Peace be unto you
April 12, 2005
With a smile and a slight bow, right hand on heart, Moslims frequently extend this greeting to each other and to strangers. A very disarming and sincere wish the world needs each day.
Easter/Spring Break 2004 found us winging from Budapest to Marrakech, Morocco. It’s always difficult to encapsulate a new experience, but I will share a few highlights.
We taxied early Monday to the airport and Malev Air was very efficient in getting us to the northwest corner of Africa… Marrakech to be exact, the second largest city and one of the most ancient fortress establishments of the Berber people, whose leaders became the Moslem Caliphs who set up a high culture there. Most of the citizens are descendents of the Berbers, one of the few ‘nations’/peoples of the world who were never conquered. Eventually they became a protectorate of France, but that was mainly economic and political, I think.
We flew into M about noon, deplaning into a warm, but dry climate (in the 80’s F/ high 20’s C). It was striking to be surrounded immediately by palm trees and roses (they LOVE roses), with a backdrop of the snowcapped Atlas Mountains. M is about 60 miles from the Atlantic, and semi-arid, but fertile with the miracle of water. A short trip later, courtesy of Budavar Tours (who set up the flight and hotel), we settled into a clean, colorful 3* hotel, the Le Grand Sud. We were surprised to have a full suite with kitchen… simple décor, but a frieze of Islamic border art in every room. In addition, there was a small balcony overlooking Café Amondine, a patisserie (bakery) and coffee shop, and the center city neighborhood. The staff were so accommodating, especially our daily waiter for breakfast and dinner all seven days (we arranged a half board plan).
The Moroccans or Berbers are handsome and very friendly… they are olive skinned, but their faces seem softer and less angular than other Arab people. Although they also speak Arabic, it was very interesting to hear people of color speaking the soft sounds of French most of the time. Once, as the woman at the desk was arranging a day tour, she broke into Arabic and we thought she was giving hell to the tour agency… her voice was sharp, piercing and louder than the adequate English she had been using to speak to us. Then she switched to French and sounded much warmer. We later noticed that it’s the sound and style of the language to be clipped and loud and “in your face”. The personal space is so different… they speak almost nose to nose and use many hand gestures.
The entire city, including the one and only McDonald’s on Mohammed V (previous King) Avenue, is painted in different shades of desert tones. I found that appealing, but Ryan would have liked a bit more variety. The buildings are usually quite plain on the exterior because they concentrated on comfortable and beautiful interiors. Once you enter, often through a horseshoe shaped gate or arch decorated in complex carved ornamentation, you often come into a garden space with succulents and roses, sometimes a fountain. In one hotel, the lounge had rattan chairs spaced under a skylight, with cut roses in a fountain in center stage. (That was our other favorite hotel, half the distance to the central Medina/Old City, that served well as our ‘refreshment stop’ for rest and necessities).
On the walk from our New Town area to the Medina, where the central Mosque and the Royal Palace are located, we passed through one of the many old gates/arches in the 20 foot high mud/clay wall, which surrounded and protected the ancient city. Immediately, the setting becomes more peaceful (except for multi-present Petit Taxis/Little Taxis and motor bikes)… parks filled with palm trees, roses, winding paths… people in caftans, some women in burkas (some with faces partially covered)… children playing or trying to sell small souvenirs…the broad new rues/avenues change into winding, shadowy, ‘hallway’ alleys … lots of activity but still a serene feel and slower pace.
Entering the old, revered setting of the Medina’s ancient and high culture brought feelings of awe and excitement. A time warp, with a sense of visiting an unknown (and in many ways, unknowable) way of life. Many of us have been sold short in our knowledge and appreciation of other, both simpler and more elegant, traditions and relationships. It’s in places like the old Medina that I’m learning how wonderful the differences in the human family can be. That’s so compelling now, given the sad and tragic separations we’re experiencing in our world these days. It seems to me that we need more “Respect and Awe” rather than ‘shock and awe’.
Our first days were spent in getting oriented (translation: getting lost) to the layout of the Medina. The Koutoubia and Ben Youssef Mosques and the Royal Palace are the centerpieces which are “fairly easy” to locate; as is the Jmaa el Fna, the central open market triangle, which covers about ten of our blocks. Note how concise and economical Arabic language can be… one has to provide the vowel sounds in many words… saves ink, right : )> The Jmaa is the meeting place for everyone, locals and tourist (mostly French it seems). Things start slowly. The empty square gradually comes to life in the morning, with portable stands for vegetables and flowers, then a row of about 20 fresh orange juice stands (great treat!), followed by a scattering of varied vendors wandering about. We were taken with the old women sitting on the pavement under their sunsheltering umbrellas, painting henna motifs on the hands of tourists… and enjoyed the circles of people gathering around musicians and ‘break dancers’… and the storytellers (didn’t get the gist, but appreciated the pantomime)… but we kept our distance from the snake charmer-they were real Cobras and the pipers were very close to them! Our favorite was probably the local Dentists who set up card tables brimming with teeth, singles and dental chops, and were wielding huge pliers!!! No sale here.
