The old fanatical and sombre town is bathed in the gold of all this sunlight; spread out at my feet, on a succession of hills and dales, it has taken on an aspect of unalterable and radiant peace; it looks almost smiling, almost pretty; I scarcely recognise it, so much has it changed; a kind of ruddy radiance sleeps on the immobility of its ruins. And the air has suddenly become warm and tranquil, giving an illusion of eternal summer.
– Pierre Loti, Morocco
Sometimes it feels as if Morocco has managed to add a patina of modernity atop its centuries-old character without destroying what lies underneath. If not for the forest of satellite dishes that covers almost every square meter of the terraced rooftops of Fez, the view of the ancient medina from above wouldn’t be much different from the one described by Pierre Loti in 1889.
Despite being much cleaner than in Loti’s time, the impression many first-time visitors get of a Moroccan city is that of a dirty, chaotic milieu. Narrow lanes are flanked by high walls with scarcely a tiny window. The unsuspecting guest may well discover a hidden gem of a patio, not unlike a courtyard of the Alhambra, when entering one of the myriad dwellings through the unassuming and small doors.
Indeed, if you peer beneath the veil of globalization, or peek behind the gates of houses, madrasas, and mosques, old Morocco reveals itself in the luxurious gardens and the intricate details of tiled floors and finely etched panels of cedar wood..
This contrast is no more evident than in the tanneries of Fez, where workers toil, immersed to their knees, in vats that contain substances whose pungent smells are a clear indication of their origin. It would certainly seem like the process of tanning and dyeing leather has not changed much in the last four or five centuries. Pigeon dung is still used to soften the hides that are carried into the tannery on the backs of donkeys, but modern chemicals have replaced the vegetable dyes of old, much to the detriment of workers’ health.
With this article I explore different aspects of life in Moroccan cities, illustrated with photos taken in Rabat, Chefchaouen, Fez, and Meknes. My goal is to portray this world of contrasts between ancient and modern, ugly and beautiful, bustling and quiet. Each section visually highlights an aspect of Moroccan life: Architecture and Design, People, Street Life, Work, Markets and Religion. This was done with the intent of providing a visual flow rather than creating a comprehensive narrative of the many aspects of Moroccan urban life. The choice of images, in their juxtaposed arrangement, is motivated by aesthetic rather than documentary appeal. Nonetheless, I hope my work will provide you with an interesting glimpse into the world of Moroccan cities.
I would like to thank Christin McLeod for providing invaluable help in proofreading and editing the text of this article.
Architecture and Design
Intricate, geometric, repetitive detail. This is the signature of Islamic art and decor.
The Moroccan madrasa, mosque, or patrician house is like an oyster. One must crack the shell of the unadorned and often dilapidated structure to reveal the treasures hidden within. For tucked inside the buildings, is a phantasmagoria of splendor.
In Morocco, this character is visible in the floors and walls, covered with brightly colored ceramic tiles arranged in geometric patterns. It is evident in the delicately carved gypsum decorations of walls, columns, and vaults. It is echoed in the etchings of cedar wood shutters, which provide much needed protection from the hot afternoon sun – and from indiscreet eyes. It reverberates in the corrugations of wrought iron and brass lamps.
Only the minarets, surrounded by the green roofs of the mosques, rise above the sea of houses of the medina. The latter appear to have grown organically, without plan or direction, not unlike a cancer growth.
Standing atop the roof of one of these houses 125 years ago, Pierre Loti spied his female neighbors when they ventured out into the evening to do their chores and catch some fresh air. Nowadays, the satellite dishes have taken over that space, so we are left with only our imaginations to conjure such fanciful images in our minds.
Morocco, a country seemingly out of time and space, boasts a population of over 33 million people. It offers a unique ethnic diversity, which weaves together a rich tapestry of Arab, indigenous Berber, Sub-Saharan African, and European cultures. As such, street portraiture is an enjoyable endeavor for the well-rounded travel photographer.
To successfully capture street portraits, one must have mastered the art of asking people on the street for a portrait and have the ability to capture them at their best, preferably showing some context. One problem is that many people display a certain level or diffidence, if not an outright refusal, at being photographed. Add to that the language barrier, and you have the perfect recipe for frustration.
There are exceptions, of course. The ladies weaving carpets in Rabat were especially nice (but asked for money). The man sewing clothes in Chefchaouen didn’t speak a word of English or French. But he showed his address so we could send him a print of his portrait. The man selling what we could only assume was some kind of snake oil in Meknès’ main square was demanding our attention, and a photograph or two was quickly and silently negotiated in exchange for it.
