Granada:Francisco with tapas
Seville-Alcazar palace arches
Group at El Vinculo
March 18 to April 2, 2010
Southern Spain—Andalucia—was the center of the
7 centuries of Moorish (Muslim) occupation of Spain, which
ended at the Alhambra, in Granada, in 1492. The legacy
of Moorish culture continues to enrich Spain, with its magnificent
architecture, tiles, carved plaster friezes, stonework, gardens,
olive culture, old city quarters, and lovely aroma of bitter
We began our trip with a bus ride through the mountains
and olive groves that fill the landscape from Malaga to Granada,
arriving at our Parador de Granada, located in a section
of the ancient Alhambra, Granada’s huge Moorish fortress. Our
view was across the Alhambra itself to the city of Granada
and the mountains beyond.
Early the next morning we walked from our parador to visit
the Alhambra, one of the most beautiful building complexes
in the world. The highlight of this tour is the Nasrid
Palace, full of gorgeous craftsmanship and splendor. King
Ferdinand and Queen Isabella defeated the Moors here at the
end of the Reconquista, the recapture of Spain by Catholic
Our evening was spent visiting the old Moorish section of
town, the Albayzin. We started in the rain at the top
of the Albayzin hill and wandered through the narrow alleyways
and pretty plazas, enjoying spectacular views of the Alhambra,
to the center of Granada, where we enjoyed a homemade tapas
dinner in a small wine, cheese, olive, and deli shop. The
owner prepared the tapas and described his local wines.
From Granada, we drove to Seville, stopping for the day
in Cordoba to visit the Mesquita, the huge cathedral built
inside an even more enormous mosque. Inspired by the
Mosque of Damascus, the Mesquita was begun in 785. Originally,
there were 1293 massive columns of jasper, onyx, marble and
granite. After its transformation into a Christian
cathedral, 856 of these columns remain, still an overwhelmingly
impressive and beautiful sight. In Andalucia, the churches
are all built on the ruins of mosques.
Cordoba also has the remains of a tiny synagogue. Jews
lived alongside Muslims during the period of Moorish rule,
but were expelled after the Reconquest. The old Jewish
quarter is a winding network of alleys and courtyards, full
of shops and restaurants—and, of course, tourists.
In Seville, we stayed in the old barrio of Santa Cruz, a
short walk from the Alcazar, originally a Moorish fort that
was turned into a magnificently appointed palace by the Almohad
dynasty. Today, the king and queen of Spain still use
part of the palace as their residence when they visit Seville. The
Alcazar is another Moorish masterpiece with beautiful tiles,
carved plaster friezes, gardens and carved and painted ceilings.
Everywhere in Andalucia—and Morocco—we smelled
the fragrance of bitter orange blossoms. The Moors
introduced them to counter the urban smells of garbage. The
oranges are too bitter to eat, but are exported to England
On our drive to Ronda, we passed through the Andalucian “white
towns”, pretty villages settled on the mountainsides. We
stopped at Arcos de las Fronteras to visit the old part of
town and moved on to El Vinculo, a traditional olive mill
owned by the gregarious Juan, whose mixture of Spanish and
English gave us a mostly clear understanding of the process
of making olive oil.
According to Juan, the olive tree was originally a bush
that was grafted onto a tree base. One type of olive
tree yields olives to eat, while another produces olives
for oil. Edible olives are harvested in September and
October; oil olives, from November to February. Each
of Juan’s trees provides 16 to 18 kilos of olives. Each
100 kilos of olives yields 20 liters of oil.
The olives are first cleaned with water and wind. Next
they’re vibrated to clean them further. Juan
uses no chemicals. It is necessary to extract the oil
rapidly to avoid fermentation of the olives. They don’t
use a big tank and only use good fruit since one bad olive
can destroy the entire batch of oil. First, he makes
a paste. There is an important amino acid that affects
the taste of the oil. The paste goes into a tank, where
it is continually stirred to avoid fermentation. Outside,
water circulates around the tank to keep it cool.
Next the paste is cold-pressed. Heat raises the acid
level. Juan told us to always close a bottle of olive
oil, keep it at room temperature, and keep it out of the
sun. Olive oil, he said, is fragile.
