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It’s been such a summer of adventures, and I can’t believe I’m still only about halfway through blogging about them. (Of course, the summer isn’t over yet, either.)

Our room at Les Terrasses d’Essaouira. I guess it doesn’t look like much in the photo, because of the bad lighting or something, but I promise it was a pretty nice room.

Leaving Essaouira, even though I had already seen more or less all of the historical sights, I still felt as I almost always do in every city I visit, that I wished I had just one more night. I think this is also a function of leaving so late at night – when you’re preparing to leave in the middle of the night to catch a very early morning flight, as you pack up your things and maybe sit on the bed, all you want is to sleep in that bed one more time. And, yeah, maybe more generally, regardless of what time of day you’re leaving, wishing to walk the shopping streets or visit X restaurant or Y shop just one more time…

We got a taxi at 1am to drive us the 2 ½ or 3 hours to Marrakesh airport, to get there by 4am so my gf could check in for her 6am flight, and me for my 7am flight. We split up for the next ten weeks or so, going different places for our research and so forth. I caught a short flight from Marrakesh to Marseilles, and then from Marseilles to London Stansted, where I was supposed to transfer again to a flight from London to New York, to get home. But because of the way the flights were arranged, I couldn’t simply go through “International Transfers” or “Connecting Flights” or whatever they call it. I had to go through Immigration, wait for my bag, then go back around to Departures to then check in and drop my bag like normal, like as if I had just arrived in the airport from staying or living in London. This takes time. So when the flight from Marseilles arrived 20 minutes late, and then the ground crew at Stansted took their sweet time getting the stairway/jetway to the plane, deplaning us 20-30 minutes late, and then the little transit shuttle between parts of the terminal broke down, I lost enough time that I ended up missing my connection.

I took this photo basically just to send to my gf to say, “hey, you’ll never guess where I am,” since my flight was supposed to be out of Stansted. But I guess I’m getting ahead of myself.

The two staff members at the check-in desks who I talked to – I wish I’d gotten their names – were not only unhelpful, but flatout rude. I suppose they deal with tens of people every day who have missed their flights for various reasons that are their own fault – just not planning ahead well enough or whatever, so I guess to a certain extent I can’t blame the staff for taking that particular perspective. Still, ultimately, this wasn’t my fault. Yes, I scheduled a connection that left only 2 ½ hours to make the connection, and didn’t leave a lot of room for error. But, this was a set of flights that was an authentic one offered to me in my online searches – not something I hodgepodged together myself. And 2 ½ hours really should be enough, if everything goes according to plan. And if it doesn’t go according to plan, well that’s not my fault – it’s Stansted’s fault, really, for whatever happened with the severe delay to the deplaning process, and for the transit shuttle, which anecdotally I get the impression breaks down on an almost daily basis. The staff member at the airport information booth, by contrast, was very kind, even looking up for me any possibilities of any other flights to NY from any London airports that evening, though she suggested I would have to pay out of pocket for those flights, £350 or whatever it may be.

Thankfully, even where the airport and the airline were unwilling to be of any help whatsoever, Kiwi.com (where I’d booked my flights to begin with) was willing to rebook me on a new set of flights for no additional charge. But, keep reading – it’s not all roses and happiness with Kiwi. I called them, and they said they’d look into alternative options, and they would get back to me within 2-4 hours. Reasonable enough, I thought at the time, though in retrospect I feel like every other time this sort of thing has happened to me, someone has searched and figured it out and offered me a new flight almost immediately, in 5-15 minutes or whatever, while I stood there. Still, okay, whatever. So, knowing there were no more flights to New York that evening and that no matter what happened I would need to stay over in London overnight, I got on a bus into the city. In retrospect, I suppose I should have just stayed at the airport. But, then, I couldn’t have known exactly how things were going to play out. It was still relatively early in the day, and while it would be too late to visit museums or anything, I guess I thought there was still plenty of time in the day to put down my stuff at a hostel somewhere and then go out and experience London a little bit, walk the streets, whatever – maybe meet up with a friend for dinner or a pint. As it turned out, that’s not quite what happened. After a very long bus ride into London proper, I schlepped myself around to several hotels asking for a last-minute room, and all of them were inexplicably booked solid. I finally ended up getting a bed at a youth hostel – definitely the most cramped space I would have ever slept in, with four beds crammed into a tiny corner room, plus it was terribly muggy in the room, with no A/C and only one small window which somehow didn’t seem to help enough. Before I settled in at all, though, I then got an email from Kiwi offering an alternative plan – saying that they would book me at a 4-star hotel near Gatwick, and book me tickets on a set of flights the next day to get me home. Great. I clicked to Accept that offer, to set the ball rolling on them actually booking those things for me, and headed out towards Gatwick. Turns out the hotel is not right at the airport, but a good ten-minute drive away, in essentially the middle of nowhere. Cost me £16 just for the 10-minute taxi ride, though I suppose I must have accidentally come across some expensive “car service” instead of a normal taxi. Finally got to this very nice hotel, and mind you it’s been about two hours at least since I clicked “Accept,” and still no confirmation email from Kiwi. I am just so relieved that after all these hours and hours of traveling, I’ll have a nice bed to sleep in, a private room with a shower, and I can really genuinely just relax before my flight the next day. So, imagine my surprise when the hotel tells me that not only do they have no reservation for me, but that they and all the other hotels for ten miles are completely booked solid. I called Kiwi again, and they said essentially that they were still working on it. Still working on it? It’s been hours since I clicked to Accept this offer of a rebooking, and it’s now 11 o’clock at night and all I want to do is shower and sleep. I’ve just spent £16 to get to a hotel in the middle of nowhere, and now what, I’m supposed to spend another £16 to get back to the airport and then take my chances with finding somewhere to sleep there, either in an airport hotel or lounge or just on the benches out in the lobbies? How long does it take to make a set of bookings for someone? And don’t they know that they have to move quickly or else it’ll get booked up?

Thankfully, the manager at the hotel was very kind and rather than just saying “no room at the inn, I’m so sorry sir,” and kicking me out, instead he let me sleep on a couch in one of the back rooms, a restaurant or reception room far from any activity. It was really wonderful. I cannot thank him enough. As upset as I was at the time, feeling stranded and lost, and just not even knowing whether or not I would in fact have a flight in the morning, it really was just so great to have somewhere to sleep. I generally don’t need that much in life – a shower would have been great, but a couch is just as good as a bed, much better than a bench or a floor, and I had outlets to charge my phone + computer, and a quiet, dark, room to myself where I could actually get some sleep.

