Sunday, April 08, 2018

Morocco: Blue

Morocco is probably the most visually distinctive place I have ever been. It is as though, at some point in their history there was an agreement made that everything made by human Moroccan hands must be beautiful. Perhaps it was the Islamic aesthetic of the beauty of geometry and the beauty found in nature. Perhaps it was inspired by the drama of the landscape of verdant farmland, snowy mountains and red Sahara sand. I don't know, but I was constantly aware of color and design being a core value of the culture, and that in their color-filled world it seems blue reigns as the cool, elegant queen. In February the skies of Morocco are a brilliant blue.

That blue sky color is reflected everywhere you turn in the cities. Nearly every door, window frame and shutter is painted sky blue. The fishing boats are blue.

There is a town in Morocco where everything is blue. We did not go there, but the Kasbah of the Udeyas, a fortified village near Rabat, was very blue.

And then—the bluest blue I have ever seen. In Marrakech, in 1923, the French artist Jacques Majorelle, built his home, surrounded by a beautiful garden. He painted scenes of life in Morocco.

Painting by Majorelle

After Majorelle's death the home and garden were purchased by the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, who lived there with his partner until his death when the property passed to the city of Marrakech. It is now a public museum and botanical garden. The buildings and many features in the garden are painted Majorelle's favorite intense blue.

This intense, pure blue has come to be called Majorelle Blue and the pigment is somewhat rare and not readily available, but the effect of it in that garden is electric! I confess I have never been very keen on bright blue as a color, but I am gazing into our subdued, rainy, Oregon garden today and really, really wanting to see a jolt of that miraculous Moroccan blue peeking through the foliage somewhere out there.

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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Morocco: The Desert

The vast Sahara Desert begins at the southern edge of Morocco. When we were researching our trip the prospect of seeing and setting foot on the Sahara was perhaps my deciding factor. It is hard to imagine how far it stretches across the African continent and visions of Lawrence of Arabia and the English Patient and endless dunes and immense, star-filled night sky were playing in my mind and calling to me.

We traveled to our desert camp in 4-wheel drive vehicles across dusty roads that dwindled to paths, then bare rocky roadless ground and eventually made our way to sweeps of orange sand, drifting endlessly into the distance. Along the way we stopped at a Berber nomad camp—several small, black tents standing alone in the desert. We were met by a lovely woman and her precocious two-year-old, who invited us into her tent for tea.

We sat on the carpeted sand. The woman reached behind a small curtain and produced everything needed for the traditional Moroccan mint tea. (Side note: wherever you go in Morocco, including private homes, businesses, restaurants, you are offered Mint tea. It is always, as you see in my photo, served in small glasses on a round, brass tray, and poured with a flourish from a foot or more above, which is not only charming ritual, but serves to cool the boiling hot tea for consumption. This tea service greeted us at the front lobby of every hotel and riad we checked into, as well as every home.) Our hostess invited questions, translated by Abdul, our guide, as her child scampered about, serving tea, examining our cameras and cell phones and entertaining us. Despite the barren, harshness of his environment, he could have been one of our grandchildren—bright, social and playful. His mother said when the time came he would go to school—they would see to that, of course. Besides the main living tent, there was a kitchen tent and a small open tent where her sister-in-law was weaving.

Onward to our camp for the night. Out where the dunes began we came to a last outpost and a bit beyond that our tent camp, surrounded by dunes.

The tents formed a circle with a large open area in the center, each individual tent opening onto the central area. In the center was a firepit, surrounded by thick carpets and comfortable furniture. At one end was a dining tent.

While our luggage was being delivered to our tents, we took a camel ride into the desert to watch the sunset.

Camels, I had heard, are difficult, spitting, biting creatures. These were none of those things and we had such nice helpers getting us on and off and leading our patient beasts into the silent dunes. The silence in the desert seems huge. Even the chatter and laughter of our small group felt as though it was quickly swallowed up in the vastness of that silence. Back at our camp we prepared for the desert cold and enjoyed a beautiful dinner followed by music and dancing around the fire with the star-filled universe overhead. Each couple had their own tent, with hard, Moroccan beds piled high with wool blankets and layers of carpets underfoot.

In a corner of our tent, a sink and brass kettle of water...

And behind a small curtain, toilet and shower. Nothing like Scout camp!

I slept deeply under the weight of all those blankets. In the morning a group on camels appeared on the dune above us, passing silently, like something out of a movie.

We carried our mugs of coffee out across a dune, under a lavender sky and waited to watch the sun come up.

I can close my eyes and see it still.

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Monday, March 12, 2018

Morocco: in the Medina

I learned a lot of new words in Morocco. Words like "souk" (marketplace), "kasbah" (fortress or fortified city) and "medina". Our itinerary mentioned visits to several medinas, which I learned referred to the old, walled city existing within the modern parts of a city. The Medina Of Fes, for example, was built in the 9th century, is the largest Medina in the world and also the largest urban area with no automobiles in the world. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a totally amazing experience. You enter, through a large, arched gate into a different world of narrow, winding passages, claustrophobic and confusing as you make your way toward the center of the maze. In places the passage narrows to a width that accommodates only one person and if you meet someone coming from the other direction, one of you must step back into a doorway or alcove to let the other pass.

Just when you begin to worry about the walls closing in, the passage begins to open up to areas of small shops, gathering spots at fountains and wells and people bustling about, making deliveries, shopping, selling, socializing.

The streets, if you can call them that, are too narrow for trucks or cars, so everything that comes into, or goes out the Medina, including building materials, arrives on backs or heads, in small handcarts, on motorbikes or the occasional small donkey. The shops include all manner of goods for sale and many are workshops for craftsmen doing metalwork, leatherwork, sewing, dyeing, etc, etc, using mostly well-used traditional tools.

The food shops offer beautiful displays of candies, olives, vegetables, fish, sheep heads and pyramids of beautiful spices

Rugs, Ceramics, Jewelry, textiles, artwork in tiny shops line the inner streets of the medina. All prices are negotiable through a predictable, polite and usually friendly bargaining ritual. I'm very bad at it. At one shop I saw some beads I liked and asked the price. "What price will you pay?" was the response. "I only have $10," I said (which was true). "Oh, no—beautiful beads $40." I repeated, "I only have $10." "35" he said. I showed him my $10—"really, this is all I have..." he took a deep breath and patiently explained, "you are doing it wrong. I give my price, you give your price. I lower price, you raise price..." he waved his hand in a circular motion as if to say, "now, do you get it?" At this point I was embarrassed and handed the beads back to him apologetically and turned to leave. He thrust them back into my hand, sighed deeply, grimaced and said "OK, give me money." I felt a little bad about the whole deal despite getting my beads so cheaply. Usually these negotiations conclude with a smile and a handshake—win-win, everybody's happy. After that I made sure I had enough money in my purse to play the game correctly.

The medina is a world unto itself, sounds of metal hammering, jingling bells, children laughing and chattering in Arabic and stringed instruments and little hand drums; smells of spices and orange flower and grilled kabobs; men in striped jelabas and women in silk headscarves and long black dresses, brilliant colors of rugs and ceramics and Berber beads and carvings and brilliant textiles fluttering in the breeze. Has it changed in all the hundreds of years? It seems not. Though I suspect that the deep pockets of those traditional clothes might conceal cell phones, I don't remember seeing them. The medina is the essence of Morocco—timeless and wonderful in every way.

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