2017年4月23日 星期日

Morocco 2013

Photo by Teresa
The shopkeeper made a final adjustment to the scarf he wrapped round my head, then took a step back to scrutinize his handiwork. " Now you look like a Berber woman," he said, tilting his head to one side "I reckon you could fetch 500 camels in marriage." I closed my eyes to block out the shock - just 4 years earlier a Syrian man had offered 2,000 camels for my hand in a souk in Aleppo. Mighty humbling to realize I depreciate faster than a car !  But then in love and war the inexplicable could happen overnight : sadly Aleppo's now in rubble and the souk's probably no more. Poor Syria, its fate had already been sealed when John Bolton, the then US Undersecretary of State added it to Bush's list of axis of evil countries in 2002, though the whole world knows what the US really wanted all along is Iran. Poor poor Syria !
We checked into the Hotel Rabat, a 3.6 star hotel. The numeral 3.6 was intriguing, could they have made it to 4 if the Wi-Fi had worked ?  Something else intrigued me - the apparent business-as-usual calm in Rabat, capital city of Morocco. " How did Morocco dodge the Arab Spring ?" I asked Mourad ( Arabic name meaning "wish or want") our guide. He blinked and side-stepped with : " Luck ?!" Well, Morocco almost didn't. Morocco's a much poorer country than Egypt and Tunisia, logically ripe for revolt. Indeed from Feb 2011 to the spring of 2012, a string of protests organized by a coalition of Moroccan youth groups called "20 February Movement" erupted in more than 60 cities across the country, some ended in looting and major disorder. Clashes with riot police led to injuries and death ; the country could easily have descended into chaos but for its Monarchy. In Middle Eastern countries it's far easier to remove a President than a Monarch, a fact I picked up in Oman, Jordan and Dubai. King Mohammed VI, whose picture was hung in place of honor in the hotel lobby, swiftly announced a series of constitutional reform to pacify the demonstrators, albeit scoffed by his critics as mere cosmetic.
I couldn't help but wonder whether the murky Morocco-US-Israeli relationship had any bearing on Morocco's "luck". Morocco is the oldest and closest US ally in North Africa, historical ties date back to the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1787, right after the US broke away from England. Since independence from France in 1956, successive Morocco Monarch has nurtured personal friendship with their American Presidential counterpart. King Hassan II, Mohammed VI's dad, ingratiated himself further with the US by acting as the key go-between on behalf of the US and Israel with other Arab states, and brokered deals favoring the Zionist State at the expense of the Palestinians. The shady threesome syndicate has been mutually beneficial : a Mossad station was set up in Morocco for the Israelis to eavesdrop on the Arab world (how the 1967 six-day war was won !), at the same time it supplied the King intelligence on his enemies. The CIA reorganized the King's security forces, and supported the ruthless despot throughout his 38 " years of lead", characterized by brutal suppression of dissent and strangle-hold of national development. To this day King Mohammed VI's closest personal adviser Andre Azoulay, is a Jew. As reciprocation US has the use of Moroccan Air Force bases, and a supply of Arabic-speaking spies for the CIA. The value of Morocco was reaffirmed after 9-11 in the " War on Terror". In today's Unipolar World the cynics rate the survival quotient of any small country on how well it serves US interests, and Morocco has proved its worth with the powers-that-be.
King Hassan II
Mourad in front of Restaurant de la Plage, at Rabat beach side, specializes in seafood. Wine and beer available. King Mohammed VI is the major stake holder in Brasseries du Maroc, the largest alcoholic beverages manufacturer and distributor of brands such as Heineken in the country.

We toured the city of Rabat, one of 4 Imperial cities of Morocco and an UNESCO World Heritage city in the Cultural category. Rabat literally means "Fortified Place", on account of the ancient walls protecting old Rabat, 5 imposing gates serve as entrances to the city. Bab Oudaias, the most beautiful gate, is located next to the Andalusian Gardens and marks the entrance to the Udayas Kasbah. 
Udayas Kasbah was a fortress built by Sultan Yacoub al Mansour of the Almohad Caliphate (Berber Muslim Empire) in the 12th century. Standing at the mouth of River Bou Regreg facing the Atlantic Ocean, it was strategically situated to protect the city from pirate ships and invading forces. The name came from the Arab tribe, the Udayas, hired by the Sultan to man the Kasbah. A palace and a mosque was later added; the Kasbah Mosque is the oldest mosque in Rabat and is still functional. Udayas Kasbah fell into disrepair after the death of the Sultan in CE1199 and became a pirate hideout, until the 17th century when it was revived by an influx of Moriscos ( Muslim refugees) fleeing persecution from Catholic Spain. Nearly one thousand years from its inception, the Udayas Kasbah today boasts some of Rabat's oldest buildings and picturesque houses, linked by winding streets with modern cafés and shops, a flourishing city within a city and home to approximately 2,000 people. 
Udayas Kasbah and the Atlantic Ocean 
 
