Sunday, September 18, 2011

Morocco In The News - September 18th

 'Morocco Caucus' Established Inside U.S. Congress.
Washington — A Group of U.S. lawmakers announced the establishment of the "Congressional Morocco Caucus" for the 112th congress, with the aim of deepening the economic and strategic relations between Rabat and Washington
"We are pleased to announce the establishment of the Congressional Morocco Caucus for the 112th Congress. The Morocco Caucus will be a bipartisan group of Members committed to deepening the economic and strategic relationship between the United States and Morocco," said the initiators of the Caucus in a letter to their fellow congressmen.
They recalled that Morocco and the U.S. enjoy long-standing friendship relations, describing that the Kingdom as a "vital" ally in North Africa and "a strategic friend that shares our values and aspirations."
Most recently, said the letter signed by congressmen Mario-Diaz-Balart, Bennie Thompson, Loretta Sanchez et Michael G. Grimm, Morocco held a constitutional referendum and implemented "far-reaching democratic reforms."
They added that the Kingdom "has long been a strong partner on security issues, a strong trading partner for U.S. business, and is a regional leader on democratic reforms."
With the recent events taking place in the region, Morocco-U.S. relations have gained a strategic importance, underlined the signatories of the letter, stressing the need to "work together to ensure the success of their democratic aspirations."

U.S. Underlines Country's Efforts to Counter Extremism, Encourage Religious Tolerance – Report
Washington — U.S. Department of State highlighted Tuesday Morocco's efforts aiming to "counter extremist ideology", underlining that the Kingdom "continued to encourage tolerance, respect, and dialogue among religious groups."
Explaining the approach implemented by Morocco, the Department of State noted, in its 2010 International Religious Freedom Report, the continuation of the training of female Muslim spiritual guides (Mourchidaat), a programme launched in 2006, which aims to "promote tolerance and to increase women's spiritual participation."
The report recalled, in this respect, that since the inception of the programme over 200 women have been trained and are now providing counsel to women, girls and children on variety of subjects, including their legal rights and family planning.
The efforts made by Morocco to promote moderate Islam are seen through the religious freedom that Moroccan Jews are enjoying "in safety throughout the country" as well as Christian communities abroad, said the report.
In order to encourage interfaith dialogue, the document also noted that Jewish culture and its artistic, literary, and scientific heritage is taught in some Moroccan universities, citing as an example the teaching of Hebrew and comparative religion in the Department of Islamic Studies at the University of Rabat.
Studies of Christianity and Judaism are part of a course of academic theological studies, added the Department of State in the same context.

Over 6.5 Million Students Enrolled in Schools
14 September 2011
Rabat — Some 6,593,194 students, 39% of whom live in rural areas, have started the school year 2011-2012 in different schools across the Kingdom.
The number of new entrants to primary schools reached 684,438 pupils, while the newly built schools amounted to 290 bringing the school's overall number to 9,995, including 153 in rural areas.
The educational human resources were reinforced with 8346 new teachers. This increases the number of teachers to 233,180, of whom 56% teach in primary schools, 25% in junior high schools, and 19% in high schools.
To help achieve educational goals, several social support programmes were developed, notably the "one million school bag" initiative. This Royal initiative, to be implemented for a total cost of 313 million dirhams, will benefit 4,102,317 schoolchildren from different regions

Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Moscow, Idaho
Anna James spends two years teaching in Rabat, Morocco, with the Peace Corps
By Kelli Hadley Daily News Staff Writer   Wednesday, September 07, 2011
For almost two years now, a 24-year-old Pullman-native has lived by herself in a small house in Rabat, Morocco, where she teaches English and leadership virtues to youth in the developing country.
Anna James was raised in Pullman, graduating from Pullman High School in 2005 and then from Willamette University in Salem, Ore., in 2009 with degrees in international studies and French. From there, her destination was in the hands of the Peace Corps.
"I really developed in interest in development work and wanted to see all the corners of the world," James said. "The Peace Corps had always been in the back of my mind."
The application process was lengthy, she said, taking more than six months from initial paperwork to the formal invitation to work in North Africa. Upon applying she was able to give a location preference, but decisions are made based on experience and language capabilities, she said. Her ability to speak French and background working with children landed her at a youth development center in Rabat, the capital of Morocco.
James lived with a host family while doing intensive language training for the first two months, after which she got her site placement. She lived with another host family in Rabat for two months and then found a house where she currently lives by herself. She went into the experience with an open mind, she said, but still faced culture shock upon arrival - trying to communicate in Arabic was the biggest struggle she faced at first. After adapting to the conservative lifestyle in Morocco, things that seemed foreign at first became ordinary, such as wearing skirts down to her ankles and long-sleeved shirts.
"I didn't know a lot about Morocco or Islam, or what the culture would be like," James said. "Morocco is a beautiful and diverse country, but it's very different from the Pacific Northwest, especially in the small villages where we're working. Women don't sit in cafes, and they're not outside a whole lot unless they're going to one place to another."
James started her volunteer work teaching English at the youth center, and eventually branched into teaching different classes, such as exercise groups for women and leadership seminars.
Her biggest project, the implementation of a program called CLIMB - Creating Leadership in the Mountains and Beyond - which wrapped up in July. She and another Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco each gathered a group of 15 teenagers and created a six-month program, teaching leadership, team
building, first-aid, environmental education and outdoor appreciation. Once a month the groups went on excursions to a different areas of Morocco, and then the final step of the program was a four-day climb to the top of Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa with an elevation of 13,671 ft.
"It was an adventure - definitely the most rewarding thing I've done while in Morocco, but by far the most challenging," she said. "The people I was working with were adult community members, and it was really amazing to see so many of them step forward and ... show their dedication to the youth."
The people of Morocco are probably what James will miss the most, she said. She would like to return to visit and could possibly live there again if working with a larger development association.
"It's definitely been the most rewarding thing I've ever done," James said. "You have really high highs and some pretty low lows, too, but you really find out a lot about what you can handle and what you can't. I learned a lot about humility and not taking yourself too seriously."
James hasn't been back to the U.S. to visit since she left for Morocco, so she has unsure feelings about what returning will be like this November.
"I think it'll be tough at first, but my excitement to come home and see everyone outweighs that feeling," she said. "We're very lucky here, a lot of us have Internet access in our homes, so it's been much easier to keep in touch than it would have been only a few years ago."
Upon arrival back to the U.S., James hopes to find a job in Portland in development work or a nonprofit organization.
"At this point I'm pretty open, going back to school in the near future will probably be a good move for me," she said.
James is the daughter of Susan James of Pullman and Don Carr of Priest River, Idaho.
Dentist to help kids keep their big smiles; COTTINGHAM: Visit to Morocco to treat children in Berber Tribe