On the other side of the coin, we got our share of nasty looks and a group of cheeky kids showing us the finger, but that didn’t deter us.
Our finest moment was when we mustered our courage and best French, and approached a dignified patriarch in white traditional garb. He was sitting on a bench with his wife, his children, and grandchildren, and we asked for a portrait, to which they kindly consented. The conversation that ensued ended with them inviting us over for dinner in exchange for the portraits. That’s what you call true hospitality!
The mixture of ancient and modern worlds that is characteristic of Morocco reveals itself in the hustle and bustle of the streets of the medina. Youngsters with jeans and sneakers mingle with older folks in djellabas, while workers on the go check their smartphones in front of a cup of mint tea.
Small shops open onto the narrow streets, exposing their merchandise, some of them attracting the local population, others catering to tourists. These same tourists are the preferred audience of the snake charmers and street performers of the square El Hedhim in Meknès.
Gentrification is apparent here too, and nowhere more obviously than in Chefchaouen. The city with the blue walls is undeniably beautiful. But with a boutique hotel, a restaurant, and a souvenir shop at every corner, one cannot help but wonder how much of this is truly original and how much is staged for the benefit of foreigners.
Still, a woman in a green dress walking between those electric blue walls remains a sight that beckons us like the call of a siren.
Berber women weaving carpets. Craftsmen working wood, metals, leather, and textiles. A barber shaving a client on the street. Leather tanners immersed to their knees in multicolored vats. A man throwing sawdust into the furnace that heats water for a hammam.
Nowhere else in the world can you see all these activities being carried out like in the streets of a Moroccan medina. It appears that Moroccans have a propensity for carrying out work in the street or in small laboratories whose doors open right onto the street. This gives visitors a unique opportunity to get a glimpse of the working life of Morocco.
This is especially true of Fes, home to nearly 1,000,000 people, a city that boasts the largest medina in all of the Arab world. Contrary to medinas such as Marrakech, which have moved their artisanal laboratories outside the city to make space for shops catering mostly to tourists, many of Fes’ activities have remained inside the ancient walls that encircle the old city. While this ensures that the city maintains much of its original character, it also creates lots of pollution. One just has to visit the cloth dyers quarter, where residues of the dyeing process, utilizing antimony, color everything black before being flushed from the laboratories and into the street gutters.
Together with the mosque, the souk is the lifeblood of the medina. Whether it is bread and pastries from bakeries, fresh produce or meat brought in from the countryside, fish from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, clothing, or any other product of craftsmanship, all can be found on display in stalls and small shops lining the crowded streets of the souk.
Once again, the dual nature of Moroccan life and culture, with its mixture of modern and traditional, is visible in the way traditional shops, that still cater to the local population and whose appearance has probably not changed much in the last hundred years, coexist with boutiques that aim to attract the crowds of tourists looking for a souvenir.
While some souks have been transformed into shopping malls for tourists, it is still possible to get a feeling of authenticity in some of them. If you are brave, you can even try sampling some of the food from one of the many shops purveying snails, camel stew, beef and ram head, and other assorted local specialties.
Being one of the few Arab countries not conquered by the Turks, Morocco is believed by some to have preserved the purest form of Islam. The lineage of the reigning Alaouite dynasty is said to be directly descended from the Prophet himself.
Indeed, most Moroccans are profoundly religious, but life here hardly exhibits any of the signs of fundamentalism that afflict so many other Muslim countries. The fact that non-Muslims are forbidden entrance to almost all mosques and sacred places seems to highlight the sense that religious activities and social life are somehow kept separate. At least this is the impression the non-Muslim visitor gets since he is prevented from witnessing the most intimate acts of worship.
It is possible, but not easy, to gain access to a mosque if you can convince the warden you are sincerely interested in learning more about Islam. He will probably relish the thought of making a new convert. Photography is generally not allowed, however, which leaves limited options for taking images of some of the finest examples of Moroccan religious architecture. Notable exceptions are the grandiose, modern Hassan II mosque in Casablanca, the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail in Meknès, and most of the Islamic schools, or madrasas, that have long ago abandoned the use they were designed for and can now be visited by anyone.
Outside the mosque, the general attitude is very much relaxed. Most people, especially the younger generations, wear jeans, sneakers, and t-shirts. However, the occasional veiled woman betrays the fact one is in a Muslim country.