Insight Trip: Moroccan Magic

Insight Trip: Moroccan Magic

“Play it again, Fulbright,” was the refrain we heard after our cultural immersion into exotic Morocco. A diverse group of Fulbrighters and Friends of Fulbright ranging in age from millennials to pre-baby boomers and originating from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic shore spent nine (9) days traversing Morocco from the bustling city of Casablanca with its beaches, white capped waves and wonderful seaside restaurants to the exotic cosmopolitan city of Marrakech that rivals Paris and New York. Amanda Eggers, our ever- patient tour representative; Jalil, our ever-present and knowledgeable tour guide; Abde, our ever-helpful and careful driver; and I, Justice Cynthia A. Baldwin, Secretary of the Fulbright Association Board and Fulbright Association Representative comprised the trip leadership team.

Trip leader Justice Cynthia Baldwin

On our tour of Casablanca, we immediately confronted the antiquity of Morocco compared with the youth of our very own country. The Portuguese took over the city in 1460, naming it Casa Blanca, “white house” for the color of the fort which protected the city. Now, with its seven million people, the city is nicknamed “the monster” because, people don’t leave, the monster eats them. Morocco is Sunni Muslim and we tour the magnificent Hassan II mosque built from 1986 to 1993 with the highest minaret in the world. The mosque overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and is overwhelming with its beauty and its cost, estimated to be over 800 million dollars although none of the Moroccan people know the exact cost. Jalil gave us a lecture on the Sunni and Shiite Muslims explaining how the split within Islam occurred after the death of Mohammed.

Rabat, Morocco’s capital was our next stop after Casablanca. Our first stop in Rabat is the Grand Palace located on 25 hectares and containing the Royal School where the Crown Prince is educated, government buildings and a mosque. The palace was built in 1860 and is more ceremonial than utilitarian now. Morocco is a constitutional monarchy. The present king is 54 years of age and is perceived as quite modern. His wife has a doctorate and they have two children- the Crown Prince who is 16 and an 11 year old daughter. While we visited many sites in and around Rabat including Le Tour Hassan; the mausoleum of Mohammed V, where the present king’s grandfather, father and uncle lie in a magnificent patterned building with a gold leaf decorated ceiling; and the Kasbah Les Oudaias, the favorite of many of us on that tour was the Chellah, the history of which dates back to the Phoenicians and then to the Romans in AD 40 who called it Sala Colonia. It was abandoned from 1154 until the 14th century when Sultan Abou al-Hassan build the necropolis, the ruins of which we were walking. In Rabat, we had the first of many traditional dinners which began with plates of zaalouk which is a cooked eggplant dish, lentils, carrots, tomatoes and peppers, pumpkin with honey and cauliflower, all fragrantly and deliciously spiced. The main courses were tagines of chicken with olives and lemon and beef with dates. A huge basket of Moroccan bread accompanied the meal. Dessert was sliced fruit served with a little honey and cinnamon.

The best part of any Fulbright trip is the cultural immersion and in Rabat we visited the Fulbright Commission where our contact Moustapha Laalioui, the Deputy Executive Secretary Mohammed Chrayeh and the rest of the staff greeted us warmly with trays of cookies and other sweets and treats, water, coffee and mint tea. We viewed their 35th Anniversary video and heard from a panel consisting of Oussama El Addouli, Director of IES in Morocco; Amini Mechaal, Arabic professor and Customized Program Assistant; and Miriam Ruth Dike, a doctoral student from the United States. Other Fulbrighters also participated. We met students doing research in anthropology, linguistics and Arabic. There were Muslims and non- Muslims, men and women. They had studied from Hunter College in New York City to UC, Santa Barbara in California. The discussion was lively and informative and we had to be pulled away.

We traveled through the Moroccan Tuscany where we saw large olive groves and vineyards toward Meknes which was our next stop. Meknes was a capital of Morocco before Fes and finally Rabat. We stopped to visit the ruins at Volubilis where we saw olive trees that are 1000 years old and beautifully preserved mosaics from AD 280 that were unearthed beginning in 1755. We stepped into the Middle Ages as we walked the Meknes Medina seeing snake charmers, musicians, and vendors selling herbal medicines, tagine pottery, and woven goods as well as freshly slaughtered meats, and large displays of olives, spices, fruits, cookies and dates. We took a picture in front of the Meknes Gate.

It was on to Fes, founded by Idriss II because his father Idriss I decided that Volubilis was too small. On the bus between cities we have lectures and discussions on religion, education, politics, gender roles and government. In Fes, the King’s Palace and the Jewish Quarter date back to the 12th century. The new city was built in 1912. The Romans called the people that they found here barbarians or what we now know as Berbers. The Jewish people came from Spain during the Inquisition and were welcomed by the Idrissian Dynasty. The Jews were treated with respect and many of them worked in the king’s court. Many Jews left in 1948 when Israel was established. Walking through the narrow dark passageways where we had to cling to the sides to allow the pack animals to pass was like time travel to an ancient time. We visited the high school which is adjacent to the only mosque in the Medina (old city) which non- Muslims can enter. In this mosque, our Fes guide Jamal points out the stained glass windows and the cedar wood partitions which show respect for the catholic religion and Judaism. We pass the American Fondouk founded by Annie Bishop to provide veterinarian services for the donkeys and mules which work in the Medina. We visited a tannery that continues to tan hides as people did centuries ago. We were given sprigs of mint to mask the odor and it worked. In Fes, we stayed in our first riad (a building that has a courtyard in the center). Staying in these old beautiful buildings added to our cultural immersion.

