Monthly Archives: October 2013

Burping like a camel

Jeremy delivers this pronouncement solemnly, after looking around at me with surprise: “Mama, you’re burping like a camel.”
Camels have a remarkably resonant digestive system: we were all in giggles on our camel ride, listening to the sounds emerging from either end.

I have tried to keep quiet (!) on the topic of digestion, but in fact I’ve been variably ill since the week after we arrived: vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps that double me over in the daytime or wake me up at 3 a.m.  I’ve tried Smecta, a cocktail of Moroccan stomach-related prescriptions, Cipro, Zithromax, apple cider vinegar, Flagyl.  Nothing seems to work.  (In retrospect, I can say that it’ll take a total of four and a half months for my stomach to adapt to Maghrebi norms, and that I’ll spend the months of August through mid-December down 15 pounds and generally exhausted.)

All of this intensifies a certain mid-fall melancholy and homesickness.  The rest of the family (ironically, it seems to me) is doing fine, but I’ve had dreams of going home.  In one dream, we’re packing up to return to the States and I suddenly realize everyone else knew that we were always planning to return in November.  I’m the only one who thought we had to stick it out till June.  I wake, amused by the dream’s blatant wish-fulfilment.

Fortunately, the cedar forests around Ifrane are very beautiful, and I can counter the homesickness by taking a short walk each day in the Ras el Ma: the woods known as the head of the stream.

Even better, for the purposes of assuaging homesickness, is the creek that winds past the poplar grove on the back road to Azrou, a grove I suspect was planted by the French.  But the changing leaves answer my need for autumnal light and color.
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And the creek itself momentarily sates my craving for water.
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Unfortunately, after I had enthused about my woodland walks to some friends from the university, I was warned that a number of AUI faculty and students have been raped in the woods and that it’s not safe to walk there alone.


I’m glad I didn’t get that warning until I started feeling better.

Meknes and monuments: the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail

John keeps reminding us of the difference between the visual restraint of Alawite style as opposed to the decorative intensity of the Marinids, embraced and extended by the Saadian dynasty.  Remember that the Alawite dynasty came north out of the Tafilalt, where we saw some of that visual restraint at work.  Basing their power in their descent from Muhammed, the Alawites eschewed exuberant design in order to insist (as Muhammed insisted) on simplicity.

This doorway into the courtyard of Moulay Ismail’s mausoleum certainly reminds me of the Qsar Al-Fidha down in Rissani:

The courtyard itself is similarly restrained, with only a zellij floor and a small strip of zellij along the bottom of the walls.

The calligraphy here is one of the Alawi mottos:
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Al Aali Allah: God is very high (or superior).  The other two include the Baraka Muhammed added to the Bou Inania
and “Al Afia” which means “Pardon” in fusHa, but “fire” in Darija.  (It’s written abundantly within the mausoleum, to ambiguous effect.)

But here in the courtyard, one might say we find functionality in place of decoration: a fountain for ablutions, a sundial for timekeeping:


But let’s face it, you can only take restraint so far, especially when we’re talking about the final resting place of the man who (rather brutally) shaped the Maghreb into a modern nation.
The tomb itself, in a prayer space, is only visible from a distance for non-Muslims, but the antechamber is gloriously wrought:

The details are extravagantly beautiful:

And it’s hard to imagine a more intricately painted ceiling:

Apologies for the very blurry picture of one of the two grandfather clocks sent from Louis XV to Moulay Ismail.
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The story that comes with them goes like this: Louis XV offered his sister to Moulay Ismail as as one of his wives; when the sister was informed, she said there was no way she would go to Morocco.  In her place, Louis XV sent these two clocks, with a note saying that they would be more constant than his sister would have been.


Yet even in the midst of all this grandeur, there are designs that conduce to calm and simplicity:

I love that green!  And I’m not the only one…

Meknes and monuments: the (other) Bou Inania

It feels as if we’ve only just returned from the Tafilalt, but John Shoup is taking a group of students to do field exercises in Meknes, and he’s agreed to let us tag along again: he’ll show us some of the monuments in Meknes while the students are busy with their exercises.

It’s a drizzly day, and the hour-long bus ride seems a little subdued.  We pass fields with these odd-looking structures.


When we first arrived, I asked someone about the long strips of piled stone: were these stone farms, I wondered?  Did construction companies come and gather a strip of stones at a time for building purposes?    No, no!  It’s busla! (Onions.)  The area between Ifrane and Meknes is a big onion-growing area, and these strips are a storage technology.  The stones keep the onions off the ground and away from (at least some) moisture.    Within the curve of the stone, you place a layer of straw, then a pile of onions, then more straw, and finally plastic to keep the rain off.  Insh’allah, the onions will keep through the winter, to furnish the souqs and the hungry people around Morocco.

The students are being sent out in groups of 3-5 people (with at least one good Arabic speaker in the group) to try to identify which parts of Meknes are successful neighborhoods.  At lunch, one group shows us their photos: a friendly woman invited them into her house (hugs all around) and introduced them to some of her neighbors.  The students are thrilled with their experience.  This is one of the reasons John likes Meknes: the town is both smaller and friendlier than Fez, and people welcome his students and their endeavors.

