There’s something about doors that just make my brain fill with wonder. Like travel, doors always lead to something new and often to something unexpected. Like the story of the Lady or the Tiger or Let’s Make a Deal.
This door in Barcelona seems to lead to a classical place where graffiti monsters rule. Aren’t you curious what lies on the other side?
Does this door in Bergamo, Italy actually lead to anywhere? Why is it locked. What’s it hiding? Does it lead to Narnia?
Is there a French family drinking Bordeaux behind this French door? Can you almost hear the laughter? Oui.
This Brussels, Belgium door is altogether more serious. Are there great works of art on the other side or serious EU business going on?
Couscous perhaps? Maybe a carpet shop? What does your imagination say is behind this door in the Fez Medina? What about this door from a cave in San Bernardino above Grenada in Spain. How do the troglodyte gypsies pass their days. Beer, fortune telling, black magic? Or just a card game and some cooking.
Finally this one in the magical city of Marrakesh. Don’t you feel like you are falling in?
Lao Tzu famously said that without opening your door you can see the world and I think that might explain the fascination with travel. We all wonder just what is on the other side of the door and sometimes it’s even more wonderful than we imagine.
Meeting the Artisans of Fez, Morocco was one of the highlights of my time in Morocco. Much has been written about the Fez, Medina – I’ve even written some of it. In a nutshell, the Fez Medina is a UNESCO world heritage site, the largest inhabited car-free urban area in the world, the best example of a living medieval Muslim city and a place where you can stay in some amazing hotels, guest houses, dars and riads.
The Artisans of Fez, Morocco
I was fortunate in being able to take part in something that hasn’t been so extensively written about. I joined my friend Jessica Stephens (aka ‘The Jess’) on a medina tour that was focused on not only observing but also interacting with, talking to and getting up close and personal with the artisans who do their work and make their home in the Fez medina.
The usual medina tour goes something like this (and it’s good, don’t get me wrong)
“Here is the medina, here is a potters shop, here is the Quarawine Mosque, here is an old funduq, here is an old medrassa, and here are the famous tanneries from five floors up, now we will go to my uncles rug shop…”
Depending on how much you’ve paid your guide, you will get various levels of sales, various levels of information, and various levels of bullshit (How do you know when a guide is lying? Their lips are moving!)
This tour was different. Jess and I met with her clients at a cafe in Bathha which sits on the edge of the Fez medina and is very tourist friendly. They were nice, interesting people from Seattle who have traveled all over the world and lived in Vietnam, India, Malaysia and probably a few other places. One way to tell if a tour is interesting at a glance is to look at who is going on it. This one was looking tops from the beginning.
Jess went over the details with a map and asked them about anything in particular they wanted to see. He wanted to see the tanning process up close and she wanted to just enjoy the architecture since she’s an architect. I particularly liked Jess’s warnings at the beginning 1) This isn’t a shopping tour so they shouldn’t buy a bunch of things on the way – the guide could take them back later if they desired 2) Don’t walk into an artisanal and just start snapping photos, instead talk with people, let them explain what they do and then – after all of that – take some photos if they want 3) Don’t be afraid to ask questions and interact with people and 4) Watch out for the donkeys (okay, I added that last one myself)
Once the briefing was done we headed down to the not so tourist friendly (but still safe and cool) Bab Rcaif, where we met with the licensed Moroccan medina guide. Here’s a side note – Jess pays her extra not to take visitors to any of the shops that most guides get commission from when tourists buy things. That’s not only cool for the guests, it’s also cool for the guide because Jess tries to compensate her for the commissions. There’s a lot of talk about sustainability and fair trade these days, but this is the real deal in action.
Our first stop was to the dyeing street inside the medina. This is an entire derb (small street or alleyway) dedicated to the art of dyeing clothing and material. We were able to stop and ask questions along the way from the dyers and they showed us the process of the vats, using wool and also aloe vera silk harvested from the mountains.
This old man was the shop steward in one of the dyeries…the map of lines on his face speaks of the travels of Ibn Battuta and more. Here’s something else nice, rather than the guide simply telling us everything – she allowed the artisans themselves to speak and then translated. This might seem like a small thing but it made a huge difference in terms of trust and authenticity.
From there we crossed over the river and went through the metal working and mirror shops. All along the way, Jess was giving the artisans, the workers and the kids copies of the photos she had snapped on previous expeditions. It’s something that brought smiles of delight to the old and young and made all of us welcome guests along the way.
