Renault: And what in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.
Actually, Noel and I were the ones misinformed. As our flight came in for a landing in Casablanca, we were surprised at how green the country is. A good portion of Morocco, in particular the northwest area around Casablanca, Rabat and Marrakech, is a temperate zone kept relatively cool and moist by northwesternly winds blown in from the Atlantic Ocean and held there by the Atlas Mountains that make up most of the middle of the country. Agriculture is big business in Morocco. It is a significant supplier of fruits and vegetables to the European Union, France in particular.
I was somewhat taken aback that our Smithsonian tour of Morocco didn’t begin in Casablanca. Instead, we were driven about 50 miles northwest to Rabat, the political capital of the country. The French colonizers (1912-1956) designated the city Morocco’s political and administrative capital in 1912. Our hotel was La Tour Hassan, built by the French to house visiting VIP’s. It has all the Moorish exoticism you might expect coupled with all the modern amenities. The flower arrangements and tile work throughout the hotel are outstanding.
We spent the evening getting acquainted with our fellow travelers and our two guides – Seddik Aassim and Chloé Capel.
Our tour began in earnest the next day with a view of the outside of King Mohammed VI’s palace which is closed to the public. The ruling dynasty has deep roots going back to 1664 AD with the ascension of the first Alaouite ruler Moulay Rachid. The current monarch Mohammed VI is a direct descendent. His father was Hassan II, apparently quite an autocratic ruler. Mohammed VI is named after his grandfather Mohammed V who helped restore the country’s independence from France in 1955.
Mohammed V was a relatively progressive ruler as kings go who encouraged rights for women, increased availability of education for the entire population and agrarian reform. One anecdote credits him with wearing the Star of David when the Nazi-aligned Vichy government took over the country in 1942. When pressured by the Vichy government to deport Morocco’s 250,000 Jews to death camps in Europe, he refused reportedly saying, “There are no Muslims or Jews in my country, only Moroccans.” He died suddenly in 1961 and his son Hassan II became king.
Hassan II’s reign was characterized by human rights abuses and social unrest caused by the low standard of living experienced by much of the population. He managed to survive two military coup attempts. Finally, in 1997 two years before his death he agreed to a broad coalition government that opened the country to wide liberalizing reforms.
Mohammed VI seems to have inherited his grandfather’s politics. Upon ascending to power in 1999, he promised to fight poverty and corruption and improve Morocco’s human rights record. These reforms angered the country’s conservative Muslims and led to the 2003 bombing in Casablanca by allies of al-Qaeda. The king reinstituted strict controls over human rights and freedom of the press. However, major demonstrations by young people inspired by the Arab Spring in 2011, known as the 20th February Movement, pushed him and his government to create a new constitution giving more power to the prime minister and independence to the judicial system. Other reforms include establishing Berber as an official language (more on this later) and guaranteeing women civic and social equality with men. In January 2017 the burqa was banned.
Although Mohammed VI seems to have ceded much of the political control of his country to parliament and its elected representatives, he has maintained the title of Amir al-Mu’minin or “Commander of the Faithful” which means he has the final say on matters of faith among the Sunni Muslims of Morocco, the majority of the population. He is no longer considered “holy” or “sacred” but “the integrity of his person . . . [is] inviolable.” I’m not really sure what that means but the net effect seems to be that you don’t speak bad about the king.
After viewing the exterior of the king’s palace, we next visited the archeological site of Sala-Chellah where the Roman port town of Sala Colonia was located. Although now 2 kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean, the site was a natural port in the past, probably occupied by the Phoenicians and later the Carthaginians as early as 300 BC. The Romans abandoned the site in the 4th century AD. It later evolved into a necropolis for two early Moroccan dynasties.
The most lasting impressions I have of this interesting place are the number of feral cats that seem to be everywhere and the dozens (if not more) of nesting pairs of storks. The storks fill the air with the fabulous clacking sounds they make with their beaks called “bill clattering.” Storks have no vocal chords. The sound is not quite as impressive as the indri lemurs’ vocalization in Madagascar, but it’s right up there. Apparently, the birds used to migrate to Europe in the summer months, but now they have everything they need in Chellah, so they stopped.
As for the cats, they’re somewhat pretty but overall their numbers make them a bit creepy to me. Their numbers rival that of Istanbul’s feral cat population.
We spent most of the afternoon exploring the Musée Mohammed VI d’Art Moderne et Contemporain. At the beginning of the 20th century Moroccan artists were quite tradition-bound mainly because Islam forbids the depiction of human and animal forms in religious art. But the arrival of European artists opened up a whole new art world.
