Morocco, Old and New

In Marrakesh, the closest grocery store to our hotel was in the basement of the Menara Mall. It was pretty much what I expected: a bunch of wannabe-Western stores selling day-glo shirts and overpriced shiny shoes, a food court with mediocre food sweltering under fluorescent lights. There was even a Chili’s in a prime location on Mohammed VI Boulevard. In these surroundings, it was no surprise that our fellow shoppers favored polo shirts, skinny jeans and halter tops.

What was surprising was that no matter how far into the country we got, the skinny-jeans crowd never completely died out. Even in Rissani, 500 kilometers from Marrakesh on the edge of the Sahara, jeans and djellaba mixed freely.

Every day we saw crowds of students trooping to school, dressed western-style in t-shirts and jeans, slacks, or track pants. The girls rarely wore head scarves, but lots of them had on miniature lab coats over their outfits. Watching them go to school was like following a young pharmacists’ convention.

Older people were all over the map; most women wore the hijab, but dress for men and women ranged from shapeless djellabas or caftans to the latest western fashions. Urban or rural, rich or poor, Arab or Berber; I can’t say exactly where the dividing line might be. Maybe it’s down to personal preference.

I was also surprised to learn that alcohol is widely available, although it’s very expensive. A bottle of beer costs $4 or $5, and a mixed drink $7, in a country where a high-end dinner out (or a ripoff tourist meal) costs $15. Our driver Youssef told me that some bartenders might refuse to sell to Muslims (especially Muslim women), but from my observations, it’s a flexible rule.

One last tip about drinking in Morocco: stick to beer. Every bartender we found was hopeless at even simple drinks. I ordered a whiskey sour one night and was given a tall Coke with some whiskey in it. A confused exchange in pidgin French and English ensued, and my server returned a short time later with a glass of, I would guess, two-thirds lime juice, one-third alcohol. At least he got the spirit of it right.

This is Morocco’s flag. It’s rich in symbolism: a green star for Islam, peace, and hope; a red field for the royal Alaouite dynasty, bravery and valor. But there’s a much simpler meaning, and to understand it you only have to hop in a car and drive.

On our fourth and fifth days in Morocco, we passed over the Atlas mountains towards the town of Tinghir (pronounced “Tin-R-irr”). The further east we went, the drier it got. Between towns there was nothing but stony desert, the occasional walled farm, and the mountains in the distance. The dominant color was rusty red, the color of iron-rich soil.

Kelaat M\'Gouna
Kelaat M’Gouna, town of roses

Every valley has its river, splitting the low ground between the distant peaks. A few hundred feet on either side, palm trees and rushes form a narrow belt of green that brings to mind the delicate star on the Moroccan flag.

Todra River Valley
Todra River Valley

Nearly all the villages, towns, and farms in this part of Morocco exist in this narrow margin where growing things is possible. Red and green, desert and water, death and life.

I’m officially off work until next year, so I had a bit of time this afternoon to visit Middlegrounds Metropark. I’ve been meaning to go for a long time, and it’s only a five-minute drive from the house, but somehow we always ended up somewhere else.

I only stayed for a little while (blame the freezing wind blowing off the river!), but it was nice to watch the seagulls circle and dive while the mallard ducks hunkered down nearby. In the distance, past the graceful arch of the Anthony Wayne Bridge, downtown Toledo was socked in the thick fog. Trails seemed nice, but I didn’t stay long enough to go very far. We’ll definitely be back here with Petey when it warms up a little!

Middlegrounds Metropark
Middlegrounds Metropark
Seagull and Anthony Wayne Bridge
Seagull and Anthony Wayne Bridge
Foggy Downtown Toledo
Foggy Downtown Toledo

Aït Benhaddou, a ruined ksar (fortified town) just north of Ouarzazate, was one of the highlights of our trip. You can see it from far down the road, a cluster of mud-brick houses ringing the tallest hill for miles.

It was overcast, cold and windy as we descended the Atlas Mountains and pulled off the rutted track into a gravel parking lot. We had to traverse a modern settlement with a few houses and a gauntlet of trinket shops before we got to the dry bed of the Oued Ounila.

The road to Aït Benhaddou

Aït Benhaddou is a berber name and refers to the clan that once ruled the village. At least some of the fancy towers in the foreground were constructed by the film crews that have used the city as a location.

Majestic Aït Benhaddou

Tagines, Moroccan stew pots, lined up on the path to the city.

Tagines at Aït Benhaddou

The Oued Ounila river is almost dry this time of year, but a series of stepstones forms a path through the mud.

Splendid Isolation

We climbed to the top of the city, dodging more trinket sellers, and were treated to a wide view of the river valley.

Looking Down from Aït Benhaddou

Wherever there are Moroccans, there are cats.

Sleeping Cat, Aït Benhaddou