More-ish Morocco

Markets piled high with exotic herbs and spices, medieval mazes throbbing with haggling carpet salesmen, and turban-clad nomads riding camels across sun-scorched dunes.

The alluring images in Moroccan holiday brochures had long tempted me to this faraway land, but the inspiration to finally visit came from a far more prosaic source: a crumbling, picture-less paperback coated in dust, which I found in a second-hand bookshop.

Published in 1869, The Innocents Abroad is Mark Twain’s amusing account of “a pleasure excursion” he embarks on with a group of fellow American travellers – a cruise from New York to the Holy Land peppered with stop-offs.

Underwhelmed by the Azores and Gibraltar, Twain and his friends then dip into Morocco at the port of Tangier and are mesmerised by this other-worldly place swarming with colourful characters seemingly plucked straight from the pages of The Arabian Nights.

“Tangier is the spot we have been longing for all the time,” wrote Twain. “We wanted something thoroughly and uncompromisingly foreign – foreign from top to bottom – foreign from centre to circumference – foreign inside and outside and all around – nothing anywhere about it to dilute its foreignness – nothing to remind us of any other people or any other land under the sun. And lo! in Tangier we have found it.”

The Tangier Beat

A century and a half later, the foreignness that so enchanted Twain has clearly been diluted. Shuffling past me on Tangier’s palm-lined waterfront promenade are stubble-faced smokers in chinos and leather jackets, teenage boys in FC Barcelona tracksuits, women in headscarfs and bright, bejewelled tunics and gowns, lipstick-wearing temptresses in blouses and tight jeans, and a veiled woman in a black burqa jabbering in Darija (Moroccan Arabic) into an iPhone.

At the same time, there are dozens of men and women cloaked in djellabas. These long, loose cotton garments with pointy hoods are thought to have arrived in Morocco around 800 BCE, introduced 

by the Phoenicians, who, along with the ancient Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals and Arabs and a host of Western powers and indigenous Berber tribes, have shaped the culture of this enigmatic North African kingdom.

With its strategic position on the Strait of Gibraltar, just 14 kilometres from the Spanish mainland, Tangier has always been susceptible to foreign invasion. Between 1923 and 1956, when the rest of Morocco was a protectorate of France and Spain, this atmospheric Mediterranean city became an international zone, a kind of Cold War West Berlin, split into sectors overseen by nine countries, including the US and the UK. 

Spies, financiers, crooks, smugglers, socialites, playboys and artists all thrived in the zone’s slightly seedy, ‘anything goes’ atmosphere, and I particularly enjoy retracing the old hangouts of the so-called ‘beat generation’, the American literati of the 1950s whose writings were inspired by this multicultural melange.

Cafe Central and Gran Cafe de Paris are still ripe for café au lait, loitering and people-watching, while bookshop Librairie des Colonnes, established in 1949 at 54 Boulevard Pasteur, is stocked with several Tangier-tinged beat novels.

“William Burroughs, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac – they all used to come in here,” says Simon-Pierre Hamelin, the young French manager. “And they used to eat next door. It’s a cafe now, but back then it was one of the best restaurants in town.”

Intriguingly, Hamelin is one of several who argue that such has been the foreign impact on Tangier that it isn’t the true Morocco. “It’s something else, something different,” he says. “A cross between Europe, Africa and the Middle East.”

At first glance, Tangier resembles a fairly typical modern Moroccan city split between the medina (the walled, car-free labyrinth of old, winding arteries) and the ville nouvelle (the new town with wide avenues named after kings, elegant colonial architecture and myriad Western-flavoured restaurants, including McDonald’s).

However, Hamelin’s point is echoed by amiable Moroccan hotel manager Idriss Aboulaghrass: “For many people, Tangier is their first experience of Morocco, and it’s a new culture to them, but to see and feel the real Morocco, you must go south.”

Chefchaouen Blues

No Western writer got closer to understanding the ‘real’ Morocco than Paul Bowles. Born in New York 

in 1910, Bowles lived in Tangier for 53 years, mingling with local storytellers and musicians and translating their works into English (incidentally, Hamelin has helped to continue his work).

Among Bowles’ favourite countryside escapes was Chefchaouen, a gorgeous laid-back town in a valley surrounded by the craggy peaks of the Rif Mountains, one of the four major ranges that roll down to the Sahara Desert.

