5 Definitive Moroccan Dishes

Moroccan cuisine is rich and varied with influences from the Arab world, Spain, and sub-Saharan Africa. The use of spices and herbs in Moroccan food is incredibly distinctive and you will find abundant use of saffron, cinnamon, and cumin throughout the cuisine. Here are five Moroccan dishes that will tempt your taste buds.

Couscous with Seven Vegetables

couscous

You may have tried couscous before, but until you’ve had hand rolled couscous cooked with carrots, potatos, cabbage, onion, garlic, turnips, and peppers, you’ve never really had couscous. Eat it with your fingers if you want to be truly authentic. Often there is chicken or lamb hidden under the pile of veggies. Wait to eat the meat until last and don’t be afraid to lick your fingers.

Tajine

tajine

The tajine is the pot this meal is cooked in as well as the name of the meal itself. The pot is thedistinctive clay vessel with the cone shaped lid which is sometimes glazed and sometimes not. There are countless variations of tajine from meatballs in red sauce to veggie tajines with potatoes, onions, and peppers.  To eat in the traditional way, use Moroccan flatbread (khoobz) to scoop up the food and soak up the sauce.

Pastilla

pastilla

Pastilla doesn’t sound good until you taste it. Traditionally it is pigeon cooked in a crispy flour shell and flavored with sugar and cinnamon. The light crispy pastry coated with powdered sugar will surprise you with it’s delicateness. It’s sometimes hard to find it made with pigeon, but chicken is almost as good.

Beyt wa Matisha

berber eggs

Sometimes called Berber Eggs, this dish is as simple as it gets. Eggs cooked and smothered  in fresh tomato sauce with garlic, onion, and sometimes meatballs (kifta). Eaten with Moroccan flat bread (khoobz), usually from a communal dish.

Lamb with Prunes

lamb with prunes

This is a meal you see at every important Moroccan celebration whether it is a birth, wedding, engagement, or circumcision party. Lamb (actually it is mutton since Moroccan’s don’t usually kill baby sheep) pressure cooked with prunes until it falls off the bone. Sweet and savory.

5 Cultural Travel Experiences in Fez, Morocco

Fez is the spiritual and cultural capital of Morocco. Here are five activities that will give you the ultimate in cultural exploration in this remarkable city.

Artisanal Tour

Fez Arttsanal Tour

Morocco is one of the few places on the globe where you can find artisans practicing their crafts in the same way they were conducted hundreds of years ago. The hard part is finding the real artisans and crafts and avoiding the fakes. An Artisanal Tour is the best way to see the real thing. (http://culturevulturesfez.org/artisanal-affairs/)

Moroccan Cooking Class

Fez

A cooking course is a great way to take a bit of your travels home with you. The Clock Kitchen Cooking School offers authentic courses in a variety of traditional techniques. Chef Souad knows her stuff and is a real sweetheart on top of being able to teach you about Moroccan cuisine.

Explore the Architecture

Fez

Fez is filled with beautiful old riads, houses, and palaces. Some of them have been restored to their pristine condition while others are in ruins. The medieval Islamic architecture of Fez is reason enough to visit this former imperial capital.

Get Lost in the Old Medina

Fez

Watch out for donkeys! You won’t have to worry about getting run over by a car or motorbike in the Fez medina, but donkeys are still the primary means of transport within the ancient city walls. This is the largest car free urban area in the world. Don’t get too lost!

Listen to the Call to Prayer from 365 Mosques

As the spiritual capital of Morocco, Fez has 365 mosques within the city. When it’s time for prayer, you can hear the muezzins (callers) giving the ayden (call to prayer) from all of them. This can be expecially poignant at sunrise or sunset. Since they don’t coordinate their clocks down to the second, there is a surreal, other-worldly quality to the warbling sound. Of course, if you sleep too close to a mosque, don’t be surprised to be woke at dawn!

 

The Hermit of Sefrou, Djinn, and Aisha Kandisha

casbah sefrouWay back in 2009, I was geeking out on Tarot cards and trying to find my way in life – at the same time I was living in Morocco and suddenly steeped in the mysticism, legends, monsters, and stories of daily Moroccan life. That was when I wrote this while sitting in the blue depths of my first apartment in Morocco buried deep within the Casbah of Sefrou:

Tarot HermitAn old hermit walked around the village and the area day and night, and even in daylight still carried a lit lantern. One day the villagers had enough curiosity to ask him “Sir, why do you carry your lantern lit in daylight?” He said, “Because I’m searching for an honest man.”

The Hermit has internalized the lessons of life to the point that he is the lesson.

There are two major ways this card can be interpreted:
* First, the need to withdraw from society to become comfortable with himself.
* Second, the need to come out of isolation to share his knowledge with others.