The entry into Meknes does not give that impression, however: Moulay Ismail (1672–1727), who made Meknes his capital city in order to snub the uppity Fassis, invested heavily in stone as a demonstration of state power.  Driving into the center of the city, we took the path diplomats would have followed, along two kilometers of a walled corridor that would have been lined with thousands of soldiers.  Passing through a tunnel, we arrive at the mashwar or the fore-court of Moulay Ismail’s (second) Dar el Makhzen palace, where those diplomats would have been received.


The courtyard may seem large, but the “Pavilion of Diplomats” in the upper left corner is small enough to administer a snub: you’re not worth my full attention.  In fact, John tells us that Lalla Aouda, wife to Moulay Ismail, was an unusually active member of her husband’s government, and often met visiting dignitaries in her husband’s place.  In the macho culture of early modern Europe and Morocco, that too might have seemed a snub to foreign diplomats.

The small structures emerging from the courtyard provide ventilation for the vast storage chambers underneath.  These were used to store grain and other food.  Two years ago, John was present when workmen were installing chains to go along with the more intriguing story that these chambers were a dungeon.  “No truth in that story,” notes John.  “The chains are only two years old.”


We cross Lalla Aouda square, with the minaret of the Lalla Aouda mosque in the background (photo Eric Ross).

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This is the forecourt of what was once Dar Lakbira (the Big House), Moulay Ismail’s first palace–of the three he built.  As Eric notes on his blog,

“Over the course of his reign [Moulay Ismail] built three successive palaces, and surrounded these with multiple ramparts that enclosed an area more than ten times larger than the pre-existing city of Meknes, still largely confined within the Almohad walls. The palace-city included neighborhoods for civil servants and the army (largely slaves), vast storage facilities, stables, reservoirs, flocks, fields and gardens. So large was Moulay Ismail’s imperial city that within its walls, today, we find: the current Royal Palace (the second to be built by Moulay Ismail), dense urban neighborhoods (some old, others new), a military academy, a horticultural institute, a track for horse races and other outdoor sports facilities, a golf course, a university campus, as well as monuments open to the public.”

The Bab Mansour (also known as the Victorious Gate) connects the old medina to the palace-city of Moulay Ismail.  The gate is named for its architect, El-Mansour, who played on Almohad design patterns and used marble columns from the Roman ruins of Volubilis (Oualilia or Walïlï).  Moulay Ismail supposedly inspected the gate upon its completion and asked El-Mansour if he could have done better.  El-Mansour felt obliged to answer yes–and in frustration, Moulay Ismail chopped off his head.  The only problem with this story is that the gate was apparently completed five years after Moulay Ismail’s death.  In any case, the glory of its architecture is addressed not to foreigners entering the city, but to the inhabitants of the city itself, when they turn toward their king.  The gate is now a gallery which one enters through a side door, creating an uncanny tension between grandeur and indirection.

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John leads us first to the Bou Inania medersa.  This, like its larger namesake in Fez, was built under the Marinid dynasty (built 1331-1351).  I’m struck by the way the lower level of the building, lined with zellij and cedar screens, gives the effect of being underwater, or a watery reflection, as if the main level of the building started half a story above ground.


The zellij here is truly remarkable, with all the sophisticated complexity of the Andalusian style:

John tells us to find the center of the pattern (here, the black eight-pointed star) and count the number of layers of decoration radiating out from that center.  I count nine layers out to the light blue stars, for what it’s worth.  But notice too the excruciatingly small black and white tiled circles around the outside of the pattern.  I’m very taken with the multitude of shapes and play of colors here.

In other places, the zellij is quieter, more subtle, in a way that seems sophisticated to me:
Shadow patterns within patterns.

The plaster work also strikes me as quite phenomenal.  Is it easier to follow, or am I getting better at seeing the grid?

I like the integration of calligraphy and biomorphism here:

And the stark geometry of the medallion, surrounded by biomorphic design here:

And what about rosettes intersecting with other rosettes here?

John tells us a little about the work of the medersas, an intermediate level of Islamic schooling.  Students would have begun their educations in kuttabs or msids, schools often attached to a mosque or a zawiya.  Such schools would teach the beginning elements of Arabic speaking and writing, along with memorization of early (shorter) surahs.  More talented and motivated students would arrive at medersas, and their goal would be mastery of the Qur’an in its entirety.  Students would also study astrology, astronomy, and law.  Astrology was linked to the human body and its health; astronomy was important for Islamic practices, ranging from certainty about when to perform the five daily prayers to advance warning about the timing of holy days.

In studying law, the student’s job was to memorize not only the primary texts of the law or sharia, but also all subsequent discussions of the primary text within the tradition.  This education would conclude with an oral exam in which each student would be presented with a hypothetical legal case and asked to solve it by quoting from memory (word for word) both the main source of law in this area plus all subsequent texts on the subject, along with an account of how the student would apply these texts.  Students who passed this test would be awarded an Ijazah and given a robe and a turban–the origin of graduation robes and mortarboards in the West, where educational systems lagged behind this level of medieval Islamic development.

At Independence, 30% of the Moroccan population was educated (could read and write) and almost 100% of those educated people came from these medersas.  The medersas were closed in the 1960s, to be replaced by public schools.  The fact that the Bou Inania no longer functions as a school or a religious center means that we can climb the stairs to look at the student dormitories.