 
Udayas Kasbah is famous for its doors  
A good life !
The Andalusian Gardens next door is small but quite beautiful, it was built by the French in the 1920s and is popular both with tourists and locals. A small incidence highlighted that in spite of the projected image of Morocco being moderate and modern by the Government to attract tourism, many Moroccans are still pretty conservative. We were a Photographic Tour (I was the only non-photographer) so cameras were pointing in every direction at all times. Suddenly a young woman charged towards one of our members and accused him of taking a picture of her, which our member denied and explained he was aiming at the scenery, even showed her the pictures. At that point a man appeared from nowhere to join in the dispute, in the end Mourad was summoned and I suspect some money might have changed hand. Thinking back though, it could well have been a scam. Morocco unfortunately is infamous for its scam artists, so tourists beware !
Andalusian Gardens
Hanna decoration in progress in the street
Black olives are eaten straight; brown olives are for cooking meat; green olives are for cooking potatoes
Mohammed V, the grandfather of Mohammed VI, was much loved by the Moroccans for ignoring the Nazi extermination order and saved 400,000 Moroccan Jews in WWII. He was forced into exile by the French in the 1940s for backing the Independence Movement, on the day he returned in 1955 to proclaim Morocco's independence he prayed in the same esplanade where his Mausoleum was built by his son King Hassan II in 1971.
Mohammed V
The Mausoleum is considered a masterpiece of Hispanic-Moorish architecture, the building is of white onyx to signify purity , the floor is of dark-blue granite reminiscent of the sea, and the tilted roof is green, the color of Islam. The Mausoleum now contains the tombs of Mohammed V and his 2 sons, King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah.
Inside in an assigned seat, the tombs are watched over by 8 lectors who take turns reading the Koran 24 hours a day.
Across the way from the Mausoleum is the Hassan Tower, an incomplete minaret of an incomplete mosque. 
Construction was started in 1195 by Sultan Yacoub al Mansour (who built Udayas Kasbah) and was designed to be the centerpiece of Rabat in celebration of his victory over the Spanish Christians at Alarcos. The present red sandstone tower stands at 44M (about half of its intended height of 86M), it was to be the largest in the world in its time, and the Mosque the second largest after Smarra Mosque in Iraq. But building stopped after the Sultan's death in 1199, with only the beginnings of several walls and 200 columns constructed.
Mounted police guarding the Mausoleum and Hassan Tower.
            The splendid Rabat Royal Palace with lush green surroundings
At breakfast the next morning Mourad warned us sternly "We're going to Chefchaouen today and it's a long drive, so don't be late getting on the bus" To our credit all of us were on time, except Providence had other ideas.
As we were pulling out of the hotel there was a loud bang and the bus shuddered momentarily before stopping. I looked out of the window and saw that we'd been hit by a car ! Being a Nosey Parker I got down with Abdul the driver, to assess the damage. In HK after any automobile collision a flurry of loud words and agitated recrimination from both drivers are the norm, so I was totally unprepared for what I witnessed here : Abdul and the other driver calmly approached each other, shook hands then appeared to be exchanging polite greetings ( Middle Eastern greetings are long ! ) before proceeding leisurely to examine each vehicle. After a little discussion they agreed they should call the police, by then Mourad had switched to Plan B mode and told us to return to the hotel for some coffee, as it's likely to take awhile !   
 
Looked like the other car's much more beat up  
A young uniformed police arrived after half an hour to made notes and a diagram of how the accident happened, which he then carelessly left on the bonnet of another parked car (I've a picture to prove it ); sometime later a plain cloth inspector turned up to verify his findings, there were more discussions, a lot of forms were filled in, more handshakes all round and in about 2 hours the whole thing was wrapped up. 
 
