Daily Life in Morocco
For travellers Morocco can be about haggling for carpets, romantic dreams of sunsets over the Sahara, dodging snake charmers in Marrakesh and chasing urban legends about decadent Tangier. It certainly makes for an exciting picture, but what is it like for Moroccans? Taking some time to explore the major themes in Moroccan society and daily life will enrich anyone's visit to this culturally fruitful country.
Language and Identity
Morocco's original inhabitants were Berber, but the arrival of Arabs with the introduction of Islam has, over the centuries, mixed and remixed the two populations to a point where the line between Arab and Berber is frequently blurred. However, culturally there has frequently been a clear demarcation between speakers of Arabic (in its Moroccan form known as Darija) and Berber languages (known as Amazigh).
Arab speakers, personified in the Alawite dynasty that has ruled Morocco since the 17th century, have traditionally held the upper hand, despite speakers of Berber languages often holding a demographic majority. This position was institutionalised by the French in the 1930s when they passed laws to discriminate against Berbers. For much of the 20th century it was illegal to even register many traditional Berber names at birth, and Berber education was banned.
In 21st-century Morocco, Berber culture is having something of a renaissance. In 2011 the constitution was revised to make Amazigh an official national language. The effects of this are most immediately visible by the new Amazigh signage that adorns government buildings (and, increasingly, road signs) along with Arabic and French. Berber education, now formally encouraged, still lags behind in quality due to poor training and facilities, although it's still early days in a renaissance in national identity for a culture whose roots are so deep in Moroccan culture.
The rise of Berber is reflected in the relative fall from grace of French, the language of Morocco's colonial past. French is no longer listed as an official state language, though it remains a language of much business and the ability to speak it is frequently perceived as a marker of social status. In higher education today, however, many lessons are taught in English; some argue that French should ultimately be done away with altogether, and English tuition encouraged to increase Morocco's competitiveness in a global economy.
Family life remains at the heart of much of Moroccan life, and while individuals may have ambitions and ideas of their own, their aspirations are often tied in some way to family – a much-admired trait in Morocco. Success for the individual is seen as success for the family as a whole. Even major status symbols such as cars or satellite TVs may be valued less as prized possessions than as commodities benefiting the entire family. This is beginning to change, as the emerging middle class represents moves out of large family homes and into smaller apartments in the suburbs, where common property is not such a given. But family connections remain paramount. Even as Morocco's economy has grown, remittances from Moroccans living in Spain and France to family back home represent as much as 7% of GDP.
Since family is a focal point for Moroccans, expect related questions to come up in the course of conversation: Where is your family (the idea of holidaying without your family can be anathema)? Are you married, and do you have children? If not, why not? These lines of enquiry can seem a little forward, but are a roundabout way of finding out who you are and what interests you. Questions about where you work or what you do in your spare time are odd ice-breakers, since what you do for a living or a hobby says less about you than what you do for your family.
Education & Economy
One of the most important indicators of social status in Morocco is education. As a whole, the country has an adult literacy rate of 67%, with slightly more men than women being literate. The disparity is heightened in poorer rural areas. Here, three-quarters of women cannot read or write and less than 50% of first-graders complete primary school. Schooling to age 14 is now officially mandated, and local initiatives are slowly improving opportunities for education in the Moroccan countryside.
For vulnerable rural families, just getting the children fed can be difficult, let alone getting them to school. Around a quarter of Moroccans are judged to live in near or absolute poverty, and suffer from food insecurity (living in fear of hunger). Under-employment often means that a steady income is a rarity, and 35% of the average Moroccan income covers basic foodstuffs. Only 10% of Moroccans can afford imported foods at the supermarket, let alone eating at restaurants. Although the Moroccan economy has grown well in the 21st century, and Morocco has a burgeoning middle class, its benefits have not always been spread equally: improvements are needed in education to match the growth of Morocco's service industry, which in recent years has even overtaken agriculture for its contribution to GDP.
Frustratingly for many Moroccans, getting ahead can still be a case of who you know as much as what you know. Morocco rates low on Transparency International's corruption perception index, and most Moroccan families at some time will have butted up against the concept of wasta, the need to have a well-connected middleman to get a job or access a service. This is particularly frustrating for an increasingly educated youth suffering high levels of unemployment, who demand a more meritocratic society.
Shifting Gender Roles
Morocco is a male-dominated society, particularly in the public sphere. Take one look at the people nursing a coffee all afternoon in a pavement cafe and you might even ask, where are all the women? However, significant progress is being made on women's rights, and the push for change has been led from the ground up, with women's groups creating a singular brand of Islamic feminism to affect change.
Two decades ago most of the people you’d see out and about, going to school, socialising and conducting business in Morocco would have been men. Women were occupied with less high-profile work, particularly in rural areas, such as animal husbandry, farming, childcare, and fetching water and firewood. Initiatives to eliminate female illiteracy have given girls a better start in life, and positive social pressure has greatly reduced the once-common practice of hiring girls under 14 years of age as domestic workers. Women now represent nearly a third of Morocco’s formal workforce, forming their own industrial unions, agricultural cooperatives and artisans’ collectives. More than 40% of university graduates today are women.
A major societal change came in 2004, with the overhaul of Morocco's Mudawanna legal code. Revising these laws guaranteed women crucial rights with regard to custody, divorce, property ownership and child support, among other protections. The direction of travel hasn't been universally smooth, however. In 2012, Moroccan society was shocked by the case of a 16-year-old girl who committed suicide after being forced to marry her rapist, drawing attention to a clause in the law that allowed a man to be 'forgiven' his crime by marrying his victim. The law was amended after a public outcry, but although the legal age of marriage remains 18 years, child marriages may still be allowed if a special dispensation is given by an Islamic judge.
The modern Moroccan woman’s outlook extends far beyond her front door, and female visitors will meet Moroccan women eager to chat, compare life experiences and share perspectives on world events. Male-female interactions are still sometimes stilted by social convention (though you’ll surely notice couples meeting in parks, at cafes and via webcam), but conversations about hijab that obsess the media in some parts of the world seem less relevant here, where you'll see a devout young woman covering her hair walking with a friend with free-flowing hair and another wrapped up in a headscarf worn purely as a fashion statement. These are young Moroccan women on the move, commuting to work on motor scooters, taking over sidewalks on arm-in-arm evening strolls and running for key government positions.
Morocco is 99% Muslim. Christian and Jewish communities have existed here for centuries, although in recent years their numbers have dwindled.
The Five Pillars of Islam
Soaring minarets, shimmering mosaics, intricate calligraphy, the muezzin’s call to prayer: much of what thrills visitors in Morocco today is inspired by a deep faith in Islam. Islam is built on five pillars: shahada, the affirmation of faith in God and God’s word entrusted to the Prophet Muhammad; salat (prayer), ideally performed five times a day; zakat (charity), a moral obligation to give to those in need; sawm, the daytime fasting practised during the month of Ramadan; and hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that is the culmination of lifelong faith for Muslims.
While all Muslims agree on these basic tenets received by the Prophet Muhammad, doctrinal disagreements ensued after his death. The Umayyads challenged his son-in-law Ali’s claim to the title of caliph, or leader of the faithful. Some Muslims continued to recognise only successors of Ali; today they are known as Shiites. But in numerical terms, the Umayyad caliphate’s Sunni Muslim practice is more common today.
It was the Umayyads who brought Islam to Morocco at the end of the 7th century, and hence Morocco today is almost entirely Sunni. Morocco's ruling Alawite dynasty claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad, and King Mohammed VI holds the unusual position of Amir Al Mumineen, (Commander of the Faithful), making him the spiritual leader of the country as well as head of state.
Morocco follows the Maliki school of Sunni thought. Historically this school has been less strict, with Maliki qaids (chiefs) applying Sharia law according to local custom instead of absolutist rule of law. This applies mainly in the case of family law (mudawanna) such as marriage and inheritance.
Marabouts & Zawiyas
An important Moroccan tradition is the custom of venerating marabouts (saints). Marabouts are devout Muslims whose acts of devotion and professions of faith are so profound, their very presence is considered to confer baraka, or grace, even after their death. Moroccans go out of their way to visit marabout mausoleums and zawiyas (shrines).
