20 May 2014

Festival de la Province d'Al Haouz

One of the spectacles I have always wanted to see in Morocco ever since moving here is that of a traditional authentic Fantasia. Sadly, however, these are few and far between and generally only advertised by word of mouth within the local community where they are to be held. So imagine then my delight to hear from our 'guardien', Said, or 'guardian angel' as we often refer to him, that there is to be a festival in our town for a whole week with a Fantasia each evening!

You may well ask 'What is a Fantasia?' Well, I'm not referring to the Walt Disney film of the same name, but rather to a special equestrian event that takes place during the summer months in Morocco. Each region in Morocco has at least one group of horsemen who perform together in a team to showcase their skills in synchronizing the movement of their horses at speed over a 100-200 metre course and then firing simultaneously into the sky using traditional gunpowder muskets so that only one shot is heard. The name 'Fantasia' is imported, the traditional term used is lab el baroud meaning 'the gunpowder play' and has its roots in the historical wartime attacks of Berber and Arabian desert riders. Nowadays a Fantasia is considered a cultural event. In the Tahanaout festival, many such teams have gathered from surrounding areas to display their skills for the enjoyment of all - and also of course there is naturally an element of competition between the horsemen from the various regions.

We leave our house on Friday evening for a walk into town accompanied by Said and join the throngs of people also heading in the direction of the large marquees erected at the end of the town for the event. It's a beautiful evening, the sun illuminating the local hills dotted with olive trees. The main street is lined with sellers of everything you can possibly imagine - plastic toys and balloons for the children, clothing for the adults, tacky jewellery, beautifully ornate tables and lamps, popcorn and candy floss sellers with old-fashioned carts, nougat sellers with their little hammers and even replica guns for those inspired to become future horsemen. Everything is here! Moroccans are very good at taking every possible opportunity to sell you something! There is a wonderful atmosphere created by the hoards of people who chatter excitedly as they peruse the items for purchase, only enhanced by the sound of booming gunshots heralding the arrival of a team of riders at their destination. The excitement is catching.

Children's balloons tied to a buggy and ready for sale

As we arrive at the cordoned-off field guarded closely by policemen and army officials, there seems to be no way we will get to see anything of the spectacle: crowds of people press in closely to the barriers, babies wrapped in shawls tied to their mothers' backs, young children seated on men's shoulders for a better view, teenagers holding up camera phones and iPads to take distant shots of the scene. We feel a little despondent - but we have not taken into account the presence of our guardian angel, Said. He chats to a soldier at the gate and before we realise what is happening we are being ushered through the barriers and toward the front seats of one of the open Marquees surrounding the event field. Not just any front seats either - these ones are a few metres away from the small bales of hay marking the stopping point of the horses which will soon be charging towards us at full speed mounted by gun-firing horsemen! Soon we are surrounded by the families and friends of the riders as well as a few French tourists who have been brought here by a guide and who seem equally surprised to find themselves sitting in such a well-located spot. I look around to see hundreds of people filling the tents erected along the length of the field and throngs of people pressing in against the barriers opposite. But we have the best position - the governor and officials are seated in the neighbouring tent to ours. The musicians begin to play and the organiser of the event welcomes us to this most prestigious event which apparently has only ever been held in Tahanaout once before. We feel very privileged to be here and to be treated like royalty.

Locals gather in one of the tents

The musicians begin to play

Everyone suddenly goes quiet - only the drumming and singing continue. All eyes are fixed on the horses and horsemen at the far end of the field. The men wear traditional costumes, each team varying in colour and design, their horses sporting matching equally-colourful livery. From a distance we can see the efforts of the horsemen to get their respective horses to fall into line - some are more amenable to the task, others remain in defiance, still others chomp at the bit to get going.

Getting into line

Suddenly it all comes together. The first team are ready to go. The horsemen hold aloft their guns, canter slowly forwards, then all at once start charging, still aiming to stay in a straightish line - and they are heading straight at us! The bale of hay seems a paltry obstacle to me in stopping 12 charging horses, and I must admit to feeling slightly afraid of its powers - or lack of them. I'm not the only one though. The French lady next to me leaves her seat several times during the evening with loud cries of 'Oh là là', much to the amusement of the locals gathered in our tent behind us. But then, they are not on the front row!

