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7 posts categorized "Travel"


Co-ops: they exist outside of Northern California? Or, the rise and fall of the Moroccan artisan

Coming from Northern California, the words "artisan" and "co-op" are like comfort food for me - these get tossed around an unnatural amount when you're living in a place like Berkeley. When I came to Morocco, however, I was not expecting to encounter them so frequently - and oh how wrong I was!

The past several weekends I've traveled have been trips organized by CIEE, and are therefore a big shift from the independent travel I had embarked on in previous weekends. For one, they were already paid for! Beyond that wonderful fact, they also have an actual structure and intent to them. There are itineraries, tour guides, reservations - in short, organization that 20- something year olds (and in my case, younger) are not prone towards. One commonality in these trips is our interaction with local artisans and rural cooperatives through workshops and conversations (sometimes over lunch!), something that I have greatly appreciated.

Our first excursion was to the city of Fez - considered the cultural capital of Morocco - and surrounding area. After our first day touring the medina and eating in the city, we set out Saturday for the small city of Sefrou. Off the current beaten tourist track, Sefrou used to serve as an important point on the trade route between Morocco and the rest of Africa and is now home to Culture Vultures. This organization was started some years ago by a wonderful British artist who had a "mission to enhance cross cultural exchange and dialogue through art ventures and culture programs" (from their website), in effect meaning that they host artists in residence, hold art shows and workshops to engage with local artisans. Over the course of a day, we visited traditional weavers, plow-makers, a cooperative housing wood workers and women making jewelry from djellaba buttons (the traditional Moroccan dress), and the abandoned synagogue and Jewish school just outside of the old medina before ending our time there with a lunch of rafeesa prepared by local women.

The loom of a blanket-weaver in Sefrou who told us that his kind were dying out due to increasing availability of inexpensive blankets from places like China

An incredible lunch of rafeesa

The next day we left Fez and headed to an extremely small village where we visited two women's cooperatives, one of which produced herbal teas, oils, and soaps (and couscous!) and the other absolutely delicious honey. Our conversations with them were conducted through a translator not only because our darija is lacking, but because the village we were in spoke Tamazight. In spite of the multiple language barriers, these women were unbelievably warm and friendly, and shared so much about their lives with us, including the difficulties of balancing this work with being a mother and/or wife. They gave me a lot of insight into the importance of rural co-ops, especially for women, and how challenging it can be for them.

A group picture with the women from the two co-ops

A weekend in Chefchaouen also proved to be an opportunity to connect with local artisans through workshops CIEE had organized with them. Because of an (ultimately inaccurate) intimidating weather forecast, the majority of the group opted out of the hike on the second day, meaning we were able to participate in two workshops each. The first day I "made" lime leaf extract, meaning that I watched as it was made and drank a lot of tea. Beyond the fascinating process of producing this extract, we learned about various herbs that grow in the area and how the community uses them as natural remedies (again something very familiar for a Northern Californian like myself). The next day I opted for something a little more labor intensive: blanket weaving. And my goodness, was it a challenge. The looms the weavers work with are enormous and extremely delicate, so of course our group managed to break something while we were there. Ultimately the experience made me appreciate the intricacy and delicacy of the blankets I see for sale - how incredibly low the price is for something so well-made by such wonderful people.

The blanket we supposedly helped to weave in Chefchaouen

Students proudly display their end result

Cooperatives are an integral part of sustaining rural life in a place like Morocco. They provide people (and especially women) with a way to support themselves doing things that they often are already experts at - for instance, the herbal co-op we visited was based on the knowledge andpractices of thee women and their families; it was simply the structure of the co-op, and the knowing that this was a feasible path for them, that was needed. Similarly, with an organization like Culture Vultures, the traditions and ability, etc, are of course present - they are there only to facilitate and support them, which is an incredibly important job in a time when so many arts and trades are being phased out or only exist in the larger cities. These experiences were among the best I have had in Morocco because of how real they were; because of the ability to witness the making of the merchandise I see every day, and to interact with those who produce it.