The metal working area opened up into the Attarine Square – one of the oldest squares in the medina and our lovely guide told us about the history of the migrations from Tunisia and from Andalucia and how they set up on different sides of the river and had a fierce rivalry which caused Fez to become the shining light of the times – home of the first university (The Quarayine University) and also I learned something I hadn’t known – there are 365 mosques in the Fez medina and that is why it is the spiritual capital of Morocco ( of course the guide’s lips were moving as she said it, so you might want to count).
We paused to explore a bit of the square and see the famous library though since it is still a place where students study, we weren’t allowed to go inside. Still, magnificent…
Down another narrow winding passageway and we came across a fellow who works exclusively with bone and horn. He showed us how he heats the bone and horn make it flexible and then he is able to cut around it and create beautiful shapes that can be carved and polished.
Now we were heading to the area where a recent scandal shook the medina. I hadn’t been in town for more than a few days and already I’d heard about it from three different sources. Here is the scandal and the very unfair way it turned out:
A fashion magazine of some sort came and booked a tour with their models of the famous Fessi tanneries. When they got there, they apparently bribed someone to be allowed to go down in the thick of things despite the fact that they were using an illegal guide and technically aren’t supposed to go down there. Once down there, the models stood in the center and stripped nude! Now, this might not seem so scandalous but remember, this is a conservative Muslim country and these guys working there are among the conservative working class – it was shocking! As a result, the models and the photographers were escorted out but the manager of the tanneries and the guide were both jailed and charged 4000 dirham – which is a huge fine here. Anyway, we had proper permission and we all kept our clothes on.
Even clothed, the tanneries were still amazingly interesting. I’d always wanted to get down into the pits and see the process and it was incredibly fascinating. The process goes a bit like this – skins are brought, thrown into the limestone pits (filled with pigeon shit and lime) and soaked for a few days. After this they are thrown onto a huge electric wheel that scapes them along the floor and gets the hair loose. Next a man scrapes the hair from the hides. After that, they are thrown in another pit with more chemical agents. Following that they move to the dying vats (the brown ones) and then they go to be dried, scraped and softened, and finally made into your shoes or bag.
I probably don’t need to say this, but the smell is something you can simply not imagine. It is awful throughout. The guys in the pits looked at us suspiciously as we wandered through, probably wondering if we would take our clothes off or at least ‘Why the hell do they want to come down here?” We walked through the entire process and then blissfully, left the tanneries to head to the carpet weaving area. The weavers rooms didn’t smell bad at all, but then, after the tannery, nothing really could!
The weaver spoke excellent English and gave an demonstration of how to make material. We found out that for silk and cloth, it is generally men who do the weaving but for rugs, that is up to the women (like the women weavers I met in the collective in Rbat al Khair a few months ago). The scarves and textiles were gorgeous and in a variety of colors but most striking was a deep cobalt blue. The dyes used to be all natural but these days (we had found out on the dyer street- most of them are chemical dyes).
After this we took a car from Rceif to the artisanal school commissioned by the King of Morocco. In the school we met a master zelij (mosaic tile) craftsman, teaching four apprentices his craft with a massive piece. We also had the chance to meet and talk with a Moroccan slipper maker and to see a number of the workshops where master artisans are teaching their craft to pupils. Among the skills being passed on are the making of the oud and Moroccan fiddles, stone work, glass, tile, ceramics, wood working, and much more.
Finally, withe the tour of the artisans of the Fes Medina complete, we all sat down for lunch and took a good rest. This was an awesome tour – I hope that more tours like this that 1) respect the local people 2) interact with the culture 3) create an appreciation for the arts and handicrafts of places – continue to show up.
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.
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
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.
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!
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 …
It’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.
The 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.
The 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 (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.
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.
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.
The 6th Edition of the Festival of Sufi Culture will take the stage this April . From Thursday the 12th to Saturday 14th a series of round tables, conferences and concerts will take place. The theme of this years festival is Hakim – “Sufi Sapiens”
Sufism, the mystical side of education and spiritual teaching in Islam and considered by many to be the heart of the faith was first revealed to the world in 11th century.
Historically, from the 13th century onward, these teachings were passed from teacher to student down through spiritual centers that aimed to preserve the culture, sociability and spirituality proper behaviours of Islam in an era of dislocation of the Muslim world, particularly under the impact of Mongol invasions.
Sufism has nourished the Muslim culture and not only enhanced its artistic and literary expressions, but also its social and economic advancements. For centuries Sufism has inspired simultaneously the ethical and spiritual charters of guilds throughout the Muslim world.
