“Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar . . . Ashhadu an la Illah ila Allah . . . Ashhadu an Mohammedan rasul Allah . . . Haya ala as-sala . . . Haya ala as-sala. . ..” (God is great, God is great . . . There is no god but Allah . . . Mohammed is His prophet . . . Come to prayer . . . Come to prayer. . ..) All across Morocco the Muslim call to prayer wailed into morning. It pulled men from their beds and squashed them into mosques; it snaked between houses and down narrow alleys, was ignored by some and grunted at by jet-lagged foreigners who’d been bolted from their sleep. Even for those who didn’t heed the call, it signalled the start of another day.
The desert awakes
There was no escaping the muezzin’s wail; it even drifted into the Sahara dawn, far in the southeast of the country. As the earth tilted into morning, a very faint “Allahu akbar” rolled through the dunes, pulling the sun up and up with every repeated phrase.
Life at Auberge Yasmina had stirred while it was still dark; there was much to be done. The guesthouse clings to the edge of Erg Chebbi, where dunes rise from a stony desert and stretch for 30 kilometres towards Algeria; it’s a popular place for tourists to get a taste of the deep Sahara.
Early every morning Youssef Kraoui would see to it that his family’s kasbah-style guesthouse was clean and presentable. The fridges were stocked with bottled water; some doors were opened, some closed to make the most of the cool, pre-dawn air. It was important the guests be comfortable: the desert days are harsh and, even within the kasbah’s thick mud walls, there would be little escape from the heavy midday heat.
Just as the sun broke over the horizon, Youssef and his brothers left their busyness, gathered their prayer mats and knelt facing east. They’re devout Muslim; five devotions punctuate their day.
Daybreak in a city of contrasts
The Muslim call to prayer sliced into sunrise and echoed through Morocco’s economic capital. From all the minarets in Casablanca it was called out: “Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar.” An unintended choir of muezzins spread across the city. It vibrated past Art Deco buildings, between apartment blocks with laundry hanging out the windows and through brilliant bougainvilleas that tumbled, with no sense of neatness, over their flaky balconies.
There are many mosques in Casablanca – and indeed all of Morocco – and the grandest of all is Hassan II Mosque. It was built to commemorate its namesake king’s 60th birthday and comes complete with platinum-plated doors which open electronically, heated floors, painstakingly intricate mosaics and a prayer hall that holds 25 000 people. In essence it symbolises that modern Casablanca contradiction: there’s a little romance of the past but flash businesses are the order of the day.
A ribbon of green in the desert
Under the dark green canopy of date-palm leaves, a soft breeze carried the scent of rich earth and running water. It was morning in the Tordra Valley and a woman worked, weeding her family’s allotment while her son picked olives from their trees. She waved when three girls, baskets of carrots balanced on their heads, called to her. They were the nieces of her neighbour and, as is customary in these parts, she had given them vegetables when they had few. “The fruits will be many this year, insha’Allah (God willing),” the girls chimed as the woman went back to work.
The Tordra Valley is – and has been for centuries – a sanctuary in the desert, a narrow, ribbon oasis that follows a stream along the valley floor. Generations ago it was divided into patches of fertile land, one to a family, and it’s become a complex route of trodden pathways and water channels shaded by palm and olive trees.
The difference between the slopes, where people have built their homes, and the valley floor couldn’t contrast more. The land they live off is a reassuring, tangled nest of greenery with abrupt edges defined by water supply. But the land they live on is flanked by crumbling kasbahs and thousands of rectangular houses that claw up into the hard landscape; shades of red and brown and sand that fade into desert.
The spiritual heart of Morocco
At a distance the medina of Fs el-Bali (Old Fes) is not too different from the slopes of the Tordra Valley: the monotone, rectangular boxes with black-hole windows create a wallpaper of lodgings crammed within the city’s walls. It seems a quiet place – but appearances, from far, can be very, very deceiving. Fes, the spiritual heart of Morocco, is the largest living medieval city in the world – and life on the streets is chaotic.
More than a million people live here, in a warren of 9,000 alleys and narrow streets. The city was well established by AD809; over the centuries, buildings have been haphazardly added on and extended, each wall defining a new space and creating another passage.
Noon might have been a time when many of Medina’s stalls closed for prayer, but Fes was still a frazzle of energy. Cries of “Baja! Baja!” (Look out! Look out!) shook between walls as donkeys laden with copper kettles clunked through the alleys. Fine dust tinted an air already thick with spice, mint and urine.
