Faces of Morocco

Since I’ve already written so much about ethnicity and race in Morocco (see posts of 09.01.11 and 09.01.24), this post will be mostly pictures and not words. In my post of 08.11.09, I thanked the Turks (Turkic men in particular) for being so accommodating in posing for pictures, perhaps to the point of vanity. Moroccans deserve to be known for the opposite; we encountered in Morocco outright hostility, even from people who just happened to fall within the frame of, say, a picture of a market. Given the volume of tourism in Morocco, one wonders whether the locals might take a more relaxed approach to tourists’ snapshots.

On to more photos…

One of the things that makes Morocco so colorful a destination, especially in winter, is the dress of the local men–most Moroccan men wear peak-hooded djellabas (or galabiyas), almost druid-like in appearance.

Even better, worn with a fez underneath.

Some “traditional dress” is of course in part for show, in this country of much tourism, but is nonetheless colorful.

The water salesman–sometimes actually selling water!

Women and girls are more out and about and visible in Morocco, in both rural areas and in cities, than in any of the other Arab countries that we visited.

A relatively rare degree of cover.

The Beats in Tangier

Every Columbia undergrad, reading Kerouac’s On the Road in his or her Literature Humanities (“Lit Hum”) class, fantasizes that he and his circle of friends will form the core of the next Beat Generation. Indeed, even before college, I read Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, which I found bewildering but also enticing, with all of its deranged fantasies. Hopefully it’s not what I based my senses of literature or sexuality on, but Kerouac and Burroughs definitely played a role in my adolescent imagination.

And so, finding myself in Morocco, I could not help but make a pilgrimage to those Tangier (“Interzone”) locations so infamously tangled with the short-lived American social/literary movement referred to as the Beat Generation, as much a part of its history as New York’s Morningside Heights or San Francisco’s North Beach.

It is certainly a treat for the fan of history that it is possible to stay at the very house in which William S. Burroughs lived during his Tangier days, the Villa Muniria. Of course, Tangier was then a very very different place from what it is now–the culture of drugs and prostitution of the Interzone has been largely replaced by what is a pleasant and decidedly unseedy medium-sized city, especially for a border town. According to my guidebook, the Villa Muniria was then owned by a procurer of male prostitutes, certainly a welcome convenience for Burroughs. The Muniria Inn is now a quiet, reputable, family-owned pension. We were not given one of the rooms reputed to have been stayed in by Burroughs and Kerouac.

Room 9, in which Burroughs is said to have written Naked Lunch.

Attached to the Muniria is the Tanger Inn, a local drinking establishment. I thought that the young international crowd at the popular bar resembled something like the present-day counterparts of Kerouac and his friends, but that comparison only served to remind me how dull, how devoid of imagination and possibility, the world of the 90s and the present seems compared to that of the late 50s or 60s.

At the heart of Tangier’s Medina lies the Petit Socco, the pleasant appellation of French and Spanish or Italian derivation for what was once the “little souq.” We were a bit surprised and amused to see that it is still a center of drug culture–we read that people openly smoke the kif and in our few minutes there saw a dealer and transactions taking place.

Ibn Battuta in Tangier

At my more ambitious moments, I tell myself that we are retracing the footsteps of Ibn Battuta, the great traveler of the 14th century who made it his life’s work to travel the full extent of the Dar al-Islam and write about it. Like Marco Polo before him, Ibn Battuta made use of the Pax Mongolica to travel from his home to points as far flung as now Mali and now Indonesia, with extended stays in India and repeat visits to the Middle East. In some ways, of course, our itinerary is deficient–we cannot visit Mecca, in some ways a base of Ibn Battuta’s many journeys–but in others our travels are even more extensive, as we have visited places that were not part of the Muslim world in the 14th century but are very much a part of it now, such as the Indonesian islands of Nusa Tenggara (Ibn Battuta only had to go as far east as Sumatra) and Bosnia (where Islam arrived in the fifteenth century).

“Ibn Battuta Stayed Here” plaque, Timbuktu, Mali

And so, it is with a sense of pilgrimage (one of two pilgrimages here, see other post of the same date) that I arrive in Tangier, Ibn Battuta’s birthplace and home.

Somewhat sadly, or perhaps not surprisingly given the passage of several centuries, there are few Ibn Battuta landmarks in Tangier. But I thought I would identify those that I did find.

Deep in the heart of the Medina of Tangier, on a small rise, is located the small tomb of Ibn Battuta. Whether it is truly the place of Ibn Battuta’s interment is not known for sure, but the street it is on has also been named for him.

A pension named after Ibn Battuta.

Food in Morocco

Eating out in the Djemma el-Fna, Marrakesh

Arab/Middle Eastern cuisines tend to blend into one another. From the souvlaki of Greece to the kebab of Turkey to the kabab of Iran, dolma from Armenia to Bosnia to Egypt, and yogurty drinks galore, dishes identified even as national specialties are usually transnational. Even the cuisine that is often identified as the most significant in the region–Lebanese–is somewhat diluted by the omnipresence of many of its staples, such as hummus and tabbouleh, over a wide region. This sort of general murkiness makes Moroccan cuisine stand out all the more for its distinctiveness and flavor.

