MOROCCO – September 2016

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Introduction

Our last trip to North Africa took us to Egypt several years ago. Morocco with its rich history and unique culture offered a new adventure. A stable government under its long standing monarchy with a recently revised constitution has brought large scale development and improved infrastructure, Western business investment and growing tourism, principally in the North.

Our tour provided a broad view of the country to include major cities, the Atlas and Rif mountains and the spectacular Sahara region. The town of Chefchaouen with its white and blue indigo buildings nestled in the hollow of two mountains provided a fascinating initial experience with its steep narrow streets. It was the end of Ramadan and we were present at the annual Aid el-Fitr celebration viewing thousands of Muslims at morning prayer in the town square and being guests of a family for the sacrifice of a sheep in memory of Abraham of the Old Testament  and joining in the meal.

Our visits to Casablanca, Rabat, Tangier and ancient Fes provided us exposure and interesting experiences in the Casbahs, Medinas, souks, Mosques and Kasars of Morocco’s fascinating cities. Our travel over the Atlas Mountains to the south took us from Erfoud to Ourrzazate. The spectacular dune landscape where we camped is unforgettable. A camel ride and visits to nomads and farmers brought to life what existence in this challenging environment has been like through the ages and what the people face for the future.

Our tour finale took place in Marakesh. The city lives up to its legendary reputation with its historic architecture and its vast Medina filled with interesting people and endless souks where all manner of metal work, jewelry, leather and textiles are on display for bargaining visitors .

Morocco has  forever been a bridge between the East, Africa and Europe. This ancient kingdom was influenced by the Phoenicians, Carthage and Rome but its real origins are Berber, Arab and African. About 2/3 of Moroccans are still today Berber in culture and language. Their origins go back over 6,000 years when they arrived in this land from the East and they have survived numerous invasions over the millennia. Islam was brought to Morocco by the Arabs in the 7th century. Successive Berber dynasties ruled this land for centuries thereafter and extended their control to the Andalusia area of Southern Spain. In the late 19th century, France established an imperial presence in Morocco leading to creation of a protectorate in 1912. Spanish colonial influence resulted in a division of the country into two zones with Spain even today occupying two cities on the Mediterranean coast. WWII brought US presence and support. After 1956 the French and Spanish domination ended and the Moroccan monarchy was gradually restored.

 

Daily Journal

This was our second trip to Northern Africa and Morocco and we were anxious to continue to learn about this country. We flew from Miami to Casablanca via Paris on a long but very comfortable flight with premium economy seats resulting in good night sleeps for us both. As we were descending into Casablanca the views out the window was of a patchwork quilt consisting of browns and greens. What a beautiful sight.

The Hotel Imperial in Casablanca, the former headquarters of General Patton during WWII, was  very comfortable. In the lobby we met our tour director, Mohammed Merri, and enjoyed glasses of hot mint tea and cookies. The mint tea was extremely good. We had read about this national drink and were curious to try it. After getting settled in our large and comfortable room, we met with Mohammed and the 6 other team members who would be on this pre-trip to Chefchaouen in Northern Morocco. Mohammed first requested us to call him Moha explaining that the first born male in a Muslim family is named Mohammed and calling him, Mohammed,  on the street would result in numerous men turning to us.

Moha reviewed our itinerary with us explaining that Monday would be a unique day for us. This will be the celebration of Aid el-Fitr where families gather to celebrate the end of Ramadan  and participate in the traditional attendance at the local mosque followed by the slaughtering of a sheep commemorating Abraham’s slaughter of the sheep in place of his son in the bible. We then remembered the many vehicles  carrying sheep we had passed on our way from the airport.

September 11  Our first stop this morning before we left Casablanca was to the Hassan II Mosque. This  building was begun in 1988 and opened in 1993. It covers 9 hectares ( 968,774 sq,ft) 2/3 of which is over the water. The immense prayer hall is breathtaking and can hold 25,00 worshipers while the outside square can accommodate many thousands more. It is the third largest mosque in the Muslim world after the mosque in Mecca. The cost of 600 million dollars caused great controversy to the people of Morocco with some extolling it as a permanent memorial to the King while others felt the money better spent for health and education for the people. Many Moroccans are still paying for this memorial in annual taxes.

 

We then  drove east to our guesthouse (Riad) in Chefchaouen. The drive was interesting with oleander bushes planted on the midstrip of the highway. We drove over a new bridge that is the largest in Africa at 100 meters in height. After a coffee stop, we left the highway and drove on a country road. This is an agricultural area where fruits and vegetables are grown as well as wheat and the crop which makes this area famous-marijuana. Hashish is the product from the pollen of these plantings  These plantings were visible from the road. Moha said that, although illegal, the authorities basically ignore the plantings since when they pull the plants up they are quickly replanted. We passed through many small villages as well as viewing numerous donkey carts.p1030710 At one point we drove by a Muslim cemetery where Moha pointed out a small white building where the body is washed and wrapped in yards of white muslin prior to the burial.  We found interesting the fact that the white wrap is called a “coffin”.

We stopped at a busy, small village where we were treated to a Moroccan barbecue. Minced beef, ground fresh as we watched, was mixed with onion, coriander and many other spices.  As the meat cooked on the grill, we observed  the chef preparing our first tagine. Tangines, found all over Morocco , are two piece clay pots .The bottom dish is filled with grains such as couscous and vegetables sometimes with meat while the pyramidal top covers the mixture while it cooks. This particular tagine consisted of peppers, carrots,potatoes and tomato. The barbecue meat, the vegetable tagine along with a chopped  tomato and onion salad was a delicious meal. Mint tea and green grapes were served following the meal.

We continued our drive along the Rif mountain chain observing forests of pine and eucalyptus. As we drove on we noticed many olive trees. We passed through a Jewish community. Moha told us that this was the northern portion of the Jews who were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition. Many of these people left in the 60’s and 70’s to go to Canada, France and Israel. We continued to  drive through areas populated with marijuana fields. Moha stated that this area has been seen as the drug capital of Europe since the 16th C. This is a socio-economic problem for this area since marijuana is the major crop grown.

