Tahir Shah’s “The Caliph’s House”

Shah’s book helped me understand some of the culture that was surrounding me. It demonstrated the religious and often superstitious nature of the Moroccan people, and it highlighted the importance that all of the artistic disciplines played in their society. Shah explained much about ridding a house of Jinns and bringing in baraka. Jinns are the spirits mentioned in the Qur’an and created by God from fire. They inhabit houses that have been abandoned and cause considerable trouble for their new human dwellers.

A couple pearls of wisdom that I enjoyed while reading through this novel were the following. First, when it comes to bargaining, Shah provided the following insight:

“In the East, the tradition of bargaining is an honorable one, and Moroccan society has one of the most developed bartering economies I have come across. I am usually satisfied with chipping in a few cents more if it saves time and secures the purchase. But to a native Moroccan, shirking on the bargaining front is seen as falling short of responsibility. There is honor at stake. Forget the bargaining and you are bringing shame on the shop.

“The guidebooks always say it’s best to take a local person with you when you go shopping in Morocco. But they don’t tell you that the local is likely to veto all purchases, and even liable to get you into a fistfight with the shopkeeper as he strives to protect your honor.”

In addition, near the end of the book, Tahir nicely describes his experience settling into a new country and new culture and specially with his family.

“Live in a new country and you find yourself making compromises. Make them, and you are rewarded many times over. Morocco has an antique culture, one that’s still intact, with the family at the core. For me, the greatest thing about living here has been that Ariane and Timur [Tahir’s two children] can play against an inspiring backdrop, teeming with a full spectrum of life…. I encourage Ariane and Timur to be loud, to shout, to dance in the streets, to be themselves.”

Horse in Fez

Unrest in Morocco

About one month before arriving in Morocco, there was a bombing at a location that I was planning to visit, Marrakech’s Djemaa el-Fna, killing 16 people, including eight French nationals and several other foreigners. The risk of these attacks is real but luckily they occur with low frequency, the last three having occurred in 2003, 2007 and 2011. The attacks are blamed on Islamic extremists and result among other things because of poverty, perceived corruption at the top, and Morocco’s pro-western position.

In addition, having similar feelings to the rest of northern Africa, Moroccans have recently begun demonstrations for political and social reforms in their major cities. The first set of national demonstrations were on February 20, 2011 and unfortunately, these demonstrations turned violent and eventually deadly. At least five were killed and 128 injured. Since then, other rallies have for the most part been peaceful. Kind Mohmmed VI has now promised a revision to the constitution; however, these pro-reform demonstrations have still not ceased.

When deciding to come here six months ago, I had not predicted that this unrest would exist in Morocco; however, I was not prepared to be scared away by a couple incidents. I checked the U.S. State Department’s website just before coming, and Morocco was not on its list of Travel Advisory Countries. In addition, Nepal, a country I had come from, was on that list. That said, no country and no city will be perfectly safe. Wherever I go anywhere, including right outside my own home, it is important to be aware of my surroundings and careful not to bet to embroiled in a dangerous situation.  It is also important not to live in fear and let that fear prevent me from seeing and experiencing things. I decided not to alter my trip to avoid Morocco and now as my Moroccan adventure comes to a close, I am very happy with that decision.


At half ten in the evening, I set off to a hammam in Fez’ Old Medina. I follow one of my riad’s staff in order to not get lost ten times before either finding my destination or eventually giving up and returning back. The narrow alley ways all over the medina are hard to traverse competently in daylight yet alone under the stars. Before arriving at the hammam, we stop at a small counter to purchase a “hammam kit”, which is a small bag of supplies that will soon prove useful. There is a brush of semi-dull plastic needles, a rough rag shaped like a small bag, and some Berber soap, which is a black soap with a gelatinous consistency.