In Morocco for example, guilds and special trades have traditionally allied themselves with Sufi orders. The relationship that has been established between spirituality and social and human development has marked the cultural and historical identity of Morocco.
The Sufi Orders of Morocco are engaged in teaching and civic and spiritual education at the same time promoting human development and mediation for peace.
The festival of the Sufi Culture celebrates the heart of the Moroccan society today as well as Sufism throughout the world. Sufism can also inspire on global level and some new approaches towards peace mediations and for development of mutual dialogues between religions and cultures. Itinerary for 2012 Festival of World Sufi Culture in Fez, Morocco:
The venues have yet to be published but the a provisional program is as follows.. Thursday 12th April
10 a.m. Official opening of the Festival.
11 a.m. Conference : the literature of Hakim in the Sufi tradition
4 p.m. Conference : Hakim and poetry in the works of Mohammed Iqbal
8.30 p.m. Concert by the Nidhamouddine Brotherhood from New Dehli India. Friday 13th April
10a.m. Conference : Hakim and the voice of spiritual chivalry (futuwwa)
4 p.m. Conference : Hakim and Culture
8.30 p.. Concert : Samaâ of Tariqa Khalwatiyya from Turkey
Tariqa Khalwatiyya Brotherhood Saturday 14th April
10 a.m. Conference : Can one teach Knowledge?
4 p.m. Round Table with Eva de Vitray Meyerovitch lecturer of Iqbal : l’Islam in mouvement
8.30.pm.m Closure concert : Arab/Andalusian and Samaa – with Sufi Brotherhoods from Morocco.
For more information see www.festivalculturesoufie.com
If you’d like to get private accommodation just a short distance from Fez, why not rent our apartment in Sefrou? It’s just 28 km from Fez, will easily sleep up to six people and is in the charming town of Sefrou which offers a beautiful waterfall, a rustic medina and much more. Or there are a number of Fez Riads and Hotels to choose from. Below are some of our favorites.
Other interesting sights to visit while in Fez include:
The museum of Dar Si Said, equipped with a display of Berber arts and crafts from all over Morocco.
The remains of the Badii Palace, a historical monument which is host to the Annual National Festival of Popular Art, beginning the second Friday in June.
The Bahia Palace, which exemplifies Moorish splendor at its finest. It is situated in the heart of the Mellah, and continues to host dignitaries to this day.
Friends and local news are reporting a large explosion in the Ville Nouvelle of Fes. This from Lakome.com(in French)
A strong explosion rocked a cafe today in the city of Fez, injuring several people. The official agency Maghreb Arabe Press (MAP) reports that according to initial findings, this claim is due to the explosion of a gas cylinder installed in the basement of the coffee.
A source of Emergency Preparedness of the city speaks seven injured were transported to University Hospital Hassan II. “We are continuing the search for the wounded,” says the fireman.
The cafe, located in an upscale neighborhood known as “La Villa”, is mostly frequented by young people in the middle of the city of Fez.
This comes from my friend Karima who lives in Fez and shared this information in a status update/note.
“I have been to the cafe where the explosion took place … ” La villa” 5 min away from the Super Market Acima above Al willaya. Its a disaster…Burned like hell… Police everywhere and they don’t won’t us get any closer .. I saw no dead bodies leaving the place but heard that some people died.. mostly the staff who worked in underground:” the oven, pastry makers..the girls in charge of cleaning…I met a girl there who works in the bakery and she was crying I barely could understand what she was saying because she was sobbing and she told me..”.Its the gaz no bomb involved.”I said how do you know:” she looked at me and she said:” God sake i was there and i saw them changing the gaz bottles..I don’t know what happened to them but i am sure most of them are gone….” Because i used to go there most of the time with friends and the waiters were super nice to us… all i was asking about were what happened to the waiters till, that under-shock lady thought that my husband or my boy friend was one of them…..!!! I will put the video i have shot there later but let me tell you this, what i saw there was soo catastrophic to the point that i forgot to ask the girl about her name…and she forgot to ask me who i was and why i was asking…..brief Glory to Allah in his Universe and may our lord bless everyone died in this dramatic accident.”