I got up about five or six hours later to find an email saying that Kiwi had in fact booked and confirmed me for this new set of flights. So, now I was to take an early morning flight from Gatwick to Paris, have a seven hour or so layover, and then take an evening flight to New York. Okay. Amidst all of this craziness, and as tired and un-showered and sore (from so much sitting on planes, buses, and trains) as I was, the opportunity to visit Paris for even just a few hours was a real silver lining. I’d never been to France at all before, so this was great. Still, before we get into that, let me just highlight again: I am very glad that Kiwi was willing to rebook me on a new set of flights, and to even offer me a hotel for the night, and reimbursement for my various buses and taxis within London, even after the airport and the airline both said “you’re outta luck.” I’m very glad and grateful that, even though none of this was really Kiwi’s fault to begin with – it was Stansted’s – they would do this for me and spare me £350 or whatever the amount would have been. … And, admittedly, I’m not positive whether or not I will use Kiwi again. I just might, though I guess I’ll try to be more careful about planning long enough layovers to account for any potential problems. But, just to state it out explicitly: it should not take 2-4 hours to find an alternative set of flights, and it should not take an additional however many hours to actually book and confirm that alternative plan. Once they offered me a room at that Gatwick hotel, and especially given the intervening two hours it took me to get to the hotel (during which time they could have been making the calls and making the booking), I should not have ended up at that hotel at 11 o’clock at night with nowhere to stay for the night, and no confirmation (yet) that I would actually have tickets for the flight they offered me, which was departing only 8 or 9 hours later.

Apropos of nothing going on in my story, a US military plane on the tarmac at the Marseilles Airport. Why? What are they doing here? Do we have military bases in France? I didn’t know.

I’ve been fortunate to not have to deal with this sort of situation very many times in my life, but when I have, it’s never been like this. It’s always been the airline either rebooking me immediately, or saying go walk around the airport, get a coffee or whatever, come back to me in 30 minutes, or 45 minutes or an hour, and I’ll see what we can do for you. From what I remember of my first time ever going to Hawaii, that was pretty much what happened. It was either USAirways or United, I forget which, but on their flight from NY to Phoenix, it was way too cold in the cabin, and not only were they charging money for blankets but they were sold out. So I was freezing. And they were also sold out of any vegetarian options for food. So by the time we got to Phoenix I was already in a bad state, having not slept much the night before because it was a very early morning departure. We then transferred to a different plane at Phoenix, which had been sitting on the tarmac in literally 110+ degree weather, and it was absolutely boiling inside. I passed out, and was taken off the plane by paramedics or EMTs or whatever. The airline immediately offered to book me on the next flight, and I don’t remember exactly how it happened but somehow or other I suggested that I didn’t feel well enough to fly yet and they offered to pay for me to have a hotel in Phoenix for the night. So, I got a hotel, and a new flight, easy as that. I don’t remember exactly how long it took for them to schedule it, but it happened. I wasn’t left stranded, left in the dark as to what was going to happen to me or where I was going to stay for the night or when I would ever make it to Hawaii. All in all, relatively easy and efficiently taken care of. Not so with Kiwi. So, buyer beware – be careful with Kiwi. I don’t think this is by any means an isolated incident. I imagine that with just a tiny bit of Googling, one could come up with plenty of other similar stories from people who were not treated so well by Kiwi. And thank god I had the flexibility in my schedule to be able to deal with this. Imagine if I really truly had somewhere to be the next day.

So, that said, I did get to spend a good few hours in Paris. It’s a very weird feeling, to visit such an incredible big-name world-class city, but only for a few hours. To go back to the very first lines of this series of blog posts on my trip to Morocco, to feel that I’m actually in Paris, *the* Paris, the one and only one, and yet, to be seeing so little of it and then just leaving again. It’s a very strange feeling. Can I even really say now that “I have been to France,” that “I have seen Paris,” when really all I’ve seen is the Louvre, a short set of streets on the walk from the Chatelet-Les Halles train station to the Louvre and back, one sandwich shop, and one boulangerie? I’m glad that in addition to the museum I did think to go to a genuine Paris boulangerie and get a baguette sandwich with camembert, experiencing the authentic Paris version of what I’ve had so many times at French-style places in LA, Tokyo, and elsewhere. But, yeah, it’s a funny feeling. Someday I’ll have to go back, see the city so much more. See the Musee Quai Branly and the Eiffel Tower and all the rest. In the meantime, I did that horrible thing that tourists do, that as a proper art historian I’m a bit embarrassed about, but knowing this might very well be my only time in Paris for who knows how many years, I ran around the Louvre just making sure to see, and photograph, every one of the most famous artworks I could. To be totally frank, I don’t actually even know what I got out of that experience.

My photos aren’t nearly as good as what I could pull up in five seconds on Google Images, and it’s not like I stayed in front of any of these artworks long enough to appreciate them further, more deeply, than to just capture a photo, so, what am I really doing? … But, still, I guess there was something to it. I’m glad to be able to say I’ve been to the Louvre, and to have gotten some sense of how it looks and feels and how it’s all laid out. Now, when it happens to come up in conversation, I can have at least something to say about it, yes, I have some sense of how amazingly difficult it is to find your way from one section of the museum to another, constantly going upstairs in order to get downstairs, and going all the way down one end of the building just to be able to cross over to get to another section… And I have some sense of how opulently decorated the building itself is, the walls, the ceilings, even beyond the artworks on the walls and plinths. And some sense of how exceptionally Eurocentric the collection is, which I had not realized. One very new gallery in the basement, opened in the 2000s, dedicated to what they used to call “Primitive Art” – the arts of the Americas, Africa, Oceania, and Southeast Asia – while the entire rest of the museum is just Western European art, chiefly Spanish, Italian, French, German, and Dutch. (Oh, yeah, plus a section on Islamic Art). Not a single Chinese ink painting or Japanese woodblock print in the entire building, and that’s a building that’s at least as big as the Metropolitan or the British Museum. But, okay, to each their own. Next time I’ll have to be sure to visit some other museums – the Quai Branly, the Guimet, and the Cernusci. In the meantime, I got to see, if not to really engage with, the Venus de Milo, Victory of Samothrace, Da Vinci’s portrait of St. John the Baptist, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Gericault’s Medusa, the Grand Odalisque, Jacque-Louis David’s Horatii, the incredible crowd around the Mona Lisa, and so on.

One of Delacroix’s beautiful notebooks.

Actually, one neat unexpected highlight of the Louvre trip was that they had up at the time a special exhibit on Delacroix, which included a handful of his works produced during his trip to Morocco. So, for me, this could not have been more timely. To spend a week and a half in Morocco, and then immediately afterwards see these Orientalist paintings and sketches of what Delacroix saw a century earlier, precisely the paintings that in part inspire our Western conceptions and imaginations of a fantastic Morocco full of bellydancers, harems, and so on and so forth.

Delacroix’s Women of Algiers in their Apartment. I had been told that since Muslim women were inaccessible to him, hidden within their homes and not visible to a foreign visitor, he had painted Jewish women. That a great many of the Orientalist paintings of “women of North Africa” from that time were in fact of Jews and not of Muslims. But the Louvre webpage for the painting suggests otherwise. Interesting.

And then, after that, I made my way back to CDG Airport, and finally home to New York, no further surprises or hiccups.

All photos my own. My thanks to the Louvre for allowing photographs, even in the special exhibition.

