Comparing the North and South of Morocco

This Summer we stayed in Morocco again – having enjoyed last Summer’s easy temperatures late August saw temperatures soar into the late 40’s and 50’s apparently because of the thermals from the Sahara. However, although hot, we’ve had plenty to discover with exploration first to the North and the Northern beaches, cities and towns, and then to the South again to the gorgeous Ghris Valley with its warm Berber villages and endless date palm groves.

Here are some of the differences I saw:

THE NORTH – Cooler, more modern with a rich history to explore

Spanish and Arabic Influence
The North is a place which is much more Spanish and Arabic in influence, you won’t find many locals who speak French quite as fluently as they do in Marrakech for instance – and people look different to the more Berber and Sub Saharan inhabited areas, with lighter skin and sometimes lighter eyes and more Spanish or Arabic features. There are also more Spanish inflections in architecture as cities such as Tetouan have been both Spanish and Moroccan at different times.

Striped Traditional Dress
The traditional dress is distinctive and worn mainly by the more rural Rif Mountain women who you see in the markets and in the mountains going about their daily life. The main feature is a vertical striped woven apron typically in red and white which serves as both a tribal signifier for the region, and useful protector of clothes, set off often with a straw hat with colourful pompoms adorning it. You’ll find lots of opportunities to buy these along the coast and in the more touristy towns like Chefchouen.

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More Plugged in Cities
Towns such as Tetouan appear a bit more flashy in a sense, people are more concerned about money, cars and appearance; a kind of Miami of Morocco, but not unappealing we really quite liked it and it was cleaner than Marrakech (which can be said of a lot of the North) with the exception of the old medina which is a bit run down but houses some really great example of Spanish influenced riads. Towns are predominantly white in the North a stark contrast to the earthy hues of the south, its a very different looking place.

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Larache was a drive through for us but seemed to be really well groomed and pretty and off the tourist trail generally, although there is a renovated Roman site, Lixus, which is an interesting stop – with a visitor centre which is nicely designed and has two rooms of exhibits and facilities. At the top of the hill at Lixus you can survey the river and city from the ruins and imagine you are a Roman Emperor or Empress for a moment, or that Hercules is coming to find the fabled Golden Apples from an orchard which was believed to have been situated near Lixus.

Lots of Historic Monuments to visit:
Meknes was well worth a stop (albeit impromptu as our car broke down), the legacy of the fierce Sultan Moulay Ishmail dominates the old town which features a Palace, Cavalry, Sudanese Slave quarters and many ornate arches (some of the decoration for which was taken from Palais Badi in Marrakech I believe). There are many stories including those about the underground prison which sounds fit for a Minotaur with its labyrinth of underground tunnels. Legend has it no one ever escaped this prison and that some members of a French team who set out to map the tunnels in modern times also got lost somewhere in the darkness. Meknes has 3 old medina’s to visit; one Berber, one Arabic and one Jewish which are each quite distinctive – we stayed in the Arabic old town at a nice riad – Riad Zahra quite near everything and wondering the streets you can see the tradition of embroidery at work, with spools flying and beautiful patterns adorning shop windows. I was less comfortable in the old Berber town, I’d prefer to go with a local or a guide there as it’s a bit more off the beaten track and you don’t want to get lost there.

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Tangier was a quick stop for us this time, we drove directly to the Caves of Hercules, where the Greek and Roman legend Hercules was meant to have rested his head on the way to complete his 12 challenges. There is one cave you can go into for free which still takes your breath away when you go down into it to emerge looking at a cut away rock face which frames an azure sea.

Great Beaches:
Going up North in July in August is a challenge as there are so many Moroccan tourists coming back home for the Summer that the beaches can get pretty packed, although there is a holiday vibe about the place with large stretches of sand peppered with umbrellas and donut and tea sellers strolling up and down. We were lucky enough to be shown around by Ali’s Nephew who is a dentist up there and has good local knowledge, so we ate at some pretty fantastic seafood places in and around Martil on Tetouan. One in Tetouan was really outstanding in its choice of seafood – the best Prawn Pil Pil I’ve ever had, but to look at it you would have just driven past it. Others had more of an upscale stylish restaurant vibe. The nephew (Simo) also took us on a drive to a quieter beach which is a lovely drive with the coast on one side and Rif Mountains on the other, these less discovered beaches are also becoming popular in the Summer months but are worth visiting and I can see will become quite upscale over time.