This practice of honouring marabouts is more in line with ancient Berber beliefs and Sufi mysticism than orthodox Islam, which generally discourages anything resembling idol worship. Visits to zawiyas are side trips for the many devout Moroccans who spend a lifetime preparing and planning for the hajj.
Sufism in Morocco
It's often commented that Morocco follows one of the most moderate forms of Islam. One reason for this is the strong roots that Sufism has in the country. Sufism is the mystical strand of Islam, where adherents seek perfection of worship in their quest to encounter the divine. This often involves the use of music and repetitive prayer (dhikr) to help gain spiritual enlightenment.
Sufism revolves around orders or brotherhoods known as tariqas, founded by a spiritual leader. The most famous worldwide are the Mevlevis, followers of the Sufi poet Rumi, also known as the whirling dervishes of Turkey. In Morocco, two of the most important tariqas are the Tijaniyya and the Boutchichiyya. The Tijanniyya was founded in the late 18th century by Al Tijani, who died and is buried in Fez. The Boutchichiyya was founded around the same time, and today many in the order hold high-ranking positions in the Moroccan government.
Many observers cite the continued influence of Sufism in Morocco as an important bulwark against the rise of more religiously conservative and politically radical forms of Islam such as Salafism.
Feature: Dressing to Impress in Morocco
A common question is 'how best to dress as a visitor in Morocco?'
Women aren't expected to cover their head in Morocco. Some Moroccan women do and some don’t wear a hijab (headscarf). Some wear it for religious, cultural, practical or personal reasons, or alternate, wearing a head covering in the streets but taking it off at home and work. A full face-covering veil is unusual in cities, and even rarer among rural women working in the fields. Context is important. Likewise, that chic knee-length skirt you see a Moroccan woman wearing in a Marrakesh restaurant is likely to be swapped for more conservative djellaba while visiting the medina.
That said, your choice of attire may be perceived as a sign of respect for yourself and Moroccans alike. For both men and women, this means not wearing shorts, sleeveless tops or clingy clothing. If you do, some people will be embarrassed for you and the family that raised you, and avoid eye contact. So if you don’t want to miss out on some excellent company – especially among older Moroccans – dress modestly.
Feature: The Foreigners Next Door
With an attractive climate and exchange rate, Morocco has 100,000 foreign residents – and counting. Many Moroccan emigrants from Europe and the US are returning to Morocco to live, retire or start businesses, creating a new upper-middle class. The carefree spending of returnees is a source of revenue and a certain amount of resentment for Moroccans, who grumble openly about returnees driving up costs and importing a culture of conspicuous consumption that’s unattainable and shallow.
An international vogue for riads has seen many Europeans buying and restoring historic structures – and sometimes pricing Moroccans out of the housing market and leaving medina neighbourhoods strangely empty and lifeless off-season. It’s a double-edged sword: maintenance and restoration of centuries-old medina houses is often beyond the reach of the families who live in them, and who grab with both hands the chance to upgrade to homes with modern amenities in the villes nouvelles (new cities). At the same time, others grumble that the European influx brings to mind colonial-era enclaves.
Travellers can make the exchange more equitable by venturing beyond riad walls to explore Moroccan culture, meet Moroccans on their own turf and ensure Moroccans benefit from tourism.
Any trip to Morocco comes with its own syncopated soundtrack: the early-evening adhan (call to prayer), and the ubiquitous donkey-cart-drivers’ chants of Balek! (watch out!) – fair warning that since donkeys don’t yield, you’d better, and quick. Adding to the musical mayhem are beats booming out of taxis, ham radios and roadside stalls, and live-music performances at restaurants and weddings, on street corners, and headlining at festivals year-round. There are plenty of Maghrebi beats to tune into.
Classical Arab-Andalusian Music
Leaving aside the thorny question of where exactly it originated (you don’t want to be the cause of the next centuries-long Spain–Morocco conflict, do you?), this music combines the flamenco-style strumming and heartstring-plucking drama of Spanish folk music with the finely calibrated stringed instruments, complex percussion and haunting half-tones of classical Arab music. Add poetic lyrics and the right singer at dinner performances, and you may find that lump in your throat makes it hard to swallow your pastilla (savoury-sweet pie).
You’ll hear two major styles of Arab-Andalusian music in Morocco: Al Aala (primarily in Fez, Tetouan and Salé) and Gharnati (mostly Oujda). The area of musical overlap is Rabat, where you can hear both styles. Keep an eye out for concerts, musical evenings at fine restaurants, classical-music festivals in Casablanca and Fez, and look especially for performances by Gharnati vocalist Amina Alaoui, Fatiha El Hadri Badraï and her traditional all-female orchestras from Tetouan, and Fes Festival of World Sacred Music headliner Mohamed Amin El Akrami and his orchestra.
Joyously bluesy with a rhythm you can’t refuse, this music may send you into a trance – and that’s just what it’s meant to do. The brotherhood of Gnaoua began among freed slaves in Marrakesh and Essaouira as a ritual of deliverance from slavery and into God’s graces. A true Gnaoua lila (spiritual jam session), may last all night, with musicians erupting into leaps of joy as they enter trance-like states of ecstasy that can send fez-tassels spinning and set spirits free.
Join the crowds watching in Marrakesh’s Djemaa El Fna or at the annual Gnaoua World Music Festival in Essaouira, and hear Gnaoua on Peter Gabriel’s Real World music label. Gnaoua mâalems (master musicians) include perennial festival favourites Abdeslam Alikkane and his Tyour Gnaoua, crossover fusion superstar Hassan Hakmoun, Saïd Boulhimas and his deeply funky Band of Gnawas, Indian-inflected Nass Marrakech and reggae-inspired Omar Hayat. Since Gnaoua are historically a brotherhood, most renowned Gnaoua musicians have been men – but the all-women Sufi group Haddarates plays Gnaoua trances traditionally reserved for women, and family acts include Brahim Elbelkani and La Famille Backbou.
Berber Folk Music
There’s plenty of other indigenous Moroccan music besides Gnaoua, thanks to the ancient Berber tradition of passing along songs and poetry from one generation to the next. You can’t miss Berber music at village moussems (festivals), Agadir’s Festival Timitar of Amazigh music, the Marrakech Festival of Popular Arts and Imilchil’s Marriage Moussem, as well as weddings and other family celebrations.
The most renowned Berber folk group is the Master Musicians of Joujouka, who famously inspired the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and William S Burroughs, and collaborated with the Stones' Brian Jones on experimental music with lots of clanging and crashing involved. Lately the big names are women’s, including the all-woman group B’net Marrakech and the bold Najat Aatabou, who sings protest songs in Berber against restrictive traditional roles.
From Marock to Hibhub
Like the rest of the Arab world, Moroccans listen to a lot of Egyptian music, but Moroccopop is gaining ground. A generation of local DJs with cheeky names such as Ramadan Special and DJ Al Intifada have mastered the art of the unlikely mashup. And so have some of the more intriguing talents to emerge in recent years: Hoba Hoba Spirit, whose controversy-causing, pop-punk 'Blad Skizo' (Schizophrenic Country) addresses the contradictions of modern Morocco head-on; Moroccan singer-songwriter Hindi Zahra, Morocco’s answer to Tori Amos, with bluesy acoustic-guitar backing; Darga, a group that blends ska, Darija rap and a horn section into Moroccan surf anthems; and the bluntly named Ganga Fusion and Kif Samba, who both pound out a danceable mix of funk, Berber folk music, reggae and jazz. Algerian influences are heard in Morocco's raï scene, most notably Cheb Khader, Cheb Mimoun and Cheb Jellal.
But ask any guy on the street with baggy cargo shorts and a t-shirt with the slogan MJM (Maroc Jusqu’al Mort – Morocco 'til Death) about Moroccan pop, and you’ll get a crash course in hibhub (Darija for hip hop). Meknes’ H-Kayne raps gangsta-style, while Tangier’s MC Muslim raps with a death-metal growl, and Fez City Clan features a talented rapper and an Arabic string section. The acts that consistently get festival crowds bouncing are Agadir’s DJ Key, who remixes hip-hop standards with manic scratching and beat-boxing, and Marrakesh’s Fnaire, mixing traditional Moroccan sounds with staccato vocal stylings. Rivalling 'Blad Skizo' for youth anthem of the decade is Fnaire’s 'Ma Tkich Bladi' (Don’t Touch My Country), an irresistibly catchy anthem against neocolonialism with a viral YouTube video.
