Woman in Hijab Arch
Many of the arches of Islamic architecture echo the shape of the upper body of the human form. Here I have placed a face on that arch with this sketch in acrylics. There is an example of an arch below the painting.
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.
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.
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. http://www.jardinmajorelle.com/. Note that vibrant blue paint on the exterior.
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.
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.
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.
“Come with me to the Casbah” is the famous pickup line that we all think came from a movue. It was in fact never spoken in a movie– it was in the trailer of the 1937 movie Algiers (Heddie Lamar and Charles Boyer). A casbah is a high walled fortification without windows, and it is here we began our explorations of Morocco. The entire area behind the walls is called the Medina, which is the oldest part of Marrakesh, while the market areas within are called souks.
The Almoravids, a Berber tribe, built the city in the 11th century and ever since there’s been a whirlwind everywhere. Narrow alleys lead to more, not even those born here escape without at least the occasional bout of befuddlement. Small motorcycles and scooters, not to mention the bikes and the principal delivery transport, donkeys pulling carts, wiggle through somehow yet no one is run down nor even has their toes smashed while we were there. The only incident we encounter involves two boys wrestling, one having a choke hold on the other who apparently knocked his load of bread to the ground. A kaftan wearing older male was breaking up the fight with remarkable patience. What a kind soul he seemed.
Delightful aromas abound, coming mostly from the vast mounds of spices and if not from them then the vast quantity of fruit. An exception is the area where they slaughter the chickens. The foul fowl odor stuck to my nose for much too long.
Along the way we came to the university, which claims to be the world’s first (so do universities in Fez and Timbuktu). It had 900 students at one point but is no longer in use. There is exquisite decoration thanks to Unesco although the rising damp from underground waters continues to cause problems. These extensive waters are what gave rise to the city- they giveth, they taketh away.
The souks (market) of the Medina make any Walmart tiny by comparison, as its surrounding walls measure 12 kilometers in length. There are shops by the thousands, most run by 1 or two people, and manufacturing zones as well, leather production among them, where workers still use plant dies and pigeon poop in the process.
Souk Semmarine sells everything from brightly colored bejewelled sandals, slippers and leather pouffes, to jewellery and kaftans. Souk Ableuh has lemons, capers, pickles, chili peppers, and olives, as well as mint, which they use in cooking and the sweet tea you find everywhere. Souk Kchacha specializes in dates and other dried fruit and nuts. Rahba Qedima has perfumes, hand-woven baskets, scarves, knitted hats, scarves, and the skins of alligators and iguana. Famous for jewelry is Souk Siyyaghin, while Smata it’s belts and babouches, a slipper with no heel. Cherratine has leather while Belaarif has modern consumer goods. The Haddadine has ironware and lanterns.
The intense activity and I suppose all its newness tired me out and I was glad for the quiet of the lushly appointmented restaurant where we enjoyed the fabulous Moroccan “salads.” More of this anon.