This incident left me with a new respect for the Moroccans, I couldn't believe how relaxed and civilized the accident was handled, which is how people always should behave in a civil society ! I was also surprised because of all the talks about police corruption in Morocco, which doubtless still happens, but in Morocco actual fines for traffic violation can legitimately be paid on the spot, just that valid fines will always be accompanied by paperwork. By the way, people coming to Morocco should be aware that traffic accidents are a major concern here, on average more than a dozen Moroccans die in motor vehicle accidents every day !
Abdul our driver, a Morgan Freeman look-alike. He's one of the most dignified and distinguished man I met in Morocco.
Youssef, the bus helper. Like most Moroccans he speaks no English
Road into Chefchaouen, Moroccans love to fly their flag.
We reached Chefchaouen by late afternoon. Chefchaouen is a Berber word meaning " look to the horns", and refers to the shape of the mountain tops above the town, which resembles the 2 horns of a goat. It was on the trade route between Tetuan and Fez, and began life in 1471 as a small fortress to fight the Portuguese. In medieval times it was settled by the Berbers, and like Udayas Kasbah it latter became as a place of refuge for Moriscos and Jews from Spain, on top Spain ruled Chefchaouen from 1920 to 1956, so Berber and Spanish are the main spoken language here, as opposed to Arabic and French in the rest of Morocco. Today Chefchaouen has 40,000 inhabitants, and is famous for its blue-rinsed houses, native wool garments, woven blankets, Killim rugs and goat cheese which we were told we could not get elsewhere, but the main income is from Kief (cannabis).
Marijuana has been cultivated in the Rif mountain since the 8th century, initially all for home use. Commercial production of hashish came about during the 60’s and 70’s when Western backpackers and hippies flocked to Chefchaouen for its topnotch hash; ever since then the Rif, to ease extreme poverty, had capitalized on its only 2 exports - migrant workers and hashish. The government ban on cultivation in 1974 had little effect, today Morocco is the biggest global supplier of hashish, and the industry employs nearly a million Moroccans. The United Nations estimate the region exports over 1,000 tonnes hashish a year, mainly to Europe. Smuggling of both drugs and people are rampant here - Spain is only 15 minutes away by speedboat.
The Government's effort to induce farmers to plant other crops had failed so far, because of the poor rocky soil and severe droughts in the region. Cannabis is the only crop that thrives. Not that the Moroccan farmers had strike it rich either, they sell their products cheaply at $8 per kg, it's only when it reaches Paris or London that its value is multiplied 10 folds or more. A word of caution: though hashish is readily available in most Moroccan markets, possession of hashish is still illegal and can lead to long prison sentences.  
 
 
 
The older Berber tribes women still wear distinctive striped cotton dresses paired with woven straw hats that are decorated with brightly colored yarn balls like mini-pompoms, while the older Berber men are all in Jellabah (loose cloak with a hood) or bournous ( long coarse wollen cloak) and hand-made babouches( slippers). Most young Berbers of both genders, however, have adopted the universal uniform of T-shirts, jeans and sneakers.
 
Chefchaouen is called the Blue Pearl on account of the blue-washed houses lining its higgledy-piggledy cobbled alleyways, but even the locals cannot agree on the reason for picking the color blue. Some say blue keeps mosquitos away, others say the Jews escaping Hitler to come here in the 1930s created the tradition, they painted their houses blue as a reminder of God's power, the same way they weave blue threads into prayer shawls, as blue represents the sky. Some others say the blue color refers to the Ras el-Maa spring just outside the city walls, or the Mediterranean Sea - in summer when the sun is bright, blue color eases the eye and makes the streets look like cool flowing waters.
 
In order to maintain its reputation as the blue town in order to attract tourists, every springtime after the winter rains, villagers are given free brushes by the local government to e-paint the walls.  
Local artisans make pottery, leather goods, metal items and woodwork by hand.  
 
I wandered into the square next to the small Andulusian style kasbah and found it filled to the brim with participants in a religious ritual, praying for rain. 
There was much chanting and dancing, money was thrown onto a blanket in the center of the twirling figures, donation collected for charity. 
 
Berber men love their guns, the Rif Mountain has been a haven for smugglers and revolutionaries antagonistic to the Moroccan Central Government through the centuries, even today.
Of all the hotels we stayed in, I like our boutique Hotel in Chefchaouen the best, it's small but very atmospheric. 
 
