Go to Morocco: It’s Even Better Than You Think!

There is something compelling about Morocco: visions of wild, magical people, mysterious ceremonies, grand throbbing music. Even if all the stories I’d heard turned out to be myth, I wanted to see Al Maghrib for myself. However, an Islamic culture is one of the most difficult places for a Western woman to travel alone in, so I didn’t particularly want to be there all by myself.

Fortunately, I found out that the well-known dancer called Morocco was leading a tour to Morocco; that she had many years of experience in the country as well as in Middle Eastern dance; and that with her we could see and hear tribal dancers, musicians, drummers, troupes of acrobats, snake charmers, the souks, the main squares, cloth merchants, jewelers, the folklore festival, the feasts. I had begun mentally packing before I finished reading the announcement.

And then I did some unpacking. It was an awful lot of money. It was an awfully long way to go with a bunch of strangers. It’s an awfully long way to go to wander around among people who don’t speak the same languages I do — and who have the war with the Polisario going on over territory to the south, and whose economy is in the state of near total collapse typical of third world countries today. To say nothing of terrorism and what passes for the politics of today. . . However, it seemed unlikely that Rocky would be so enthusiastic about travel in a truly dangerous area of the world. Moreover, at times like this it is more important than ever to learn whatever we can about the culture, the people — a whole different world which influences us greatly. So I could stay home or take the adventure as it was offered.

There was so much I wanted to know. What does it feel like to be in Morocco? How does it smell, taste, sound? How is it there, dealing with Western politics, Eastern male-female relationships, the Sahara war? Was there still women’s magic and Guedra trance dancing? Were shikhat dancers considered “loose women”? I wanted very badly to know how it felt to be there in the midst of all this streaming activity, in a circus from another time and place.

I sent off my deposit, certain I was nuts. I began to read everything I could get my hands on about Islam, Morocco, politics, demographics, Berbers, women’s rights, Moroccan family law, travel. Bothered my friends for Moroccan music tapes. Listened to Berlitz Arabic language tapes telling me a dozen ways to order beer, roast pork, pork chops and whiskey. Found some hilariious phrases: “Hello, would you like to have cigarettes and coffee and come home with me?” Oh, that sounded good.

We all staggered into the Royal Air Maroc lobby in New York where Morocco greeted us and asked us if we were ready for Ramadan: New Moon to New Moon, everybody keep their thoughts on God, no food drink or fun from first light to last, sort of like a tougher Lent.

Morocco’s general attitude of gleeful anticipation transmitted itself easily to us, and while there’s virtually no way a Western woman can be “ready” for an Islamic country, we were eager, chattering excitedly all the way across the ocean.

Tangier smells good. Sparkling ocean all around, and little walled gardens barely containing towering fig trees. There were goats on the hillside, stucco buildings with balconied windows on winding streets which went twisting down to the shore, strange spices, new noises, and the people! Gravely smiling women with scarves or sombreros or bath towels on their heads, everyone in long robes, men discussing important things, children chasing things, goats eating things, everybody doing things and I hadn’t the faintest idea what. It was tremendously exciting.

The hotel was right across from a broad expanse of beach, and faintly seedy-looking from the outside. But inside there were rooms carved and colored, twisted and tiled, pattern upon pattern. The first walk through the market alleys was a surprise: fresh, friendly, the people nodded at us and watched us quizzically, holding out their glowing produce. There were pyramids of golden eggs, fish that had been swimming twenty minutes earlier, fresh bread, and lemons and piles of mint and chickens and jewel-like dates and gorgeous apricots; but it was Ramadan, and a good Muslim girl shouldn’t eat any of it. We thought we’d just die from food lust: even a Westerner doesn’t just chow down in the middle of the day.

Sparkling displays of silver jewelry down one curving alley, ravishing fabric displays, leather crafts, ready-made clothes, teapots, tapestries, motor oil, alley after alley filled with everything. Enchanting. Even the usual street urchins seemed to keep their distance for our first look at Tangier.