This room might have housed two older boys: windows became available as you moved up in the hierarchy.  Larger rooms would have housed four boys.  There would never have been much space to spare.  Yet you would have been fed, and housed, given one new set of clothing each year, plus enough freedom from other tasks in order to dedicate yourself to mastering the Qur’an and its applications to law, life, and theology.  Medersas and their students were funded by wealthy merchants or craft guilds for the honor they brought to the city.  Still, everyone knew boys would be boys: the doors to these rooms lock from the outside, and there were common accounts of students slipping away from the medersa over the rooftops and trying to sneak back in again late at night.


We climb up to the roof ourselves to look at the renovated minaret.  In 2010, the minaret of the nearby Bab Berdieyinne Mosque collapsed during Friday prayers, killing 41 people and injuring many others.   The king ordered that minaret rebuilt to historical specifications and other minarets inspected and renovated to prevent further damages.

James likes the beldi (traditional) tile of the rooftop.

We ask John the meaning of the three golden balls mounted on the top of many minarets in Morocco.  He tells us the traditional story: the chief wife of a sultan in Marrakesh is supposed to have broken her Ramadan fast with 3 pomegranate seeds; in remorse, she had all her gold jewelry melted down and made into three “seeds” to be mounted on the Koutoubia minaret in Marrakesh, to the glory of Allah.
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Look familiar?  Think of the Attarine in Fez…

October in the Middle Atlas

Life goes on.  It’s the end of October, but the world around us seems brimming over with life and fertility, from our neighbor’s hedge, full of bees and butterflies,SONY DSC

to the praying mantis on our bicycle wheel,

to the monkeys (Barbary apes) we see once we manage to get off on our bicycle ride up to the Ras el Ma (the head of the stream).

In the afternoon, we drive around the “lake circuit” near Ifrane and marvel at the color of the (sorry to say) scum lightly coating the nearby lake, Dayat Hachlaf,

the birds on the lake, undeterred by the odd coloration

and the cows and sheep grazing nearby, with boys playing football in amongst them.

Our favorite lake is the largest, Dayat Aaoua:

We climb the hill above the families picnicking with their impromptu barbecues and marvel at the wildflowers.  Who says there’s no second spring?  In Ifrane, with the September rains, the ground turns green and a multitude of flowers appear.
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Zoë and I go for a little extra wander.  In the upper left of the photo, you can see one of the many local orchards, with netting spread over the small trees to offer shelter from the blazing summer sun.

Meanwhile, James and Jeremy play peekaboo by the lakeside.

Back home, at dusk, a boy and his dad turn a plastic bag and a couple of sticks into a kite to fly into the sunset…


Eid el Adha

Early in the morning of Eid el Adha, I am listening to the sheep in the neighbor’s garden, waiting for the slaughter.  For days, we have been watching the sheep go by, strapped onto the top of busses, lashed onto the backs of bicycles, driven in herds to the edges of towns.
I find myself braced, physically tense, as I listen to the children squealing, the noise increasing in pitch and intensity.  Still the sheep bleats: I am waiting for it to bleat its last.

Ignorant as I am, the first details I learned of Eid el Adha came in discussion of Eid el f’tur at the end of Ramadan.  Eid el f’tur (breaking the fast at the end of Ramadan) is  also known as the “little Eid” (eid el sghir) versus the “big Eid” (eid el kbir) which is Eid el Adha.  “So what happens during the Eid el Adha?” I asked Youssef.  “What makes it the big celebration?”

“It’s the festival of the sheep,” he told me, which left me even more befuddled.  What’s so special about sheep?  This is a religion opposed to idols, right?  Surely they’re not worshipping sheep.

“What happens, exactly?” I asked Youssef, and his face lit up. “My family all gathers.  My father has bought a sheep.  My brothers and I hold it by the legs, with the head up (miming a tussle), and my father cuts its throat.  Then we hang it up and we pull the skin down and off.”  Youssef’s Darija was punctuated by vivid explanatory gestures.  I held up my hand to stop him: this was perhaps more than I wanted to know.  But after Youssef left that day, I looked online and found multiple photos and descriptions of travelers encountering piles of sheep corpses on street corners.  It occurred to me then that Spain might be an appealing destination for my vegetarian family over the Eid holiday.

But Eid has come and here we are.  It’s almost 10 a.m.  The children are still squealing in the garden behind our house.  At the front, on our left, adult voices build, peak, recede.  I hear the scraping of a shovel on the ground, the click of a bucket handle as the bucket is picked up and set down.  I hear running water.  I can’t seem to turn off my imagination’s visual accompaniment to this particular soundtrack.  Inside our house, Jeremy is listening to the story of Mozart’s musical childhood.  Outside, there are more sweeping and scraping and popping sounds.  Are they chopping the sheep—separating the joints?

Another man stops by next door.  “La bas?”  (“What’s up?”) There is a guttural satisfaction to the exchange: I’m not sure of the exact words that follow, but I’d swear they translate to something like, “Now that’s the way to kill a sheep.”

James and I go out on the balcony and look over into the courtyard next door, where a sheep carcass hangs by its back legs, all pink and white.
I rethink “popping” as a description for the noises I heard: it must have been the sound of the skin being peeled off the body of the sheep, inch by little inch.  Ripping, snapping, perhaps.  On the wall across the road, the skin hangs, like a pair of footy pajamas turned inside out.  It waits, as a gift, for whoever may need it.
Meanwhile, the sheep’s head is roasting on a fire the neighbors have built in a metal wheelbarrow: it looks both unreal and a little too lifelike.