Katy Wood
Hull Daily Mail
September 10, 2011
IT WAS an experience which touched his heart and will stay with him forever.
Now, East Riding dentist Chris Branfield is making a return visit to Morocco to treat more children with severe dental problems.
He is part of a group of dentists from across the UK who are aiming to treat youngsters and educate them on the importance of dental hygiene. Chris first visited the country last year and wanted to continue the visits after seeing the scale of the problem.
He will return to north-east Morocco on September 25 to treat children in the Berber tribe.
Chris said: "You realise you take things for granted.
"They don't have any dental health care or dental education, so they have rubbish teeth.
"The children are in pain. To know you have taken them out of pain gives you a feeling of self-worth and pride."
Chris, 41, of Beverley, is owner and principal dentist at Castle Park Dental Care in Cottingham.
He and the rest of the team have covered their own costs for the trip, as well as a trek during their two-week stay.
Dental equipment has been donated and money for other essentials has been raised through fundraising and sponsorship.
The tribe is based in El Jebha, a small port town situated in the Rif Mountains. Chris helped to treat about 50 children with severe tooth decay last year.
But he hopes to treat at least 200 later this month through the group's Teeth For Life programme.
Chris said: "It's rampant decay leading to multiple abscesses.
"When I saw it last time, it made my heart sink and made me feel really emotional.
"I wanted to give the kids a big hug and wave a magic wand to make it all better.
"They have a really sweet tooth. "If you can educate the children, hopefully, you can change attitudes for future generations."
Chris and the team, known as the Dental Mavericks, also hope to create a dental clinic in El Jebha and pay a dental nurse to work there.
They will hand out toothbrushes and toothpaste to the children during their stay.
InShort East Riding dentist Chris Branfield is part of a team preparing to treat children with severe tooth decay in Morocco.
Dating back to 3000BC THE Berber Tribe has lived in Africa since the earliest recorded time and references date back to 3000BC.
There are many scattered tribes of Berber across Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, and 40 per cent of the Moroccan population is Berber.
Berber is derived from the Roman term for barbarians.
Berbers tend to live in rural areas. They usually live in clay huts or tents made out of goat hair, but houses are made of stone in larger villages.
Visit www.dentalmavericks. org or to support Chris and the team.
Copyright 2011 Hull Daily MailAll Rights Reserved
Hull Daily Mail
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Alex Norman’s Semester in Morocco: First Impressions
Today is my twelfth day in Rabat, Morocco and I really cannot over-emphasize how astounding this place is. To start from the beginning, my flight into the African continent (from Paris to Rabat) was awe-inspiring in itself; it traced the coast of Spain to the tip of North Africa and all the way along the coast to the capital city. I could see all the varied terrain–mountains, plains, beaches–and even the actual contour of the country’s edge like the curvature of a spine.
My first four nights in Rabat were spent at the Hotel Majestic (Majestic might have been a bit of an overstatement, but each room did at least have a shower complete with hot water), which is located directly across the street from the medina (Rabat’s old city). The medina is a labyrinth. When I received the address for my homestay family (note: all of SIT’s homestays are located inside the medina), I thought I’d try to get at least a rough sense of my new home’s location by looking the medina up in an online map. Oops! As it turns out, the Rabat medina is the first town I have ever encountered that is completely undocumented on Google Maps. It is composed of intricately curved, stone-paved streets and thus, although it is thickly populated and bursts with street vendors offering djellabas, hookahs, slippers and snails, it registers only as an obscure grey void on the screen. My homestay family and their home really deserves its own blog entry, so until I catch up to that I’ll mention SIT’s main academic building here, which is a real work of art:
In the annex, there are several stained glass windows and all of the doors, door frames, windows, etc. are carved and painted and the walls and floors are lined with detailed tile patterns, like those above. I personally think that standing inside the building is somewhat like living inside a giant kaleidoscope, if you can imagine that, with a variety of patterns and elements that meld together and almost seem to diffract and re-form depending on where one is standing at the time.
Now, the terrace. Oh, the terrace. It has a 360 degree panoramic view of both the city and the ocean and I plan to study there every chance I get. Here is a taste of the view.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the pictures if you can (although I’m certainly not the most natural photographer) and look forward to stories about a Moroccan family in the entries to come!
Maghreb Film Festival celebrates Amazigh culture
Movie-makers from across the Maghreb descended on Nabeul, Tunisia last week to celebrate the country's newly liberated film industry.
By Houda Trabelsi in Tunis – 12/09/11

