Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Shopping in Marrakech: In Which We Buy Some Things, Including an Education

The narrow, winding streets and alleyways of the walled medina of Marrakech provide an endless array of wonders and curiosities. Compared to many, this street is broad and straight and not at all crowded! There are many little alleys and paths that branch off and then twist and curve around. It's easy to get lost and disoriented, especially as there are often high walls on either side. It's fun to ramble around, not quite sure what you might stumble upon. We enjoyed several outings, looking at the interesting things available in the shops. We didn't buy much, as I'd heard that outside of Marrakech we would find better prices, but it was fun to look around.

Some of what we payed for was an education, and we learned quickly that it's always best to be clear about what you want and what the cost is up front. There was a little street where several vendors sold chunks of roast lamb. After tasting a sample, we were ushered up a couple flights of stairs and seated at a table. We assumed the man would return momentarily to ask us what we wanted, but instead he came bearing an enormous slab of steaming meat, a basket with several small, round loaves of bread, and a little dish of salt mixed with ground cumin to sprinkle on the lamb. Did I mention it was a large amount of meat? And that my children, with the exception of Peregrine, will not eat lamb? And that utensils were not part of the equation? The kids happily munched on bread while Erik and I dug into the hot, greasy meat with our fingers. We hardly made a dent in it, and kept wishing we would/could have communicated before he brought us enough meat for ten people! It was a costly lunch, around $35, probably more than we've spent on any other meal for the whole family here in Morocco. Ah, well... we learned something.

Olives? Yeah, they sell those here. All kinds of olives, olive oil, and other things preserved in jars. Also, lemons preserved in salt are a major ingredient in Moroccan cooking, and you will see tubs and jars of those for sale as well.

Slippers, slippers, everywhere, in every conceivable color. Some even have curled toes!

There were several places selling tiny baby turtles, and of course the kids were thrilled. The vendor at this one was trying hard to convince me to buy a turtle, telling me how he would provide a small box and food and that it would be "no problem" for me to take the turtle home the airplane. I told him it would be a problem when I tried to take the turtle back into my country. Without skipping a beat, he told me it would be "no problem" because this turtle was Jewish, not Muslim.  This, of course, is referring to President Trump's recent ban on immigration from several Muslim nations. Trump has come up in conversation with several different Moroccans we've spoken to, and it's been quite interesting to hear their perspectives. In general, I'd say they are much more able to see the bigger picture and not be reactionary. One man told us he thinks Trump is "strong, not crazy", but later said, "maybe a little crazy." What seems entirely lacking in their attitude is being offended. I was honestly a little concerned about coming to a Muslim country right now in light of everything that has happened recently, but the people have been nothing but friendly and hospitable, and are happy to talk with us without assuming our president represents our way of thinking.

The Souk des Tienturiers, or Dyers Markert gave me a little thrill, as it is where skeins of wool and pieces of cloth are dyed. I have forayed into some natural dying and am fascinated by the history and process of it.  "I am the souk of a thousand and one colors, but they come at a cost: the hard labor of the Sebbhagine dyers. I provide the weaving workshops with the yarn they need to produce all of the carpets you see in the medina. While there were once many dyeing workshops, now only a dozen remain. Prepared skeins of white yarn are brought here by their owners to the dyers, who weigh them in large scales. Inside, where small rooms serve as dyeing workshops, the dyers place the yarn in pots of boiling water. The yarn is then dyed using natural materials: wild almond for green, pomegranate peel or saffron threads for yellow, indigo for blue, and poppy for red. The skeins of yarn are then hung in other semidetached rooms in the dyeing workshops. After they are drained, they are taken out and hung on the old walls and trellises in the area, giving it its colorful design. The colors obtained are not always the same, with different shades being produced through the drying process. Stalls and workshops sell various handicrafts in the adjacent streets." (Text of a sign in the souk.) 

In one little courtyard in the dyers market we spotted a few felted goods, including some slippers. Erik and I both have wonderful, felted slippers at home and have never found any others that keep our feet as warm. We'd considered bringing them, having heard that Moroccan homes rarely have heating, but decided not to due to space constraints. After one night in our riad, we regretted not bringing them! We'd seen these slippers the first day and not bought them, so the second day we went out looking for them. We found the first place we'd seen them, and then found one other place nearby that had some we liked better. Still, we thought we'd look around a little more, so we continued on. We walked further into the souk and ended up in a little shop called Mr. Boho, full of handmade shoes and slippers. When we asked the shopkeeper if he had any felted ones, he said he could get some and ran off. We jokingly said to each other that it would sure be funny if he came back with the ones we'd just tried on at another shop. Sure enough, Mr. Boho returned a few minutes later with the very same pairs we'd tried on, and just happened to have a handful of felt necklaces I'd admired at the other place as well! These guys all seem to know one another and work together. We enjoyed a long conversation with Mr. Boho and left with two pairs of felted slippers and one necklace. Our feet have been happily warm ever since.

