The Sunni Side Up– on the Berbers and the museums of Marrakesh

The Sunni Side Up

Visits to the Casbah, the souks and the museums mentioned below, as well as the aromas and flavors of the cuisine, made me want to know more about the people of this land.   The Berbers that founded the city of Marrakesh circa 1200 were members of that ancient ethnic nomadic group occupying many areas of North Africa.  They were Christian under the Romans but converted to Islam with the Arab conquests.  With the Arabs they formed what we came to call the Moors- thus not are not sub-Saharan Africans, contrary to some popular conceptions associated with the term ‘Moor.’  Today there are some 25 million Berber speakers in Morocco, Libya and Algeria, but the number of ethnic Berbers is greater as most now speak Arabic, constituting to this day the majority of the population of North Africa.  

Moroccan Souk, pastel, alcohol blends
Moroccan Souk, pastel


Their occupation of Spain, headquartered in Granada’s Alambra but covering nearly the entire peninsula, was the most northern permanent excursion of Islamic culture into Europe and it was through this expansion that Europe received the advanced knowledge possessed by these peoples at the time.  It is in that epoch that the glory of Morocco and Islam resides, a glory that contains the extent of their innovations.  

Both guides we employed told us that the people of Morroco are very tolerant.  I can not tell if this is a tolerance founded in the nomadic past, its interpretation of the Koran or the result of, say, French liberalism or other source of humanistic philosophy, but the claim does seem to bear up under what scrutiny I was able to bring to the task.  As I noted in my first post, there are no visible tensions between tradition and modernity when it comes to dress. Some women walked around in jeans and other in the hijab without active confrontations or shunning- some even walked together chatting.  Men wore kaftans or western dress with equal comfort.  These days Jews are actively encouraged to immigrate-  most left after the formation of Israel and the last of them after the ’67 war, but Jews have a long history in the country.  

As an example of tolerance at the edge,  a lesbian woman was jailed but later released after an international outcry, for open affection with another woman.  Elton John is being permitted to perform at a spiritual fest, the king saying what Elton does in private is his business, according to the Fes guide.  

The King, yes there is one and he is an active ruler.  His family claims of direct descent from Mohammed puts the the Sunni side up in this country. 

Jardin Majorelle

After our guided tour of the souks in Marrakesh we visited two of the few local museums.  One is in the Jardin Majorelle.  It was founded by Yves Saint Laurent, who bought the gardens with his partner Pierre Bergé  in 1964,  later gifting it to Marrakesh,.   The original owner was the landscape painter Jacques Majorelle in the 1920’s.  In the garden there are 300 species from five continents, along with various ponds laid out along the winding paths.  The art deco style Musee Berbere that was Majorelle’s studio now contains an excellent collection of Berber arts and crafts.  It is small but the collection is excellent.  Note that vibrant blue paint on the exterior.

Musee Berbere, Marrkesh
Musee Berbere, Marrkesh
Berber jewelry
Berber jewelry
Berbere Woman, 1921
Berber Woman, 1921
Berber clothing
Berber clothing



Also an excellent visit is the MACMA,  a private museum  that opened in February, 2016.  The owner is Nabil El Mallouki.  He dedicated the museum to Morocco’s artistic heritage with a 20th century focus on paintings, some by Moroccans, others by French or European painters.   The museum captures what is exotic about Morocco, at least from a European viewpoint, with a collection of quality portraits, casual life and battle scenes.  

Portrait of Guard in Tangier Palace

Portrait of Guard in Tangier Palace
Portrait of Guard in Tangier Palace


Marian Bertuchi, Le Cafe, 1941
Marian Bertuchi, Le Cafe, 1941

The Heritage Museum

There are two other private museums worth a visit.  The Heritage Museum is in the narrow alleys that define the Marrakesh souk. At the desk we were met by a woman who is the daughter of the owners, the second we met was her sister and upstairs we met their mother.  It’s a family affair,  They are happy to share their collection with visitors.  The museum is in the riad – a house built around an open courtyard – previously owned by the daughters’ deceased uncle filled with the family collection.  There are Berber, Arab and Jewish items.  The jewelry (a specialty of the Jews), clothing and furniture are delightfully displayed in the beautiful surroundings.  

Heritage Museum entrance


The rooftop cafe offers a fabulous view of the Medina, the souks hidden by the tall walls of the houses.

In a visit of about 10 days you can see what Marrakesh and Fez have to offer, including a side trip to Meknes, interesting enough if you have never seen Roman ruins before.  The train between Marrakesh and Fez takes almost 8 hours.  There is a sandwich cart in case you’ve not brought food with you, lots of desert countryside dotted with small structures and shepherds.  Bring a book since you’ll probably want some diversion.  

Lessons from our travels in Morocco

Lessons from our travels in Morocco

Morocco left me with eight main impressions.  First, the  contrasts in technology – delivery by donkey and by truck/motorcycle – and second, in cultures- modern dress next to traditional Berber next to conservative Islam.   Third is the intricacy and extensiveness of the decorative architectural designs. Fourth is the daily prayer calls, a strange concoction of sound; perhaps more strangely is that people dis not seem to particularly notice.  Fifth, the cuisine can reach impressive heights although it is mired in sameness on many levels. Sixth is the friendliness of the people we have met and the apparent tolerance.  Seventh is the level of poverty and, finally, that its glory is largely in its past.