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Local Delicacies
There is a kind of chickpea flan called Karane or Kalinti which is Moroccan / Spanish in origin, sprinkled with Cinnamon we tried, it makes a really delicious snack and is sold by the slice freshly baked by street vendors. We found this in Asilah and Meknes and I’m sure its in the other Northern Cities in different forms – but I’ve never seen it in the South.

THE SOUTH – warmer, rural with a rich culture and landscape

Berber, Roman, Jewish Influences
While Arabic and Arabs are obviously an important feature across Morocco the Berber populations dominate in these Southern regions alongside Jewish tribes. Within Berber or we should say Amazigh culture there are different tribes also, some more from Mauritania or further south originally. Europeans have also influenced these areas quite heavily from the Portuguese to Italians (via Romans) and European Jews who both have left legacies and monuments in the local area, as well as influences in the way people look. One friend of the family claimed his mother had blue eyes (an Italian throwback) and you will find when you are driving in the more remote places that the locals call out to you ‘Romani’ – short hand for a European.

Black Taharout Traditional Dress
As you drive through the towns of Kalat Maguna, Tinrir and Goulmima you will see the women wearing various different forms of wrap which are used partly for badging and partly as a cover up and general purpose wrap, blanket and throw. They vary in small ways from place to place, with a uniting feature of being made from black cloth. These shawls become part of daily life providing protection from the heat and harmful rays of the sun, or offering a make-shift covering to those (usually children) who need to take a nap and they can be beautifully decorated with embroidery and mirrors, or they can be more sheer and lace like. While fashion is a bit more important to the younger next generation, most women in the region have been wearing similar clothes for centuries.

Rural Building Skills and Rural Life:
The towns and villages of the Ghris Valley have mostly been built using the earth from the land which when mixed with straw and baked into bricks creates a warm and empathetic addition to the landscape around it, as well as providing practical warmth as a building material. You can see old Ksours (walled villages) which use this technique and feature many recurring Berber architectural themes in the construction. This use of local resources including the local wood is very attractive but many of the old Ksours have not been well maintained so have been shut down so they don’t cause harm, in their place families have moved into new homes which are a bit more practical but thankfully still retain some traditional features. We were lucky enough to be taken around by a local friend who is a builder and decorative artist, he showed us some of the more recent building with traditional skills and the paint work he had carried out using traditional pigments which you can find in the ground like a rich burnt sienna colour he had painted on one wall.

Warmth of the people:
People here help each other, they are so friendly and welcoming – I was invited into tea many times with strangers, fed with bountiful local produce and watched as people who have been born into an arable way of living lead their day. One thing I noticed was the balanced and important roles of men and women and in particularly the strength of women in these areas, physically their days are long and there are very few convenient short cuts but they take everything on whether butchering sheep or carrying large bales of animal feed on their backs. It’s a badge of honour being strong and getting on with it here, a far step away from the traditional European view of muslim women who are demure and repressed, although there certainly are rules when it comes to husbands and wives.

Nomadic Life
We met nomads and shepherds in these parts. Rachid was a camel hurder, he hurded 60 camels which we had happened upon during a trip down to the river for a walk and possibly a swim. It was a beautiful sight, seeing the camels drinking from the river living naturally in the wild. Rachid’s living is hurding camels which he then takes to Camel souks to sell, the largest of which in Morocco I’ve heard is held in Tan Tan on the coast every year.
Aziz a nomad was a pixie like fellow who popped up at our car window for a chat and a lift, he told the tale of how he faces frequent theft of his goats, and that the gang that stole his last goats ended up in prison and then stole again as retribution when they came out and had left him bound and gagged. Apparently excepting for rustlers, when he is not there the goats do not move, they know their place in the mountain when he comes down to town for a rest and something to eat he usually finds them there when he returns.

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Beautiful journeys
There are some great routes you can take out of the town of Goulmima, past Tadighoust and into the mountains through the Ghris Valley, where you can stop at a local village, some of which have old Ksours which seem to be carved out of the mountain, or take a picnic down to the river. Its a rich arable land full of Pomegranates (called Romain here after the Romans who most likely brought them here), olives, figs and of course dates including the increasingly popular Medjool dates. The irrigation systems alone are worth a visit for the more engineering minded, the ones in Goulmima were apparently created by a Jewish European and have created rich groves of palms and lush gardens along the back of the town and the old Ksour which transformed the local area.

