(Morocco: Part I)
Morocco, a kaleidoscope of colours, cultures and mind-twisting contrasts! This North African country lies across the Strait of Gibraltar, only thirteen kilometers from the southern coast of Spain, but trust me - it’s a world away. For years, it has topped our ever-expanding Bucket List and, this fall, it became the grand finale of our time away, eh!
It didn’t disappoint. Hop on board the Marrakesh Express - that would be our mini-van. Join me for a two-installment, whirling dervish-style circuit of the “Gateway to Africa,” from Casablanca to Marrakech through Chefchaouen, Fes, the Sahara Desert and the Atlas Mountains…
For openers, we decided on an organized tour. Why? After having spent the previous seven weeks in Italy and Spain (see: earlier Away, eh! blogs at: www.lauragosset.com), we were done with booking trains, boats, planes, automobiles, hotels, hikes, cycling excursions…you get the idea. Mon Dieu, our trip-organizing brain cells were cooked like overdone kefta (Moroccan meatballs), plus we had limited time - only two weeks - before we had to catch our international flight back to Canada. As it turned out, it was the best way for us to see so much of Morocco in so little time.
In our little group of twelve intrepid travellers, my hubby and I were the oldest (sigh!), although a lovely Australian couple had almost attained our level of maturity. The rest of the contingent, many of them Aussies, were decades younger with a youthful energy that was contagious. We counted ourselves lucky to have such fun-loving, like-minded characters with which to rock the kasbah! By the way, a kasbah is essentially a fort-like complex. Don’t worry, I didn’t know that either – although I vaguely remember that cheesy, punk rock song from the 80’s!
This I did know: Muslims, who make up the vast majority of Moroccans, are forbidden to drink alcohol and, while Morocco is not a completely dry country, I’d heard spirits would not be readily available. In other words, (gasp!) our evening Happy Hours were in jeopardy. No problem. Coming from Spain, we filled our bags with a lovely selection of Spanish wines and maxed out at Duty Free. That supply didn’t make it through the first week. Thereafter, my dear husband became the group advocate for stopping each day to stock up at the local Carrefour, one of the few grocery stores that sold booze. We even found ourselves putting wine in our water bottles to smuggle into alcohol-free restaurants.
Despite Don’s considerable efforts, some evenings we were forced into non-voluntary liver detox – upon reflection, probably not a bad thing. To drink, there was always plenty of the traditional fresh and fragrant mint tea (known affectionately as “Berber Whiskey”). Steaming, sickly sweet and ceremoniously poured in an age-old ritual from an engraved silver teapot held high above tiny tea glasses, Moroccans take their tea seriously. It was delicious, sans the mounds of sugar used by the locals…that said, it wasn’t wine!
On a more positive note, many of the locals spoke French and did so slowly – likely a function of it not being their first language. They even comprehended my faltering français better than real French from the motherland. I must say, it was formidable for my language self-esteem!
Multilingualism is the norm in Morocco. French, which originates from Morocco’s colonial past when the country was a French Protectorate, is no longer listed as an official language even though it’s still taught in schools. Classic Arabic and Berber share that status, although on the streets mostly dialects are spoken - Moroccan Arabic and various renditions of Berber.
I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the compelling culture of the Berbers. Once upon a time - about 4,000 years ago - the country’s original indigenous population (perhaps descendants of ancient Egypt) met, mingled and merged with Saharans, East Africans, Phoenicians and whoever else happened to wander into the region. The result was a swirling potpourri of peoples known as the Amazigh (loosely translated as ‘free people’).
When the Romans arrived in the 4th century, they were confounded by this fiercely tribal, multi-cultural melting pot and called them ‘Berbers’ (which means barbarians). During the ensuing centuries, the unruly Berbers not keen on being colonized, flagrantly disregarded Roman rules, refused to worship Roman gods and generally harassed their invaders. Finally, the Romans gave up and crowned the most Roman-friendly Berber they could find as the king of the region.
The Arabs, who appeared in Morocco in the 7th century, brought with them Islam. Again the Berber warriors resisted foreign rule, but the ideology of the Arab religion was consistent with Berber beliefs, so they kept the Quran and converted. While over the centuries, other empires and invaders left their mark on Morocco, through it all the indomitable ‘free people’ continued to maintain their own culture and language.