Our next stop was Fes, the second largest city of Morocco, it was the Moroccan capital until 1925. The Arabic word Fes means pickaxe, according to a legend Idris I who founded Fes in 789 used a silver and gold pickaxe to mark the lines of the city. Today it's home to over a million people, majority of the population is of Arab descent. Fez has gained much popularity among Moroccans since King Mohammed V took a computer engineer from here, Salma Bennani, as his wife
Unlike Casablanca or Marrakech which rush towards modernity, Fes, which is another imperial city, prides itself as Morocco's spiritual and cultural center. The University of Al Quaraouiyine, founded in 859, is the oldest continuously functioning university in the world. Also in Fes is the Kairouyine Mosque, one of the oldest and largest in Africa, as well as many other famous madrasas. 
cactus fruit
Plastic toys from China, where else
Fez used to be a major trading post of the Barbary Coast of North Africa, and the end post of a north-south gold trading route from Timbuktu, unsurprisingly Fes is famous for its markets, of these the Fes el Bali Medina is a must see, it's listed as a World Heritage Site in 1981 and besides being the largest medina in Morocco, it's believed to be one of the world's largest urban pedestrian (car free) zones, some 2,700 acres. It's best to go with a guide as it's too easy to get lost in here, but beware of the omnipresent unofficial guides, by law they're illegal since 1998.
Fountain in the Medina
 
               There are many mosques and madrassas inside the Medina. 
Mourad demonstrating proper Muslim ablution ritual before prayers. In his previous life Mourad was a teacher and had studied in Florida, which explains his good English. 
The Medina is closed to motorized traffic, so donkeys are used to ferry goods.
 
 
 
 
 
Fez is noted for quality craftsmanship, all handmade using traditional technique. Until the 19th century Fez was the only manufacturer of fezzes, a red felt cap in the shape of a truncated cone decorated by a long black tassel, traditionally worn by men in North Africa.
 
 
Fez leather tannery consists of a grid of stone wells and is a big tourist attraction. There're 3 tanneries in the Old Medina from the 11th century, the largest being the Chouara Tannery. Leather production here still use the exact same method from over a thousand years ago. Raw sheep, goat, camel and cow skins were first sorted ( goat and camel skins are supposed to be the best), then soaked in the white stone wells filled with a mixture of cow urine, pigeon droppings, quicklime, salt and water for 2-3 days. The limestone helps to remove hairs and fat while the acid in the urine and droppings softens the skin.The smell can be overpowering, and visitors are generally presented with a sprig of mint to hold over their noses. 
The skins are washed and cleaned and laid out to dry on the surrounding rooftop terraces. The tanner then uses his bare feet to knead the skins for up to 3 hours to achieve the desired softness, after that they're placed in a select set of dyeing vats. The dyes are all from natural products : red from the poppy flower, orange from henna, blue from indigo, brown from cedar wood, green from mint, and yellow from saffron. But because saffron is so expensive, pomegranate powder is now used instead. After a few days when the desired hue is achieved, olive oil is rubbed in to give the hides a shine. 
The leather is then sold to craftsmen to make the babouches, wallets, handbags, jackets, and other leather accessories which are then sold in the souks or exported to Spain, France and India.
Tanning is one of the hardest and dirtiest professions, besides incredibly labor intensive.The art of tanning is passed down the generations through the male lineage of tanning familes, but has lost its appeal to today's youth. Tanning is also a major source of river pollution so there's been talks to remove the tanneries to the industrial parts of Fez, days for the thousand year traditional tanning could be numbered !
 
As we were leaving the Medina there was a big commotion, then I saw a young man being led away in handcuffs. He was caught stealing." What's going to happen to him ?" I had a horrible vision of limbs being chopped off. " We don't chop up people here" Mourad said," Sharia Law is often misunderstood, most of it deals with personal acts of worship and family issues like marriage, divorce and inheritance, of course other sections deal with commercial and penal matters. Because there's no set punishment so Sharia can differ hugely throughout the Islamic world. It can be quite complicated and deliberation of cases could take a long time: it's not always easy to establish guilt as Islam requires at least 4 witnesses; and there could be multiple appeals. Do you know in Sharia law, if a thief could prove that he/she only stole because of need, then the Muslim society would be held at fault and be obligated to help he/her ? and there would be no hand-cutting" I totally get it, religion is too often manipulated by politics and in some Islamic countries Sharia is applied selectively, certain interpretations are simply weapons used by populist Muslim leaders to gain political points. No different from the warped Christianity used by Bush to invade Iraq, and by the Bishop and clergy of HK to mislead believers and to justify criminal acts. 