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On our second day in Essaouira, the ICTM Mediterranean Music working group’s conference began, and I attended for maybe about half the day. This was the real impetus for us coming to Morocco to begin with. It seems a good group, a very cool conference, to bring together some 70 people or whatever the number is who are all specialists in Mediterranean music (Andalusian, North African, Sephardic, Greek, Arab, or Ottoman), to such a special location, to discuss such topics. Makes me eager to try to attend their East Asia working group’s conference sometime. Though it’s recently been in Seoul, Taipei, Nara, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, I wonder if they might ever hold it in Naha, Nagasaki, Tsushima, Fuzhou, Hoi An, or somewhere else that might provide me an opportunity to go somewhere really special I haven’t gotten to go to otherwise.

The harbor at Essaouira. Many of the fishing boats are painted blue, in keeping with the color scheme of the city.

In any case, while the conference was going on, I ducked out a few times, once to retrieve my camera from the Supratours bus company office as I had accidentally left it on the bus the day before, and once to just make sure I explored the key historical sites of the city. It’s a small city, and though it has many gates and city walls, and who knows maybe spots of historical note otherwise that I’m not quite aware of (apparently Jimi Hendrix spent quite some time in a hippie colony / Berber village just down the road, called Diabat), it seems the only thing of really major note is the Scala – a set of fortifications right at the port. Built by the Portuguese, the Scala played a key role in defending the tiny Portuguese settlement here from Moroccan raiders and the like, and with Essaouira (then called Mogador) as a base of operations for Portuguese exploration, raiding and so forth, and trade. As we’ll remember from our survey of world history classes, the Portuguese Empire, at least in its early centuries, was never one of conquering large swaths of land, but rather was all about establishing small trading posts: Mogador and the nearby Madeira Islands in Morocco (the latter still controlled by Portugal today), Goa in India, Macao in China, and various other spots along the African coasts. From their base in Mogador, the Portuguese traded with Madeira and elsewhere, and raided nearby (and not so nearby) African villages and towns.

The ruins of a fortress on a tiny island just offshore from Essaouira.

The city of Essaouira, we are told, really came about only after the Moroccans took back the area from the Portuguese, and a sultan named Sidi Mohammed ben Abhallah oversaw the establishment and expansion of the city. But the fortifications survive. In terms of how long it takes to walk around and see them as a historical/tourist site, they’re small – it took me literally 15 minutes to see them, including the time it took to walk from and then back to the conference venue – but they’re pretty cool. From the Scala, you can get some just gorgeous views of the city and the sea, of the ruins of a small fortress on a tiny island just barely offshore, and of the fishing boats, many of them painted a brilliant blue. The squarish towers seem iconic of a particular style and period – perhaps they’re typical for 15th-16th century Portuguese architecture? – and the cannon still lined up all along the walkway evoke that for us. I wonder, if we went to sites in Ghana and elsewhere in West Africa, perhaps we’d see very much the same sort of thing – evoking a particular aesthetic, a particular imagined idea, of Portuguese empire in Africa. A space that is decidedly European, but also distinctive of that particular period, those particular developments, that particular set of phenomena, of 15th-16th (or 17th, 18th…) coastal fortifications and (slave) trading posts in West Africa.



Above: a section of the Portuguese fortifications at Mogador (Essaouira). Photo my own. // Below: a scene from HBO’s “Game of Thrones” TV show, in which the site is used as the scene for “Slaver’s Bay” or Astapor.



Of course, I was also excited about the Scala as it was a shooting location for Game of Thrones. Seems a bit weird that I should get to see this tiny piece of Astapor of all places – and not King’s Landing or some other more central or major site from the show – but it is what it is. And once you see the screenshots, it’s so recognizable.

Above: the “Walk of Punishment” in Game of Thrones. // Right: a section of the city walls of Essaouira. Photo my own.

I do wish they had more (or any) plaques explaining the history of the site. Thankfully, Wikipedia and various travel blogs and the like filled me in, and one of the last conference presentations of the first day gave a very nice overview of the history of the city for us as well.

The next day, I made my way to the other end of the fortress complex – while the Scala is prominently visible at one end of the beach, and on tourist guides, and charges 10 dirhams entrance fee, this other site has none of that. But it’s otherwise fairly similar – and it was this site, I believe, that was actually the one where they filmed the Walk of Punishment. So that was a very nice find. Great views of the city once again.

Looking down into Essaouira’s chief synagogue.

In the afternoon, everyone from the conference got taken on a tour of Essaouira’s small Mellah by André Azoulay. He first pointed out that a gate we’ve passed by numerous times in fact features a circle of a Koran verse at the keystone (center, just above the arch), flanked by two Stars of David. Though the six-pointed star is a natural design to emerge out of pure geometric experimentation, and does in fact feature frequently in Islamic tiling designs, here he says it is definitely a symbol of Essaouira’s Jewish history.

He then took us to the community’s very small synagogue, which was a pleasure to see. Sadly, the explanation was given largely in French, so I didn’t catch very much of it at all. But, attached to the synagogue, they are just now completing construction of a “House of Memory” – essentially a museum of the Jewish community in the city, though they don’t call it a museum because apparently Azoulay, and I suppose others, feel that museums represent a culture that’s in the past, whereas they wish to focus on the future. In addition to exhibits, the Memory House will provide some sort of spaces and resources for research. Dar Souiri, home of the Essaouira-Mogador Association, where the conference was held, also has a nice library of books on local history, and on Judeo-Muslim-Christian relations. I imagine that for someone doing research on just the right topic, these two institutions could be just perfect homes for them during research trips.

The House of Memory being constructed as a museum of the Jewish history and ongoing community of Essaouira.

Azoulay also told us that one of the writers of the very first US Constitution was a Jew from Essaouira, though I didn’t catch his name. He was the first Jew elected to office in the US. He donated his land to what is now the University of Florida. His father wrote a very early anti-slavery treatise. If anyone can tell me the name of this figure, I’d appreciate it. We learned that a notable UK Minister of Defense & of Transport of the earlier 20th century was also an Essaouira Jew named Belisha.

After a simple dinner, we finished out the night with a conversation with this incredible eccentric woman who it seems practically lives here quite frequently, though only for a few weeks or months at a time. She wouldn’t let me take a photo of her, which is a shame because she just seems such an incredible woman and I wanted to document in that way having met her and who she was. But, words shall have to suffice. A thin woman with wild white hair, an elegant blue and white scarf, and long black jacket or robe which made her seem larger than she was. Thin, a bit up in years, but so full of life and energy, and someone who just truly radiated presence. She said others have often described her as the woman of the house (madame d’ l’ mansion? I forget the French), and it certainly sounds like she has a special relationship with the proprietors or staff everywhere she goes.

But, it’s funny. My first impression was simply of a cosmopolitan world-traveler who truly enjoys her retirement, in relaxing fashion. Then we learned of her multiple PhDs, her various forms of volunteer work in Kenya and elsewhere, even leaving her home in a major US city, for a time at one point, unlocked and open at any hour for the police to direct abused women to go there and have somewhere to be. Degrees in agriculture, storage technologies, etc., and experience advising governments and similar institutions around the world in agriculture, storage, education, medicine, all sorts of things. I forget if she said she was ever officially affiliated with the UN or only with other organizations, but definitely with organizations of that sort, at least at times. Makes her seem like someone truly of note, like she should appear in Google searches. It’s truly amazing the kind of people you meet sometimes when you travel.