I wrote this for a travel writing contest, but never heard back…I guess I didn’t win 🙂 But, I think it’s still worth sharing…Enjoy ~Vago
Stepping carefully to miss the streams of sewer water and partially holding my breath, I pulled shallow draughts of air through my mouth so as to avoid the stench. I passed by the dozen or so young guys in rip-off Dolce and Gabbana jeans and fake Armani t-shirts . They hunkered down in an unlit doorway with a deck of Moroccan barraja cards and played an excited game of what appeared to be a cross between slap-jack and Texas Hold-em. Filthy Moroccan dirham notes lay on the ground between them. One or two of them glanced at me with suspicious eyes, after all, what the hell was a gaurie-an obvious foreigner with light skin and blue eyes- doing in the heart of the casbah at 11:00 pm. Just then my neighbor Mohammad glanced up from the cards and greeted me “A salaama leycum Yassine. La bas?”
“Wa leycum a salaam Mohammad. La Bas. La bas aleek.” I answered his query about my general state of being and with the same words wished him goodness in return. Since he was in the midst of gambling and I was on the way home, we bypassed the oft required but painfully drawn out process of greeting each other with a thousand and one questions about friends and family followed by numerous wishes of blessings that would be bestowed by the creator.
Five steps more and I was at the lime green metal door which led into my thousand year old apartment. Inside I bypassed the narrow mud-brick steps leading ladder-like to my neighbor’s flat and put the key to the ancient wooden door which led to my very humble abode. The door was ‘Sefroui Blue’ but had been buried in at least twenty layers of colorful paint over it’s lifetime which made it sometimes difficult to close all the way. Scraping it open, I stepped down into what lives in my memory as one of the most fascinating places I have ever lived.
My apartment in the casbah didn’t come with a stove, light-fixtures, a flush toilet, or a shower. The one thing it did have was indoor running water, a luxury in the medina of Sefrou. Every surface inside had been painted a brilliant sky blue including the window frames, the doors, and the cabinets. Within a month of moving in, the moisture on the wall had caused the new paint to bubble and blister and had revealed the nebulous layers of ancient enamel beneath which neither time nor brush could make disappear.
Opening the windows, I reveled in the sounds of the Oued Aggai as it flowed merrily past my windows in the chasm below. My apartment not only had running water indoors, but running water delightfully nearby that would lull me to sleep each evening. Looking up towards the grand mosque of Sefrou, I could see men in djellabas crossing the narrow stone bridge separating the Mellah from Beni Mdrek. In the late hours, they moved even slower than usual. That meant their movement was almost imperceptible since nothing ever moves quickly in Morocco.
Schweeya b Schweeya is what you will inevitably hear in what the Arabs referred to as al-Maghreb, the Kingdom of the West. Schweeya b schweeya translates to little by little and if there is a modus operendi that nearly every Moroccan plays the game of life by, this is certainly it. It’s a philosophy of patience but also of cunning and ultimately, it is what drives many time conscious Westerners who think of living in Morocco to change their minds and go somewhere else.
If you sit for an afternoon in Morocco’s ex-pat and traveler hangout, Cafe Clock, you will without a doubt hear at least one conversation which involves someone’s expectations not being met in any sort of a timely manner. It might be someone restoring a house, someone trying to get married, someone trying to start a business, or someone waiting for transport – but the certainty is you will hear it. You will also hear that reply, sweeeya b schweeya.
To understand and experience Morocco, you must internalize this philosophy. Those who rush from one tourist destination to another will find and see amazing things, but they will also miss the soul of al-Maghreb. I know this from experience, I did it. In less than a fortnight I saw the great imperial cities of Marrakesh, Fes, Meknes, and Rabat and then I visited the bustling port of Casablanca with it’s massive Hassan II mosque, which somehow feels like it’s missing something. Perhaps it is because of the speed with which it was built, no schweeya b schweeya was included. And like the mosque, my fast paced journey was beautiful and exotic, but somehow it completely missed the soul of Morocco. It was only later, when I decided to stay for a longer time that I started to understand just how embedded into the very fiber of this place this concept truly is. With a history that stretches back thousands of years and a culture born from the intersections of Berber, Arab, French, Portuguese, Spanish, African, Hebrew, Turkish, British and American – this civilization is a fantastically complex human construction which has been built over time idea by idea, piece by piece, and little by little. To try to see it in a day, a week, or a month is an exercise in complete futility. In fact, you will leave with more misconceptions than you arrived with since you will have essentially looked at the couscous without seeing the chicken that lies under it. Each time I came in or went out that door from my apartment I would meet my neighbors. Not just when they were playing cards in the alleyways, but also when they were getting water from the communal fountain. Mischievous kids with dirty knees and faces would always run by me and once in a great while I would surprise them with a piece of candy, but never money. If you give money once then you are marked for all your time as a charity for the needy to turn to. Scweeya b schweeya. I preferred the charity of carrying water for the old woman who was called ‘Radio’ by the young boys. The name came because her nearly bent in half spine caused her to resemble a radio antenna. Bringing the water inside, I found she and her husband living in a single room heated by a charcoal brazier which was used not only for heating the room, but also for heating food and water . It’s not fast, but then, there really wasn’t any need for it to be. Mr. and Mrs. Radio had nowhere to go and nothing to do. My running water and propane tank stove suddenly seemed outrageous luxuries. Radio’s invitation to tea was a process that took nearly two hours as the water was heated to a boil, the tea was added, the water was reheated, and finally the tea was poured. My extremely limited command of Moroccan Arabic meant that I could only nod in agreement without actually understanding what she was saying. In time, her son the cobbler arrived and explained that they were happy to have me visiting. I was honored and thankful that their son took the time to visit and bring them groceries.