International musicians find themselves increasingly attracted to Morocco. The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music attracts an ever-more diverse range of headline acts, from Björk to Patti Smith, while Rabat's Festival Mawazine of world music brings in the pop mainstream from Beyoncé to Elton John. The latter highlighted the sometimes delicate nature of the position of music in Morocco – while the government defended Elton John's homosexuality against Islamist criticism, Moroccan musicians have to tread a finer line, especially if commenting on social issues. In 2012, and following the the Arab Spring, rapper El Haked was imprisoned for a year for ‘undermining the honour’ of public servants when the video for his song 'Klab Ed Dawla' (Dogs of the State) pictured corrupt police wearing the heads of donkeys. El Haked had previously been jailed for criticising the monarchy.
Moroccan Music Festivals
March Rencontres Musicales de Marrakesh (classical)
September TANJAzz, Tangier
October Nuits Sonores Tanger, Tangier
Literature & Cinema
Morocco’s rich oral tradition has kept shared stories and histories alive. Watch the storytellers and singers in Marrakesh’s Djemaa El Fna in action and you’ll understand how the country’s literary tradition has remained so vital and irrepressible, despite press censorship. More recently, novelists such as Tahar Ben Jelloun have brought their rich prose to bear on the national experience. Moroccan cinema is younger still, but the country is actively moving beyond being a glitzy film location to being a producer in its own right.
The Beat Generation in Morocco
The international spotlight first turned on Morocco’s literary scene in the 1950s and '60s, when Beat Generation authors Paul and Jane Bowles took up residence in Tangier and began recording the stories of Moroccans they knew. The Sheltering Sky is Paul Bowles' most celebrated Morocco-based novel, while the nonfiction Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands are Blue is a valuable travelogue. Following exposure from the Beats, local writers broke onto the writing scene. Check out Larbi Layachi’s A Life Full of Holes (written under the pseudonym Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi), Mohammed Mrabet’s Love With a Few Hairs and Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone. Like a lot of Beat literature, these books are packed with sex, drugs and unexpected poetry – but if anything, they’re more streetwise, humorous and heartbreaking.
Struggles with Censorship
Encouraged by the outspoken Tanjaoui authors, Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi founded the free-form, free-thinking poetry magazine Anfas/Souffles (Breath) in 1966, not in the anything-goes international zone of Tangier, but in the royal capital of Rabat. What began as a journal became a movement of writers, painters and filmmakers all heeding Laâbi’s editorial outcry against government censorship. Anfas/Souffles published another 21 daring issues, until the censors shut it down in 1972 and sent Laâbi to prison for eight years for ‘crimes of opinion’.
The literary expression Laâbi equated to breathing has continued unabated. In 1975 Anfas/Souffles cofounder and self-proclaimed ‘linguistic guerrilla’ Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine published his confrontational Ce Maroc!, an anthology of revolutionary writings. A Souss Berber himself, Khaïr-Eddine called for the recognition of Berber identity and culture in his 1984 Legend and Life of Agoun’chich, which served as a rallying cry for today’s Berber Pride movement.
Morocco as Film Set
Until recently Morocco had been seen mostly as a stunning movie backdrop, easily stealing scenes in such dubious cinematic achievements as Sex and the City 2, Prince of Persia, Alexander and Sahara. But while there’s much to cringe about in Morocco’s IMDb filmography, the country had golden moments on the silver screen in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, Orson Welles’ Othello and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.
Morocco has certainly proved its versatility: it stunt-doubled for Somalia in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, Tibet in Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, Lebanon in Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, and Iraq in Clint Eastwood's American Sniper. Morocco also stole the show right out from under John Malkovich by playing itself in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky, and untrained local actors Mohamed Akhzam and Boubker Ait El Caid held their own with Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt in the 2006 Oscar-nominated Babel.
Morocco’s Directorial Breakthrough
Historically, Morocco has imported its blockbusters from Bollywood, Hollywood and Egypt, but today, Moroccans are getting greater opportunities to see films shot in Morocco that are actually by Moroccans and about Morocco. In 2015 half of the top 10 box office hits in Morocco were locally made.
Moroccan filmmakers are putting decades of Ouallywood filmmaking craft and centuries of local storytelling tradition to work telling epic modern tales, often with a cinéma vérité edge. Morocco’s 2010 Best Foreign Film Oscar contender was Nour-Eddine Lakhmari’s Casanegra, about Casablanca youth thinking fast and growing up faster as they confront the darker aspects of life in the White City. Other hits include Latif Lahlou’s La Grande Villa (2010), tracking one couple’s cultural and personal adjustments after relocating from Paris to Casablanca.
Euro-Moroccan films have already become mainstays of the international festival circuit, notably Faouzi Bensaïdi’s family-history epic A Thousand Months, winner of the 2003 Cannes Film Festival Le Premier Regard, and Laïla Marrakchi’s Marock, about a Muslim girl and Jewish boy who fall in love, which screened at Cannes in 2005. With their stylish handling of colliding personal crises in Heaven’s Doors (2006), Spanish-Moroccan directors Swel and Imad Noury hit the festival circuit with The Man Who Sold the World, a Dostoyevsky-existentialist fable set in Casablanca.
Thanks to critical acclaim and government support, new voices and new formats are emerging in Moroccan cinema. Young directors are finding their voices through a new film school in Marrakesh and short-film showcases, including back-to-back short-film festivals in Rabat and Tangier in October. Women directors have stepped into the spotlight, from Farida Benlyazid’s 2005 hit The Dog’s Life of Juanita Narboni, a Spanish expat’s chronicle of Tangier from the 1930s to the 1960s, to star Mahassine El Hachadi, who won the short-film prize at the 2010 Marrakesh International Film Festival while still in film school.
Leila Kilani's Les Yeux Secs (2003) broke further ground by not only being filmed in Amazigh rather than Arabic, but tackling hard subjects such as female trafficking and prostitution. The use of social critique hasn't been without criticism, but filmmakers have been unafraid to push back in the name of artistic freedom. Star director Nabil Ayouch's Much, Loved (2014) was banned for discussing prostitution, but Behind Closed Doors, directed the same year by Mohammed Ahed Bensouda, focused on workplace sexual harassment of women and led to a national discussion on changing Moroccan laws.
Morocco’s Landmark Cinema Revival
Despite Morocco’s creative boom, cinephiles have begun to fear for Morocco’s movie palaces, since ticket prices can’t compete with cheap pirated DVDs. In 2007 only 5% of Morocco’s population went to the movies, while more than 400,000 pirated DVDs were symbolically seized from souq stalls in Rabat and Casablanca. Thirty years ago there were 250 cinemas in Morocco; in 2010 only 30 were left.
Moroccan cinema buffs have rallied to preserve and promote Morocco’s historic movie palaces as architectural wonders and key modern landmarks in Morocco’s ancient storytelling tradition. Tangier’s 1930s Cinema Rif reopened in 2006 as Cinematheque de Tanger, a nonprofit cinema featuring international independent films and documentaries. Cinéma Camera in Meknes – possibly Morocco's most glorious art-deco movie theatre – continues to thrive on mainstream Egyptian, Hollywood and Bollywood fare. Check out its fabulous 'Golden Era Hollywood' mural as its stairs sweep up to the auditorium.
Art & Crafts
The usual arts and crafts hierarchy is reversed in Morocco, where the craft tradition is ancient and revered, while visual art is a more recent development. Ornament is meant to be spiritually uplifting, while nonfunctional objects and representational images have traditionally been viewed as pointless – or worse, vanity verging on idolatry. While Morocco's contemporary visual-arts scene remains small, its many beautiful crafts – from carpets and leather to pottery and metalwork – make the quintessential souvenir of any trip.
Perhaps because it has been relegated to a marginal position, Moroccan contemporary art has particular poignancy and a sense of urgency, expressing aspirations and frustrations that can be understood instinctively – while eluding media censorship.