The Tunisian revolution ushered in a new era for the nation's movie industry. Organisers of the just-concluded third Maghreb Film Festival of Nabeul (FFMN) used the opportunity to celebrate Amazigh cinema for the first time in Tunisia.
"I have discovered Amazigh cinema at the Azzefoun festival in Algeria, and I was impressed by their culture," said Anis Lassoued, director of the September 7th-11th festival. "Therefore, we decided to add this aspect to the Maghreb Film Festival in Nabeul as we can't exclude Amazigh culture in the Maghreb because there is an important class of Amazigh people here."
Under the old regime, Lassoued said that he submitted a project on Amazigh culture to a number of producers but all rejected it for political reasons.
"Now I'm determined to discover this culture that I have fallen in love with after visiting a number of Berber villages in southern Tunisia, and therefore, I decided to make a movie on it," he told Magharebia. "However, shedding light on Amazigh culture doesn't mean that we encourage divisions among the Maghreb peoples based on their origins."
The festival director noted that regional co-operation was "a must to make the Maghreb cinema a global cinema", adding that organisers established a fund to promote Maghreb movie making.
Si El Hachemi Assad, director of the Amazigh Film Festival of Azzefoun (FCNAFA), told Magharebia that the Algerian group has 12 years of experience with Amazigh cinema.
"I have established the festival under a personal initiative with the encouragement of state. This is a daring experiment involving too many challenges," he said.
Regarding the Algerian-Tunisian partnership, he said that he considered "the creation of a cultural association in Tunisia for the first time to be a good indicator for co-operation with brothers in Tunisia in several fields, especially cinema, which were not possible under the former regime".
Regional film co-operation also extends to Mauritania. "We don't have too much experience with cinema in Mauritania, and we don't have any experience with Amazigh cinema although there are Amazighs in Mauritania and there is a rich Amazigh culture there," said Mauritanian cinematographer Abdul Rahman Ahmed Salem.
"There is Amazigh movement in the region through festivals and meetings with some intellectuals who call for shedding light on Amazigh identity, and this makes us think about co-operating with our brothers in the Maghreb to shed light on Amazigh culture, especially through the cinema, in Mauritania," he added.
Meanwhile, Libyan filmmaker Salah Gouider said that "the Amazighs were persecuted under Kadhafi and they were even prevented from speaking in their own language in public, and in this way, it was not possible to do any cultural activities to shed light on Amazigh culture in Libya."
"However, now, thank God, we can do that, especially as the Libyan Amazighs have actively taken part in the revolution with their own blood, especially in Nafusa Mountains," he said.
"I think that after the Arab revolutions and the wind of change that blew in the region, the Maghreb countries can co-operate together to promote the cinema in general and Amazigh cinema in particular," Gouider added.
Maid from Morocco? No thanks, say Saudi wives
Feel Moroccan women are beautiful and could snatch their husbands
By Nadim Kawach
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
A few weeks after uniting against a long-standing ban on female car driving, Saudi women are again joining hands in another common cause—this time against the recruitment of housemaids from Morocco. Their excuse is that Moroccan women are beautiful and could snatch their husbands off them.

While the campaign against the driving ban came too late, their reaction to government plans to import Moroccan maids was too swift and decisive.
The Shura council (the Gulf kingdom’s appointed parliament) said it had been deluged by demands from Saudi women urging it to veto plans by the government to turn to Morocco to get housemaids following the suspension of domestic workers from the Philippines and Indonesia.

“Many Saudi woman have objected to plans to import domestic workers from Morocco…they say the Moroccan women are beautiful and this will cause continuous anxiety and concern in Saudi families,” 'Sharq' daily said.

“Some of them said Moroccan women are so attractive that their husbands could easily fall for them…others said Moroccans are good at magic and sorcery and that this could enable them to lure their husbands.”

In comments last week, a Saudi chamber official said Saudi Arabia, the largest Arab economy and the world’s top oil exporter, could turn to Morocco and other countries to get its domestic workers following the dispute with the Philippines and Indonesia, the largest suppliers of housemaids to the Gulf countries.

“We are considering turning to countries which allow their domestic workers to move to other countries without preconditions…these include Morocco, east Asia, and some south African countries,” said Saad Al Baddah, director of the labour recruitment committee at the Saudi Chambers Federation.

“For the time being, we face a problem regarding Moroccan domestic workers as there are no official recruitment centres…temporarily, Saudis can travel to Morocco and bring in housemaids directly.”

