May week 4 – Morocco

Traveling south of Erfoud we left our comfortable bus and wonderful driver Tommy behind.  Carrying only a small overnight bag and camera equipment we boarded land rovers to get to our next destination: the edge of the Sahara.  I would have loved to drive this terrain – no roads and the challenge of sand and rocks and lots of bumps.  As we headed out to the edge of the dunes of the desert it begins to feel like  setting foot into a centuries old route.

This part of the desert was in central western Morocco.  The southern part of Morocco is all desert but there are some border disputes with Algeria for that land.  In fact as we neared this finger of the desert written with stones on a hillside are the Arab words “The Sahara is Ours.”  Our two days here were supposed to be spent in Berber tents.  These are made of wool pieces of cloth.  But bad weather – rain and high winds – made it impossible to stay at the encampment.  So the next door Kasbah put us up. (hurray!)

When you walked out the door of the Kasbah you were in the dunes.  Part of our journey there included a camel ride in the evening for the beautiful light on the dunes.  I was not looking forward to this, remembering my camel ride with a 12 year old boy in Pushkar, India.  He made that camel gallop as I pleaded for him to slow down.  Deborah Hall laughed and the boy assured me “It will be alright Mama…”  Don’t mama me!

This dromedary in the Sahara was very gentle.  Although mine was mountain sized, because the skinny people get to ride the little ones who are lower to the ground.  Our camel drivers were all enjoying themselves as models for us in the dunes.

Then on the way to Fes, which is considered the “most completely Islamic medieval city in the world” we traveled through the high Atlas Mountains.  It is like the Grand Canyon and on the high plateaus we stopped to photograph the wild flowers. When I post the Morocco portfolio I will include our lodging in Fes.  The tile work was exquisite and it was located in the Medina (old city).  This city is the symbolic heart of Morocco with its 15,000 streets in the medina on which many of the goods can only be transported by donkey or hand kart.

Almost every little alley or walk way you look down has marvelous doors and tall stone walls.  Often the doors you are walking by are the entrance ways to the mosques.  Here you encounter men sitting and chatting, talking and laughing, and sometimes singing and praying. At times we needed to squeeze past the shoppers to continue our walk from one brilliant color to another, one covered market to the next.

We walked to the famous tannery where we climbed three stories to over look the block long, hundreds of connected round vats where camel and other animal skins were dyed. Some of these vats have been used for centuries.  Before the dying process area are the vats that use a solution to turn the skins into leather.

All the dyes are made from natural pigments.  Red comes from the poppies, green from the mint…etc… The tanners worked with their feet and whole bodies in the vats making sure the dyes covered the materials.  Usually the smell of the tanning solution and dyes is so strong a visitor is recommended to stuff some mint leaves in her or his nostrils. But not too bad the day we visited.  In the show rooms you find the famous Fes slippers and leather bags and garments.

I don’t think we would have found our way to the Royal Palace, the souks and the tannery without our guide Ishmeal.  Along the way he stopped to explain things like the numbered 3 feet by 5 feet rectangles on the walls in the alleys.  They are assigned to political candidates. The name of the party and an image (like a running facet or a eye or scale) are symbols for the candidates running for various offices.  A symbol is used especially for those who can’t read.

Often peering into a vendor’s stall you will see the merchant reading the Koran with its stylized calligraphy.  Carpets are often spread out on terraces.  And heaping portions of spices, olives and fruits are displayed in colorful triangular mounds.  Everyone wears his or her jellaba when walking the narrow streets.  Here you find them made out of wool.

One evening we went to the hillside 16th century Merinid Tombs, which are surrounded by blue agave plants, to over look the city.  As many streets as there are in the medina of Fes it is likely that they are out numbered by satellite dishes on the top of the houses and riads and shops.

Man in wool jellaba - Fes

From a distance we saw the green roofed  Karaouiyine Mosque established in 859 situated in the middle of the medina.  As you walk by the  mosques in the medina you don’t realize it because of the narrow winding nature of the streets.  This mosque is not open to non-Muslims.  Friday prayer takes place in both small and large mosques which stand as a religious and cultural symbol from which comes five times a day the call to worship.

Fes is also known for its pottery (especially painted and blue  and multicolor on a white base.)  Next is Chefchaouen – a city with blue washed houses.

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