I understand why this card is speaking to me so heavily these days.

Some say that The Hermit represents the time we learn our true names; who we really are. The Greek philosopher Thales is reported to have been asked, “What is the most difficult of all things?” To which he is said to have answered “To know yourself.” The Hermit is given time to obey the Delphic Oracle’s demand: know thyself.

 

In Islam, a Djinn (also jinn, genie) is a supernatural creature which occupies a parallel world to that of mankind, and together with humans and angels makes up the three sentient creations of Allah. Possessing free will, Djinn can be either good or evil. The Djinn are mentioned frequently in the Qur’an, and there is a Surah entitled Al-Jinn. While Christianity maintains that Lucifer was an angel that rebelled against God’s orders, Islam maintains that Iblis was a Djinn who had been granted special privilege to live among angels prior to his rebellion.Although some scholars have ruled that it is apostasy to disbelieve in one of God’s creations; the belief in Jinn has fallen comparably to the belief in Angels in other Ibrahamic traditions.
Djinn

Aisha Kondeshia may have fallen in love with me. I am warned about her often by my new Moroccan friends.

aisha KandishaHer name is Aicha Kandisha and she was a beautiful enchantress and voracious JINIYA
(she-devil) she has the power to bewitch both men and women.  She is helpless against her own wicked power. Her victims are driven beyond madness or mental derangement…some become paralyzed,their blood into ice, others are left insane for ever.

The only way to lift the curse is through elaborate trance ceremonies which include heated rhythms, frenzied dancing, self-flagellation.Some say she was a freedom combatant against the Portuguese in the region of El Jadida she used her beauty to attract the soldiers then kill them, some say it’s a woman who was hurt by a man…but the common point with all these stories is that she appears to people in secluded places, abandoned houses or empty roads at night.

My house is empty and she is waiting for me.

casbah Sefrou

The Celebration of Fire and Water – Ashura in Morocco

The Celebration of Fire and Water – Ashura in Morocco

If you’re in Morocco on the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram, you are sure to hear drums banging and see gangs of happy children rushing through the streets and alleyways with new toys generally used to make music and noise. This is just a part of the celebration of Ashura (which comes from the word ‘ten’ in Arabic since it’s the 10th day of the first month on the Muslim calendar. Some call it the Islamic New Year, but it’s more than that. It’s a celebration of light and life, death and renewal, light and dark. For the past few years, it has been celebrated in November and December but since the Islamic calendar is lunar, each year it is ten or eleven days earlier (on the Gregorian calendar) than the year before.

In most of the Arab world, Ashura is a time to remember the death of Hussein for the Shi’a and a day for celebrating the liberation of Moses from Egypt for the Sunni. For both it is a day of solemn fasting and prayers. The same is true in Morocco, but the shamanism and Judaism that Moroccan Islam was born in have reshaped the holiday into something more.

In Morocco, Ashura is a day that celebrates life. It is a day when people throw water on one another after a night of bonfires and singing. Ashura is the day when the myth of Baba Aichour is celebrated. Baba Aichour is the Moroccan Santa Claus, and so, Ashura is almost like Christmas for children in Morocco. For days before and after the holy day, kids form makeshift bands that play celebratory songs on drums made of wood, pottery, and sheepskin. They travel through the streets performing for candy and coins. The noise reaches a crescendo on the night of the ninth day of Muharram when bonfires are lit in vacant lots and neighbors gather to share food and tea.

In the poorer areas, people will light branches and wander through the streets chanting songs reserved for this holiday and at the neighborhood bonfires, you will often see people jumping over the flames in an effort to burn away evil spirits or free themselves of curses.

This is considered to be the most auspicious time of the year to say your prayers. Fortune tellers called ‘shawaafa’ do a booming business during this time as young people try to understand their destiny and capture the love of their lives. Some go further and engage the help of witch doctors ‘afikih’ that work with djinn and magic. Some seek to cast spells and others to be free of them. The ‘afikih’ can help with both.

morocco celebration The morning of Ashura is often begun with a cold bath or shower which some say is the origin of the water throwing. Other’s hold that it is a celebration of the parting of the Red Sea. Either way, in desert areas it is common for men and women to sprinkle water on tents, plants, and each other whilst saying their prayers. In some areas, Ashura is called ZamZam day. ZamZam is the name of the well in Mecca that Muslims believe God created for Hagar and Ismael, the wife and son whom Abraham abandoned in the desert.

While the adults fast, the children are given chocolates or small toys, and as the sun goes down, the entire family will gather to break the fast together. There are some traditional meals for Ashura – among them sheep’s tail, liver, dried meat, and couscous.