A labour ministry official said Saudis are allowed to hire Moroccan housemaids directly in the absence of official or private recruitment offices for that country.

“We can provide Saudis with a visa for one Moroccan domestic worker but they have to bring them in or look for government offices in Morocco…this procedure is temporary pending the establishment of such offices in Saudi Arabia,” labour ministry spokesman Hattab Al Anzi told local newspapers.

Riyadh’s plans to turn to new domestic labour sources followed the suspension of recruitment of housemaids from the Philippines and Indonesia in June over disputes on wages and other terms.

Officials said last month they could soon lift a ban on maids from the Philippine once a final deal is signed between the two countries.

Employment offices across Saudi Arabia said they were already negotiating with other countries to supply maids and offset a shortage resulting from the boycott of Philippine and Indonesian domestic workers.“Many Saudi women have asked the Shura council to intervene to stop plans to bring in housemaids from Morocco,” 'Sharq' said.

“Some women threatened to resign their job and stay at home so their husbands will not be left alone with the Moroccan maid.”More than 1.5 million housemaids from the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other Asian and African nations work in Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom has been under fire from local and foreign human rights groups over the death of some housemaids, who have been reportedly killed by their employers. Pressure mounted in late 2010 following news that an Indonesian housemaid was severely tortured by her female employer.

The case of the 23-year-old maid, Sumiati Salan Mustapa triggered furor through the Kingdom and other countries after she was hospitalised with severe head and body injuries because the torture by hot iron.
Saudi official dismisses fears of Moroccan maids

Morocco's culture aids its economy
By Sylvia Smith
Mayor Mohamed Benaissa explains what inspired the festival
Cherries, camels, dates and even saffron; all are celebrated in colourful, traditional festivals in towns and villages throughout Morocco, yet none has brought enduring social and environmental benefits on the scale of the art museum in Assilah in northern Morocco.
The process began in 1978 when a few cleverly placed licks of paint began the transformation of a rat-infested, rubbish-strewn eyesore with open sewers into a clean and environmentally aware city.
Setting up a festival based on festooning the town's white walls with murals was a deliberate tactic by its photographer mayor, Mohamed Benaissa, to encourage civic pride in the town.
"We don't have any resources other than the cultural abilities and imagination of our residents," he explains. "But my faith in them has paid off."
Mayor Benaissa says he has different priorities from other festival directors, who may not even live in the city hosting the event.
"This city council has a duty to provide its citizens with shelter, employment and basic infrastructure," he says. "We dovetail these with running the festival."
Gulf country donations
The Assilah effect - sustained growth without "the Torremolinos effect" of high-rise hotels and overcrowded beaches - has encouraged other cities to regard art as a way of boosting income.
From Fez, with its festival of sacred music, to Essaouira, with its Gnawa bands, and Agadir's Timitar based on amazing arts, culture lures foreign tourists who stay for the duration of the festival. Some even buy a second home.
But although lots of Moroccan cities have benefited from investment from Dubai in the construction of large-scale tourist projects, Assilah has side-stepped dependence on mass-market tourism, benefiting instead from Gulf country donations to build a library, hospital, clinic, school or cultural centre.
Key to Assilah's ability to benefit from socio-cultural financing offered by Gulf sovereign wealth funds is the festival's status as Morocco's first non-governmental organisation (NGO) and Mr Benaissa's close relationship with Gulf ministers, forged during his nine years as Morocco's foreign minister.
Key questions
Additionally, the Moroccan government's policies have brought it close to countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait, which invest in commercial schemes in the kingdom.
Ministers and influential policy makers from these countries come in person to address international conferences at the Assilah festival.
The month-long "paint-in" has morphed into an event that confronts key questions that resonate with Africa, the Gulf, Latin America and Asia.
Issues such as immigration, investment in infrastructure, transport and alternative energy have all been debated and opinions have been shaped in this small Atlantic town.
The director-general of the Kuwaiti Development Fund, Abdulwahab Ahmed al-Bader, says Morocco, a member of the Arab League, has a very good relationship with the Gulf Economic Countries.
"It's been an ally in foreign affairs," he says. "It's part of our duty to support a country like Morocco."
High-level think-tank
The Kuwait-based Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development has paid for this year's festival, and previously built an old people's home.
Assilah's restoration has helped create a place for debate as well as culture
It is not alone. The Qatari Investment Corporation built new social housing projects after the construction of a fishing port and a highway from the airport in Tangier to Assilah by the Moroccan government.
Although the donor countries receive no financial benefit from their Assilah investment portfolio, they have the opportunity to participate in the wide-ranging conferences and debates that link together economic, environmental and political matters.
According to Fathallah Oualalou, Morocco's former finance minister and now mayor of the capital Rabat, putting together a sort of high-level think-tank underlines the importance of Assilah.
"Participants from African countries benefit from meeting the heads of Sovereign Funds in the Gulf, he explains. "We are part of Africa here and Assilah acts as a fulcrum between Europe and Africa, but also we have strong Latin American and Asian participation."
This year's conference on renewable energy, attended by UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, reminded the audience that more than half of the world's renewable power capacity was being developed in Africa, Asia and the Gulf.
This well attended forum was held in the Prince Bandar Bin Sultan Library, paid for by the former Saudi ambassador to the US.
With debates on Gulf sovereign wealth funds, the image of the Arab in sub-Saharan African media, and a prize for African poetry, it appears that Assilah can mix and match culture with economics and the environment in a way that leaves other Moroccan towns behind.

