Marilyn has always wanted to go to Morocco. I don’t think her inspiration is provided by the Humphrey Bogart film Casablanca , it’s more Kate Winslet in Hideous Kinky. Also, I think the generation we come from, both of us have at the back of our minds some of the hippy philosophies still rattling around and thoughts of all things eastern; religion, philosophy, art, music and way of life.
A three hour flight from Stansted!
Stansted Airport is the worst airport to get to from where we live in Wimbledon, South London. There is that great metropolis called London stuck between us and Stansted which is thirty miles north of London. It’s very difficult to get to, for us anyway.
Fez airport. It's very hot here.
We arrived at Fez flying low over a brown landscape with the Rif mountains sharply outlined in the background. Acres and acres of olive groves came up to meet us as we descended towards the airport, their round spherical branch systems stretching out in evenly separated straight lines like so many afro hair styles, mile upon mile. Dark clouds lowered overhead and we thought this can’t be? Rainy London to rainy Fez. As soon as the door of the plane opened, the heat hit us. Overcast, but 35 degrees centigrade and then the lightening crackled and split the skies over the nearby mountains. A few drops of hot rain splashed and immediately evaporated and then we were in the terminal building. It was 5.30 pm in Morocco and we had arrived during Ramadan. We were lucky to find one white, beat up, Mercedes taxi to take us the five miles to our hotel. It rattled and swerved along empty roads through the French built Vielle Nouvelle and the palace area, called Fes el Djerid, until we got to Fez el Bari. It was driven by a smiling, happy driver who did not understand any English. However, he knew the Batha Hotel when we showed him the name. The Hotel Batha, in the Fes el Bali, is famous for having Winston Churchill stay there when it was the British Consulate. This part of Fez is situated amongst the medieval kasbahs, souks, mosques and medersas. The hotel is a wonderful example of Moroccan architecture. To the outside world it has high blank walls but its interior is a combination of mosaicked courtyards with fountains and luxurious Mediterranean palms and plants. There are ensuite rooms off blue railed balconies overlooking these richly coloured and patterned courtyards.
So we had arrived in Morocco in the middle of Ramadan. During the day people fast. This means no eating, smoking, drinking or sex during daylight hours. Once the sun has set they are permitted to eat and drink and presumably have sex. Marilyn, Emily, Abigail and I saw the Moroccans only eat and drink at night-time. This is a month long observance during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The fasting promotes patience, spirituality, humility and submissiveness to God. As far as we could see everybody kept to this fast in Fez. It is humbling to see how important religion, worship and prayer is to the Muslims when we compare it to our secularised society. Christians fast too, during Lent. This has been reduced to making another attempt at dieting or rather bland promises about not drinking alcohol or smoking or not eating sweets for children. Our physical health rather than our souls health appears to be more important to us nowadays. Lent used to have a more important and serious meaning which seems to have been lost for a lot of people.
As far as we could make out then, everybody followed the rituals and rules of Ramadan. Probably in the Victorian period and certainly during the Georgian period, Christianity was followed in a similar unquestioning fashion here in England too. To many free thinkers that might sound like a draconian way of life, something ancient and part of history. I think this strict approach does have a lot of benefits though. I was taught from the age of five years old until I left school at eighteen, bound for university and a teaching career, by a French order of brothers called the "de La Mennais Brothers" from Brittany. Brother Paul, a very intelligent individual, a tough thinker and a muscular Christian, used to say ,”why all this questioning? It just makes you flabby and weak minded and indecisive and will lose you your faith.” He had a point. Brother Paul had his doubts I am sure, we all do. It is only human nature but he kept his faith and continued through his doubts. He achieved a high moral integrity. Keeping to a faith does free you, spiritually and morally and creates a stable healthy state of mind and being. It can be argued if you have a laissez fair attitude to life or what may be termed an open view of everything,unless you are careful and I doubt most of us are strong enough to resist, greed, pride and other nasty traits that can enslave us. We can look at the riots in this country recently and see what amorality achieves. It achieves greed . An acquisitiveness of things, enslaves us to those things, cars, computers, i-pads and the list goes on, which rot, rust and break. The Moroccans can achieve a spiritual, moral and personal freedom from greed by following their religion. You could almost say that they have a better quality of life and a higher moral understanding than us, by following a religion. However, just seeing religion as a means to be a more stable human being would diminish religion in the sense that you are using it for a personal purpose. Believing in a God is a bit like saying life is more than the sum of its parts.