The olive paste is pressed a number of times and run through
filters. The presses weigh 50 tons. This produces
the first cold press, extra virgin, olive oil. Pressing
makes water, oil, and solid matter, which must be filtered
out of the oil. In modern presses, machines running
at 5000 rpm’s separate the water from the
oil. Juan uses gravity instead to separate the oil
from the water and solids. This takes 25 days. The
residue is sold for cosmetics, animal food and fertilizer. Even
the filters he uses are sold for fertilizer. There
is no waste.
We enjoyed an olive oil tasting in Juan’s shop and
rewarded him with purchases of oil and tapenade, all of which
we enjoyed during our cocktail hours later.
Our final stop in Andalucia was the “white town” of
Ronda, with its pretty old section straddling a deep gorge. Fortunately,
several of us had been to Ronda before since our driver had
no idea where he was going and, literally, missed every turn,
even those that were clearly marked, during our 2 days with
We took the fast ferry to Tangiers, Morocco, briefly visited
the very touristy grotto, the Caves of Hercules, and drove
on to Rabat, the capital of Morocco. This year, Morocco
has had heavy rains, so we saw flooding everywhere. The
area between Tangiers and Rabat is full of deep sinks that
do not have rivers to drain them, so farmhouses, fields,
and even some villages, were underwater.
While we saw the major cultural sites of Rabat, including
the old quarter with its whitewashed buildings and bright
blue doors, the Atlantic coast, and the ancient Kasbah, our
primary purpose in visiting Rabat was to get business and
Ambassador Samuel Kaplan:
U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, Samuel Kaplan, met us at the
Embassy with several of his senior colleagues, including
Greg Thome, political officer, Jay Nair, economic officer,
Mary Jeffers, public affairs counselor, and Rob Jackson,
Deputy Chief of Mission. Wherever we go in the world
and have the opportunity to meet our senior Foreign Service
personnel, we are greatly impressed by their knowledge of
the country, thoughtfulness about global issues, and commitment
to representing the United States effectively. Our
embassy officials in Morocco certainly hold to that high
Ambassador Kaplan is from Minnesota, a lawyer and businessman. He
told us Morocco is in a struggle between modernity
and conservatism. The relationship between the U.S.
and Morocco is sound. Morocco is a reliable ally. They
engage with us militarily and engage fully in counter-terrorism
activities. We are friends diplomatically
The country is one of contrasts and questions. The
separation of church and state is not even an issue here. The
King is commander of the faithful, head of state, and commander
of the military. All decisions flow through the King. It
is a monarchy with a constitution. The Minister of
Islamic Affairs told Amb. Kaplan that it is more likely that
justice will emanate from the King—one person—than
in a democracy like the U.S.
In early March, the government expelled 50 Christians plus
50 others. The law prohibits proselytizing, but these
people had no due process and no chance to put their affairs
in order before being deported. This happened just
at the time the State Department was issuing its human reports
report, which was awkward.
Morocco has big challenges. Its literacy rate is below
60% and the disparity in literacy between men and women is
We have good commercial relations with Morocco. The
Free Trade Agreement with Morocco has been good for us, but
less so for Morocco. There are very negative feelings
about progress in the Middle East. People blame the
U.S. The flap with Israel over settlements has been
helpful to U.S. diplomats in the Middle East.
Nonetheless, Moroccans love Americans, just not America
so much. There are 2 political (as opposed to career
foreign service) ambassadors in the Middle East, Morocco
and Saudi Arabia. This is at the request of those 2
Greg Thome, Political Officer:
Greg has been in the foreign service for 18 years and is
originally from Wisconsin. He served in the Peace Corps
in Guinea Bissau and has served as a Foreign Service officer
in Baghdad, Helsinki, and Gabon. He has been in Morocco
for 6 months.
Morocco has been a U.S. ally since 1797 and is the U.S.’ closest
non-NATO ally. There are 4 main areas of political
endeavor with Morocco: counter-terrorism, democracy
and human rights, Moroccan foreign policy, and the Western
We have a strong security relationship with Morocco. The
government recognizes the terrorist threat and takes steps
to mitigate it. They are doing a good job of this,
coordinating with the U.S. and Europe.