As we drove through the small villages we noticed that the cafes were well populated with men but no women. Apparently the women are at home working while the men gather at the cafes.

We arrived in Chefchaouen at 16,000 feet elevation in late afternoon. This lovely town is called the Blue Pearl of Morocco. Much of the town is painted blue and white. We arrived  to an amazing surprise. As we opened the double doors leading into our Riad we all gasped. A long tiled walkway led through lovely flowering plants to a Moorish style home. Stained glass windows shone brightly in the afternoon sun. We walked upstairs , no elevator, to our lovely appointed large room overlooking the town.

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Before dinner we walked into the picturesque old town with narrow alleys and steep steps. The residents were preparing for the celebration of Aid el-Fitr  buying provisions for the feast.p1030461

September 12  The next morning we drove to the area overlooking the immense square outside the mosque. As we walked to the overlook we were passed by many men and their young sons dressed in the long, white jellabas and either open toed sandals or closed, pointed toe shoes open in the back. When we arrived at the overlook, welcomed by the police, we were astounded to see the large square filled with men kneeling on their prayer rugs as the Imam led them in prayer. A smaller group of women were gathered separately a ways away by a wall. We spent some time silently watching the assembly and marveling at the numbers of men attending this holy day of prayer.

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After this we drove on to a rural farm where we met Ihssan the young wife and her 4 month old daughter, Ziena. While we waited for her husband, Xan, to return from the local mosque we walked out to the garden and picked mint. Ihssan explained to us that the tea and water must be boiled before adding the mint otherwise the flavor is bitter.

As we enjoyed the tea we asked her questions about this rural community. There is a local school for elementary classes. For high school, children must go to larger communities where they pay for board and room. Some families rent a home for the children and mothers take turns staying in the home. Children are taught French as well as Arabic beginning in the second year. In the last 3 years of high school, student choose a tract either sciences, literature or language. Students must pass an exam to access university; however, few continue due to a combinations of grades and cost. 60% of Moroccans are under 30 years of age.

Imams are paid by the government and are now provided with a lecture which is read on
Fridays during worship. In Morocco, Imams are now required to have a degree in Islamic religion which is taught in Fes. In the past the Imam was “paid” with whatever the residents grew. All Muslims were required to give 10% of their earnings . Now the government pays the Imams.

Moha told us  about Islam. There are many different groups within the religion. Shia comprise about 10% while Sunni are 90%. There are 4 different groups within the Sunni. The Moroccans are Malachi Sunni. This group tends to be less strict but still follows some of the old traditions passed down from paganism.

The Berbers, of which Moha is a descendant, were the first inhabitants and are the 4th descendants of the Prophet.  There are 5 pillars of Islam that are basic to all groups: there is only 1 God, Mohammed is one of the prophets; each person should pray five times per day; each person should fast ( if able) during Ramadan; 10% of what one owns is given to the mosque and each person should endeavor to make Haj once during his/her lifetime( Haj is the pilgrimage to Mecca).

After a while, Xan returned from the mosque and we were able to ask him questions about the house and his village. He built his home during a 9 year period while he and his wife lived with his parents near by. He gathered all the stones and wood to be used in the home and then contracted with a builder. The home is very well decorated with white and blue paint and curtains.

There are 300 people in the village. Their government is an association of village members. After Friday prayers, the association gathers to discuss village activities. A representative is elected to serve in the government. Women of the village do vote.

We then progressed to the main event of the morning, the slaughtering of the sheep. Xan’s brother brought the sheep up from his home and we gathered outside the home to witness the slaughter. Xan and his brother held the sheep while his father slit the sheep’s throat with a sharp blade. The sheep was then skinned and hung where the liver was removed. The family will donate 10% of the meat to the poor and will then share the meat with family. No one can sell meat from the Aid slaughter.

 

For lunch we had the liver on the grill with garlic. Goat meat was served on skewers as well as fresh vegetables picked from the garden – beets, potato, cucumbers,carrots and olives. Followed by grapes. This whole experience was a memorable day that we will not soon forget.

After returning to the Riad and a siesta from the heat of the early afternoon, we walked into town. As we wandered through the narrow alleyways we observed many families gathered to celebrate the holiday. We were approached by some dealers of hashish but no hassle. We enjoyed dinner on the 5th floor of a restaurant with a panoramic view. Warren enjoyed bean soup and Marilyn had a delicious garlic and eggplant mixture with excellent bread.

September 13 Today we took a day off while the rest of the group had an optional tour. We spent a lovely, cool morning exploring areas of the town we had not seen previously. Wandering along numerous, narrow alleyways we conversed as best we could with very friendly residents and stopped for mint tea at a cafe in the square

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During our walk among the narrow alleyways and homes we were approached by an elderly gentleman who asked if we were Americans. We said yes and he began to ask us if this was our first trip to Morocco, how we liked his country and where we were going. We had a delightful chat with him. At the end of the conversation he asked us about our upcoming election. He forcefully stated that Trump would be a bad leader of our countryp1030577

 

After 3 hours we returned to the Riad for a lovely lunch at outside tables in the shade.In the late afternoon the group met with Fatima who had a BA in English and an MA in tourism. Her focus was the empowerment of women through education. She spends much of her time meeting with young girls in the countryside who have minimal education in one room schoolhouses and no opportunity to go to cities for further education. Most of the girls marry early. Girls in the urban areas do attend school for a longer period of time and have careers in government as well as business. In the mosque, no woman can be an Imam but beginning in 2015 they were able to give religious education.

Men as well as women are fighting for women’s rights. Women comprise 17% of Parliament and also serve in all levels of government.  Topics such as abortion, divorce and women’s rights are being discussed openly. There has been an increase in liberal ideas. The King has instituted a New Family Marriage Code. Men must now support women following divorce. If a Muslim woman marries, the man must convert. Muslim men can marry non-Muslim women. Even in remote areas, women deliver babies in the hospital . There is free contraception available for all women. In the countryside , women are constantly in the home. There is a small group of the population who continue to oppose women’s rights. Sexual relations before marriage is illegal and the individual will be not accepted in the family. Abortion is illegal except for rape, incest, deformity of the fetus or danger to the mother. There is no law that imposes the hijab[full length robe and head cover] on women although many women make that choice either because of pressure from the family or husband or her own choice. Women have three choices of clothing other than western – the burka which is the face covered as well as body; the hijab and the headscarf. There is also beachwear now available called the burkini. These are all shown below.