Upon arriving at the hammam, we enter through a small door into a steamy changing room. The whole bath house consists of three rooms, with each room hotter and more humid than the last as they get farther from the front door. I am happy to notice that there are only locals using this hammam because it means I will receive an authentic experience as well as I will pay closer to local prices. Since I only plan to go once, I decide to also get a “massage.” The word is in quotes because that is what it was advertised as, but I am not sure that I can actually call it as such. Before the massage, I venture to the third and hottest room and am instructed to lie on the very hot floor, occasionally getting up to refill my buckets with hot water to pour on top of myself. I can no longer differentiate between the hot water poured on me and my self-produced sweat. After staying in that third room for what seems like much longer than it is, I move to the second/middle room for my massage. The masseuse uses the supplies I had just purchased to eliminate any possible dead skin that I may be carrying around. The sensation is of sandpaper being rubbed over my body in an anything but gentle manner.

I finish the massage, rinsing the soap and dead skin from my body, and move back to the first and coolest room to wait for the same nice Riad staff member to come and guide me back through the maze. I do not stop sweating for around 30 minutes following the conclusion of my Riad experience. I feel clean yet also like I had just been vigorously exercising. I feel tired yet my body tingles with energy. And I feel relaxed yet still slightly tensed from the sand paper massage. I am happy I saw and experienced a hammam, but I will probably wait some time before jumping back into one.

Riad Verus, Fez

This traditional and authentic-feeling Riad set near the edge of the Fez Old Medina was as welcoming as any hostel I’ve stayed at yet. When I arrive to the front door after a bit of wandering, I am immediately greeted by name from an individual standing outside. This first impression sets the mood and I am ready for a great (even if short) time at the Riad Verus. The other travelers are very nice and all had unique and entertaining stories to share, but the staff’s friendliness and openness is what set this Riad apart.

Sunset at Riad Verus

On the first evening here, I listen to the beating of drums coming from the roof terrace and am drawn to them. I venture my way up to the roof and find a staff member and several travelers playing while watching the sun set over the Medina. Eventually a drum rotates around the circle to me and I start cautiously joining the group’s beat. Noor, one of the Riad’s staff members, is leading the session and I try to match some of his beats. After starting to feel more comfortable and gaining a little confidence, I step up to many of Noor’s challenges as he plays harder beats, and I eventually am able to find most of them if given enough time. The session then moves from a copy-follow format to trying to play complementary rhythms. With my hands unused to the drums wrath, they begin to glow red, but not red enough to make me stop as I am starting to really enjoy my lesson. We continue to groove for about two hours before eventually disbanding.

Sitting on the terrace with the sky casting new colors across its few clouds, playing these Moroccan drums made me feel right at home in Morocco.

Window in Riad Verus

Inside Riad Verus

Fez and Its Artisans

Although Fez’ Old Medina shares many similarities with that of Marrakech, there were still differences of note. The initial and most obvious was that Fez had a much larger Medina with its over 1000 winding alleys and streets. If I didn’t get lost at least once or twice on very journey out of my Riad, I wasn’t exploring far enough. In addition, the alleys were a bit smaller and the stalls a bit more diverse.

Fez tannery

One morning, I woke up early to make it to the tannery while they were still working and while the stench hovering around it still hadn’t a chance to reach full force from the day’s heat. Even still, I had to walk around with a handful of mint leaves in my hand for me to bury my nose in when the smell reached uncomfortable levels. Pigeon poo is one of the chemical agents used and it makes make many a nose cringe, especially those that aren’t used to it. The processes at the tannery are elaborate eventually ending up in dyes such as henna, saffron, and mint that add a natural coloring to the leather.

Fez weaving

After the tannery, I took a quick tour of a weaving factory. I learned of some of the techniques used to make the famous rugs as well as how to differentiate between rugs made by women and by men, as well as rugs made by hand and by machine. Men use a horizontal loom while women use a vertical loom. This, in turn, affects how the carpets start and end. The tightness of the stitch reflects whether it is done by hand or by machine with the tighter stitches usually being performed by hand.