Breathing in the magic of Morocco
By: Bibsy M. Carballo  Philippine Daily Inquirer  Sunday, August 28th, 2011
Sitting at the northwestern corner of the  African continent, with the Strait of Gibraltar separating it from Spain, is the kingdom of Morocco, ruled by a king with such vast executive powers he can dissolve parliament and issue decrees that have the force of law.
Its population is over 32 million, its political capital is Rabat, and its largest city is Casablanca. It is comparable to California in mileage. Every Moroccan can speak either Berber or Moroccan Arabic.  French is the foreign language most spoken, but otherwise, Moroccans appear to be very nationalistic and proud of their ancestry.
The best known city is Casablanca, setting of the vintage romantic film of the same title starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, although none of the scenes was ever shot there.
We had long been fascinated by Morocco, first because we knew absolutely nothing about it, and second, because Filipinos appeared to be inordinately privileged not to be required a visa for as long as 90 days, while our Asean  neighbors Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Brunei, Laos  and Vietnam had to fall in line for one.
We found nothing in our history, past or present, that would link us to this country, and it was the strangeness, plus its being part of the African continent, that made us all the more want to go and visit it.
We are told, however, by our Madrid-based friend Richard Signey, who has been to Morocco innumerable times, that if we only had time to visit one city in Morocco, it should be Marrakech. We took Richard’s advice and prepared for the trip not without anxiety, for Richard had a full schedule of teaching and could not accompany us.
Fortunately, we had as travel companions journalist Ronald Constantino and jewelry designer Marlon Pedregosa to share in our doubts and fears. Marlon, the experienced traveler among us, got us cheap tickets on EasyJet and booked us for four days at the Hotel Ryad Mogador, part of a modern chain, yet proudly displaying décor from its artisans.
The location was close to the walled city they call the Medina, so near we could just walk in and voila! find a KFC eatery, and was as comforting as it was distressing.
Heart of the city
Marrakech has two parts—the historic old city called the Medina, and the new district called Ville Nouvelle or New Town. Most visitors proceed to the Medina with its narrow passageways and shops, its local color, residents in full regalia, and the perception of danger that every unfamiliar culture strangely offers as magnet to the more adventurous.
Clearly, the Medina is the throbbing heart of Marrakech,   a sprawling combustion of humanity that can be disconcerting, as Moroccans are not as welcoming as we Pinoys are to foreigners.
They hate visitors interminably taking pictures of them without as much as a by-your-leave. They would swear in their native tongue at the souvenir hunter, and it didn’t matter that he was buying a whole bagful of their goodies. That just isn’t part of the bargain.
Otherwise, one can find in the Medina a flea market that would put Divisoria to shame. Everything, mostly handmade  in Morocco and other African kingdoms, can be found, from clothes, bags, metalcraft and glass-blown lamps, to carved knick-knacks, shoes and food. You name it, they have it, and at unbelievably cheap prices.
But Marrakech is other sights and places, as well. It is history and culture, and  these we are advised to see by private cab. Our cab driver Omar spoke English, and knew his country’s history like the back of his hand.
Marrakech was founded in 1062 AD by the Almoravid dynasty that ruled much of Africa then, and what is now Spain and Portugal. Almost a century after, the Almoravids would be overtaken by the Berber Muslim Almohad Dynasty, who encouraged creativity from Arabic poets, philosophers and scholars.
After the fall of the Almohads, Marrakech was taken over by the French from 1912-1956. This is why today, most everyone speaks French or their native tongue, and only those in the tourist industry learn English.
A day trip outside Marrakech would cost $300, which includes cab, fuel, driver, normal entrance fees and lunch. One leaves the hotel at 9 a.m. and returns at 6 p.m. after the 80 km round-trip. Driver Omar agrees to the rates, but does us one better by not informing us his air-conditioning was defective. We had been warned about these drivers, so we are not really surprised.
Otherwise, Omar’s itinerary is acceptable, although it traverses the expected tourist route with items for sale wherever we stopped, where Omar earned a commission.
Valleys and waterfalls
The Ourika Valley is a string of villages 30 km south of Marrakech where the landscape along a river is fresh, green, and cool even in the hottest summer. Spring would be the best choice for the traveler. The road slowly led us into the valley until it ended in Setti Fatma, famous for  its seven waterfalls, after which would be mountains difficult to trek, Omar tells us.
We are first brought to what we call the camel stop, where tourists are expected to take pictures. Then we visit a cooperative complex, Le Coin Berbere, where old women share with young Berber workers how to make organic cosmetic products.
We buy samplings of eucalyptus, musk and rose-flavored perfumed oil that local chemists studying in nearby universities have come up with. We buy tea leaves, lip balm, soap, henna, body scrub, wrinkle cream, massage oil and body lotion. Less than a kilometer away, we visit a garden where they grow the source of these products. This was a most enjoyable stop where we saw no tourists.
But first a word about the Berbers. They are an ethnic group with a common heritage, language, culture, and ancestry. Omar tells us that the first Berber in Morocco came from Yemen. Perhaps he did, but today’s Berber-speaking people live in Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia.
For lunch, Omar brings us to a riverside restaurant where the delicious set meal is served along with refreshments and local entertainment. We are now ready to visit a Berber home four generations old, where 10 people live in a house of stones from the mountains put together with clay, paste and water.
We speak with the head of the family; we take a tour around the home; we take pictures. It seems so unreal. Obviously because we are tourists and theirs is a regular stop for tourists, we experience none of the shooing away in the Medina, which actually was rather disappointing.
We are back home at the agreed time, with mixed feelings about the day’s proceedings. We felt we had been given an authentic enough taste of life in the barrios, one that displayed the Berber’s use of nature as a partner to be respected and not to be abused, and their artistry in utilizing these gifts to maintain a livelihood.
But at the same time, we felt their natural inclinations had been stifled. They were too polite. They posed for pictures yet did not smile. We ask ourselves what was the better portrait—this obedient provincial dweller, or that of the proud, boisterous Medina merchant who stood his ground? Easily, our choice was the latter.
The next day, we go on our own, taking a cab to the Palace of El Badii and Jardin Majorelle.
Richard had warned us not to waste our money on El Badii,  which means Incomparable Palace, but we didn’t listen. He was right. The palace consists simply of the remnants of an original built in 1578 which took 25 years to construct, and was torn apart by another Sultan who used the materials to decorate his own palace in Meknes.
Greatest work
Jardin Majorelle, on the other hand, is a joy to visit. Opened by French painter Jacques Majorelle  in 1947, it is now considered his greatest work, with the abundance of vegetal shapes and figures from five continents, in a palette of colors from nature. When Jacques died, the famous fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent acquired the property, restoring it to its original beauty. It is a must on anyone’s itinerary.
Of course, we, too, had to take a look at modern Marrakech at the Ville Nouvelle that plays host to modern restaurants, upscale brands in fashion boutiques along Mohammed V and Zertouni, after which we sat in a café drinking coffee and finding the environment so artificial and boring. Amid Lacoste, McDonald’s, Haagen Dazs and the ubiquitous KFC, we decide to return to the hotel.
Before leaving for the airport, we felt a need to visit the Medina once again to say goodbye. No longer did we feel threatened by their covered faces. We seek out the shop keeper who knew exactly what we needed. And we know now exactly why Richard returns again and again. We stand in the plaza to breathe in its peculiar potion. A bientôt— till we meet again.
For EasyJet, e-mail; Ryad Mogador Hotel, e-mail; Pause Gourmande restaurant in the Medina, tel.  +212(0)524290215; Shop Freres Hamza & Mohamed, tel.  067041005; Shop Idees Cadeaux, tel. 0675354417; Jardin Majorelle, tel.  +212524313047.
E-mail the author at
Morocco road trip