One thing that is very noticeable is that Morocco is a male dominated society. After sunset,during Ramadan, when people are allowed to eat and drink again , it is the men who are out on the streets or sitting at the restaurants together. It is the men who sit at the shops and stalls in the market doing business during the day.The women are not seen nearly as much. Many women decide to cover their bodies completely in public, hands, arms, legs, heads, every bit of themselves even covering their eyes with a piece of netting. Some are less strict and leave their eyes,faces and hands uncovered. Others are more liberal still. Two waitresses in our hotel had their heads completely uncovered. There seems to be an element of choice to how much they want to do. I once saw two women in Wandsworth, South London, not far from where I live, completely covered with only their eyes visible, trying to cross a busy road. I really wondered how much they could see of the cars racing around them.
The Muslim religion has a belief that a woman belongs to her husband and that no part of her body should be seen by another person. This seems to be about possession and ownership. I am not the one to be critical at all. I have little understanding of Islam and the Muslim religion. I am sure there are things about Christianity which confuse Muslims.Women are gaining some rites and the country is becoming more liberal towards them; for instance a man cannot marry a second wife without permission of his first wife. If a woman wants a divorce she is allowed to divorce without the agreement of her husband.There are nowadays some places in Parliament for women.
Morocco is a Kingdom situated on the north west coast of Africa. The Atlas mountains begin in Morocco and the southern part of the country includes the north west corner of the Sahara Dessert. The population is mostly made up of Arabic Berbers, there are some true Berbers in the country and much of the population is Sunni Muslim. There is a small population of Jews who are on the decline.There are about five thousand Jews left in a total population of thirty five million.
The main languages are Berber and Moroccan Arabic. There has been a powerful French influence in the country so most speak French too and a little English to cope with us tourists from England. Many of the people we met were keen to talk to us.. They are very friendly people, really lovely, smiling and keen to be of help. They are shocked by the European and world reaction to all of North Africa because of what has happened in Libya,, Tunisia and Egypt. There was a rare bombing in Marrakech market last year. The tourist industry was stopped dead in its tracks. Where we were in Fez they had to close the markets for a month because there were no tourists.. Tourism is an important part of their economy. Fez is a friendly peaceful place.
There are some clashes between Algeria and Morocco over the Mahgreb region of the Sahara.Both countries claim the area. The people who live in the area, the Sahrawi, want autonomous status. The Moroccans are working towards this for them..
Moroccans are generally contented with their political system. They have a monarchy in which the King holds important and powerful executive powers but they have a two house parliamentary system with free elections and the parliament and majority party holds executive and legislative powers too. It is not permitted to criticise the monarchy in the press or in public life. Press freedoms are seen as liberal for North Africa and some French magazines are sold. However, journalists generally sensor themselves to stay the right side of the law. There are rumours but also some evidence, especially from detainees from Guantanomo Bay, that they have been tortured in Morocco to gain information about terrorist activities. It is said that the CIA have some of their ,"Black Sites," in Morocco.There are religious freedoms. Christians are allowed to practice but they must be a member of Islam too.The country is aided by the world bank and the international monetary fund to help develop it’s industry’s and infrastructure. The economy is based on agriculture to a great extent, too great for the amount of rainfall it gets and it has a small but growing telecommunications industry and information technology industry. It is also the world’s third largest phosphate producer. There is less likelihood for an uprising and revolution on the Libyan model.
The people are not well off. We saw poverty on the streets of Fez but not an exceeding amount.They are much less well-off generally than we are in Europe or North America. Literacy levels are at 50% of the population. They have universities and colleges of further education but only a few. Education is only required to the age of twelve. Here in England it is sixteen at the moment but most people carry on to eighteen so they can take A levels to get into university or go on to a continuing course of education in a trade or skill. You get the feeling and sense when you are in Morocco that the people are working hard towards a better more prosperous life. They are keen to meet Europeans and anybody willing to visit them.
Moroccos electricity power is supplied mostly from coal fired power stations at the moment but there is a big development in solar energy going on. When we were walking around the narrow alleyways of the ancient market in Fez we saw some roof tops with large solar energy installations. Many new buildings are being provided with solar energy panels. I must say that is happening in England too. Many new housing developments being built here are being made of recyclable materials, solar panels and better insulation to reduce the carbon footprint of the building.
From the Hotel Batha we walked out each day and got ourselves lost in the hustle and bustle of market life. We found the Karouaine Mosque where prayers during Ramadan were being said each day. We saw the medersas which are, in effect, universities mostly teaching theology. The oldest university in the world is in the Fes al Bari district.
