Article Published on July 26 in Snapshots!

Very Friendly Barbary Apes

Barbary Apes — actually not apes at all, but a sub-species of macaque monkey — are quite gregarious, usually traveling in groups of 30 or more.  Not only are they social amongst themselves, but they are social toward humans, as well.  This family has made its perch atop a tourist van, knowing that were the humans are, the food is.  Of course, there are places known for their local populations of Barbary apes, such as Azrou, and food specifically for the primates can be purchased for a nominal fee.  It is not recommended, however, to feed them whatever may be in your pack; if you’re not careful, however, these clever and inquisitive monkeys may find it, anyway!

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Article Published on July 19 in Snapshots!

Adobe Piste Village

Villages like this one, located near the Tizi-n-Test Pass in the High Atlas mountain range, are found all over the landscape of southern Morocco.  Their buildings are constructed from bricks made of the very earth that surrounds them.  While this building material may prove practical in its accessibility, it certainly isn’t considered convenient when a heavy rain makes its way through the region.  Because it’s not unusual for a wall or other part of a house to get washed away in a downpour, the appearance of these villages are constantly changing due to all the reconstruction.  Although the exteriors are made from adobe piste, the insides are usually comfortably furnished, with many families now enjoying the luxury of electricity in their homes for the first time.

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Article Published on July 12 in Snapshots!

Uta al Hammam

Uta al Hammam is one of the main squares in Chefchaouen, a small, peaceful city nestled in amongst the Rif Mountains. The town has been around for centuries — its population began to boom during the Spanish Inquisition, when persecuted Muslims from Spain sought refuge there.  Once a city forbidden to anyone outside the faith, Chaouen — as it’s known colloquially — is now a tranquil place any respectful traveler can enjoy. The best spot in town for people-watching is Uta al Hammam, lined on one side by an endless array of shops, cafes, and eateries, and on the other by the meticulously restored 15th-century kasbah built by Moulay Ali Ben Rachid, the town’s founder.

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Article Published on July 07 in Destination Spotlights
A Vibrant City's Favorite Playground

Nobody really knows the origin of the name for this most famous location in Marrakech.  The name translates from Arabic as ‘Assembly (or Mosque) of the Dead.’  It could refer to a long lost Almoravid mosque that may have once stood on the spot.  Another popular suggestion is that the plaza took its name from grizzly executions that might have once been performed there.  No matter how the plaza took its name, Djmaa el Fna today reverberates with life.

Djmaa el Fna at Night

The dining options at Djmaa el Fna are seemingly infinite.

The English writer Nina Epton once wrote of the famous square’s city, Marrakech, words that could also be applied to Djmaa el Fna itself: “[It] is different than Fes and from any other town in North Africa.  It is more African.  It possess the magic of heathen incantations in the beating of the nakkos, the drumbeat which seems to echo the rhythm of life, of the pulse, of creation itself.”

Djmaa el Fna is ringed on one side by the souks of Marrakech andon other sides by cafes, gardens, and hotels.  A daily pageant of humanity has occurred here for what may be time immemorial.  During the day, the place is occupied by orange juice stalls, water sellers in colorful traditional costumes with leather water bags and copper cups, Gnaouan dancers with their instruments and frenetic acrobatics, snake charmers posing with vipers and cobras for tourists’ cameras, and a myriad host of locals and tourists.  As day slowly fades to dusk, an almost magical transformation takes place, and Djmaa el Fna is turned into a dreamlike scene of almost medieval scope.

As the crowds begin to grow thicker, the snake charmers depart and push carts are moved into the plaza by gangs of white smocked Moroccan restaurant workers.  The heavy laden carts are turned into brightly lit outdoor restaurants offering up a delightful array of fresh vegetables, grilled meats, and raucous entertainment.  The throngs of nightly entertainers arrive to liven the atmosphere: Chleuh dancing boys in traditional dress, wildly gesticulating story tellers weaving tales in animated Berber and Arabic, henna artists who weave their art quicker than a bird in flight,  fortune-tellers, hucksters and tribal witch doctors offering herbal remedies, love potions, and traditional medicines from blanket shops arranged along the periphery.  As night falls fully upon the plaza, the cacophony of thousands of voices, drums, and reed flutes combine with the smoke of the grills to blanket Djmaa el Fna in a haze of noise and mist that seems to blur any sense of reality.

Gnaouen Musicians at Djmaa el Fna

Gnaouen musicians perform together during the evening bustle.

To avoid sensory overload, it is advisable to indulge one sense at a time; namely, the taste buds.  For all the spectacle that surrounds the plaza, the highlight is of course, the food.  There are well over a hundred different stalls that set up shop here every night of the year, rain or shine, and to miss out on a meal here would be criminal.  Select a booth, sit yourself down to have as much freshly baked bread as you can consume immediately served to you, and point out which of the wonderful selection of olives, salads, and meats you’d like to have.  It’s cooked up right before your eyes, and it will, without doubt, be one of the best meals you’ve ever had.  For all its pageantry and spectacle, the most remembered delights of Djmaa el Fna are often the simplest.

