It is a strange thing to come home. While yet on the journey, you cannot at all realize how strange it will be.
—Selma Lagerlöf (1858–1940)
The thing about Morocco is that it feels so ancient. Even with a smear of modernity across its surface, the landscape and the culture feel timeless, like a place where one might search for the answers to life’s questions. I didn’t come to this country looking for anything in particular; I had hoped only to be open to what it might show me.
On the way to the mountain village of Imlil, Boujeema described the three most important components of Moroccan culture. More surprising than what was on his list was what wasn’t.
The sun would be setting soon and shopkeepers, those whose stores were open during Ramadan, would take leave of their posts to pray and then break their fasts. We would have to hurry if we wanted to find a spice shop that was both open and staffed, before the dark of night changed everything. Read more
It was almost dusk when Boujeema dropped us at the curb. The reek of urine stung my eyes, and the air was still hot enough to roast a goat. Chris took my hand and we strolled toward the square down a lamp-lit boulevard lifted from a French fairytale. To the right, a caravan of carriages and raggedy coachmen implored us to ride in style. Behind us a towering mosque stood as a beacon for the faithful who would soon gather for the evening prayer. But we were lured in the other direction, toward the rhythmic thump of hand drums, the whine of pungis calling to cobras, and the Arabic voices of insistent men. A spectacle awaited. But so far, Jemaa el-Fnaa was not what I had expected.
The reasons why you decide to go someplace are rarely logical. I suppose it could be because you saw it in a movie, read about it in a book, or stumbled upon it in a travel magazine. As a result, you’re overcome by an urge to be there. But why? What exactly is it that we hope to find while traveling through other people’s countries? Read more
As we sped along the dusty two-lane road, there wasn’t another car in sight. Agafay wasn’t our first choice. We’d never even heard of it. Nor had we ever considered that there are many different types of desert. To me, you have your Arizona desert, with those arms-up cacti, and then there’s the sand dune kind of desert, like in Lawrence of Arabia. That’s the one we wanted to see, the Sahara. Instead, we had visited its edge, the pre-Saharan stony desert of Agafay, because in the summertime the temperatures in the interior are too caustic for most Western tourists to bear and things can go wrong. Read more
Abraham met us with a wide smile and two towering beasts clad in rug saddles of orange, yellow, and pink. Set against the backdrop of a monochromatic no-man’s-land, they looked like a pair of flowering cactus. Abraham, our camel trekker, was colorful too, with his white gandora and indigo headscarf. But no bouquet of color could compete with the cinematic scope of nothingness that went on and on in every direction. It was as if we’d been dropped onto the set of The Sheltering Sky. Except this wasn’t the Sahara. The Sahara, we were told, could easily kill a tourist this time of year. Which is why we were here, in the stony desert, where conditions, they said, would be tolerable.
But tolerable, like tolerance, is one of those words that means different things to different people. Read more
A life without steep learning curves is no life at all.
—Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams
Even if we’d had a magic carpet to fly us to every corner of Morocco, eight days wouldn’t have been enough. A land so ripe with art and architecture, history and tradition, faith and Oriental mystique—not to mention a jet-set nightclub scene in Marrakech that rivals Studio 54 in its heyday—would take a lifetime, maybe longer, to absorb. Read more