The holiday extends into the next day, since tradition says that any profit made during the 11th day of Muharram will not be blessed by God. The 11th day is called the day of waste and usury and with all of the businesses closed, it’s a handy way to extend the celebration for one more day..

In the Moroccan city of Goulmima there is a large street festival where  people celebrate Ashura by wearing costumes, different skins of sheep and goats, and scary looking animal masks.  In the Berber tradition, the costumed people are referred to as “Udayen n Ashur,” the Jews of Ashura.  With only tambourines and handclaps, “Udayen n Ashur” creates lively music, performances of acrobatic dancers.  Everyone sings and dances with amusing variations on the songs, until very late into the night.

The Berbers have a different name for each of the three days of Zamzam:  The first day is “Bou Isnayen” the second, “Bou Imerwasen” and the third is, “Bou Imrazen.” These are translated as “the day of throwing water,” “the day of repayment,” and finally “the day of fight.” On any one of these days, if water is thrown at a person, they have the right to throw stones back

MoroccoOne of the songs children sing as they travel through neighborhoods asking for coins tells about how Baba Aichour came outside to pray, gave the children coins and sweets, but then was swept away by the river.

Traditionally, the morning of Ashura begins with a cold bath. Some say this is the origin of the water throwing that takes place through the day, but for others it is a celebration of the parting of the Red Sea or of Baba Aichour being swept away. In the Sahara, the Tuareg sprinkle water on tents, plants, and each other whilst saying their prayers.

 

 

 

Finding Family Love and Marriage in Morocco – Vagobond Travel Videos

I’ve written a bit about my marriage in the Sahara before – but I believe this is the first time I’ve put together a video of it. Meeting my wife changed my life. Our wedding was nothing short of extraordinary.  Please subscribe to my YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvV2_3gHVl6NKf6jBBSnHzw They won’t let me have a vanituy URL until I have 100 subscribers and I’m new…so every like and subscription helps.

Vagobond Entering Morocco – Vagobond Travel Videos

I had no idea how profoundly my life was about to change when I journeyed to Morocco in February of 2009. Here is some footage and photographs from those first days in Fez and Sefrou – I really had no idea that the rest of my life would be connected to these places – but that’s what happened. I’d just left Spain after a month of amazing friendship, camaraderie, and fun …

World Travel for Almost Nothing #4 – Couchsurfing Friends

If you missed the story of how I met my wife, let me remind you. I was couchsurfing at her family’s house in Morocco.

Couchsurfing likes to remind people that it’s not a dating site, but in fact, it is a place where I’ve met many of my closest friends and the woman I married.

Couchsurfing Morocco

One of the keys to mastering the art of world travel on almost nothing is learning to trust strangers and let them become friends.

World Travel on Almost Nothing Tip #4:  Make strangers into friends.

One of the things that I love about Couchsurfing.com is that it relies on opening your heart and mind to the hospitality of strangers. Contrary to popular belief, most people on the planet are good and want to help you in this life. If you doubt that, look inside yourself and I’m sure you will see it is true.

Couchsurfing in Belgium

I wrote a thesis about fans of the TV show LOST. One of the amazing things I found was that when fans traveled to Hawaii they often found places to stay, free guided tours, and new friends waiting for them. In that case, what brought these people together was a love of a TV show. For the world traveler, you are more likely to come together because of a love of travel.

I’ve made friends just about everywhere I’ve been and in the process I’ve managed to avoid paying for hotels, meals, and sometimes even transportation. I’m not saying you should be mercenary about seeking out and using people, I’m saying that when you open your arms to the world, you often get a hug in return.

While I’ve never been a WWOOFer or used HospitalityClub.com, I certainly have known plenty of people who have. These sorts of communities thrive on the fact that people are in general kind and good natured. If you don’t believe that, then you better keep paying for hotel rooms and guided city tours.

Places I’ve Lived #19 – Sefrou, Morocco and Fez, Morocco

Casablanca MoroccoIt’s bizarre how I ended up living in Sefrou and Fez. I studied Arabic at the University of Hawaii. I’m not sure why (my best supposition is that the universe needed me to be my daughter’s daddy and set me on this path – nothing else really makes sense). My major was cultural anthropology and my minor was in film. I took a lot of classes that interested me. I took Arabic for three years – even though I didn’t have much talent for it.

After I left Honolulu, I took trains across the USA, then bought a ticket to Spain from New York City. In Spain, I wandered south from Barcelona to Valencia then Grenada. While in Grenada, I met a lot of really spectacular people. We went to the Moroccan quarter where we ate great Moroccan food and drank sweet mint tea. One of my new friends said “You should go to Morocco. It’s incredible.” He told me how simple it was to get to Morocco from Tarifa using the ferry which takes you across the Straits of Hercules to Tangier. That was too much to resist.