Contrasts in technology

As we walked in the souks (markets) and even in modern areas we would encounter donkeys hauling delivery carts and the modern version, which is a motorcycle rig with an integrated covered bed.  There are men pushing delivery carts in the narrowest parts of the souks, or men carrying bundles.  Sometimes loads would be strapped to the backs of a donkey for delivery.  In larger areas you see large modern trucks transporting goods.

In the souks small stands are the norm, but in the modern areas you can see larger shops, super markets and international chains, some quite upscale.  


Contrasts in Culture

Women are everywhere,  and dressed in everything from a full covering hijab, only eyes peering out from black robes making for a mysterious appearance both intriguing and chilling simultaneously, to jeans and blouse.  The only women not very modestly dressed might have been foreigners.  I saw few women working but there were some.  The manager of the Orange shop we went into in Fez is run by a woman, and in the modern areas there women working in shops, cafes and restaurants.  In the souks almost everyone in the stalls and shops is male.

The intricacy and extensiveness of the design

Here are some examples of the design features you find in old buildings.  Islamic art is noted for this design, of which the Moroccan is a variation.







Here’s a modern rendition:


The University in Marrakesh

As you can see above, in some buildings the decoration is from floor to ceiling.


arch at Museo de Mouassine, Marrakesh
arch at Museo de Mouassine, Marrakesh

Daily prayer calls

These happen 5 times per day and at odd hours-  not say at the top of the hour but at say 522 am.  Once these calls to prayer begin they rise to a crescendo, starting with a call from a single mosque but soon joined by the other mosques in the area.  In Fez we stayed in a poor neighborhood, although the accommodations we stayed in were comfortable enough provided you can climb three flights of very steep short staircases.  There were about a half dozen mosques in the area, and the sound echoes off the mason surfaces.  It was eerie.   Here’s a pretty good rendition:

No one seems to run to the mosque for all this praying.  We could see groups of men in the mosques but not in  large numbers.  Both of the guides we employed talked about the religion.  One explained the ritual washing you do before you go into a mosque and how it was not required to do your daily prayers in a mosque nor to assume the bowing posture unless you were in the mosque.  But everything revolves around devotion to Allah.  

This is a religious country but not fundamentalist as a whole.  Islam is pervasive but other religions are tolerated and the king is encouraging the re-immigration of Jews, many of whom left for Israel after a long and prosperous history here.  Homosexuality is illegal but violations are sporadically enforced. Two girls photographed kissing were arrested but release without trial after an international outcry.  One of our guides said the king does not want bad publicity and prefers to overlook things of this sort.  Elton John was invited to perform at a festival celebrating spirituality and after some protests the king said he writes and sings about spirituality, his private life is his own affair.

Alcohol is forbidden in Islam, but you can buy it here and they produce wine in the country.  

The cuisine

I have already written on this topic.  Here is the link.

The friendliness of the people

In our interactions we had in restaurants, shops, hotels and on the streets we found the people to be universally friendly.  I saw one conflict with foreigners and that was a metal worker objecting to being photoed by a tourist.  The military waved us off when we tried to photo a wall that turned out to be part of a military installation, but entirely understandable from their point of view.  Many people talked to us as we walked around, and some have tried to get us to visit a shop to ‘just browse.’ Sometimes they help us find our way just being considerate.  A 10 year old boy guided us out of our neighborhood that first day in Fez and insisted on being paid but several adult men wanted nothing for pointing the way. 


This is definitely a third world country so it is obvious that money is in short supply.  There are many old taxis, for instance, with broken seats and no window cranks, although there are some brand new ones.  The public buses are in decent condition-  we have used several in Marrakesh.   The population is young, with an average life span of 73, ranking 80th in the world.  Dental care is rare, judging by their teeth.  The food is plentiful and of excellent quality, fruits and vegetables are part of the daily cuisine.  They must not be coming from far away.  The cuisine is tasty and reasonably varied.  Alcohol is in short supply and expensive where available.  There are huge vineyards near Meknes.

Glory is largely in its past

The glory of Morocco, as in all of North Africa and the Middle East in general, lies in its past, and of which they are proud.  Don’t expect a balanced presentation from people you meet casually.  It’s a ‘show me the good parts.’ 

The Moors who invaded Spain in 711.  The name ‘Moors’ comes from the Berber tribe called the Mauri (do not confused with the country of Mauritnia).  At that time the Islamic culture was a main source of knowledge for the Mediterranean countries and Europe.  Medicine, astronomy agriculture and more were absorbed into European culture as a result of the take over of Spain.  It is this of which they are perhaps most proud, but now the main product of these cultures is Islam, in which they seem to place a great deal of hope.  Both of our guides witnessed their faith to us, and probably presumed we are Christians.  At least we all have the same God, said one.  The other suggested that there would be no modern medicine if it weren’t for the Moors and Arabic culture in general.  There is something to be said for this, but on the other hand, what have they done since?

Their ancient markets are a huge attraction. Leather production is still done in the same way and at least in Fez in the same location since the 14th century.   They use natural dyes only in the craft markets, and are prohibited from selling anything other than traditionally made items.  In the leather area they still use pigeon droppings and other traditional processes to treat camel, cow, goat and sheep skins.  Goat is the best, we were told, as it produces the softest and most water resistant product.  Carpets and scarves are made from traditional materials in the traditional method, using hand looms.  We bought some scarves made of agave, the cactus, that you would swear was silk.  They preserve their past.  What of their economic future?

Processing skins in Fes
Processing skins in Fes (photo by Peg)
Traditional carpets in Fes
Traditional carpets in Fes


Moroccan Souk, pastel, alcohol blends
Moroccan Souk, pastel, alcohol blends