Morocco has the trappings of democracy, including free and
fair elections and good participation of women. At
least 12% of candidates on the slate must be women. In
local councils, women comprise 13% of the candidates. Local
councils are directly elected. The rest of the elections
are indirect. But all decisions go through the King,
who is slowly moving power to elected officials and to the
regions. Currently government is very centralized. Moving
to a democracy will be a very long-term process.
In the area of human rights, there has been a dramatic change
with this king. The 1990’s were called the “years
of lead”. There were gross violations of human
rights and many political prisoners. During the last
12 years, there has been a big reform away from that. The
King set up something like a truth and reconciliation commission. Freedom
of the press is limited. The press can’t cross
a certain line.
The U.S. is always looking for where the interests of other
countries overlap with our own. In the Middle East,
Morocco prides itself on being the voice of reason and being
evenhanded. They talk to the Israelis and speak frankly
to the Palestinians. They are very active on African
The Southern Provinces, the Western Sahara to much of the
world, continues to be a sore point. The U.N. stepped
in and brokered a peace settlement, to include a referendum
on the future of the region, 30 years ago. That referendum
still has not occurred. For Morocco, this is a big
foreign policy issue and a prism through which it views other
countries. Morocco administers the territory and is
very hard on independence activists. The U.S. supports
the U.N. effort to mediate. Christopher Ross is the
U.S. mediator. This issue takes a lot of time because
it is so important to Morocco. There is no polling
allowed, so it’s hard to assess public sentiment. Moroccans
are moving south into the Southern Provinces, but the native
people are tribally different from Moroccans. There
are phosphate and fishing resources there, but not a lot
else. Phosphates are a big export for Morocco. But,
it is national pride that is a big issue here. Algeria
actively supports the independence movement, creating very
bad relations between the 2 countries. The entire border
Mary Jeffers, public affairs counselor:
Mary has been a Foreign Service officer for 25 years, serving
mostly in the Middle East and Africa, including Johannesburg,
Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Algeria, Ivory Coast, and London.
Her area covers public diplomacy, the press, libraries,
culture and education. She has a tool kit of programs
to bring Moroccans and Americans closer. We take our system
of civil institutions for granted, but that is not typical
here. For example, Morocco has a structure of civil
institutions, but not a real system. Everything needs
the official stamp of approval, including organizing a group.
There is a large youth outreach. More than 50% of
the population is under 25 years old. They are feeling
a kind of freedom from the structures of old. Young
Moroccans want to learn English and will help bring change
to the country.
There are big urban centers all over. One of her jobs
is to get the ambassador out to speak all over this country
of 30 million people.
Algerians and Moroccans don’t feel culturally different,
but they are politically very different. Algeria is
more repressive and has more human rights problems.
Jay Nair, Economic Officer:
Jay graduated from Harvard and the University of Maryland
and is a nuclear engineer with 7 years experience in the
Foreign Service. His wife runs the “drugs and
thugs” portfolio for the embassy. They have
served in New Delhi and Manila.
Morocco is about the size of California, with varied topography
and geography. The population is about 30 million,
with a per capital income of $3000 per year. Wealth
is unevenly distributed. In the countryside, living
is primitive. Water is often far away and housing is
poor. Donkeys are the primary means of transportation.
The economy grew 5% in 2009, but will be slower in 2010. Agriculture
saw a 25% increase in 2009. Morocco has survived the
economic crisis well, partly because of its restricted currency. Banks
couldn’t invest in “toxic” assets. The
financial system is strong.
Morocco’s largest trading partner is the EU, making
up 80% of its exports and imports. Morocco has been
hurt by Europe’s economic problems, seeing remittances,
which make up 10% of the economy, decline 15%. There
has also been a slide in tourism, which is another 10% of
the economy. Unemployment is officially at 9%, but
is 15% in urban areas and only 1–2% in rural areas. Among
15 to 25 year old urban youth, unemployment is 45%.
Agriculture and fisheries make up 15% of GDP and 40% of
employment. Morocco is the only country with a Free
Trade Agreement with both the U.S. and Europe. Large
numbers of Moroccans emigrate to Europe looking for work.
Mining is very important to the economy. Morocco is
the biggest phosphate exporter in the world and has the world’s
largest phosphate reserves. China is not a big phosphate
buyer from Morocco. India and Pakistan are big investors,
particularly in cement, metallurgy, textiles, garments, auto
parts, and leather. Morocco faces lots of competition
from other countries with lower costs, such as Egypt.