James goes over to greet the neighbors: they welcome him in, past the hanging carcass.  They encourage him to take photos; they force-feed him sweet tea and cookies.  They urge him to bring me over as well, but he demurs on my behalf, pleading a combination of illness and vegetarianism. I wave from the balcony, feeling like an old-style Moroccan housewife, happy to keep my Eid a vicarious experience.

11 a.m.  Around the neighborhood, smoke is rising from a dozen courtyards or more.  The smoke and smell of roasting flesh drift into the house and I close the doors and windows.  The noise of bleating sheep has diminished but not disappeared. Zoë swears she hears the sheep screaming; my hearing is not so finely discriminated, but the bleating is sometimes more frantic in quality, and sometimes abruptly interrupted.

There are thudding sounds from next door and I wonder again if they’re quartering the sheep.  The family eats one quarter, gives a quarter to the poor, preserves a quarter, and gives a quarter to a second cousin or similarly distant relative.  But no: still the pink and white carcass hangs, complete.  James reports that the noise is the removal of the ram’s horns, before the head is returned to the roasting wheelbarrow.  Eventually, they’ll crack open the skull and eat the roasted brain: a delicacy.
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Noon: James takes Jeremy off to visit our friend Said, at Said’s father’s house, carrying a cake we bought to contribute to their festivities.  On the way, James and Jem watch a sheep being skinned; near the entrance to the house, they pick their way through pools of watery blood.  Said apologizes for what he names the unsanitary conditions—James responds honestly that he’s very taken with everyone’s openness and communal celebration.

Still the sheep in back of our house continues to bleat.  I’m starting to feel grumpy with that slow-moving family.  For the sheep’s sake, get on with it, people!  A small child’s squalling blends with the more distant bleats.  Online, the Huffington Post presents photos of Eid el Adha from around the Muslim world in 2012.  Each photo includes the explanation that the holiday celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isma’al.  How did I manage to ignore this for so many years?
I prefer the Muslim version of the story, really: Isma’al acceding to the sacrifice, unlike poor innocent, ignorant Isaac.  The Muslim Ibrahim, like his God, asks more than a father should dream of asking—but the Judeo-Christian Abraham seems to me to betray both the duty of a father to protect his offspring and the truthful relationship of a father with his son.

In both cases, the readiness is all: Allah and Yahweh both permit the substitution of a ram for a son, right at the brink of destruction.  In the Muslim version of the story, Ibrahim is rewarded for his obedience with a second son, Isaac.  What does Isma’al receive?  A lifetime of sibling rivalry?  Does it take a ritual sacrifice of a first child in order to have a second?
Finally, all the sheep—even the one behind our house—are silent.  James returns home, impressed at the number of people so very competent at managing the slaughter that that undergirds carnivorous consumption. This is more honest, he insists, than a lifestyle in which killing is rampant but almost totally denied.

We bake a chocolate cake and make lentil soup for a gathering of Americans abroad.  “The Al Akhawayn Christmas party!” one of our guests quips.

The day after our party, a man comes down the street on a bike with a cart hooked to the back to collect the hanging sheep skins.

“Why don’t they shear the sheep first?” asks Zoë.  “It seems so wasteful.  All that wool gone to waste.”

I gesture at the stuffed wool cushions that make up the banquettes on which we sit.  “They don’t go to waste.”

Zoë makes a face.  “I wish you hadn’t told me that.”

Erg Chebbi

The last day of the trip began with a sunrise camel trek into the Erg Chebbi dunes for those willing to get up early enough to go.  After the rich experiences we’d been having with John and Eric, I was a little reluctant to go on the unabashedly-touristy sunrise trip to the dunes of Erg Chebbi.  So here’s my confession: I had a blast.

I was not, for instance, looking forward to getting up at 4 to drive for an hour in a land-rover across the hammada (stony desert).  But the drive was less bumpy than I had feared, and it was undeniably atmospheric, to see loads of camels awaiting us, with the “blue men of the desert” costume adding a touch of color to the scene.
The blue outfits are pure window-dressing.  The Amazigh people of this region are not Tuareg (“blue men of the desert”): they just dress up for the tourists.  But they’re kind enough to help us dress up, too: arranging scarves into turbans and even bringing along a bag of extra outfits for any students who want to try them on.

Riding the camels through the dark, with the star-studded sky overhead was also intensely satisfying.  I thought it would be the best part of the morning, until the light started to work its magic:

Oh, the many shades of sunrise:

And then there’s all the delight of the world’s biggest sandbox:
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We were so taken with the sand and its subtle color changes that we almost missed the moment of the sunrise, which comes shockingly fast:
The guides had to call  to get our attention, and we shouted to the students, one of whom lifted Jeremy up in his own ritual greeting to the sun:


Even Zoë felt the pull of the dunes:

But I’m glad to report that she came back to us, eventually:

And yes, we were as taken with the camels as anyone is likely to be, despite our young friend Colm’s minute-by-minute warnings to Jeremy: “Does it hurt yet, Jeremy? It’s going to!”  (None of us found the ride as uncomfortable as we were warned it would be.)
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So, even if it seems a bit of a come-down, from the 12,000 camels of Ibn Battuta’s day to the  multiple camel caravans of the costumed and touristed sunrise,IMG_1379

the stars and the dunes were still far more exhilarating than we had dared to hope they could be.

