Marrakesh and the Berbers — Strength in Humility

31st Day of the Omer — Compassion in Humility

On Friday we had about a 4-hour drive from Rabat to Marrakesh. (What would have been a 10-12 hour trip from Fez to Marrakesh was broken up for us by returning to Rabat for one night, where we’d been earlier in the week, and then taking a quicker route to Marrakesh.) On the way, our guides Michal and Seddik (Arabic for Tzaddik/righteous one) gave us interesting background on the land and mountainous regions through which we passed and the indigenous Berber peoples who inhabited them.

Countryside enroute to Marrakesh

Countryside enroute to Marrakesh

45% of the Moroccan population live in the countryside and most are subsistence farmers. Among that population are the Berbers. The Berbers (actually now a bit of a pejorative term since the French turned it into the word “barbarian”) are comprised of 243 different tribes, some Berber- and some Arabic-speaking. Racially, the tribes may look nothing alike — some may have dark black skin and some may look more Asian, like Mongolians. Of course, their customs would be different, as well; some may tattoo or veil themselves, others not. Until 1912, when the French came, each tribe had its own chief and organization. Since then, the tribes are not independent political entities but only cultural entities, as the French put an end to tribal divisions. By doing so, the French actually united the country and made it possible for future rulers to be “King” and not merely “Sultan,” which was the actual assignation before Morocco’s 1956 independence from France. For some, no doubt, the commitment to the tribe is still a stronger identity than the identity as a Moroccan citizen.

Berber is now an accepted language with its own alphabet. Berbers are known to be good businessmen with a strong work ethic — most little stores both in Morocco as well as in France and Belgium where they emigrated are Berber-owned, open 18-20 hours a day. The two big gas stations we have passed in our travels are OiLibya and Afriquia. Afriquia is a Berber business and its founder is now a minister in the government.

Later in the day when I successfully bargained a merchant in the souk/market down to about a third of where he started on the price of a purse, he called me a Berber woman. I asked him if he said that as an insult; he assured me it was a great compliment. I later asked Seddik, and he assured me that it was indeed a compliment.

One of the animals we have seen in the marketplaces is the turtle. Because the turtle carries its house on its back, they are good luck symbols for the home. When a new home is built (and every son of the Berbers builds a new house near his parents’ home when he marries, while the daughters leave for the villages of their husbands), a turtle joins the new inhabitants. Marrakesh is a corruption of the Berber words Amour Akoush, meaning “God’s land.”

The first thing we noticed when we entered Marrakesh is that the buildings are red, not white or beige as they were elsewhere, due to the different color of the clay, hence the nickname the Red City. We also pumped up the music on the song “Marrakech Express” (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) and learned about the hippie scene that used to take place there where marijuana was easily acquired. Now it is illegal though it still grows in the mountainous regions. Seddik told the story of a man who came on his tour once and asked to be shown the local jailhouse. At first he told Seddik that he was in the corrections business in the US and wanted to see how it was done in Morocco. He finally fessed up that he had spent time in that jail for drug possession.

Our first point of interest after entering the city and taking note of the red buildings was the new Starbuck’s that just opened on the city’s main drag, a very upscale and French-looking part of the city (where there are also a KFC and two McDonald’s.) The first historic sight, however, was the Old Ketubia mosque, used for prayer since 1062.

Ketubia mosque

Ketubia mosque

Since this used to a be a capital city and this was an important mosque, a royal palace used to stand right next to the mosque. The king/sultan was traditionally not only the political leader but the religious leader, as well, and had the prerogative to speak on Fridays in the mosque (a duty that modern kings have rarely — ever? — used, though, even today they are considered the religious head of state.)

This mosque is the same design as the unfinished one at the mausoleum of Mohammed V; there is also another identical mosque elsewhere in the country, as well. (It saves on architects’ fees, I guess 😉 The call to prayer used to be indicated by a flag that would be hung from the minaret, a white flag during the week, and a black flag on Fridays. But the muezzin no longer climbs the stairs all the way to the top of the minaret; the use of loudspeakers from the minaret now mitigates the necessity of the flag. (And the muezzin of today is probably no longer as in good shape as those who previously had to climb all those stairs 5 times a day!)