Morocco wasn’t a part of my plan, but off I went. I landed in Tangier, caught a train to Fez, spent a couple of days exploring the old medina and then went on couchsurfing to find a local host so I could learn about the culture. I found an English teacher in Sefrou who agreed to host me for a few days. I thought Sefrou was a suburb of Fez, but actually, it’s a different city about 30km to the South. It was pouring rain and after a taxi ride that took far longer than I expected – this incredibly cute little woman came and picked me up at the gates to the old city of Sefrou.

Casablanca MoroccoThe subsequent flooding kept me (and an Italian couchsurfer) in Sefrou far longer than we’d expected. I was staying at the teacher’s parent’s house. They were incredibly kind people and by the time I left – the little teacher (she’s only 4’10”) and I had become interested in one another. As I traveled to different cities in Morocco – we texted each other. She suggested I come back to see her in Sefrou. I did – and to make a long story short – ten years later we’re still married. We have a lovely 8-year-old daughter and as I write this – we live in Honolulu, Hawaii.

I rented my first apartment in Sefrou while we went through the arduous and difficult engagement and marriage paperwork and processes. I loved my little apartment. It was in the poorest section of the old medina. The walls were a sky blue color and it sat above the running waters of the Oued Aggai. My neighbor was the only other (non-Peace Corps) foreigner living in Sefrou, Jessica Stevens – a Welsh artist. We became great friends. The apartment was simple but it was peaceful and it worked. I really did love it.

Once we managed to get through the marriage process – one of the first things my wife and mother-in-law did was insist that I move out of the neighborhood I was living in. It was a very low status neighborhood filled with the poorest of the poor and my in-laws were ashamed to have their daughter living in such a place where prostitutes and beggars lived. I wasn’t happy with this – but there wasn’t much I could do – as a newly married man I was discovering that my mother-in-law had more power in my marriage than I did. I saw only one way to solve that problem. We would move out of Sefrou instead of looking for a better house closer to my mother-in-law.

My wife and I were both working at an English school in Fez and commuting every day – so it made sense on many levels but I have to admit – it was a newly married man’s power play. I found a big, light apartment in a large building above the best bakery in the Ville Nouvelle of Fez. The owner of the bakery (The Bakery of the Universe) had kicked out all of his Moroccan tenants and decided he wanted to rent only to foreigners. This made the building a little bit creepy – not because of foreigners but because we were alone in it.

I was stressed out trying to navigate being married to a Muslim woman and trying to claim some measure of independence from my mother-in-law (the move had helped but my wife was still being completely controlled by her mother – which meant that I was to some extent also). The line I’d drawn was on the wedding ceremony – I was poor and Moroccan weddings are big expensive affairs that involve inviting hundreds of people. My mother-in-law was already planning a huge wedding – that I would have to pay for. That would have been okay if I was keen on the type of wedding she was planning – and I wasn’t. I wanted something more exquisite, more exotic, more wonderful.

I reached out to Berber nomad friends I had met in the Sahara and began to plan a desert nomad wedding. It was all out war with my mother-in-law. At first she refused to attend but finally, I managed to convince her that it was her only chance to see her daughter get married. I bussed my wife, myself, her family and a couple of friends from the English school to the Sahara and we had one of the most extraordinary weddings I’ve ever heard of. I won the battle and won the war but the process destroyed my nerves, put me on a warfare mentality when I should have been on a honeymoon mentality, and completely wore me out.

My wife was having issues at the English school we were working at, the ALC or American Language Center. Mostly the issues had to do with the school using different teaching methods than she had used in Moroccan schools but some of it had to do with her accuracy in using American English. She was taking it very personal and in my hyper-stressed out wedding warfare state – it was stressing me out too. I wanted to share our wedding with my readers on Vagobond and in the hustle and haste of planning the wedding, transporting everyone, getting married, and then getting back to the school on time after our four day weekend – I cut corners and simply copied and pasted my journal entries about the wedding onto my blog with all of the remarkable pictures. I suddenly felt like I could breathe again.

Fez Medina Fes MoroccoThe problem was that in my journal I had been writing about the wedding and I had also been railing with frustration about the director of the ALC and the problems my wife was having with him. That was what I pasted on my blog. It was a stupid mistake. At that point, nearly everyone who knew English in Morocco read my blog.  It took about two hours before the director (and everyone else at the school) had been made aware of my harsh words about him and the ALC. I was asked to finish the semester and resign. My wife had already been asked to step down and take some teacher training – which was what had gotten her (and me) upset on our wedding trip.

