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Published: October 21st 2018
As Old as an Argan Tree
Berber woman spends her day cracking Argon nuts for the local co-op
There I was, a lone woman in a sea of men, sitting in a cafe. We are all facing in the same direction, towards the street, sipping Moroccan mint tea from impossibly tiny cups, and watching the world go by. No one bothers me. No one stares at me. No one acknowledges me. It's a little weird. But I like it.
Later I ask, "Where are all the women?"
My newly hired fixer seemed startled by my question. "The women are at home, where they belong." He lightly scoffs.
Instantaneously, I feel my feminist dander skyrocket to a Def Com 5. Before he notices, I recover with one of those Cesar Millan 'calm state' corrections. Right. I'm a worldly optimist that respects all religions, no matter how misogynistically f**ed up they may seem.
I sit there in silence to simmer over his nonchalant statement.
Noureddine shrugs and smiles broadly at me, and without skipping a beat, says, “The women don’t want us around. They kick us out of their houses each morning, we must fend for ourselves.” He shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “Our cafes are refugee camps for middle-aged men." He adds.
I burst out laughing. I'm pretty sure if this were an option in Canada, my newly retired mother would kick my father out of her house at first light too.
Moroccan life and history are fascinating. Did you know the Jews were the first people to attempt to live on this hot dusty corner of Africa?
Noureddine goes on to explain Moroccan culture from start to finish as we bump along a potholed road high in the Atlas Mountains. We are visiting a Berber community today. I ask if they are expecting us, and he looks amused. Apparently, anyone can drop in on anyone in Morocco and expect a high level of hospitality.
Leaving the car, we hike to a village clinging to the cliff side. The men of the household are long gone. Kicked out at dawn, they’re off to the monthly market for a day of selling things and socializing.
The matriarch of the family is a stern woman, we enter her house and shuffle past the animal barracks, up a wooden ladder to a sitting area with a patio deck. She immediately puts on the kettle for tea. A tray of freshly
Goats in Trees
OMG I saw this on the internet and thought it was photo shopped. I stand corrected.
baked bread appears with bowls of flowery honey and olive oil, pressed just this morning. For dipping. Pure heaven. In the heat of the summer, the cool breeze that drifts through the courtyard must be heavenly. I admire the view as the younger women of the household mill about in the background.
The mint tea is the best I've ever had, there is no sugar in it, but it is impossibly delicious. I go back for seconds and thirds. Noureddine translates as I politely ask the typical questions about Berber life. She is appeasing me but bored, and at one point says I have kind eyes. We leave her with a little gratuity and hit the road.
The Berber market is quite the spectacle. No one cares I'm the only women there. The men drift about in their flowing caftans, kissing cheeks. Noureddine says my existence is so far out of their realm of comprehension, they won't even acknowledge me. That is, until I pull out my camera and click a photo or two. Suddenly, I've gathered an angry crowd, and my fixer scrums in to break up the yelling matches going on all around me. I just
Narrow streets of Marrakech
Loved getting lost in the old souq of Marrakech
wanted to capture the moment a whole dead sheep was dunked headfirst into a massive clay pot and then stuffed into a ground oven to be roasted for two days. “This should not be filmed,” Noureddine scolds. After things dissipate, Noureddine unabashedly starts his weekly shop. "Prices are 3 times less than what they are in Marrakesh," he casually states. I too come away with a fruit salad. But apparently my money is no good here. Everyone shyly hands me my wares but waves me off when I try to pay them.
Because I am a horticulture buff, I ask about Argan, and without hesitation, Noureddine swings the car around and heads back up into the mountains.
As usual when I travel, I seek out strange and rare plant anomalies of the country. It’s just what I do. He takes me to a local co-op, where the village’s Berber women have been organized to benefit their way of life.
The Argan tree (Argania spinosa)
is a species that is 80 million years old, and the only one left of its kind in the Argania genus. It grows nowhere else on earth. Less than a century ago, this
Men entertain in the Souk with traditional songs. They didn't know Smoke on the Water.
tree had vast tracts of forest across the arid north west of Africa. All gone now. The remaining trees sparsely dot the dry landscape west of Marrakech.
Only now are the cosmetic companies and health food monopolies discovering what the Berbers always knew. This gnarled tree produces the most beneficial oil known to man. Under its thick fruit hides an uber hard nut that contains rich, oil laden seeds. The liquid is called “Miracle Oil,” thought to be a preventative for cancers and cures for many other ailments. It is used in everything from hair conditioners to toe fungus salve.
Simply put though, the Argan tree does something way more beneficial. It carries the collective future and hopes of the local Berber women. It allows them freedoms in this strict Islamic country, to make money for their families and thereby rising them from their acute poverty and hardships. At the co-op, little Grannies, as old as the nuts themselves, sit in groups gossiping and cracking. A difficult feat, I try, but smash the nut to smithereens while they all giggle at me. They then use an ancient pestle to grind and extract the precious oil.
Jemaa el Fna Minoret
The mosque tower pierces the evening sky
settles in with his cup of coffee for a long chat with the Berber men who loiter out in the shade, as I am swiftly escorted away by the women to be shown their wares. I find myself surrounded and smothered by beauty products and salad dressings.
They get about $130 of my money after the bartering dust settles.