The new artworks emerging from Morocco are not kitschy paintings of eyelash-batting veiled women and scowling turbaned warriors, though you’ll still find these in tourist showrooms. These form a 19th-century French Orientalist tradition made largely for export, and contemporary Moroccan artists such as Hassan Hajjaj are cleverly tweaking it. Hajjaj’s provocative full-colour photographs of veiled women are not what you’d expect: one tough lady flashing the peace sign wears a rapper-style Nike-logo veil, emblazoned with the slogan ‘Just Do It’ across her mouth, while his 'Kesh Angels' series showed women bikers on the streets of Marrakesh.
Morocco’s visual-art scene put down roots in the 1950s and '60s, when folk artists in Essaouira and Tangier made painting and sculpture their own by incorporating Berber symbols and locally scavenged materials. Landscape painting became a popular way to express pride of place in Essaouira and Asilah, and abstract painting became an important means of poetic expression in Rabat and Casablanca.
Marrakesh’s art scene combines elemental forms with organic, traditional materials, helping to ground abstract art in Morocco as an indigenous art form. The scene has taken off in the past decade, with the Marrakech Biennale launched in 2005 and Morocco’s first International Art Fair in 2009.
Calligraphy remains Morocco’s most esteemed visual art form, practised and perfected in Moroccan medersas (schools for studying the Quran) over the last 1000 years. In Morocco, calligraphy isn’t just in the Quran: it’s on tiled walls, inside stucco arches, and literally coming out of the woodwork. Look carefully, and you’ll notice that the same text can have an incredibly different effect in another calligraphic style. One calligrapher might take up a whole page with a single word, while another might turn it into a flower, or fold and twist the letters origami-style into graphic patterns.
The style most commonly used for Qurans is Naskh, a slanting cursive script introduced by the Umayyads. Cursive letters ingeniously interlaced to form a shape or dense design are hallmarks of the Thuluth style, while high-impact graphic lettering is the Kufic style from Iraq. You’ll see three main kinds of Kufic calligraphy in Morocco: angular, geometric letters are square Kufic; those bursting into bloom are foliate Kufic; and letters that look like they’ve been tied by sailors are knotted Kufic.
Lately, contemporary artists have reinvented calligraphy as a purely expressive art form, combining the elegant gestures of ancient scripts with the urgency of urban graffiti. Farid Belkahia’s enigmatic symbols in henna and Larbi Cherkaoui’s high-impact graphic swoops show that even freed of literal meanings, calligraphy can retain its poetry.
For instant relief from sterile modernity, head to your nearest Moroccan souq to admire the inspired handiwork of local mâalems (master artisans). Most of Morocco’s design wonders are created without computer models or even an electrical outlet, relying instead on imagination, an eye for colour and form, and steady hands you’d trust to take out a tonsil.
All this takes experience. In Fez, the minimum training for a ceramic mâalem is 10 years, and it takes a zellige (geometric tile) mosaic-maker three to four months to master a single shape – and with 360 shapes to learn, mastery is a lifelong commitment. When you watch a mâalem at work, it’s the confidence of the hand movements, not the speed, that indicates a masterwork is in the making. Techniques and tools are handed down from one generation to the next, and friendly competition among neighbours propels innovation.
Instead of sprawling factory showrooms, mâalems work wonders in cubby holes lining souqs, each specialising in a traditional trade. But artisans in rural areas are not to be outdone: many Moroccan villages are known for a style of embroidery or a signature rug design. Most of the artisans you’ll see in the souqs are men, but you’re likely to glimpse women mâalems working behind the scenes knotting carpets in Anti Atlas and Middle Atlas villages, weaving textiles along the Southern coast and painting ceramics in Fez, Salé and Safi.
If you manage to return from Morocco without a carpet, you may well congratulate yourself on being one of few travellers to have outsmarted the wiliest salespeople on the planet.
Moroccan carpets hook travellers almost every time because there’s a right carpet for almost everyone – and if that sounds like something your mother once said to you about soul mates, it’s not entirely a coincidence. Women in rural Morocco traditionally created carpets as part of their dowries, expressing their own personalities in exuberant colours and patterns, and weaving in symbols of their hopes for health and married life. Now carpets are mostly made as a way to supplement household income, but in the hands of a true mâalem, a hand-woven carpet brings so much personality and baraka (blessings) underfoot, it could never be mistaken for a mere doormat.
Carpets you see in the souqs may already have been bought and sold three or four times, with the final price representing a hefty mark-up over what the weaver was paid for her work. Consider buying directly from a village association instead: the producer is more likely to get her fair share of the proceeds, you’ll get a better deal without extensive bargaining, and you may meet the artisan who created your new rug.
Anything not nailed down in Morocco is likely to be woven, sewn or embroidered – and even then, it might be upholstered. Moroccan women are the under-recognised mâalems of Moroccan textiles, and the tradition they’ve established has recently helped attract emerging fashion enterprises and global brands to Morocco. One-third of Moroccan women are employed in Morocco’s industrial garment industry, but for meticulous handiwork with individual flair, check out traditional textile handicrafts.
Now that there’s not much call for camel saddles anymore, Moroccan leather artisans keep busy fashioning embossed leather book-covers and next season’s must-have handbags with what look like medieval dentistry tools. Down medieval derbs (alleyways), you’ll discover freshly tanned and dyed lime-green leather sculpted into fashion-forward square pouffes (ottomans), yellow pompoms carefully stitched onto stylish fuchsia kidskin gloves, or shocking silver leather stretched and sewn into flouncy bedroom slippers. Along these leather souqs, you might spot artisans dabbing henna onto stretched goatskin to make ‘tattooed’ leather candle-holders, lampshades or stand-alone artworks. If you’re in town for a couple of days, you might even commission an artisan to make you a custom-made bag, lambskin leather jacket or jodhpurs.
If it’s an authenticity trip you’re after, for men you’ll prefer the traditional yellow babouches (slippers) or ‘Berber Adidas’, slippers with soles made from recycled rubber tyres. Women’s babouches come in a broader range of colours and designs, and you may see vats of vibrant dye used for them in tanneries in Fez. But as colourful as they may look from afar, the tanneries give off a putrid stench – many medina residents would prefer to see them outside the city limits.
Moroccan ceramics are a delight, and excellent value – a decorative tajine may cost you Dh150 to Dh400, depending on size and decoration. Different regions have their own colour schemes: Meknes ceramics tend to be green and black, Fassi pottery is blue, Safi offers black-and-white Berber patterns, and Tamegroute makes a distinctive green glaze from oxidised copper. Salé is strong on yellow and turquoise, geometric patterns and intricate dot-patterned dishes. Marrakesh specialises in monochrome ceramics in red, graphite or orange instead of elaborate decoration. Many rural areas specialise in terracotta crockery, with plain, striking shapes and Berber good-luck symbols painted in henna.
To make a Moroccan fountain, grab your hammer and chisel, and carefully chip a glazed tile into a geometrically correct shape. Good job – now only 6000 more to go to finish your water feature. Then again, you might leave it to the Moroccan mosaic masters to spiff up your foyer with glittering zellige (colourful geometric mosaic tiles) end tables, entryway mirrors and fountains of all sizes. Fez has a reputation for the most intricate, high-lustre zellige, and the historic fountains around town dating from the Middle Ages are convincing advertisements for Fassi masterworks.
Brass, Copper & Silver
Tea is a performance art in Morocco, requiring just the right props. As if tea poured from over your head wasn't dramatic enough, gleaming brass teapots and copper tea trays are hammered by hand to catch the light and engraved with calligraphy to convey baraka on all who partake. Pierced brass lamps and recycled tin lanterns add instant atmosphere – and if all else fails to impress, serve your guests a sliver of cake with an inlaid knife from Morocco’s dagger capital, Kalaat M'Gouna.
Most ‘silver’ tea services are actually nickel silver, and should cost accordingly – about Dh50 to Dh250 for the teapot, and usually more for the tray (depending on size and design).
Not all that glitters is gold in Morocco, since many Berbers traditionally believe gold to be a source of evil. You may see some jewellers with magnifying glasses working a tricky bit of gold filigree, but most gold you see in the souqs is imported from India and Bali. Sterling will be marked with 925, and is often sold by weight rather than design. Morocco’s mining operations are more concerned with phosphates and fossils than with precious gems, but you will see folkloric dowry jewellery and headdresses with semiprecious stones, including coral, agate, cornelian and amber.