Our journey from Fes to the Sahara Desert is one of our longer, but more interesting bus rides. We are now going from the Middle Atlas Mountains to the High Atlas Mountains and we stop at a lovely French café in the village of Ifrane which looks like it was placed there right out of the Swiss Alps. In fact, this section is called Swiss Morocco. The town was constructed in the 1930’s by the French. Our next stop was one that helps differentiate Fulbright trips from other tours. It was at the Al Akhawayn University located in Ifrane in the Middle Atlas Mountains. It is a tuition-based, co-educational public university where the courses are taught in English. The university has about 2200 students and awards bachelors and Masters degrees. We have a wonderful tour by Amy Fishburn, Sr. Director for Internationalization and Partnerships and two student guides.

Our ride through the Middle Atlas Mountains is glorious. We take photos of Barbary apes and Berber herders with herds of sheep. Before us, we saw the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains. We stopped for lunch at the Hotel Taddart which served the best grilled trout that any of us had in a long time. We were trying to reach the desert in time to ride the camels to see the sunset. The long bus ride allowed us the opportunity to hear from Fulbrighters and Friends of Fulbright who had written or edited books on topics ranging from Brazilian literature and linguistics to energy on the African Continent. We passed a former French Foreign Legion garrison and several date plantations before we entered the Sahara Desert which is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the west, the Mediterranean Sea on the north and the Red Sea on the east. The Sahara is about the size of the United States. We reached the city of Erfoud known for its fossil museum and the place where fossils over 600,000 years old have been found and arrived at the Merzouga Dunes in time for the camel ride to see the sunset and then ride back to the camp where we spent the night. There are Persian rug runners leading to our tents which have a bedroom with a sitting area, a bathroom and a shower- such luxury in the desert. The staff was dressed in colorful robes and head wraps. After dinner, there was Berber drumming around the fire. The sky was so clear that we can identify many of the constellations including the Milky Way. It was so lovely and peaceful.

On the road again, we passed Bedouins with camel herds, got a panoramic view of the Dades Gorge and saw the largest silver mine in Morocco. Almond trees lined the highway. We passed through miles and miles of desert expanse with the High Atlas in the background. It is breathtakingly beautiful. We have entered the Valley of the Roses and the Dades Gorge. On our right we saw the Tiylite Jewish Cemetery dating from 1492. This is an agricultural region growing olives, almonds, roses, wheat and barley. That night we slept at a lovely Kasbah.

The next morning we headed for the UNESCO site of Ait Ben Haddou. Jalil reminded us of the many movies that have been made in Morocco including at the site we will visit. The list includes Blackhawk Down, The Exorcist, The Hills Have Eyes, Cleopatra, The Jewel of the Nile, The Last Temptation of Christ and American Sniper. The largest movie studio in Morocco is called the Oscar Studio. We are 2500 meters high and entering the Tichka Pass on our way to Marrakesh. What goes up must come down and for two days we climbed through the Middle and High Atlas Mountains; now we are descending. Marrakech is the flattest city in Morocco. There are one million mopeds in the city and the drivers call themselves mo-sapiens. The Marrakech Medina was built in 1056.

It is in Marrakech that we get three more truly Fulbright experiences. One was at the High Atlas Foundation (HAF) which is a Moroccan Association and a US 501 (c) (3) corporation which was founded in 2000 by former Peace Corps volunteers committed to furthering sustainable development. They have projects in organic agriculture, women’s empowerment, youth development, education and health. Of the 25 staff persons, 23 are Moroccan. They fed us both intellectually and physically and again, we had to be pulled away.

In Marrakesh, we enjoyed a lot of free time. Marrakech is nicknamed “the red city,” “the palm city,” and “the city of saints.” The Koutoubia Mosque became our landmark as we discovered the medina with its 12th century minaret and the main square Djemaa el Fna which dates from the 11th century.

Our second Fulbright experience was lunch at the Amal Women’s Training Center. Amal means “hope” and this organization has given women, most of whom are divorced or have some other perceived social disability, hope. The organization also provides education for their children. The center founded in 2013 provides training for women in cooking and baking and helps place them in jobs.

At our final dinner we had our last Fulbright experience when Professor Ismail M. Alaoui, a professor of physics, who received his doctorate at American University joined us. We had a wonderful time reviewing the highlights of our trip before returning to the hotel to try to stuff the souvenirs we’d purchased into our luggage.

Our Moroccan odyssey was truly magical and as we headed back to the airport in Casablanca, we were saying. “Play it again, Fulbright.”

–Justice Cynthia Baldwin
Fulbright to Zimbabwe, 1994

To see more photos, click here. The 2019 Insight Trip to Morocco (March 9-17) was part of the Fulbright Association’s Travel Programs. To learn more about travel opportunities with the Fulbright Association, please visit www.fulbright.org/travel.

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