During World War II Winston Churchill liked to visit the pasha of Marrakech to paint. He came for the light and was not misinformed. Among artists, Marrakech is famous for its light. The pasha assigned his teenage son Hassan El Glaoui as Churchill’s gofer. Hassan became one of Morocco’s most highly regarded artists and several of his large paintings were on display in the museum.
While we were visiting, we saw a special exhibit of work by three women artists – Chaïbia Talal, Fatima Hassan El Farrouj, and Radia Bent Lhoucine – all had rural roots and broke out of the figurative mode embraced by Hassan El Glaoui to create work imbued with traditional women’s art like henna painting, tattooing and embroidery. The three artists were very influenced by the COBRA artists of northern Europe who rose to prominence right after World War II.
That evening our Smithsonian Journeys Expert Chloé Capel gave the first of several lectures. She spoke about the various peoples and cultures that have passed through Morocco over the centuries. The majority of the population identifies as “Berber,” but the Berbers are not a homogeneous ethnicity. They are made up of a wide range of Eurasian tribal people who settled in the area throughout the centuries going back at least 10,000 years. What unites most Berbers is their common language and their collective heritage and history.
Not much is known about the country between the time the Romans left in the 4th century AD and the Arabs arrived in the early 8th century, bringing with them the new religion of Islam. In the process of conquering the Maghreb (northwest Africa including Morocco), the Arab general Tariq ibn-Ziyad landed in Gibraltar which is less than 40 miles away from Tangiers and ended up conquering most of the Iberian Peninsula, today’s Spain and Portugal.
800 years later in 1492 the Spanish threw out the last of the Arabs. The exiled Arabs regrouped and attacked Spain and her allies from various points along the north African coast for the next 300+ years, devolving into what became known as the Barbary Pirates.
Meknes and Volubilis
The next morning we left Rabat for Fez with two stops along the way at Meknes and Volubilis. Meknes was a small agricultural town until Moulay Ismaïl, an ancestor of the current king and a contemporary and ally of France’s Louis XIV, decided to make the town his capital in the 17th century. He embarked on a mammoth building program surrounding the city with thick mud walls, imperial gates, and ramparts with elaborate palaces and mosques inside. Most of the labor was done by Christian slaves captured by the Barbary Pirates. Slaves were not only valuable for their labor, but the ransoming of Christian slaves became a good source of income. The Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes spent five years as a slave until he was ransomed.
Moulay Ismaïl died in 1727 with his construction project unfinished. We visited the remains of the enormous stables and granary he built for 12,000 horses. These buildings were pretty much destroyed by the infamous Lisbon earthquake that took place in 1755 but are still pretty impressive.
At some point the rulers of Morocco must have decided that piracy was costing them more than it was worth especially if they wanted good relations with other governments. So, in 1777 Sultan Mohammed III decided to recognize the independence of the new United States of America and granted its merchant ships safe passage in the Mediterranean and along the north coast of Africa. This declaration resulted in the Moroccan-American Treaty of Friendship of 1786, our oldest non-broken treaty with a foreign power.
Not far from Meknes is the ancient Roman town of Volubilis. Its roots go back to the 3rd century BC, but it hit its stride in the 1st century AD when the Romans took over. This part of Morocco was and still is a rich agricultural center especially for olives. You can see from the size and elaborateness of the ruined Roman houses with their large, mosaic floors that Roman farmers and merchants made themselves rich trading olives and olive oil. The Romans abandoned the town around 285 AD when it reverted once again to control by the local Berber tribes.
Moulay Ismaïl looted much of his building material from the ruins of Volubilis. It is the most important archeological site in Morocco and a really great area for photographs. Like Chellah in Rabat, the ruins of Volubilis are home to many storks. No cats, though.
While walking about the ruins of Volubilis, our Moroccan guide Seddik began telling us about the ancient Persian religion of Mithraism and its influence via the Roman army on Christianity. The cult of the warrior god Mithra was apparently very popular among Roman soldiers and had made inroads even into the Romanized Jewish population of Tarsus which was a hot bed of Mithraism.
Saul of Tarsus was a Jew, a Roman citizen, and a practitioner of Mithraism who was won over to Christianity by his famous vision of Christ while on the road to Damascus. He became Paul of Tarsus. There were probably many individuals like Saul, now Paul, but he wrote about his experience and this helped expand Christianity from a small sect within Judaism to the whole Roman population. Individuals like him also brought to Christianity many of the beliefs of Mithraism – the birth of Mithra by a virgin during the winter solstice (December 25th in the Julian calendar), Mithra’s celibacy, and human salvation by shedding his eternal blood. His followers were baptized, drank wine as sacrificial blood, held Sundays as sacred, called each other brothers, and ate bread marked with a cross. (Hot cross buns?!)
