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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. 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… But if you’re not allowed inside the most major historical sites in the city, then can you really say you’ve visited them? I don’t feel like I’ve seen the Karaouine Mosque, the Andalusian Mosque, or the Koutoubia Mosque the way I’ve seen Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, the Wailing Wall, Tô-ji and Tôdai-ji. But, so it goes.

In many of these other places, I’ve also seen just beautiful street scenes, what the Japanese call machinami, and 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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

Fes, Day 3

La Gare.

On our third day in Fez, we first left the medina and went out to the train station, to make sure we booked our tickets to Marrakesh sufficiently early. The train station, like the airport, looks really new and clean and shiny. Actually, here and there all throughout the city we saw various buildings which looked super new and clean and shiny, in stark contrast to everything else around them. Some were labeled “International Agency for Human Development” or something like that; others, such as an old caravanserai, we were told were renovated at the expense of the King. But, in any case, after the train station, we went to a district called the Mellah, about a 20 minute walk just southwest of the Medina, which was once upon a time the Jewish quarter. There, a kind man in his late 20s named Abdul Assif, offered to show us around. And he really did a very kind job of it. Didn’t lead us too far astray, or pressure us to buy anything. Just genuinely showed us various markings and sights, including the rabbis’ houses, and some markings of horseshoes, stars, and hamsa over doors or windows which he claimed marked the former homes of Jewish artisans. I’m not sure I buy it.



But, still, he then also showed us the gates to the Jewish cemetery, labeled “Beit Ha Chaim,” or “House of Life” in Hebrew, a very typical name for a Jewish cemetery. And finally he led us to what we were really looking for – Ibn Danan, a 17th century synagogue that’s no longer in operation but is maintained as a historical site. Nothing too exceptionally special on the inside, looking quite similar to ones I’ve seen in Tsfat (Safed) and elsewhere, but still very very cool to see – a synagogue, in Morocco!, in that particular traditional style where the pews face no particular direction, and the bimah (pulpit) is its own tiny little box with a pointed roof over it, looking quite a bit more like counterparts in Catholic and Muslim traditions, rather than the larger simpler stage and lectern that we see so often in the West (or, at least, almost ubiquitously in the US). As we expected to hear, the men would pray in the main room downstairs, and the women in a little balcony upstairs. There was also a tiny ritual bath (mikva) in the basement. And from the roof, we could see the cemetery. I don’t know anything about Moroccan Jewry – the synagogue itself looked very similar to things I’ve seen elsewhere, Sephardic or Mizrahi traditions, with some elements, such as the hanging lamps, clearly quite similar to Muslim aesthetic styles. But as for the rows and rows of perfectly white tombs, that’s new to me. I wonder where I might be able to learn a little more about that.

After the synagogue, Abdul Assif led us to his friend’s shop, who sells just about everything from shoes and leather bags to argan oil and other health products to rugs and ceramics. The argan oil was quite cheap, and the guy kept going on about how his prices were so much cheaper than in the Medina, because he sells wholesale to Moroccans – not usually to tourists – but then in the end he still charged us something like 280 dirhams ($28) for a cup or bowl! So, we kind of got taken in. Oh well. But, Abdul Assif then led us back to the gates of the medina, and was really quite kind and good as he let us go. No further pressure or anything.

We then made our way back into the medina, and had dinner that night at a place called Cinema Café, where they offered a special break-fast buffet. It was mostly tourists, so I felt a little weird about that – people have been fasting all day, and are eager for their traditional (or, in this case, at a café, maybe not quite so traditional) break-fast dinner with friends or family, and yet here we are, as tourists, pretending at joining in the same sort of religious or cultural custom. I think if we were Muslims visiting into town, who didn’t have any friends’ or family’s home to break fast at, that might feel more to the point to me. Like when I myself am overseas and am happy to find somewhere to celebrate Thanksgiving or Hannukah or whatever with others. Still, anyway, we did this thing, and both the food and the atmosphere were quite good. Cinema Café and another place we went to numerous times, Café Clock, are hip little oases of the kind of “hip” “modern” “cosmopolitan” sort of places one might expect to find anywhere else in the world. Feels a bit more like London, New York, or Tokyo than one might think or expect of Fes – which isn’t to say, of course, that Fes isn’t allowed to be modern, worldly, cosmopolitan, but hopefully you follow my meaning.