Students pose with various Moroccan turban styles in a scarf cooperative in Fes


Tale of two tourist cities

A little while ago we voyaged to Ifrane, a cute little skiing town in the Middle Atlas mountains. It was built by the French, and it feels like you're in Switzerland... Christmas lights, snow, cute A-frame houses.. and we went skiing! Like what!?! Skiing in Africa!? The only way I can describe the experience would be...ratchet. (For all y'all who aren't hip to the slang that the young folk use, "ratchet" refers to something that is somewhat haphazard and potentially dangerous, but works out regardless). You pile into a grand taxi with six other people (a sedan that can normally only fit 4 people) and pay the driver for three hours of voyaging and skiing. As we got closer to the mountain (and higher in elevation, aka more snow) we saw tons of Moroccans "sledding" (shooting down a 10 foot patch of snow on a sled made of a crate and pieces of skis) on the foothills of the mountain. At the actual mountain, a bunch of guys were announcing their wares for people to rent: skis that seemed to be from the 80s, mismatched boots, polls that looked like they were about to fall apart or pieces of bamboo... We rented skis and were about to start the trek when I noticed that one guy had a snowboard, so I negotiated with the original guy to let me change. I later learned that they were all owned by the same people, so I shouldn't have been stressing so much. Anyway, there are no lifts at this "mountain" and only one slope wasn't covered with giddy sledding Moroccans. So we started the 1000 meter trek (I actually have no idea how high it was), carrying our gear on our backs. It was tough, let me tell you. But getting to the top was totally worth it. We frolicked around for a bit, then boogied down. The trek took 45 minutes, the run took 3. So worth it.

 Ifrane was great for a couple of reasons. We rented a couple apartments for everyone (12 Americans, 6 Moroccans) and it was really fun to be able to cook for ourselves and not have to adhere to any schedule except our own. On the way back from Ifrane we stopped at Meknes. Oh! Forgive my backtracking, I forgot to document our traveling experience to Ifrane. The way trains work here is you can buy a ticket 5 minutes before getting on the train. They don't sell out (unless you go bougey and buy first class, which in hindsight we should have done). You wait on the track for the train to come, and you pray to God/Hashem/Allah that all the other people waiting with you are just lost and aren't in fact getting on the same train as you. The train screeches into the station, and you're incredulous that there is only a trickle of people getting off the train. Your primal instincts kick in, and suddenly you find yourself pushing around a djelaba wearing woman and a stout Moroccan man that simply won't get out of the way for you to secure your place on the train. You stand in the aisle with your face squeezed between the window and a man's shoulder for about 2 hours, until some of the passengers decide they can't handle it anymore and they get off the train. Only the lucky ones find a seat. That was our experience. It made arriving at the town all the more sweet.

A couple weekends later, we went to Marrakech and Essaouira. I'll be straight up, I was not impressed with Marrakech. The ride there was beautiful, with farms on one side of our familiar minibus and the Atlas mountains on the other. The end result was not so great. Marrakech feels like it's trying to be the Morocco that tourists want it to be. The main event, Jemma el Fnaa, is an overstimulating, touristy, monkey throwing, snake charmer ridden square in the middle of the city. The medina is clean and has street signs. The merchandise is overpriced. Everybody urges you to "come into my shop, I have great prices, you want to try, very beautiful, welcome to my country". Which is fun for about 12 seconds.  

We were only in Marrakech for a day. The next day we spent in a village up in the mountains, at a beautiful riad tucked into the hillside. We went for a hike to work off the bzeff tagine that we ate. 

 After Marrakech, we continued Westward to Essaouira, which quickly became my favorite Moroccan city thus far. Essa (as nobody calls it) is a fortified city on the Atlantic ocean with a Parisian/Andalusian/Moorish charm. The beaches are beautiful, the architecture is lovely, and the place is brimming with history. It used to be the main squeeze for the Jews in Morocco, so there are a couple synagogues scattered around the city.  

We stayed in Essaouria for two days and waddled around the city, eating strawberries and oogling at all the places that were sets for "Game of Thrones". It was very relaxing and pleasant. I also almost made my first art purchase, but I didn't have enough money. I went back the next day and my painter friend named Zazu had been replaced by a woman selling popcorn. Downgrade or upgrade, you decide. We discovered a great café/resto that was owned by a Frenchman and served fresh and local Moroccan inspired cuisine. The place looked like a furniture store on the Lowest East Side of Manhattan, very hip and slightly retro. 

Our two cities (or really two and a half cities) that we visited over the past couple weekends were extremely different. It was interesting to see Moroccans being tourists in their own country, a stark contrast to the regular ol' boring tourists we saw in Marrakech. I guess one thing can be said: I'm happy I live in Rabat, where tourists aren't a huge part of the cityscape. Except for one thing in particular that happened just earlier today:

Taxi slows down next to me and a friend walking down the street in Agdal. A man sticks out his head and motions for us to come over. 

Man: Are you American?

Julia and friend: Yes!

Man: Where is Burger King?

The End



That's family, eh?

