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Posts Tagged ‘morocco’

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.

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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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Visiting Morocco

At one of the many, many, shops in the souks of Fes’ medina.

Even with air travel being what it is today, making the world ever more accessible, the United States is still unavoidably at a great geographical distance from so much of the world. For travelers from Britain, France, Spain, it may not be such a big deal to think of taking a holiday in Morocco, but for us Americans, just about anywhere outside of the Americas or Western Europe feels like an incredible crazy thing that we might not have ever imagined.

Even after all the traveling I’ve done – I’ve been so fortunate and privileged to get to do, far far beyond what my grandparents or even my parents might have imagined – there’s still a very long list of places I never thought I’d end up going to. Morocco is most certainly one of those places. Yet, there I was. My partner was accepted to present a paper at an academic conference in Essaouira, a beautiful beach town on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, and so the opportunity presented itself. Prior to heading to Essaouira, we took the opportunity to visit Fes and Marrakesh. During the trip, I wrote up notes and thoughts… I’ll share these over the next however many blog posts, probably mixing unedited copy-pastes from the notes with some post-trip revising. Maybe I’ll put original sections in italics, and my later revisions unitalicized.

Here we go.
June 9-14, Fes

Even after all this traveling, I still find it hard to wrap my mind around the idea that I’m actually in such a place. Whether it’s Hawaii, England, Okinawa, Istanbul, or Morocco, it’s weird to think that I’m actually physically geographically located in such a different place on the globe right now, and also culturally, that I’m in a particular place that I’ve heard about read about seen pictures of. Hard to believe this is Morocco. This is *the* Fez, sacred city of music, and not… I dunno, some substitute that’s not quite the real thing but is still better than nothing. It’s weird to walk the streets, and sit in the cafés, and think this is *the* Fes, this is what it’s really like.

In a way, it’s almost a bad thing, making it all feel too real, too ordinary, too mundane. Actually going and visiting these places breaks the illusion. I don’t know what I expected of Morocco – I’ve barely seen any movies based in that “Oriental” setting, and just haven’t really been immersed in it, I guess. I have some very vague, general, stereotypes that swirl around my head just from being a part of the general popular consciousness – fezes, turbans, bellydancers, camel caravans. But, of course, as we know from Edward Said’s Orientalism and everything that’s come after it, Orientalism was always much more about Western people’s fantasies than it was about Middle Eastern realities. And perhaps all the more so today, as everywhere in the world things only ever get more and more modernized, more and more removed from historical realities, over time. Thus, the only turbans, bellydancers, snake charmers that we saw were there explicitly intentionally for tourist consumption, and not because that’s just how things actually are in Morocco.

Fes skyline, as seen from above the tanneries. Minaret of Bouinania medersa on the right.

As a result, I find it quite weird to be here, and to be finding it frankly not so magical, not so breathtaking. I’m not sure what really to think, what to say are my takeaways. I’ve been really kind of struggling to think of what to say, what to think, how to characterize it all for myself. Sure, it’s a Third World country, and it feels like it in a lot of ways. There are goats and donkeys and chickens in the streets. There is raw meat hanging right over the stalls, and people bustling through tiny winding market streets, and a lot of the other key main features of what we might imagine of “Morocco”. But, then, at the same time, everyone has cellphones, and electricity, and TVs with world news, and lots of the cafés have wifi, and people are just going about their normal everyday business. I’ve been to too many market streets in Jaffa and Jerusalem, and Yokohama and Naha and elsewhere, to really find this so exceptionally out of the ordinary. And while the tourist websites and such tell us that there *are* snakecharmers in certain squares, we haven’t seen any yet. All in all, it just doesn’t quite have that magical, mysterious, “Oriental” quality that we might imagine from books and paintings and movies… And especially some of the cafés we’ve been to feel so modern, even hipstery, that it throws one’s sense off even more. What is the “feel” of this city? Once you move past stereotypes, once you’ve traveled enough, it all gets plainer…

A former home of Maimonides, aka Rambam, one of the most-cited Jewish philosophers in history. Today, a Chinese restaurant.

The medina, the old city center, consisting of some 9000 narrow winding cobblestone streets within heavy stone walls, dates back many centuries. Some of the oldest buildings are from the 9th century, and I think the walls, the city overall is 11th or 12th. Maimonides once lived here.

It’s said to be the largest car-free urban center in the world. The streets are indeed far too narrow for cars, and the artisans and merchants transport their goods in and out of the medina by donkey or by handcart.

Right: the alleyway leading to our guesthouse. I loved this blue.

