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Morocco: Medieval and modern juxtaposed

This Kasbah, or old fortress, is now a hotel.
This Kasbah, or old fortress, is now a hotel.

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FEZ, Morocco (AP) -- It's impossible not to get jostled in the narrow alleys in the old city of Fez. Coming toward you, or trying to squeeze past, are formidable Moroccan ladies in black, grizzled men pulling hand carts and boys tugging donkeys.

"Balak!" -- look out! -- the cart pullers call out as they press forward, forcing pedestrians to flatten themselves against the walls between fruits and vegetables, spices, grilling meat and other goods spilling from store fronts.

With the dust and animal smells, and medieval minarets overhead, it's easy to imagine the Fez of a few centuries ago -- but just for an instant. Then along comes a man tugging a horse piled with plastic cases full of bottles bearing a familiar label.

It's the neighborhood Coca-Cola distributor making a delivery.

In Morocco, medieval and modern, and East and West, are constantly juxtaposed.

The Dar Si Said museum in Marrakech displays traditional carved and painted cedar ceilings and the bright, geometric-patterned tilework known as "zellij." The guards watching over the art wear uniforms topped by baseball caps.

In Casablanca, the Hassan II mosque shows off the best of Morocco's old arts -- molded plaster, tile and metal work, and massive iron doors. But it was designed by a French architect and has such modern conveniences as heated floors and speakers hidden among the marble columns that ensure the Friday sermon is heard by all the faithful.

Unique brand of Islam

Islam came to Morocco in the seventh century, and today 99 percent of the people are Muslim. But Islam in Morocco is more easygoing than that often heard about in the day's news of the Islamic world, be it brutal rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan or death by the sword in Saudi Arabia.

The shadows of tourists are seen as they ride camels in Merzouga, Morocco along what is called the route of a thousand kasbahs in the Atlas Mountains.
The shadows of tourists are seen as they ride camels in Merzouga, Morocco along what is called the route of a thousand kasbahs in the Atlas Mountains.

Along with Moroccan women swathed in black are others who wear clothes too short and too snug to be sanctioned by the mullahs. And a driver named Mahmoud -- another form of the name Muhammad -- chuckled when asked if he planned to make the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

"Maybe when I'm very old and don't want to drink wine anymore," he replied.

Despite Islam's prohibition against alcohol, Morocco makes its own wine and sells imported wines -- at much higher prices. Its cuisine is a cultural crossroads, ranging from couscous and tajines -- spicy homegrown stews with olives and preserved lemons -- to fine French food left over from the colonial period.

Travelers to Morocco see at every turn the history of Islamic rule and the inroads made by the Romans, Portuguese, Spanish and French. It was an uneasy mixing of East and West since the intruders were resisted by the native Berbers and later the Arabs.

The first Islamic kingdom in Morocco was founded in 788 by Moulay Idriss, a descendent of the prophet, at Volubilis northwest of Fez. It had first been a Berber settlement, then a Roman seat of power in North Africa ruled by the Berber prince Juba, whose wife was the daughter of Cleopatra and Marc Antony.

In the ruins of Volubilis -- Latin for "morning glory" -- Corinthian columns and a triumphal arch testify to the town's Roman past. What once were the better houses have mosaic floors celebrating the Roman gods, among them the most un-Islamic one, Dionysus, the god of wine.

Scattered about are the remains of the olive oil presses that made Volubilis wealthy. Olive trees grow in the nearby hills -- and in profusion throughout much of Morocco -- and olives and olive oil are important to the Moroccan diet and the country's economy.

While the countryside looked rich, Ahmed Bouatia, a young guide at the ruins, pointed to dry gulches running down from the hills and complained Morocco's farms were hurt by drought.

He said there were few jobs for the young because of the drought and a drop in tourism caused by the troubled world economy and post-September 11 travel fears. He'd like to work in Europe, Bouatia said, but so far had no passport and little hope of finding a country to accept him.

"It's easier to get a passport than a visa," he added glumly.

Moulay Idriss

A few miles away is the town of Moulay Idriss, named for the country's first Muslim king and the site of his tomb.

Non-Muslims cannot visit the tomb complex, but it's easy to see into the tiled courtyard with its fountains and to climb the winding streets to the hills above and look down on the tomb's green-tile roof, which stands out from the surrounding white stucco houses.

Waiters cook meat in the central square of the Jamaa el Fna in Marrakech.
Waiters cook meat in the central square of the Jamaa el Fna in Marrakech.

On a noontime visit, the prevailing odor along the town's hilly streets is of freshly baked bread. Women in Moulay Idriss make their dough at home, then send it off with their children to the neighborhood bakery. The children return home with the hot bread on trays, each covered with a towel whose color and pattern ensure it gets back to the right house.