A team line up holding guns aloft and ready to charge

As the horses charge forwards, the horsemen deftly twirl their muskets in unison and fire a shot upwards into the sky, aiming at producing one single gunshot sound. The horses come to an abrupt stop just in front of us amidst the haze of gunpowder created. We breathe a sigh of relief...until the next team take their turn.

Twirling of the guns

The adrenalin is flowing as we all applaud the men who line up to present their team with pride to the crowd, then canter off to the side of the field to allow the next team to begin their performance. We are mesmerised - for 4 whole hours we watch the action whilst men selling cakes and water wander through the tents selling their wares to hungry and thirsty spectators. A man sitting beside us who rode his horse the previous night passes us some water he has just bought - not for the first time do we think how kind and friendly the people of Tahanaout are to us. As one team, all dressed smartly in turquoise, manage to fire their guns in unison, an old man nearby cannot contain his excitement and jumps up and down throwing his hat in the air whilst blowing kisses to the horsemen. He then animates the crowds to clap wildly. Said tells us that this man used to ride himself when he was younger and loved to take part in the Fantasia, but now all he can do is watch and support from the sidelines as the younger men take over.

Shots are fired

Riding in unison

Stopping abruptly

Fire and smoke

As we continue to watch the various teams performing, I see something pink floating in the air in the distance. No, surely not...but yes, a young lady is riding one of the charging horses! She is wearing a pink headscarf and turquoise djellabah with matching trousers as she rides with her all-male team, her horsemanship just as good as theirs! I am amazed in this patriarchal society that a woman is allowed and even encouraged to take part in such a male-dominated sport! Not only is there a woman performing but as we look closer we can see there are also young boys and elderly men taking part. The young boys, however, I am pleased to report, do not carry guns.

A lady rides

Individual rider and his horse

After the charge a team presents itself to the crowds

The time passes very quickly as we watch team after team perform and all too soon the event is over for another night...but tomorrow is another day and the horsemen and their horses must get some rest and be ready to do it all over again tomorrow. We walk back home, happy in the knowledge that we finally got to see a truly authentic Fantasia - and happening in our own town too!

21 April 2014

Ironies, anomalies and observations

Living in a different country with a very different culture is really enlightening. Here are just some of the differences I've observed during the last 2 years or so of living here...the good, the not so good and the purely observational!

  • The public toilets in supermarkets and some restaurants have a cleaner who is always to be seen either hovering around the doorway waiting for a tip or mopping the floor in the general bathroom area (not in the cubicles) - yet the toilets themselves are often filthy and have no toilet paper.... The latter is stacked nicely on their cleaning trolley....
  • Women spend ages washing clothes in the river, then lay them out to dry in the sun on dirty rocks or draped over bushes with prickles....
Drying in the sunshine...on a dirty rock

  • Our patio and car parking area are hosed down regularly, yet the plants in the garden are dead through lack of water.....
  • When King Mohammed Vl is in town, the flags all go up to welcome him, which is lovely to see. Whereas in the UK, areas would be cordoned off even for a dignitary, here police stand at every road junction along the route and simply stop the traffic for a few minutes as at each junction the king passes by. No problem.
The king is coming!
  • We've just had an overnight deluge of storms and rainfall leaving floods everywhere - and the guardian at our house asks me to look on the internet to see what the weather forecast is for the weekend so he can direct the water flow to our field for his crops...He doesn't want it to be raining when he's watering the crops.....
  • A beautiful old poplar tree which housed many species of birds has been chopped down in our garden to allow the sunshine to reach the pathetic tiny fruit trees planted sporadically around the garden....
  • Men sit in cafés chatting whilst women carry heavy loads of crops home on their backs as they walk between villages....
  • Beautiful villages that cling to the hillsides and house many people living in poverty have satellite dishes on their roofs....
Quite a few satellite dishes here...

  • PJs are in! Many girls and young women, as well as older women, love to wear their fleecy PJs when out for a stroll in town. They must be worn with brightly-coloured socks and babouches (slippers) and can be spotted, leopard-skin, patterned with cartoon characters or just plain. Whatever takes your fancy. Not mentioning any names but one or two ex-pats have also been known to adopt this style....
  • Any adult who sees children playing up or fighting is entitled to intervene in whatever way is suitable in their eyes....
  • It is okay to carry anything on a motorbike through the city as you weave in and out between the cars ... large panes of glass, mattresses, the entire family including grandma and the new-born baby, even sheep at Eid...but don't you dare go over the double yellow line on an empty road or you'll be done...
  • The heat of the sun is ferocious in Spring and Summer...but at times you will still need a coat when the sun goes down....
  • Amazes me at Christmas or Easter time that when the nice boxes of chocolates are on display in the supermarket, Marrakshis will think nothing of opening a box and having one...before walking away empty-handed....
  • When a woman approaches the rose market to buy roses, either alone or with her partner, the man serving always present the woman with a rose first...how sweet is that...
  • Wild boar roam around the countryside in a country whose religion is Islam...and which dictates that man should not eat pork...

