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


Moroccan cuisine

Tagine, couscous and ‘salads,’ as they call them in Morocco, are main features of the cuisine here, along with ‘pastilla,’ a pigeon pie. These dishes are often intriguingly spiced.   Spices-cumin, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, cilantro, saffron, paprika, cardamom, nutmeg, mace, anise and more-  came from India in the old days, via camel, stopping in caravan serai, finding their way across North Africa and into the cooking utensils of millions of homes over the eons.

My first exposure to the cuisine came in a small hotel across the street from our pretty fancy digs, the Diwanes hotel. Zaalouk is made with eggplant (aubergines), tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, cilantro, paprika, cumin, cayenne, olive oil and lemon.  I was immediately won over.   It is served with the local bread, which you find just about everywhere.

Zaalouk, fabulous eggplant/aubergine dish

We used the following recipe and found it to be super:

We also had a tagine at this meal and like the bread it too is ubiquitous.  A tagine is a cooking vessel made from terracotta.  Meat is on the bottom and, when included,  vegetables are teepee’d above, then the vessel is placed in an oven and brought piping hot to your table. Some versions have no vegetables but cooked with prune or perhaps a dried apricot instead.  In restaurants the beef is cooked beforehand as it is everywhere super tender.  This can only be accomplished by slow cooking, but in a restaurant they bring tagines out in about 20 minutes.  I had one tagine in a very fancy place where the chicken was hard as a brick but otherwise they have all been very good but very much the same regardless of price.  Fancy places have better and more ‘salads’ and better surroundings.  With very few exceptions fancy restaurants serve no alcohol like the cheaper places.  It’s soft drinks, water, lemonade and everywhere there is mint tea made with fresh mint leaves stuff into the glass.

Tagine in foreground, couscous
Tagine in foreground, couscous

Aside from Zaalouk I ran across two other outstanding items, both in inexpensive places.  At Bab r’Cif there’s a place facing the gate.  They have a flat bread that is spiced and interlaced with some cheese.

onion flatbread
onion flatbread

The other version of this flatbread we tried at this same cafe at the Bab r’Cif is this onion version, also fabulous and very cheap, and even cheaper in the small stands, I bought two of the onion and a plain bread for $2.00, half of what they charge in this inexpensive place.  For a recipe try  For olive flatbread try

We have seen a flat bread cooked on the grill.  Here’s the recipe:   In the fancier place we stayed in for breakfast you could have this bread grilled as you wait, along with white beans, grilled red, yellow and green peppers, cucumbers, olives, tomatoes fresh and grilled, fruit, juice – orange juice is everywhere and is excellent- as well as fried eggs.

Couscous is a Berber dish of steamed semolina.  Traditionally the couscous is made by hand by combining wheat flour and water, and rubbing the mixture between your hands until the small balls fall out.  The mixture has to be fairly dry.  It is usually served as a stew, which would include either beef, lamb, kefta (meatballs), or chicken as well as vegetables- carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini.  It is generally mild with a thin but flavorful sauce.  You can ask for harissa, a hot sauce.  The ones at restaurants vary in flavor from one to the next.   

The ‘salads,’ which in Spanish would be called ‘tapas’ and in the US might be called simply vegetable side dishes or something like that, are outstanding and complex offerings or, in less expensive restaurants, simple affairs over which you might pour a white yogurt dressing.  But when prepped more elaborately the spices can really bring you flavors that as a westerner you have never experienced and will most likely enjoy greatly.

After a week of tagines and couscous I am ready to move on-  they are much the same no matter where you go. 

These are referred to as ‘salads.’ But they are in many cases much more than just a salad- fabulously spiced!

In a place called Le Table Bio- the French influence on the language here is unmistakable – I had the most fabulous kepab ever.  It was a chicken version.  I have no idea how they spiced it but here’s to them.  And it was just $2.50.  Peg’s avocado/shrimp salad was beautifully presented.   139 Blvd. Mohamed Zerktouni, Marrakesh. 

There are definitely epicurean reasons to visit this ancient land.  And visitors need not spend a fortune.  The most we have paid for a meal is $40 for two.  Wine is expensive, but only by comparison with the rest of the offerings.  In our fancy hotel we paid $14 for a mediocre bottle, and twice that for a better offering. 

A decent Moroccan red from Meknes

If you tire of traditional Moroccan food – after a week we did –  then there are pizzas, pasta, panini, hamburgers, and more from the West.  I even saw an Indian restaurant. 

Come with me to the Casbah

Street scene Morocco, water color 13.5x 21 cm, 5 x 8"

“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.

Street scene Morocco, water color 13.5x 21 cm, 5 x 8"
Street scene Morocco, water color 13.5x 21 cm, 5 x 8″
Spice aromas fill the air 
Bright colors in the narrow alleys


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. 

Peg shoots the University in Marrakeesh
Calligraphy from the Koran

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.

Marrakech- Contrasts, Conflicts

Modernity and tradition coexist in Marrakeesh albeit not without a least the occasional clash.   Modern cars and buses abound.   On the other hand deliveries in the Souk are sometimes done by mule,  sometimes trotting rather swiftly through the narrow streets as scooters weave through even the most narrow of alleys, brushing you at times with whatever hangs out from their carts.  Women covered from head to toe, a small percentage here, walk side by side chatting with those in jeans.

Contrasts in Culture in the zouk
Contrasts in Culture in the zouk


Past shops offering cheap Chinese imports you find traditional craft shops by the thousands, dwarfing any shopping zone I’ve ever seen by astronomical amounts (until we went to Fws).   Leather.   Who’s going to buy those thousands of leather purses?   You pass by large piles of skins, prepared in the nearby tanneries, men standing in the dyes as they turn the hides, so you know there are more purses jackets,  belts and shoes in the pipeline.

We passed a medical clinic on the way,  all shiny and modern like the solar panel monitor displaying the roof panel outputs.   Our guide -you need one or you’ll be forever lost in those nameless narrow alleys- took us to what he called a pharmacy.  These,  he claimed, they had clean pure products,  unlike the open air stands he pooh poohed.  A woman in a white coat offered a jillion natural products to us, an unsubstantiated health claim for each one.

Men kiss upon greeting but men and women don’t, although swear, I do m that I saw two couples doing just that on a park bench we passed on the way from the airport. In Rivat, the capital,  two girls kissed in public and one -why just one or better yet why anyone – was arrested.   Lesbian, let alone gay,  is just too far into modernity  I suppose. 

The majority of women are dressed as you see here. Many men where plain full length kaftans though most wear modern dress.

It’s a fascinating beginning to our time in this modern Muslim nation.