When people ask me about our Morocco trip, I get transported back in time and place and reminisce my ziyarah giving them stories of the saba’t ur rijal, the amazing scholars, the enlightening visits, the colorful maqaams, and the heightened spirituality existent everywhere. Recently though when a non Muslim friend asked me about our trip I had to stop and think about what I could tell her that she would be interested in. The saints, the solitude and the simplicity that appealed to me won’t catch her attention the same way. So I had to re-live the trip again and I realized I had forgotten another Morocco. I had somehow managed to file away the beauty and splendor beyond the ziyarah and it was time to recognize that.
The red city of Marakkesh which abounds in beauty is a feast for the senses. In Marakkesh, heeding the advice of our local friend, we decided to skip the hotels and stay at a Riad for an intimate experience. These traditional Moroccan homes transformed into luxurious bed and breakfasts’ are located in the old medina. Here we get to walk through the little alleyways, eat traditional home cooked meals and see the city the way it has been seen for generations. When we got to our Riad, we were welcomed with Chai Maghribi (Moroccan mint tea) and a plate of local sweet treats! Our housekeeper, Khadijah, would welcome us back to the Riad after every outing with a salam, a smile and a fresh pot of Chai Maghribi– service unmatched by even the best Hilton or Marriott.
Initially we were a bit weary of walking out into the winding alleyways lest we get lost, but soon realized that is exactly what we must do! Following the dhikr from tahajjud to fajr, the alleys start bustling with life. Getting lost in the small lanes of the marketplace, we saw what Marakkesh truly had to offer: blacksmiths working away at lamps and trays, store keepers keeping watch on their things while chatting with their neighbors, spice mounds mixing their scents with the air, and baskets of bright yellow Moroccan slippers reminding us of the sandals of the Beloved. The narrow lanes lined with small stores on either side shared by pedestrians, donkey carts, motorcycles, stuff on sale and the millions of stray cats, without disrupting anyone’s path, lead us to the legendary Djamma al Fanaa– the main market square which transforms into a scene from The Arabian Nights after Maghrib. This unlit square hosts monkey shows, gypsy dances, snake charmers, Berber musicians and a mushrooming of temporary restaurants- complete with tables and chairs and a menu in almost any language of the world! During the daytime this same square is a market for daily groceries, nuts, fruit and fresh orange juice stalls. The unique thing about these traditional bazaars is that every store may sell the same thing at the same price but no one fears competition. Each storekeeper will invite you to try the goods, see the quality and ask you how much you want to pay for it, but the minute you walk away from his store area and in front of the next store, they stop. I asked one store keeper why he didn’t ask me to buy from his store anymore and he said, “I can’t come between him (the other store keeper) and his rizk(divine provision).”
Driving through the country of Morocco felt very similar to driving through the California countryside- the roads were wide and clean, gas stations plentiful, restaurants and masajids attached to each gas station were welcoming and affordable. The green countryside was a coolness to the eyes and the scattering of colored jalabas in the green fields chromatically pleasant. During our road trip from Fes to Meknes, we stopped and visited ancient Roman ruins in the town of Volubilis- an open air reminder of the civilizations before the Idrisid dynasty. The most delightful treat for the eyes though, came with a view of Moulay Idris the first. His maqaam rests in a valley and projects out pleasantly with its vibrant green rooftop. The colors of Morocco really captivated us because bright colors were everywhere- from the doors of houses to rooftops of masajids to the clothes on people’s backs to the vegetables in the marketplace to the saddles on the horses- all bright, cheerful, and vibrant, like the colors of the rainbow.
Another delicious fact about Morocco that I had filed away was the incredible food. Moroccan food is tantalizing to all the senses without putting them on fire like the Asian spices can. The cumin from Morocco is quite distinct in taste than the cumin we get out here (or that which gets imported from the Subcontinent) and is used considerably on everything. It adds zest like pepper to fried eggs or garnish like parsley to harirah soup or spice like sumac to kababs and the cumin elevates the taste of each dish independently!
Fez, the old capital, is now a Unesco heritage site and is in the process of getting the world to recognize its one thousand year old history. The city, within its old walls is a world of ups and downs -literally by being situated on the foothills of the Atlas mountains and figuratively, as the modern world seeps through the age old buildings and monuments! The world’s first and oldest Muslim madrassah, the Qarawayyin, is housed in this city just as the famous Bounania madrassah, famous for its water clock of yesteryear. Fez, unlike Casablanca or Marakkesh is in no rush to move into the modern world and is content with showcasing its history and its soul! The spirituality of Fez is a bit more attainable to the modern tourist with the active mausoleum of Moulay Idris II and the operative madrassas unlike the hidden mausoleums of Marakkesh and Meknes.
Morocco is astoundingly beautiful, rich in culture and heritage, exquisite in gastronomy, refreshing in ambiance and delightful in sights. If one were to get all this, they still would be seeing just the superficial Morocco because the land of a thousand saints is not just to be seen but to be experienced and this can only happen with an open heart. One may look at the old medinas of the Morocco and feel overwhelmed with chaos, lack of space and sensory over stimulation. Yet, these circular medinas, as brought to our attention by a scholar and urban planner, Dr. Abdullah Alkadi, whom we chanced upon meeting in Fez, were built with a humanistic spirit. These cities were designed with “people in mind”, unlike today’s modern cities “built with cars in mind.” Dr. Abdullah Alkadi mentioned that in the old medinas, the alleyways and streets were designed to be close to garner intimate, connected and congenial neighborhoods. So in our modern disconnected, car obsessed minds, what may seem claustrophobic is in place to eradicate isolation and force companionship within the entire city. Walking here we are forced to smile at the person who is a foot away just as we are forced to stop and greet an acquaintance we cross paths with. We are pulled by the magnetism of the mausoleums with their hundreds of wishful candle holding worshipers, and we may just stop by and grab a tagine when our senses get invited. An important aspect of these circular cities is the closeness and one to one contact that is imperative for us as American Muslims, especially home schoolers, to incorporate into our daily lives so we step up and make a connection with our neighbors, coworkers, teachers, public officials and politicians to speak our own narrative and engage them with understanding Islam and Muslims. So to my friend and anyone else who may ask about my trip to Morocco, I say, don’t just see, but feel and connect. Each city of Morocco will return us blessed and nourished spiritually- God willing.