Zâwiyas: saints, economics, and politics

Still guided by John Shoup and Eric Ross, we are driving through a dramatic sunset to the zâwiya Sidi Al-Ghâzî to enjoy an evening of Sufi recitation.

The evening will be focused on the religious aspects of the zâwiya or the Sufi brotherhood, but I’m also thinking about the political history of the zâwiya in this region.

In the century after the fall of Sijilmassa (1393), the lack of a strong central government meant that local conflicts proliferated and escalated.  In that power vacuum, saints (also called marabouts) and the zâwiyas they founded became an important source of stability: the zâwiyas often provided a physical space in which warring parties could meet to negotiate, and the saints or holy men running the zâwiyas had a powerful influence over local politics.  Religiously-motivated donations to the zâwiyas also made them powerful land- and slave-owning institutions.

In a land of uncertain production, spiritual power (baraka) carries a lot of influence.  Water is everything–but water comes from God. “Rain or no rain is the realm of God” (Tafilalt villager quoted by Ilahiane).

The Alawite, the royal dynasty that came to power in the seventeenth century and still rules today, rose out of the Tafilalt and derived their political and economic power from their spiritual force (baraka).  Back in the 1200s, the citizens of Sijilmassa invited some 1,200 descendents of Muhammed to settle in the city; tradition states that they brought with them the cloak of Muhammed.  The Alawite trace their descent from Muhammed through his daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali: one of their mottos, visible in calligraphy throughout the country, is “Baraka Muhammed.”

Tradition also tells us that the Tafilalt region was plagued with a crippling drought and the inhabitants asked for help.  According to one version of the story, the oasis-dwellers sent a message to the governor of Mecca himself, who replied by sending one of his sons to break the drought and rule the oasis, launching the Alawite dynasty.  A different version of the story (quoted in Ilahiane) claims that the inhabitants asked the help of an Alawite Sharif or holy man who was headed to Mecca on pilgrimage.  He promised to pray for the recovery of the palms and the oasis in exchange for the best stem of dates from each palm.  When he returned, the drought was broken and the palms recovered, but the inhabitants refused to give him the agreed-upon reward.  The Sharif proclaimed the entire oasis promise-breakers.  He told them “tafi bi l’ahd” (honor your promise!) and they replied “la, la, la” (no, no, no): Tafilala or Tafilalet.  This version of the story provides a semi-mythical explanation for the difficulties of the region: as promise-breakers, the inhabitants of the oasis and their descendants have been cursed to live in hardship and misery.

The zâwiyas too have fallen on hard times–or perhaps times were always hard.  As we drive through the gathering dusk, John tells us that the particular zâwiya we are visiting is grounded in the baraka of the saint Sidi Al-Ghâzî.  But three separate villages, all at war with one another, all claimed the saint as their own.  The resolution was to divide the body of the saint: one third to each village.

Here, thanks again to Eric and John, are a photo (John) and satellite image (Eric) of the zâwiya Sidi Al-Ghâzî:
zawiyah-sidi-al-ghazi zc3a2wiya-sidi-al-ghc3a2zc3ae-satThe photo is out of date: the minaret has since collapsed.  Of the satellite image, Eric notes “The actual shrine (mosque, mausolea, cemetery) in the north part of complex was destroyed by a flood in the late 1960s and is now completely ruined. Members of the Sufi order meet in the Guest House, next to the Shaykh’s house, in the complex’s eastern village. Half of this village too is ruined. The village at the west of the complex contains the shrine of Sidi al-’Arbi al-Ghâzî.”

We almost didn’t make it to the zâwiya: the piste was suddenly blocked by a pile of gravel, but the off-road edges were firm enough to take the busses.
Once there, we were welcomed with cushioned seats, ritual hand-washing, cups of tea and peanuts.  Zoë sat in the place once occupied by Hassan II.

As we spoke with Sidi Mustafa al-Ghâzî, the muqqadam or leader of the zâwiya, about Sufi practices, he (and later his son) came around sprinkling us with orange-blossom water from this container.  That felt an unmistakeable blessing: such a lovely scent!SONY DSC

“Can women be Sufis?” we wanted to know.   (John had told us that for the purposes of this evening, we would all be considered “honorary men.”  No women would appear though they would have cooked the dinner for us; if the women of the community wanted a look at us, they would peek in through the opening in the roof–and it would be rude to stare at any woman who was looking in at the roof.)
“Oh, yes!  A very important early Sufi was a woman,” Sidi Mustafa replied.  (Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, 717-801 A.D.)  Eric confirms the existence of women Sufis: “In fact, I was once honored to be included as an honorary woman at a gathering of women Sufis in Senegal.”

I don’t quite have the chutzpah to ask how one would cross the gap between the invisible cooking women and these female Sufis.  If a daughter of this community wanted to follow the Sufi way, how would that desire be accomodated?  Or would it?

The best question of the night: “What’s the hardest thing about following the Sufi way?”
Reply: “Doing what the master tells you to do.  Accepting that guidance.”