I had already booked our honeymoon – a trip to Turkey. Since I no longer had a job waiting when we got back, I decided it might be a good idea to find an English teaching job in Turkey for myself and for my wife. I admit, I was still trying to get my mother-in-law out of my marriage. I arranged for us to interview in the middle of our honeymoon. That worked and we ended up moving to Manisa, Turkey and teaching there for about seven months.

My wife returned to Morocco when she got pregnant – at this point, I finally bowed to the wishes of my mother-in-law and we rented a nice apartment in a respectable neighborhood  in Sefrou – just a five minute walk from her house. Our daughter was born in Fez and we lived in our apartment in Sefrou for just about a year and a half – until we finally got my wife’s USA visa approved and then we emigrated to the United States in 2013. I am grateful that even though I am an American citizen by birth, I got to go through the immigration process and live an immigrant story in the USA.

Sefrou, Morocco and Fez, Morocco

Fez Medina Fes MoroccoFez (Fes) is the second largest city in Morocco. It is, arguably, the most important city and is the spiritual capital of Morocco. It has the best preserved car free ancient medina (city) in all of the Arab world consisting of 14,000 alleys, streets, and derbs through the heart of the old city. . When the Muslim and Jewish peoples were expelled from Spain in the 9th century – many of them came to Fez and nearby Sefrou in the Atlas Mountains to the South. Fez is home to the world’s oldest university, castles, forts, palaces and much much more. There is nowhere else quite like it.

Sefrou, to the south, actually has an older medina than Fez and was the original capital city after the exodus from Spain. It was once called Little Jerusalem and had the largest concentration of Moroccan and Berber Jews of North Africa – most of them left after Israel achieved statehood, but their traditions, handicrafts, and buildings remain – though much changed. Sefrou is home to an annual Cherry Festival and Pageant each year as well as magical Arab and Berber Fantasias where riders charge one another and fire decorative rifles.

The Glaoui (Glaoua) Palace in Fes, Morocco

Slightly outside of the UNESCO classified Fes Medina, you will probably miss something extraordinary, unless you take the time to go and look for it. The Dar al Glaoui, the Glaoui Palace, a crumbling reminder that power is fleeting.

While a lot of people mention Paul Bowles novel, The Sheltering Sky as the ultimate in capturing the essence of Morocco, for me, it was a different book that succeeded in capturing not only the Moroccan mentality, but also the soul of the country itself. Gavin Maxwell’s Lords of the Atlas: The Rise and Fall of the House of Glaoua 1893-1956 is perhaps the ultimate in coming to understand Morocco.

Consider this review from The Library Journal

British author Maxwell accomplishes the twofold task of detailing the daily life, customs, and rituals in pre-independence Morocco and of recounting the rise and fall of El Hadj T’hani El Glaoui, the legendary tribal warlord through whom the French ruled one of their prize colonies in North Africa. Maxwell, who died in 1969, considered himself an explorer and wrote of faraway places; here he introduces readers to the harshness and beauty of Morocco. He shows how the blend of Berber, Arab, and black African races created an extraordinary cultural mosaic and explains how the French colonialists recruited the Atlas Mountain tribal warlords to subdue the other tribes.

As the chief beneficiary of this policy, El Glaoui was able to rule most of southern Morocco in an absolute fashion, until Morocco’s independence from France in 1956 brought an end to the rule of a very colorful warlord.

At times it is necessary to remind yourself that not only is this a true story, but that most of the events portrayed took place in the 1900’s! It is a fantastic account of the power behind the French Protectorate, and a reminder that politics has always been a filthy business. Anyone planning a visit, or who has been to Morocco, especially the Glaoui kasbahs of the High Atlas, should read this book, as should fans of bloody, political intrigue.

I should point out though that the book has more than a few critics who generally say something like this: “If you want a book singing the praises of a few thugs who made good during the French mandate (Primarily on prostitution) A book filled with unsupported (And frankly slanderous) comments, a book written by a man who clearly doesn’t know the first thing about Morocco, Islam or Arab culture and a book that’s basically a rip off from someone else’s then this really is the book for you. ”

After all that, hands down, this is my favorite touristic destination in Fes. It’s not as well kept as the Batha Museum, not as grand and glorious as the Karaouyine Mosque, not as stinky or touristic as the famous Fez tanneries, but there is something truly awe inspiring in this famous, decrepit but still beautiful house.

The palace is owned by 14 families who have fallen on hard times in Marrakech and France but is lived in and taken care of by Abdou, an artist. He was born there and lives there with his sister. He is the third generation born there and while not a Glaoui, he is happy to be there and try to keep it from falling in on itself.