With the exception of screenshots from Game of Thrones, all photos are my own.

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Essaouira, Day One

Now (writing some weeks ago), we are in Essaouira, a small beach town on the Atlantic coast, a few hours more or less straight west from Marrakech. There are similarities, for sure – the food is much the same, albeit with the addition of much fish and seafood; and the basic notion of staying in a medina, filled with small stalls and shops of people hawking their wares. And the wares themselves are largely the same. But the aesthetic and the feeling is quite different. Instead of earthtones, everything here is white and blue. Well, not everything, of course, but it’s a defining color scheme theme of the place. And overall it just feels more relaxed and more friendly and genuine. I don’t think we have to worry quite so much here about being scammed, or taken in by false guides, though haggling is still a thing. Several shop keepers were really quite kind and nice, with no hint of trying to keep us talking, keep us shopping. They genuinely took our interest, sold us things or didn’t, and let us leave. Definitely much more my speed.

And, the hotel/riad that my gf booked, Les Terrasses de Essaouira, wow, it’s a really nice place, and it very much gives me a feeling, unlike the places we stayed in Fes or Marrakech, of … a particular brand of vacationing, like in that film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I can’t actually remember if I’ve even seen the film, but Les Terrasses, and perhaps Essaouira more generally, feels to me very much like the kind of place retirees might come, maybe even come back to every summer, as their regular annual vacation destination, their exotic second (or third, or fourth) home away from home, to just relax and enjoy and experience… I don’t know, it’s not necessarily exactly something I can put into words, but the style of the hotel definitely gives that feel. Beautiful spacious private suites with canopy beds, each suite furnished uniquely with its own slightly distinctive arrangement; on each floor, large chairs facing in to an open atrium space, where one can just sit and read, smoke, drink something, take your time and do nothing. Not like a hotel for the kind of vacationer who just needs somewhere to rest in between rushing around to see the city – it really feels like the kind of place people might come to make themselves at home for several weeks at a time. I wish I could find the words to describe the particular aesthetic I’m seeing… but the best I can say is that it reminds me of (my potentially misplaced memory of the basic concept of) the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Very open and airy and relaxing, with white walls and light curtains and palms & other plants around. And in the lobby, a fountain in the center and numerous little side alcoves with couches, so you can have some variety as you spend your days reading and relaxing and whatever. Hints of Moroccan aesthetic here and there, of course, in the hanging bronze lamps and the tilework and window frames here and there, making the whole place feel exotic but not over the top – definitely a certain very standard brand of Orientalist/exotic vacationing trope, but at the same time wholly distinct from the more primary, mainstream “first thing that comes to mind” type of Orientalist exotic décor.

Indeed, and maybe this is what got me thinking about it, I overheard one older woman telling someone else about how she is only a guest, only here for a few weeks (I don’t live here), but that she’s been here many many times, so much so that other people often tend to think she must be “the lady of the house” or something, that she must be associated with the place, even though she’s not; but I can see why people would say that – it’s certainly the very first impression I had of her as well. She definitely seems to know the place and the staff quite well, I even saw her in the staff areas several times…. So, that’s the sort of place we’re staying in, and perhaps the sort of place Essaouira as a town is, for many people.

A real photo I took myself, on the bus ride to Essaoiura.

The bus ride from Marrakech went fine; it was a normal coach bus, just like one of the slightly nicer ones you might find on slightly upscale bus tour packages. No wifi or outlets or anything, but comfy enough seats, movable footrests. Anyway, it was only for less than three hours. The main highlight of the trip: seeing goats in trees! Something I’d seen online as a meme or Buzzfeed list sort of thing, but not something I ever thought I’d see in person. (and in fact I had no idea what country, what part of the world to find such a thing, so, I couldn’t have expected to see it anyway)

After arriving in Essaouira, we spent pretty much the whole rest of the day just walking around. There are a few notable historical sights, I think, and I’m hoping to see them by the end of our time here. But for today, we just walked the market streets and hung out. She bought some CDs, and we got some food, and that was about it. Saw the Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah Museum, which though small is the first museum we’ve seen in Morocco that actually tells the history and culture in any detail. Housed in an old elite’s mansion, as so many of these museums are, it contains quite a few rooms of artifacts from prehistoric and Roman times up through more modern times, ranging from Roman pottery to various sorts of 19th century firearms, Muslim and Jewish traditional costumes (e.g. a rabbi’s robes, and women’s marriage robes), various silver objects such as carafes and jewelry, and so forth. It was neat to see one whole case (vitrine) devoted to objects of Essaouira’s historical Jewish community, even though the contents were really nothing special – a Torah scroll, some kipot (skullcaps), some Hannukiot (menorahs).

It’s wonderful how much more relaxed this town is. It’s touristy, to be sure, but in a beach town kind of way, not in a disneyfied, selling-you-exoticism sort of way, and not so overtly in a “tourist trap” scamming sort of way. A number of shopkeepers and so forth we’ve met seem on the surface more like the kinds of people you expect to meet in beach towns – people from elsewhere in Morocco, or elsewhere in the world, who have come here to surf and hang out and just enjoy the laid back environment; we found one café where they have an open mic most nights, and just various different artistic sort of engagements; and a CD store where the young man manning the counter was just happy to talk about all different kinds of music…

I feel amazingly privileged to have gotten to see Fes and Marrakech in my lifetime – every time I think of myself as really not that much of a world traveler, well, after this trip especially I’m not sure I can think that anymore. I’ve been to six countries (plus Hawaii, yes I’m counting Hawaii) on four continents (five, if we’re counting Oceania b/c of Hawaii) between this summer and the last alone, and to say that I’ve been to Fes and Marrakech is just incredible. Still, that said, it’s Essaouira that I would come back to. I wish we had just one or two more days in Marrakech, to see some museums and other things that had been closed because of Eid. But, overall, for all that Orientalist movies, posters, and popular consciousness otherwise hypes up these places, I don’t know, I just didn’t find Fes or Marrakech to be all that magical or exciting – and I have found Tokyo, Kyoto, Okinawa, Hawaii, London, Wales, Norwich, and a whole lot of other places to each have their appeal. I suppose the fact that non-Muslims aren’t allowed inside the mosques contributes to this in a big way; it contributes to the feeling that there aren’t any big-name sites worth remembering, really, in Morocco. In all these other places, I’ve seen incredible castles, churches, temples, shrines, historical sites of one variety or another, and great art museums, history museums… and just beautiful street scenes, what the Japanese call machinami. Essaouira has beautiful machinami, largely in white and blue – it feels sunny and open, light and airy, in a way that Marrakech, and especially all the more so Fes, didn’t. I have to wonder, though, if it had not been Ramadan and then Eid, how different the two cities might have felt. I was told later, here in Essaouira, that Fes is “schizophrenic” when it comes to Ramadan, getting very serious and heavy and religious for one month, and not being like that the rest of the year.