 

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Showing both the hijab(woman in lavender) and the simple headscarf
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woman wearing a burkina

 

 

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Burka

September 14   Today we left Chefchaouen to visit Tangier. As we drove along the Mediterranean, Moha talked a bit about Morocco. There are three primary sources of economic income: tourism which is 14% , mining and car manufacturing including Nissan and Fiat in Tangier. Morocco is divided into 12 regions each having financial autonomy. This is a positive change since money now stays within each region instead of going to the largest cities.  We passed Septa, a town on the Mediterranean still under Spanish control. We viewed numerous stork nests on the tops of buildings .p1030604 Along the road we saw many people walking and thumbing, Moha told us these were Sub- Saharan immigrants trying to get to Spain.

p1030612We stopped to admire Gibraltar clearly visible off the coast. We passed the Port of Tangier as we approached the city. This is an enormous complex which stretches for a few miles along the coast. This is the second largest port on the Mediterranean after Egypt. Quite a site.

After lunch, Moha gave us a task. He dropped us in the city and told us to find Cafe Hafa which would be up one of the steep hills. In order to find this spot we would have to ask directions of the local people. Although he told us to ask questions of women we passed we found that men were more helpful in providing us with directions. After a while we asked another gentleman who actually took us to the area of the Cafe. We then had to ask only one more person and were finally able to locate the Cafe perched on a steep hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.This famous cafe was opened in 1921 and it appears that little has been change since. The breathtaking view of the straits makes it a great place to sit, drink tea and relax. Many famous writers and singers have come here including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. It was a fun exercise and one we all enjoyed. Little did we know that Moha was trailing behind us to be sure we were not lost.

We then proceeded to drive to Cap Spartle,the most northwesterly point of Africa. The lighthouse dates from 1865.

p1030620 This road led us along many immense mansions of Moroccan, Kuwait and Saudi kings and princes as well as magnificent villas from the golden era of Tangier’s international fame. After passing by a  forest of eucalyptus, pine and cork oak we stopped at the promontory of Cap Spartle from which we could view the meeting of the Mediterranean and Atlantic Oceans. From here we drove to the Cave of Hercules. Here the sea has carved enormous caves where from prehistoric times people have gathered stones and quarried millstones for use in olive presses. Legend has it that Hercules slept here before attempting one of his 12 labors – that of picking the golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides.The tide was high and the waves breaking at the entrance to the largest cave were impressive.p1030625

We then checked into our Tangier hotel – the Golden Tulip – a large and impressive lodging. Dinner at the hotel was a meal of shark kabobs. Quite good. After dinner we decided to walk outside the hotel to explore the area with Sherry and Terry. As we left, one of the staff walked with us to point out places of interest. He took us to a large patisserie and coffee shop which was impressive but we were too full from dinner to try any of the offerings.

September 15  This morning we left Tangier and drove to Rabat to meet the rest of the OAT group who would join us for the main tour. After arriving in Rabat we walked to lunch where we enjoyed Panini Fromage at a sidewalk cafe which Moha called a snack shop. After walking about this lovely city we returned to the hotel to meet the rest of our group and enjoyed a dinner of red mullet.

September 16  Rabat became an important settlement after the Moors were expelled from Spain in 1610 by Philip III. They escaped from Spain and settled in this area which they called Al Magreb – the land of the sunset. Our city guide, Mr. Aziz, took us to the important areas of this city which is a World Heritage Site. We first visited the Royal Palace built in the 18th century where Hassan II ruled for 38 years followed by his son, Mohammed VI, the current king. At the palace we were able to see the Royal Guards stables which are in ruins but still impressive. We then visited the Necropolis which overlooks the water. The term “chellah” refers to the Phoenicians “place on water” and existed from 10-3 C BC. Archaeologists have found ruins of a Roman fortress. One enters through an impressive Almohad gate with a horseshoe arch flanked by two towers.  Through the gates are a series of steps leading to the Roman ruins and a spectacular view of the Bou Regreg valley. p1030641There are many legends of this necropolis one of which is the feeding of eggs to the eels located in a large pool. This act is believed to bring luck to barren women.

 

 

 

After visiting the Necropolis we drove to the Hassan Tower and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V. The Mausoleum was built by Hassan II in memory of his father, Mohammed the V. It is an impressive structure built in white Italian marble standing on a platform 11.5 feet high. Entry is through a wrought-iron door which leads to a stairway leading to the dome under which lies the sarcophagus of Mohammed V.

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p1030660The twelve-sided dome is built of mahogany stalactites. we spent quite awhile admiring this lovely building.

 

 

 

 

Across the large rectangular area is located the Hassan Tower and its accompanying columns intended for the prayer room of this planned mosque. It was planned and built by Yacoub el-Mansour, ruler of the Almohad kingdom, in 1196. Before its completion, el-Mansour dies and the tower and columns that remain are a clear indication that this complex was intended to rival the Great Mosque of Cordoba in Spain.

After this visit we went to visit the 17th century Kasbah. A casbah is a fortress built to protect a city. The narrow streets led by many lime-washed building probably built in the late 17th and early 18th century. We passed a street musician playing on a guitar like instrument. We stopped to listen to his pleasant tunes.

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After wandering through the labyrinth of narrow streets we  went for  lunch at very pleasant outdoor restaurant. Since this was Friday, Moha said that the traditional meal for all Moroccans was couscous. Marilyn ordered this dish which was served in a tagine with a chicken leg, carrots, squash and a large bed of couscous. It was delicious but much too big to finish.

