Monday, April 25, 2011

Morocco, Lost in Time

In a lot of ways Algeciras is a normal seaside town with a nice plaza and church, but its position at the Spanish side of the Straits of Gibraltar and a short 18 miles from Africa-only 2 1/2 hour by ferry to Tangier-are the strongest influences on the activities of the town. As examples, the many booking agencies facing the street, the hotels busy with departures and arrivals of guests in a variety of clothing styles, and the hash sellers on the waterfront at night competing with legitimate businesses for the traveler's cash .

Algeciras is in reality a departure point for Morocco. To do this one must go to the ferry station located across from the waterfront promenade. After a short time the Iberian Peninsula will recedes into the distance. At one's left is the Rock of Gibraltar and further east will be the vacation beaches of the Costa del Sol; the elegant Marbella as well as the bustling Torremollinos.

The ferry ride to Morocco is the beginning of a trip to a very old world. The people in this North African nation had been part of the Muslim expansion into Spain. The influence of the Umayyad of Damascus began in 713AD and it was not until the re-conquest in 1492 that the Muslim influence in Spain came to an end. During those seven centuries they ruled a great empire which is evident by the remaining monuments. Most notable the Alhambra in Granada and the mosque in Cordoba. The Taza Gap

Though Morocco's fertile soil produces excellent fruits it is only a small percentage of the land that is arable. An important agricultural area can be found along the foothills of the Rif mountains above the Taza Gap, an area between the southern Atlas mountains and the northern Rif. I followed the Rif range beginning outside Tetouen and south to Chefchaouen. However, before leaving with my rented car there was Tangier.


It was not long after my arrival in Tangier that I was passing the sellers fruit stands. A program is followed as one disembarks the ferry. When leaving the ferry building quickly one is the capture of a Tangier's "guide". My guide left me no more then two minutes to make a decision- is this something discouraged in Tangier?- he assured me that the hotel I had booked in the old town was "O.K." but not five stars in actuality. "No, excuse me but it is not an actual five star hotel. I could take you to an excellent five star hotel just on the beach". Having been warned of profiteering at the expense of the tourist I chose to continue to the hotel where I had a reservation. The cab driver was waiting at the curb and without a word needed from me, was told the hotel by this guide. Passing those fruit stands of oranges the size of grapefruits I had the feeling of being on display, too. Later, after checking with the hotel clerk, I agreed to a two hour tour of Tangier at a price of 1000 pesetas (about $10.00) with my new "friend".

The sights and sounds of Tangier are harsh. Here the contrast between the have and the have not is stark and disagreeable. The tour led me through the streets surrounding the hotel to the medina or market place. Toward the middle of the tour I was brought to the rug vendor's establishment and offered tea. "Twice boiled, it is our custom". Morocco is an excellent destination for serious rug buyers, unfortunately, this was not my purpose on this trip.

Berbers of the Rif

The Berbers of the mountains of Morocco assisted in the installation of Abdel Rahman I at Cordoba in 750AD after the over throw of the Umayyad Caliphs in Damascus.

For 250 years the culture that began in Cordoba was greater than anything to be found in Europe. Andalusia (the region of Spain which includes Cordoba and has as its capital at Seville) was the point where Christian and Islamic traditions merged. It is said that the Romantic movement in Europe started here. This oldest of worlds is today an emerging nation and possessor of a truly colorful past.

Origin of the Berbers

The origins of the Berber people is uncertain. Classified as Caucasian of Mediterranean stock, they may be linked with the Iberians of ancient Spain. The Berbers call themselves "imazighan" which translates as FREE MEN and it is this fierce individualism that has allowed them to play such an important role in the history of Morocco.

I parked my car on the main street and on getting out I was greeted by a man in a brown djellaba and his friend.

The Berbers are good at languages. The actual Berber language is different from Arabic, the predominant language of Morocco. Their language is still spoken in the Berber homes. "Parlez vous Francais, or English. We speak English" was his cheerful beginning, flashing a smile adorned by few teeth. "Can we give you a tour of our medina?"

I explained my intention to stop for only a few minutes. Across the street I found an outdoor market with colorful buckets of spices as well as the excellent Moroccan fruits and vegetables. "The medina is not far. We could show you there " this pleasant toothless fellow persisted.

I was lead by degrees to the medina.

The Rif mountain rose above it in a jagged, rocky ascent and the stone and mud entrance was crowded with people and donkeys. In the medina's narrow streets the life of Chefchaouen goes on as it has for centuries. My guide and his companion were good company yet business and its subtle alignment of priorities intruded. It was not long until I found myself at the rug vendor's establishment and making more excuses for not buying. Having priorities myself, I requested to be returned to my car. There I found two more unofficial guides watching my car. "We saw there were many valuables in your car ", one said, "but do not worry, everything is safe".

The French Connection

It was not until 1912, when Morocco became a French protectorate, the government extended into the mountainous interior. The French called the coastal region by the Atlantic "Maroc Utile" or useful Morocco and the remainder of the country was too difficult to penetrate. Tribal costumes and authority were the rule of organization for the Berber people and change was gradual.

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