After several refills of tea and a dinner consisting of medfouna (a savory stuffed bread), bread and heaping platters of chicken for non-vegetarians, we move from discussion to recitation of the Qu’ran and of Sufi poetry.  After the recitation (which to uneducated ears sounds very musical) comes songs, accompanied by drumming.

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We loved the joy on the face of the muqaddam’s son, holding the hand drum in the photo above.  The young man below, a teacher in the local schools, did a soulful solo and eventually stood up to “dance”–this was a bouncing straight up and down, arms swinging out to the sides in a relaxed way, with some turning in a circular motion.
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As John had stressed before our arrival, the entire evening was carefully controlled by the muqaddam, whose drumming, voice, and non-verbal cues set the pace for every step of the evening.

Sufism in Morocco is sometimes associated with extreme ritual action, such as the self-mutilation of the Hamadsha, as detailed by Edith Wharton with a mix of gory fascination and cynicism:

At first these stripes and stains suggested only a gaudy ritual ornament like the pattern on the drums; then one saw that the paint, or whatever it was, kept dripping down from the whirling caftans and forming fresh pools among the stones; that as one of the pools dried up another formed, redder and more glistening, and that these pools were fed from great gashes which the dancers hacked in their own skulls and breasts with hatchets and sharpened stones.  […]  Gradually, however, it became evident that many of the dancers simply rocked and howled, without hacking themselves, and that most of the bleeding skulls and breasts belonged to negroes. […] Hamadch, it appears, had a faithful slave, who, when his master died, killed himself in despair, and the self-inflicted wounds of the brotherhood are supposed to symbolize the slave’s suicide. [… This account] enables the devotees to divide their ritual duties into two classes, the devotions of the free men being addressed to the saint who died in his bed, which the slaves belong to the slave, and must therefore simulate his horrid end.

Vincent Crapanzano offered a more nuanced psychological (or psychiatric) analysis of these rites of self-mutilation in the 1980s (The Hamadsha: a Study in Moroccan Ethnopsychiatry), but in any case, it’s hard to imagine anything further from the delightful devotions so graciously shared with us this evening.  We felt tremendously honored to be included in the evening, allowed a glimpse of faith in action.

Dams old and new

Driving south from Ifrane, through Azrou and Midelt, you see a lot of barren landscape.
The first time I made this drive (on the way to Ouarzazate), I gasped when I saw the blue waters of the Hassan Addakhil dam.  It felt as if those waters were easing an intense visual or mental thirst:
But even in a sideways glance (or in a small photo), you can see the high-water mark on the hillside, defining the drastic loss of water to evaporation.  (Note the small buildings in the foreground, constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, who helped build the dam in 1971.)

And as you come closer to the dam, certain angles of vision let you see how little water it actually holds:

Let’s remember that in southern Morocco, irrigation is everything:

In the Sahara the oasis–which is to say, the forest of date palms–is primarily a man-made affair and can continue its existence only if the work of irrigating its terrain is kept up unrelentingly…. It was never the practice or the intention of the sons of God to live there.  They have a saying which goes, “No one lives in the Sahara if he is able to live elsewhere.” …. The oases, those magnificent palm groves, are the blood and bone of the desert: life in the Sahara would be unthinkable without them….

(Paul Bowles, Their Heads are Green and their Hands are Blue: Scenes from the Non-Christian World, 1957)

The most obvious forms of irrigation in the Tafilalt are the rivers, the canals, and the khettara.  Archeological reconstruction, for instance, shows that the builders of Sijilmassa diverted the Oued Ziz into a channel that ran along the side of the city.  [Lightfoot & Miller]

But traditional irrigation also relied upon periodic flooding, and on a series of low-lying, traditional dams across the Ziz, to divert waters when in flow.  Here’s a photo of Rasif dam, one of these traditional dams:
And here’s what that dam looks like from the air:
Eric Ross notes of this satellite image (on his blog): “The masonry structure zigzags across the dry valley of the Ziz River. The dam’s reservoir (light grey area north of the masonry) is completely silted up. Occasionally, after heavy rains, water will still rush down the Ziz and flow over the dam.”

The Hassan Addakhil dam was built in 1971 after a catastrophic flood in 1965.  The dam was designed both to stop such massive floods, and to hold water for farmers.  It has been only partially successful.  On the plus side, the dam moderated the severe flooding of 1989 (greater flow than the 1965 flood that prompted dam construction), and it provides clean drinking water throughout the Tafilalt, with water piped from the reservoir directly to community fountains outside each qsar.
(Blurry night photo of large blue buckets being filled at a community fountain and mounted on mules and donkeys.)

On the downside of the equation…
the dam stops most of the periodic floods that used to recharge the water table, so the water table is sinking dangerously low;
not all flooding is contained by the dam;
rissani-flood (photo Tachfine Baida, Eric Ross’s blog)
farmers complain that the cold water sent downstream with each timed dam release “burns” their plants;
fertilizer use and irrigation have both increased dramatically since the dam’s construction, with accompanying soil depletion;
cement irrigation channels increase evaporation dramatically over the khettara or traditional mud channels;
community fountains are placed outside the qsars, making it more laborious to gather water (and contributing to the local tendency to keep girls out of school). SONY DSC SONY DSC
An old community well, now dried up and useless; girls and women preparing to carry water.