Local Delicacies

Among many of the local delicacies to be enjoyed are local breads such as Khobz (meaning bread) Shayma which is created to a secret recipe using herbs sourced locally. Homes often have their own small livestock and fresh fruit and vegetables are freely available at the local souk, local dishes tend to be Chicken stuffed with olives and vermicelli, lamb with prunes and lamb barbeque skewers. Some of the biscuits made by local women are worthy of a high end patisserie as making biscuits tends to be one way to show love and demonstrate your skills in the kitchen.

This has been a whistle stop tour of literally some of the first early observations when you go North and then do South but you could write a book on it! Like any country the people and landscapes are so diverse it’s sometimes difficult to say it’s one country – but one thing that unites all of Morocco is the Moroccan hospitality you find on the way.

Ramadan and Water

Last week it was 43 degrees, that meant staying in mostly, keeping out of the sun and sleeping on the bottom floor of the Riad to avoid using the air conditioning. Thankfully its a bit less hot now and we don’t have to cold shower the dog! But it’s also Ramadan – meaning the opportunity to cool down with a glass of water in the day is taken away.

I’m not a Muslim but I do go along with Ramadan in Marrakech for many reasons really; firstly cultural empathy – its not a great feeling if you are stuffing your face on the street or in a restaurant while those around you are hungry and thirsty which is a lesson in awareness. Secondly – intrigue, why did the prophet Mohammed so many centuries ago communicate the benefits of fasting? How does it relate to today? I’m told by my husband who is muslim that its partly to clear the dead cells that your body needs to get rid of, but also obviously to concentrate the mind on other things and more spiritual pursuits. Fasting has become the thing to do if you are seeking a healthier balance and to manage your weight in the West – but it’s something Muslims do regularly, not just during Ramadan as part of a culture of cleansing.

The third reason is to explore the concept of abstinence and sacrifice, which during Ramadan is not just limited to no water or food (before sun-down) but also other daily distractions including sex which many limit for the whole 40 day period. There is a focus on self discipline, prayer and also the giving of alms. This has two effects; it does make you think, and you notice the lack of things you normally have to make your life more comfortable and sustain you.

I started to imagine how much water must be saved during Ramadan during these hours of not drinking, but I also remembered that in Islam water that is used to cleanse as part of the prayer ritual and a kind of purification, so does that make up for the water that would have been drunk?. It just gets you a lot more focussed on water overall – it’s the one thing you can’t wait to have at sundown, just waiting for the Imam to sing, and it makes you realise how difficult it is to even spend 1 day without water.

My husband believes I’m a one woman threat to the environment and he’s right, having grown up in rainy lush England where fresh and delicious Welsh valley water was piped to our Birmingham home, I took water for granted, only a hot Summer and hosepipe ban one year highlighted a potential shortage, but even then we still could drink water freely and have a shallow bath or a shower even if our cars were a bit dusty and gardens baked. I’m pretty bad with water, I confess that I still leave the water running while I clean my teeth out of habit, I have the shower on all the time when I’m in it rather than stopping it when cleaning with soap and showering after or in between, I like to run the water during washing up rather than soaping the dishes then swilling them all at once. These are ingrained habits and a lack of consciousness on my part.

In the countryside here in Morocco, and of course in the desert, water is still at a premium, you don’t have pipes to get rid of washing up water, you have a bucket, you don’t have a running shower you have a bucket Hammam outside or inside, and it’s not always warm. When you put this against lives in the developed world where one of the latest trends in Essex where I was last living was the garden Jacuzzi to supplement your walk in power shower – it hits home how vastly different our world is from one person’s experience to the next.

In the Quran there is lots written about water, there was a belief, now scientifically proven, that everything sprang from water, “And God has created every animal from water: of them there are some that creep on their bellies; some that walk on two legs; and some that walk on four. God creates what He wills; for verily God has power over all things (Quran, 24-45)”

Today we know that as babies we are 75% water and as we grow older the body of an adult human being is made of approximately 60% water. Animals contain on average 60% water while vegetables up to 75%. Human brain is composed of 90% water. This means that humans talk, think, do, write and invent on the basis of water – and it might explain why I’ve been less able to concentrate for long periods.