On Fridays I watched as my neighbors brought couscous to the men working in the vegetable souks. The men motioned me to join them as they slowly gathered around the steaming plate covered with seven vegetables. Under it all, delectable pieces of chicken were hidden under the mound of couscous. I was on my way to an appointment, however, and I had an irrational fear of being late. “Shukran bzzaf. Ana mettl.“ “Lai-owwn.” Thank you much. God help you, they replied, no doubt pitying my rush.
I paused just long enough to buy a kilo of oranges. Even after a year, it felt strange to call them ‘lemons’, but like the donkeys and fire heated water, I was becoming used to it. I walked more quickly than anyone else, a vestige of my Western upbringing and uptightness. Finally, I arrived at my destination. They had asked me to come for lunch at 2:00 pm, but Mama Khadija hadn’t gotten started until a little bit later because she was visited by her sisters unexpectedly. After that, she had to go to the souk to find the right vegetables and since she was a little late, it was harder to find cabbage that suited her needs. Her husband and sons hadn’t arrived yet and her daughters were relaxing in the petite salon watching Turkish soap operas dubbed in Darija. The time had only been for the strange foreigner and only because I asked. I’ve heard an apt phrase about expats. “They never have the time but they always know it.”
Mama Khadija accepted my gift of oranges and offered me a cup of sweet mint tea. It would be at least an hour before the Friday couscous would be ready, but I was in no hurry. Schweeya b Schweeya. Al hamdillilah.
Much to my surprise, I find myself quite content to be living in a small town in Morocco. The reasons for this aren’t entirely clear, even to myself, but the fact is that I’m quite enjoying myself here and feel like I’m home for the first time in years. This isn’t a post about me though, rather it’s a couple of those quirky observations of life that I know Vagobond readers love to read about. It comes from living in Morocco, but the subject matter is something that is so baffling to me, that I can’t explain it at all. As the title clearly states, I am writing about time and money.
I know, on the surface there should be no confusion. Moroccan currency is the Moroccan Dirham (MAD) and it trades for approximately 7.5 dirhams to the U.S. Dollar (USD) or 11 dirhams to the Euro (EUR). This means that it should trade for about 4.4 dirhams for the Turkish Lira (TRY). Clear enough. The dirham is broken up into 100 centimes per dirham. So, one would expect that when you buy something the price would be given in dirhams and centimes such as a loaf of khobz (bread) costs 3 dirhams and 50 centimes or something like 3d50c or three and a half dirhams. Easy right?
Far too easy for the complex Moroccan mind. Don’t forget when you talk about Moroccans, you are talking about people who are born polyglots. Even the least educated of Moroccans speaks Darija, Arabic, and French to some degree plus in the countryside many people speak one or more varieties of Berber (tamizit or amazigh or another). Now, I don’t know if this has anything to do with the confusing state of money or not but here is how it really breaks down. Even though the currency is dirhams and centimes, prices are often talked about in terms of franks, ryals, dirhams, centimes, and millions of one or the other depending on the item being discussed. So, in fact the flus (money) of Morocco can be broken into dirhams, franks (even though there haven’t been franks for about 50 years) ryals (same as franks) and centimes. A dirham contains 100 centimes. A dirham also contains 20 ryal. A dirham also contains 100 franks. So to convert franks or centimes to dirhams you divide by 100, to convert ryals to dirhams you divide by 5. Sounds slightly confusing but easy enough. A frank is a centime and a ryal is five centimes. 100 franks = 20 ryal = 100 centimes = 1 dirham. Great.