We travel back to Marrakech as the afternoon’s shadow paints a myriad of colour upon the steep mountains, their winter snow caps missing by about a week. In the narrow river gorge, a popular spot for the Marrakech masses escaping the city heat of the summer, there are endless plastic chairs and tables set up in the water. Even though it’s over 30 degrees today, no one is around. I spend the evening by myself exploring the city and eating in a restaurant where all the male patrons are facing the same direction, towards the street. I have one of the best lamb tajines with almonds and apricots and a side of couscous before I call it a night.
The next day, Noureddine is patiently waiting for me.
Marrakech is just waking up. Shop owners dutifully sweep
Pointy shoes for everyone
Colourful markets of Marrakech where you can buy anything and everything.
sidewalks and place their goods out. The cafes are full of forward-facing, middle aged men. This peaceful, pleasant city is entirely made of smooth terracotta clay buildings, Noureddine explains how the hot summer sun’s oppressive heat is deflected by the clay, keeping the interiors cool. Pigeons peak out from the holes left behind by old wooden scaffolding. Traffic is orderly, albeit far from sane.
I demand to be taken to see “Goats in Trees.” Noureddine finds this amusing, but he indulges my whim. We speed through miles and miles of desolate countryside and the patchwork of endless olive orchards and grape vineyards. And sure enough, much to my delight, we come across Argan trees with heaps of goats in them. I could have sworn this was just a photoshop prank on the Internet, until now.
Long ago, Moroccan herders realized there was a symbiotic benefit. Their goats, who naturally challenge each other with who can be the highest, tallest goat, climb up into the Argan trees to eat the fruit. Then shit out the nuts. Which are effortlessly gathered from under the trees and sold. Sounds oddly similar to the plight of the civet cats of
Visit to Auntie Berbers
Everyone in the villages so welcoming with mint tea and fresh bread.
the Indonesian coffee craze.
I marvel at how they stand stoically on their individual branches, chewing their cud, like they are waiting for a bus or something. They are super friendly and come down a bit to greet me as I hand them fruit I’ve scavenged off the ground. OMG who doesn’t love a goat?
We stay until Noureddine gets bored and suggests we take lunch in the seaside town of Essaouira. To break up the day.
What a lovely place. I had no idea. This beach resort goes for miles along the coastline, I take a stroll through the shore foam and watch locals play in the surf. The restaurant serves alcohol and I order up a wine while a whole fried fish is ceremonially plonked on my plate.
Back in Marrakech, I decide to walk to the Jemaa el Fna from my Riyadh. The smell of rain weighs heavy in the overcast sky. It is unseasonably humid, but I walked and walked anyways before I spied the multitude of families strolling towards the Koutoubia Mosque minaret. I followed.
A spectacle of chaos unfolded before me in this gigantic square. Snake charmers bleat their
Tree Goat man
He was very proud of his crazy goats.
annoying horns at limp snakes, dancing boys prance about, magicians and story tellers pull in speculative customers with animated gesturing. As the wails from the call to prayer bounce off the terracotta walls. Crowds thicken. That was the exact moment I fell in love with Marrakech.
I did a quick perimeter sweep prior to my venturing closer to the epicenter. The fruit juice salesman shout charming flirtations in my direction, their smiling faces full of missing teeth. I was verbally assaulted by endless food stall hawkers all trying to get me to patronage their food tent. Hungry though, I scoped out the one that had the most Moroccans dining and bellied up to the bar.
Severed sheep heads proudly decorate the counter space in front of me. I tried not to barf.
Smoke fills the air, meat is charred, and the circus like ambiance intensifies as twilight encroaches. My plate was heaped with deliciously seasoned, grilled meat and overcooked vegetables.
I turn to watch as people gather around games of chance. My vantage point also allows me to spot the band of pickpocket specialists zeroing in on the crowd squeezed around the
In the Atlas mountains, Berber communities continue to thrive.
street performers doing strange skits. Ones I cannot follow.
It’s only when this elderly man starts flailing about on the ground with his thongs taped to the side of his head, I’m out. Gleefully, I make a bee line for the brightly lit Souks. Spoiler:. 8 out of the 8 most common scams were all tried out on me within 10 minutes. 8 out of 8 failed.
The Souk was a mishmash of crazy alleyways crammed with anything and everything. Leather goods, lamps, spices, clothing, food. I spent maybe three hours in there before I proudly found my way out.
At my Riyadh the next morning, breakfast was served out in the courtyard. The owner, a robust lady whom exudes wealth, lounges in her flowing caftan, cell phone stuck to her ear, while her house staff dash about. I glean that her adult children all live stateside, and her husband is in Dubai on business. Luckily for me she makes herself available for chats and recommendations of what to explore on my last day here in Marrakech. Staying in a Riyadh is brilliant, and a must!
Back when I was planning my Moroccan trip, I
Hey Baby Want some OJ
Flirty juice men find a customer to help them squeeze their lemons.
really did conclude Marrakech was going to be nothing more than a ketchy tourist trap. I was so wrong. Yes, it does have that contrived “entertain the tourists” vibe to it, and maybe way back in the 60’s it would have been genuinely mysterious and exotic, but if I were to time travel back, I would have never left.
Once again, I suffer from that travel affliction I call, so much to see, not enough time.
My friend from Canada is flying in to Marrakech today. Together, we will embark on a desert trek into the Sahara. Look out camels, here we come.
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