Without a doubt, Morocco was one of the culinary highlights of our travels in the “Arab” world. People eat salads and roast meats, sure, but they do not comprise the core of Moroccan restaurant food, as in most other parts of the Arab world. Nor does often mediocre Indian food pick up the slack, as in the Gulf, for lack of local development and innovation. Given the well-developedness and tastiness of Moroccan food, it’s no wonder that there are plenty of Moroccan restaurants outside of Morocco–and so you may have tried many of these dishes. But here is my brief survey:

Food stall, Djemma el-Fna, Marrakesh

The king of Moroccan dishes is surely the tagine. I actually considered doing a post on tagines alone, because, as a sort of national staple, the tagine is almost unique in its incredible variety and sometimes complexity of flavor. One could easily travel in Morocco and eat only tagines for lunch and dinner–they are always available, cheap and almost always quite delicious, and no two tagines are exactly the same. Our favorite was served to us at a roadside stand, packaged to go in plastic bags!

The “tagine” is actually the name of the special pot (much like the way that Americans (and French?) use the word “casserole” to describe a kind of dish).

A common sight–tagines on the fire around mealtime.

Sometimes, tagines are displayed with clues as to the contents.

Remove the lid to reveal usually a piece of meat (chicken or lamb) slow-cooked with a range of vegetables (potatoes, onions, tomatoes) and flavored with a satisfying mixture of spices and, often, lemons and olives.

Traditionally, eaten with bread.

A rather simple meat tagine, with egg.

Perhaps even more famous in the west is couscous, small pasta that has almost the same mouthfeel as broken rice. Generally, however, we didn’t find couscous nearly as often as we thought we would–as common restaurant food, the tagine is supreme in Morocco.

Of course, more simple roast meat is also eaten (and, as usual, delicious). In Francophone Morocco, they are usually called “brochettes,” and not kebab.

Two local specialties stand out. Most famous perhaps in Marrakesh, but available elsewhere, is tangia, a form of slow-cooked lamb that varies from greasy to sublime (or both!).

In Marrakesh, tangia is cooked in little clay pots in the embers of a hammam fire. The guidebooks suggest that you can actually rent a pot, stop by a butcher and take the package to a hammam yourself–but that seemed like too much trouble when premade tangia was easily available.

The pastilla, a Fes specialty. The pastilla is a sort of meat pie, though very different from, say, a Cornish pasty. Somewhat unusual, but not particularly remarkable.

Strong tea is the drink of choice (see post of 09.01.17), with mint if you’re lucky, but there is also a surprisingly large number of coffee shops with high quality pastries, presumably a remnant of French domination.

Diverse Africa

Draa Valley, Morocco

Traveling from Senegal to Mali to Mauritania to Morocco is very much a trip from black sub-Saharan Africa to Arab North Africa, as I described in my posts of 09.01.04, 09.01.05 and 09.01.11. In this post, I wanted to discuss in somewhat greater detail some of the questions of race and identity that arise in these countries, as seen through the eyes of someone who is part of both a homogenous culture (East Asia) and an incredibly diverse one (America).

Generically, imprecisely and unscientifically speaking, there are two native “races” in Northern Africa: black Africans, who have until relatively recent times been the sole occupants of the African continent south of the Sahara Desert, and Berbers, who have lived in the area north of the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast. In addition, since antiquity, the northern coast of Africa has been subjected to numerous external cultural influences, from the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans in classical times to the Ottoman Turk and Western European imperialists more recently, the most lasting of these external influences being the Arabs, who stormed across the entire North African coast soon after the death of Mohammed in the seventh century. Below, some thoughts on race and identity in Africa north of the equator, organized by question and answer.


Who are the Berbers?

The Berbers are a people who have lived in Africa, from the Sahara northward to the Mediterranean coast, for thousands of years. (St. Augustine may be the most famous ancient Berber.) Many look Mediterranean, by which I mean the olive-skinned, dark-haired type that is found from Spain to Turkey to the Levant, but others are quite fair–some as blond as any northern European. Since the Arab conquest of the seventh century, which swept across the entire North African coast, most of the residents of North Africa have grown to identify themselves as Arabs, and the countries of the North African coast, all members of the Arab League, are generally thought of as Arab countries, but the true “genetic” history is that these countries are still largely populated by the people who have always lived here–the Berbers. The Arabs came, intermarried and spread their language, religion and culture, but did not totally replace the native population. That is, the residents of North Africa speak Arabic, are Muslim and think of themselves (to a large extent) as Arabs, but in reality they are principally the descendants not of Arab invaders (who were always small in number) but of a race that has lived in North Africa for thousands of years. (Berbers exist on the European mainland as well–it is estimated that some 10% of the Spanish population is Berber, presumably from the Arab/Berber conquest of Spain in the eighth century.)