Café Clock is a funny place. On the one hand, it sort of feels like the hip sort of place that cosmopolitan young Moroccans might hang out in, a place that works really well as a “third place,” to go to regularly, to have a coffee or smoothie and (use the wifi and outlets and) work, or just hang out. Certainly the staff, many of whom seem like they’ve probably gone to school in Europe or elsewhere, seem to have that air of having the space serve that for them. But, then, on the other hand, it also feels really touristy in certain ways, like you’re doing a bad tourist, bad expat thing by “escaping” to this more comfortable place, which is cleaner and nicer, a bit more upscale… They have cooking classes, film screenings, music performances and music lessons, and other cultural events all the time, which is really great, but then also, makes it again feel more touristy. So I’m not sure what to think, except that we enjoyed it, and I’m glad it was there, and I’m not going to feel sorry or embarrassed about enjoying it. They had excellent smoothies and other things on the menu, a beautiful rooftop terrace with a view out over the neighborhood, a slightly quieter/cozier downstairs area with tables where I just worked on my computer while my gf had a private one-on-one oud lesson.. and the best wifi we’ve yet found in Morocco – much faster than in the guesthouse, allowing me to upload and email photos to my father, etc. We went back to Café Clock I don’t know how many times, for oud performances – my gf got to join in and play for one of them – for break-fast buffets twice, for getting a little work done, and for just having tea and sweets late at night. I also tried their camel burger. I’m glad I did, just as something I can say that I’ve tried, but frankly it was pretty gross. But then again, this is the first meat I’ve had in many many months, and I’ve never really been into burgers or steaks to begin with. So who knows if it was actually prepared badly, or actually all that bad-tasting, but it just wasn’t for me.

As I think I mentioned, in Fes, not only do people constantly call out to you to come look at their wares, and then haggle with you over the price, and make it hard for you to leave, but people will also constantly come up to you asking where you’re going, and offering to help guide you there – then take you around and around, intentionally getting you lost to make you feel like you really did need their help (and will need their help getting back, so you can’t leave!)… they take you to their friends’ places and try to push you into buying things, and then at the end demand some kind of fee for their help. … Simone is quite good at haggling, but even so we both were taken in a few times.

Thankfully, we were lucky, nothing too horrible ever happened to us at all. We got tricked or pressured a few times into buying things that were much more expensive than we’d expected – for example, a 28 Euro bowl that we’d expected would be closer to something like 70 dirhams (7 euros), given the expectation that everything ought to be much cheaper in Morocco, and that it almost undoubtedly *is* much cheaper, for Moroccans, just not for tourists; and for example taxi rides where they refused to use the meter, and then at the very end tacked on an arbitrary additional amount, say 30 or 50 dirhams, for the bother of loading and unloading our luggage. … That’s about all. Really the worst was just that a couple of kids (mid-to-late 20s) offered us tea and hash, and got us sitting and talking for a long time, and then led us around and around and around the winding roads of the medina for at least an hour, maybe two, I don’t know, at like midnight, offering to show us all sorts of key sights but really showing us pretty much nothing, and then we made the mistake of arranging to meet them the following morning so they could show us around again, and made the mistake of telling them where we were staying. Such that the following morning, even after we decided we were sketched out, and would just ditch them by staying in our room and just not answering the door, they waited for us for *two hours* and then cornered us when we finally did leave our guesthouse. Fortunately, again, though we were a bit scared and turned off by the whole thing, scared they might follow us, or just keep showing up demanding more money, or bring more friends to – I don’t know what, actually turn to physical violence? – fortunately, once we were firm and just told them we were done, and to go away, nothing more came of it.

Bab Semmarine, one of the main city gates out by the Mellah (Jewish quarter), about a 20 minute walk from the medina.

But, with that experience under our belts, by the time we got to Marrakesh, we were really on our guard. As we left the train station, none of the taxi drivers were willing to use the meter; all cited numbers we thought were probably too expensive. And then they started actually yelling and arguing with one another over who was going to get to take us… We eventually just got into one, just to get it over with and get away from there.