Founded in 808 AD, Fez is the oldest of Morocco’s imperial cities and its third largest urban area. It still maintains the appearance of a medieval Islamic city. Many of the buildings and monuments combine an Hispanic-Moorish aesthetic. It has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
We spent an interesting and moving morning touring the old Mellah or the Jewish quarter. The Mellah were established in Morocco when Jews migrated to the country after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition which began shortly after Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castille established the Spanish monarchy and had finished expelling the Arabs from the Iberian Peninsula.
To us the highlight was the Jewish cemetery. Noel was reminded of his 1998 visit to Ukraine’s Babi Yar with a friend and brother trade unionist. His friend had survived several years in a German concentration camp as a young boy. Babi Yar is the ravine outside Kiev where 33,000 Jews were murdered in 1941. Noel placed stones on one of the tombs in memory of his Jewish mother and his friend who had survived.
Until the late 1940’s the Jewish population in Morocco numbered about 250,000. However, most of the population immigrated to Israel with the establishment of the Jewish state as well as to France, Canada and the United States. The number is now down to around 5,000 with the majority living in Casablanca.
We did have a quick tour of the medina with our guide Seddik’s promise that the next day would be longer and more thorough.
The focus of this medina visit was tea with a local family who make the medina their home. The grandmother is a celebrated local pastry chef and her cookies with mint tea were yummy.
After tea we visited one of the few remaining ceramic factories in Fez. Fez is famous for its blue tile, but most of the factories have moved to the countryside because of fuel restrictions in the city. Traditionally, the ceramic factories use the olive pits left over after pressing as fuel, but regulations now stipulate using butane which is more expensive.
Later that afternoon we visited another private home for amazing Moroccan music and dance performances by three different groups. I was absolutely infatuated by the Gnawa music played by Sufi musicians. Gnawa music originated among African slaves who were brought to Morocco as part of the trade caravans from sub-Saharan Africa. As the slaves converted to Islam, they adopted Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism. Conversion to Islam also brought them freedom from slavery, a much better deal than enslaved Africans had in the US. The Koran forbids enslaving a fellow Muslim. Sufism allowed them the flexibility of combining the animist traditions of their ancestors with the ecstatic practices of the Sufi masters.
Central to the Gnawa sound are the krakeba or castanets and a three-stringed guitar called a gimbri as well as various drums. There are lots of call-and-response singing and handclapping. Some folks may think the music is monotonous and too repetitive, but it made me want to get up and dance. It’s extremely popular in Morocco and has many fans among contemporary American and European blues and jazz musicians. It didn’t take much to get many of us up and moving with the musicians. It was a fabulous performance.
The next day Seddik kept his promise about exploring the medina. The different trades congregate together, so we were ushered through the various artisanal sections with workshops specializing in leather, metal, weaving, etc. We spent some time in a women’s carpet co-op. The rugs are woven off-site in the weavers’ homes although there was a man on-site weaving on a loom. The co-op ships rugs to ABC Carpet & Home in New York City. I managed to dredge up some of my rusty bargaining skills and negotiated a reasonable market price for a lovely small tree of life carpet.
The most interesting stop we made was at a tannery. We gathered to watch the process on a long balcony overlooking the hundred or more stone vessels assembled below in a large courtyard while workers stirred and moved hides around. The hides of cows, goats, sheep and camels are first steeped in various liquids to soften and clean them. Then they are soaked in other vessels containing natural dyes. After that, the wet skins are laid out to dry in the sun. The process hasn’t changed since the middle ages. The smell is supposed to be overwhelmingly rank, but I lost a lot of my sense of smell from 30 years of cigarette smoking, so it eluded me for the most part. The tanned leather is then sold to leather craftsmen.
For our convenience this tannery just happened to have a large shop of leather goods for sale on the upper floors. Some of our companions bought high quality jackets and purses. I spotted a pile of old tiles probably salvaged from a rehab project in the old Mellah and negotiated the price of one piece down to a less outrageous price and bought it. I should have just walked away because the seller would no doubt have come back with a lower price. I learned later that one of our fellow travelers did just that and the seller slipped the tile into her pocket agreeing to a price half mine while telling her not to tell me. Trust your instincts!
Leaving Fez behind, we spent most of the next day on our comfortable bus traveling up through the Atlas Mountains. From the bus we saw Berber nomads with their herds of sheep and goats, later cedar forests in the moist higher altitudes. The mountains had snow on them while we were there. We even saw ski lifts in a few places. The rock formations are quite beautiful with strata laid down by sea sediments as the mountains are folded over and up by the geological activity that has raised the land that was once on the bottom of the sea. Africa is bumping into Europe.
Our next destination was the oasis city of Erfoud on the edge of the Sahara Desert.