Fez mosaic construction

Finally, to round off my artisan tour of Fez, I visited a ceramics studio, where along with watching the formation of bowls, cups, etc, I also watched the formation of the famous mosaics that I’ve seen in and around Fez. With only a simple seemingly imprecise hammer, these artisans were able to chisel away at tiles to create shapes that perfectly fit into one another.

Learning of the craft being created around Fez with its ancient techniques that have survived for centuries was an eye-opening and educational experience.

Pottery from Fez

Islam 101

Coming from Turkey and now being in Morocco, I feel it appropriate to at least learn some of the basics of Islam as it is now surrounding me. And in order to remember some of what I am learning, I will record a little here. Importantly, there are five pillars of Islam:

  1. Shahadah (Testimony): There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah
  2. Salah (Five Daily Prayers): Daily prayers are offered five times each day as a duty towards Allah
  3. Sawm (Fasting): Muslims keep Ramadan, the fasting month by abstaining from food, drink, and marital intercourse from dawn to sunset.
  4. Zakah (Purification of Wealth): Material and monetary obligations to the Muslim community are given to those who can afford it.
  5. Hajj (Pilgrimage to Mecca): This pilgrimage is to be performed once per lifetime if it can be afforded.

Another central component to Islam is the Qur’an, the sacred book of Muslims who believe its complete text came through revelation. The opening chapter of the Qur’an reads:

“All praise and thanks are due to God, the Lord and Sustainer of all the worlds. Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Master of the Day of Judgment. You alone do we worship. And You alone do we ask for help. Guide us to the straight way. The way of those whom You have favored. Not those who deserve Your anger. Nor of those who go astray.”

These are just the absolute basics of Islam, but at least it is a beginning and a reminder of the faith of so many of those surrounding me.

Here’s Looking at You, Kid

While touring southern Morocco, we arrive at a new place, either by train or by bus, and are immediately accosted by many of the local youth. They hand you “gifts” only later to request dirham in return. I try to hand back their present to me, and they refuse. I say no thank you and they shrug. I smile and they smile. With no other option I motion the gift in their direction, and then place the gift neatly on a nearby rock and return their shrug with one of my own. And sometimes, the gift is not tangible, but instead, it is their presumed assistance in helping me find my way. They ask if I know where I am going, and I sometimes lie so that they will not point 100 meters away to the entrance of my destination and then request a tip. I would love to engage on a non-monetary level, but unfortunately, at least in Marrakech, such a wish may have to remain only a wish.

Southern Moroccan Excursion

Sand dunes in the Western Sahara

While still in Istanbul, Adam and I heard stories from other travelers of the various treks in southern Morocco, and soon after entering our Riad, we found a poster with photos of camels, sand dunes, and Berber villages. Convincing us to go may have been one of the easiest sells that the Riad had to do.

Ait Benhaddou

Our route took us from Ait Benhaddou to Ouarzazate to La Vallee des Roses to Les Gorges de Dades, where we spent the first night. The second day we traveled to Les Gorges de Todra, then to Merzouga, and finally took camels to the middle of the desert in Bivouac, where we spent the second night. The final day we had a long journey back to Marrakech.

In the Berber village, we all received the hard sell in a traditional home for a handmade rugs. After a couple rounds of tea, getting to know the Berber family, and eventually being shown many colorful rugs, I found one that I liked, bargained the price down, and made a semi-impulsive buy.

Berber rug maker

Later in the journey, the western Sahara lived up to expectations. The sand dunes looked like ocean waves, except that they begged to be climbed. And with one high-reaching dune next to our camp site tempting the group to climb it, we couldn’t resist. About half way up the dune, we realized that this was going to be more difficult that we originally assessed. For each step upward, we slipped slightly downwards as well. And as I eventually starting crawling up the mountain because of its increasing slope, each planted claw would cause a miniature land slide just around it. Eventually, one of the group members, a physically fit individual from Argentina reached the top of the hill giving me a clear target to reach. I summit the hill while I am well out of breath and inspired by the surrounding sand in every direction.