We then returned to the hotel and we immediately left to walk to the Hawaii Cafe where we had a delicious espresso and pastry. Dinner was a special treat. We were greeted at the entrance to a long narrow street by an older gentleman in a Moroccan jellaba who guided us down the street quite a ways to the entrance to a restaurant.p1030683

 

Dinner consisted of the usual delicious appetizers of black and green olives, a mixture of tomato and onion and olive oil and bread; the entree was a collection of stuffed vegetables , quite pleasant. Dessert was followed by traditional Moroccan music. Great way to end our visit in Rabat.p1030684 p1030689

September 17 The next morning we left to drive to Fes. This city, the third largest in the country, is considered the historical, spiritual and religious center of Morocco. It has been deemed a World Heritage Site. This was a lovely drive through the Rif mountains which gave Moha time to tell us more about his country. In Casablanca as well as other cities we had passed large new apartment buildings which Moha called social housing. These apartments are available to persons who are poor and can prove they own no property. As we drove the landscape changed to hills with numerous olive trees and grape vines. The government is encouraging more agriculture and is importing olive trees from Spain. Persons who are interested in beginning agricultural pursuits are offered 60% of the cost of a truck and roads to plant olive tree plantations. Small olive trees are provided free for these individuals. There is no tax for farmers but independent companies must pay taxes. This system is still developing according to Moha.  Moroccans do not believe in loans although there are some individuals who will obtain loans. Mining and fishing industries are owned by the government.

We arrived at our next Riad in Fes. Riad Dar Dmana is a home in the Medina that has been turned into a small, friendly hotel. We met Rashid, the owner of the home with his family. He is 65 years old. The structure was built in 1600. In 1998 31 family members lived in the home. In 2008 they decided to convert the home into a Riad. It took 2 years to convert.  Each room was named for a family member who lived there. Our room, located on the first floor, was called Safae. We noticed the decorations around the windows and were told that plaster was mixed with marble dust and then carved into the intricate designs at the site.

 

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At lunch. we had a delicious dish which we would have again. It was served in a tagine with vegetables and meatballs in a tomato sauce and topped with an egg called kefka with egg.p1040587

After lunch we began our tour of Fes with our local guide, Heisham, who was born in the Medina in Fes. Both his father and grandfather were linguists and he had received degrees in English, ecotourism and history. What an excellent guide. He told us that the word Fes, reflects the axe which was given to the first settler of the city. The Medina- Fes mea-bali existed in 789. Within the souks in the Medina we visited a ceramic shop. Pottery is believed to be the first art craft created by man. The grey clay found here in Fes is more pure than terra-cotta or red clay found throughout. It contains no lead. The fuel used to heat the clay is ground up olive pits.  We observed many of the artisans working on designs. These talented workers begin at age 15 and serve an apprenticeship of 5 years. We enjoyed our visit to the factory and purchased some products.

We had another unique dinner this evening. Pastille is a dish made from phyllo dough filled with shredded chicken, egg and almonds and then covered with sugar and cinnamon.p1030729This was quite unusual and enjoyable.

 

 

 

 

 

September 18 Today we visited the Jewish quarter in Fes which is found within Fes el-Jedid built in 1276.It was the administrative centre of Morocco to 1912 and the French protectorate. The Royal Palace or Dar el-Makhzen, is a magnificent palatial complex surrounded by high walls. The massive main entrance is composed of three doors covered with intricately carved brass in a geometric pattern. The doors are permanently closed. The King of Morocco stays at the palace when he visits Fes.

 

 

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Outside the walls of the palace we visited the Jewish quarter. Jews came to Morocco in 249 AD for trading. Overtime many stayed and built the community. Many Jews who fled Morocco are returning to invest in property from the past. we visited the Aben Danan Synagogue built by a family from Andalusia. This is both a religious and legal center. This is a Sephardic Synagogue which follows the practices from Iberia in Spain. p1030758It is believed that the first Jews came to Morocco at the time of the early Phoenicians. Here was located the first of many Jewish communities in Morocco.Jews and Muslims lived peacefully together over many centuries until the French Vichy government’s take-over during WWII.

Walking through the medina we stopped at a psychiatric hospital established in 1286. The physicians in this hospital developed 24 musical rhythms for each hour of the day which were played to the patients. This was the beginning of music therapy. Our next stop was the university. Heisham explained to us that everyone at the university is considered a scholar. A professor should describe himself as “I have a chair in the department of philosophy”. Along the walls of the narrow alleys we noticed nail heads. These are locators for the blind – the spacing and shape of the nail head provides direction to the blind person. Flowers by a doorway signifies that someone inside is ill or a new baby is within – a sign to be quiet in the area.

Mohammed began his teachings to both men and women. In 859 the first university opened. Students had to sit for an exam before entering. The rich payed an endowment but the poor did not pay. Within the university we marveled at the carvings. Again this carving was completed in place after the combining of plaster and marble dust was applied to the surface. No representation of living creatures was allowed.p1030802
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Continuing our walk through the medina we passed through the carpentry area. Here all types of woodwork was being performed. We admired elegant wedding chairs which were on display.We were told that couples will rent these chairs for their wedding reception although we could not imagine anyone lifting the bride up in these enormous seats.

After walking through this area we went to lunch where we had delicious chicken tagine with lemon which was becoming our favorite dish. Golden melon which we had seen all along the road and in the market was for dessert. This melon tastes like a cross between honeydew and casaba and is delicious.

After lunch we went to visit the tannery. Tanning leather has been a craft here for over 1200 years. Many of the workers are second,third and even fourth generation workers. Sheep’s leather is first soaked in lime and water and then in pigeon’s droppings. We saw the cages where the pigeons are kept. After this the leather is washed in olive oil and water  for 5-6 hours. The solution is changed every hour. The leather is then put on the roof of the building to dry.We visited the showroom where we felt products made from goat skin and camel which is the safest leather. Some of our group purchased beautiful leather jackets.

After this visit we traveled to a former caravanserai, the building built for the caravans in early times where they could stop and rest overnight before continuing their trip.
This building is now the headquarters of weavers who produce beautiful silk products from agave plants.

