We had two stops left before leaving Morocco: a visit to the imperial city of Fes, and dinner with our friend Amin at his family’s home in Casablanca. As we drove over the Atlas Mountains on our way north from the desert, we obediently stopped to take this picture of snowfields that remained a week after the higher altitudes got a blanket of snow.
The French preferred to pronounce the name of Fes with a “z” at the end, because fesse in French means buttock. Kind of distracting to the colonists. We found a big new campground on the outskirts of town and set up under Eucalyptus trees. It was very cold, so we skipped cooking off the back of the van and ate at the campground restaurant.
The next morning, Wafi, our guide, drove us into the city. Married to a Polish Christian though himself a devout Muslim, Wafi is the youngest of nine children. He excelled in languages and history in school and loves storytelling.
He also had Qur’anic verses handy for so many situations, an aptitude we found especially appealing. He explained the history of Islam in Morocco, which is different from the way religion developed in the Middle East. From the very beginning, Sunni Islam was the only option, and Arab sultans frequently married Berber wives to unite the mostly city-dwelling newcomer Arabs with the mostly-agricultural and pastoral indigenous Berbers. To this day, the two groups maintain their own languages, though food, culture, and religion overlap a lot. Moroccans are also quite fond of their Sufis, saintly people who, like Buddhist or Christian monks, try to make every moment a prayer. Unlike those monks, Sufis often have families, though they regularly retreat for solitude. They also sing together. John is still working on a post about a remarkable Sufi-style gathering we happened on our first night with Will in Rabat. Stay tuned.
Fes was frequently the capital of Morocco over the years, and its many shrines have made it a pilgrimage destination, especially since Mecca is so far away. This cemetery on a hillside overlooking the city is packed with graves of the faithful.
Wafi made sure we saw lots of traditional artisans at work, all of which would have been happy to sell us something, but we were mostly able to resist the pressure. Morocco is famous for handicrafts and for aggressive salespeople, who are delighted to meet people like us, who say “no, we’re just looking,” and then end up buying a wallet and backpack for too much money.
Once upon a time, we paid too much for a house and only felt bad about it a couple of times a week for the first few years….
We especially admired the painted ceramics. The purple color this man is using, when fired, becomes a brilliant blue. We also saw a young man chipping larger pieces of fired ceramic into triangles, squares, and even stars to be cemented into mosaics later. How painstaking and accurate his work was.
And finally, the tanneries. Moroccan leather is famous because the hides are soaked in 100% organic pigeon excrement.
For a month. You need to hold a handful of mint leaves in front of your nose to get near the dyeing vats, but it’s worth it to see a 1200 year-old art that’s flourishing in the center of a crowded city. The different colors come from vegetable dyes, and in a matter of hours, someone can stitch a leather jacket, pants, purse, luggage, or iPad cover for you.
The old city (medina) of Fes is the largest one we’ve seen, and all the guidebooks tell you to plan on getting utterly lost there. The streets are mostly covered for shade during warm weather, and there are thousands of tiny store-fronts, each the size of a one-car garage back home. Every block of the medina is like a village where everyone knows each other, and if you live there, you seldom have to go very far to get whatever you need. Porters with donkeys and oversized wheelbarrows bring everything in and out: fresh fish, beef butchered at midnight and rolled in at 4 am, bags of flour, firewood, propane canisters, laptops in their factory packaging and flat-pack deliveries from IKEA, huge bunches of bananas, and seedlings for rooftop gardens. And satellite dish antennas.
One morning John took a cooking class and Lynnell went to a hammam, one of the famous spas or public baths of the Muslim world. The class shopped along one block of the medina for spices, bread, fish, vegetables, and phyllo dough, which this asbestos-handed woman makes all day, every day, and jokes with passersby.
With her right hand, she rolls dough into a ball and with her left hand pulls the 50-second result off the “rather hot” griddle stone.
Then she slathers olive oil with the paint brush on the newest pancake in the stack to keep the paper-thin layers separate. The oil also makes the pancakes stretchy. The class made bastillas, a sort of phyllo burrito, stuffed with steamed fish and Moroccan spices. We learned that you don’t have to measure accurately (which made John happy) and you should mix them by hand.
Clockwise, starting with salt near the top are chopped cilantro and parsley, olive oil, smoky paprika, cumin, and in the center are two kinds of mild chili paste. Moroccans go easy on the heat. Standing by to be added later are garlic and lemon juice. The menu included the fish bastillas, a lentil-fava bean soup, and a salad (which usually means cucumber, onion, tomato, carrots, peppers, and maybe two more things in neat piles side-by-side and no lettuce).
Fes is most famous for its University (maybe the oldest in the world) and its numerous Islamic boarding schools, now mostly closed. The curriculum was classical Arabic language, poetry, scripture, math, and natural sciences.