Preparing the camels

The night ends with me on a thin mattress covered by a blanket staring up at constellations unfaded by street lights or even by the moon. The slight breeze against my face felt perfect as I drifted off to sleep.

Sahara Sky
The Big Dipper puts me to sleep in the Western Sahara.

Marrakech, Morocco

Our time in Marrakech begins at the Amour de Riad located on Derb Jamaa near Derb Debachi. The Riad (hostel) staff is very welcoming as they give us a quick tour, show us our room, and provide us with some helpful recommendations. Riad technically means garden, but it also signifies a Moroccan house with an interior garden or courtyard, and although I have little to compare it to, I feel that our Riad has an authentic feel with many stories and rooms surrounding a central common area.  In addition, the derb of our riad is relatively quiet and clean compared to much of the Old Medina.  This is a welcome change compared to the hustle of the main square and its immediate branching derbs.

Our derb in Marrakech

After changing into clothes to better prepare ourselves for the desert heat, we head out to find some food and to see the sites. I eat some delicious chicken tajine and set out with Adam to the Bahia Palace and Dar Si Said only to find them both closed. So, before getting our third strike, we decide to wander through the Old Medina and enjoy the Jemaa el Fna, its central square, and we save the other sites for the next day, both of which end up being a great way to see Moroccan architecture with their elaborate woodwork and mosaics. In addition, we end up going to a photography museum that has great old photos of what Marrakesh, the Old Medina, and Moroccans looked like in years past.

Marrakech's Old Medina

Bahia Palace

Moroccans and their Tea

Tea has become an unplanned theme of my trip, so I might as well continue to weave this theme into my Moroccan experience. Requesting tea in Morocco always means requesting sweet mint tea, and labeling this tea sweet is an understatement. Sugar is easily the primary ingredient, but having the sweet tooth that I do, I never refuse a refill. Staying in the Riad de Amour in the Old Medina of Marrakech, Adam and I are offered tea one evening, and I use the opportunity to learn the intricacies of sweet mint tea preparation.

Predictably, the process begins by boiling water. A small amount of green tea is the steeped in a little tea pot. Meanwhile, mint leaves are crushed and washed. The steeped tea from the small pot is stylistically poured into a cup from an unnecessary height before returning it back to the small pot. The other rational reason I can produce is that a cooling process aids in something. Afterwards, the mint leaves are added into the small pot along with more boiling water to fill the pot to the top. The most critical ingredient ingredient, sugar, is then added by the cube full. In a pot that may have held about 200 to 300 ml, about 10 sizable sugar cubes are added. The small pot is then placed on the stove until the water comes to a simmer and threatens to spill over. After a little more fancy height pouring, some tasting, and adding more sugar, the tea is ready to be served. But just in case the tea is not sweet enough, it is served with more sugar alongside. My question, however, is given that the sugar can no longer stay in solution at the present moment, how is adding sugar going to do anything except to contribute to the bottom sugar collection.

The strong religious, Islamic culture in Morocco results in limited availability of alcohol. After all, one cannot drink alcohol while in eyesight of a mosque, and the country is not short on mosques. One evening, Adam and I try to find a local beer, and everyone we ask in the Marrakech Old Medina points us to Gueliz. The vagueness that is Guilez was a bit frustrating because it only signifies the new area of Marrakech, and we ask the cab to take us there, we end up in front of a McDonald’s. We complain and say we want to go to an area with bars, and we are soon dropped off at a building with the word “Bar” inscribed in bright red lights at the top, where we eventually find a Casablanca brew. More typically, in the evening, instead of seeing a group huddled around a bar, many locals relax at a cafe, sip tea and cafe noir. At the end of meals, tea is served. When negotiating in a rug shop, tea is present. After entering a home, tea is offered. When planning our southern Morocco excursion, we all sip tea. Tea is ubiquitous, delicious, the beverage of choice here in Morocco.

Moroccan Tea