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Article Published on July 07 in Cuisine Articles

If you’ve been to Morocco, but didn’t have couscous, then you haven’t been to Morocco. Not really. As Moroccan as mint tea, Morocco’s official dish can be found all over the Maghreb. While couscous pops up as a grain occasionally used in salads and side dishes here in the States, in Morocco, is it a complete meal with vegetables and meat. So popular is couscous, in fact, that it has spread to different parts of the world, where it is known as cuscusu in Italy, keskes in Senegal, and cuscuz in Brazil.

Vegetable Couscous

Couscous with Seven Vegetables is a popular couscous dish in Morocco.

Couscous has most likely achieved its popular status because of its versatility. Different regions have their own varieties, the most well-known of which is the ‘Couscous with Seven Vegetables’ from the area around Casablanca. In mountain villages, it is not uncommon to find a simple bean stew poured over the grains to make a complete meal. In Essaouira, couscous is made from corn meal, and often accompanies fish with vegetables. The region around Marrakech, where squash and gourds grow bountifully, is known for its pumpkin couscous.

 

Couscous can also be made as a sweet dish, with flavored waters, sugars, and cinnamon. Seffa is a well-known couscous dessert, made with milk, almonds, and cinnamon, mounded into a conical shape, and adorned with more cinnamon, sugar, and almonds. In Morocco, couscous can be mixed with dried fruits and nuts and stuffed into the cavities of small birds such as pigeons or Cornish hens, known as ‘coquelets,’ for special occasions. 

Couscous has most likely achieved its popular status because of its versatility.

 

Couscous is made from semolina, the hard part of the hard wheat grain that resists grinding. In fact, it has been speculated that couscous derived its name from the Arabic word kaskasa, which means ‘to grind small.’ The grain most likely got its moniker, however, from the kiskis, the Arabic name for the perforated earthenware pot used to steam it. In these modern times, the best equipment with which to steam couscous is a French invention similar to the traditional kiskis: the couscousiére.

 

Preparing Couscous

Couscous is prepared by rolling the grains of semolina in a large bowl called a gsaa.

Cooking couscous in the traditional way is an exact art, and can be an almost spiritual experience. Patience is required, but that particular virtue pays off with multiple dividends when it comes to couscous. A large steamer (if a traditional couscousiére is unavailable,) that seals completely to the pot below is a must. Cheesecloth dipped in a simple paste of flour and water can be used around the edges of the pot to ensure a tight seal, if needed. Double cooking duty can be achieved, here, as the water in the bottom pot can also include meat, spices, and vegetables. Not only does this create a tasty stew to serve atop the couscous, it also seasons the couscous grains as they cook.

Cooking couscous in the traditional way . . . can be an almost spiritual experience.

The couscous should be pre-washed, and allowed to swell for several minutes in clean water. When the actual cooking process begins, the couscous will undergo a pattern of steaming, followed by soaking up more water, at least twice before it is ready. Manually working through the couscous to separate the grains— with clean hands, of course — is also part of the process, and some liken the relaxing feeling that ensues to that of kneading bread dough.

 

Making couscous, or tasting it at a local eatery that specializes in Moroccan or Mediterranean food, is a simple and delicious way of experiencing Morocco without leaving the country. If you should be so fortunate to visit Morocco, make sure that a local couscous specialty is one of the first dishes you try. When you have tried it once, try it again. And again. And again.

 

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Article Published on July 07 in Original Articles
Works of Master Artisans and Craftsmen
Leather Goods

Leather goods are heavily depended upon in Morocco, and entire quarters of the cities of Fes and Marrakech is devoted to leather tanning.

Anyone who visits Morocco and doesn’t feel at least tempted to take home a piece of it is a cool customer, indeed . . . especially when it’s so easy to do so!  Creating handcrafted items and traditional artworks is so ingrained to the culture of Morocco that over 7 percent of the country’s population are employed in such fields.  Adapted to the needs of modern life, Moroccan handcraft production relies on tradition, offering a wide variety of products ranging from small works of art to the simplest utilitarian objects.  In fact, most of the craftwork produced is made to be utilized in some way, be it made of leather, wood, textiles, metal, or ceramic.

Leather working is so important to the Moroccan culture that entire districts in Fes and Marrakech are devoted to the tannery.  These famous tanneries are operated by worker co-operatives usually composed of many different families who have worked in the leather industry for generations.  One does not need to look far to see what the tanneries are so renowned: nearly every person walking down the street is wearing leather sandals or slippers, donkeys are laden with leather saddles and saddlebags, and leather attaches and knapsacks are commonly seen being carried by those passing by. At one time, books bound in Moroccan leather, such as Webster’s Dictionary, were the prize of any respectable library.