In the evening we were divided into groups to participate in a home hosted dinner. Our group of four was hosted at the home on Amina and her daughter-in-law Samia who was three months pregnant with her first child. p1030818 We had a lovely meal beginning with Harira Soup, the traditional Moroccan soup. Lamb tagine with a variety of condiments was the entree. Dessert was again the delicious golden melon. We had a lively discussion with Amina about the current king and the changes he has made in the country. She was quick to commend him for the housing for the poor that has been built and his support of women’s rights. Amina agreed with what we had heard previously that women  have the opportunity to seek careers in and out of government.

September 19  Today we took an optional tour to Volubilis which is considered the most important Roman archaeological site in Morocco.  This site covers an area of 42 hectares only 14 of which have been excavated. The excavations began by the French in 1915.The site was first inhabited in the first century BC.Among the ruins which we explored were a room with mosaics representing an aquarium and a reception hall with the image of Orpheus. It is believed that the town had a population of 15,000. We also observed an oil press made of basalt. Some ruins believed to be from about 218 AD included a sacrificial altar, a temple and a basilica. This is noteworthy since there are only 2 basilicas of this era unearthed. One here and the other in Libya. The mosaics continued one of an acrobat which is the original mosaic( not restored as were some), one of Helas, a friend of Hercules trying to steal the sacred water and one of Diana in her bath receiving water from Pegasus.

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After the visit to Volubilis we visited Meknes where we observed the magnificent Moorish buildings.This imperial city began its rise to fame in 1672 with the reign of Moulay Ismail.This ambitious king robbed the ruins of Volubilis including marble columns and statuary as well as building gates, ramparts, mosques and palaces. He enclosed his city within a double set of defensive walls. He was determined to make his city the “Versailles of Morocco.  He ruled for 55 years and built a powerful military many of which were pirates capturing Spanish and British seamen who became “white slaves”constructing his many buildings. Some historians have described or explained the piracy as revenge for the expulsion of so many Moroccans from Spain. The term Barbarry Pirates referred to the Andalusian people expelled from Spain to Morocco. It is said the Europeans countries paid ransom to take back Ismail’s prisoners.

p1030897After lunch of beef with prunes tagine, we met Abdullah who was to be our guide to the town. In 1999 UNESCO named Meknes as a World Heritage Site. Abdullah showed us the underground prison where prisoners were held. During the day they worked on the King’s buildings before returning to the prisons at night. The Kasbah included the royal palaces. There are still today miles of walls made of adobe clay surrounding this city. Presently there at 1,000,000 resident in Meknes which is known as the agricultural center of the country. The best olives and grapes come from this region. We visited the immense granary where enough  barley, wheat and corn were stored to support the residents of the palaces for 10 years. In the stables there was room for 12,000 horses. Within the palace were 10,000 black slaves,and 5,000 concubines .p1030898p1030906

On our way back to Fes we passed many acres of olive trees as well as grape vines, peach and almond trees. Once we arrived back in the city we began observing groups of three uniformed men walking together – 2 were military with rifles and 1 was local police. Moha said that ever since the Paris attacks these officer patrol the city streets. Dinner this evening was a treat. We walked through the souk to the Clock Cafe, a very pleasantly decorated cafe where we were ushered to a separate area for our group. Since we were still quite full from lunch we had a light supper of Hariri soup and glazed dates. p1030937A birthday cake for Paul was dessert.

September 20  Today was a very long, eight hour drive south over the Atlas Mountains As we drove into the Middle Atlas we enjoyed the heavy, green foliage. Before we reached the mountains we again saw many olive, almond and peach trees. As we drove into and up the Middle Atlas into cooler weather we reached large areas of apple trees and green oak forests. This area is know as “Little Switzerland” and is the water source for the valley. As we drove through the forests a group of Barberry Apes were crossing the road. What a treat to see this group of local macaques.p1030946

As we drove higher into the High Atlas Mountains we encountered rocky, bare terrain and began noticing herds of goats and sheep with their nomad herders. We stopped at a home of a Nomad whom Moha knew. This stone foundation structure  and surrounding pens is a year round home for this family. This family is provided a home by a Moroccan corporation which does not pay them a salary for caring for their goats but shares the new borns with them. The owner supplies tea, grain and olive oil to the family. The wife makes bread daily and cares for the new born kids. They save and bag the manure which they sell. They shear the sheep and give the wool to the owners. The herder brings the livestock back to the pens at night or noon depending upon the forage available. Newborn lambs and goats are kept at the hut until old enough to join the flock. This was a most interesting visit although we all realized what a lonely and difficult life these people live.p1030956

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We asked Moha about how the nomads meet other nomads to marry. He described a marriage festival which is held every year. This is not a marriage market but a way for the nomads to gather together and make agreements to marry and where they can register. We stopped in Midelt for lunch. This rural town is on the border between the High and Middle Atlas. The Berber women here have learned the craft of weaving and embroidery which ensures an income for their families from tourists who visit here in preparation for tours of the mountains. This is a mining area for cobalt, zinc and semi-precious stones as well as an agricultural area for apples.

We then stopped at a farm where we had a chance to speak with the farmer, known to Moha, and see his plantings of white beans, potatoes and apple trees. We left with bags of fresh apples.

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We continued our drive through a mountain pass and viewing a large reservoir controlled by the army and used to irrigate the surrounding fields. We were driving toward the Algerian border which has been closed since 1994. We then moved through the Ziz Valley with very steep and winding roads leading down to gorges. The houses which line these narrow roads are connected to each other along  covered alleys which  keep the area cooled from the searing sun. Terraces on the roofs are covered with drying dates. This area reaches 50 degrees C.  ( 130 degrees F.) during the summer. The entire valley is filled with date palms. Along these roads leading into the desert are fences woven from palm leaves to stop the sand from blowing onto the road .This was our last night before entering the Sahara. We stayed at a beautiful Cherqui Desert Hotel where we enjoyed a buffet meal and then melon with cream and yogurt for dessert – a great way to serve melon.