We got to enter the Bou Inania school whose mosque is still used. The school was founded in 1350, and at least some of the walls we saw date back to then.
Families with enough money would send their sons to Fes, along with a donation of food and school supplies. The young men came from all over Africa and Spain. Wealthier families would send enough food for a half-dozen boys.
The compact fluorescent light bulb hanging overhead is part of a nationwide effort by the king to modernize mosques and make them “green,” energy-wise.
The students slept in tiny rooms like the one shown below, but like all people in this sub- tropical land, they spent their waking hours outdoors, in courtyards or the winding streets of the medina.
The bathroom around the corner featured a half-dozen very clean, tiled squat-toilet rooms around a small courtyard with a fountain in the middle where students could wash up before prayers.
hBy a happy turn of fate, we got to meet the prayer-leader (imam) for the mosque. Since that’s part of John’s job at Breck, we asked for a photo. Here are the two imams:
After Fes, we had one more very important meal on our itinerary. Our new friend, Amine Nourdine, who we’d met almost a month earlier on our first day in Morocco, had invited us to come through his hometown of Casablanca on our way north. Amine is a notary, which in Morocco involves civil transactions, and he was helping a colleague write his PhD thesis at the Sorbonne. Amine’s French is really good, so he was happy to oblige. His own interest is in the different sources of Moroccan law. The tradition of notary is descended from laws originally given by religious as well as civil authorities, kind of like the Divine Right of Kings. Courtroom law, on the other hand, depends on the constitutional principles from the time of Napoleon.
We talked a lot about religion, the veneration of Sufi saints, the authority of scripture, and the need to be free to understand it and interpret it in light of ur own experiences. He told us about a teacher he respects a great deal, a Muslim physician in Vienna who, among other things, praises western democracy, creativity, and religious tolerance, all of which are lacking in many Muslim countries. It reminded me of what our congressman, Keith Ellison, once told a group I was in, “there is no better country in which to be a Muslim than the USA.”
Amine lives just a couple hundred yards from Rick’s Café Américan, a homage to Humphrey Bogart’s fictional Casablanca piano bar. He met us there and we walked around that corner of the city, and then we met some members of his family, including his aunt Zaynab, far right, a professional chef who really ought to have her own tv cooking show. She made us dinner. Her mom (far left), Amine (next to John), husband, and three kids joined us. After the appetizers came this stunning platter of couscous, as light and fluffy as you can imagine because it had been steamed three separate times. Vegetables and lamb were heaped on that, and the whole thing was topped with a special, sweet-and-savory chickpea sauce with onions and spices.
And then more green tea, and pastries. Zaynab’s mom is a pastry chef. Although she’s holding a spoon in this picture, she also showed us how easy it is to eat couscous the “eastern” way–with her right hand. The last course was a bowl of fruit, including Moroccan mandarin oranges, which almost peel themselves. We said goodnight and Amine drove us back to our van. A half hour later we were back at our campground in the moonlight, with the waves of the Atlantic a muffled roar in the background.
Eating a meal together is essential to most religions: Muslims fast all day during Ramadan, but the feasts right after sundown are, so I’m told, more than worth it. You remind yourself for 28 days how you depend on so many others and, ultimately, on God for the necessities of life. You think of the poor, who are not voluntarily hungry like you are, who don’t have the freedom to choose to abstain. And twice a year, Muslims feast: once in commemoration of Muhammad receiving the first words of the Qur’an and again to recall Abraham not having to sacrifice his son as he feared God was asking him to do.
For me, there is no more important Christian ritual than communion, where we gather to receive the bread and wine of Christ’s sacrifice. The infinite God became a finite human being. The immortal Creator experienced death. The Good submitted to the torture of The Evil Empire. In all those paradoxes, as we taste life-giving food and drink, we share in a measure of Eternity. I can’t explain it fully, but having this sample-size portion of a meal with others devoted to walking onward toward God is truly a sacrament: an outward, visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace.
Whether it’s a Friday-after-prayers big meal of couscous, or a Jewish shabbat dinner, or Sunday brunch, our weekly special meals still recall the sacredness of family and community life. Even if we forget to say grace or take a sneak look at our phones.
For our last day in Morocco, a cold and gray one, we drove north past the fishing village of Moulay Bousselham, which is apparently mobbed in the summertime. There’s a big estuary where we could have rented a boat to take us out to see storks, but that didn’t sound fun on this wintry day.
Every one of those boats has an owner offering “the best price” for the trip. We just walked around a bit with our hands thrust into our pockets and then kept driving.
We snapped a photo of a welcome sign on a wall topped with broken glass to deter nonpaying customers. John was able to read it, with his limited but improving Arabic: “Much Welcome…Fried and Grilled Fish.” The place wasn’t open yet, or we’d have stopped in for one more farewell meal.