" So many cats in Morocco !" I exclaimed to Mourad as I nearly fell on top of one, again ! Turns out cats have a special place in Islamic culture because Muhammad loved cats. The story goes the Prophet loved his cat Muezza so much that when he found him sleeping on his cloak just when he was called to prayer, he cut off the sleeve rather than disturb the cat. When he returned Muezza was awake and bowed down to him, so in return the Prophet stroked him 3 times, leaving the marks of his fingers as the 4 dark lines on most cats' foreheads. Because Muhammad patted the cat on the back, cats are given 7 lives and always land on their feet, never their backs. I particularly love the story by the Egyptian zoologist (1344-1405) about the creation of the first cat : Animals on Noah's Ark complained of mice, so God caused a lion to sneeze, and out came a cat ! Ha Ha !!
 

Bad news for dog lovers though, for dogs are nadjis (dirt), and are not allowed in the house because " Angels do not enter a house which has a dog " Black dogs in particular are "a manifestation of evil in animal form". Oh well !
The Royal Palace of Fez, the Dar el Makhzen, is a 17th century mansion in the center of Fes el-Jedid, spanning 80 hectares and surrounded by high walls 80 feet high. There're 7 elaborated decorated gateways symbolizing the 7 days of the week, though the doors are bronze but they shine like gold. 
 
Next to the Royal Palace is Mellah, the walled Jewish quarter built in 1438. Because of their vital role in the local economy, Jews had always lived segregated near the Royal Palace or residence of Governor, who would protect them from the recurrent riots and massacres from the Arabs.
Over time the population grew, but there's no space to expand but up, so most buildings in the ghetto have 2- 3 floors.The sizable Jewish community has since all left for Israel and the inhabitants of the Mellah are now mostly Arabs. The Jewish cemetery at Fez however, is a place of pilgrimage for Jews around the world
City of Fez, satellite disc everywhere
Last word : Fes was the locale of the video "Mysterious Ways" by the Irish band U2,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TxcDTUMLQJI, and the backdrop for Indiana Jones' Raiders of the Lost Ark. 
                             Drunken in the street
                                      Moroccan army patrol

From Fes we headed south towards the desert oasis town of Erfoud, which took a better part of a day. I didn't mind as it gave me a chance to see the small towns and villages. 
town school
 
small town Morocco
 
 
Rural villages often don't have running water or electricity, and medical care is poor. The first Chinese medical team arrived in Morocco in Sept 1975, after a call from the Red Cross. Since then exchange programs were set up to train Moroccan doctors interested in Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture in China. Over the past 40 years China has sent 1,200 doctors to Morocco, often serving in remote areas that local doctors are reluctant to go.  Currently 121 Chinese doctors are working in Morocco, and Acupuncture courses are available to local students at the Confucius Institute at Mohammed V University in Rabat. China was known to Morocco since ancient times, Muhammad Ibn Battuta, a medieval Moroccan traveler and scholar, arrived in China in 1345 during the Yuen Dynasty. He toured the city of Quanzhou in China's Fujian Province, then went on to Fuzhou, Hangzhou and Beijing, as recorded in his travel log.
 
About 43% of Moroccans live in rural areas, agriculture accounts for around 17% of GDP and employs almost half of active labor force. Yet arable land is less than 12% of the country and irrigation system is ill-developed, furthermore the dwindling underground water reserves are contaminated due to lack of functioning sanitation network and almost all wastewater (industrial and municipal) is discharged untreated, some directly into natural water bodies. This is in spite of the priority investment and the 92 dams built by the Government in the past 4 decades, so most farming is subsistence, only a small modernized sector has produce for export. Morocco is so water stressed the tap water in most Moroccan cities is unclean and salty, so bottled water has really caught on.

 
 
 
 
I was not surprised Morocco also has major solid waste management problem, there's trash strewn everywhere ! Only 70% of urban solid waste is collected, due to lack of infrastructure and funding in city slums and rural district. Only 10% of the collected waste is disposed of properly, meanwhile there are 300 uncontrolled dumpsites, and about 3,500 garbage-pickers make a living from them, of whom 10% are children. More than 5 million tons of solid waste is generated across the country, growing by 3% annually. So trash is regularly burnt outdoor as a cheap form of waste disposal, releasing large amount of dioxin, particle pollutants and multiple carcinogens into the environment, causing a range of health problems. Even the ashes produced often contain mercury, lead, chromium and arsenic. All the chemicals released contaminate food and water for both humans and animals. The good news is the World Bank has allocated $271.3 million to the Moroccan government to build 80 landfills, improve trash collection and increase recycling by 20%, all by the year 2020.
 