September 21  We then reached Erfoud , the center for date palms and fossils and our jumping off point for the Sahara.  We visited a fossil factory where we were introduced to the process of cutting and polishing fossils. This was a very interesting stop where we saw large tables, counter tops and elaborate sinks constructed from slabs of fossils. We also learned about the fossils found in this region called the Anti-Atlas mountains where in 1960, rich fossil beds were discovered. Originally, the Moroccan Sahara was a large prehistoric ocean formed in the Devonian and Cambrian periods, 500,000,000 years ago. As the sea began to disappear algae and marine animals died and sank to the bottom. Sedimentary rock encased and preserved these fossils. By 1970, this area was known for its rich fossil beds. These beds are especially important for squid,trilobites, nautilus and starfish. We learned that a diamond blade is used to cut the piece and then water and sandstone are used to polish it. The resulting stone is stronger than marble. The final step is to again polish with a compound and sheep skin. what an interesting visit.

On to a market where we bought a 1/4 kilo of dates which we enjoyed immensely. We then traveled on to a small fortified village, Ksar, where the walls are constructed of adobe as are the small homes. A man dressed in traditional garb greeted us outside the village.p1040272

 

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Here we met Nisha where we were welcomed into her 2 room home which she rents from a friend. p1040328

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We were first welcomed with mint tea. Her husband performs day jobs; he had worked in other cities but now he is here. She has 5 children. She told us that her daughter has just married and moved to the coast with her husband. She stays in touch with her cell phone. Nisha talked about their efforts  of  saving to go to Mecca. Every country has a quota of persons who can go each year. Morocco can send 30,000 from the over 30 million in the country. There is a lottery to choose those eligible to go. Their rent costs $15.00 per month and electricity is also $15-20 per month. They get water from a well. Cellphone costs from Samsung are $15.00. The ages of her children are 11-18. There used to be 100 families in the village now there are only 12. Her favorite food is couscous. She is 44 years old and hopes to be able to let her children go to the University. She gets help from  the government for their education and a free lottery for housing. We noted that she was wearing 5 layers of clothing on a day that we were all quite hot. She said this is what she has worn since childhood. This was a new glimpse into the life of a woman living in these small villages.

We then boarded 4 wheel drive Toyotas to drive to our tents in the Sahara for the next three days and two nights. Our 1 hour drive took us deep into the Sahara with many journeys up and down sand dunes and bumpy surfaces. We arrived at our destination in time for lunch. Our tents are laid out in a rectangle with the dining tent is at one end. Our tent, next to the dining tent, is comfortable with a double bed, two chairs and a toilet and shower at the end. The ceiling and walls are a colorful fabric.

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Lunch began with platters of olives and salads of carrots, aubergines and glazed onions. We next enjoyed hamburgers and french fries to everyone delight .

After lunch we visited a date farmer. This summer has been the hottest since 1980. He has a very poor crop of dates. He has 150 trees of 5 different types of dates. He must contend with sandstorms as well at the heat and lack of water. Sandstorms can bury a tree. He pollinates by climbing and adding pollen to the female flowers. Wind and a decrease in bee population has decreased the pollination. Dates ripen from August until October. It takes five years for a date tree to produce dates. He told us there is a drought all over the area. He has developed a very ingenious well and reservoir system which he demonstrated to us. He is able to send the water 8 meters through his property. He also has pomegranates, and a cotton plant. He uses manure for fertilizer from both chicken and goats and has planted eggplants and corn. He showed us how he puts the dates in bags and beats them until it is a paste. This will last for 2 years. This visit gave us some insight into how resourceful this gentleman is. We hope he is able to survive this difficult year.p1040087

 

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September 22  This morning we had a camel ride for over one hour. Unlike our previous rides in Egypt and northern India, this ride was over very steep terrain. Although exciting. Marilyn has said that this was not an enjoyable ride. Warren had a more positive experience.p1040112-version-2

 

After our ride we went to Khamlia, a remote desert village. It  is noted for music brought by slaves to the region. We experienced this spiritual music played by a group of gentlemen using primitive instruments as they sang and danced.

 

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We then drove to a cemetery in the desert. Moha described for us the burial ritual of the Muslim people. There is no cremation. Within 24 hours the body must be buried. If the burial is taking place in a village, the body is carried by the men of the family as well as local men to the mosque. There is a prayer at the mosque and then to the cemetery. No women take part in the burial. The body is taken to a small building at the cemetery where it is washed{by a woman if female} and wrapped in white fabric. The body is then buried underground on its right side facing east. One stone is place vertical and one stone horizontal if the body is female ; if male both stones are horizontal.p1040144

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Welcoming us with tea

In the afternoon we visited a nomad who lived near our camp. He welcomed us with the usual mint tea. We sat under a large tarpaulin tent made of camel and goat hair while Omar talked to us about the life of a nomad. p1040160He, his wife, son and 5 year old grandson greeted us. His grandson was quite shy and appeared to be quite terrified of these different looking people. Omar has stayed here for the past 6 years. He used to go back and forth over the Algerian border with his herds of goats and sheep. Since the closing of  that border life has become much harder. His  income is from sales of his sheep, goats  and camel. Some of the family members now work in the village. This is not the life he used to have and he said to us that he”only has a taste left of his earlier existence”.p1040099

We asked him about his daily life. His breakfast consists of bread, olive oil and tea; lunch is bread and dinner is vegetables. He has no government assistance. Market day is the best day since they have fresh meat. They enjoy celebrating Aid with other nomads even though it is expensive. A sheep is selected to be slaughtered 2-3 months ahead and is given extra food to fatten it up. If they prove to local authorities that  they have no income or land they can get a health care card although they must wait months for any surgery. Omar only speaks Berber. He verified what Moha had told us about the attitudes of city dwellers towards the Berber people. They are considered illiterate and less capable than the Arabic speaking groups. Moha had told us how difficult school had been for him and how rejected he had felt by the other students.

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Omar’s son

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After this visit, we went to an area to search for fossils. The land here is basically a basalt shelf where we could chip rocks and search for signs of fossils impeded in the rock. We did find some minor examples which now are displayed on a shelf on our patio.