John Shoup reports that one of the engineers overseeing the dam told him the best thing to do with the dam would be to blow it up.  Hsain Ilahiane suggests there may be political benefits to the dam’s introduction of “a bureaucratic structure of water management, a social welfare institution whose motives coincide with anchoring the state’s presence in a border area not far from a defiant Algeria.” (Dissertation, 1998)

Water is wealth; water is power.


Khettaras: ingenious irrigation

The sheer labor required to maintain an oasis might be part of the answer to the slavery question–the puzzle of Sijilmassa’s path from radical equality (the Kharijites) to promoter of the salt/gold/slave trade.

And some of the most invisible labor of the oasis is hidden underground.

SONY DSCThere you are, driving through the desert, and you see a bunch of enormous anthills.  Really?  Ant-hills?  Maybe mole hills? How big are those moles?  The size of camels?

What are those things?

Those are khettara, “an ingenius technology to harvest hidden groundwater and deliver it to the surface by means of gravity alone.”*  Who knew?
The khettara is essentially a tunnel or gallery, large enough to walk in (though perhaps only in a bent over or crouching position), and often several kilometres long.  Khettaras (called qanat in Iran and other countries) serve to move water from a higher place to a lower place–in this particular case, the khettaras are moving water from the piedmont (the foothills) of the High Atlas to the extended oasis of the Tafilalt: a total of 48 kilometers.  Mind-boggling!

SONY DSCWhat’s visible on the surface are merely the waste piles: the heaps of sand and scree dug out of the water channel and removed to the surface of the earth.

The brilliance of this irrigation system is hard to overstate: these khettaras can move water up to 48 kilometers while keeping it underground, minimizing evaporation and maximizing irrigation potential.
Satellite image of a single khettara (made visible through the line of access shafts) crossing under the national road–taken from Eric Ross’s blog:

Without the khettara, Fitzwilliam-Hall suggests, the date palm oases of southern and central Morocco might never have existed.  (Lightfoot and Miller suggest, conversely, that khettara only came into use in the Tafilalt region after the fall of Sijilmassa: the city’s central government could maintain the network of canals watering the city, but khettara were more suited to the dispersed, decentralized labor available to the individual qsar.  In this case, the role of the Haratine in Sijilmassa must have been more related to field work than to khettara irrigation.)

There’s a rest stop along the road between Erfoud and Tinerhir where you can see a model of how the khettara might have worked: under the ground, a man would be filling up buckets or baskets with sand and sludge; above ground, another man would lie on his back and use his feet to turn a kind of wooden pulley to raise the baskets of sand up to where they could be emptied.
Multiply this labor by a factor of thousands.  Remember that each khettara includes many many access shafts (hassi in Arabic; tasfalt in Tashelhit).  Simon Fitzwilliam-Hall inventoried 1600 khettaras in Morocco in 2009, though he counted only 350 still functioning.  Let’s randomly imagine an average of 30 hassi per khettara for a total of 48,000 hassi.


So who did all that work?  Some scholars estimate that creating the Almoravid-era khettaras near Marrakesh would have required 12 specialists and 200-300 laborers working for 30 years; 20,000 Christian prisoners-of-war were allegedly sent from Moorish Spain to Marrakesh to provide unpaid labor.  More commonly, the Haratine (see earlier post) are on record as khettara diggers.

This roadside rest stop is historical tourism: a delightfully dry tunnel, hollowed out deeply enough that it’s easy to walk in; atmospheric darkness, punctuated by the light of the access shafts.  
But imagine this instead: slogging barefoot through a stream of water, crab-hopping Golum-like  down the channel but still scraping your back or your head on the roof of the tunnel; struggling to shovel sludge into a woven basket that is undoubtedly broken and leaky; dragging that broken and breaking basket to your next access shaft.  Imagine having no choice about this labor, no ownership in the products that depend upon the irrigation you so laboriously provide.

Both survival and the means of production seem complicated here.

*Simon Fitzwilliam-Hall, “The Living Khettaras of Southern Morocco: A Traditional Water Harvesting Technology on the Brink”

Dale Lightfoot and James Miller, “Sijilmassa: The Rise and Fall of a Walled Oasis in Southern Morocco”

Qsar defensive architecture, slaves, and colonial resistance

On the second day of our trip to the Tafilalt, John and Eric took us to visit a qsar that now houses a museum: Qsar al-Fidha.

First, we looked at some qsur (plural of qsar) from the outside, and talked about pisé or rammed earth construction.
As we saw in the construction of the Fez medina, pisé or rammed earth architecture is both sustainable and locally appropriate.  The thermal mass of the thick walls offers insulation, keeping housing cool in summer and warm in winter.  Typically, construction uses subsoils low in clay, saving topsoils for agricultural use.  The mud can be shaped into bricks which are sun-dried; these are then stacked in a temporary frame and connected using a mud slurry.  Alternately, damp soil can be poured into the frame and directly tamped down using ramming poles, working up 4-10 inches at a time until the top of the frame is reached.

According to Wikipedia, rammed earth holds humidity “between 40% and 60%, the ideal range for asthma sufferers and for the storage of such susceptible items as books.” For an academic with an asthmatic child, this is of no small interest!  The width of rammed earth construction also offers significant sound-proofing, helpful when an entire village is living cheek-by-jowl.