The first night there, Morocco had arranged for a local band to come and play for us in a special room straight out of a Moorish fantasy, complete with a tinkling fountain along one wall. It started with everyone slightly uncomfortable, looking at each other sitting around in this marvelous tiled and carved room. The musicians began, and we still sat rather primly and thought, “Oh my, is this for real?”

Then softly, almost casually, someone began to play the finger cymbals, and the music got a little warmer. Someone else began to clap her hands; someone stood up, as if just to admire the room and the music and she began carefully, delicately, to dance, to probe the depth and elasticity of the music. To our great delight, the musicians stretched and reached with us, and we spun and danced and played with the music. Through the open doors the warm night brought in the heart of Morocco, and we all began, unknowing, to fall in love.

The second time out unto the town there were more people on the street, and more people noticed us. The men came up and asked if we were Arab, if we were perhaps Jewish, were we Muslim, were we doing Ramadan, no food or drink, eh? It seemed they had every right in the world to question us. Public space is male space, and women will be questioned about their presence there. They expected to discover our motives, to pass the time of day, to make a little money, to make a lot of money. After all, it is their street.

We watched how other women made their way easily down the street, and we watched Morocco. We either stayed in very close proximity to her, or in fairly close imitation of her: head up, long back, stepping out to attend to some proper business, wearing a very proper face. Of course this cheerful calmness was difficult for us, since none of us had the foggiest idea where anything was (and they probably moved it all around anyway.) All the street urchins could sense our confusion, gathering around to feed on our discomfort. But we were making progress, al-hamdul-lil-ah; we learned.

Dinner had been a little tense; it was the beginning of Ramadan and our waiters were counting the seconds until they could eat. The food was delicious, and assuming that their break-fast was prepared with as much care as out first meal, they were doubly right to be impatient. All the food we had in Morocco was good –some of it was divine — but much of it remained unsampled. Ramadan.

As our expertise grew, we took to making lightning swift raids on the local stores hidden down alleys: big bills make them nervous, know what you want (khobz, raibi, wa Sidi Harazem: bread, yogurt and mineral water), smile and stumble through it. Then go back to the rooms and eat in sin. Giddy, I dream about being able to wander around Morocco this summer, no Ramadan, I can eat my fill. (They have the world’s best ice cream.)

We were still walking around with our mouths and eyes wide open, trying not to miss a thing. After a day of timid wanderings (during which one charmer offered to sell me his cat, a handsome, well cared for beast who would not have been pleased at losing his position as top cat of the souk), we were ready for an evening of laying about and staring glassily at each other. Not to be. Morocco had arranged for the same band that had played so wonderfully the night before to return – plus the added attraction of a special friend of hers, Lahsen, a male tray dancer.

Lahsen dances the “shaba” style, dialect for shaabiya or country style. Intricate footwork, beaming grin, and isolation and balancing skill to envy. The tray spun and flew and twirled as if ether attached somehow to various parts of his anatomy or else powered by that Moroccan magic we’d come so far to see.

When Lahsen finished his astonishing show and put the tray gracefully on the floor, the music began again and he twinkled jovially at one of us an spun her up and onto the floor. It was challenge and response, with each dancer and each musician reveling in their skills and pushing the others on and on to wilder and brighter movements and rhythms. That song and the dozens following it, ended with most of us in a jumble of arms and legs exhausted on the floor. More and more. If we didn’t learn all the intricacies of Moroccan country dancing, men’s and women’s style, at least we did entice the hotel manager and half the restaurant crew into dancing along with us. If this was partying Moroccan style, we were converts.

The only reason we left Tangier at all (we’d still be in that marble and carved wood room dancing our tails off, believe me) was that there were Casablanca and Marrakesh yet to come. Divine.