In the late afternoon we gathered in the dining tent to discuss Islam with Moha. He is quite critical of the current educational system where students are not encouraged to question or think. Currently there are some questions being asked including who gave the Imam the power to interpret the Koran.  Moha stated that he feels that Islam is a dogma that encourages the believers to follow something they cannot prove. He said that Islam is the result of Judaism and Christianity, the first 2 religions of the people of the Book.  There is a sect called the Koranic sect which is asking questions about the Koran. The Sunni and Shia sects came after the death of Mohammed. The Sunni are comprised of 4 parts – Morocco follows the Malachite group which follow Mohammed but are not strict. The Koranic group does not believe in everything the prophet preached. One question is whether Mohammed was acting as a prophet or as a man. They believe there are contradictions in the Koran. They believe that new rules can be made to fit the new society.The Berbers are now more religious than the Arabs. Moha also stressed that Mohammed was illiterate, he was a shepherd who spoke to his followers and his words recorded by others.

In the evening we enjoyed Berber pizza cooked on the clay oven and then listened to a drumming performance by the staff around a campfire.p1040184 We continued to marvel at the stars here in the desert where no lights interrupted their brilliance. The Sahara is a marvelous place. Each view of the sands is different. Ripples from the wind offer new images while the light on the dunes is constantly changing. It is well worth tolerating the heat,flies and sand grit to experience the unique landscape and life of the Sahara.

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September 23  This morning we left the tent camp at 8:30 boarding our 4 wheel drive for the last time traveling back to Erfoud where we boarded our bus.p1040196  On the way out on the bus Moha continued talking about the prophet, Mohammed. He was a man of many roles: spiritual leader, military leader, husband and shepherd. His words need to be interpreted depending upon when and where he was speaking. At first he was not a popular leader and was driven out of Mecca where he ran to a Medina with a few followers. He then began his preaching and gained followers as he moved throughout the region.

As we drove along the road we noticed mounds which were part of an old irrigation system with wells connected underground. Each well was 10 meters apart and 20 meters deep. We stopped to inspect one of the old wells which is opened for inspection. a modern system of irrigation pipes now replace this ingenious ancient method.

We stopped to visit a Berber Museum filled with artifacts from the previous centuries. One area showed the method of making ink. sheep and goat hair was gathered and burned. Then this charred ash was mixed with oil and using a sharpened reed a student could write on a wooden tablet.

We continued driving through the anti-Atlas Mountains where the area is a flat, desolate desert. We passed check points where police will check that drivers have the requisite papers including inspection of the vehicle every 5 months. Buses have a device  which records the speed of the bus and can be checked by the officer. We passed by the largest silver mine in Africa. There has been great protest against this mine which uses large amounts of water in the processing of the silver and then is dumped into the land. This waste water apparently has been killing sheep. There is no information from the government on the amount of silver taken from the mine.

We moved out of the desert and began seeing almond, olive and fig trees. We stopped in Rose Valley for a delicious espresso. This valley produces large amounts of small, pink roses in the early summer which are shipped commercially.

We then learned about “Green Morocco”. Persons who wish to participate in this project either own large portions of land or lease the land for 99 years from the government. Owners are given small trees for free and can receive up to 80% government financing for a truck or other needs. An engineer is sent from the government to inspect the property and decide what trees will grow well in the area. Climate change has a real, negative affect in Morocco with less rain and increased heat which is causing the desert to expand.

We also passed the largest solar platform in the country which is as big as the city of Rabat. The country is guaranteed 300 days of sun per year. Previously the government combined solar and a special liquid in pipes that produced steam which then turned large turbines producing electricity.

We arrived in Ouarzazate(where’s it at) and our hotel in late afternoon. Le Berber Palace is a lovely hotel in the center of the film industry in Morocco. The hotel is filled with Egyptian statues used in films such as Cleopatra. The town has schools to train local technicians of all types used in the film  industry to encourage the movie studios to come here to film.

September 24  Today we visited Ait Benhaddou which is a picturesque ksar with amazing views of the surrounding valley. The word “Ait” means son of . We met a delightful young man, Mohammed, who will be our guide to this village. He is 31 years old with 3 sisters and 4 brothers. He is married with a 26 year old wife and a new baby.p1040332 p1040342
There are 120 families in the upper village ; 1/2 work in the city in the movie industry and 1/2 work in the fields. Mohammed appears as an extra in films. Usually women work in the fields and the men work in the city. The first 6 years of school are here in the village. Then the students must go to the city. There is a small hospital here in the village but any serious illness must go to the city. Mohammed was an amazing young man who speaks 4 languages and has an excellent grasp of the needs of the village. He is extremely sensitive to the fact that he has a very limited education and became emotional when speaking with us about this lack. Mohammed told us that previously one had to ride 3 kilometers  with a donkey to collect fresh water. Now, due to a project of the Belgium and Moroccan governments, each house has fresh water. We toured the fields with Mohammed where we observed one of the women cutting alfalfa. Some of the group tried their hand at this task which is more difficult than first thought.

Across the valley are the ruins of the old town where these residents previously lived.p1040347

We next visited the  Imik Smik Womens Association for Rural Development. This association was developed in 2012 to create workshops and programs to teach women cooking, reading and further their education. They have a small shop where they sell cookies and couscous to the villagers. We had a lively discussion with three of the women who spoke quite a bit of English and were glad to talk with us.p1040349 Moha said that a year ago these women were so shy that he had difficulty having them interact comfortably with a group. In 2012 the idea began with these women when they realized that girls had to go to the city for training in marketing and handcrafts. This group gives the women “space to breathe” as they told us. This effort provides a small amount of money for each participant after expenses are paid.p1040350 They began with pastries and then branched out to bread and then couscous. Because homemade couscous takes a long time they developed the opportunity for some women to work at home. They also raise sheep and give away the lambs. They are also making carpets, crocheting and knitting. They have started the relationship with the Grand Circle Foundation which will help them to secure a building of their own and further their growth. There are currently 35 women who belong to the organization. In order to become part of the group the woman’s family, meaning father or husband or uncle must allow them to participate. Three of the women are married and their husbands are very supportive.Everyone in the village buys their products. There are some men in the village who feel threatened by the association and have refused to provide them land on which to build a free standing center. They said to us that change comes slowly and they look forward to growing and being more accepted by the men in the village. One woman is the treasurer and pays all the expenses while maintaining the finances. Every 4-5 months she divides the remainder of the savings to the participants. They laughingly said “the men don’t know what we earn. There is a bank in the city where they can open savings accounts.