High end fashion is a solid industry for Morocco. It
has a large services sector, including outsourcing, primarily
back office work for France and Europe. Its banking
sector is large, with the biggest banking presence after
S. Africa on the continent of Africa. Some Moroccan
banks have opened offices in China to handle banking for
Chinese companies doing business in Morocco.
The FTA with the U.S. was signed in 2006. Trade more
than doubled to the U.S., but U.S. exports to Morocco are
3 times bigger, so the FTA hasn’t brought the job growth
that was hoped. The embassy works hard to make the
FTA a success for both Morocco and the U.S.
Other areas of interest are export control and border security. Morocco
has anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism laws. Port
security is important.
Morocco imports 97% of its energy, as it is the only N.
African country without oil. It is working hard to
reduce its oil dependency and plans to spend $9 billion on
solar energy by 2020. That would provide 14% of its
electricity. By 2020, Morocco hopes to provide 14%
of its energy needs by solar and 14% by hydro generation. They
also have the site ready and permitted for a nuclear plant. They
want to have a skilled workforce ready for their new energy
economy before they open their nuclear plant. Moroccans
sneer at countries with no trained labor who build power
plants. They want to do this responsibly.
Morocco has a strong commitment to non-proliferation, but
doesn’t want non-proliferation to impede its access
to nuclear materials. It has very bad relations with
Iran. Morocco broke off diplomatic relations with Iran
primarily over Iran’s proselytizing (Shiite).
President Obama’s outreach to Morocco has been in
the areas of entrepreneurship, education, and science and
technology. There are many small businesses. The
biggest problem for business is the judiciary, which is very
slow and unpredictable. Judges are not well-trained. Law
is based on the Napoleonic Code. There is a lack of
independence and transparency. This is a disincentive
for investment. Corruption is another big problem.
The U.S., France, and Spain are the most important embassies,
with Spain’s being the largest. Other European
countries are far less important. The U.S. consulate
in Casablanca handles visas and passports and houses the
U.S. Commercial Service. This is the second largest
Peace Corps contingent, behind Ukraine.
Rob Jackson, Deputy Chief of Mission:
Rob has spent 28 years in the Foreign Service, serving in
Canada, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Portugal, Ivory Coast, Senegal,
and Morocco, in addition to Washington. He was named
the outstanding DCM in the Foreign Service.
He focuses on assistance relationships, including USAID
and the Millennium Challenge, which was set up in 2007 with
$700 million. It is investing heavily in agriculture,
fisheries, crafts and literacy.
The embassy has a big focus on youth education and enterprise
development. Peace Corps volunteers work in agriculture,
health, environment, and small business.
The U.S. is providing $175 million of assistance in 2010. There
is a big military assistance program, including selling F-16’s
to Morocco. The country is modernizing its military. There
is lots of training. They want to play a bigger role
Four thousand Americans live in Morocco (and 200,000 Moroccans
live in the U.S.). There are 110,000 U.S. visitors
to Morocco each year and 125 American companies do business
here. The FTA has greatly increased U.S. investment. We
want to focus on economic growth, in part to ensure that
Morocco remains stable. There are moves towards a constitutional
democracy to avoid radicalization.
American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham Morocco)
Jane Kitson, U.S. Commercial Counsellor:
Jane is a Russia expert who spent 11 years in Russia, working
for businesses such as the Discovery Channel and Lotus before
joining the U.S. Commercial Service. Morocco is her
first Foreign Service assignment.
The U.S. Commercial Service is charged with creating U.S.
jobs through developing export opportunities for U.S. products. They
help U.S. companies seeking to do business in Morocco. Most
of these are looking for resellers and distributors.
Morocco’s military hardware is old, but the government
is updating its equipment. The two countries have a
very good relationship. Bringing a U.S. work ethic
and respect for the law is very important, as is infusing
the rule of law into Moroccan business.
There is considerable investment in NGO’s to develop
capacity throughout the economy. Coca Cola is a large
employer, with 5000 Moroccan employees. U.S. factories
in Morocco are state of the art. Nemotek has just built
Africa’s first clean room in Morocco. They manufacture
camera chips for cell phones and laptops. They bought
a U.S. license and produce chips for export.