Anyway, Essaouira is a small town, and as much as I’ve enjoyed being here, and as much as I am sad to be leaving, I do think I’ve pretty much seen the whole thing, and with a whole wide world out there I don’t expect I’ll be coming back. Still, I did thoroughly enjoy it.

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Last Day in Marrakesh

The courtyard at Al-Azma Synagogue in Marrakech. From Cultures-j.com.

Our last day in Marrakech was a Saturday. I was sad to not get a chance to visit the Al-Azma Synagogue during regular weekday visiting times, when we might be able to take photos of that beautiful space. But I did go for Saturday morning services. It’s a completely non-descript building from the outside, as might be expected. Even the door is completely plain and unmarked. Still, there are several signs clearly posted leading the way and marking the entrance, and everyone in the neighborhood knows about it, so it’s not like they’re exactly hiding. Once I got inside, a security guard simply asked if I was Jewish, and if I was coming to pray or just to visit. More security than synagogues I’ve visited in the US (which in my limited experience rarely have any sort of questioning or checking at the entrance at all), but certainly less than we saw in Istanbul, Athens, Thessaloniki, Tokyo, or London. Once inside, the place opens up into a small courtyard which is gorgeously decorated in bright blue and white tile, a Jewish version of a typical Islamic/Arabic aesthetic. And then, from there, to one side of the courtyard is the main worship room, which in the US we might typically call the sanctuary.

The sanctuary of Al-Azma Synagogue in Marrakech, in a photo from a Jerusalem Post article.

Unlike the (Protestant-influenced?) rows and rows of forward-facing parallel pews that I feel are quite standard in the US and certain other places, but quite similarly to what I’ve seen in photos and in person in Europe, Israel, and elsewhere, the sanctuary is organized to face no particular direction, really. The ark is at one end, but the bimah (raised platform from which the Torah is read, and certain other ritual acts are performed), ringed in a wooden bannister, is at the other end. And the seats are organized all facing perpendicularly, so people are facing to the sides of the room and not towards either end. As in many Orthodox services I’ve attended, there didn’t seem to be any one prayer leader, and everyone just seemed to take turns, in no particular order, each being the dominant voice in chanting (or mumbling) a particular section. No one announced page numbers or which section we were moving on to – they all just kept moving, mumbling through the prayers more than really singing or even chanting them, leaving me rather in the dark as to where we were up to. Every time I thought I’d figured out where we were, the very next section they recited would be several pages ahead, or back, and I’d lose my place all over again. I couldn’t really detect any particular melodies, or anything; had my gf been there, she might have been able to recognize or identify something of significance, with her far better musical ear, and more extensive knowledge of Sephardic & Mizrahi traditions. But for me, while it certainly didn’t have the feel, the sound, of the world of Yiddishkeit, it also didn’t “smell” strongly to me of Arabic pronunciation or melodies, let alone anything related to Spanish or Ladino sounds. I don’t know.

I had planned to stay through services and maybe get to talk to some people after that, maybe learn a little bit more about the community and what style of traditions they follow. But I had forgotten just how boring and frustrating it is to attend a service like this one, where no one helps you know where they’re up to, and where it only feels familiar in the briefest of snatches of moments before you’re lost all over again. Even if I know the words to one section, I can’t follow along well enough (quickly enough) to really participate at all before they’ve already moved on and I’m lost again; and they’re certainly not singing the same melodies I’m familiar with, so I’m not getting out of the experience what I normally would. So, long story short, I left after about 45 minutes. Still, I’m really glad I went.

After reconnecting with my girlfriend, we ended up being led into a shop selling rugs, and got talked at for far too long… As I’ve ranted about in previous posts, I really hate the way people don’t let you leave, just talking and talking to you, making you feel rude to leave, making it so the only way you can leave is to be rude. The conversation went on unnecessarily long, as he continually showed us more and more rugs, and refused to tell us prices, even as we struggled to narrow it down to just one or two rugs, negotiate a price, and be done with it. … In the end, though, I came away with two small rugs for which I think (I hope) I got a good price. The fellow says they’re all made by a special organization or group of widows, providing work and income to women who have lost their husbands (and thus their chief means of monetary support). He told us some were made of cotton, some of wool, some from all-natural dyes, all by hand, all in authentic tribal or ethnic styles, each rug one-of-a-kind… But, who knows if any of this was true. Maybe we got scammed. Who the hell knows.


Above: Not the rug place. Just a pretty side street.

Left: The courtyard at the Musee Mouassine.

I then made my way to the Mouassine Museum while she went off to do other things. It was our last day in Marrakech, and especially with so many things being closed for Eid the previous day, this was our (my) last chance to try to see any of the museums or palaces in the city. The Orientalist Museum sounded great – would have been really interesting to see their collection of Orientalist paintings, and various other objects from across periods, styles, etc., but sadly they were closed all throughout Eid, so there was no chance to see that museum at all. The Mouassine Museum, I really could have sworn that the website said it offered a similarly diverse array of artworks and objects representative of a breadth of Moroccan history and culture. But as it turns out, it’s almost entirely all about the art of this one artist Abdelay Mellakh who was born in that house and lived and worked (painted) there for many years. Modern art. Interesting in its own small way, to be sure, and I may even mention him if I ever teach a survey of world art history or something. And a beautiful house, a beautiful space itself. But, not nearly the representative sort of art museum I was hoping for. … So, I saw that, and then made my way to the Palais Badii (a ruined 16th-17th c palace) and Palais Bahia (a less ruined 19th c. palace), both of which were already closed for the day. So, that was that. On the plus side, found some other different market streets on my way back, including the Rahba Kedima et Souks, a nice small open market square with just a slightly different energy from the other streets.

We then set out for the Kasbah – another section of the city outside of the medina, which offers much the same experiences (the same types of shops and cafés), but just different ones. In particular, we were looking for the Marrakech location of Café Clock, the hip café we had so enjoyed in Fes. Sadly, they turned out to be closed for Eid as well. But, we found some random guy who was apparently a big musician back in the day, with a little shop (don’t know if he was selling anything at all?) or just front room filled with his own personal musical instruments, photos of him performing, and so forth. He and my gf talked for a long time about music, and they each played a little, and it was just fun. Sadly, I did not catch his name. Who knows, maybe if we knew his name, maybe he really is someone seriously famous – maybe my gf might even have records or CDs of him. I dunno.

On the way back to the riad, we passed by the Moulay el Yazid Mosque, another very major mosque of the city, so that was nice, to get pictures of it and just to see that particular other corner of the city. And then, after dinner, that was about it. Got up early the next morning to go to Essaouira.