The train ride to Casablanca was wild and confusing, overall exhausting and absolutely amazing. The procedure is to form up into a flying wedge, grab as many seats as possible and solemnly hold them against all comers. Then of course the train gets taken out of service halfway to nowhere in particular, and everyone waits for hours while some clever train engineer puts together another train. We examined the plants growing along the tracks: wild radishes, tomatoes, lambs quarters, thistles, something that might have been burdock. First experience with the squat toilet (rumor says it’s healthier for people to squat than sit, but I had on the wrong kind of clothes and made twice the procedure what with keeping the hems from brushing the wet floor and keeping everything balanced on my lap or my head.) tip the little bucket to wash everything down, drop things, pick them up, wash hands, no towels, wipe them on already wet skirt, then run to catch the train, terrified it will leave — we are at the mercy of a whimsical fate.

If Casablanca wasn’t a port city, and wasn’t a major transportation hub, perhaps no one would go there. It’s not particularly charming, rather more Western than most places, but this is not the comfort one would wish; it is Western in all those ways we find irritating in the West: busy, humorless, expensive (designer goods), bored and grumpy. It is a real business-as-usual sort of place, and we ate another astonishingly good meal right in the middle of the day, and nobody on those streets seemed to care so intensely about our Ramadan principles. We learned to argue about the price of postcards, carping over each dirham spent. Casa effects people this way.

Ramadan does make one change even in businesslike Casa: the downtown nightclubs were dark. Morocco dealt gracefully with the setback: taxicabs were conjured up out of the warm night air, and we were driven off to a club in the wealthy suburbs. The young girls there were in heat and Spanish lace, the men were suave with cigarettes and pots of tea; intense, sensual. There were a couple of men who crooned romantically into the microphone, a cabaret-style dancer who wore green popbeads and twirled a cane and was very young to be so old, a comedian modeling his delivery along the lines of “take my wife, please.” The schikhat dancers were a treat: high pitched wailing voices and curious rhythms tapped on tiny tom-toms, large swaying hip movements. They moved at one point to the edge of the stage for a bit of the zar dance, done for some Saudi men drinking tea.

They offered us te a Ia menthe and I kept thinking it wasn’t mint tea because it sounded like they said “lemon tea”, but a friend patted me on the hand and said to drink my tea and shut up, and it was delicious. We seemed to get intoxicated on it, which is surely impossible. Then we went to the bathrooms, which were another odd situation, the first stalls are for the men, the back ones for women. Fine. Okay. Moroccans are remarkably blase about physical fuctions. Sure, everyone walks around modestly covered and then takes a piss in plain view. Contradictions.

The train to Marrakesh was utterly surreal. We slept some, and read some, and gossipped some, and in between these small human pastimes we’d look out and be confronted with this vast sculptured barren land, red and orange, deep dim shadows rimmed in purple. And then, conjured up out of the emptiness, the red walls of Marrakesh: set like a jewel in the green of olive groves, the heartbeat of Morocco, the last major city before the Atlas and the Sahara. Marrakesh. This is the real place here.

Ready to drop from excitement, confusion and heat, we fell into our hotel rooms. Crickets chirping at sundown and a marvelous smell of turned earth, jacaranda flowers, and something with an edge: a breath from the desert around us.

The main square, the Djema’a El F’na, is the performance place for the gnaoua dancers, descendents of runaway slaves from central eastern Africa; they do leaping dances to the continental percussion of their large metal castanets called karkabas; around them are the snake charmers, and under umbrellas squat the shuwafas, fortune tellers. There are gadget merchants, orange juice sellers, basketsellers, fresh breads and some horrid pubescent boys: “Hey! Don’t you remember me?” and “Want guide?”

After all day poking into corners of the city we gathered our scattered wits and walked to the Es Saadi Casino, with a lonely little roulette wheel in the corner to account for its name. The star dancer is the owners’s wife, the highly respected and much loved Badia. She is originally from Tangier, and she used to dance at the Royal Koutoubia Palace supporting her family single handedly. She danced charmingly, but due to the tourist orientation even she had to throw in a couple sad extra bumps and grinds (which looked stupid on her elegant, graceful figure.)