The metal lamps! Let's just say it's a good thing I'm limited in the amount of space  I have to bring things back.

Baby chameleons? But of course! And do my children want to buy one? But of course!

This beautiful, colorful square we came upon one afternoon was the first place we'd seen women selling their wares. It is called Rabha Kadina  and was once the site of the slave market, and later a grain market. Now it is lined with little apothecary shops selling spices, herbs, remedies, cosmetic items, oils, and potions. Apparently this is where the local healers and magicians come to stock up on ingredients, and I read that the little animals like turtle and chameleons sold in the apothecaries may be used as ingredients in traditional medicine, or used as sacrifices. I guess that would explain why they're sold in the apothecary shops.

Erik bought some menthol crystals to help clear up stuffy noses. Powerful stuff.

The textiles get me every time. Again, it's a good thing I have some constraints!

Black and white, or color? Both, please.

Snails, a local delicacy, seem quite the popular snack. No one in my family has wanted to try them yet.

All manner of interesting things could be found in the apothecary's shop- chunks of indigo, powdered dyes of various colors, licorice sticks, cinnamon bark, frankincense, rosebuds, argan oil, little clay pots of poppy powder that, when moistened, stain the lips red, chunks of kohl to line the eyes, terra cotta scrubbers to smooth the feet, "Moroccan toothpicks", and more.

Out and About in Marrakech

The flag of Morocco, bigger than life! 

“I believe that Marrakech ought to be earned as a destination. The journey is the preparation for the experience. Reaching it too fast derides it, makes it a little less easy to understand.”

― Tahir ShahIn Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams

I had originally wanted to save Marrakech for a little later in our trip, easing into Morocco a bit more gently. I looked for a place to stay further out of the city, but couldn't find anything that met the criteria I had. (Reasonably priced, room to spread out, access to inexpensive food, relaxing environment.) There were plenty of more expensive, "resort" options, but I didn't want to be stuck eating costly restaurant food. In the end, I'm the time we had in Marrakech was perfect, due largely to our stay at Dar Kalam, which was only a short walk from the action, yet quiet and secluded feeling. We were able to rest and relax, but also step out the door and explore. It was a good introduction to Morocco, and I'm glad we started there.

These men in colorful costumes hope you will notice them and buy some water to drink from the brass bowls they carry. All this and more you will find in Djeema el Fna, the main square in the Marrakesh medina. Apparently the show here has been going on for centuries, and while there are plenty of tourists joining the fray, it's largely Moroccans out and about. There are musical acts, acrobats, storytellers, snake charmers, sellers of all sorts of untold wonders, as well as food and drink. I found the square to be a bit on the overwhelming side. The first evening we were in Marrakech, we found our way to the square after hearing it was a good place to find supper. The food booths were arranged in two rows that faced one another, so we had to make our way down the "gauntlet" of hungry crowds mixed with aggressive hawkers each trying to convince us to choose their place to eat. Erik and I each held tightly to the hands of the little ones, while Peregrine and Poppy stuck close to us. Pressed on every side by the throng, we made our way down the line, first politely refusing the offers, and then matching their aggression with the force required to shake them off, sometimes literally. We emerged triumphant and still hungry, and ate at a little place around the corner where we gave our business freely and under no compulsion. I'm not big on crowds at the best of times, but in a new city, at night, and with my children, this is an experience I'd rather not repeat. We kept subsequent visits to the square limited to daytime hours and avoided the food area and the snake charmers. 

Of course there are taxi stands, where you can choose from a petit taxi or a grande, or you can wait for a bus to take you to your destination, but why would you when you can take a horse drawn carriage? Not just for tourists, this seems to be an enjoyable way for Moroccans to get around as well. My animal loving kids were thrilled to take a ride around the city.

Is it okay to text and drive if you're driving a team of horses? I hope so.

The snake charmers were anything but. They would cheerfully offer to let the children hold their snakes and then encourage mom and dad to take a picture. Of course we would expect to bestow on them a little money for this privilege, knowing it's their livelihood, but when they started hissing (figuratively) and demanding the equivalent of twenty dollars, we felt pretty taken for a ride! Especially when one man, as Peregrine protested, draped a snake around his neck and then grew angry with Erik for refusing him money. From this time we kept a wide distance between ourselves and the snake-y snake charmers, knowing not even to catch their eyes as we walked by. 
My stolen picture.... somehow I snapped this while Erik was wrangling over money with the other snake charmers. I'm sure fangs would have been bared had they noticed me.

We spent a pleasant afternoon strolling around the Bahia Palace, former home of a Grand Vizier. It appeared that no expense was spared, and he had all the finest craftsmen at his disposal for over a decade. The results are still jaw dropping. Everywhere one looks, gorgeous and intricate tiles, carved and painted ceilings, grand archways and pillars, courtyards, and gardens fill the spaces of the palace grounds.
None of these photos even begin to do the palace justice! Don't forget to look up, as  even the ceilings are designed to  delight and awe you.