A wild boar...in our garden!
  • Cake shops that are full of wasps are the most popular...
  • A man driving a scooter/motorbike will nearly always stop to give a lift on the back to anyone thumbing a lift, male or female - despite being complete strangers....
  • When Moroccan men meet, they kiss each other on both cheeks. When a Moroccan man meets a woman, he shakes hands with her....
  • Traffic lights seem to only apply to cars...bikes, motorbikes, donkeys, calèches can do what they like.
  • Mobile phone masts are to be seen all around the city - but all disguised as palm trees; some are even made to look like half-dead palm trees or have fake dates hanging from them so as to look more authentic....
Palm tree or mobile phone mast?

  • Now that the weather is nice and hot, families are to be seen every Sunday on our main road leading from Marrakech towards the mountains. They drive along and find a spot of greenery on the side of the road on which to lay out a blanket, some hang a sheet between trees for privacy, some even cook a tagine on charcoal. The great thing is that this is most definitely a family affair...from the babe in arms to great grandma...everyone is spending time together, chillaxing on the side of a main road! It is lovely to see. Maybe we Westerners can learn a thing or two from this....
Morocco, in all its diversity, don't you just love it!

23 January 2014

The Tanneries of Fes

Just follow your nose and you'll end up in the dark alleyways that lead to the tanneries of Fes...at least, that's how it works for us. I've already visited the tanneries of Marrakech and had a guided tour in amongst the vast caverns of solutions and dyes which are used in the manufacturing of leather here in Morocco - but I am told that the tanneries in Fes are a sight to behold - especially with camera in hand. So it is that we find ourselves (hubby and I) deviating from the main roads into a small alleyway to head in the general direction of the smell. It is not long before a man thrusts sprigs of mint into our hands and begs us to follow him up an uneven stone staircase leading to a terrace which overlooks the tanneries.

Overlooking the tanneries

As the view unfolds before us, it is as though we have stepped back into mediaeval times. Below us stretch row upon row of large stone vats of liquid, a veritable artist's palette, all placed tightly together as though one depends on another. Scantily-clad men in shorts and vests are moving between the various vats, alternately crouching and balancing on the edges, tugging behind them or carrying over their shoulder large swathes of animal skins which they dip into one vat then another. As we watch, they climb into the vats and start to tread the skins, almost as though they are grapes and this is a vineyard, only this work is much harder! Various hand tools are then used to scrape, beat and stretch the skins; long poles prod the skins and hoses wash them down as they are moved between the various vats. The smell is just awful - although sniffing on the proffered sprigs of mint does help to keep the nausea at bay. I wonder how these men can stand working in this environment every day of their lives, not just because of the stench but also the physicality of the work - to my amazement I can see that some of these men are in fact no more than boys.

An artist's palette

The man who has brought us onto this terrace now leaves us in the capable hands of another man, the shop owner, who explains the processes happening in the tannery.
Firstly the animal skins, fresh from the slaughter-house, are soaked in the white vats in water from the local river, Oued Boukhrareb, into which is mixed pigeon poo and limestone. The limestone helps to get rid of any hair left on the skin and the acid in the pigeon poo is added to make the skin supple and malleable, therefore easier to work with. The skins are left here in the white vats for three days and then are washed thoroughly in fresh water and moved to the brown vats where they are dyed. The dyes used are all natural - poppies are used to make the red colour, the blue comes from the indigo plant which is a member of the pea family, the yellow comes from the addition of saffron and the orange from henna. The natural dyes are mixed with alum stone and water - the alum stone helps the colour to set. The colours produced are wonderfully rich. In order for the colour to adhere to the skins evenly, the skins must be manually dunked time and time again - and they are not light!