But Moroccan mâalems don’t need precious materials to create a thing of beauty. Ancient ammonite and trilobite fossils from Rissani make fascinating prehistoric amulets, and striking Berber fibules (brooches) in silver are Tiznit’s speciality. Layered wood, nickel silver and brightly coloured enamel make groovy cocktail rings in Marrakesh, and desert Tuareg talismans in leather and silver are fitting gifts for a man of the world.
The most pleasingly scented part of the souq is the woodworkers’ area, aromatic from the curls of wood carpeting the floors of master-carvers’ workshops. These are the mâalems responsible for the ancient carved, brass-studded cedar doors and those carved cedar muqarnas (honeycomb-carved) domes that cause wonderment in Moroccan palaces. Tetouan, Meknes and Fez have the best reputations for carved wood ornaments, but you’ll see impressive woodwork in most Moroccan medinas.
For the gourmets on your gift list, hand-carved orangewood harira (lentil soup) spoons are small ladles with long handles that make ideal tasting spoons. Cedar is used for ornate jewellery boxes and hefty chip-carved chests are sure to keep the moths at bay. The most prized wood is thuya wood, knotty burl from the roots of trees indigenous to the Essaouira region. Buy from artisans’ associations that practise responsible tree management and harvesting.
Feature: Buying Sustainable Souvenirs
Used tyres don't biodegrade, and burning them produces toxic fumes – but when cleverly repurposed by Moroccan artisans, they make fabulous home furnishings. Tyre-tread mirrors make any entryway look dashingly well-travelled and inner-tube tea trays are ideal for entertaining motorcycle gangs. For the best selection, visit the tyre-craft mâalems (master artisans) lining the south end of Rue Riad Zitoun El Kedim in Marrakesh.
Quite Sustainable: Argan Oil
Argan is the finest cosmetic oil to ever pass through the business end of a goat. Outside Essaouira and in the Anti Atlas, goats climb low argan trees to eat the nuts, digesting the soft, fuzzy outer layer and passing the pit. Traditionally, women then collect the dung, and extract, clean and crack the pit to remove the nut, which is then pressed to yield the orange-tinted oil rich in vitamin E. This is arduous handwork, and buying from a collective is the best way to ensure that the women are paid fairly.
Possibly Sustainable: Berber Carpets & Blankets
Berber blankets are often made with wool so natural that you can feel the lanolin on them. Most weavers use a combination of natural and artificial dyes to achieve the desired brilliance and lightfastness. Some cooperatives card and dye their own wool for natural colours, but for bright colours it's better that they source their wool from reputable dyers instead of handling and disposing of chemical dyes themselves. For associations advancing best environmental practices and paying women weavers fairly, visit Kasbah Myriem, Cooperative Feminin de Tissage Aït Bououli, Jemaite Tifawin and Association Gorge du Dadès.
Not So Sustainable: Thuyya Wood
The root of a juniper that grows only in Morocco, this caramel-coloured knotty burl is at risk of being admired to extinction. Buy carved thuya bowls and jewellery boxes only from artisans' collectives more likely to practise responsible collection and reforesting, such as the Cooperative Artisanal des Marqueteurs and the Cooperative Artisanale des Femmes de Marrakesh.
Stubbed toes come with the territory in Morocco: with so much intriguing architecture to gawp at, you can’t always watch where you’re going. Some buildings are more memorable than others – as in any developing country there’s makeshift housing and cheap concrete – but it’s the striking variation in architecture that keeps you wondering what's behind that wall or over the next mountain pass. Here are some Moroccan landmarks likely to leave your jaw on tiled floors, and your toes in jeopardy.
Since medieval times, these creative courtyard complexes featured ground-floor stabling or artisans’ workshops and rented rooms upstairs – from the nonstop funduq flux of artisans and traders emerged cosmopolitan ideas and new inventions. Fanadiq once dotted caravan routes, but as trading communities became more stable and affluent, most fanadiq were gradually replaced with private homes and storehouses. Around 140 fanadiq remain in Marrakesh alone, including historic structures near Place Bab Fteuh, several lining Rue Dar El Bacha and one on Rue El Mouassine featured in the film Hideous Kinky. In Fez, an exemplary funduq dating from 1711 underwent a six-year renovation to become the spiffy Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts & Crafts.
These domed buildings have been part of the Moroccan urban landscape since the Almohads, and every village aspires to a hammam of its own – often the only local source of hot water. Traditionally they are built of mudbrick, lined with tadelakt (satiny hand-polished limestone plaster that traps moisture) and capped with a dome that has star-shaped vents to let steam escape. The domed main room is the coolest area, with side rooms offering increasing levels of heat to serve everyone from the vaguely arthritic to the woefully hung-over.
The boldly elemental forms of traditional hammams may strike you as incredibly modern, but actually it’s the other way around. The hammam is a recurring feature of landscapes by modernist masters Henri Matisse and Paul Klee, and Le Corbusier’s International Style modernism was inspired by the interior volumes and filtered light of these iconic domed North African structures. Tadelakt has become a sought-after surface treatment for pools and walls in high-style homes, and pierced domes incorporated into the ‘Moroccan Modern’ style feature in umpteen coffee-table books. To see these architectural features in their original context, pay a visit to your friendly neighbourhood hammam – there’s probably one near the local mosque, since hammams traditionally share a water source with ablutions fountains.
Wherever there were once commercial interests worth protecting in Morocco – salt, sugar, gold, slaves – you’ll find a kasbah. These fortified quarters housed the ruling family, its royal guard, and all the necessities for living in case of a siege. The mellah (Jewish quarter) was often positioned within reach of the kasbah guard and the ruling power’s watchful eye. One of the largest remaining kasbahs is Marrakesh’s 11th-century kasbah, which still houses a royal palace and acres of gardens, and flanks Marrakesh’s mellah. Among the most photogenic northern kasbahs are the red kasbah overlooking all-blue Chefchaouen, and Rabat’s whitewashed seaside kasbah with its elegantly carved gate, Bab Oudaïa.
Unesco World Heritage designations saved Taourirt Kasbah in Ouarzazate and the rose-coloured mud-brick Ait Ben Haddou, both restored and frequently used as film backdrops. To see living, still-inhabited kasbahs, head to Anmiter and Kasbah Amridil in Skoura Oasis.
The location of ksour (fortified villages, plural of ksar) in southern Morocco are spectacularly formidable: atop a rocky crag, against a rocky cliff, or rising above a palm oasis. Towers made of metres-thick, straw-reinforced mudbrick are elegantly tapered at the top to distribute the weight, and capped by zigzag merlon (crenellation). Like a desert mirage, a ksar will play tricks with your sense of scale and distance with its odd combination of grandeur and earthy intimacy. From these watchtowers, Timbuktu seems much closer than 52 days away by camel – and in fact, the elegant mud-brick architecture of Mali and Senegal is a near relative of Morocco’s ksour.
To get the full effect of this architecture in splendid oasis settings, visit the ksour-packed Draa and Dadès Valleys, especially the fascinating ancient Jewish ksar at Tamnougalt and the pink,gold, and white ksar of Aït Arbi, teetering on the edge of the Dadès Gorge. Between the Draa Valley and Dadès Valley, you can stay overnight in an ancient ksar in the castle-filled oases of Skoura and N’Kob, or pause for lunch at Ksar El Khorbat and snoop around 1000-year-old Ksar Asir in Tinejdad.
Caravan stops are packed with well-fortified ksour, where merchants brought fortunes in gold, sugar and spices for safekeeping after 52-day trans-Saharan journeys. In Rissani, a half-hour circuit will lead you past half a dozen splendid ancient ksour, some of which are slated for restoration. Along caravan routes heading north through the High Atlas toward Fez, you’ll spot spectacular ksour rising between snowcapped mountain peaks, including a fine hilltop tower that once housed the entire 300-person community of Zaouiat Ahansal.