Best of a bad lot (another night at the el Morocco Club show the cabaret dancer seemed to have someone else’s arms attached to her body.) But then you don’t go to Morocco to watch Oriental dance.

The Berber dancing, however, was always stunning in every context. We saw troupes of dancers performing in nightclubs, at restaurants, in the square. Perhaps the best part of the club acts were the flashy gnaoua dancers — they seemed less effected by the club atmosphere then the guedra and shikhat dancers, who seemed to only come into their own in the magical tumbledown palace, surrounded by the hundreds of tribal performers at the Marrakesh Folk Festival.

Our walks back to the hotel at night, or rides back in horse-drawn carriages, had the extra romance of streets filed with people, some studying for student exams under convenient street lights, others gathered around small cooking fires in the square, some performing, some simply sitting outside in the cafes drinking coffee and eating ice cream. So much so strange so fast so wonderful. We would “touch base” reverently at some familiar spot, assuring our selves that yes, yes, it’s not the end of all modern existence, this is a place we have been before.

The importunate street urchins who lurk outside the expensive hotels, the sharp-tongued taxi driver, the flat-eyed salesman not interested in bargaining with amateurs, they slowly took on familiar friendly faces. Bolts and bolts of cloth unrolled across the alley, sparkling, impossible to choose, we want it all, and then perversely filled beyond our capacity to absorb another pattern, texture, detail, we want none of it and long for the silly western foolishness of the swimming pool at the hotel. And a beer. There we’ll strut and talk English. And pause wondering at the wonders just beyond the door.

One evening Morocco gathered us all together very early with sacks of picnic dinners and we trotted off, a little school of happy ducklings, to the Badia palace. We waited with the storks nesting in the towers and battlements for the folklore festival to begin. Not all that many of the Marrakshis go to the festival since many can see these dances throughout the year in less formal situations. But for Westerners, and for the people who live in the outlying areas who come into Marrakesh to perform, it is a majestic and thrilling event. Hundreds of dancers and drummers and acrobats and caparisoned horses — stunning and romantic.

The guedra dancers filed out from the tents at the side of the huge rug covered stage. They moved to primeval drum beats; they were mysterious, potent, covered with their voluminous dark capes, and as they began to clap point and counterpoint a womanly magical mist seemed to rise up. The lead dancer, B’shara, is powerful, dominating the stage. Her hands and fingers flash rhythmic blessings on the crowd; then she passes the ritual necklace to another woman, who, kneeling and flickering her fingers, continues the blessing. . . It did not go on nearly long enough. A taste was all we got (and a desire to travel south to see the all night ceremony.)

The shikhat came on stage with a crash of color and high, ululating voices, tapping small ceramic drums and clapping, their hips rocking in a cheerfully sensual manner, they stomped and sang and flipped the almost Javanese ends of their dresses in long, brilliant arcs. We were fortunate enough to encounter them yet again up close in a restaurant where they enticed us up off the couches we lolled on, and gave us another rousing session of Moroccan Shikhat. It is exuberant, irreverent, and marvelously loose. Just the thing to get out all the underlying tensions of living or traveling in Islamic lands.

At the festival there were also many men’s dances, acrobats (many great European circuses have hired their acrobats from the ranks of these Moroccans,) horse performers, and marvelous local folk dances of the Kela’a des M’gouna, the Ahwash, the Ait Hadidou and many more doing virtuoso turns on the carpet covered stage.

We began to sense the special interconnectedness of dance and rhythm with the daily round of Moroccan life. A wonder-filled circle of feudal structures butting head-on with modern complications, graceful and uncomfortable by turns, the unfamiliar began to make a little sense — then all too soon it was time to go.

It was just a small introduction, a first acquaintance with Morocco, a touch of Islam, a nod to the grand Berber heritage of North Africa, and a taste, a smell, the faint throbbing sound of bendirs.