Harmonious, not a word the current news media or the American public would likely use when speaking of the Islamic World, however inapplicable and disjointed it may sound; "harmonious" does apply when speaking of Morocco and its largest city Marrakech. Founded in the tenth century, Marrakech, is a city very at ease with its identity, its sense of place, and confident in its direction. Unlike most of the rest of the African continent, currently wrapped in a straight jacket of political strife- Marrakech is prosperous, politically stable, and bustling with commercial activity. Traveling through the congested down town by car, it seems nearly every other building is under construction. The global real estate boom is in full swing here. Expensive homes are being built as quickly as the land can be cleared. The buyers are mostly wealthy Europeans seeking a warm and sunny escape in the form of a stylish second home. For the locals it has meant more jobs- crowds of men wait patiently each morning for work; they are willing to do what ever job is offered. Driving through the countryside, in the foot hills of the Atlas mountain range that separates Morocco from its northern neighbor Algeria, groups of saddled donkeys quietly graze by the side of the road. They too are waiting patiently, their owners- mostly young men, have left them there in order to take a bus or car into the city seeking a day's work. At days end the men will ride back to their respective villages along narrow rocky trails no car could ever hope to drive upon.
Gracious hospitality, another phrase that may seem out of place but once again, for the citizens of Marrakech- be they shop keeper, hotel worker, cab driver, or passer by on the streets of the city- equally applicable. Wandering the heavily crowded "Souks" the famous market place in the city center, we are warned of pickpockets and thieves, we didn't encounter any but I'm certain they're there. Instead, we are greeted warmly by the shop keepers anxious to make us feel comfortable and in the mood to buy. Bargaining is an art form here and a skillful shopper who knows how to negotiate receives respect. The Souks themselves are the shopping malls of the ancient world- for centuries people have brought their goods here to sell. The densely populated, dark and narrow alleyways are filled with color and the smells of exotic spices, incense, roasting meats, baked goods, fruits, and flowers all blending to draw the senses into traveling back in time to a place far away. Every conceivable product is sold here from pastries to perfumes, textiles, gold, brass cook wear, fine silver wear, Nike sneakers, fake designer handbags, dried fruits and nuts of every variety, cell phones and even leopard hides. The carpet and antique market is famous here- famous for the skillful sales technique of the shop owners, as well as, for meticulous reproductions that are nearly impossible to distinguish from the real thing. The buyer seeking an authentic antique is wise to bring along a certified expert or to bargain the price down to the point of no risk.
A basket of tiny live turtles catches my eye, "they are sold for pets," our guide Mohamed Zahidi tells me. He's dressed in a traditional Berber shirt and pants. Most of Morocco's population is Berber, the Arabs came later, bringing Islam. The French arrived in 1909, staying until the 1950's along with the Spanish who once held the northern half of the country. French is the second language of most Moroccans but English is popular also. Berber and Arabic are spoken everywhere- amongst the Berber there is a sizable Jewish population that has lived here along side Muslims for the better part of a thousand years. The tiny turtles crawl and tumble over each other trying to find an escape from their little prison. "People like to buy them to put in their gardens", explains Mohamed. "The garden is central to Moroccan culture" he continues, "Marrakech was once two thirds gardens and only one third city."
to have a small pond or fountain is a sign of status
The gardens he speaks of are beautiful courtyard arrangements that are found at the center of the Moroccan family home. Oranges, lemons, nuts, and olives are the foundation of any Moroccan garden, but to have a small pond or fountain is a sign of status. Mohamed speaks with a distinctive American midwestern accent as do the rest of his team guiding us through the historic sites of Marrakech. Along with his job as a tour guide, Mohamed also holds a Masters degree in English and is teacher. He's joined by Abdula, a tall, peaceful man dressed head to toe in sky blue imbroarded Berber garb who walks along behind our group keeping watch over us like a herdsman. There are many tourists wandering the streets unescorted and all seem in no particular danger, however, these men take their job very seriously. Abdula also speaks perfect English and once lived in Florida for a year and a half working at the Moroccan pavilion at Disney World's Epcot Center in Orlando. The pavilion is a point of pride for the Moroccan government and its people. It has singlehandedly boosted tourism and exposed thousands of visitors to Moroccan culture. It is considered an honor to work there. Abdula explains that the most authentic Moroccan food in the US is found there.
The second day of our Moroccan experience finds us bumping along narrow, winding gravel roads on our way to lunch in the Atlas mountains- its cold. The skies are blue and the ground is red. The scenery could easily be mistaken for southern Colorado or Northern New Mexico; the villages even look like Adobe style structures. We were picked up at our hotel early that morning by a caravan of five sleek matching silver Toyota Land Cruisers. Our driver only speaks Berber or French. Fortunately I'm accompanied today by Anais, Thierry Pouille's daughter, who speaks French fluently. Art, unfortunately, has been suffering with a bad sinus allergy and can't join us. Its a four hour ride through the mountains, the narrow roads are made of lose rock with no guard rails and a very steep drop off to the bottom of the canyon. Herds of sheep and goats tended mostly by children dot the hill sides.
Crowds of men gather here to buy and sell goods and livestock, to settle disputes
One young girl watches over her herd while chatting on her cell phone- another boy listens to his iPod. The mud brick homes are nearly all equipped with a satellite dish. At one point we drive through a large market area. Crowds of men gather here to buy and sell goods and livestock, to settle disputes, and to arrange marriages. The ancient and the traditional are simply enhanced by technology here, not replaced. The scenic views are magnificent, off in the distance we can still see snow on the tops of the tallest peaks. The Atlas mountains reach a height of thirteen thousand feet and on the Moroccan side they are home to the largest ski resort areas in Africa. Our driver tells us that the ski season lasted much longer this year than normal with a greater than average amount of snow fall.
The resort we're headed to was developed by Richard Branson, it's very beautiful and apparently hemorrhaging cash. It's located in a remote area of the mountains nearly an hour drive from Marrakech by hard road. Our tour took us the back way through the mountains. The staff had arranged our lunch on the terrace overlooking a beautiful valley. It was unseasonably cold though- we were all freezing! The last thing any of us expected was to be wanting a jacket in May in the desert. The staff brought out gas heaters and put them around our table, then they offered us warm pool towels to bundle up in- we looked really silly but we were warm! There were a bunch of British tourists laying around the pool in swimsuits; they must have thought we were nuts.
another had bits of roasted sheep brain
The food was terrific as was all of the food we've had during our visit. The night before we all went out to dinner at what is widely considered the best restaurant in Marrakech. Meals are taken very seriously here and served very slowly. It's not enough to have great food- there must be theatre involved also. Our meal began with a dozen small dishes containing all sorts of meats, pickled vegetables, nuts and olives. One small dish had marinated peaces of liver, another had bits of roasted sheep brain. Then the main courses were brought out with much fan fare. Roasted chicken, then lamb, then a vegetable couscous. We sat around the large round tables on a mound of brocade covered cushions; we were treated like royalty. The meal lasted several hours and finished with several desert courses at around midnight; exhausting but fantastic.
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