More than schools of rote religious instruction, Moroccan medersas have been vibrant centres of learning for law, philosophy and astronomy since the Merenid dynasty. For enough splendour to lift the soul and distract all but the most devoted students, visit the 14th-century Medersa El Attarine in Fez, bedecked in zellige (colourful geometric mosaic tilework) and its rival for top students, the intricately carved and stuccoed Ali Ben Youssef Medersa in Marrakesh. Now open as museums, these medersas give some idea of the austere lives students led in sublime surroundings, with long hours of study, several roommates, dinner on a hotplate, sleeping mats for comfort and one communal bathroom for up to 900 students. While other functioning medersas are closed to non-Muslims, Muslim visitors can stay overnight in some Moroccan medersas, though arrangements should be made in advance and a modest donation is customary.
Even small villages may have more than one mosque, built on prime real estate in town centres with one wall facing Mecca. Mosques provide moments of sublime serenity in chaotic cities and busy village market days, and even non-Muslims can sense their calming influence. Towering minarets not only aid the acoustics of the call to prayer, but provide a visible reminder of Allah and community that puts everything else – minor spats, dirty dishes, office politics – back in perspective.
Mosques in Morocco are closed to non-Muslims, with two exceptions that couldn’t be more different: Casablanca’s sprawling Hassan II Mosque and austere Tin Mal Mosque nestled in the High Atlas. The Hassan II Mosque was completed in 1993 by French architect Michel Pinseau with great fanfare and considerable controversy: with room for 25,000 worshippers under a retractable roof and a 210m-high laser-equipped minaret, the total cost has been estimated at €585 million, not including maintenance or restitution to low-income former residents moved to accommodate the structure. At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum is the elegant simplicity of Tin Mal Mosque, built in 1156 to honour the Almohads’ strict spiritual leader, Mohammed Ibn Tumart, with cedar ceilings and soaring arches that lift the eye and the spirits ever upward.
Muslims assert that no Moroccan architecture surpasses buildings built for the glory of Allah, especially mosques in the ancient Islamic spiritual centre of Fez. With walls and ablutions fountains covered in lustrous green and white Fassi zellige (colourful geometric mosaic tilework), and mihrabs (niches indicating the direction of Mecca) swathed in stucco and marble, Fez mosques are purpose-built for spiritual glory. When vast portals are open between prayers, visitors can glimpse (no photos allowed) Fez’s crowning glory: Kairaouine Mosque and University, founded in the 8th century by a Fassi heiress. Non-Muslims can also see Morocco’s most historic minbar (pulpit): the 12th-century Koutoubia minbar, inlaid with silver, ivory and marquetry by Cordoba’s finest artisans, and housed in Marrakesh’s Badi Palace.
Dramatic form follows defensive function in many of Morocco’s trading posts and ports. The Almoravids took no chances with their trading capital, and wrapped Marrakesh in 16km of pink pisé (mudbrick reinforced with clay and chalk), 2m thick. Old Fez is similarly surrounded. Coastal towns like Essaouira and Asilah have witnessed centuries of piracy and fierce Portuguese–Moroccan trading rivalries – hence the heavy stone walls dotted with cannons, and crenellated ramparts that look like medieval European castle walls.
Near palaces in Morocco’s major cities are grand riads, courtyard mansions where families of royal relatives, advisers and rich merchants whiled away idle hours gossiping in bhous (seating nooks) around arcaded courtyards paved with zellige (colourful geometric mosaic tilework) and filled with songbirds twittering in fruit trees. Not a bad set-up, really, and one you can enjoy today in one of the many converted riad guesthouses in Marrakesh and Fez.
So many riads have become B&Bs over the past decade that 'riad' has become a synonym for 'guesthouse' – but technically, an authentic riad has a courtyard garden divided in four parts, with a fountain in the centre. A riad is also not to be confused with a dar, which is a simpler, smaller house constructed around a central light well – a more practical structure for hot desert locales and chilly coastal areas. With several hundred riads, including extant examples from the 15th century, Marrakesh is the riad capital of North Africa.
From outside those austere, metre-thick walls, you’d never guess what splendours await beyond brass-studded riad doors: painted cedar ceilings, ironwork balconies and archways dripping with stucco. Upkeep isn’t easy, and modernising ancient structures with plumbing and electricity without destabilising the foundations is especially tricky. Built in clay or mudbrick with a thick lime plaster covering, their walls insulate against street sound, keep cool in summer and warm in winter, and wick away humidity instead of trapping it like mouldy old concrete – building materials of the future, as well as the past.
In Morocco, souqs – the market streets of a medina – are often covered with wooden grilles for shade and shelter, and criss-crossed with smaller streets lined with food stalls, storerooms and cubby-hole-sized artisans’ studios carved into thick mudbrick walls. Unlike souqs, these smaller streets often do not have names, and are together known as a qissaria. Most qissariat are through streets, so when (not if) you get lost in them, keep heading onward until you intersect with the next souq or buy a carpet, whichever happens first.
Don’t be fooled by modest appearances or remote locations in Morocco: even a tiny village teetering off the edge of a cliff may be a major draw across Morocco because of its zawiya (shrine to a marabout, or saint). Just being in the vicinity of a marabout is said to confer baraka (a state of grace). Zawiya Nassiriyya in Tamegroute is reputed to cure the ill and eliminate stress, and the zawiya of Sidi Moussa in the Ait Bougmez Valley is said to increase the fertility of female visitors.
To boost your baraka you can visit the Tamegroute and Ait Bougmez zawiyas as well as the zawiya of Moulay Ali Ash Sharif in Rissani, which is now open to non-Muslims. Most zawiyas are closed to non-Muslims – including the famous Zawiya Moulay Idriss II in Fez, and all seven of Marrakesh’s zawiyas – but you can often recognise a zawiya by its ceramic green-tiled roof and air of calm even outside its walls. In rural areas, a marabout’s shrine (often confusingly referred to as a marabout rather than zawiya) is typically a simple mud-brick base topped with a whitewashed dome – though in the Ourika Valley village of Tafza you can see a rare red-stone example.
When Morocco came under colonial control, villes nouvelles (new towns) were built outside the walls of the medina, with street grids and modern architecture imposing strict order. Neoclassical facades, mansard roofs and high-rises must have come as quite a shock when they were introduced by the French and Spanish.
But one style that seemed to bridge local Islamic geometry and streamlined European modernism was art deco. Painter Jacques Majorelle brought a Moroccan colour sensibility to art deco in 1924, adding bursts of blue, green and acid yellow to his deco villa and Jardin Majorelle.
In its 1930s heyday, Casablanca cleverly grafted Moroccan geometric detail onto whitewashed European edifices, adding a signature Casablanca Moorish deco look to villas, movie palaces and hotels, notably Marius Boyer’s Cinéma Rialto (1930) and the Hôtel Transatlantique (1922). Tangier rivalled Casablanca for Moorish deco decadence, with its 1940s Cinema Rif and 1930s El Minzah Hotel – the architectural model for Rick’s Cafe Americain in the 1942 classic Casablanca. Moorish elements can be seen in cities all over Morocco.
Endangered Monuments: Glaoui Kasbahs
The once-spectacular Glaoui kasbahs at Taliouine, Tamdaght, Agdz and especially Telouet have been largely abandoned to the elements – go and see them now, before they’re gone. These are deeply ambivalent monuments: they represent the finest Moroccan artistry (no one dared displease the Glaoui despots) but also the betrayal of the Alawites by the Pasha Glaoui, who collaborated with French colonists to suppress his fellow Moroccans. But locals argue Glaoui kasbahs should be preserved, as visible reminders that even the grandest fortifications were no match for independent-minded Moroccans.
Lost in the Medina Maze? Follow Souq Logic
In labyrinthine Moroccan medinas, winding souqs hardly seem linear, but they do adhere to a certain logic. Centuries ago, market streets were organised by trade so that medieval shoppers would know where to head for pickles or camel saddles. More than other medinas, Fez souqs maintain their original medieval organisation: kiosks selling silver-braided trim are right off the kaftan souq, just down the street from stalls selling hand-woven white cotton for men’s djellabas. What about wool? That’s in a different souq, near stalls selling hand-carved horn combs for carding wool. The smelliest, messiest trades were pushed to the peripheries, so you’ll know you’re near the edge of the medina when you arrive at tanneries, or livestock markets. In Marrakesh, the saddle-making souq is at the northeast end of the souq, not far from the tanneries.