Fast forward to modern times. The cultures have mixed and remixed like a blend of Moroccan spices causing the line between Arab and Berber to become somewhat blurred, but according to Wiki, the majority of Moroccans today are of Berber descent and ninety-nine percent of the total population adhere to the Muslim faith.
This was the first time we’d spent such a considerable block of time in an Arab-Muslim country. And while Morocco has long been considered Western-oriented and moderate, we still saw women wearing burqas (which cover everything but the eyes) and virtually all the women in the country covered their head and hair with a scarf or veil. I thought perhaps the burqa-clad ladies were from a different sect, but Chama, our young, veil-adorned Berber guide, set me straight, “Some husbands don’t want other men looking at their wives’ faces, so they insist they wear the burqa.” That’s when I realized, we definitely weren’t in Kansas anymore!
One of the most distinctive differences in culture was the call to prayer five times a day. Oui, five times, mes amis - pre-dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset and night. Broadcast through loudspeakers from the minaret of the local mosque, it echoed throughout the streets of every hamlet, village, town and city we visited, starting at about five in the morning! An alarm was redundant. It’s central to daily life in Morocco and I have to admit, after I got used to it, I found the sound peaceful, almost Zen-inspiring and certainly more pleasing to the ear than roosters!
Before I wrap this up, a few comments about Moroccan cuisine. Like the country, its food is dizzyingly diverse. A mélange of Berber, Arabic, Andalusian and Mediterranean, with an added dash of European influence, everything we ate was fresh, aromatic and 100% organic. Think: happy herds, with nary a GMO, pesticide or factory farm to be seen – such fancy technologies are too costly for the local farmers.
The flavour combinations were intriguing and the spices used in cooking were not hot, but rather rich and subtle, including the likes of ginger, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, caraway and saffron. Oh, and lest I forget, the quintessentially Moroccan, ras el hanout, a warm, pungent spice blend which contains as few as ten and as many as a hundred ingredients. There is no definitive composition and every cook seems to have their own secret recipe.
While locals consider couscous a gift from Allah, I swear tajine must be the national dish. It was on every menu in every restaurant we visited. A stew seasoned with ras el honout, tajine is slow-cooked in a unique, two-piece clay pot of the same name. The fluted, conical-shaped lid traps steam and returns it to the pot as condensed liquid, which means little water is needed – a bonus in the desert! It’s typically made with a variety of seasonal vegetables and either beef, lamb, goat, chicken or even fish – but never pork, which is religiously taboo. Having just come from the vegetable wasteland of Spain where it was a challenge to get even a salad, I was delighted – at least for the first few days. By the end of two weeks, trust me - I was done, totally tajined-out!
In Fes, we tried that city’s specialty dish, Bastila, a meat pie traditionally made with pigeon. Please dear God, let that odd, sweet-tasting, mystery meat stuffed into a round pillow of pastry, be either chicken or beef. My personal favourite was a dish called Rfissa (or ‘Mother’s Meal’ because it’s made for special celebrations like the birth of a baby and is given to the new mother for strength). Aromatic and spicy, it is chicken stewed with lentils, saffron and who knows what else and is served on a bed of day old bread. It sounds nasty, but it was truly tasty.
Plump olives and exotic cooked vegetable salads were common as starters and meals would often culminate with figs, almonds, pomegranates, grapes and the fattest dates I’ve ever seen - all grown locally!
Sadly, there was no wrong time to eat bread. It came in all shapes and sizes and was either fresh baked on a fire or in the oven, cooked in a pan like a pancake or deep-fried like a donut – it didn’t seem to matter, it was far too enticing. For the record, I’ve been eating more responsibly since arriving home, but by writing about food I’m making myself hungry. I shall close now before I loose my tenuous grip on self-control.
Stay tuned! My next blog will be a continuation of our quest to uncover spice and adventure in some of Morocco’s most magical destinations. M’assalama for now, my friends! I leave you with the wise words from a Moroccan proverb, “AMREK MA TKOUL NDEMT DIMA KOUL T3ALEMT,” which apparently means:
“Never say I regret, always say I learned.”