Cafes, camels, medinas — and bribes?

By COLLEEN LONG Associated Press
CASABLANCA, Morocco -- The dusty road to Marrakech had just started to straighten out after hours of tight curves along jagged mountains. We sped up when we spotted two policemen standing in the middle of the road by a small car. They waved us over.
We had been warned about this: Drivers being asked to pay bribes to get through random checkpoints.
The mustached man spoke little English but indicated that he wanted 5,000 dirhams, or about $600.
My boyfriend, Andrew Strickler, who was driving, balked. The officer, nervous now as he noticed we were foreign, immediately dropped the price to 3,000 and then quickly to 1,000.
Andrew started to hand over the cash as visions of foreign jail cells flashed before my eyes. I tried to make polite conversation to explain what we were doing here. I held up a copy of our Lonely Planet guide and said we were journalists. As I did, he backed off and handed back the money, one bill at a time, grinning widely.
“You work,” he said to Andrew. “She is wife. She no work. Yes?”
He laughed, slapped Andrew on the shoulder and waved us on.
Ah, the Moroccan road trip.
We spent two weeks on the road in this North African country. The routes are winding, at times frighteningly so. The street signs are in Moroccan Arabic and French, languages neither one of us knows. Still, we figured that navigating the byways was the best way to experience the country.
We came to Morocco to visit friends. We made plans to meet in the southern part of the country after a few days traveling on our own.
It’s fairly easy to rent a car in Morocco, and costs about the same as taking trains and buses. But driving gives you more freedom to stop along the way, and the flexibility to change your plans and linger in a location you like. Plus, all the gas stations double as small cafes where they serve strong Moroccan coffee and tea.
These cafes, along with most other locations, are filled mostly with men; women do not spend as much time in public places in this Muslim nation. Still, as long as you dress modestly — no tank tops or short skirts — you’ll feel only mildly uncomfortable as a female out on the town. I only interacted with three Moroccan women while I was there, but the men were friendly and welcoming, though often they preferred to talk to Andrew instead of me.
Morocco is a kingdom bordering the Atlantic Ocean, just a few miles from the southern tip of Spain. We started our trip without a car, flying to Casablanca from Madrid on the budget carrier EasyJet, then heading north to Rabat, the country’s capital, by train. Here we visited the medina, a word that literally translates to old city, but in Morocco also usually means a marketplace with a thick weave of shops and hawkers who sell and fix everything from cell phones to blenders to camel heads to carpets. Every city has one.
From there we took a train to Fez, home to one of the world’s largest continuous car-free areas. The entire city is a narrow maze, virtually impossible to navigate on your own, especially if you have only one day. We hired a guide who walked us through the vendor-filled passageways.
One unusual sight was a tannery with a checkerboard of dye pools, hides scattered everywhere in various stages of drying. Small worker apartments lined the inner corridors. It was pouring rain, so the stench was manageable, but our guide told us stories of other tourists who were sickened by the awful smell. Owners hand out fresh mint to sniff as an antidote.
Our road trip began a day later, with a 10-hour drive southeast from Rabat to a town called Merzouga at the edge of the Sahara desert. It took about an hour to rent the tiny blue tin-can car, which cost about $300 for six days. Only stick-shift vehicles were available; travelers should know that Morocco is notorious for highway accidents, so be careful. Andrew did most of the driving the first day, and I navigated using maps and signs, which meant trying to translate from Arabic and French into English using a teeny dictionary. After a while you realize there are so few roads to get from one place to the next that it’s not that difficult to intuit your way.
The landscape changed when we arrived at the Sahara. It’s barren and rocky, like a moonscape, with nothing ahead or behind. In the past decade, hotels have cropped up but they’re far off in the distance from the single-lane gravel road. It’s best to get there before dark so you can see where you’re going. You take a left near a hotel sign and head off into the sand. It looks like you’re heading toward nothing but huge golden sand dunes at the edge of the world. Miles and miles of softly sculpted dunes, called Erg Chebbi, stretched out in front of us.