Landscapes & Wildlife
A day's journey in Morocco can take you from Atlantic beaches through rich farmland, and over high mountain passes to the Sahara itself. The human landscape is no less fascinating – half of all Moroccans still live in rural areas, and everywhere you'll spot people working this extraordinary land, harvesting barley on tiny stone-walled terraces hewn from cliffsides, tending to olive and argan groves, or leading their flocks of sheep to mountain pastures.
When the Umayyads arrived in Morocco, they rode their horses onto Atlantic beaches and dubbed the country Al Maghreb (where the sun sets), knowing that the sea marked the westernmost limit of their conquests. The coast has played a central role in Moroccan history, from the Barbary pirates to the Allied landings of WWII; today the country is developing stretches of both its Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines into shiny new tourist hubs complete with villas and resorts. Luckily for nature lovers, there's still pristine coastline in between, with rare shorebirds and cliff's-edge vistas.
Fishing and international trade have defined the Atlantic coast's economy ever since the Phoenicians and Romans established their port at Lixus. But the Atlantic also has its wild side, with raw, rocky beaches around whitewashed Asilah, and wetland habitats, such as the lagoon of Merja Zerga National Park, attracting flamingos and rare African wildfowl. South of Casablanca are the ports of Oualidia and Essaouira, former pirates' coves where rare wildlife still flourishes and Morocco's best seafood is served port-side. South of the commercialised boardwalks of Agadir, resort beaches empty into great sandy expanses stretching through Western Sahara to Mauritania.
By contrast, the craggy Mediterranean coast has remained relatively undeveloped until recently, despite a spectacular coastline of sheltered coves and plunging cliffs. Tangier and the Spanish enclave port towns of Ceuta and Melilla make the best of their advantageous positions, with scenic overlooks and splendid coastal villas. The major barrier to the east is the Rif Mountains, rugged terrain inhabited by staunchly independent Berbers, but the new highways that skirt along the Rif to Saïdia and Ouda have made this stretch of coast accessible as never before.
Three mountain ranges ripple diagonally across a topographical map of Morocco: the Rif in the north, the Middle Atlas (south of Fez) and the High Atlas (south and northeast of Marrakesh), with the southern sub-chain of the Anti Atlas slumping into the desert. The monumental force of plate tectonics brought these ranges into existence. Around 60 million years ago, a dramatic collision of Africa and Eurasia plates lifted up the High Atlas, while closing the Strait of Gibraltar and raising the Alps and Pyrenees. More recently, the mountains have provided shelter for self-sufficient Berbers, a safe haven for those fleeing invaders and a strategic retreat for organising resistance against would-be colonisers.
In the north, the low Rif Mountains form a green, fertile arc that serves as a natural coastal barrier. Even the Vandals and Visigoths were no match for independent-minded Riffian Berbers, who for millennia successfully used their marginal position to resist incursions from Europe and Africa alike. The Rif has remained politically marginalised, which has had one highly debatable advantage until now: kif (cannabis) is widely grown in the region east of Tetouan. It's taken huge government investment to improve access to the region via new infrastructure. Well-graded roads make exploring the Rif more possible than ever before.
The Middle Atlas is the Moroccan heartland, a patchwork of farmland that runs from Volubilis to Fez and gradually rises to mountain peaks covered with fragrant forests of juniper, thuya and cedar. This sublime trekking country is also home to the Barbary ape, Morocco's only (nonhuman) primate. Running northeast to southwest from the Rif, the range soars to 3340m at its highest point.
But the real drama begins east of Agadir, where foothills suddenly rise from their crouched position to form the gloriously precipitous High Atlas Mountains. South of Marrakesh, the High Atlas reach dizzy heights at Jebel Toubkal, North Africa's highest summit (4167m). On the lower flanks, the mountains are ingeniously terraced with orchards of walnuts, cherries, almonds and apples, which erupt into bloom in spring. The High Atlas hunkers down on to the southeast into the Anti Atlas range, which protects the Souss Valley from the hot winds of the rising Sahara Desert.
No landscape is more iconic in Morocco than the desert, with rolling dunes and mud-brick ksour (fortified villages, plural of ksar) rising majestically from hidden palm oases. But most of the desert is neither oasis nor dune, and it's virtually uninhabitable. Vast tracts of barren, sun-bleached hamada (stony desert) are interrupted by rocky gorges, baked over millions of years by the desert's ovenlike heat until the blackened surface turns glassy. The desert forms still-disputed borders east and south to Algeria and Mauritania. South of the Anti Atlas Mountains, the barren slopes trail off into the stony, almost trackless desert of Western Sahara.
Even today, the sight of an oasis on this desolate desert horizon brings a rush of elation and wonder – but when ancient caravans emerged after a gruelling 52-day trans-Saharan journey with final stretches of dunes at Erg Chigaga and Tinfou, the glimpse of green on the horizon at Zagora was nothing short of life-saving. From Zagora, caravans heading to Middle Atlas laden with gold proceeded warily through the Draa Valley from one well-fortified ksar to the next, finally unloading the camels and packing up mules at Skoura Oasis.
Some caravans passed through the ancient desert gates of Sijilmassa (near Rissani), though there was no easy route: one approach was via the rose-gold dunes of Erg Chebbi at Merzouga, while the other led past formidable Jebel Sarhro, inhabited by equally formidable seminomadic Aït Atta warriors. Today the mood in oases is considerably more relaxed, with a slow pace in the daytime heat and sociable evenings as visitors and locals gather around a warming fire.
Dust-Up in the Desert
To see the desert the way nature intended, take a dromedary instead of an all-terrain vehicle. The 4WDs break up the surface of the desert, which is then scattered into the air by strong winds. By one estimate, the annual generation of dust has increased by 1000% in North Africa in the last 50 years – a major contributor to drought, as dust clouds shield the earth's surface from sunlight and hinder cloud formation. What happens in the desert has far-reaching consequences: dust from the Sahara has reached as far away as Greenland. If you travel by dromedary instead, desert wildlife won't be scared off by the vibrations, and you're much more likely to spot small, sensitive and rather adorably big-eared desert creatures like the fennec fox, jerboa and desert hedgehog.
Even after millennia of being inhabited, farmed and grazed, Morocco still teems with wildlife – a testament to sustainable traditional practices and careful resource management handed down through generations. Today Morocco's 40 different ecosystems provide a habitat for many endemic species, including flora and fauna that are rare elsewhere. Industrialisation has put considerable pressure on Morocco's delicately balanced natural environments, and while steps are being taken to create wildlife reserves for Morocco's endangered species, visitors can do their part to preserve natural habitats by staying on marked pistes (unsealed tracks) and taking out waste.
Away from the urban sprawl of port cities and resort complexes are long stretches of rugged Moroccan coastline, where people are far outnumbered by abundant bird populations and marine mammals such as dolphins and porpoises. Along beaches, you'll spot white-eyed gulls, Moroccan cormorants and sandwich terns. Seabirds and freshwater birds thrive in preserves such as Souss-Massa National Park, where you might spy endangered bald ibis along with the ducks and waders who migrate here from Europe for the winter.
The Sahara may seem like a harsh place, but it's home to numerous creatures, including several furry, cuddly ones: several varieties of fluffy gerbils; long-eared, spindly-legged, cartoonish jerboas; and the desert hedgehog, the world's tiniest hedgehog and tipping the scales at between 300g and 500g. The delightful fennec fox has fur-soled feet and huge batlike ears to dissipate The Saharan heat; pups look like chihuahuas, only fuzzier. This desert fox is stealthy and nocturnal, but if you're travelling by dromedary and staying overnight in the desert, you might catch a brief glimpse.
While desert heat makes most humans sluggish, many desert creatures are elegant and swift. Dorcas gazelles are common, and you might also catch a glimpse of a rare, reddish Cuvier's gazelle. Lizards you might see darting through the desert include skinks and spiny-tailed lizards, and you might catch sight of the devilish-looking (though not especially poisonous) horned viper. Golden jackals are the most common predator in the Sahara, though in the more remote parts of the Western Sahara a few desert-adapted cheetahs may yet survive.
