Exploring Morocco — photos and tales from my travels
Some countries call.
For me, the pull toward Morocco was powerful. Heeding the call and seeking inspiration, ideas and adventure, I set off for three weeks. Along with the desire for discovery and gypsy wandering, that empowering feeling of having a backpack carrying all your basics, coupled with the whimsical ability to choose which direction to walk, my goal was to gather material for a few different articles I had been researching. After meeting with women’s rights organisations, I continued my journey with anticipation intensifying as I got closer and closer to the Sahara Desert. Morocco is the gateway between Europe and Africa. An eclectic mix of influences is apparent everywhere you go. It is a vibrant, inviting place. The people I met were interesting, interested, welcoming and warm-hearted. Whether it was offering a freshly baked cookie from a communal oven or extending an invitation to sit, drink mint tea and chat, Moroccans, at least the many I was fortunate to meet, have an openness and eagerness to connect that I will always appreciate and admire.
Starting in Casablanca, I did a loop, heading south to Essaouira, travelling inland to Marrakech, continuing towards the Algerian border to reach the Sahara Desert, journeying north to Fez and then spending my final days in the mountain town of Chefchaouen before flying out from Casablanca where I began my trip. Below is a series of micro stories and photo galleries documenting this journey.
All images © 2013 Gemima Harvey
A rough entry into an otherwise easy to navigate country. Even with wrists to ankles covered, I am some kind of spectacle. I quickly learn to abandon lingering handshakes from strangers and to nod politely in the direction of persistent calls while keeping my pace. But I also learn that being purposefully closed is limiting, apprehension shuts off our senses to the jewels of possibility that new encounters present. Soon I strike a happy balance. With sensitivity to my surroundings and restraint from blanket assumptions, I readjust safety-settings in each individual situation. For this, I am rewarded with interesting conversations, many of them non-verbal or a mongrel mixture of English, French, Spanish and Arabic, reaching for the few words of whatever I can muster from my language vault to convey meaning.
The cats are plenty, fat and happy. Gulls fly in circles above the port, squawks slice the thick salty air. From weather-beaten boats, fishermen unload the morning’s catch; sardines, eels and long silver fish are lined up in trays. As I am gesturing to a group of fisherman for permission to take their photo, a woman, only her eyes peeking out from a purple veil, approaches and wraps me in a bear hug, lifts me completely off the ground, puts me down, kisses my cheeks and then points to my eyes and gives a thumbs up, waves and walks off. I am surrounded by smiles. An amused audience. At night fall, mist envelopes the town, pastel haze hangs over the towering mosque minarets, a surreal effect. I am dreaming. A mesmerising melody pours from loud speakers and echoes throughout the medina. The call to prayer — ”Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar” — God is greatest.
The main square inside the ancient medina, Djemaa el-Fna, is playground for a spellbinding but overwhelming mix of snake-charmers, street performers and swindlers. This chaotic scene is completed by swarms of tourists. While buying fresh orange juice at a stand, a lady comes up, shows me her book of henna body-designs, insists I commission a tattoo and after being declined, she grabs my hand and proceeds to draw a dodgy, urgently-scribbled piece before I can pull away. This happens twice. Both times, I shell out a small sum for something I don’t want, wait for the henna to dry so I can use my hand again and kick myself for not being more forceful. Deciding I am too slow, or soft, for this fast-paced place, I am in and out, using it as a doorway to the desert.
Journeying to the Sahara Desert
Twinkly-eyed and mysterious in nature. The sons of nomads. From our vantage point, atop the highest dune, Hassan’s turban-wrapped head titled toward the starry sky, he exclaims, ”This is life”. And then we are up, hand-in-hand charging down the softly-lit mountain of sand. He has the most beautifully decorated home I’ve ever seen. A house of desert, a ceiling of starry sky. The amber sand rolls seamlessly into the night, making the sky seem closer, an ever-changing painting: disappearing sun, rising moon, shooting stars, vanishing moon, emerging sun. ”What has two horns when it’s born, then loses them but dies with horns?” Hassan muses. The moon. His ceiling light.
Each city has an ancient medina enclosed within crumbling walls. The medieval centre of Fez is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was founded in the 9th century. In its labyrinth of streets, you need hours to spend getting lost before you can even begin to become navigated. Late one night, three newly-met Spanish friends and I decide to take some of the smaller, winding streets and see where we end up. I smell adventure as the streets get narrower and narrower, some so tiny, only one person at a time can pass through. A boy of about 12 starts trailing us as we get hopelessly lost in the maze. People point us in different dead-end directions, hash-dealers call out to us, ”It’s strong like Viagra,” and we grow nervous as eyes light up upon our passing. We recruit our young follower to lead us back to the centre and as lanes get wider and wider, we let out a combined sigh of relief.
An enchanting baby blue town, tucked in the Rif Mountains. Chefchaouen was founded in the late 15th century by a mixture of Moorish and Jewish refugees, forced from Europe during the Spanish Inquisition. Coating buildings in shades of blue paint is a Jewish tradition that alludes to the power of God above. Peering down a white-washed and powder blue alley is like looking at clouds and sky. This tradition has been kept alive by the Muslim population who perhaps do it more for practical reasons — the indigo dye used in the paint wards off pesky mosquitos. My days are spent exploring the surrounding peaks, my evenings drift away at a mountain-top mosque, a perch offering stunning views over the old medina.