Those who hadn’t heeded the muezzin’s call chatted outside their stalls, which bulged with wares like leather goods, dried fruit, brass hinges and ceramic plates. In the souk selling leather two married women, their faces covered and black jellabas flowing, pushed past a group of tourists cluttered in an alley.
The foreigners clutched packets of shoes and desperately sniffed handfuls of mint leaves to overcome the smell of the tannery. They’d just spent half an hour at a shop that overlooks one of the potholed tanneries, where leather is treated and coloured as it has been since the Middle Ages. They’d watched men carry big buckets of dye from one vat to another, submerge hides of sheep, goats, cows and camels in mixtures containing cow urine, animal fats and fish oils.
A claustrophobic, dog-legged street led the foreigners away from the banter of the souk and on to a heavy green door. Their guide – it’s necessary to have one in the confusion of streets – opened it onto a surprisingly calm, airy courtyard with leafy vines dripping down three storeys. Life in this city wasn’t always as it seemed from the outside.
The magic of Essaouira
It was a tepid afternoon in Essaouira – the trade wind blowing off the Atlantic had seen to that – and 11 boys stripped off their shirts and jumped from the slip-way into the harbour’s fishy waters. They’d spend the afternoon there; most of their fathers were still out at sea. Next to a banter of gulls, men built or repaired wooden boats while two performed an intricate dance, balancing their way from one floating blue rowing boat to another.
The town has a history that stretches from the Phoenicians in 7BC through to Portuguese colonisation in the 15th century (when it was known as Mogador) and on to 1765, when the port at nearby Agadir was closed and a French architect hired to create a new, fortified city. The man who commissioned Thodore Cornut, Sultan Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah, renamed it Essaouira, meaning “well designed” – but it’s not just well designed, the old town is beautiful, too.
Every building in Essaouira is a textured shade of aged whitewash and has faded blue doors, shutters and awnings that try to withstand the insidious salt air. Hanging outside many of the shops are carpets and cotton fabric and paintings; a muddle of colour that adds to the town’s character. There is a magic about this place that lures travellers back again and again.
As the afternoon sun lost its strength, some of the boys from the harbour peeled themselves off the slipway, jumbled through a stone arch and on to an informal fish market. They didn’t seem to mind the stench left by rotting scales and guano, and sent gulls into a flutter as they hauled themselves onto an uneven stretch of the city’s wall. They couldn’t see the medina, with its wide alleys lined with strings of shoes, boxes of woodwork and towers of spices, nor could they see the cafés that tumbled French-style onto the streets. What they did have was a view over the western promenade and this, they knew, was the best place to watch the sun go down.
The night of the jugglers
Just as the sun dipped below the grand Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakech’s largest square, Djeema el-Fna, transformed itself into a frenzy of energy. There were people everywhere, music and drumbeats bouncing off their bodies, and the air became tainted with saffron and smoke. It’s happened every day for hundreds of years.
Djeema el-Fna had, by day, been a thoroughfare between the narrow alleys and souks of this fabled city. But as the evening call to prayer resonated from Koutoubia Mosque, drummers in white jellabas emerged suddenly, beating their Berber rhythm into the night.
Sweating snake charmers, hooded cobras and sluggish puff-adders looked drugged, or dulled by the heat, and swayed to a hypnotic, fluted tune. A large crowd aggregated around a troupe of young gymnasts who somersaulted and back-flipped into a human pyramid. Behind them a weather-beaten storyteller collected his own audience, his voice falling and booming as was appropriate to the tale.
Close by a woman called out a desperate “Henna! Henna!” from under an umbrella. She earned a living by painting henna tattoos onto foreigners’ hands and feet and thrust a crumpled plastic folder of images at anyone who went too close.
As the jugglers and boxers, story-tellers and drummers joined the energy, they were held together by a humid pall that swirled from the food stalls in the middle of the square. Lanterns lit piles of red meat and peppers, rice, kebabs and chicken thighs, pigs’ heads and carrots and every chef tried to convince passers-by his food was better than his neighbour’s.
Weaving through the smoke and between all the performers, people streamed in flowing lines from the alleys and streets into the square. It was impossible not to be drawn into the spectacle that had recurred every night for more than a thousand years.
As the sky darkened and a new moon slid above the minaret, the stages intensified. The stories told had been around for centuries, though the foreigners didn’t know; most of them couldn’t understand, anyway. But that didn’t matter. What they loved was being there, a part of the Moroccan night. And so the performances continued, on and on and on into the dark, until the people trickled away and the last drumbeat softened to an echo.
This feature was written for and published in Getaway magazine.