Our next stop was the old Mellach, the Jewish quarter, which was built in 1578. In the 20th century, 40,000 Jews lived in the Mellach. Today there are only a couple of hundred Jews in all of Marrakesh, mostly old and poor. Here is the Slat El Azama Synagogue in the Mellach which is still functioning as a synagogue, though we will be attending Bet-El in the new part of the city for our service this evening.


As part of our intensive introduction to Moroccan architecture, we learned to distinguish a riyad, a home with a central courtyard that is divided into four-squared gardens, and rooms off that courtyard. We visited the Bahia Palace (19th century), a classic example of a riyad.


Bahia Palace

Bahia Palace

Morocco had been a harem society. (Again, I refer you to the wonderful book I read by Fatima Mernissi’s Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, a very feminist take on the treatment of women in Morocco.) In some cases a harem referred to a man with multiple wives, but it could also mean a multi-generational extended family all living in one riyad, each couple being monogamous. Today 1,800 of those riyads have been converted into guesthouses; many of them were in the Medina/old city and the Mellach/Jewish area of the Medina. Entrances to a home typically make it impossible to see into any of the living areas; for instance there may be a winding pathway from the front door into any kind of living space. This was to keep passersby from seeing into the home, both to cloister the women and to avoid the evil eye, since people tried to hide their wealth which could incur bad luck. As a result, windows only opened into the inner courtyard, not out onto the street. The exception to this general rule was always the Mellach/Jewish quarter, where the Jews even had balconies out onto the street.

Terrace in Mellach of defunct synagogue (note stars of David)

Terrace in Mellach of defunct synagogue (note stars of David)

One of the highlights of our afternoon adventures in the souk/marketplace of the Medina was a visit to a Herboristerie or pharmacy. Unlike our American chain drugstores, these stores have shelves filled with jars of herbs and spices that get weighed out in grams. Some are cosmetic, some medicinal, and some for cooking. From “small doctor in the house,” small black seeds that one sniffs to alleviate headaches or respiratory issues (including snoring), to digestive herbs, to “Berber viagra,” to “magic lipstick,” to spices such as cumin or ginger, the pharmacy carries it all (but no Advil, Vicks, Jergen’s, etc.)

The pharmacy

The pharmacy

I mentioned my bargaining experience in the souk, but I didn’t mention all of the other activities that take place in the square (Djma El Fna Square) outside the market — from snake charmers to musicians to jugglers. To quote Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young:

I’ve been saving all my money just to take you there
 /I smell the garden in your hair
/Take the train from Casablanca going South
 /Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth

Colored cottons hang in the air
 /Charming cobras in the square
/Striped djellabas we can wear at home
 /Well, let me hear ya now

Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
 /Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express?
/ They’re taking me to Marrakesh

(excerpt from “Marrakesh Express,” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young)

Though I didn’t want to get too close to the snake charmers in the square to take a picture, I did get a picture of this monkey.

Monkey see

Monkey see

Note: This post should have been sent on Friday before Shabbat, to have preceded the one you received yesterday.

Note 2: I would also like to note that I am back home now, and that I had the wonderful surprise of having a young Moroccan cabdriver (from Casablanca) drive me home from the airport. I told him of all my adventures, and wanting to test his response, I mentioned that I had been on a Jewish Heritage tour. He was very excited and told me his father has a very close Jewish friend in Casablanca (this proved to me everything I heard about the close relationship of Jew and Muslim in Morocco. (In contrast, however, Wednesday’s New York Times had an article about an ADL survey of anti-Semitic views around the world. The article didn’t mention Morocco specifically, so I found the results of the survey on the ADL website, where it says that 80% of Moroccans harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. I will need to learn more about the survey questions and methodology before believing this survey.) When he dropped me off, I showed him some of my photos and he was very excited to see some of the places he hasn’t been able to visit for many years. I was equally excited by this unbelievable coincidence of meeting him and being kept in a “Morocco state of mind” for a bit longer. He was also able to give me advice on where to get the best couscous in NYC (go to Astoria, Queens!)


2 thoughts on “Marrakesh and the Berbers — Strength in Humility

  1. Welcome back Pam. Thank you for the wonderful blog which allowed me to live vicariously through you! Hope you are not too jet lagged…xoxoxoxo

  2. I’ve been reading voraciously (though not commenting until now) and wanted to thank you for bringing us along on the journey! I’ve seen a few photos of your group (posted I think by the CCAR twitter account) and it has been lovely to get these glimpses. Welcome home!

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