The downside of pisé construction is the ongoing labor of its maintenance.  A new earth-based rendering needs to be applied almost every year in order to keep the walls from dissolving in the winter rains.  And the communal nature of the qsur means that if your neighbor lets her house disintegrate, your house is much more vulnerable to decay.  Here, external ramparts work to support a wall whose decay threatens its neighbor.
SONY DSCThe process of decay also makes visible the rammed earth bricks underlying the connective slurry.
Another example of earthen bricks in the process of decay; water pipes working direct water far from the rammed-earth walls.

(John also mentioned a 20th century Egyptian architect, Hassan Fathy, who works with rammed earth.  Unfortunately, Fathy’s carefully designed rammed-earth village has suffered from salt-stone foundations; if you’re interested, the village is featured in this video:  Rammed earth is becoming a hot topic on sustainable building sites: check it out.)

On to Qsar al-Fidha!  Eric describes the “onion” layering of this particular  qsar: a large outer courtyard, surrounded by walls; a smaller inner-walled compound, with additional buildings around the edges; a central compound which was occupied by the governor of the local province, “always a member of the royal family.”

The first courtyard or mashwar is big enough to allow the drilling and display of military force, though at the moment, it mostly makes for a long walk for women and girls collecting water.
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In the photo below, our host Abdullah, the head of the museum, proudly descended from the upper slaves of the royal family, crosses the mashwar to prepare for our visit.  Certainly, the size of the space has a psychological effect on a lonely visitor.

When you pass through the gate pictured above, you find yourself facing a wall: this was an obvious architectural defense strategy, breaking the momentum of any possible enemy charge:

A second “elbow” turn in the structure of the qsar served as a guardpost, where the guardian of the village could keep an eye on everyone coming in and out (and what they were carrying).  In this particular qsar–the qaidate, or the local center of government–the guard post would also have been the place where taxes were delivered and counted.  Taxes were paid in kind, so people would have brought bushels of wheat, quantities of dates, heads of sheep and so on.  This would also have been the courthouse, where unresolved conflicts across the oasis would have been brought to be decided by the governor, or more likely his deputy.  The finer stucco finish of this gate area speaks to its grander purposes (unfortunately, the photo doesn’t give much sense of the space included in the L-turning).

Soon after the guard post, the corridor/street gives access to the mosque and the well.  Two things you could not refuse a traveler: water and a place to pray.  (But you could position those resources close to the guard post so that you could keep an eye on those dubious strangers.)
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The well only provides water for washing now–the water quality is too low for drinking or livestock or irrigation–hence the long walk out to the more modern water fountain.

The next layer of the onion brings us to the governor’s palace.  Here, we see classic white-and-blue plasterwork designed to rest the eyes from the glare of the sun as you enter a darker space.


Before we get to that restful vision, however, we pause once again in the antechamber to hear John’s account of the qaidate under the French and earlier.
Our host, Abdullah, is proud of his lineage, drawn from high-level palace slaves.  Here he holds  pictures of the Alawite dynasty his family has served through the generations.  As John explains it, Abdullah’s father would have been given as a slave to the son of the governor  when he was a boy.  The two boys would have grown up together, as intimates, closer than brothers, since the royal boy’s brothers would be competing with him for power.  Once grown, the governor’s slave would be the second most powerful man in the region, offering a separate channel of access to the governor.  People would approach the governor’s advisor (rather than the unapproachable governor) and pay him to put their case to the governor.  The advisor-slave would maintain his power by being absolutely honest with the governor, so he would have to choose the cases he accepted with care.
Audiences held in the antechamber probably featured the governor sitting in front of a curtain, a curtain that could serve many purposes: decoration and demonstration of power, but also a hiding place for the governor’s advisor/slave.  The governor in thinking over an issue raised by an audience could lean back slightly to hear from behind the curtain the views of his slave advisor on the matter or the people at hand.  (Yes, yes, the wizard of Oz and the man behind the curtain definitely comes to mind here.)

But these kinds of governing structures also had a role to play under colonialism, also known as the French Protectorate.
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The Tafilalt was one of the last parts of Morocco to fall to the French.  The center of this region fell in 1930; the outskirts, down to Zagora, held out until 1933.  The battle around Jebel Sahro cost the French more officers per capita than were killed in World War I.  (Local people targeted the easily-recognizable officers, having realized that the rest of the soldiers didn’t know what to do if the officers were killed.) Force majeure concluded the struggle: the French brought over their long-range artillery from French-held Algeria and bombarded the town until concessions were finally made.

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 2.13.01 PMArea of heavy resistance to the French

Victory was relative.  Our host remembers his father answering the phone, setting the receiver down, and walking away.  An hour later, he might return, pick up the receiver and say, “Oh! you’re still there!  I forgot about you!”  The message? “The qaid rules here, not the French.  You will have access to the qaid when I feel like granting you that access, not before.”

So the French would have to get in a jeep and drive from Erfoud to this qsar in Rissani, just above Merzouga–only to find that they were kept waiting at the gate until someone could be bothered to let them in.  Same basic message.  This kind of passive resistance persisted for some 20 years.  Only in the 1950s did the French decide to move the administrative center to Rissani, shifting the caid’s office to the same building, in order to acquire ease of access.  Until independence in 1957.