The palace is generally closed to the public but usually open to the public via Abdou and his sister who are happy to show you around the 150-year-old palace comprised of 17 houses, stables, a mausoleum and cemetery, Quranic school, hammam, garages and two large gardens. While generally the tour is composed of seeing a few salons, the haram, the massive kitchen and a few of the courtyards, it is possible to see a bit more if you are careful and polite and the weather lines up for you.

Apparently, the palace complex is for sale for several million dollars. A steal for anyone who gets it since it would be like owning your own miniature al-Hambra (which it was actually designed after). The entire house is a masterpiece of painted wood, zellij (mosaic tile), carved wood, fountains, and also the first modern bathroom to ever be built in North Africa complete with original plumbing.

If you do buy it – try to get a few of Abdou’s paintings thrown in. Total hidden treasure. I would tell you how to get there, but it would be a waste of time, because you would get lost and have to ask someone anyway – so, just go to Batha and start asking people how to find Abdou and the Glaoui Palace – they’ll know exactly where you mean.

3 Continents, 4 Countries, & 6 Cities in 24 Hours! #FlashbackFriday

So far, I haven’t exceeded this record that I set back in 2011. To be honest, it was a little too much, too fast. 

Skopje, MacedoniaThis was a new personal best. Skopje-Sofia-Istanbul-Casablanca-Fes-Sefrou and all in time to give flowers to my sweet wife on Valentines.

What’s your personal best? Comment below.

I was pretty proud of the hell bent for leather nature of this trip.

From Skopje I took a bus to Sofia where I said hi to Tim and Peppy and then caught an overnight train to Istanbul. That day I caught a flight from the Asian side of the Bosphorus to Casablanca, Morocco thus leaving Europe going to Asia and then to Africa.

Sofia, BulgariaFrom Casablanca, I caught the train to Fes where I then took a taxi to Sefrou. Once in Sefrou, I just caught my breath and spent a lovely ten days with my wife and her family (though, it can be exhausting to be around the family- but that’s normal with in-laws, right?)

So – Europe to Asia to Africa
Macedonia to Bulgaria to Turkey to Morocco
Skopje to Sofia to Istanbul to Casablanca to Fes to Sefrou
Not bad for a day’s travel.

Total distance: 4090 Kilometers

I’ve gone further in a day, but not covering as many countries, cities, and continents.

 

 

Istanbul
Istanbul

Night Train Istanbul to Bulgaria

Casablanca Morocco

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

Jmaa el Fna in Marrakech – The Circus of Morocco

Place Jemma el Fna is filled with snake charmers, jugglers, men with monkeys, and the scariest dirty clowns I’ve ever seen. (originally posted on 20 FEB 2009)

My first trip to Jmaa el Fna was overwhelming. The sights, sounds, smells, animals (snakes, monkeys, donkeys, goats, chickens) and the humanity were simply overwhelming to the senses. I made friends with a nice American couple who were staying in the same hotel as me. We got food, explored the surrounding areas, and played cards together. This was before everyone on earth had a smartphone, before Instagram, and before travel had changed so much. People were either traveling with a laptop or a guidebook and it was still fairly common to make friends with strangers. My camera was an old Pentax and I wasn’t very skilled with it.

Morocco as a whole was a great place to be in that period. There was a lot of fear about terrorism still about – there had been the bombing in Casablanca though the bombing in Jmaa el Fna itself hadn’t happened yet. That bombing came in 2011 and killed 25 people sitting where many of these pictures were taken. The great recession was still new and an entire generation was cast out of college with nowhere to go and no jobs to be had. Many of them, like me, took to the road hoping to find something better than unemployment, wage slavery, and eating the shit of a failed capitalist society.

 

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Casablanca Morocco – Much more than just Rick’s Cafe #slideshowsaturday

Casablanca is famous for the movie, and most espeically for Rick’s Cafe. I admit it – it was one of the first places I visited when I got there. At the time, I had no idea I would end up getting married in the Sahara… However, there is more to Casa than just Rick’s just as there is more to North Africa and Morocco than the Sahara Desert.

Casablanca is the largest and most important city in Morocco and one of the largest and most important in Africa. The King Hassan II Mosque is the largest mosque in North Africa and the third largest in the world. With a regional population of more than 6.8 million people,  there are numerous embassies, consulates, shopping malls, and the widest variety of food choices anywhere in North Africa. Casablanca was a port of the Phoenicians and the Romans and today is home to the Mohammad V International Airport – so if you are flying to or from Morocco – chances are that you will be in Casablanca at some point. While the old medina in Casablanca isn’t as magnificent as that of Fez or Marrakech – it is still a lot more exciting than walking around most other places and you will get a great feel for Morocco as you explore it. The waterfront offers some amazing seafood and grilled meat options. There are fine hotels in Casablanca and then there are really overpriced ones and finally there are run of the mill, share the toilet with the other guests hotels. I’ve stayed in the hostel and stayed in some of the most expensive riads and frankly…the biggest difference was that the wifi was free in the hostel and the people were friendlier. Middle of the road, hundred euro a night is your best bet in Casablanca.