A two-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Tangier, Chefchaouen was founded in 1471 and swelled with the arrival of Muslims and Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Until it was occupied by Spanish troops in the 1920s, Christians were not allowed into the area. 

Today, it’s a welcoming place that attracts hikers who trek a clutch of scenic trails on the town’s outskirts; dreadlocked hippies and backpackers who lap up the hashish grown and sold locally; and those, like me, who are simply looking to unwind in a lovely little medina characterised by blue-washed buildings – a colour scheme inspired by Jewish tradition – and studded with antique, pottery and textile stores.

The sales pitches here are silky-smooth. Abdul, a loquacious Berber, tries to lure me into his rug emporium. “You have lovely blue eyes,” he says, “just like Mel Gibson! He was here a few years ago, you know. He came into my shop. Will you come in too? We can have tea. Er, how do you say… no strings attached!”

Souvenir shopping isn’t on my agenda, so I politely decline and head to the central plaza, Uta el-Hammam, which is blessed with a striking red kasbah (a high-walled citadel formerly home to sultans), a stunning mountain backdrop and a raft of cosy cafes and restaurants, where I spend hours quaffing freshly squeezed orange juice, sipping sugary mint tea and wishing I had more time to while away in lovely Chefchaouen.

Frenetic Fez

“There’s something magical about Fez,” says Kleo Brunn as she gazes over the seemingly endless ocean of mud brick rooftops clustered with satellite dishes and pierced by towering green minarets. “I only came here to learn Arabic and hadn’t planned on staying too long, but I became hooked. There’s a real magnetism here; so much history, culture, spiritualism. It’s like a living museum.”

We’re standing on the roof terrace of Dar Attajalli, a centuries-old courtyard home that Brunn, a German, spent three years painstakingly refurbishing to transform it into a boutique hotel. She joins a growing band of Westerners who have converted run-down properties in Morocco.

Furnished with traditional Fassi handicrafts and emblazoned with dazzling tile mosaics known as zellij, the four-room hotel provides a tranquil refuge from the hubbub of Fez’s incredible medina, a shady tangle of about 9,000 streets and alleyways that propels the term ‘sensory overload’ to a new level.

I get lost countless times in this dusty labyrinth jammed with workshops and souks teeming with carpets, brass teapots, leather jackets, babouches (pointy-toed slippers), spices, soaps, perfumes, oils, potions and 1,001 other eye-catching and aromatic things.

I watch as old djellaba-robed men clutching crowing roosters plod past halal butchers, fishmongers and fruit and vegetable stalls, and I dodge donkeys laden with sheep hides, stomping their way to pungent dye pits.

Despite no longer being the capital – an honour bestowed upon Rabat by the French in 1912 and maintained when Morocco gained independence in 1956 – Fez is still seen as Morocco’s heartland.

The city was established by 800 CE and its founder, Idris (or Idris II, depending on who you listen to), established Morocco’s first great Islamic dynasty. Fez flourished as a centre of religious, political and cultural importance.

Relics of the city’s golden age remain, including the Al-Karaouine mosque and university, which was founded in 859 CE and is believed to be the world’s oldest operating higher education institution. 

It’s closed to non-Muslims, but for A$1.25 you can enter the neighbouring Medersa el-Attarine, a Koranic college that dates back to the 14th century and boasts the elaborate zellij, sculpture and stuccowork for which Fassi artisans are renowned.

While atmospheric old Fez is imbued with a somewhat antediluvian vibe, it is also flecked with modern touches, such as Café Clock at 7 Derb El Magana, “a Fez cultural zone” owned by Englishman Mike Richardson and managed by an Australian, Max Rowe. Expats, tourists and Fassis flock to this restored 250-year-old building, which hosts calligraphy lessons, Moroccan cookery and henna classes and rooftop sunset concerts while offering fast, free wi-fi. The menu features a delicious and delightfully juicy gourmet camel burger.

Essaouira Escape

Though cuisine in Morocco has become increasingly cosmopolitan – you can now snaffle everything from Italian to Japanese – I mostly stick to traditional dishes: tajines (braised stews of meat and vegetables served in sizzling clay pots of the same name), couscous with chicken or beef, and brochettes (skewered kebabs), followed by sickly-sweet desserts, such as chebakia (fried sesame seed and honey cookies), which are especially popular during the fasting month of Ramadan.

