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Morocco – Outpost of the Middle East

  by Arline Inge

It was rush hour, that time when the city’s beating heart, the mammoth Jama el Fna city square, fills up with after-work shoppers and diners. Gateway to the two-square-mile Marrakesh medina, this monstrous space in the shadow of the city’s iconic Koutoubia minaret, is mobbed from morning to night. But dusk is when the rows of tented food stalls fire up their charcoal, and the snake charmer, the acrobats, the soothsayers and the Berber dancers get their second wind. Crowds of clapping and cheering onlookers form circles five-man deep around them all across the square. A Tuareg Blue Man from the Sahara beckons us to his blanket spread with medi-cinal bones and herbs. A henna tattoo artist squats among his paints and brushes, to trace a graceful pattern on a young girl’s wrist. A Barbary ape gnaws at his tether, and a beggar holds out cupped hands to us. It doesn’t take long to realize that this square is not theater for tourists; it’s really a slice of life.

The next morning, hungry for more, I joined the shoppers in the narrow alleys of the jam-packed souk lined with stalls selling everything from raw sheep’s heads to rubies. Hey, make way for that donkey delivery truck with the bathtub on its back.

Nothing could have torn us away from Marrakesh except the lure of the ancient city of Fez, sprawled in a wide riverbed a leisurely day’s ride north. Its own picturesque medina, with 20,000 people, no motorized vehicles allowed, is considered the oldest and best preserved in the world. And it’s a short drive west to the 11th-century city of Meknes and the ruins of Volubilis, the fourth-century Roman city that flourished here.

Fez is a city of craftsmen, with separate streets and districts delegated to each endeavor and product such as musical instruments, wool, jewelry, pottery, kitchenware, wool carding, carpet weaving, shoemaking, tent making, metalwork and a long list of others, tourists welcome. Two of the most extraordinary visits are first, the tannery, where you can watch the workers dipping the skins in giant stone vats of chemicals and colors in a scene from the Middle Ages. And second, the Nejjarine Museum of Wood, housed in a graceful building that is itself a masterpiece of the carver’s art.

The last chance for souvenir hunting came for us in Meknes, in the heart of the wine and olive growing country, where we scooped up last minute bracelets and babouches in Meknes’ mini Jamal el Fna. The city’s biggest attraction is the dizzying tiled tomb of the sultan Moulay Ismail, who was a contemporary of Louis XIV of France and vowed to make Meknes the Versailles of Morocco. Hence the intimidating arched city gates such as the ponderous Bab Mansour and the delicate palace Dar Jamai, now a leading museum.

Our grand finale was a step back in time at the ruins of Volubilis. Its triumphal arch still looks out over the fields that once fed this city of 20,000, and the miraculously well-preserved mosaic floors of its long gone villas still tell the myths of the gods.

Peer between the broken columns of the temple down by the forum and you can see what looks like a giant flock of white doves on a nearby hillside. These are the white houses and domes of the sacred town of Molay Idress, the first settlement in Morocco. The last Roman city and the first Arab city looking across the valley at each other.

The next morning, on our way to the airport in Casablanca, we stopped to see the country’s 20th-century pride, the King Hassan II mosque. It was opened in l993 on the shores of the Atlantic with room for 25,000 worshippers inside and 100,000 more on its seaside esplanade. The mosque’s 650-foot minaret is lighted at night, and lasers point the way to Mecca.

No, we didn’t make it to Rick’s Café, but we hear there’s another Rick’s in Chicago.


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