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Marrakech

Koutoubia Mosque

Back in Japan now (several weeks out from our Morocco trip) where things generally cost around the same as in the States, and where I’m much more used to the exchange rate and the prices and so forth… By comparison, while I was in Morocco, much like when we were in Turkey and Greece last year, I was constantly having trouble trying to think about whether or not it was cheap to be there. Some things were a rather reasonable price – two sandwiches, a juice, and a tea for $8.50. And some were quite cheap – 60 cents for a big 1.5 liter bottle of water. But then a great many other places still charged $6-8 for a sandwich, and $2.50 for a tea, which isn’t so different from the States, so were we really saving that much money every day? And sure, paying $80 for a handmade Berber rug is an incredible deal compared to what you might pay in the States. If it is indeed handmade and unique and high-quality and all those things they claim it to be. Even at such prices, I still found myself sometimes going through one or two hundred dollars a day. On what, exactly, I couldn’t even say. Eight dollars here, another fifteen there, another one or two or three dollars there… and yet, somehow, it added up. The hotels were reasonable, at $50-70 a night or whatever the amount actually was, for full-on suite-style hotel rooms, but even still, even if we call that a good deal, it’s still not pennies. And, there were some places we went where we paid $25-30 for dinner, for a big prix fix menu with live entertainment. So, even if you think you’re saving money over what might cost $50 or $60 or $70 in the States, it’s still a far cry from any romantic/stereotypical notion of “Morocco on dollars a day.”

Canopy over a rooftop seat at a café overlooking Ben Youseff Madersa.

Having arrived in Marrakech on Eid al Fitr, with so many of the shops, museums, and historical sites (palaces) closed for the holiday, we did what we could, just walking around and seeing what we could. Found the Madersa Ben Youseff, one of the oldest and most significant structures in the city, and also went to Koutoubia Mosque, the largest mosque in the city and easily visible above the Jemma el Fna market square, both today and in old photographs from a century ago.

Sadly, I didn’t find any historical plaques around Koutoubia, nor were we allowed inside. Fortunately, Francis Ching’s A Global History of Architecture, along with other sources I had access to without internet, provides a little background. Koutoubia, like many of the most major mosques in North Africa, was based on the model of the Kairouian mosque in Tunisia, which was also the model for the Al-Karouian Mosque at the center of the Fes medina. Marrakech was founded as a city in 1062 by the Almoravids, a group of Berbers who by that time already controlled much of Spain, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. It was under their successors, the Almohads, however, that Koutoubia was built. Like Ben Yousuff and many other major examples of mosques from this region & period, Koutoubia is a large rectangular compound organized around a big open courtyard – not that we could get inside to see any of this. At one corner of the rectangle is the minaret: a square tower some 70 meters tall, nearly twice the height of the original in Tunisia.

That night, our second-to-last night in Marrakesh I suppose, we went to dinner at Restaurant El Bahia, another of these crazy fancy “palais” restaurants with big round tables in a big open atrium. All the fine painting and tilework at this one, though, kind of hilariously, was really sloppy or cut-corner otherwise. The fine mosaic work was not individual bits, but just commercially mass-produced large square tiles, repeating like bathroom tile. And the paint work was really sloppy. The whole thing was crazy touristy, and probably the closest we got to the Moroccan equivalent of the Christmas-themed “Smith Family Luau” hula performance we went to in Kauai. All the other diners were retirees and their families, either American or European we’re guessing, and from the way they all left all together at once, probably all on a single tour group. Yet, somehow, even though the show marked all the checkboxes – traditional music, bellydancing, unnecessarily dramatic acts like the bellydancer balancing a tray of lit candles on her head, the performers bringing people up from the tables to dance, guests just going on eating and talking as if the performers were just background – somehow it just didn’t quite ring the same bell for me as that hula show. That hula show on Kauai, a geisha performance at the ANA Hotel in Kyoto, and certain other things I’ve been to, just really struck me so strongly as blatantly Orientalist and likely unchanged from decades ago. As if I’d traveled back in time to how Americans used to understand (and reenact) the Far East or Hawaii back in the 1950s. Yet, here, maybe just because the show was so low-key, it just didn’t feel so strongly for me. Maybe if we had gone to Chez Ali, a place just outside Marrakesh that we’re told is like a Medieval Times-style large venue for just big over-the-top shows, maybe that would have rung those bells for me.

In any case, it was a nice dinner and a decent show, though two musicians by themselves can’t really fill such a large hall adequately – it would have been good to have a larger ensemble. I snuck up to the roof for a peek into the neighboring Palais de Bahia, and just saw some trees and the walls; sadly, the Palais was closed that day for Eid, and by the time I got to it the next day, too, it was closed again.

We visited a lot of musical instruments shops in both Fes and Marrakesh. It’s really interesting to see how the music, and the instruments themselves, have their different variations here. It just goes back to the same thing I’ve been thinking about a lot this past year or so – that any country or culture you talk about, there are going to be interesting diversities of variation, sub-groups, and minorities. Much of Moroccan music is Arab music – it’s centered around the oud, often accompanied by darbuka or certain other kinds of drums, along with (sometimes) qanun, zurna, ney, rebab… and many of the songs are the same throughout the Arab world. But, as my gf could probably explain better than I ever could, there are differences and variations, certain songs or styles and certainly variations in the shape and style of the instruments, that are more distinctly Moroccan. And there’s the Analusian aspect, which is huge. But beyond that, there are also entirely different genres or categories of music, and instruments, unique to the Maghreb. Gnawa music, Berber and Touareg music, and various other North African and Sub-Saharan African musics. We were familiar with wooden zurna – a double-reed “flute” or horn with a gracefully flaring mouth, also known as a mizmar – but I had never before seen double-barrelled ones with sections of actual ram’s horn at the end. And that’s just one of the many different instruments we saw. I’d be curious to get a stronger sense of these different styles or genres of music.

And I’d be eager for the opportunity to learn a bit more about Moroccan history, and about Berbers and Touareg and all the rest, and to incorporate that into my World History courses, perhaps. What’s interesting about Morocco is that it had none of the same dynasties as the Turkey/Levant/Egypt area, none of the same historical developments. So while the Mamluks and the Seljuks and the Ottomans and all these other groups were coming and going in succession, none of them ever made it to the Magreb. Here, it was the Almoravids and the Almohads and the Saadians, only some of whom were from Arabia – some of the key dynasties were actually Berber. And we scarcely if ever learn any of this in our World History classes. I mean, understandably, one can’t teach, or learn, or cover, everything. There will always be things that have to be dropped out. But, even so. Let’s see where we can make it fit. Because those stories should be told, just as much as any others. For the sake of the Moroccans I’ve met, and the ones I haven’t met, who deserve to have their story told. For the sake of American knowledge and attitudes towards Morocco, should anything politically significant or otherwise newsworthy come up that should call upon people to have some small degree of informed understanding. For the students who meet Moroccans or end up travelling to Morocco; and for the students who are themselves Moroccan and would benefit from having their story told (or from learning more or differently about it than they have otherwise).

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The Train to Marrakech


We finally left Fes and made our way to Marrakesh by train. I will admit, this being my first time in what’s generally known as “third world countries,” I was a bit worried about how the train ride would be. We’ve all seen pictures or heard stories about super overcrowded trains, with no air-conditioning, and just, I don’t know, crowding and smells and how torturous the journey can be. And, to be honest, I’m sorry if this makes me elitist or something, but I really do appreciate some basic level of comfort if I’m going to be traveling for hours and hours. I fly coach, not first class, and I’ve taken night buses and public buses and so forth, but some basic level of cleanliness, comfort, personal space, is kind of essential. And, as it turns out, the Moroccan trains were just fine. Wifi or outlets would have been too much to ask for – we barely even get those on trains back home – and so I didn’t end up getting too much work done, actually, on that eight hour journey. But, we rode in a compartment, like in the Harry Potter movies, and it was just fine. Air-conditioned, and more than clean and comfortable enough.