Karl Stanzick, Managing Director, MTDS Morocco:
Karl is from California and has a degree in microbiology
from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He
was a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin and later worked for
When he moved to Morocco in 1995, there was no internet
or cell service. He realized that the internet broke
down all barriers instantly. Karl owns MTDS, an internet
service provider in Morocco that also offers network design,
engineering and consulting services. It provides very
good service, so has loyal customers. The company made
an early decision to go after good customers who would buy
the next step in technology as it came along, such as messaging
The Leland Initiative, named after Senator Mickey Leland,
who died in a plane crash, helped to connect 20 African countries,
including Morocco, to the internet. Karl used Leland
money to get started. The French telecom monopoly
tried to block them. In 2000, MTDS won the Y2K contract,
a sub-contract from SAIC, a large Pentagon consultant. Karl
knew the only way to re-orient the satellite dish was at
3 a.m. because “any other time you’d cook.” He
had done similar work in African countries before, so he
didn’t have to call anyone for help in Africa. He
told us you have to be able to do whatever needs to be done
yourself because there’s no one to call for help in
Technical security and back-ups are MTDS’ niche now. Morocco
has the most broadband connections in Africa, 600,000, as
many as Egypt and S. Africa combined. Morocco is connected
to Spain and Portugal by fiber, which is everywhere in Morocco. Throughout
the rest of Africa, there is no fiber. There is talk
of connecting all of Africa with a loop of fiber encircling
the continent, financed by African countries. But,
this hasn’t happened, so internet service is mostly
satellite-based. Getting bills for internet access
paid is a problem, as is the ability to clog the pipe endlessly. You
can’t just make the pipes bigger, so there is a big
need for security and prioritization of data flow.
MTDS doesn’t really need capital as it has no debt
and is making money.
American companies have a great reputation with Moroccans. They
see the French as too corrupt and the English as too weird. They
like our pragmatism and the fact that we don’t need
to be cool. The French are too condescending, while
Americans seem to care and will listen even if they can’t
solve the problem.
Bringing American firms to Morocco has a great effect. American
companies take care of their employees. It’s
often small things that matter. Moroccan companies
are learning to do the same and to follow the law, but there
are still big corruption issues to overcome.
The Moroccan tax agency is very transparent. They
plan to lower the VAT over the next 2 years. Sixty
percent of Moroccan companies’ books show a loss so
they don’t need to pay taxes. All farm proceeds
are tax free, so Moroccan companies buy farms.
Karl is very bullish on Morocco. He believes the country
needs Apple, Hewlett Packard, Radio Shack—and Sears
hardware. The quality of the hardware is awful. People
constantly fix everything. For example, Karl said
he has to replace door hinges several times a year. The
market is very price sensitive, so the quality is bad. The
Moroccan consumer is brand new, so doesn’t know how
to shop for price and quality.
Morocco has a small middle class. Twenty percent of
the population is poor. They buy cigarettes one by
one because if they buy a pack, they have to share. Utility
companies don’t send out timely bills. You’ll
get a bill for an unpaid balance only after your service
gets cut off. The quality of construction is very bad.
Rabia El Alama, Managing Director, AmCham Morocco:
Rabia came from a small city in Morocco, from a modest background. Her
mother was married at 11 and had her first baby at 12. Consequently,
she had only a few years of education. She had 10 children
and insisted they all get an education. Her mother’s
dream was to finish school and become a judge. Instead,
she told her kids to learn and get the best education that
she could not get.
Rabia was accepted to an international management school
in Casablanca. She went to AmCham to get some information
and found nothing there. AmCham happened to be hiring
then, so she got the job. It was a tiny chamber with
no structure. She said, “I grew with the Chamber.” And
she’s still there, but is now the manager. She
has her MA in international business and can now teach international
The State Department selected Rabia to participate in its
International Visitor Program, which enabled her to tour
13 states for 7 weeks, meet business people and government
leaders, and President Clinton. The experience changed
Most important to Rabia is providing a very good education
to Morocco’s children. It empowers kids to get
the best jobs, to succeed, and grow.