 At one time, books bound in Moroccan leather, such as Webster’s Dictionary, were the prize of any respectable library.

Four types of metal are most often crafted into goods in Morocco.  Wrought iron can be seen everywhere along the streets, from balconies to window decorations to street lights and lamps. Insides the home, copper is used for utilitarian items like cookware. The cheaper alternative to brass is found only in decorative pieces, but the real metal of choice is handcrafted bronze serving trays and presentation dishes made by master craftsmen.  Real and fake can be deceptively similar, so be sure to ask a guide or Moroccan friend the difference between brass and bronze before buying.

Metal Lamps

Some of the most decorative and utilitarian items in any Moroccan home are made of copper, wrought iron, brass, and bronze.

Of all the artisan traditions in Morocco, carpet weaving goes back perhaps the farthest. Carpets can be recognized and priced according to their age, place of origin, and density of the knots. The most renowned are the Rabat carpets, due to their high thread density (about 10,000 per square meter). Carpets known as “royals” or “orientals” are similar to Rabat carpets, and usually boast rich shades of red and blue.  Some carpets of Berber origin are made from camel hair. It is said that 15 camels are needed to make one small rug. Kilims, or flat-woven carpets, are hallmarks of the Middle and High Atlas Berbers. Authentic kilims made with the best quality wool and all-natural dyes can be found in the markets of Midelt, Azrou, or Asni.  The Berbers of the Rif Mountains produce rich quality wools and create beautiful blankets called fouta.

Silver is the most abundant precious metal in rural Moroccan jewelry. Gold is most valued in the urban areas and is usually imported from India, Europe, and other parts of Africa. Rural pieces tend to feature coral and amber; they have a heavy and somber look to them. Other precious stones such as emeralds, pearls, and turquoise are also used in the creation of rural jewelry. These jewels are not simply confined to rings, necklaces, pendants, diadems, bracelets, and anklets — gold and silver daggers are inlaid with these precious stones as s gin of wealth and prestige. The best jewelry souks in Morocco are in Tiznit, Marrakech, and Essaouira.  Amazingly, silver jewelry is frequently sold by weight, with little value added for the artistry!

Many Moroccan carpenters and woodworkers ply their trade with aromatic cedar wood,although thuya, olive, and lemon-tree is also used. Craftsmen in Essaouira specialize in inlaid work and carving, while the woodworkers of Fes and Meknes specialize in window coverings and lattice work with sophisticated, geometrical designs. Popular throughout Morocco is the art of zwark, or painted wood, usually applied to boxes, shelves, and cradles. The best examples of these hand-painted crafts are typically found in the north, particularly Fes, Tetouan, and Chefchaouen.

No visitor travels far in Morocco without finding one of the most traditional pieces of Moroccan pottery, the tagine.

No visitor travels far in Morocco without finding one of the most traditional pieces of Moroccan pottery, the tagine. Considered the slow cooker of Moroccan and Mediterranean cuisine, tagines for cooking are made of terra cotta to prepare savory stews and other dishes. Presentation tagines that are used only as serving dishes are made of painted and glazed ceramic. Some of the best quality terra cotta tagines are found in the local markets of Asni, near Marrakech, and along the northern coast, such as Oued Lou. Fes is famous for its blue and white designs made from incredibly durable gray clay. Meknes and Marrakech also lay claim to highly skilled potters, but the town of Safi, on the Atlantic coast, is best known throughout the country for turning out high-quality, colorful ceramics.

Moroccan Necklaces
One of the most versatile, yet most difficult to master of all the Moroccan crafts is embroidery. This art form can be seen on tablecloths, caftans, napkins, scarves, and handkerchiefs, often brightly colored and bearing the name of the place in which it was created. Watching women in the souk performing their art of embroidery is reminiscent of watching a spider weaving her intricate web. The best place in Morocco to find authentic and fine embroidery is Fes. Antique examples of silk lamé or traditional styles of embroidery are found in the shops by the fabric souks of Fes.

Hand-woven baskets, boxes, and trays are found in nearly every town and village in Morocco. In the northern Rif Mountains, Berber women are often seen wearing large straw hats decorated with colorful threadwork and pom-poms. Fes, Marrakech, and Salé feature entire souks dedicated to basket weaving.

Shopping in Morocco can be a daunting affair, especially as many Western visitors are unaccustomed to the atmosphere of the souks, and the fact that prices are not fixed.  It can also be overwhelming to observe he sheet diversity of shops and products on display.  Delving into the souks in search of the perfect gift or souvenir can be uncomfortable at first, but it’s worth it to witness the beauty of the handcrafted goods that only travel a few feet from production to sale.

 

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