Then, when our cab finally stopped somewhere, and people just started taking our bags out of his cab, our first reaction was, where are we, who are these guys, what’s going on? For all we know, this cab driver could have been a scammer, who had brought us to his friends who were going to steal our stuff. Or something. Or, if not quite so bad, even still, maybe these guys were just random touts who were going to insist on “helping” us to our guesthouse, maybe even guiding us some excessively roundabout way, and then demand a tip. So we both said, hey, I don’t know who you are, we don’t need your help, we’ll be fine. I was actually a little bit scared. Having to defend yourself like that, and protect all your possessions when you’re outnumbered and don’t know where you are and have so many bags to manage… But then the lead guy – who is a young man, maybe late 20s, dressed in cut-up jeans and otherwise just looking like one of these street touts – pulled out a card showing he was with the guesthouse, so we decided, okay, I guess we should go with him. … This of course made the rest of our stay awkward, since we’d so distrusted him, and now he’s our host for however many nights. But, so it goes sometimes, I guess. If it happened all over again, I’m not sure I’d react any differently.

Bab Boujloud, the “Blue Gate.” The main gate into the medina of Fes.

Between this Morocco trip, and our time in Israel, Turkey, and Greece last year, I really have to say this whole street market culture of harassment, haggling, and scams is really one of my least favorite aspects of travelling in the Middle East. Maybe it’s just a cultural thing, as an American, I have different expectations and values and desires, but, I just really hate being forced by the situation to constantly, constantly, have to be impolite to people just to get them to leave you alone, or to treat you fairly. I hate having to assume that all the shopkeepers are constantly lying about the quality of their product, and about the price, constantly having to second-guess whether they’re being nice out of genuine kindness or as part of a method to get your money. Even in a “tough” city like New York, when you tell people to leave you alone, they generally do. But here, people will follow you for a block or more, still trying to haggle to try to sell you something even after you’ve said no. They’ll show you a dozen different versions of something even after you’ve firmly established that they don’t have the right color, style, size, or price for what you’re looking for. You can’t even look at something in the market streets, even glance in the direction of a shop or mouth the words “hey, that’s kind of nice,” without someone showing up to try to encourage you into their shop, sometimes even physically grabbing you or physically shoving the product into your hands. I hate that when you say No, they keep pressing. There’s really no way to get people to go away except to say No over and over and over again, and to just keep walking. There’s no way to deal with the constant calls of “Hello,” “Where are you from?,” “why don’t you just take a look?,” “very good prices, very good products, for you,” except to finally just ignore them entirely. And it’s not ignoring in a neutral sort of way, like how you ignore shop calls in Japan and they don’t care because it’s perfectly normal – here, people treat it like you’re being rude to them, even though that’s exactly what’s necessary in order to get them to leave you alone.

On the plus side, though, I guess I’m getting more used to it. I’m still taken in a lot, but it’s certainly less shocking, less aggravating, than it was last year. One travel tips website actually said that market touts in Fes and Marrakech are less pushy and so forth than in Istanbul or elsewhere in the region; I’m not sure this is true, but … whatever. You learn and you deal and you move on.

Fes, Day 2

The next day, Ahmed was nice enough to show us around a bit. He pointed out, right in the center of the Medina, a home where Moses ben Maimonides, also known as Rambam, one of the most famous Jewish philosophers of all time, once lived. Today, it’s a Chinese restaurant! Haha. He also took us inside Bouinania, one of two major madrasas in the medina where tourists are welcome to visit and see the intricate carvings and other features of classical Islamic architecture; there are only a handful of mosques in the entire country where non-Muslims are allowed to visit, so this is the closest we get. But it was beautiful. Between this and some of the other sites we’ve now seen – as well as from just walking around the streets – I really begin to understand why Art History textbooks often focus so much on mosaics and on doors. At least here in Morocco – I don’t know about the rest of the Muslim world – these really are the things that catch the eye; the places where ornamentation and attention is placed. Ahmed also took us to see a bronze worker, see a little bit of how these beautiful plates are decorated, extensive intricate patterns chiseled into them tiny bit by bit, by hand. Really incredible.

We then also got to see the Tanneries, where they make leather by traditional handmade methods. The place is terribly smelly. We got a view of it just from above, from a nearby rooftop. They bring in skins from outside of the city by donkey, and then treat the skins in various different ways, in different vats, scraping the wool and meat off, treating it in vinegar and pigeon droppings and other natural materials to get it to the right texture and strength and whatever, and use a giant wooden barrel, which looks like a waterwheel, as a pre-industrial-style washing machine, to wash the leather. Finally, another set of vats are used to fix colors into the leather, using a variety of plant dyes and other natural colors. Cochineal for red, indigo for blue, saffron or turmeric for yellow. Apparently goat skin is the softest and nicest; sheep skin doesn’t hold color quite as well, and it fades over time. Camel leather is quite rough, but is very much a thing. Makes me wonder how common camel leather (or imitation camel) is back home, because now that I’ve seen the real thing, I feel like I’ve seen it before.