AmCham was established in 1966 by Coca Cola, Colgate and
Proctor & Gamble. Most of its business ties are
with Europe, since 66% of trade is with Europe. They
would like to see more trade and more investment between
Morocco and the U.S. AmCham provides advocacy, information,
networking and business support services. It has 280
members, 50% of whom are Moroccan companies, 5% multi-national,
and 45% U.S.
They provide business briefings using board members, special
publications, and an expedited business visa program.
Over the last 20 years, the economy has been liberalized. Between
1993 and 2000, 50 state-owned enterprises were privatized. In
2000, Morocco negotiated an FTA with Europe and, in 2006,
with the U.S. The country joined the WTO in 1994. Today,
only the phosphate sector and Royal Air Maroc are still government-owned.
Inflation has been 2% per year for the last decade. Growth
has been 4-6% per year, and was 5.6% in 2009. Tourism
provides $6.6 billion to the economy and remittances, $5.7
billion. But the economy is fragile. Agriculture
is 20% of GDP. The government is planning irrigation
systems to overcome drought. The flooding we saw is
not as big a problem as it appears. The country will
still have a record harvest. Government subsidizes
Foreign direct investment was $4.5 billion in 2007 and $3.3
billion in 2008. Moroccans have access to good and
varied food, housing, transportation, and the internet. Today,
Casablanca has 2 million cars. Mortgages are affordable
at 5-6%. Currency controls are designed to keep Moroccan
fortunes in the country. There are about 20 very wealthy
families, like the Russian oligarchs. Moroccans traveling
out of the country can only take $1500 and cannot use credit
cards. This makes foreign travel very difficult. Profits
can be transferred out 100%.
The corporate tax rate is 35% now. It will be dropped
to 30% this year and ultimately will be 20%. Morocco
has a non-double taxation agreement with the U.S. Individuals
can only get foreign cash at the central bank.
The education system is getting worse. Half of the
national budget goes to education, but the results are awful. Teachers
don’t show up. The schools teach in Arabic, when
the Moroccan language is a dialect of Arabic. Higher
education is in French.
Driving across Morocco takes one through a varied geography. There
are beautiful farms, growing tomatoes, wheat, fava beans,
and tropical fruits. Hundreds of greenhouses grow fresh
fruits and vegetables for the European market. The
folded hills were covered with green grass and wildflowers,
thanks to the heavy rains. Morocco’s Atlas Mountains
still had snow.
Between Rabat and Fez lies the Roman city of Volubilis,
which we visited. It is on a hillside, quite alone. The
golden ruins are surrounded by flowers, lush grass, and quiet. One
of the highlights of Volubilis is its beautiful mosaics,
still very clear on the floors of the ruined villas. They
are not protected at all, which is very unfortunate.
Fez carved screen
Fez leather dying
Merzouga girls selling crafts
Merzouga : Group on camels
Sahara : camels returning
Sahara dunes after sunrise
Fez is one of the great medieval Muslim cities of the world. Our
riad (old palace or villa turned into a small hotel) was
on the edge of the medina, the souk or bazaar of Fez. Walking
through the medina is a walk through history. The
alleyways are too narrow for vehicles, so donkeys, people,
and hand carts carry all the goods into the innumerable shops
and homes in the ancient medina. The shopping area
is comprised of different souks, or bazaars, each dedicated
to a different product or activity. There are souks
for metalworking, woodworking, embroidery, food, spices,
Women carry their bread dough, shaped in 12 inch rounds,
to a communal bakery for baking. Men sit outside their
tiny shops embroidering kaftans, which they make inside. Women
embroider the linens. Along the alleyway walls, men
and boys twist thread into embroidery yarn. In
the traditional leather souk, men cure hides in huge vats
filled with water, pigeon droppings, and colorful dyes.
Like Andalucia, Fez has magnificent Muslim mosques, madrassas
(Koranic schools) and villas. The plaster carving
is done on the ground before being lifted into place as a
Our riad was small, only 8 rooms, comprised of 3 old villas
put together. They all open onto beautiful courtyards
with trees and flowers. When you walk along a street
or alley, you walk along tall, blank walls, dotted with small
doorways. Open the door, and you’ll usually
find a courtyard, with rooms and balconies surrounding it. Muslim
family life focuses inside rather than outside, so all the
homes are cloistered and protected by high walls.