White vats

Soaking the skins in pigeon poo

The dyeing process

On rooftops all around us are displayed bright yellow skins - these are the ones that have been treated with saffron dye and are now left to dry out in the sun. As saffron is so expensive (see my previous blog post on the production of saffron), the colour is made by mixing saffron with oil and the skins are rubbed by hand rather than in the large vats as with the other dyes. Once the skins have been dyed in the large vats, they too are laid out in the sun to dry before being stored and cut into shape to make an assortment of leather goods. Small storage rooms are located around the outside of the vats and it is here that the goods are made to be sold in the surrounding leather shops.


Rubbing saffron onto the skins by hand

Laying the skins out to dry

Ready to be stored

After all has been explained to us, we are free to roam around the terrace taking photos of the scene below. Like everyone else, I take many photos - this work has to be seen to be believed. Apparently, these tanneries, the Chouara tanneries, are the largest of the three tanneries to be found in Fes, and they are run as a cooperative, each foreman being responsible for his own workforce and his own tools. The work is very strenuous but seemingly well-paid by Moroccan standards. This particular tannery has been going strong since the 11th century - this I can well believe!

Men hard at work

Treading skins

Working the skins

Having received such a fascinating insight into the work of the tanneries, we are brought back to this century abruptly by an invitation to explore the leather shop which is conveniently located on our way down the steps to street level. Here on display are all manner of goods - bags of all shapes and sizes, babouches, cushions, pouffes, leather jackets - anything you want. We explain to the shop owner that we live near Marrakech and have everything we want, so he swiftly moves on to help somebody else part with their cash instead. We are let off the hook! Now all I have to do is to work out how to remove the stench from my clothing....

And the work continues...

If ever you have the opportunity to visit the tanneries in Fes, I would definitely recommend a visit. It is amazing to see the work that goes into making that small leather handbag whose price you have just been haggling over in the souk. Maybe, like me, you too will think twice about the man who has been up to his waist in pigeon poo whilst preparing this beautiful item just for you.

19 January 2014

The spirituality of Fes

Where does one start to describe Fes? A phrase often bandied around is that Fes is 'the spiritual and cultural capital of Morocco'...but what does this mean? I'll start by exploring 'the spiritual'....

The spiritual part is accounted for by the presence in the heart of the old town of the mausoleum of the city's founder, the most venerated place of pilgrimage in all of Morocco, the Moulay Idriss Zaouia. Only Muslims are allowed entry to the mausoleum but interested tourists like ourselves are welcome to take a peek through the outer doors to admire the lush decoration within. The floor is covered by several brightly-covered patterned carpets strewn across each other to allow for the barefooted prayer sessions undertaken by Muslims. There are beautifully carved and painted wooden porches around the outside of the room and zellij tiling adorns the walls alongside intricate stucco workmanship. As I admire the craftsmanship, I notice a man who appears to be sleeping in the corner of the room. At this moment, this is a place of peace and tranquility, a haven from the crowds outside who throng the narrow alleyways. I feel I am spying on a private moment...so quickly take my leave.

In prayer or sleeping?

Detailed decor

Outside the zaouia (shrine) are several stands where fruit, vegetables and nuts are being sold, predominantly to those people entering this shrine. Alongside these stands are several others which sell ornate candles, incense and beads, presumably to be used in worship at the shrine. I wasn't aware that Muslims used these items in their worship. I have learnt something new today.

Candles on sale

Moving on from here, we make our way to the Kairaouine Mosque and university. It is said that all roads in Fes lead to this spectacular place which is not only a Muslim place of worship but also claims to house the oldest university in the world. It was founded in 859 by Lalla Fatima el Fihrya who was a very pious woman from Kairouan in Tunisia who emigrated to Fes. At that time the mosque was only a small prayer hall which she had built in memory of her father, not the sprawling 16,000 square metres it is today! Apparently, the building can now accommodate as many as 20,000 people - Today is Friday, the Muslim holy day, and I reckon this is quite true. As we peek through one of its 14 doorways, men come and go continually, each one carrying out his ablutions ritualistically before entering the heart of the building. All ages enter here, from young boys to elderly gentlemen.

Men come and go


Within the same complex, there is a separate prayer hall for women. I am amazed that nobody seems phased by us sightseers who want to catch a glimpse of the local peoples' authentic day-to-day spiritual life.


The women's prayer hall

Deep in prayer

The university here was in the past considered to be a great seat of learning with a wonderful reputation. In the 14th century it attracted over 8000 students, one of whom even became a future pope, namely Pope Sylvester II (999-1003).