A bunch of fortresses or walls are visible up in the hills in the distance, along with the tombs of the Merinid Kings. I don’t know if we’ll make it out to them. (In the end, we didn’t.)

Finally, Ahmed took us to two shops run by his friends, to see if Simone could get her hands on some music CDs. Tiny little shops that I don’t think we’d ever have found on our own, way down a ton of winding winding streets… It’s weird, on the one hand, whenever anyone leads us anywhere it feels like it takes forever, down a gazillion turns. But then, once we’ve gotten there, there’s somehow this sense that surely it can’t be that hard. Surely, if we just walked down the main street and made just a couple of turns off, here or there, we’d find it, right? I don’t know. But, in any case, we did find one shop where this guy just burned custom CDs of whatever from his massive digital library. Personally, I would have liked to have some nice cover art and insert booklets – or at the very least to have a track listing with artists and song titles, instead of just somebody’s rough scrawl “Arabic music,” as generic as can be. But, then, I guess that’s part of the joy of traveling, and doing ethnographic work or whatever one wants to call it; you end up collecting all sorts of things – cassettes, LPs, not just commercial CDs.

I’m also still trying to think about just how cheap it is to be here. For example, that one fellow charged us $4 per CD he burned; certainly quite cheap compared to $15-20 at Best Buy or whatever back home, but when you buy 10 CDs, you’re still paying $40. Not exactly just pocket change. On the other hand, we found some shoes for 20 dirham a pair – about $2; certainly an exceptional deal compared to anything. Even (knockoff?) Converse for 100 dirham ($10) is also a great deal. We also had a nice post-Ramadan break-fast buffet for 50 dirhams ($5) each – a steal. But, then a lot of the other places we went were still charging around $7-10 for a sandwich, another $2 for a bottle of water, soda, or tea, $18 for a bottle of wine; and there are places we went where a full multi-course prix fix dinner was anywhere from $30 to $50-60. So, again, it’s not like pennies a day. And, as for the hotels, to stay somewhere really nice for $30 or $50 or $70 a night is a wonderful treat, especially when the prices of hotel rooms in the US are so bloatedly overpriced (I have found tons of places to stay in Tokyo and all over Japan for $30-50/night, but even motel rooms in the middle of nowhere in the US it can be difficult to find anything decent for less than $80-100 in my experience), but even so, $50-70/night is still a not insubstantial amount. I hear rumor there are places in the world one can visit where it really is ten dollars a day, or whatever it may be, including the lodgings. Morocco is pretty cheap, but it’s not that cheap. All in all, I don’t actually know precisely how much I spent in total on our Morocco trip, but it certainly wasn’t an entirely insignificant amount.

In any case, Ahmed introduced us to another place, Restaurant Batha, where they had a single oud player, quieter and tamer than the show the first night. Actually, it was a bit hard to hear. But at least it was a bit more well-attended, and thus less awkward. Similarly beautiful, expansive, space. I wonder if maybe we’ve hit the quiet season. Maybe during other times of the year these places really are full and bustling. I hope so.

Of course, during our time here, we’ve had our fair share of haggling and harassment. You can’t even look at something without someone coming up and trying to sell it to you. And sometimes they’re really persistent – Simone pointed out a pair of shoes I might like, in a neat cerulean sort of color. But even after we pretty quickly determined that they didn’t have that color in my size, the kid just kept trying to insist that the shoes could be made smaller if you put insole inserts in, and that I should just have a seat and try it on, try it on again, this color, that color…. And a couple of times we were taken in by people who brought us back to their other shop, or their other other shop, sometimes way down a whole series of winding streets such that we’d never find our way back on our own… and then once you finally get there, you learn that the ceramic bowls aren’t 2 or 3 or 5 dollars each, but are actually $28 (but are actually only $4 or $5 if you can haggle your way down to it – $28 isn’t really a real price)… and it just takes so long, and so much back and forth, trying to haggle down and trying to just get out of there. I hate it. And then, you have all the people who invite you into their shop for a cup of tea, or offer to show you around to wherever you want to go, and the next thing you know you’re in a situation where you really feel like in order to be polite you have to give them something, or to at least hear them out, or at least give their wares a try…. and so you’re there even longer….