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Published: October 21st 2018
Goats in Trees
OMG I saw this on the internet and thought it was photo shopped. I stand corrected.
There I was, a lone woman in a sea of men, sitting in a café. 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 in the day 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, but I keep my mouth shut. Right. I'm a worldly optimist that respects all religions, no matter how misogynistically f**ed up they may seem, don't engage, don't engage.
I sit there in silence simmering over his nonchalant statement.
Noureddine shrugs and smiles broadly at me, and without skipping a beat, says, “The women, they 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 have kicked my father out of her house at first light too. Well done Ladies of Morocco.
Getting past these traditional differences, I find Moroccan life and history fascinating! Like, 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 up 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
Narrow streets of Marrakech
Loved getting lost in the old souq of Marrakech
the kettle for tea. A tray of freshly baked bread appears with bowls of flowery honey and olive oil, pressed just this morning. For dipping. It's pure heaven. Summers must be so sweltering hot here, but by the way the adobe houses are designed, a cool breeze drifts through the courtyard consistently. It's heavenly. I admire their spectacular view of the valley as the younger women of the household mill about in the background sneakily checking me out.
The mint tea offered is the best I've ever had, there is no sugar in it, but it is impossibly sweet & delicious. I go back for seconds and thirds. Noureddine translates as I politely ask the typical questions about Berber life. She appeases me but is 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
As Old as an Argan Tree
Berber woman spends her day cracking Argon nuts for the local co-op
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 wanted to capture the moment a whole dead sheep was dunked headfirst into a massive clay pot to be stuffed into a ground oven for roasting. “This should not be filmed.” Noureddine scolds. He won't say why.
After things dissipate with handshakes and kisses, Noureddine unabashedly starts his own weekly shop. He sees the puzzled look on my face and says, "Prices are 3 times less than what they are in Marrakesh." I too come away with a fruit salad in a bag. But apparently my money is no good here. Everyone shyly hands me my wares, but waves me off when I try to pay them.
Where can we see some Argan trees? I ask. Because I am a horticulture buff and this is the stuff I live for. Without hesitation, Noureddine swings the car around and heads back up into the mountains. As usual, I seek out strange and rare plant anomalies of the particular country I'm visiting. It’s just what I do. He takes me
Men entertain in the Souk with traditional songs. They didn't know Smoke on the Water.
to a local co-op, where the village’s Berber women have been organized to produce Argan oils as a way 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 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 biblical tree produces the most beneficial oil known to man. Under its thick fruit hides a hard nut that is rich with oil laden seeds. The liquid gold is called “Miracle Oil,” and thought to be a preventative for cancers as well as cures for many other ailments. It is used in everything from hair conditioners to toe fungus salve. Simply put, the Argan tree does everything, including providing an economic future for the local Berber women. It allows them freedoms in this strict Islamic country to make money to feed
Jemaa el Fna Minoret
The mosque tower pierces the evening sky
their families and thereby rising them up from their acute poverty and hardships.
At the co-op, little Grannies, as old as the nuts themselves, sit in groups gossiping and cracking nuts. A difficult feat, I attempt it, but smash the nut to smithereens while they all giggle at me. Using an ancient pestle and some serious muscle power, they grind the pulp and extract the precious oil. My fixer 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.
Before the day gets too late, we travel back to Marrakech. The afternoon’s shadows paint a myriad of colours upon the steep mountains, the snow caps have only melted in the past week. In the narrow river gorge below, I'm told it is a popular spot for the Marrakech city folk during the heat of the summer. There are endless plastic chairs and tables set up in the water
Pointy shoes for everyone
Colourful markets of Marrakech where you can buy anything and everything.
with corresponding food shacks. Even though it’s over 30 degrees today, no one is around. After we make a pit stop at an uncle's cousin's father's sister-in-law's house so that Noureddine can buy a couple litres of some super cheap extra extra extra virgin olive oil from a backyard vat, we part ways. 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 sidewalks and place their goods out. The cafes are full of forward-facing, middle-aged men. I smile to myself. This peaceful, pleasant city is entirely made of smooth terracotta clay buildings, Noureddine explains how in the summer the 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 politely demand to be taken to see
Visit to Auntie Berbers
Everyone in the villages so welcoming with mint tea and fresh bread.
“Goats in Trees.”
Noureddine finds this baffling but he indulges my whim. We speed through miles and miles of desolate countryside as the patchwork of endless olive orchards and grape vineyards stretches beyond. 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 photo shop prank on the Internet, until now.
Long ago, Moroccan herders realized the 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 the Indonesian coffee craze, but I digress.
They stand stoically on their individual branches, chewing their cud, like they are waiting for a bus or something. I stand underneath mesmerized by it all. They are super friendly, and come down a bit to greet me as I hand them half eaten fruit I’ve scavenged off the ground. OMG who doesn’t love a goat? In a tree?
We stay until
Tree Goat man
He was very proud of his crazy goats.
Noureddine gets bored, so I suggest we take lunch at the seaside town of Essaouira. To break up the day.
Noureddine drops me off with a pick up time of 3 pm. 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 my whole fried fish is ceremonially plonked on my plate.
Back in Marrakech, I spend more time by myself waiting for my friend to fly in. 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 unfolds before me in this gigantic square. Snake charmers bleat their 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.
Berber Villages This was the exact moment I fell in love with Marrakech.
In the Atlas mountains, Berber communities continue to thrive.
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 and all was good until I saw severed sheep heads proudly decorating 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 squeezing around the 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 decide
Hey Baby Want some OJ
Flirty juice men find a customer to help them squeeze their lemons.
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 one 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 private home (Riyadh) is brilliant, and a must do! I highly recommend it instead of staying in a hotel.
Back when I was planning my Moroccan trip, I really did believe Marrakech was going to be nothing more than a ketchy tourist trap. I was so wrong.
Poor things. I hope they come back in another life as sultans.
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 it's still worthwhile visiting. If I were to time travel back to the hippy years, I would have never been able to leave Morocco, willfully.
Once again I find myself suffering from that travel affliction I call, so much to see, not enough time.
My friend from Canada is flying into Marrakech today. Together, we will embark on a desert trek into the Sahara. Look out camels, here we come.
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