My friend Susan Davis recently traveled to Morocco on a cultural exchange tour sponsored by the United States Department of State. Ms. Davis — a poet and a broadcaster — recorded her candid impressions of the country in a series of dispatches home. What follows is a sample of her observations and photographs from her tour.
My first impressions of Rabat were hot, dry and salty. It smells a lot like coastal Israel. It’s green with palm trees, cypress, Jacaranda and Bougainvillea. The buildings are officious — it’s the Capital — and several parks are under construction. My hotel was once a palace and the public spaces were truly magnificent with intricate tile work and chandeliers, terraces with mature gardens and high-ceilinged dining rooms with marble floors and carved moulding. This morning I had a traditional Moroccan breakfast: fresh fruit, a mushroom omelet, a bowl of harira (a tomato based lentil soup that you squeeze lemon juice into) dates, a pastry of fried dough dipped in honey and covered with sesame seeds, three Moroccan pancakes served with butter and jam and several loaves of Moroccan bread which is shaped and used like pita but is made with barley flour and is doughy. Also, sweet black coffee and fresh orange juice.
In Fes, we checked into our hotel, picked up a childhood friend of Loubna’s (she grew up in Fes) who works for the historic preservation trust there and headed to the Medina — the old, walled city. It’s a labyrinthine market and meeting place where you can find everything you need and everything everyone you love and must have. Spices, bread, sweets, vegetables, meat, fish, chickens, jewelry, beauty products, house wears, shoes, clothes, electronics, instruments, tiles, rugs, tea, and coffee. Fes is known for its leather goods and silver. The only thing I couldn’t find that I wanted to buy for Milo (and Aaron) was an actual Fez. I’m not kidding. I’ve been to a market like this in Jerusalem and in Cairo, but that was 30 years ago. This one is remarkably controlled given that it is pure chaos.
Loubna’s friend got us access to several newly restored buildings, including a mosque and university from the 9th century, a hostel from the 12th century and a library from sometime in-between. It feels old but not ancient. Not like the Coliseum in Rome feels ancient. Maybe this is because its teeming RIGHT NOW. So much lifting and sniffing and fingering and wondering and considering and haggling and buying. And eating and drinking. Loubna’s FitBit said we walked more than 8,000 steps.
Before leaving Fes this morning we went back to the Medina to interview Hamza, an alumnus of the State Department’s social entrepreneurship exchange. He’s the youngest of five brothers. His parents don’t have a high school education, nor do his brothers. His father spent a decade training to be a master craftsman making silver and brass hand carved tea trays. Hamza got himself to college and through graduate school. He studied geometry and sacred arts. He published several books and taught at the university in Fes but wanted to do something that gave back, particularly to the community of craftsmen and tool makers he grew up around. While his brothers apprenticed with his father and eventually quit, Hamza started Craft Draft, a low profit company that offers workshops in leather bookbinding, weaving and metalwork. He trains Moroccans, trusts, kids, anyone interested in the preservation of handicrafts. He’s tremendously successful. He even brought his father out of retirement to return to the workshop and help teach. The last thing he said to me was, “if you send craftsmen to a desert island they will build a civilization. If you send engineers to a desert island they will starve to death because they can’t make tools, they can’t make a spoon.”
Fes is a man’s world. The cafes are brimming with men, only men. The women are in the park with the children. The division between the sexes is acute. There are no public displays of affection between men and women. However, men walk arm in arm and women walk hand in hand, and friends caress each other intimately but not sexually without thinking. It’s a touchy, feely, handsy place but the air is void of both sensuality and sexuality. It is dry. So, so dry. But warm, as full of human warmth as anywhere I’ve been. It smells of mint and orange blossoms, rose water and sandalwood. If I were going to be an old Muslim woman instead of an old Jewess, I’d retire here.
I was guest teaching a communications class in which the students were practicing their interview skills on me and these were the questions: (I’m not making this up.)
- Why did you Americans choose Donald Trump to be president?
- What can we do about misunderstandings of Islam?
- Do you like Justin Trudeau?
- Are you married?
- Do you know any Muslims in America?
- Why make podcasts when there is YouTube?
Only afterward did I find out that we’ve dropped “the mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan. As Heather wrote to me — bombs have nothing to do with motherhood. Or, as I would put it: f*** that phrase.
About the cat calling. I thought one of the upsides to traveling in my dotage, in modest clothes, with dark hair, in a country where people have already spoken to me in Arabic, Spanish and Italian, would be a cat call free experience. But no. So, how do I explain this (at least to myself?) I think that what happens in a country with a majority religion is that it forces those of us not in the majority religion into the position of irrefutable other. And that’s dehumanizing and easy to objectify. (Yes, every feminist publishing between 1978 and 1992 already said this, but I had to comb through my menopausal, jet lagged brain and rethink it anyway so now you have to listen as well.) After we checked into our hotel in Casablanca, Loubna went to meet a friend and I took a walk. I wore sunglasses so as to avoid eye contact and yet the kissing noises and the invasion of personal space were relentless. I ducked into a few shops, bought some postcards (but couldn’t find stamps,) resisted more coffee, decided against getting lost in the Medina and headed back to the hotel. Just before crossing the last street between me and air conditioned heaven, a young woman tapped me on the shoulder, and I was so balled up and tense and suspicious that I jumped, like in a cartoon and my “ Ah!!” was indeed audible. She smiled and handed me my hotel room keycard which had fallen out of my pocket when I took my phone out to use as a camera. I thanked her in English, Arabic and French. She then asked me, in French, if I spoke French, I said no, and then she said, in French, well, I don’t what she said, but I looked at her and said, “I should be careful, yes?” And she smiled and touched my hand and said “Oui!” and walked away. So that’s it for my good karma. Spent.