Berber man, Taroudannt, Morocco

How come I’ve never heard of Berbers?

To a large extent, because Berber identity has become subsumed by Arab identity. Even though, as I’ve said above, the residents of North Africa are largely descendants of the people who have lived in North Africa since time immemorial, and in a genetic sense are probably not very Arab at all, Arab identity, through language, religion and culture, has come to dominate most of the region, leaving relatively little sense of Berber identity, at least in most of the population centers of North Africa.

However, just as Christianity survived in the mountains of Maalula (see post of 08.05.22) and in the deserts of the Sinai (see post of 08.10.01), and Zoroastrianism survived in the deserts of Yazd (see post of 08.05.14) and in the hills of Abiyaneh (see post of 08.05.22), Berber identity has survived intact in the two greatest geographical extremes of Northern Africa–the high mountains and the Sahara. In the Atlas mountains not far from the coast, communities of “pure” Berbers speak Berber languages and not the Arabic which has become the dominant language of the region. Even occasional signs can be seen in the ancient Berber script.

Berber girl in the High Atlas, Morocco

Berber language sign near Todra Gorge, Morocco

Similarly, in the Sahara live many different Berber “nations,” the most famous of which is probably the Touareg (see post of 09.01.04). Some of these groups may still in some senses identify themselves as Arab, and there is no doubt that Islam and aspects of Arab identity have well permeated these desert populations, but they also retain their native Berber languages and a distinct culture.

Touareg boys, Timbuktu, Mali

What is the future of Berber identity?

Morocco in particular is experiencing something of a Berber renaissance, as late King Hassan II and especially current King Mohammed VI (who identifies himself as part Berber) have promoted a stronger sense of Berber identity, including by teaching Berber languages in Moroccan public schools. To the outside observer, such moves may appear in part motivated by a desire to build a sense of Moroccan identity that is independent from greater Arab identity, not only to strengthen Morocco as a nation generally but also to create psychic distance between Morocco, a relatively progressive and economically dynamic country increasingly oriented toward the West, and parts of the Arab world that are politically or economically more stunted. Already geographically remote from the conflicts of the Levant and the extremism of parts of the Gulf, it is possible that the Moroccan leadership sees in Berber identity a way to create a sense of Moroccan-ness that is better suited to the country’s particular identity and needs.

Friends, Todra Gorge, Morocco

All of which goes to show you the extent to which ethnic identity can be molded by political forces. As I described in my post of 08.12.22, Mauritania in the 1970s went through a transition from being a West African country oriented toward the rest of black West Africa and the former French colonial world to a North African country oriented toward the Arab world through membership in the Arab League. Of course, the real answer is that Mauritania is part black and part Arab/Berber, but at least in some formal ways that country “changed its color” in that period. There are of course many other examples of such political acts of ethnic/cultural definition.


From these points I want to draw one lesson: Africa is more diverse than it is sometimes made out to be.

Timbuktu, Mali

Often, people are guilty of lumping all of the African continent into one homogenous mass–in the ignorant popular imagination a continent of impoverished black people, living alternately in the desert or the jungle. Even those more familiar with the ethnic and social diversity of the continent are likely to think of it in shorthand as a “black” continent with a strip of Arabs along the northern coast. But, in reality, there are many significant and distinct variations within African identity that even a very basic sense of history reveals. Ethiopians and Eritreans speak a Semitic language and have an ancient Christian tradition, making them in some sense part of Middle Eastern history as well as African. Along the entire coast of East Africa, Arab cultural influence is greatly felt in the hybrid Swahili culture. Madagascar is largely populated by people from now Indonesia (see post of 08.08.31).

And all of northern Africa is a place of great cultural diversity, the Sahel a transitional zone in more ways than one. Going from the sub-Saharan south to the Mediterranean, one encounters a mixture of black African Christians, black African Muslims (on the two religions, see post of 08.12.16), fairer skinned Africans of Berber ancestry and then those who identify as Arabs. Indeed, so many of the conflicts that have riled this region–such as those in Western Sahara, Mali, Niger, Libya, Algeria, Chad and the Sudan–have been caused by ethnic tensions. Even along the coast, where “Arab” identity seems mostly solid, ethnic identity is to some extent uncertain, as Moroccans and others begin to think of themselves as Berber. (For that matter, even closer to the heart of the Arab world, Arab identity is not something that is uniform–Egyptians, with their incredibly ancient and continuous history rightfully think of themselves as somewhat sui generis and many Syrians and Lebanese are quick to point out their Phoenician or other pre-Arab ancestry (see post of 08.04.25).)

Having a sense of the internal diversity of a place, rather than sticking with a simplistic caricature that wipes out such granularity, is essential to understanding it. And, for a number of reasons, learning about Africa, starting to understand the second-most populous continent, remains for much of the rest of the world a low priority. This post is a small attempt at remedying this defect.