Moulay Idriss' reign was brief. He died in 1791, said to have been poisoned under orders from Baghdad where Haroun al-Rashid -- the caliph, or successor to the prophet as the ruler of Islam -- had grown jealous of the rival power that Idriss was developing.

Idriss' son, Moulay Idriss II, built the city of Fez as Morocco's first Islamic capital. While Fez is different from the country's other old imperial capitals, nearby Meknes and Marrakhech to the south, it set the tone for the Islamic architecture of the others.

Except for Casablanca's recently built Hassan II mosque, Morocco's mosques are off-limits to non-Muslims. But all can see the palaces, gates of old city walls, and medersas, or Islamic schools, which well illustrate the restraint and grace of Morocco's Islamic art.

In Meknes, the sanctuary containing the tomb of the city's founder, Moulay Ismail, is a beautiful example. The serenity of the series of courtyards leading to the tomb is in contrast to the life of Ismail, whose long reign from 1672 to 1727 was one of the cruelest periods of Morocco's history.

Ismail was of the Alawite dynasty, which still rules Morocco today. He built his imperial capital of 12 palaces -- little of which survives -- with 2,500 Christian slaves and 30,000 workers rounded up from his enemies. He developed his powerful army by supplying black African slaves with women, then raising the children as soldiers.

At the Moulay Ismail sanctuary, the anteroom to the tomb has walls with a series of levels consisting of enamel-painted wood, elaborately carved plaster, graceful arches and marble columns. Non-Muslims cannot approach the tomb, but it's visible through a Moorish doorway

Two antique clocks, one on each side of the doorway, were gifts from Louis XIV, which the king is said to have sent when he refused Ismail's request to add a French princess to his hundreds of wives.

Serpentine souks in Marrakhech

In Marrakhech, Morocco's zellij tilework, with its intricate designs and mix of bright colors, is seen not only in palaces and museums but in the medersa of Ali ben Youssef, which also gives a good idea of what life was life for students in a 16th-century Islamic school.

Surrounding the courtyard are dozens of tiny rooms -- some little bigger than a walk-in closet -- each of which would have had to accommodate three or four men and boys if, as is said, some 900 students used to live in the medersa.

A man dressed in the traditional Berber Indigo blue robe stands on top of the Ait Ben Haddou fortress near Ourzazatte.
A man dressed in the traditional Berber Indigo blue robe stands on top of the Ait Ben Haddou fortress near Ourzazatte.

Marrakech is the jumping-off place for trips to Atlantic coast resorts and the Atlas Mountains. On the coast, Essouira offers fresh fish and para-surfing. In the Atlas, the views are spectacular -- the classic film "Lawrence of Arabia" was filmed near Ourzazette -- and there are so many mountain fortresses that the Dades Valley is known as the "Route of 1,000 kasbahs."

The centerpiece of Marrakhech is a huge, open square called the Djemaa el-Fna, which each evening becomes an outdoor theater and restaurant where crowds watch acrobats, magicians and snake charmers and eat every variety of Moroccan finger food from hundreds of stalls.

Off the Djemaa el-Fna is the souk which, as in other Moroccan cities, is made up of a series of alleyways where it's easy to get lost among the shops selling antique Berber jewelry, flat-woven native carpets, brasswork and the hooded robes that Moroccan women wear on the street.

Of all the confusing souks, the most puzzling is in Fez el-Bali, the old city of Fez, which is said to contain more than 9,000 streets and alleys, some of which seem to lead back to the very place one does not want to go.

Here, the lack of jobs for the young spoken of by the guide at Volubilis is again apparent. Western visitors are approached again and again by boys and young men who offer to be their guides, to show them a certain medersa, a palace or the vats where leather is cured and dyed for pointy Moroccan slippers and Westernized jackets and purses.

Some of the would-be guides tag along, refusing to take no for an answer, becoming so irksome it's easy to forget the kindness of other Moroccans -- such as the carpenter who left his shop to guide two tourists through a half-dozen twisting alleyways to their destination.

At the northern edge of Fez el-Bali sits the Hotel Palais Jamai, which is within the walls of the old city but worlds apart in its expensive luxury. It consists of a 19th-century palace that looks inward to a garden -- like an old Moroccan home -- and a modern five-story wing that offers views of the city pleasing to Western visitors.

In the hotel's Jazz Bar one night, after the pianist finished his set of American standards, an old recording was played of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby singing the old tune "Gone Fishin'." But another sound from outside lured visitors to a balcony.

It was the Muslim evening call to prayer from the city below. Under the darkening sky, as the Arabic words softly reverberated from every direction, it seemed like Fez had a thousand mosques.

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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