pitched along dunes and decorated with glowing lamps, ornate rugs and colorful Berber tents, was a highlight of our stay. As Cris, who was decked out in Berber garb and called "Ali Baba" by the hosts, stretched out and stargazed, I closed my eyes and reveled in the silence. Our guides gazed, noble and content, into the distance. "Water washes the body," one said, "but the sand cleanses the spirit."
After two days resting at La Roseraie retreat in the High Atlas mountains where we experienced the invigorating hammam spa experience, we arrived in Essaouira, an historic fishing village on the Atlantic Coast. With its whitewashed buildings, azure shutters, and laid-back pace, the town recalled the Greek islands, its 15th-century Portuguese past evident in the impressive cannons lining its ramparts. Strolling past makeshift fish stands grilling filets, and sipping coffee for hours in one of the many cafes, visitors are immersed in a resort-like atmosphere.
Our final days in Marrakech showcased the best of Morocco, with its verdant palm groves, hectic markets, and riots of color in hidden gardens. Staying at the exquisite Villa des Orangers (a renovated, five-star home around a courtyard just minutes from the city square), we explored the city by day, returning for a cold dip in the rooftop pool and a doze on our private terrace at night.
Once the capital of Morocco and still considered the cultural center of the country, modern Marrakech exudes culture and privilege with its palm lined streets, horse-drawn carriages, and art galleries. Home to the largest number of wealthy expatriates in the country, Marrakech has also been a favorite of rich Moroccans for decades. Despite its tony texture, the city still thrills with its jumping souks(markets) and the lively Place Jemaa el-Fna, where acrobats, storytellers, and palm readers create a centuries-old tableau.
Though our guide joined us on visits to the Majorelle Gardens (French designer Yves St. Laurent's extensive property) and the El Badi Palace, we felt completely safe exploring on our own. On our wedding anniversary, I celebrated by having my hand painted in henna in the square, and we ate an elaborate meal of couscous, tagine and salads at a restaurant so deeply hidden that it required the services of a lantern-toting guide to find it.
A land of mystery, tradition and drama, Morocco warmly welcomes travelers seeking the unique and exotic. Like the shifting sands of the desert, the diverse country continually changes and adapts, though never losing its foundation of tradition, charity and faith.
The Moroccan Explorations tour also visits the Todhra Gorge and Ourzazate. For more information, contact Heritage Tours; Toll Free: 800-378-4555; E-mail: email@example.com; Website: www.heritagetoursonline.com. Guide Driss Yacoubi Rashidi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Royal Air Maroc offers non-stop flights from New York to Casablanca several times a week. For more information, contact RAM Sales & Ticket Office;
Tel.: 800-344-6726; E-mail: email@example.com; Website: www.royalairmaroc.com.
Cross Cultural Adventures also offers itineraries throughout Morocco. Tel: 703-237-0100; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Focus On Morocco
There is no written form of the Moroccan Berber language.
I just fell on-line upon your story "The Waking Dream: Morocco." At the end of the article you mention "There is no written form of the Berber language." Not that too many of your readers care, but that is wrong. All Berber languages were written in Berber alphabet for millennia, up to the 11th C. Then most Berber groups adopted the Arabic script, but some, such as the Tuareg of the Sahara and the Kabyls of Algeria, maintained the Berber alphabet. Now there is a resurgence of Berber pride and in Morocco there is now a newspaper written entirely in Berber alphabet
Piotr Kostrewski, Cross Cultural Adventures, 5/9/08
The 1942 film Casablanca was filmed in Hollywood. No part of the movie actually took place in Morocco.
Islamic architecture is symmetrical in design, though some part of each creation is purposely flawed. Muslims believe that only Allah can create something that is perfect.