It’s actually a pretty incredible architectural arrangement. Heavy walls and coverings over the streets between them keep the heat out, keep it cool here inside the medina, even when it’s sunny and hot outside. It was a comfortable 60-something degrees every day we were in Fes; until one stepped out of the medina and was struck by just how powerfully the sun bears down on you. It was closer to 80, or maybe even hotter, outside of the medina.

The walls themselves, all along these many winding paths, are generally quite plain, with the doors being the main ornaments. Though every here and there the walls are painted blue or pink or green – it’s beautiful. And then behind each door, even the most unassuming doors, so many of these houses are just huge big open spaces, three or more stories of rooms, often with a rooftop terrace. Many of the places we’ve seen are amazingly decorated, with tile and marble and mosaics… Of course these are fancy restaurants and guesthouses. Regular people’s homes might not be as fancy. Though they still may be surprisingly spacious and with rooftop terraces.

After a long 10-hour flight, we arrived at London Gatwick, where we had a nice five-or-so hour layover. It was a bit annoying to have to wait through immigration and baggage claim and everything just to pick up our bags and then go somewhere else to check back in – as opposed to connecting more directly from one flight to another as we all so often do, but all in all it went smoothly. And it was so nice to have just a tiny taste of London again, haha. Hung out at Costa Coffee during the layover, and grabbed a couple things from M&S and Boots. I really think I could love to live in the UK again.

Then, a short two-hour flight to Fez. Fez Airport is quite nice, very new-looking, very clean and sunny and bright. From what little we saw of it, we just came in right off the tarmac into a building that was basically just one big room – one half taken up by the immigration lines, and then once we passed through that, the second half of the building was baggage claim, and then that was it. I kind of wonder where the whole rest of the airport is!

Our guesthouse is a small quaint place in the far corner down an alley. It’s a beautiful little place, run by a kind couple. About four or five guest rooms, I think, across two or three floors, with a sunny skylight/atrium sort of thing running down the middle, like in a lot of the places here. Ahmed speaks many languages – English, Spanish, French, and of course Arabic, with great fluency, and his wife French and Arabic. She makes all the food for breakfast herself – cream cheese, apricot jam, several kinds of bread – and they’re all delicious. The jam especially. Just amazing.

We got in to the guesthouse around 5pm, so there was still some time left in the day to walk around the market streets. Everything gets really busy around 4-5, as people buy food and other things to prepare for their daily break-fast (oh, yeah, did I mention it was Ramadan for our entire time in Fes?), and then from about 6 or 7 until 9 or so, it’s super quiet, as everyone closes up shop to go break fast with their families.

Ahmed introduced us to a place called Restaurant Alfassia to see a show of live music, bellydancing, and so forth. It was a pretty fancy place – super big space, multiple floors, all covered in intricate mosaics. A restored/renovated 15th century home, apparently. Sadly, there was only one other party there besides us, so it felt far too big, an awkward situation with the performers outnumbering the audience. A shame. But, the show itself was good. “Classical” Arabic music on oud, violin, and drum, some bellydancing, and some processional-style music with a different set of drums and chimes and such. There’s a certain style of Moroccan (Berber?) drum, with camel skin for the drumskin, which has a thumbhole in the frame, so you can spin the drum while you hit it; a nice little fun trick.

One of the main gates into the medina. Not actually a photo from that first night, but, whatever, right?

Late that night, I went out to the little corner shops to get shampoo and shaving cream, as we still hadn’t showered in all that time, since first boarding our flight in LA. And when I went out, I heard some kind of drums and chimes, sounded like maybe processional (parade) music? After I got back, and we were in bed, we could still hear it all the way into our room. So we threw on some clothes (again) and went out in search of it. By now it was maybe 11pm or even midnight… and we found this one place (a club? a mosque?) where the music was just pounding, the lights were going, and people were just pouring in and out. A super major party. Not electronic “house” dance music or whatever, but something more traditional. We really debated whether or not to try to go in. It could have been a great experience, especially in terms of Simone’s ethnographic explorations, listening to the music, learning firsthand how people enjoy or interact with certain styles of music on certain occasions, etc. But we just didn’t know if it was a private party, or what. If it was a private party for a particular family and their friends, or for a certain Club or Society or whatever, we wouldn’t want to just bust in like the ignorant tourists we are; and if it was a mosque (the party seemed far too lively for my idea of a mosque, but then what do I know?), then we certainly shouldn’t try to get in. … So, we just skipped it, and had paninis and french fries next door. But the music was really something. I don’t know if Simone or I got any recording of it… I don’t recall.

So, that was our first night, and first impressions, of Fes. More in the next blog post.

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