Our hotel, Kanz Erremal, cost about $100 for two, including dinner and breakfast. (For the budget traveler, cheaper hotels can also be found, but you have to really look for them.)
The hotel also offers camel trips to the desert, either overnight or at dawn. We took the shorter morning trip, for an extra $50, to watch the sunrise. Getting up at dark, we climbed onto our stinky, grumpy camels as they knelt down. The makeshift saddle had a metal handle and a few blankets. The camels walk in plodding steps; I found sitting with my legs up was easiest for balance. Our guide walked, leading the camels. After about 20 minutes the hotels disappeared and we saw nothing but desert.
Our guide stopped the camels and we got off. He warned us not to pet them. We scrambled up to the top of a dune, and while our guide walked the entire way, I was so exhausted and out of breath I could barely stand.
The silence was shocking, interrupted only by the crunching sound of the camels and the occasional growl. The sky was huge and colorful, splashed with bursts of bluish pink and blazing orange.
We then drove east to an oasis called El Khorbat in the Todra Valley. This unusual destination uses tourism as a way to help preserve a traditional fortified village, called a casbah, where dwellings are made from earth and clay. Families still live there, but there is also a museum documenting local history and various excursions. We took a long walk among palm trees and down dirt roads with a guide who spoke four languages, discussing literature and politics.
Back on the road, the landscape turned hillier as we moved on, passing through several poor small towns before reaching Ouarzazate, which is the Los Angeles of Morocco. Several movies have been filmed there and it has a decidedly wealthy, Western feel with manicured streets and pink walls
We returned the car in Marrakech. The rental company dropped us at the entrance to the medina, where we were staying at the Hotel Du Tresor. The hotel was a quiet, cool sanctuary from the rest of the medina, a wild and busy place complete with snake charmers (and snakes), psychics and hawkers of all kinds. Inside the market, we ate huge snails in broth with a toothpick (totally gross), fried sardines (delicious) and tagine with couscous (eh).
From Marrakech, we bused to the surf town Agadir to meet our friends, then drove together south to Sidi Ifni, an uncrowded beach spot with imposing red stone arches, eroded over eons by the ocean. A stay at an oceanside resort cost barely $150 for two people for two nights, including breakfast. It was the most peaceful part of the trip, and Andrew’s favorite part. It’s worth traveling there just to stand under the arches.
After a few days in the sun, we drove back up the coast, about 10 hours to Rabat, where deserted stretches alternated with poor towns and rich areas. One funny sight on the winding mountain roads was goats perched in the tops of small trees called Argans. They climb up to eat the seeds. We saw as many as six munching on one tree at a time. We took some pictures but they ignored us.
Before we left the country, we did some shopping. Our friends, having lived here long enough to become skilled in the art of bargaining, came with us to buy a carpet and we all acted out a part: Andrew, the moneybags tourist, me the stingy partner, and the other couple, a wizened ex-pat with his hurrying wife, who wanted to get us to dinner on time. The role of the clever, miserly carpet man was successfully played by the rug vendor.
In the end, though, we couldn’t agree on a price. We overpaid $20 for some tea glasses, but we walked away without a rug.

Desert Dreaming in Morocco
Nadia Bintoro | September 13, 2011
There are many opportunities to experience Berber culture in Morocco, which also has French and Arabic influences.JG Photos/Nadia Bintoro

As a lone female traveler, making my way through the crowded alleys of Marrakech, one of Morocco’s imperial cities, turned out to be a real battle.

I had to acrobatically twist my body to avoid getting hit by reckless motorcycles, while at the same time fighting off persistent vendors and shushing away catcalls by curious men — all under the sizzling heat of the Moroccan sun.

Like most days in the city, the sun was beating down and the temperature was hovering at around 40 degrees Celsius. I instantly felt overdressed in my coat and shawl — tell-tale signs of a tourist escaping the tail-end of a cool British summer.