The moment you realize your family is not perfect is a powerful moment of clarity. Jovial, happy memories of birthdays, trips to the park, and holidays reveal a parallel storyline. This is a pivotal moment when you realize the smile on your mother’s face was just masking her pain. You may realize that the laughter that echoes in your mind from a family barbecue really came after your uncles settled a huge argument.  The truth, as some may call it, helped me to embrace and love my family even more. We are all vulnerable to succumbing to our vices, but the beauty of a family is that it remains a solid entity despite these setbacks.

I learned this not only from my own family, but also from my family here in Temara. Three generations inhabit this household, and on Sunday nights, when the rest of the extended family loyally gathers in the salon, you can count up to at least four different generations. I’ve witnessed this Sunday night tradition since I arrived eight months ago, and I have always tried my best to attend.

The family had welcomed me with open arms on my first day, and gently guided me to the kitchen. This is very telling in of itself. I wasn’t fed until later in the evening, but that was only because it was Ramadan. The ladies of the house urged me to eat using quintessential phrasekuli kuli that resounds throughout all the homes in Morocco. They did not allow me to help clean up. In fact, my room was cleaned for me on a daily basis, and laundry was done just as often. I was treated not as a guest, but as a royal guest of honor.

That all changed, as I assimilated into daily grind. I learned which television shows they prefer, how they like their millwi (Moroccan bread), and their favorite songs. Eventually, I was allowed to help clear up the table, wash the dishes, and even fold my own laundry! On occasion, I served other guests their tea and cake, welcoming them as if it were my own home.

I have grown really close to everybody, and through pictures, home videos, and stories grown to understand their rich history. One afternoon, Sadiya and I were scouring my bedroom for a prescription that had disappeared when we came across a box of old photos. For an hour and a half, we sat on my bed going through them. She was reminiscing of the good and tough times, while I was appreciating listening to her. I saw how this family had evolved from adolescents who teased each other incessantly, to adults singing and dancing together, rearing their own families. Maybe the answer is a new generation. I think of the baby in our family, and how her mood affects our moods. If she falls ill, the entire household is in a somber mood. But her giggles, bring out our own desire to be carefree.

I thought of the arguments that had erupted, or the stories about divorces that had been shared with me. I would assume that these events would lead a lasting scar, but I realize now that everyone will protect each other. The scar will be a reminder, but the family will still gather together to eat, laugh, sing, and dance together.

Resting on a shelf in the back of my closet at home in Queens, is a Rummikube set untouched since the turn of the century. My aunt had given it to me when I was twelve after a two-week visit. I could not bear to look at the board game without thinking about all the good times I had spent with them.  I was going to see them again in two months, but it was painful nonetheless. I was eleven years old, and that is when I decided I must be emotionally stunted.

I’m sure I have grown up since then, but at the same time it will be very hard to leave this family in Temara.  I’ll be overcome with nostalgia every time I play Spoons, or when I see olives at the grocery store, or even when I hear snippets of Arabic on the streets.  But I know my family will always be there to overwhelm me with love.



when stars were still just the holes to heaven

Caitríona likes to mention, at least once a day that "There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand in the world." Lying in the Sahara, and tracing the various constellations, I realized she might have been telling the truth all along.

After our trip to Marrakech, and Essouria, a few of my friends and I trekked over to Merzouga, where we were to meet Omar, our sage of the Sahara. By trek, I mean cramp into a grand taxi, which is legally allowed to transport seven people, including the driver. More often than not, it can only humanely fit five people. Seeing as we opted to take grand taxis for the duration trip in southern Morocco, our relationships have ascended to new levels.

Once in Merzouga, we rode our camels out into the desert just in time to scramble up the dunes to watch the sun set. Breathtaking.



As a side note, camel riding for over an hour is not the most comfortable activity. Kudos to the boys who survived. After enjoying a delicious tajine and some Berber whiskey, my friends and I gathered around the fire for a jam session. Somebody brought out a dhol-like instrument so I couldn’t help but introduce everyone to “bari barsi khat se gaya si... and of course, “dholi taro, dhol baje, dhol baje, …” In return, the Berbers taught us a few sick Gnawa tunes; “Sudani Allah Allah, Sudani…” and “ya baba, muslami ya baba”

All of a sudden, the singing and laughing ceased. We were told to direct our gazes towards the East to watch the moon rise above the snow-white sand dunes. It was as if an invisible hand was grabbing the moon out of the sand. I’ve never witnessed such a marvel before.

We spent the rest of the night, which grew increasingly colder, bundled up beneath the stars. Besides Orion’s Belt, Leo, and Venus, I think our favorite find was the tajine in the sky. That is always a good omen.