After the second day, our feet had trod on lots of new ground… and over much old ground as we wound our way through the labyrinth of the Souks that swirl in and about the Medina. Each Souk (market) specializes in certain goods… spices (food, cosmetics, medicines) or cloth goods (caftans, hats, elaborate leather or cloth slippers) or carpets/kilims or jewelry or home décor (for example, metal or colorful camel skin lamps) or skilled metal crafts from gates to window grills to tea pots and many little cafes. Most goods are handcrafted, but some imports sneak in (China products, e.g.). We ended up with a painted camel skin wall light cover, a mirror with engraved copper and camel bone inserts, and a bellows with more camel bond and stone insets. Poor camels… Ryan is convinced they all had long lives and expired of natural causes! The vendors are friendly and not aggressive. Negotiation is the name of the game… and it’s a pleasant bantering, with a smiling close of the deal.
The custom is to stop and rest from the heat of the day at about noon, then things begin to liven up again around 3:00. We would head for a fresh mint tea refresher or back to the hotel to rest. Fresh mint bundles line the alleys in the morning. If you brush your hands on them, the pleasant scent stays with you for quite some time. One favorite rest stop was the coffee/tea café inside a new central art museum… it also had the advantage of a free and elegant toilette. These are rare in the Medina.
In the evening the Jmaa (central triangle) changes a bit. Long tables are set up in the center… braziers are lit and the succulent spiced meats and side dishes are arrayed on banked shelves for custom cooking. They’re able to seat hundreds. At one end of the banquet, we spotted six booths, with chefs on high platforms; as we approached, we smelled garlic and clouds of steam coming from great cauldrons. It seems these are the Caliphs of Chefdom, the Escargot Sheiks. After seeing hordes of snails trying to escape huge baskets in the souks earlier, we declined their cheerful offers. After a stroll among the entertainers, we plopped down on a café balcony, enjoyed the sights of the Jmaa over excellent café au lait and super gelato or pastry. One evening we bargained with the horse taxi fellow. I’m glad we did, since our feet had played out, and the balmy evening was perfect for the open carriage ride from the old city via the newer hotels in the new town (only a few centuries old).
Day Trip One found us huddled in a mini bus with mostly French friendly folk. We wound our way up green valleys into the Atlas Mountains. The scenery was inspiring, but the chance to observe the simple but difficult life of the Berber people was most interesting. Farmers and shepherds still. We were halted by a large goatherd crossing the highway. From a distance, one could spot unusual geometric patterns on the hillsides. Then we could make out the stacked shoebox mud houses of villages that blend into the red and caramel colored mountains. We eventually made the top, about 7500 feet altitude, where we visited a sultan’s Kasbah (Harem), which is currently unoccupied, so we saw no ‘birds in the gilded cage’. What a lifestyle that must have been. I think the mountain people are a bit more liberated now… women seem to bear the burden of the hard work as much as the men. At lunch, we shared a table with a young Hong Kong couple who were on a whirlwind trip through Spain and Morocco… they spoke English and were very pleasant company. As were the friendly ‘house’ cats who wanted some of our Couscous and Tagine tasties. The trip back down was quiet except for quite a bit of sleep sounds.
On Day Trip Two, we packed into another mini bus, cozier than the other, and enjoyed a day in the historic Atlantic port town of Essaouira. It reportedly was a major entry for Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Portuguese and French sailors over the centuries. Unlike Marrakech, the dominant color here is a vivid blue as accent. It’s very accessible… the souks are central, with lots of veggie and fishie stands… a walk along the 18th C. Portuguese fortress walls was a highlight… and it was good to be by the sea again. On the way back, we saw our first live camel… one dressed to the hilt for tourist pictures. We also got a kick out of the acrobatic goats who actually climbed into the trees for their lunch.
Finally, for me, the topper… Easter Sunday Mass back in Marrakech. We’d tried for the Saturday Vigil, but had the wrong time. Meant to be, cuz Sunday Mass was one of the most lively and joyful ever. French Franciscans serve there, so that was the lingua franca! But they had the readings printed into about 8 languages. The simple church, with subtle Moorish designs and horseshoe arches here and there, and simple plain green, red and yellow high windows, was packed. The clergy and choir procession was uplifting, with the very dark skinned choir shouting their Alleluias as they danced down the center. The musicians vigorously played their long necked guitars, drums and rattles. The choir men and women were gloriously full voiced as they led our celebration. At the Offertory, they sang a hymn in French and Arabic, including piercing ululating high notes… at the same time, the ushers brought forward the gifts in a choreographed sauntering dance. So hard to capture the emotions of the experience, but their music and movements made me feel that I was truly experiencing Good News, the Gospel message of life and hope. A wonderful finale to a great adventure.
Salaam alaikum … Peace to you … Happy Days !
P.S. If you didn’t get the e-mail invitation to see Ryan’s pictures on Ofoto.com, just let us know.