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Morocco past and present - life and customs

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Morocco, Past and Present - Part 1

I am currently avoiding the cold wet weather in Europe by living in Southern Morocco. Iíve been visiting this place ever since I was a teenager. It has changed, but then most places have. When I first came here with my wife we did in fact consider buying a property and settling. That idea was ruined by some nasty experiences we suffered.

One of the reasons we spent so much time in Morocco was that my school friend Rogerís aunty Mildred was a missionary living in Meknes, and one year, while we were still at school, we borrowed one of my auntyís cars and drove down through a freezing France, got stuck for the night at an even colder Andorra because the frontier there operated office hours and we arrived late at night. However, the temperature gradually warmed as we coasted down the southern slopes of the Pyrenees.

Although I was used to medieval Spain, the situation in Morocco was even worse. The change from Northern Europe in the late sixties to the way of life in Morocco was a culture shock in spades.

All the main cities were divided not only according to history and culture but by wealth. For example, Rabat consisted of the old Moroccan town, or medina, the modern French town, and the shanty town. Most of the main cities had considerable shanty-towns constructed from any old rubbish that was in any way serviceable, from cardboard to metal drums, and several thousand people lived in each of these areas. The worst agglomerations of these places were on the outskirts of Rabat and Casablanca.

In the countryside accommodation varied quite considerably. There were few houses in the sense that would be understood in Northern Europe. One village I visited consisted entirely of circular straw huts, and looked relatively prosperous. Another was invisible to the normal traveller because folks lived almost underground. Along the roads were people selling whatever was available, ranging from oranges to milk in recycled plastic drinks bottles, to cooked food, and chunks of sapphire.

Sadly, there was one other way to make money, and that consisted of throwing children under the wheels of passing cars and then demanding money for the damage done.

Every town had its quota of beggars. Some of these became state subsidised as water sellers. These folk used to sport a sort of Mexican sombrero with bells on, and they carried a little handbell, plus a goatskin filled with fresh water, and a silver saucer on a chain, which they filled for you to drink from.

Others, less fortunate, sought alms from the passers by. The most unfortunate of all were those missing limbs. Those with no legs sat on wooden trollies, and punted themselves around the streets and across the squares. Some people were covered in appalling sores, and had terribly damaged eyes, which, quite frankly, were enough to put you off your food for a week.

The women were all covered when allowed out. More often they were not allowed out at all. When I visited berbers in their tents the women were kept hidden behind a curtain, through which they peered at us lads, amid much giggling.

It was then that we ate the traditional foods. And that was another division within the social system: several different cuisines. French cuisine overlaid the modern state. The berbers ate tagines and couscous, while the citified Moroccans ate a mixture of the two. Sadly, what is now called Moroccan food is still that combination of citified Arab and Berber. I ate a rather nice tagine last night, but it bore little resemblance to what I remember from my days living among the berbers.

I returned to Morocco many times after that first visit with Roger. I even returned to Aunty Mildred and spent a month living in a berber tent with the family, ostensively to look after the goats. As a teenager I was up for anything, and I rather fancied the life lived close to the earth. It was very close. I slept on the earth. It penetrated my clothes, together with all the bugs and beasties that lived there. I ate food from the earth, and animals that had been ritually killed, which was usually only when we had visitors.

One of the important rituals, and there were many, was that a visitor who was staying the day was taken to view the livestock, and was invited to choose lunch. It would then be caught, slaughtered, and delivered to the girls behind the curtain. We later encountered it in succulent chunks laid among the other goodies on a mound of couscous.

After the first week my skin was riddled with bug bites, sores, and abrasions. I spent most of my life searching for biters among the folds of my clothes. Sleeping was painful. After a month, however, I no longer noticed the bugs. During the day I sat on a hillside watching goats. My brainís horizon equalled the horizon of hills of the Meknes countryside. During the night I ached and slept. After about six weeks of this I realised I couldnít stand it any longer, and ran back to Tangiers where I had my first bath for nearly two months. In fact I went to sleep in the bath. It was unbelievable luxury.

I later returned to Tangier and stayed in a friendís house on the Old Mountain. I walked into the city centre for breakfast, which became a comforting ritual, before going to the house of Barbara Hutton. I had been scooped up, as often happens to bums on the loose, and shepherded up to her eerie and asked to read to her. She adored my voice and the way I used to act out the parts in stories, and she had me reading the Pooh poems.

I quite liked the breakfast ritual. A group of locals would stand around a stall consisting of a big tub of boiling oil. Dough was kneaded, and then stretched out like washing, and dropped in small dollops into the oil. It was then tossed around with the aid of a long hooked wire. The clientele would order the family breakfast, which maybe consisted of a dozen of these doughnuts, which were threaded on a length of grass, and taken home.

One morning I spotted a variation on this, and it became my breakfast. One of the men in front of me handed the man behind the cauldron a couple of eggs. There then followed a curious routine. A dollop of dough was duly dropped into the vat and tossed around for maybe twenty seconds. It was then hoiked out and ripped apart. Another doughnut was similarly treated. The first was dropped back into the oil, one egg was cracked into it, and the second doughnut was locked on top to form an egg double-doughnut.

From then on, I entered the main square in the old town under the archway. Sitting in an alcove just inside the arch was a woman with two buckets in front of her. One was filled with water, the other with eggs. I ordered two eggs, which in itself caused a spot of bother because my Arabic was what they call classical Arabic, having been learned while I was living in Cairo. Moroccans speak a variant, and as ill-luck would have it, both the words I needed were different. ĎTwo eggsí in classical Arabic is hopelessly different in Moroccan.

Confusion over, she picked out two eggs, dropped them into the water to prove they were fresh, fished them out again, wiped them on a cloth, and I trotted down to the breakfast bar, gave them to the man, and ordered two egg doughnuts, which I then took to an adjacent cafe where I ordered a mint tea, and ate my breakfast.

Half an hour later I made the long walk back to my villa on the Old Mountain. Iíve liked Morocco ever since.

However, as I said at the start of this short excursion, things have changed. Iíll try to explain how in the next installment.


Morocco Part 2 >>>>>

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