A few hours later, Youssef woke the group up with a loud “Americans!” around 5 AM in time to watch the sun rise. That morning camel ride was like being on shrooms. To my left, the moon was still visible resting in the intense hues of blues and purples. To my right, the sun was just breaking dawn, enough to blind me. I was trying my best to recall a saying by Hafiz, and it only came to me later, l'espirit d'escalier.

Even after all this time 
the sun never says to the earth, 
'You owe Me.' 

Look what happens with 
a love like that, 
it lights the whole Sky.

After scarfing down breakfast, we took a sketchy bus, with a goat in the backseat, to the next town where we hailed another grand taxi, crammed onto its musty leather seats and drove a hefty five hours to the Todra Gorge. I enjoy horizontal hikes more than vertical ones, so the Todra, which is on the east side of the High Atlas Mountains, was fantastic. At one point we were able to see the Sahara in the far distance (or so we assumed). Cat and I attempted to give the adhan and hear it echo through the gorges, which was followed by our version of “Circle of Life” from The Lion King. However, a lone Berber woman’s chants overpowered our horrific covers.

That night we opted to stay on the rooftop terrace of a hotel right next to the gorge. The moon provided just the right spotlight for the gorges so we could still watch the infinite stars in the sky. To keep with the theme of the day, we even found baby Simba within the contours of older Simba! It was a perfect night, up until 4 AM when it had to have hit below zero. My body had been in survivor mode for the past week, so I endured the pain.

My favorite part of the entire escapade, however, was coming home to find out that my friend Hyder was looking at Orion’s Belt from his window all the way in Boston that same night.



if it don't make dirhams, it don't make sense

Have you ever experienced that moment of utter excitement, and anticipation? It is usually right after making a spontaneous plan and right before everything that can go wrong, goes wrong.

My experiences this weekend don’t fall short of such sentiments. On Friday, I was waiting to go to the family’s farm for couscous, when my friend and I decided trek over to the city of Meknès instead. I had an ample two hours to catch a bus to Temara from school, gather my things, and take a bus back to the train station. There is only one antique, rackety 54B bus that takes me directly to my house from the city. I waited an hour for it to arrive.

At that point, I still had time to get back to Rabat under the two-hour mark. However, I fell asleep on the bus, and missed my stop. No worries, though. I had safely arrived in the Middle of Nowhere. A mule was leading the one vehicle that did pass by, and all seats were occupied. Eventually, I caught a petit taxi back to my house where my first order of business was to scarf down some couscous. That was not a great idea because I vomited it all out a solid ten minutes later. Lastly, the key to my room was tucked away in Sadiya’s apron back at the farm. This series of events definitely indicated that I should stay home, but obviously that was not going to stop me. Mashi mushkil.

Although the train station in Rabat is brand-spanking new, our luck provided us with a train that was probably produced when Morocco gained independence about 54 years ago. After standing in the train for a good three hours, Enchilada and I arrived in Meknès and over a span of two and a half days, we explored numerous towns near the imperial city.

Volubilis (وليلي )


The Roman Ruins were breathtaking. There is an area called the vomitorium, which usually refers to a passage through which crowds in an auditorium can disgorge. Apparently, this vomitorium was where the ancient Romans retreated to vomit after inhaling copious amounts of food. I could have used one just a day earlier.



After spending almost three hours exploring the ruins, we were walking over to the town of Moulay Idriss, when a man waved us over from his roadside fossil shop. He tried to sell us some rocks, but we were definitely not interested, so he offered us some mint tea. While we were enjoying that, he tried to sell us some of the best caramel (an even better code word) in Morocco. Again, we were not interested. Then he asked me to marry him. I almost accepted that one. The last thing he offered was a personal tour of the tiny village in which he resides. Finally, something kosher. On our journey through this village, we met Mohammad’s cousin who had just returned with a backpack packed with hashish from a treacherous journey through the Rif Mountains from Chefchaouen. The most remarkable aspect of this village was the incredibly fresh spring water that was available for wudu or to bring home with a mule’s assistance.

Moulay Idriss (مولاي إدريس)


Afterwards, we hopped onto a hippie bus to travel a few kilometers to the next village over, Moulay Idriss, which is named after the founder of Morocco’s first real dynasty, and a great-grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). His tomb rests at the heart of the town, and many believe that five pilgrimages to this site is equal to one pilgrimage to Mecca. That is blasphemy in my opinion, but I took full advantage of being a full-time Muslim and was allowed to pass the barrier into the mausoleum.     