I didn’t realize this until a couple of years after I left Morocco, but I wasn’t the first Damitio to live there. There were Damitio’s brewing beer in Casablanca from the 1930s until 1956 when independence from France was gained. It turns out I wasn’t the first Damitio to live in Hawaii either – we seem to get around.

Here are a few pictures from this magnificent place.

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The Fez Medina in Morocco #flashbackfriday

From 2009 to 2013, Morocco was home for me. While I didn’t live in Fez for all of my time in Morocco (only about six months) it was the closest city to the town of Sefrou, where I lived the rest of the time I was there. Fez was where I found expat friends, a job, nightlife, and much more. It’s where my daughter was born. I love Fez. I wrote this back in 2013, when I was still going there on a regular basis – even substituting once in a while as a cultural tour guide in the heart of the medina. 

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

I first came to Fez, Morocco on a 3 a.m. train from Tangier. I’d been in Morocco (and Africa for that matter) for less than 12 hours and the adventures that followed are far too numerous to tell here but they involve a girl, a Berber Nomad marriage in the Sahara, a baby, and the fact that four years later, I still find myself living just 28 km South of Fez with my Moroccan wife and our baby daughter.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

The point of all of this, is that Fez is one of the most remarkable places on the planet and if you take a trip into the Arab world- Fez is an astounding starting place that will enchant you, fill your camera’s memory card, and affect you for the rest of your life. Perhaps not in as profound a way as it has me, but the truth is that I’ve never met anyone who has visited Fez with nothing remarkable to share when they went home.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

The ancient medina of Fes-el-Bali is the largest car free urban area in the world in addition to being the oldest inhabited medieval Islamic city left in anything like it’s original state. With more than 9,500 narrow streets, alleys, and twisty turny paths, it’s no wonder that people who have lived their whole lives in the medina still sometimes become lost.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

 

As a visitor, you will most likely first come into the medina through the massive maw of Bab Boujaloud where you will be called to dine on meat heavy tajine dishes or huge golden piles of couscous. The touts can be overwhelming at first, but you don’t need to worry because the days of the truly aggressive touts and false guides are now a thing of the past – the tourist police have reined them in.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

Before you venture into the medina, you should understand that donkeys and mules have the right of way – they carry crates of coke, baskets of grain, and everything else that needs heavy transport in the medina and they will, run you over. So, pay attention and don’t get distracted by the magnificent architecture, the women scrubbing orange blossoms from the tile doorways, or the heady smell of mint flavored tea. Welcome back to the 7th Century.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

While you are in Fez, there are a few things that I recommend you must do. First of all, a tour of the medina with a licensed guide is essential in order to get yourself oriented. A guided tour will bring you to the Karouyine University and the mosque of Moulay Idriss as well as take you down many of the streets and alleyways where some of the most beautiful architecture hides.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

Personally, while the fully restored palaces and riads are magnificent, my favorite destination to show visitors is the crumbling Glaoui palace. While not preserved or restored like the Batha Museum or the Karouyine Mosque, or perhaps becuase of it, the Glaoui Palace is overwhelming.Not as stinky or touristic as the famous Fez tanneries and yet there is something truly awe inspiring in this famous, decrepit but still beautiful house.If you read Gavin Maxwell’s Lords of the Atlas, it is even more so.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

While you’re in Fez, I think it is essential to stay in a Riad in the Medina. New ones open every day, so there is always a deal happening somewhere. It’s best to check. You can spend anywhere from $20 to $1000 per night – I recommend somewhere in the $50-$100 range for the best value. Make sure that breakfast is included – especially if you pay $1000.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

 

The Nejjarine and Bou Inania Mederasas are beautiful examples of classical Quranic schools. Inside you will be bowled over by the intricate tile (zellij) and woodwork. The artisans of the Fez medina are an astounding living museuem of tha ancient arts and crafts of Morocco. Rather than taking the standard tannery tour most hotels or riads offer – my suggestion is to book an artisanal tour with Artisanal Affairs.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

Another destination that isn’t on most itineraries is a trip down Taala K’bira to the donkey parking area next to Palais Jamai. For a more conventional tourist stop, visit Dar Batha (pronounced bat-HA), the home of the Batha Museum. An absolutely gorgeous restored 11th century house of sculpted wood, wrought iron, sculpted plaster and tile work. The gardens offer a respite from the of the medina and inside a treasury of embroidery, carpets, jewelry, pottery, and coins compete with one another to astound you.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