This beautiful fireplace was surrounded not only by tile work, but with intricately carved built in shelves. Sigh. And those kids? I like them a lot.

Beauty, beauty, everywhere!

This building was the harem. It was hard for me to imagine how the palace must have looked when it was still inhabited. The buildings are mostly large rooms, some with one or more alcove rooms. There were no furnishings or draperies to hint at how it was set up. Apparently the Vizier had four wives and twenty concubines in his harem.

A magical garden to explore, like a fairy story!

An alcove room off of one of the large open rooms.

Beautiful tile work everywhere, this fountain was in the large garden.

A rare photo of the man behind the magic!

The cats of Marrakech. We were pleasantly surprised by how clean the city was, and there was a noticeable absence of the roaming street dogs so often found in many cities. The cats more than made up for it, and my kids had a very hard time not petting them! 

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

In Which we Stumble Into Ali Baba's Cave

We stepped outside our door in Marrakech yesterday morning, and after a nod to the mule on the left, looked straight ahead, down a narrow passage with high walls on either side. There a pair of men were working to paint or repair a set of massive, wooden doors. Curious, we thought we'd go over and look. The men smiled and beckoned us to come closer, then ushered us over to an unimposing open door at the end of the passageway. 
We could see more doors leaning against the walls inside, and I assumed they wanted to show us their workspace. We stepped inside.

Instead of a workshop, we came out into a huge, open room that immediately brought to mind Ali Baba's cave, filled with treasure. Part art gallery, part museum, hundreds of years of Moroccan artifacts and history are housed in this 16th century palatial riad. We were greeted warmly by Saeed, an American educated gentleman who had spent years working as a commodities trader in London. He is now helping to curate this amazing collection of antiques and art. 
Raphael was particularly fascinated with this compass. Saeed was happy to let him see it and show him how it works.

He happily spent the next hour leading us from room to room, down passages that opened onto more rooms containing untold treasures in this riad turned gallery. He let us take pictures, which is not a given, and enthusiastically answered our many questions as we wandered, in awe of all we were seeing. It was like a private tour of an exclusive museum.
This doesn't look like much, but the pieces leaning up against the wall  are one of the elaborate carved and painted ceilings that is hundreds of years old. Saeed told us they been offered half a million dollars for this piece, but aren't interested in selling. They have plans to turn this riad into more of an official gallery and museum and have spent the last year building a restaurant. This ceiling will go into the restaurant. 

He told us many collectors from around the world come to shop. Not all of the collection is for sale, and he said he has to feel the piece is going to a good home or he won't sell. Apparently some collectors will buy up items similar to those they already own and destroy them to maintain the value on their rare pieces! Who knew? Saeed told us that if he doesn't like the feel he gets from someone, he will put them off when they ask about a price.

I was particularly fascinated with the large collection of items from the Moroccan Jewish community that thrived here for centuries. Prior to the 1950s, it's estimated that there were around 300,000 Jews living here. Many of them settled here after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, and they lived peacefully alongside the Muslim majority. In Marrakech there is a Jewish Quarter where the architecture is different. From what I understand, there are few if any Jews left in this city, but there are communities remaining in Fez and Rabat. This was a beautiful, silver menorah. 

Saeed carefully opened this Torah scroll for us to look at. It's over 200 years old, and made of gazelle skin. I keep wondering how these treasures became lost to the Jewish community and ended up here! I imagine a lot was left behind when people left he country, but some of these are such special items! 

I don't know how old these are, but this is a set of Jewish wedding clothes! 

A beautifully embroidered Torah cover.
This was in a glass case and not the best picture, but it is a large leather satchel that was a Rabbi's bag. The stitches are silver!

This is another example of the amazing Jewish handwork. I believe Saeed said this was the belt that would be worn over a kaftan. He said the Jews are the finest craftsmen in the world! The stitches were beautiful and intricate.

Finally, so that you can look stylish and be comfortable while riding your camel, we have an ornate camel saddle for you! 

And stirrups. Don't forget the stirrups.

None of these pictures do justice to any of it, but I hope you can get a hint of the grandeur of it all!  Over the doorway and hanging down on either side was a heavy, embroidered tapestry. 

Here is a close-up of the embroidery! Can you imagine? 

Oh yeah, the Romans were here at some point as well. The Pax Roman and all that. There are some Roman ruins somewhere around here.
I could have stayed and asked questions and soaked in all of it for days. I couldn't figure out what these were, so of course I asked. The little pot is for ink, and the long part would hold the writing instrument. Saeed explained that the scribe would bring his tools of the trade along when writing up binding documents. Of course.

I am still in awe, marveling at the wonders we stumbled upon. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit with Saeed. He was entirely welcoming to our whole family. I love the attitude toward children in this country! I can only imagine my stress in a similar situation in other places, but it was "no problem" to let the children look and even touch. I'm so thankful for these unexpected and wonderful blessings!