Two other sites of spiritual interest in Fes are the Madrassa el Attarine and Madrassa Bou Inania. In days gone by these buildings would have housed many young people who would come here to concentrate on their religious studies away from life's distractions. They were usually built very close to mosques so as to establish close links between studies and practice of religion. Once again, the decor is very elaborate and one can see how many expert craftsmen and how many hours it must have taken to complete such buildings, a real labour of love.

The minaret

Courtyard of Bou Inania Madrassa

Stucco and Zellij

Sunlight in the courtyard

Intricate craftsmanship

As we are just about to leave the madrassa, a young Moroccan couple enter the courtyard and begin to look around. They are clothed in modern dress and I'm interested to see how they interact with this environment. After a quick look around at the architecture, the man enters the prayer hall and soon seems lost in prayer, the young woman takes to her mobile phone as she waits for him....maybe a sign of the times? 

Youth of today

In my opinion, from the snapshot I have gained of the spiritual life of Fes, I conclude that spirituality is still alive and kicking here. Both men and women attend the mosque in large numbers, the buildings are preserved beautifully....But the prevailing evidence of spirituality for me is in the welcome of the people and the genuine helpfulness that is offered to strangers. Marhaba, welcome, is always on their lips....

10 January 2014

Arrival in Fes

Arriving in Fes after such a long journey by car (well, long for me anyway as somebody who gets bored after even an hour of sitting in a car), I heave a sigh of relief. But then I realise it is rush hour and we are in the new town and we don't really know where we are going. But never fear, my enterprising hubby has lovingly spent ages collating screen grabs from Google Maps on his iPad. Only problem is that it is now getting dark...and somehow the maps don't seem to follow on. Suffice to say, I ignore them and hope for a few road signs to miraculously appear. We may have taken a few wrong turnings whilst negotiating the usual Moroccan traffic madness - but we eventually arrive at Place R'Cif where we've been told to park up and ring the Manager of the riad we are staying in so he can come to meet us and guide us through the narrow alleyways to our home for the next few nights. Only problem is that two burly policemen are blowing whistles and won't let us enter the Place and make us turn around at the roundabout. Surrounded by beeping cars, taxis, donkeys and carts, motorbikes and pedestrians who insist on walking in the middle of the road, we have no alternative but to turn back on ourselves and find somewhere else to park amongst the craziness. About 10 minutes later we are guided into a very tight parking space by a friendly young attendant - Hamdoullah! A quick phone call is soon followed by the arrival of Simo, the riad manager, a smiley young man who guides us through the rabbit warren of the medina, and after a 15 minute walk spent weaving in and out of people, trying in vain not to knock their ankles with our burgeoning luggage, we make our way up the final alleyway of steps that take us to Riad Laayoun.

We enter the courtyard of the riad and are immediately surrounded by an atmosphere of peace and welcome. The riad is an 18th century building which has been lovingly restored by its French owner, Jean-Claude, retaining its original character, but introducing modern facilities. All work has been carried out by local Fassi craftsmen using the traditional materials of cedar wood, zellij tilework, decorative painting and stucco. In the courtyard, as is Fassi tradition, stands a beautiful fountain comprising wonderfully intricate tilework in blue, white and yellow. The trickling of the water complements the beauty of the scene. After a hearty welcome of traditional mint tea and Moroccan pastries, we are ushered into the dining area as it now quite late and are served the most delicious food – traditional harira soup, followed by three Moroccan salads (each!) served in beautiful patterned bowls, then a lamb and fig tajine to die for, with fresh fruit to follow. Fully satiated, we are shown to our room which is situated on the first floor, overlooking the beautiful courtyard below. We make our way up the very steep tiled steps into our suite which comprises a comfy double bed at one end of the room with a seating area at the other and in between is a creaky wooden stairway which leads to the bathroom on a mezzanine level. It is very unusual in design. To my delight, shuttered windows block out the light for ease of sleep.

The beautiful courtyard

Me... chilling out by the fountain

Detail of the fountain

First floor room and balconies

Our room: The Cinnamon Suite

Seating area

It is with great anticipation of what is to come the following day that we drift off to sleep, dreaming of the monkeys we encountered in the cedar forests, beeping car horns, police whistles and hoards of people milling around the tiny alleyways of Fes. Tomorrow is a new day and time for a new experience……