I’m yearning for seafood by the time I reach Essaouira, a historical fishing port on the breezy Atlantic coast, where Romans and Phoenicians once mined a much-prized purple dye from a local marine snail, the murex.

Dozens of restaurants serve enticing seafood platters, but Moroccans and tourists in the know (or on a budget) head to the market at the heart of the medina, where you choose a fish (say, red tuna or sea bass), park yourself on a wooden bench and wait for your grilled feast, complete with salad, olives and bread, to arrive.

Essaouira proves an ideal getaway after the hustle and bustle of Fez and Marrakech, where I’d spent the weekend soaking up the atmosphere of the astonishing Djemaa el Fna, the loud, hectic central square that brims, day and night, with snake-charmers, magicians, monkey teasers, storytellers, henna painters and food and drink vendors.

In contrast, Essaouira is blissfully chilled out. I like its pretty art galleries and souvenir stalls, windswept sandy beaches and relaxing cocktail bars. The atmospheric port comes to life when the day’s hauls are brought in.

The town hosts the annual Gnaoua and World Music Festival, a celebration of the soulful blend of Berber, sub-Saharan African and Arabic songs and rhythms, accompanied by lively acrobatic dances.

Gnaoua’s bluesy tones provide the soundtrack as I stroll past the picturesque Scala de la Kasbah, a fort built by 15th-century Portuguese invaders. Watching the fiery sun begin its descent into the sea, I spot three musicians chanting, strumming lutes and shuffling iron castanets. As the muezzin’s call to prayer emanates from the nearby mosque and drifts into a pink-orange-tinted sky crisscrossed with squawking seagulls, the Gnaoua trio builds to a spine-tingling crescendo. I wonder if this is what they mean by the ‘real’ Morocco.    

Five Handy Cultural Tips

The Lingo

English is commonly used in the main tourist areas, but it helps to know some French and a few Arabic words, and a little Spanish in the north.

Dress Code

Morocco isn’t a super-strict Islamic kingdom, but modest dress – no skimpy tops or tiny shorts – will help you avoid unwanted attention.

Hard Bargaining

Play it cool when you see something you like. Appearing too enthusiastic will result in a price hike. You should be looking to bargain the vendor down by at least 50 per cent.

Watch Out

Be wary of over-friendly locals who approach you in popular tourist areas. Chances are they’ll lead you to their brother’s carpet shop or another place where they can make a commission.

Fair Fares

taxi drivers are notorious for overcharging foreigners. They’re supposed to use meters but rarely do, so agree on a fare beforehand. Ideally, ask a local what you should be paying for the ride.

Moroccan Stars

Films and books inspired by the breathtaking landscapes and cities of Morocco.

On Screen

Casablanca (1942) directed by Michael Curtiz. Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart star in this Oscar-winning classic that was set in Casablanca but filmed almost entirely in California studios.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Doris Day and James Stewart star in this film about a family that accidentally stumbles upon an assassination plot while holidaying in Morocco.

Hideous Kinky (1998) directed by Gillies MacKinnon. A young mum, played by Kate Winslet, and her daughters swap dreary 1970s London for Marrakech.

Babel (2006) directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. In one of four interwoven stories, Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt play an American couple whose desert adventure takes a nasty turn.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) directed by Paul Greengrass. Matt Damon plays a rogue spy pursuing an elusive source across the rooftops of Tangier.

In Print

In Morocco (1920) by Edith Wharton. This book charts the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist’s journey across Morocco in the final days of World War I.

The Spider’s House (1955) by Paul Bowles. The story of an expat writer and an illiterate young labourer who cross paths in Fez during the nationalist uprising against French colonial rule.

Naked Lunch (1959) by William Burroughs. “A banquet you will never forget” was how writer J.G. Ballard described Burroughs’ surreal, drug-fuelled, satirical book set in “Interzone” and written during his time in ‘international zone’ Tangier.

A House in Fez (2008) by Suzanna Clarke. A fascinating account of an antipodean couple’s efforts to revamp an ancient property in Morocco’s most atmospheric medina.

In Arabian Nights (2009) by tahir shah. The moroccan-based afghani-british author explores the origins of the ancient stories that still resonate in his adopted kingdom.

Words by Steve McKenna - Published in Voyeur April 2011
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