Morocco -- Sensory and Cultural Overload

Morocco -- Sensory and Cultural Overload

As I sit here on the rooftop terrace of our Riad in the Medina of Fez, the sky is turing purple as the sun begins to set. The Minarets have just become active as the call to prayer begins from every direction. I’m trying my best to write down my thoughts now because I’m so overloaded after the day we have just had I want to record my reactions now rather than tomorrow.

Today we smelled and tasted 20 different spices in the spice market, tasted four different kinds of Moroccan flat bread, half a dozen different kinds of dates, more olives than I’ve eaten in my life, Chickpeas with cumin and chile, a dozen different kinds of honey, each with its own medicinal purpose, tea made of mint and absynthe, Fava bean soup, and beef cheeks and tongue. We visited a bakery that bakes everything from bread to stuffed spleen. In the words of one particular Gozotan guide, I must say this was the best marketplace tour ever. The market just seems to go on forever in every possible direction.

It was very interesting, and slightly uncomfortable in the places that we ate. These are very small stalls in the marketplace and in several cases the owner literally kicked out other customers to make room for our entire group. To help you imagine the size of the place I am writing about, imagine a king size bed. On three sides of the bed you have walls going to the ceiling, Leave about a foot between your imaginary walls and a table in the middle of the space. Now take 14 people and get them around the three sides. In every case one or more Moroccans were sent next door in order to make room for all of us to eat together. They didn’t seem to mind, as they seemed happy to observe us and to share their food and culture.

The streets are narrow, no cars are allowed in the Medina, but donkeys and handcarts are! We learned some new words Ballack! Get out of the way. That is especially important when the donkeys laden with gas tanks are coming by. Or when the garbage donkeys are hauling out the trash. Also: Yellah, follow me, Shukran, thank you.

Make way for the donkeys

The mass of people was quite overwhelming for me, shouldering my way through the crowds has never been high on my list. Navigating through streets that are sometimes barely wide enough for one person to walk on, brings it to a whole new level. But, the people here have welcomed us very warmly. They are eager to share their culture and city with us even though we blonde haired blue eyed Lutherans stand out like crazy amongst the many other colors of this melting pot city.

The smells also had a huge effect on me. From the pungent spices, to the citrus smells, to the produce (in all stages of freshness) to the various different meats being cooked and/or butchered. Every time you turn a corner you are subjected to / assaulted with a new smell. Perhaps the best of this was at the spice market. The proprietor gave us a 45 minute seminar on spices and all of their medicinal purposes. The highlight was when he had us all sniff black anise powder. WOW, in terms of a sinus clearing activity you just can’t beat it.

The spice man giving us a seminar on spices and their medicinal

Morocco is primarily a Muslim country, although they pride themselves on being quite progressive and peaceful. One of the most profound moments of the day came as we were visiting a madrasa. Our guide, Achmed was telling us about the training they receive and the importance of incorporating science into their training. In addition to memorizing the Koran having a sound understanding of science is an important part of religious training. In a way, Morocco is the cradle of much of science. When Europe was in the dark ages, scientific studies flourished in Morocco. In a world where many in our own country are all too quick to call climate change a theory, or evolution a fiction, it is fascinating to hear what an integral part of religious training science is in Muslim world. This is especially interesting when those same people are all too quick to paint all Muslims with the same brush.

The group in the madrasa

During our tour, we all did our best to be good ambassadors for the United States, Luther College, and ourselves. This meant dressing a bit more conservatively than some would normally do. It means being polite and greeting strangers in the market with a smile. It means respecting people and not taking their picture without getting permission first. Its amazing how such simple things can pave the way to better relationships with the people you meet.