So I will spend my Ramadan being thankful for water, and trying to become more conscious, people here see water as sacred, water in Islam is considered as a gift belonging to all equally, which has to be managed and distributed with equity among all living beings, humans, animals and plant life. There is even an Islamic law or right concerning water named Safa after the place where Abraham (Ibrahim) and his wife and baby son set down on a search for water and were eventually saved by the Zamzam well (great name!) which magically sprang up at baby Ishmaels feet.

Climate change will challenge us all, to think differently, part of this is not just a technical challenge for innovators, but a behavioural challenge for us all – maybe non muslims need a kind of secular Ramadan to reflect on this from time to time and appreciate the value of the simple things.

To learn more about water and culture you can visit The Water Museum in Marrakech.

The Children of Tamesloht

It’s hard coming from a privileged society to reconcile the tension between the innate push to realise your own potential as an independent thinker with possibilities, with the knowledge that people just down the road find it almost impossible just to eat and get through each day. This became even more evident to me during a trip with Epic Morocco to learn more about the Children of Tamesloht, a small village just outside of Marrakesh that has many rural attractions, but which was hit by an earthquake which wreaked chaos and created many difficulties for the children that lived there.

Luckily for these children, two Dutch women who were working with the women in the local co-ops on artistic ventures decided they could do something to help – it wasn’t easy they say, you have to be a bit crazy to even try but the rewards are great. Fiers et Forts is a wonderful refuge and development centre, each child here has a story and one which is known intimately by the carers, and any one of these stories will make you cry.

Dorine the director of the centre told us one such story about a small boy;

‘For the first three years of his life he followed his naked foraging mother like a feral animal, trying to avoid the stones she would throw behind her to drive him away’

Its hard not to be jolted into another’s reality when faced with such a tale. However, rather than depress you with other sad stories, Dorine painted us a picture of a gentle, safe place situated in beautiful gardens, a place which is full of light and laughter where children find safety, make friends and develop to be their best selves, in spite of what has happened to them.

There are many success stories; a boy who trained in the Royal Mansour kitchens through a mentoring programme and is now a pastry chef, another who now runs two Riads – both are financially independent and doing well.

I was struck in conversation by a common theme of seeking out and nurturing the talents, passions and strengths of each child whatever they are. It’s this dedication which has helped one of the boys who is extremely bright to focus on a journey to becoming a vet, inspired by the animals around him.

Children selected for help at the centre are the most needy, usually they are a ward of court, and in a life threatening situation. When accepted by the centre, each has an individual development plan, and a ‘teacher/carer’ is responsible for their wellbeing and development. There is a psychologist who provides advice to the staff and even an on-site dentist. A small holding with chickens and farm animals provides opportunities for having a go at nurturing and the lovely ‘Nus’ a loving Labrador who roams the site has, we are told, been privy to many a child’s sorry tale as they start on a journey of trust.

‘This girl is 17’ Dorine tells us pointing to a small girl who looks no older than 13, her brain has not developed to the extent that she can learn in a class room, therefore the centre is teaching her life skill’s, ‘we made her director of chickens with the job of counting the eggs’.

The centre is supported by sponsors such as The Royal Mansour and very soon Epic Morocco, but the bulk of the funding came from a high profile art auction which gained international support and funded the building work. There are many opportunities for hands on team work and getting involved, for instance the Hammam was designed and created for the children by student architects with a passion to get off paper and create something tangible to bring to life the theory they are learning.

There is of course a need for ongoing support, they cook 140 meals a day here and have 94 kids to care for of which 36 are boarders. There is a sponsor a child programme however even if the basic overheads are met, there are always ‘surprises’ which haven’t been accounted for.

‘This boy has just had a second operation 3 weeks ago to remove a brain tumour’ Dorine points to a smiling boy with a baseball hat playing table football with other boys.

‘He’s very brave, obviously we didn’t account for the extra cost, there is another boy who needs a new leg, and another who underwent a lot of surgery following a road accident’.

The children here have a strong bond with each other, they are like family and even those who have left come back to see their ‘brothers and sisters’.

It must be hard to leave such a sanctuary, but Dorine and the team are putting in place plans for a half way house to create a bridge for those older children moving on into the cities and world at large to learn independence while maintaining a connection to their ‘home’.

