Morocco: A Kaleidoscope of Cultures

During our three-week journey through Morocco, we embraced a wide variety of landscapes, peoples and cultures.

Meet the Berbers…

80% of Moroccans are of Berber heritage. The Berbers developed a rich culture that thrives in the high mountains and desert. In the past, they lived side by side with a large Jewish population, and both cultures were influential to one another. The Berbers have a unique vocabulary and a wonderful, self-deprecating sense of humor:

A “Berber 4x4” is a mule that carries our luggage up a mountain to a Kasbah. This was a new mode of transport for our well-traveled bags.

Mules, which can climb stairs and hills are much more expensive than donkeys which only operate on level ground.

A “Berber gas mask” is a handful of crushed mint held up to the nose to combat the noxious odors in the tanneries where cow, sheep, goat, and camel hide are turned into leather goods using traditional methods and ingredients which include pigeon poop and organic dyes. These traditional tanneries operate as they have for hundreds of years large courtyards in urban medinas.

“Berber Pizza” is stuffed bread cooked in hot sand.

“Berber Whiskey” is mint tea poured from on high to aerate the flavors of the tea.

A “Berber salt mine” is a well operated by two guys with a rope and a basket. They scoop up the water in baskets and send the salty water to evaporation pools below.

Berber became an official Moroccan language only six years ago, and now it’s on many of the highway signs.

Many people speak Berber, Arabic and French, with a smattering of English in tourist-facing activities and commerce.

We spent a night in the desert, traveling on camels and sleeping in Berber tents.

We donned the traditional Berber headdress to protect our faces from sun and sand.

Berber people are friendly and hospitable; Omar, our guide, took us to his village and introduced us to his father.

He even tried our favorite pose!

Influence of Islam

Islam is the official state religion of Morocco. We learned that the “Minister of Islam” is a high government position, and the current Minister is a dear friend of the King. All communities have a mosque and the salaries for most Imams are paid by the government.

Most women wear modest dress with headscarves in public. Only men are seen in most cafés and if there is a woman in a café, people think, “she must be waiting for transport.” Beer and wine are only served in selected hotels (and some restaurants) that cater to tourists.

The call to prayer is heard five times a day. Jan previously thought that this was a pre-recorded tape, but she was corrected…. “No, the ‘muezzin’, a respected member of the mosque community,  chants the call to prayer in the minaret”. In cities, we could hear the call in “surround sound”, as multiple mosques were calling the faithful at the same time.

Jewish Heritage

Historically, Morocco had a large Jewish community that lived alongside and in peace with the Muslim community; as of 1980, most Jews had emigrated to Israel or elsewhere. Many Moroccan cities have a “Mellah” as the Jewish quarter is known. Mellah homes are different from traditional Moroccan riads. Unlike riads, which are focused on an inner courtyard or garden, homes in the Mellah have street-facing windows and balconies so Jewish residents could chat with neighbors without leaving their homes.

In Marrakech, we visited an active synagogue, which is a pilgrimage sites for many Israelis. We met a local man who had just returned from his mother’s funeral in Israel. She was 94 years old, and had left Marrakech in 1950.

And we learned that Chefchaouen, one of our favorite cities, was painted blue by original Jewish residents to differentiate it from green—the color of Islam!  This city offers picturesque vistas from every turn and is an absolute delight.

French City Planning

French is the second language of Morocco (after Arabic). Wide boulevards, reminiscent of the Champs Elysees radiate from the King’s palace in Fes. These were designed by a French architect. Even Essaouira, a sleepy beach town with incredible kite-surfing and windsurfing, somewhat incongruously practiced alongside camel rides along the beach, was laid out by a Frenchman who wanted the “Medina” (old city) to have an organized feel and not be a labyrinth.

Gnawa Music (from Sub Saharan Africa)

The only “profession” in the village of Khamlia is making music. Whenever a tourist shows up, this talented bunch of musicians brings their traditional drums, string instruments, and castanets to perform mesmerizing music, as well as their attractively packaged CD's for sale. This music originated with animism religions of West Africa and can often put the musicians in a trance.

Uniquely Moroccan

Riads are traditional Moroccan houses which focus inward, allowing family members to communicate easily across the inner courtyard. Traditional riads also have specialized doors with one knocker sound and smaller entry for family members and a different knocker sound and larger entry for visitors. If the family knocker sounds, the women inside know that they do not need to put on their robes and veils.

Not all doors have this feature.

In Morocco, the North African culture lives side by side with Islam, even though many aspects of the culture are “forbidden” by Islam; for example, trance-inducing music, tattoos (often worn by countryside brides), and “liberated” women.

Couscous is the go-to Friday meal (because it takes four hours to cook!) We were lucky to visit a friend’s home on a Friday, where we enjoyed this home-cooked beauty.

Jan  went to cooking school, where she chopped and diced her way to create delicious Eggplant Zaalouk and Seafood Pastila. She even got to eat it for lunch-- and bring leftovers home to Ed.

The shopkeepers in Marrakech are friendly and the leather goods are lovely.

Weavers are everywhere, producing traditional woven goods from agave, wool, and cotton.

Blue Chefchaouen has become the new "Santorini" as a destination for Chinese brides and their photographers.

The Marrakech Medina is lively with girls in school uniforms. The future is bright, if these girls have anything to do with it!

Oil from the abundant olive trees is pressed and bottled using traditional methods.

Traditional fishing boats set sail every morning from Essouaira, on the coast.

The gigantic mosque of Casablanca -- the largest one outside of Saudi Arabia --  can hold 25,000 worshipers inside and 80,000 outside! During Ramadan, we learned that both locations are filled to capacity on a daily basis.

“Au revoir”, “Salam Alikome”, and “B slema" Morocco! It was amazing. We are fortunate and ever grateful for your hospitality.

As they say, “inshallah”  (if God willing), we hope to return.

10 thoughts on “Morocco: A Kaleidoscope of Cultures

  1. Diana James-Cairns

    Of all your journeys, this is the one that has captured my dreams. Wally traveled to Morocco in 1971, and I have always dreamed of returning with him one day. Thanks for the vivid photos that help capture the essence of the country and the variety of cultures that mesh to make Morocco.

  2. Debbie Kaye

    That was grand -- thanks for sharing! I appreciate the way you write about your travels, and your efforts to learn and to join with the culture.

  3. scott baker

    Wonderful description of your time in Morocco and excellent photos. A super joint effort by you and Ed. Thanks for sharing this experience.


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