I drank copious amounts of delicious coffee at breakfast and we set off for Mrirt. There I interviewed Mounir, he runs a school for deaf kids. His childhood best friend Said went deaf after an illness and he was forced to drop out of school. Mounir was so dismayed by this that he learned sign language with Said and became Said’s advocate. Said went on to become the first deaf Moroccan to get a Ph.D. Mounir participated in a State Department sponsored exchange in Chicago where he networked with other educators of and advocates for children with special needs. He helped make signs for a protest, networked with other advocates and learned a ton about accessibility. Now, along with the school, he runs an NGO that helps train any and everybody in sign language. Mounir showed us the kid’s’s artwork and crafts and then they all wanted to take a picture with me and Loubna. Feeling humbled is now a daily, or twice daily experience.
We tried to eat lunch in Mrirt, but I was too much of a spectacle, so we drove the two hours on the curvy mountain roads to a different small town, where I was also a spectacle but accompanied by fewer hoots and whistles and we found a place with tajine with meat and veggies and homemade bread. The landscape from Mrirt to Casablanca fades from bright green to dried mint, the cedars grow closer to the ground and there are lipstick red poppies for miles. I alternated between marveling at the small stone substance houses with old women hand thrashing wheat in front and holding back my nausea.
Ouarzazate is a tourist attraction. It’s the desert, It’s flat and expansive and surrounded by mountains and dotted with oases — I hate to sound like one of those Americans who relate everything back to America BUT . . . it’s a dead ringer for the Palm Springs area of California except for the ancient ruins and casbahs, camels, bedouins, and, oddly enough, campus sized movie studios. The town runs on the film industry and celebrates that history. They are most proud of Gladiator of late, but it is also where Ishtar was filmed and a bunch of other “it happened in Arabia” schlock. The place was swarming with people attached to a massive Chinese production and people working on something called “Desert Storm” which caused both Loudbna and me to visibly shudder when we saw that written on the side of the giant buses (that presumably move the crew around).
The first thing I did was go to a spa for a hammam, a traditional Moroccan bath. It involved an impossibly young and humidity resistant woman who spoke no English having me stand under a shower in an interior tiled room with small skylights, cushioned benches and a floor that sloped toward a center drain. Then she had me lie down, scrubbed me with eucalyptus goo, stood me up, poured alternating buckets of hot and cold water on me, told me to lie down, oiled me up with argan, stood me up, washed my hair, had me lie down, rubbed me down with different goo, hosed me down, and finally wrapped me in a towel and robe and walked me to a room with a massage table and a middle aged woman who spent hours massaging me beginning with my feet and finishing with my scalp. Then I was led to a big cushy sitting room and given sweet mint tea and allowed to take my time before returning to my own clothes and re-entering the city.
So I was grateful for the refuge of the Riad. I hated to leave it early the next day for a guided walking tour of historic Marrakech with included the old Jewish section, the still-in-use synagogue and the tombs of the sultans and their families and servants. I also saw the remnants of an early mosque and had the orientation and symbolism of the mosque that was put up in its place explained. I walked about 5 miles in 2.5 hours with my guide Ali who was full of good humor about the various myths of the saints, the folklore of the tombs and the size of the casbah gate. He was also eager to show off what he knew about the Jews of Marrakech and their historically Jewish neighborhood. He seemed way more impressed with my Jewishness than I have ever been myself.
I recovered from the heat and the press of the Marrakech tourism tornado by finishing a novel on the roof of the Riad which is crowded with large planters spilling over with bougainvillea, chaise longues, shade umbrellas, hammocks and an orange and tabby cat who managed to follow the sun around the roof. I went out for dinner alone at a restaurant overlooking the square that has the Moroccan equivalent of a mariachi band playing vague covers of Harry Belafonte and Sinatra on traditional Moroccan instruments. The surreality of this was made hilarious by the vat of pink wine that came with my lamb tajine. Also, the many opportunities to make people’s night by taking their pictures — an older couple from France who never smiled once, a set of young couples from the Netherlands who wouldn’t stop smiling and a family from Germany who tipped up their plates of berber style dessert crepes to match their we-were-somewhere-foreign expressions. People either come for the chaos and embrace the diversity and color and constant motion (like the Dutch) or people get exhausted and offended and look for escape (the Indian couple) but no one feels neutral about Marrakech. It’s all up in your grill and you have to decide. Unless you manage a hammam and lamb tajine with pink wine in about 24 hours. Then you see the value of it all even as you feel the thundering waste and overcompensation.
Text and photos by Susan Davis