Our drive to the Sahara was long and interesting, passing
by Morocco’s only ski area, two small, short runs,
now green. The mountains we crossed from Fez to the
Sahara are full of meadows and wildflowers, with occasional
villages and some Berber camps as you get closer to the desert. Our
destination was Merzouga, a small town on the edge of the
Erg Chebbi, Morocco’s only area of significant sand
Merzouga is an oasis, full of date palms. Families
have small plots of land where they grow the date palms. The
more industrious families also intersperse their trees (palms
are actually a grass) with crops of vegetables or grains.
Mohammed, the owner of our hotel, took us on a walking tour
of the dunes and oasis. He showed us the water system
that comes through the dunes, concrete pipes under the sand,
with large concrete vents, actually pipes, where sand can
be cleaned out of the system. We could see the grass
fences the villagers had constructed to hold back the drifting
sand, but the dunes nonetheless move ever closer to the palms,
covering the fences and encroaching on the fields and homes.
Mohammed explained the irrigation system, which runs through
the oasis in a concrete ditch with dirt ditches going off
to every family’s plot. Each family is responsible
for maintaining its own ditches and each gets an allotment
of water, 7 hours every 12 days. Farmers trade water
with other farmers if they need more at a certain time. As
the date palms blend back into the dunes, there is a community
water system that provides clean water to families. Two
children were filling large plastic bottles with water to
carry home. Nearby, young girls were selling their
handmade souvenirs, and were happy that we bought them.
On the way back to the hotel, Mohammed took us to his family
home to have tea with his mother. The entire extended
family lives in the home, including aunts, uncles, and cousins. There
is a large living room with several low couches and cushions
against the walls and a small TV entertaining several children. Family
bedrooms are off a courtyard. Mohammed also showed
us a house under construction. The men use the adobe
soil to make huge bricks, about 4 feet long, 3 feet wide,
and 2 feet deep for the walls. These provide a cool
interior for the very hot summers and warmth for cold winter
The highlight of Merzouga was our camel ride into the dunes
to spend the night in a Berber camp. Camels are not
the most comfortable transportation, but if you get into
the rhythm, they’re better than walking yourself on
the soft sand. The camp is in the midst of dunes, set
in a small valley, surrounded by tall and shifting dunes. We
climbed to the top of one dune where tables and chairs allowed
us to drink wine and watch the sunset in comfort. Our
trip to the camp began and ended in a sandstorm. Fortunately,
Mohammed had wrapped Berber scarves around our heads, necks
and faces to protect us from the stinging sand and wind. They
worked extremely well.
We watched the sun set in the west as a full moon rose in
the east. What a spectacular evening, sitting on the
dunes, eating dinner, and going to sleep under a huge moon
that lit up the dunes all night. Sunrise turned the
dunes many shades of yellow, gold, and orange. We walked
away from the camp to watch the sun come up before mounting
our camels for the ride back to Merzouga.
Our drive that day took us to the rocky, mountainous desert
south of the Atlas Mountains. We drove many miles up
the magnificent Dades Valley for lunch at a French restaurant
that may have been our favorite restaurant of the entire
trip. We sat outside under umbrellas overlooking the
steep gorge of the Dades.
We reached Skoura in the late afternoon, to our favorite
hotel of the trip, Les Jardins de Skoura. A French
woman, Caroline, found a ruined Moroccan mud compound in
the middle of a palmeraie (large palm oasis) and rebuilt
it into a charming inn with 8 rooms, a lovely garden, and
a superb French chef. She had just found a puppy hiding
in a nearby mud brick wall, so adopted the adorable little
creature who enchanted us dog lovers. The next morning,
before departing for Marrakesh, we bought out the tiny shop
at the hotel, to the extent that the shop’s owner had
to bring a new supply of rugs for us to buy before we left.
Over the high Atlas Mountains and on to Marrakesh. The
road over the mountains is narrow and very winding, a bit
more exciting than some of us like. Our driver was
very skilled, however, and brought us safely to Marrakesh,
where we enjoyed another lovely riad. The main square
is huge, featuring dozens of food stalls, thousands of strolling
Moroccans, and equally large number of tourists, snake charmers,
tattoo artists, fortune tellers, water sellers, and other
colorful traders. Marrakesh has its own large souk,
filled with shops large and small. A fitting end to
a fascinating trip.