After our most interesting discussion we broke up into two groups and were taught how to make couscous  and the delicious cookies which they sell. After this we had an excellent lunch with the women where we marveled over the delicious homemade couscous – better than any we had tasted while in the country.p1040352 Many of us also enjoyed receiving henna tattoos after lunch.

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This evening we went to a local restaurant owned and run by a Frenchman.  This was an amazing meal. It began with a salad plate unlike the usual collection of appetizers; we then progressed to the entree of monk fish with cream sauce, cheese and leaks. Absolutely delicious. We continued to enjoy excellent Moroccan red wines.

September 25  Today we had our second very long drive through the High Atlas Mountain passes. Along the way we were stopped for sometime as a rock slide was created from construction higher up the pass. We asked Moha to explain to us the rationale of “honor killings” in the Islamic culture. If something happens to a sister or daughter such as a pregnancy, rape or kidnaping that act affects the male members’ honor. The girl is rejected by the village and may be killed. We also tried to understand the term “jihad”. Moha said that this is very much misunderstood by many. Jihad means to make an effort to change. It may be to make an effort to change oneself or to change someone else who is doing  unacceptable activities. It does not mean to kill.

 

After another long day we arrived in Marrakech. This city is the second oldest in Morocco from the 16th century. It is a tourist center with a population of 1,000,000. We enjoyed lunch on the terrace of our Riad Bahia Salam. In the late afternoon we took an orientation walk to the center of the city which was very crowded with both locals and tourists.  We enjoyed dinner at one of the restaurants in the square where Warren had Hariri soup and Marilyn had lemon chicken tagine again. During dinner we enjoyed listening to a gentleman playing a Moroccan instrument.

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September 26   Today we began our morning tour in traditional tourist fashion in a horse-drawn caleche.We first drove through the Gueliz or Nouveau Ville built during the French protectorate in the early 20th century.  This is a very modern appearing district with many commercial buildings as well as attractive apartments. We then stopped at Bab Agnaou, the main entrance gate to the Almohad Palace which is mainly decorative. Its simplicity and monochromatic appearance is typical of the Almohad architecture. We then traveled to the Kouroubia minaret which is visible throughout the center of Marrakech. The minaret is constructed of pink Gueliz stone and is a masterpiece of Islamic architecture.It became a model for the Giralda in Seville and the Hassan Tower in Rabat.

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base of the minaret

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From here we traveled to the Sadian tombs which were 6 tombs of the ruling families. Each family wanted to destroy all previous family effects. The Alaouite sultan Moulay Ismail constructed a wall around the main entrance. It was not until 1917 that the tombs were discovered and opened to the public

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An interesting aside during our visits to the tombs was a mother cat curled up among the garden with her 4-5 new born kittens nestled against her.We encountered cats everywhere in Morocco.p1040477

 

 

 

 

 

Our last visit was to the Palais Bahia built at the end of the 19th century. The bare walls outside this enormous edifice gives no hint of the opulence inside. It was owned by the Grand Vizier or Prime Minister. Although the whole area includes 24 acres only 1/3 is open to the public. p1040512The official part or reception area is built around a large courtyard with gardens and pools. The Vizier had two legitimate wives and 24  concubines. The stucco work was amazing. It took 2 artisans over 1 week to complete 1 meter of carving. The ceilings were constructed of cedar which prevented insects and exhibited beautiful craftsmanship. The entrance was an Islamic arch in a horseshoe design reminiscent of Andalusian art.

After lunch we returned to the souks to prowl around looking for treasures. These  are a maze of one shop after another and many varying crafts from jewelry to scarves to clothing to wooden ware and ceramics. It is very reminiscent of Egypt.

We went to the New City to the Caspian Restaurant for dinner. Both Warren and Marilyn enjoyed delicious lamb shanks.p1040552

 

 

 

 

September 27  Today we had a free day to stroll through the souks. What fun we had. p1040518As we began our walk we were “picked up” by a local gentleman, Saide, who insisted on guiding us through the confusing alley ways. Since we had specific items we were looking for this was not all bad especially because he helped us to bargain. He kept insisting that he wanted to take us to “his shop” which seemed miles away. Along the way we selected shops for some pieces of clothing and other items. We finally arrived at Said’s “my shop” which we had to admit had much better quality items. After a few more purchases he guided us through the maze back to the square which was extremely helpful. We stopped for lunch at a terrace restaurant with a lovely view of the square. Our lunch was one of our favorite dishes – kefka with egg – this is the tagine dish we described earlier that is so delicious. After finally finding a cap for Warren we stopped for an ice cream and then went back to the hotel to prepare for the farewell dinner.

For our dinner, Moha took us to the Nouvelle Villa of Marrakech where we dined in an elegant old mansion. Our meal began with cocktails ( sunset cocktail) and hors d’oeuvres in the comfortable lounge area. We then went to dinner which was delicious squab couscous and vegetables. We all thanked Moha profusely for a memorable trip and wished everyone well.p1040617

 

 

 

 

 

September 28  We left Marakesh in the morning to drive back to Casablanca for our flights home. On our drive we saw an unusual sight. A large sheep was tenuously holding on while standing on the top of a truck. This truck was carrying a large number of sheep and one had apparently decided to get some fresh air. Shortly after this photo was taken the truck pulled over to secure the sheep back with his buddies. p1040647

As we entered Casablanca in bumper to bumper traffic we passed many young women in hijab carrying young children standing along the middle of the street apparently begging.  Mona told us these were Syrians who had arrived in Morocco after escaping Syria. This was  a sad sight to see at the end of our trip.p1040662

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next morning we flew home to spend many hours reminiscing on our delightful trip.

The following photos reflect our memories of the fascinating scenes we enjoyed throughout this trip. Please note that all close-up photos were taken with the knowledge and consent of the subject.

 

 

 

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