Forested mountain slopes are Morocco's richest wildlife habitats, where it's easy to spot sociable Barbary macaques (also known as Barbary apes) in the Rif and Middle Atlas, especially around Azrou. Less easy to track are mountain gazelles, lynx and the endangered mouflon (Barbary sheep). The mouflon are now protected in a High Atlas preserve near the Tizi n'Test, where its only predator is the critically endangered Barbary leopard – the last population of leopards in North Africa.
Golden eagles soar in Atlas mountain updrafts, and High Atlas hikes might introduce you to red crossbills, horned larks, acrobatic booted eagles, Egyptian vultures, and both black and red kites. In springtime, butterflies abound in the mountains, including the scarlet cardinal and bright-yellow Cleopatra.
With cities encroaching on natural habitats, the Moroccan government is setting aside protected areas to prevent the further disappearance of rare plant and animal species. Toubkal National Park in the High Atlas Mountains was the first national park to be created in 1942. After the vast Souss-Massa National Park was founded in 1991 outside Agadir, Morocco created four new national parks in 2004: Talassemtane (589 sq km) in the Rif; Al Hoceima (485 sq km) in the Mediterranean, with outstanding coastal and marine habitats along the Mediterranean that include one of the last outposts of osprey; Ifrane National Park (518 sq km) in the Middle Atlas, with dense cedar forests and Barbary macaques; and the Eastern High Atlas National Park (553 sq km).
Today Morocco's 14 national parks and 35 nature reserves, forest sanctuaries and other protected areas overseen by Morocco's Direction des Eaux et Forêts are conserving species and advancing natural sciences. The park staff are tracking the region's biodiversity through botanical inventories, bird censuses, primate studies and sediment analyses. These studies are critical to understanding the broader causes of habitat loss, in Morocco and beyond; the Spanish and American Park Services have studied Morocco's parklands to better understand biodiversity concerns.
Parks have proven a boon to local wildlife, but a mixed blessing for human residents. While national parks protect local ecosystems and attract tourist revenue, access for local communities to water, grazing land and wild plants harvested for food and medicine has been limited or cut off entirely. But by conserving parkland, the Ministries of Tourism and Agriculture aim to help local ecosystems flourish, gradually restore arable land, and ultimately benefit local communities with ecotourism that provides a profitable alternative to kif cultivation. In the near future, fees for park admission may be instituted to support the parks' conservation, scientific and community missions. Meanwhile, the best sights in Morocco are still free and visitors can show their appreciation to local communities by supporting local NGOs along their route.
Notable National Parks
|National park||Location||Features||Activities||Best time to visit|
|Al Hoceima National Park||Al Hoceima||thuya forest, limestone escarpments, fish eagles||hiking, birdwatching||May-Oct|
|Lac de Sidi Boughaba||Mehdia||lake and wetlands; 200 migratory bird species, including marbled duck, African marsh owl and flamingo||swimming, birdwatching, hiking||Oct-Mar|
|Merja Zerga National Park||Moulay Bousselham||lagoon habitats; 190 species of waterfowl, including African marsh owl, Andouin's gull, flamingo & crested coot||wildlife-watching||Dec-Jan|
|Souss-Massa National Park||south of Agadir||coastal estuaries and forests; 275 species of birds, including endangered bald ibis, mammals and enclosed endangered species||hiking, wildlife-watching, birdwatching||Mar-Oct|
|Talassemtane National Park||Chefchaouen||cedar and fir forests; Barbary macaque, fox, jackal and bats in the cedar forest||wildlife-watching, hiking||May-Sep|
|Tazekka National Park||near Taza||oak forests and waterfalls||hiking||Jun-Sep|
|Toubkal National Park||near Marrakesh||highest peak in North Africa||hiking, climbing||May-Jun|
The only thing more natural than the wonders of Morocco is the impulse to preserve them. Morocco is in a fortunate position: to envision a more sustainable future, it can look to its recent past. Ancient khettara (underground irrigation systems), still in use, transport water from natural springs to fields and gardens in underground channels, without losing precious water to evaporation. Although certification is still a novel concept, most small-scale Moroccan farming practices are organic by default, since chemical fertilisers are costly and donkey dung pretty much comes with the territory. Community hammams use power and water for steamy saunas more efficiently than individual showers or baths. Locally made, detergent-free savon noir ('black soap' made from natural palm and olive oils) is gentle enough for a shave and effective as laundry soap, without polluting run-off – and leftover 'grey water' can be used for gardens and courtyard fountains. With Morocco's traditional mud-brick architecture, metre-thick walls provide natural insulation against heat in summer and chill in winter, eliminating most street noise and the need for air-con and central heating.
Morocco is also thinking fast on its feet, becoming an early adopter of resource-saving new technologies. The pioneering nation already has Africa's biggest wind farm at Tarfaya, while Ouazazarte is home to what will ultimately be the world's largest solar power plant. By 2020 almost half of Morocco's energy will be provided by renewables.
To tackle challenges still ahead, Morocco will need all the resourcefulness it can muster. Because of the demands of city dwellers and tourist complexes, 37% of villages around Marrakesh now lack a reliable source of potable water. Damming to create reservoirs frequently strips downstream water of valuable silts needed to sustain farms and coastal wetlands. Forests are also under threat, with around 250 sq km of forest lost each year, including Moroccan pine, thuya and Atlas cedar. Pollution is a weighty concern, literally: Morocco's cities alone produce an annual harvest of 2.4 million tonnes of solid waste.
Everywhere you travel in the country, you'll notice minor modifications that collectively make major savings in scarce resources – and you're invited to participate. Plastic bags were banned in 2016. Solar water heaters provide instant hot water for showers in the afternoon and evening, so taking showers at those times saves water that might otherwise be wasted by running the tap while gas heaters warm up. Reforestation programs are helping prevent erosion, and you can help by staying on marked mountain paths and supporting local NGO reforestation initiatives. Organic gardens provide fresh ingredients for meals, reducing the dependence on food transported over long distances – and ordering local, seasonal specialities provides positive reinforcement for local food sourcing. Morocco's Green Key program also certifies hotels and guesthouses that institute a range of resource-conserving measures, from low-flow toilets to environmentally friendly cleaning products, although it has received criticism from some quarters for granting certificates to hotels with distinctly high-impact facilities such as swimming pools.
Add these traditional, national and local resource-saving practices together, and Morocco is poised not only to make the switch to sustainable tourism, but to show Europe how it's done.
One thing the desert has in copious amounts (apart from sand) is sunshine, and in November 2009 Morocco revealed a US$9 billion investment plan to generate 20% of its energy from solar energy by the year 2020. Much of it will be produced in the region running along the Algerian border from the Mediterranean to Figuig. The upgrading of infrastructure on the highway south of Oujda (proclaimed from dozens of roadside billboards) point to the money pouring into the region. In addition, a great deal of investment is earmarked for the Ouarzazate region.
The programs are being financed by private investors as well as the World Bank, the European Investment Bank, and Spain, France, Germany and Saudi Arabia.
The Barbary Lion – Back from the Dead?
When Morocco’s national football team – the Atlas Lions – takes to the pitch, it's honouring one of the country’s most iconic animals, albeit one that has long been on the extinct species list.
The Barbary Lion was North Africa’s top predator. It was the largest and heaviest of all lion subspecies, with the males famed for their thick black manes. They were hunted by the Romans to provide sport for the gladiatorial combats of the Colosseum, while Moroccan sultans later gave them as diplomatic gifts. Slowly exterminated across the region through hunting and habitat loss, the lions persisted in heavily forested parts of Morocco’s Atlas and Rif Mountains well into the 20th century. The last wild lion is thought to have been shot in 1942, although recent research suggests that populations survived into the 1960s – no doubt aided by their naturally solitary behaviour, rather than living in prides as lions do in the rest of Africa.
Remnant lion populations of mixed heritage survived in zoos across the world, including the personal zoo of the current king of Morocco. In recent years a captive breeding program, coupled with the latest genetic fingerprinting techniques, has been attempting to recreate a genetically pure and viable population of the big cats. The ultimate aim of the International Barbary Lion Project is to create a protected reserve in the Atlas Mountains large enough to allow a limited reintroduction program. While this is a long way off – and the willingness of locals to share land with a top predator remains unknown – perhaps the last roar of this magnificent animal is yet to be heard.