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december 6, 2004 -> moroccan observations 

* Morocco is an amazing tourism destination.  Everything about the country is different and exotic: its people, religion, customs, cities and food.  There are beaches, mountains and deserts.  Arabic and Berber are the local languages, but French is widely spoken and English understood in the tourist areas.  Morocco is easy to get to, and easy to travel within.  It is a short flight from anywhere in Europe, or just a few hours by boat (crossing the Straits of Gibraltar) from Algeciras, Spain.  The country's rail network connects the major cities with regular, comfortable services, and it is common for tourists to rent cars to visit the more remote areas.  The country is not without its hassles (particularly for lone foreign women), and it is not cheap, but for a cultural experience, it is excellent.  

* It is natural to compare Morocco with Egypt, but we found the two destinations fairly different.  Morocco was quieter, cleaner and more orderly than Egypt.  A female traffic cop could control a 4-lane intersection in Marrakech, whereas a battalion of Cairene officers couldn't get taxis to stay in their lanes without heavy gunfire.  Much of this difference is a matter of scale: Cairo is massive, with 17 million inhabitants; Casablanca is Morocco's largest city, with only 5 million.   

* Morocco was also obviously richer, and perhaps as a result, felt less friendly than Egypt.  The work of its craftsmen appeared more skilled and confident, with elegant chasing on brass and copper pieces.  Much of Egypt's souvenir industry consisted of ‘pharaohnic' kitsch.  Morocco's products were both more beautiful and practical: housewares, leather shoes and handbags, tilework and spices – all at a fraction of the cost that one would pay for the same merchandise in fancy interior decoration stores in Europe or the USA.

* Two-thirds of Moroccans are Berbers, “a wonderfully exotic mix of desert nomad, Phoenician trader, Arab invader, Andalusian, Roman, and Black African genes.”  Some Berbers have light skin and red hair and moustaches.  Others look typically Arab.  The recent kings of Morocco have all been Berber; they often wear traditional Berber garb in official photographs.

* We loved the hooded felt robes worn by Moroccan men.  In cold weather, they pulled the hoods down over their faces and looked like “Jedi” knights from the Star Wars movies.  (Early scenes of the first Stars Wars movie were filmed in Tunisia, where men no doubt wear similar “Jedi” robes.  They may well have been George Lucas' inspiration.)  

* Almost the entire population of Morroco is Sunni Muslim.  In addition to his political powers, the King of Morocco is the “leader of the faithful.”  Like Egypt, Morocco is a fairly conservative Muslim society, somewhere between secular Turkey and the very conservative Saudi Arabia.   

* We enjoyed Moroccan food immensely, though the offerings to tourists quickly become tiresome: couscous (served with raisins, vegetables and meat and spiced with cloves and cinnamon), tajines (slow-cooked meat and vegetable stews), and kebabs (meat skewers.)  By the end of the first week, we could not bear another tajine, and found ourselves eating pizza and hamburgers just to break the monotony. 

* Much of Moroccan history deals with a series of dynasties founded by desert tribes.  Usually motivated by a mix of religious fervor, these tribes raged out of the countryside and into the cities, sweeping out impious rulers and reinstalling conservative values – for a time.  Eventually their rule would become dissolute and another tribe would replace them.  Each dynasty chose a new capital city, and built magnificent palaces and religious buildings to demonstrate its power, wealth and piety.  The four so-called “Imperial Cities” are Rabat (the Almohad Dynasty, 12th-13th centuries CE), Fez (Merinid, 13th-15th), Marrakech (Saadian, 16th-17th), and Meknes (Alaouite, 17th-present.)  Each dynasty had its own architectural style and decorative touches. 

* The “Moors” who invaded Spain and Portugal in the early 8th century were a mixture of Arabs and Berbers – the word generally covered all Muslims.  The word comes from the Latin “mauri” a name for the Berber tribes living in Roman Mauretania.  In stark contrast with the rest of Middle-Age Europe, the empire that the Moors formed in Andalusia was highly sophisticated and technologically advanced.  The amazing bell tower of the cathedral in Sevilla, Spain, was first the tower of a great mosque of Seville.  The Moors introduced the use of water wheels for irrigation, and introduced many new crops.