A first class compartment on the train to Marrakesh. I didn’t actually see what second class looked like at all, but as an American, this was extremely reasonably priced, and I’d recommend it.

Napped for part of the way from Fes to Rabat to Casablanca, and then chatted with our compartment-mates, an English couple and a Moroccan woman, for much of the rest of the journey. The woman, an engineer based in Casablanca and with excellent English, was traveling to see her family in Marrakesh. We talked about world politics, monarchy, gender equality in Morocco and abroad, and a lot of other things. It was nice. I was a bit dismayed to learn that these young, cosmopolitan, London professionals seem to have genuinely thought that all Americans were like the Trump supporters they see/hear so much about in the media…. That since “the American people” had chosen Trump, that that was representative of how most or all of the country was. Very sad.

But, then, I guess it’s a lesson, not only for realizing just how deeply, how profoundly, the current administration has impacted our reputation abroad, even more extensively beyond all the ways we already knew it has, but also as a reminder for how we think about everywhere else in the world – that just like X percentage of Americans are nothing like the pro-Trump images in the news, so too are X percentage of Moroccans and Syrians and Iranians and Chinese and Mexicans and so on and so forth. Whatever impressions or images you may have of any culture, there is absolutely truth to these stereotypes – they have to come from somewhere – and those rulers and regimes, and their supporters, and the political/cultural/religious base that they grow out of, are absolutely real. But so too are the opposition.

The views of the scenery from the train were disappointingly unexciting… I had hoped to get some sense of Casablanca and the other cities we passed through, but we really did just pass right through them, seeing little beyond the stations themselves, and there were few if any other recognizable monuments one might notice as we passed through the rest of the country. So, it was mostly just countryside, including farms, pastures, wild areas, people on donkeys, some horses, sheep, and that’s about it.

Left: One of the many market streets in the Marrakech medina.

Arriving in Marrakech, I found it to be a somewhat more pleasant city, in certain respects, if only because the streets are wider and more open. I hadn’t realized how claustrophobic Fes felt, on a very low-grade level, until we got to Marrakesh and I felt a certain discomfort or fear sort of leave me. Of course, it’s just as easy to get lost here, just as easy for anything else to happen; it’s not necessarily safer or “better” than Fes in any particular way. In fact, many tourist guides as well as individual people we spoke to in Fes said that Marrakech is worse – keep your wits about you, keep your eyes on your wallet, don’t allow yourself to get taken in by scammers. But, still, somehow, I can’t help but feel that Marrakech feels “nicer,” more open, a little more upscale in some ways.

Of course, this might be in part because Ramadan was over and it was now Eid al Fitr. On our first full day in Marrakesh, nearly everything was closed all morning, until late afternoon. The streets were nearly empty, meaning there was less to do – none of the museums or other sites we wanted to visit were open – but it also meant that no one was hassling us at all, and it meant an opportunity to take pictures of the scenery and architecture without crowds complicating up the picture.

The market streets were pretty lively that first night of Eid (especially compared to the quiet of the following day), and we actually happened upon a shoe shop where the artisanal leather shoes, handmade in a workshop right above the store, just looked beautiful. I had been holding off on trying to buy any Moroccan shoes that might be of a particular style that would look too out of place back home, or just plain Converse or the like which I could find anywhere (albeit for higher prices than in Morocco), but these just took me in. And the shopkeepers were just so kind and friendly, not in a deceptive way but as far as we could tell in a really genuine way. After talking to them and trying on multiple pairs of shoes for I don’t know how long, we turned to try to find our way back to the guesthouse and got lost; and the shopkeeper actually ended up really helping us out, not taking us around and around, and not accepting any kind of tip or payment for his help, but just genuinely, authentically, helping us to find it. As for whether the shoes hold up, or whether they fall apart quite quickly, remains to be seen however. They also sent my gf the wrong shoes – the wrong size, even after a lengthy conversation and process about how they were going to custom make her ones in the right size, and then couldn’t because the cobbler hurt his hand, and then and then and then. Plus the same guy hassled us in buying rugs. So, who knows, in the end, whether they were really ever being genuine or whether the whole thing was just an act, to get our money.

As amazing as I feel to have visited Morocco, though, the whole time I kept thinking, why does this feel so different from other places I’ve visited? I think part of it was that I hadn’t done my homework – hadn’t gone to Wikipedia or anywhere to brush up on any knowledge of Moroccan history. So, when I went, I just went into it not knowing what I was looking for, or looking at. Not knowing the history, not knowing the significance of particular sites, it was much harder to appreciate the experience. And while some sites had some signs up explaining the history, there weren’t quite so many as in some other cities, and perhaps even more to the point, we didn’t come across any history museums which might provide a fuller foundational knowledge of the historical outline.

One thing that was quite interesting about Marrakech as compared to Fes was that the presence of sub-Saharan African people and culture was much more present and visible. While Moroccan culture itself (as I understand it) is primarily composed of Berber, Tuareg, and other Saharan cultures, plus considerable influence from Arabs who came and conquered in the 8th century or so, bringing Islam and a great deal else. Of course this is Africa, and any sub-Saharan people or cultural elements that are here are really, genuinely, here in Morocco. They are as real a part of what’s really in front of you here in Morocco as anything else. But, they’re also still a distinguishable set of cultures. So, I don’t know the real politics or economics of it, but for whatever reason, in whatever way, Marrakech does seem to function much more so than Fes as a frontier, a borderland, where sub-Saharan Africa bleeds into Morocco. Individuals moving to Morocco for a short time or for many years; selling paintings of a distinctly sub-Saharan aesthetic or style; selling or playing musical instruments from sub-Saharan Africa. Something very interesting that we barely saw at all in Fes.

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Last Day in Fes

Outside Bab Boujouloud, aka The Blue Gate, one of the main gates of the old city (medina).

It’s funny, I just realized that I have all these multiple posts planned/drafted for my Morocco trip, one per day more or less, but actually looking back I discovered that I only ever posted one post about Istanbul. Nothing against Morocco, but I really thoroughly enjoyed my time in Istanbul last summer. It was really wonderful, and I’m sure that if I took the time to take more notes while I was there, about each of the different museums and different things we were seeing and doing, I’d have had so much more to say. It’s just oddly disproportionate, is all. To summarize all of a week in Istanbul into one post, and say nothing at all about our time in Israel or Greece, but to then have post after post about Morocco. Ah well. Such is life I suppose. I still have photos up online, though, from those travels, so if you’re interested, feel free to go take a look over there.

At the Batha Museum.