The short bus ride from Marrakech’s Menara Airport ended at a park in the center of the city. I showed the driver the address of my riad (guesthouse) and he confidently assured me that I’d find it without hassle. Just follow the park and walk straight through the square, he said. It sounded easy enough.

But it wasn’t. Coming out of the park, I was greeted by the hectic Jemaa el-Fnaa, a large square in the middle of Marrakech’s old city where all the essences of Moroccan life are stirred together in a flurry of sights and smells.

Aside from being the first port of call for tourists visiting Marrakech, Jemaa el-Fnaa is also famous among locals for its large souk (market), selling everything from spices to couscous and high-quality souvenirs.

The square was alive with people and traffic. Beige-colored taxis and swarms of motorcycles crossed the square recklessly, oblivious to pedestrians. In one corner of the square, horse carriages were lined up, enticing tourists to try this exotic mode of transport.

Disoriented, I carefully made my way to the square, following the crowds spilling forward through the chaos. The air was thick with the smells of unfamiliar spices and horse manure baking under the sun. Everybody seemed to be moving and speaking at the same time.

Locals wearing the traditional djellaba (a hooded garment with long sleeves) passed by chattering among themselves in French and Arabic. Flocks of confused European tourists wearing sunglasses and hats argued in English, French and occasionally Spanish.

Lost among the throng, I spent an hour searching for my riad — without success. After being chased by a snake charmer,

I decided it was time for a break. I found refuge among the orange juice vendors, selling fresh juice for 4 dirham (about 50 cents) a glass.

By immense luck, I eventually found my guest house a further hour later, hidden in a maze of nameless, tiny alleyways. It felt like I had found my oasis in the desert.

Later that night, I decided to once again face the streets and explore the Jemaa el-Fnaa souk, famous for its night market, where magicians, story-tellers and henna painters are said to emerge after dark.

Outside, I was again assaulted by a barrage of unfamiliar sights and sounds.

Jemaa el-Fnaa was just as lively at night as it was during the day, if not more so. The smell of mouth-watering, authentic Moroccan cuisine wafted out from the line of food stalls in the middle of the souk.

Under a cloud of steam, men in white chef coats shoved their menus into my face, trying to lure me into their stalls. I finally gave in to temptation, and was soon gratefully enjoying a dinner of couscous and spiced chicken tagine — all for just 40 dirham.

After all that, I still had to battle my way through the souk to return to my riad, past speeding motorcycles, pushy vendors and catcalls that worsened as the night went on. With tourists crowding the souk at night, speaking over each other in myriad languages, it became particularly difficult to bargain for the nice kaftan dress that caught my eye.

Once again, I lost my way in the souk, trying to find the guest house among the teeming crowds.

The next day, I sought peace in the solitude of the Sahara Desert. I signed up for a two-day excursion to the desert and took a 10-hour ride by minivan to the dunes of Erg Chigaga over the oasis town of Zagora.

The trip was certainly a pleasant change from the hustle and bustle of life in Marrakech. Seated by the driver, my eyes wandered over the magnificent natural scenery of the countryside.

As if the scenery was not stimulating enough, I also had the best vantage point for watching our skillful driver, Rasyid, navigate the van through every blind mountain turn, one hand on the steering wheel and the other busy answering calls on his cellphone — it seems he didn’t have a spare hand, or moment, to fasten his seat belt.

As we drove, the view outside switched from dusty fields with palm trees to small villages and finally the stunning panorama of the Atlas Mountains.

It was a mysterious and surreal feeling to watch the gray mountain range unfold as the van climbed higher and higher, right to the top where the landscape plateaued to reveal an area called Col du Tichka — the highest point in the Atlas Mountains at 2,260 meters above sea level.

By the time we reached Zagora, it was almost sunset. Our connecting transport was awaiting us — a herd of camels.

An indigenous Berber man was waiting with a dozen tethered camels ready for us to hop onto their humps.

At first, the ride was uncomfortable and awkward. It was bumpy and hard to tell where you were supposed to put your legs on top of the creature. But after a while, as I relaxed into the rhythm of my camel’s footsteps, it began to feel like a calm and meditative experience.

Soon, no sound could be heard except the plodding of the camels in the desert sand. The sun began to set and the camels’ shadows were elongated on the sand like a painting of a dream.

By the time we reached our Bedouin tents in the middle of the desert, the sun had completely disappeared. The only light came from our tents.

When I looked up, I couldn’t help but gasp at the vast, clear sky filled with millions of bright stars. Every couple of seconds, a shooting star could be seen firing through the sky.

A sense of powerlessness overcame me in the face of such a mighty scene.

But the night was still young and the Berbers were ready with their own entertainment.

Seated by the open fire, the group formed a circle with five Berber men in the middle. There, in their colorful costumes and turbans, the nomad tribesmen sang, accompanied by an infectious rhythm from a tabl (a traditional double-sided drum). A couple of tourists joined in and soon the desert air was filled with joy and laughter.

Despite our many languages, the group was united through the music and kindness we shared for that moment.

I walked back to the tent to go to sleep on a modest blanket. Away from civilization, with the only sound being sand swept by desert wind, I had the best sleep of my life.

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