What distinguishes Moroccan buildings from European buildings are the beautiful tiled courtyards with intricate Islamic designs and the fountains and the importance of water demonstrated niot just in the courtyard fountains but also in all the beautifully coloured tiled water fountains found throughout the market area. Water is spiritual in the sense it is cleansing of the body and soul and it is life giving too. Floors and walls inside many buildings are coveredwith intricate tile patterns.Islamic art is very much connected with the Muslim religion. It is about mood and setting and creating a meditative atmosphere. Colour has strong religious significance. Green is the colour of Islam and other colours have other significance. It is wrong in Islam to portray living things, portraits of people, and pictures of animals and plants, although plant like designs can be found. It is sacrilegious to portray living things. This has created a situation where Islamic artists have focussed on the meaning of colour and pattern using geometric designs and because of this patterns and designs made today are very similar or identical to patterns and designs made centuries ago. It is almost that there is no development in Islamic art. I am sure I am wrong and somebody might put me right but that is what it appears to be. Western art has developed from religious christian art, the telling of Ancient Greek myths and legends, the interpretation of different political beliefs, scientific theories, history, the way we interrelate with nature in the countryside and on the sea, the way we view people, using the subconscious, interpreting every day life, experimentation with materials and so on has created a diverse and ever growing creative body of art. Islam has not had this.
The market in the Fez el Bari is dusty, with narrow alleyways and many shops huddled either side as you walk through it’s labyrinthine maze. Donkeys and mules barge through, laden with goods. The butchers stalls have camel heads hung up and much of the meat on display is camel meat. Stalls with bags of pungent herbs and spices assault your senses. Mounds and pyramids of dates and figs with syrup flowing over them glisten before you. Jewellery, carpets and leather goods are sold everywhere. People call to you from their market stalls but we found that they do not hassle you too much and make you uncomfortable. They are friendly. One morning as we approached one of the gateways into the market a woman came out from under a tarpaulin next to a market stall, her long wavy black hair hanging roughly over her shoulders and down her back. She was wearing a dirty and grimy nightshirt. She scrabbled about in the dirt and rubbish about her. She eventually held up a torn piece of newspaper and with her wrinkled old face and narrowed eyes she proceeded to read something out loud to the world around her and then cackled, laughing hoarsely over its contents. Something amused her.
We found leather shops where beautiful Moroccan leather bags and shoes were sold. One leather goods owner deep in the market area took us up onto the roof of his shop to show us the dying and tannery vats. It was like a scene from the middle ages. Men stood in these giant stone and brick vats,the size of small swimming pools, full of different coloured dyes and tanning substances which had a strong ammonia smell. They used pigeon droppings to create the ammonia. The shop keeper gave each of us a handful of mint to hold to our noses because of the smell. These men, tanning the leather, earned 30 drms a day for this smelly and dangerous work. Thirty drms is equivalent to £3.
Emily had been waiting for her chance to barter. One of her aims, coming to Morocco was to buy a leather bag in the souk. In the leather workers shop she bartered and bartered. I think the shop owner had met his match. He asked for 1200 drms and Emily guffawed. "200 drms,” she said. The shopkeeper thought this a derisive offer. He said," a thousand.". Emily said 200drms again. The shopkeeper thought it much too low and offered 900 drms. Emily said ,"400," but he was having nothing of it. "500," Emily retorted but the shopkeeper still thought this too low. Eventually Emily said, “Well that’s it then. I’m looking somewhere else.” Marilyn, Abigail and I were mortified and embarrassed. As we went to leave the shop the shopkeeper called us back and agreed 500 drms. Emily got her bag. It is a very good quality leather bag. Moroccan leather is famous and sort after. Probably,the man got what he wanted all along but don’t tell Emily.
Next door to our hotel was the Batha Museum. It is an Hispano Moorish palace dating from the 19th century. Like all grand Moroccan buildings the outside looks austere with high walls but once inside it was like an exotic palace from the Arabian Nights. A large courtyard planted with figs, dates, giant palm trees, limes and oranges filled the centre. Around the edge of the garden, like a massive cloister, were cool white rooms with beautifully painted ceilings with exhibits from Berber culture exhibited. Wedding costumes, jewellery, cooking pots, knives and swords.There are carved wooden panels and beautiful ceramics. To remind us that Islam has produced great scientists there are magnificent brass astrolabes on view.Things that a desert people and a sea going people sophisticated in design and trade need and have made.
Marilyn, Emily, Abigail and myself knew we were not going to get a,"luxurious beside the beach," style holiday waited on hand and foot. What we did get was a deep and thought provoking cultural experience with sounds, sites and smells thrown in. We met and talked to Moroccans and learned about their hopes and fears. We will remember this for the rest of our lives.
A piece of camel being carried in the market.
The Blue Gate. One of the main gateways into the Fez el Bari.
A gateway with the Rif Mountains in the background.
A doorway in a secluded spot in the market area.