A visit to the Fez Medina can be overwhelming and that’s why a rest at Cafe Clock is well worth your time. Grab a date milkshake and a camel burger or sit on the roof with a cafe latte and look out over the 366 minarets of the old medina and listen as the call to prayer warbles at you from every direction. There’s also free wifi and a full cultural program of everything from henna, oud classes, calligraphy courses, Gnawa music on Sundays, and Moroccan cooking courses.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

For me, the best times to visit Fez are late Spring and early Summer when the temperatures have climbed above freezing but not yet to the scorching range. Early June also offers the World Festival of Sacred Music in Fez which draws incredible musicians and interesting speakers each year.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

Fez is known as the spiritual and cultural capital of Morocco. A visit at any time of the year will show you why. I recommend three to five days, though, like many others, you may find yourself still here three to five years later.

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

Travelling the Sahara by Camel – Recollections from my Marriage -Saturday Slideshow

“Trust in Allah, but Always Tie Your Camel” this is the punchline of an ancient Arabian proverb. There is both wisdom and humor in the idiom, but at a more basic level – this is a lesson in survival. These walking ships of the desert provide a lifeline to those who survive in the vast reaches of the Sahara and if they should disappear, life becomes much more difficult or in come cases – impossible.

My wife and I were married in a Berber wedding ceremony in the Moroccan Sahara. That’s us in the picture above.She is Moroccan and so when our wedding party mounted a caravan of camels and set off into the massive dunes surrounding Erg Chabi and Merzougha, it was really just another ordinary day and a different family outing.

Yeah, right. It was magnificent and something that mesmerized every one of us from her mother and sisters at the front of the caravan to our Berber nomad guides who had never seen such an astounding juxtaposition of the traditional ways of the desert with the offbeat ways of a romantic American and his Moroccan mountain family. You see, my wife is not of the desert – she is a shepherd’s daughter from the mountains.

Her mother and sister’s were not pleased when we announced that we would be deviating from the standard traditional mountain wedding celebration and instead taking part in the customs of the Sahara – and yet – as they rode camels for the first time – their smiles and laughter lit the early evening sky even before the last light of the day disappeared. Her mother, the one I thought would have the most trouble with the camels settled onto the oddly shaped saddle and allowed the weight of her sixty years to stabilize her better than any of the rest of us. My mother-in-law was built for camels. The rest of us, not so much.

With everyone mounted, I threw out a quote that none of them recognized “If the camels die, we die.” Peter O’Toole playing T.H. Lawrence in one of the most magnificent movies ever made. He shaped my romantic images of the desert, the quote is attributed to one of Lawrence of Arabia’s guides and since most of our party spoke no English, it was only my bride who understood – “Let’s not think of such things,” she told me with complete seriousness. It was no time for me to explain.

Camels are not comfortable creatures to ride – despite the ease which my mother-in-law seemed to take to it. She had never been on a camel before, but you wouldn’t have known it as she sang and laughed to the purple and scarlet sunset. But a look at my sisters-in-law or the other members of our caravan showed it clearly. The Berber Nomads weren’t on the camels – I asked about it later and one of them Assou, told me “It’s very uncomfortable to ride them. We prefer to walk and let them carry things for us.” Huh, imagine that.

It turns out that Peter O’Toole also struggled with riding camels while filming Lawrence. The story goes that he used washing sponges to make the ride more comfortable. At first there were laughs at his expense but by the end of the film, the Beduins had realized how much more comfortable the sponges made things and they copied him! I don’t know if the Beduins of Jordan use sponges today, but I can definitely tell you that in Morocco they do not.

sahara wedding

The magic of the Sahara was more than enough to move beyond the discomfort of the camels though. As darkness fell I looked out to the dunes and became transfixed by the eerie quality of nothingness stretching further than I could imagine. As a sailor, it is the sea that soothes me and brings peace when my soul is tormented and in those moments, I realized the allure of the desert. It is the same. The desert is a place where the world can be forgotten and one can come to terms with one’s true inner self.

There is much more to calling camels ships of the desert than simple transport. The metaphor also paints the image of the desert as a vast sea of sand, constantly shifting, containing treacherous shoals, and vast reaches where men (and women) can perish if the simplest mistakes are made.

“If the camels die, we die.” There was really nothing funny about it. It was true. I understood why the Nomads who spoke a bit of English had not smiled when I said it.

If you’ve come this far, perhaps you’d like to see some not-so-ordinary wedding photos…Enjoy!

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