On our last day in Fes, we checked out the Batha Museum, located in a former palace just a couple blocks from our guesthouse, just outside the walls of the medina. I remain a bit confused about the term “palace” (or “palais”) here in Morocco, as there are gazillions of them. Seems that while some were actually royal palaces belonging to sultans or their relatives, or other nobles of some sort, many may have been simply the homes of particularly wealthy or prominent individuals, more a “mansion” than a “palace,” really, at least to my mind, in American terminology. Whether that’s a standard meaning of “palais” in French, or something more unique to North Africa, I guess I could just Google it…

A number of these palaces are today cheesy touristy restaurants, where large groups can enjoy “dinner and a show,” complete with bellydancers and so forth. The Batha Museum, though, was once an actual sultan’s palace. Like some of the other places we’ve visited, it consists chiefly of a large garden, with two halls, one at either end. The halls are surprisingly small for a “palace” that one might actually live in; it works fine as a garden, where one might go over to one of the two halls for tea or a rest or whatever, but in terms of having a full number of rooms for sleeping, eating, preparing the food, sitting with guests, doing administrative or other sultanly work, I just don’t quite see it.

At the Batha Museum.

In any case, the collection includes a number of books, documents, garments and textiles, weapons, wooden and ceramic objects, and so forth, chiefly pertaining to elite and rural (e.g. Berber) wedding customs, lifeways, and so forth. All of the objects look worn and old, their colors faded, their metal tarnished. But I suppose maybe for a small museum in a less wealthy country, it’s not entirely unexpected.

Sadly, the labels were extremely minimal. I learned just about nothing, I’m sorry to say, about the different styles or types of cultural objects (what stylistic elements typify Arab vs. Berber design? Or 15th c. ceramics vs. 17th c. ceramics?), nor anything about the history of Fes or Morocco. Basically just saw some things, some objects, and had little choice but to just move on. But, again, so it goes. The building itself, and the gardens, were beautiful though. Definitely worth a visit if you have the time to burn.

Right: McDonald’s at Borj Fes shopping mall.

We then headed out away from the medina into the new city – the regular, modern, car-filled city. We had tentative arrangements to try to meet up with an instructor from the main Fes Musical Institute, who said he’d show us some collections or resources there. But in the end, timing just didn’t work out. So, we went to the shopping mall. Borj Fes, seemingly the most major shopping mall in the area, is pretty small by mall standards, holding maybe 20-30 shops. But it’s an interesting thing to see – very modern, very much like any shopping mall anywhere in the world. Many brands we recognize from around the world, including LC Waikiki, Orange (mobile phones), and Virgin. Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising that such a thing exists in Fes. As poor as many people are here, even they often have cellphones and other up-to-date technology, and of course, not everyone is so desperately poor. So, fashions, electronics, McDonald’s, home appliances, and all the rest. The mall also had a MiniSou, which I found entertaining. If you haven’t come across this yet, it’s a Chinese company masquerading as a Japanese one – a knockoff Daiso – drawing on the appeal of a certain slice of Japanese commercial aesthetics, selling a variety of basic goods from cosmetic tools to stationery to stuffed animals that are clean and simple and cute, for good prices. I don’t know if 49 or 79 dirhams (roughly $5-8 US) is crazy expensive for the average Moroccan to pay for an officially licensed stuffed animal toy of Kumamon (the official mascot of Kumamoto prefecture, Japan), but for an American or Japanese, it’s super affordable. So, maybe could have been a good place for us to get some cute notebooks, pens, eyebrow pencil, or whatever, though we didn’t buy anything there in the end.

Right: Peeking into the Karouian Mosque.

Later in the evening, I decided to take it upon myself to make sure to see the Karaoiuine Mosque at the very center of the old city. We’d seen a lot of the other key sites in one way or another, even if it was just very late at night when being traipsed around by those assholes that one night. And I wasn’t going to take the time to retread exploring out across the whole Andalousian quarter (the eastern half of the walled city) just to take photos of the outside doors of a few mosques or whatever – especially since the Andalousian Mosque is currently under major renovation and is covered over in scaffolding. But I did want to make sure to at least see this, even though I knew that I wouldn’t be allowed inside, and therefore wouldn’t see much.

Right: The souks at the center of the medina.

As I made my way deeper and deeper into the medina, I realized to my surprise that all of this time we’d really never actually been to the center. At some point, X blocks past where we’d ever explored previously, the style of the space changes, to something more recently redone – cleaner, nicer, more upscale-looking. More well-lit – or maybe it was just sunnier that day. An area with just a nicer, brighter, better feeling about shopping there. Not that people wouldn’t haggle and harass you there just the same, and not that there’s anything so horrible about the rougher, dirtier sort of areas, the areas some people might call “the real Fes” or “the real experience.” But, this too is “real,” and a real part we hadn’t seen before. I sped through it after shaking yet another self-appointed asshole guide who demanded money from me even after I repeatedly told him I didn’t want or need his help and guided myself with my phone; I didn’t stop to look at the shops at all because my girlfriend was back in the guesthouse waiting for me to return so we could head back out for the evening. So I just found the mosque, took some photos and turned around. But, still, I’m really glad I went. Got to see the real center of the medina, a slightly different side of things than we’d seen up until then. And then on the way back, happened to take a different way, and found that it wasn’t just the center of the medina, but actually a whole other parallel main street of the medina – Talaa Kebira – that we somehow had never really spent any time on. A lot of the same sorts of shops selling the same sorts of stuff, but, still, some different. When we went out there again afterwards, together, we found some shops we’d never come across earlier, where Simone was able to buy tons of good music, and a new instrument.

Street cat chilling out on rugs outside of a shop in Essaouira.

I never know what to buy in terms of souvenirs, either for myself or for others. I ended up with a few postcards, and some handmade ceramic mugs for my father and brother, but I know that if I buy anything more for aunts and uncles it just starts to get out of hand. What do you buy? And where do you stop? If I buy for my aunts and uncles then maybe I should also buy for some of my closest NY friends, and maybe also for some of my closest Santa Barbara friends… and well, it just gets endless. But even buying for myself, I keep looking at these rugs, and well, while I’m a Japan/Okinawa specialist, and don’t really see the need to fill my home with things specifically evocative of Moroccan style (and I don’t even have a home, or all that much room in my suitcases), it’s definitely tempting. Some of these rugs are just gorgeous. And fun. Colors and styles that aren’t appealing solely due to their association with some “Oriental” aesthetic, but that are actually just attractive in and of themselves. I’m not 100% sure, still, which designs are Berber and which aren’t, or which are representative of this or that tribe or ethnic group, but we saw a lot that were largely plain with small embroidered designs in them, looking like rivulets expanding out from a center, or like the molecular diagrams we learned to draw in high stripes or spots, but something in between; diamond-shaped sections each of a different color, within which are dashes and lines of other colors. Some rugs are quite flat, and others quite fluffy or bushy; the latter being quite fun and appealing as well. Simone particularly liked ones that were patchwork designs, with each square of the overall rug being a different set of colors and designs. Chaotic, but somehow not overwhelming; somehow coming together and looking modest and good overall.

That was the end of our time in Fes. The next day, we made our way to Marrakech.

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