Fiers et Forts and the village itself are well worth visiting, there is an old Kasbah there and weaving and ceramic workshops which create lovely pieces designed to suit the European taste. Certainly they are not open to bus tours, but families, individuals or small groups will, I know, find the visit inspiring. It helps to contextualise things with visits like this – it’s easy to live in a tourist ‘bubble’ but this is about an aspect of real life here – not dressed up, but gritty and real.

If you want to visit, or to donate you can contact Dorine Eijakman at Fiers et Forts or Carla at Epic Morocco (they can tailor-make a village visit).

Cool hunting around Rue de La Liberté

I have a few nick-names which luckily I see as a sign of endearment. One of them is ‘Minty’ which was part of the inspiration behind ‘Mint Tea’ (Minty does Morocco). Others are slightly less cute; ‘sponge’ (sometimes extended to ‘Sponge-Bob’) for instance, is because I soak everything in and hence take too much time in a place before moving on. I am a very visual person, my eye is easily turned by fashion and design, which I then feel the need to photograph, touch and learn more about.

The benefit of being a curious ‘sponge’ is that you are constantly seeking out the on-trend places or people who are doing something interesting or different. That’s why I loved stumbling upon Rue de La Liberté in Gueliz, Marrakech and the surrounding streets. I’ve now spent quite a few hours trawling up, down and around. Here I’m giving you a snapshot of some of the nice places I’ve found so far. I will write more about the art galleries which populate the surrounding streets, and the restaurants when I have visited them.

KECHMARA: 3 Rue de La Liberté
This is a restaurant designed by a business contact of my architect mate David hence the recommendation, it isn’t new but I like it a lot. Its like the kind of relaxed eatery I enjoy at home in the UK, and it has a stunning roof terrace which reminds me of a Melbourne bar. Its a good place to meet business contacts or friends, and isn’t too hectic. If you drink you can also have cocktails, wine and beer there and if you’ve had your fill of Tagine, treat yourself to a gourmet burger or asparagus and poached egg.

Kechmara

SOME: 76 Boulevard El Mansour Eddahbi
SOME is a new ‘slow’ Shop and Cafe which houses a curated collection of concessions each with a different focus (ceramics, textiles, beauty etc) and some nice new concepts such as a ‘build your own bag’ station, all brought together in a 30’s loft style space with a garden. The quality of the merchandise is vetted by the owners (Noemie and Mathilde) so you know you are getting the real thing. I learned the good quality black and cream rugs sold in this shop are made from naturally black and cream sheep in Berber women’s co-cops, they are not dyed. The garden cafe isn’t open yet – I made my plea for nice cake (its not easy to find – there are more pastries than cake here – I want a sponge!).

KAFTAN QUEEEN 61 Rue Yugoslavie
Just over the junction in Gallerie Liberté is Kaftan Queen, the concept of former model and now mum of six, Sarah Buchan. Sarah and her husband Yahya (who merits his own dedicated post) have been a key influence in taking Moroccan design and luxury crafting to other markets. For ex-Londers like me you might know them through the clubs and restaurants they used to help furnish and fit out eg. Momo, Po Na Na. Sarah’s feel for fit and tailoring has inspired a range of modern boho style Kaftans and comfortable, stylish Kaftan inspired dresses. Bought by locals and foreigners alike, you can see Sarah here at work showing her best selling design. There is a tailor on site, you can have a design made or buy from the ready to wear range.

Easy to wear Kaftan Queen

MAMOUNIA ARTS GALLERY 7 Rue de La Liberté
This is a nice place to visit for Moroccan antiques many of which are from Fes and there are some great black and white framed photos which I dream of hanging in my imaginary Riad. The manager is happy to talk to you about the artefacts such as typical milk jugs and collections of original pottery, there was even a Spanish saddle with silver detailing which cut quite a dash in the shop (and no I didn’t try it out!). Items in this shop are at the more premium end but you can buy a black and white framed photograph of a famous arabic singer for 900MAD so some of it is affordable.

LALLA 35 Boulevard El Mansour Eddahbi
You can find a fab collection of bags here under the lalla brand but what caught my eye were the necklaces, really original pieces made of leather, wood and stone. I tried one on (not easy to get on but quite striking) it was a bit maximalist with my floral shirt I think they call it a ‘Versace Sneeze’ but you could easily wear it with a pair of jeans and white T-Shirt, however at a price of I think near £300 (a months rent here) you will have to have to really love it or have money to throw around. Apparently the designer is doing very well in New York.

I love this necklace!