Then you go to the market. If you are Moroccan, you know that a certain person is Berber and will give the prices in ryal or another person is Fassi and will give the price in franks. If you aren’t Moroccan, you just get numbers thrown at you. Add to this that in general, large ticket items have their prices given in millions or hundreds of thousands of centimes or franks, but also sometimes just to make things difficult they will give the price in ryal. So, for example, let’s say you are buying a hot water heater which would cost 120 Euro if you were in Europe. This is a luxury good here so the markup is to 170 Euro which we will use the common exchange of 10 MAD per Euro and we have a price of 1700 dirhams. When you go to the hardware hanoot (store) you see the item you want and you ask the price. The old man at the counter tells you that it is 200,000 franks. You struggle for a moment to remember if franks are the same as centimes or if it is 5 centimes to the franks or if you are mistaking a frank for a ryal (since you have never seen a Moroccan frank or ryal, this is an easy mistake to make). Finally, you ask him the price in ryals to get the difference (just because you are curious) and he tells you 40,000 ryals which sounds much better but is still too much, but at least now you’ve established that the ryal is bigger than the frank so the first price of 200,000 is in centimes (or franks if you prefer). So, you divide the price of 200,000 by 100 and arrive at the price of 2000 dirhams or 200 Euro. It’s too much since you know the price is only 170 Euro but you can’t just tell him the price is 170 Euro or 1700 dirhams or 170000 franks or whatever that might be in ryal. Next you have to make your offer, probably in the neighborhood of 140,000 centimes and then you negotiate and probably you arrive at the price of 170-180 Euro
This was a relatively simple purchase but when you start talking about cars or riads, you need to make sure you have your calculator. Even a trip to the market can be confusing since one vendor lists the price as 10 dirham and another is calling out 200 ryal and a third is saying myatain which is is probably the same, but frankly (hehe) I’m totally confused already.
By the way, you can’t take Moroccan dirham from the country and there are only a handful of currencies you can convert to dirhams in Morocco, one of which is NOT Turkish lira which I learned only after bringing my pay from Turkey to Morocco in Lira…oops. I thought to save from the conversion to Euros and then to dirham, but instead, I have a lot of unspendable money…thankfully, I know people who go to Turkey and come back to Morocco. Although this might be touching on the edges of the black market… And then there is the matter of time. Morocco has daylight savings time but it just doesn’t work. Many people don’t know about setting their clocks forward or back and others resent the fact that the government should be involved in something so fundamental as time and so refuse to change their clocks. As a result you have people who are on new time and people who are on old time but when the time changes back again, you have people who change for the first time and people who stay on the old time so, in effect you have a new old time and an old old time and then you have the real time which is a matter of continuous debate if you choose to engage in such a thing ( which I don’t recommend since you can’t possibly win but only become muddled in the process and perhaps buy a carpet before you realize your watch is on a time you didn’t expect it to be). In theory, for half the year everyone should be on the same time but for some reason that doesn’t happen and (god forbid) if you have employees or have hired workers for some reason, don’t expect to understand the reason why they show up an hour late AND leave an hour early, perhaps they find the new time during the middle of the day and revert to the old time when they go home.
If you want to be confused, ask my wife what time she plans to leave her moms in which case she looks at the wall clock and tells me in the time there (old time) and when I ask about whether it is old time or new time, she says ‘real time’ at which point I ask if she means real time for Moroccans or the government and she says ‘the time on my mom’s clock’ by which I know she means the old time which to her is more real than the time I have on my phone which is to me, the real time.
Besides, Moroccan time is essentially the same as Hawaiian time but without the laid back attitude you find in Hawaii-ne. For those unfamiliar, 15-30 minutes late is early, 30-60 minutes late is on time, if you wait more than an hour you will probably be disappointed and today usually means tomorrow but sometimes tomorrow means next week because the built in excuse given by God makes all things acceptable and justifiable – it’s why inchallah is tacked on the end of any statement of time or obligation you may want free of – for example: “I’d love to come to your disco party – inchallah” (translation: God doesn’t really want me to come) or “I’ll have it for you tomorrow – inchallah” (translation: Unless you stand here and make me work on it, it will never be done unless I have nothing else to do) and so on. In fact, I love inchallah since it gives me an easy way to accept the many invitations I don’t want to accept and then just not show up to. I know, completely unacceptable in the Europe or the U.S., but then, this obviously isn’t either place.