El Hajeb (لحاجب) 


We met the family in the photograph above in a grand taxi on our way to Ifrane. I suppose they were intrigued with me because although I exude the faint scent of an American, I have an Arabic name was able to communicate with them in darija. Fatiha (in blue) insisted that we come to her home in El Hajeb for lunch, and so we made a pitstop. Fatiha, who is originally of  Tamazight Berber descent, was on her way to visit her brother’s newborn son. She first brought us to her sister’s home where banana smoothies were served to hold us over till we went to her brother’s home for the real feast. I have an incredible amount of respect for the trust and hospitality that Fatiha and her family showed us. 

Ifrane (إفران)


Ifrane is mind-boggling. Its well-maintained cottages with steep roofs, and wide roads are akin to that of a Swiss town. It is probably the coldest place in Morocco, since it was developed as a French protectorate for families to escape to in the humid summer months. The kids in my family love Ifrane because it seasonally endows the nearby mountains with snow, a rarity in Morocco. I still think I walked through a parallel universe. (Kinza, you were right all along). 

And with that, back to the grind.


“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”


While enjoying a glass of mint tea in Café Bab, which overlooks Barbara Hutton’s former villa, I glanced at Paul Bowles’ quote on the wall. “Tangiers is a place where the past and the present exist simultaneously.”

With all due respect to the legendary novelist, I beg to differ.

Actually, he may be right because he was referring to 60’s version of the town, when the Beat Generation, and Jimi Hendrix sought refuge from the infernal ways of the West. However, the Tangier that I experienced this past weekend is a place where the past and rather, the future that carry more magnitude.

I say this because the town clings to its glamorous past when hippies flooded the city. Every bar, café, and hotel advertises some connection to William Burroughs, or Truman Capote, or Keith Richards. I feel like this is rooted in ignorant pride. How many of these tour guides actually know who these people are? They are clever in that they realized the impression these figures have left on the Western world, and have taken full advantage of it.

Because Spain is separated from Tangiers by only the 20 miles of the Strait of Gibraltar, it is visible to the naked eye. My friend and I were basking in the view from the roof of an old castle, when we met Yasin who lives and breathes for Spain. At first, we struggle to communicate. Every time I said anything in Arabic, or in English, he would interject. “Hablas espanol?”

Finally I gave in and we conversed in Spanish. Yasin shared with us, in his surprisingly fluent Spanish, his several failed attempts to illegally swim over to Spain. The police caught him every time, but he says that he is not worried. One day, he will definitely succeed.

I did admire his determination, but I was nonetheless saddened by his endeavors. You see, Yasin, who was rocking a David Villa jersey and a Spanish mullet, is only eight years old. I did not have the heart to say it to him, but I wish he could understand that life in Spain would not be at all what he imagines it to be. As an illegal immigrant, he would not at all have the same experience he hears about from the Spanish tourists he encounters on a daily basis.

I believe Spain’s eminent presence has become the same green light that blinded Gatsby. It would be crude of me to mention how Gatsby met his end (not that I am not above that).

On a lighter note, on the bus back, we witnessed a woman get up from her seat, scream at the top of her lungs in Arabic, thrash around like a maniac, and try to run off the bus while her husband tried to calm her down. She did this about six times through the span of a four-hour bus ride. It turns out that she just discovered that her husband has another wife and son in Tangiers. She was pregnant with his baby and was trying to get off the bus to get an abortion. I don’t know why Moroccans watch so much television; they have all this drama at their fingertips!



Upon my arrival in Chefchaouen, the one and only thing on my mind was a bar of dark chocolate speckled with almonds and toffee bits. I could not focus, and it was of grave importance that  I obtained some immediately. After settling into our beautiful riad, I set out on a mission to make that happen.

In New York, when I ask for a bar of dark chocolate, the cashier gives me a dirty look, and points me towards Aisle 3. In Chefchaouen, when I ask for some chocolate, the storekeeper winks at me and tells me that he has best quality. That’s true customer service.

Of course, it takes me a while to realize that I was actually in the process of purchasing some hashish. How can that not get confusing?!

Chefchaouen lies at the foothills of the Rif Mountains, and it is well known as a hub of hashish production. We were informed that the danger lies beneath the knolls of the Rif because of this. So of course, it would be a perfect location to watch the sunrise.

You should know that I cannot bring myself to stay longer than ten minutes in a gym, so the trek up the mountain at 4 AM called for a bit of effort. It would have been much easier had I been able to see where I was going. Nonetheless, I cannot describe in words how incredible it was to hear the echoes of the adhanreverberate through the mountains. Soon after, we watched, in awe, dawn break through the night sky to let the sunlight spill over the horizon.

And I definitely did not need any Chaouen chocolate for that high.