 
Morocco has no fossil fuel reserves. 94% of Morocco's energy is imported, oil from Libya and Nigeria, and coal from South Africa and Poland. 2 refineries in Morocco owned by Saudi company produce 80-90% of the refined petroleum products. High energy cost is one crucial factor hampering development of the country. King Mohammed VI vouched to increase clean energy ( 0.24% in 2003) to 50% by 2030, and has put in massive projects to harvest hydraulic, wind and solar power. Morocco has 4 perennial rivers and many dams with hydroelectric potential, and 2 wind farms are already set up in Western Sahara. By 2013, wind power generates 5% of renewable electricity.
The most ambitious projects are 4 Solar mega-plants costing $9 billion near Ouarzazate in Western Sahara, which will occupy a space as big as Rabat when completed. Morocco has one of the highest rate of insolation among countries, up to the 3,600 hours of sunshine per year in the desert, and well qualified to be a global solar superpower. When fully operative, solar energy will make up a third of Morocco’s renewable energy supply. 


The Wind and Sun projects were not without controversy. In 1975 after the withdrawal of Spain from Western Sahara, King Hassan II organized the Green March of some 350,000 Moroccan citizens, escorted by around 20,000 troops and annexed Western Sahara unilaterally. This sparked a guerrilla warfare with the Sahrawi nationalists represented by the Polisario Front, who wanted their own independent state. The Polisario Front was backed by Libya and Algeria, while Morocco was backed by the Saudi, France and the US. Though a cease-fire agreement was signed in 1991, the issue is still not resolved to this day, except military resistance is replaced by civil resistance. So understandably the Sahrawis are extremely unhappy about Moroccan projects on their land. The contention is likely to get heated up again as oil and gas are reportedly detected in the desert not so long ago.

Tagine is a typical Moroccan-style dish made with fish, vegetables, spices and oil served on a bed of fluffy couscous. It's cooked in traditional tajine pottery consisted of a circular base unit and a large cone-shaped cover over a low fire. The cover is designed to return all condensation back to the bottom, a way of cooking well adapted to places with little water.
 
                                                                     oasis in the desert
Picturesque scenes of ruined Kasbahs and date palmeries, irrigated by 12th century aqueduct technology introduced from Iran. The palmeries are the main source of income for the villagers, the small vegetable plots are for own consumption.
Ksars are century old traditional fortified villages made of earthen buildings on the outskirt of the Sahara.
                                             Peddlers by the wayside
 
 
Beautiful Berber man
Erfoud's a relatively new town built by the French around 1920s. 500 million years ago Sahara Desert was under water, and Erfoud is famous for its fossils. We visited a local workshop filled with Trilobites (extinct marine arthropods) and Ammonoids( extinct marine mollusc) in marble slabs of table tops and ornaments. 


Sahara is Tuareg country. Throughout history the Tuareg ( ethnic Berbers) were renowned warriors, they also controlled several trans-Saharan caravan trade routes. They fought in many colonial and post-colonial conflicts up untill the late 19th century, when their broadswords( takoba),lance (allagh) and shield (aghar) were no match to the firearms of the colonists, which marked the end of their military might. The caravan trade also declined and today they're either settled agriculturalists or nomadic livestock breeders, a smaller number are blacksmiths, traders and tour guides. 
 
We hired a team of Tuareg and their camels to climb the Erg Chebbi Dunes the next morning to take pictures of the sunrise.
The Tuareg are called the "Blue People" because the indigo pigment in the their robes and turbans stained their skin dark blue. Interestingly the Tuareg culture is largely matrilineal, women do not traditionally wear the veil, only the men do, and taking on the veil (called Alasho) marks the passage to adulthood.The veil is worn concealing the whole face, leaving only the eyes and top of the nose. The veil is worn to ward off evil spirits, but more practically it protects from the desert sands. 
 
 
 
Tuareg artisans are famous for their traditional handicrafts : jewellery like the Agadex Cross, gold and silver necklaces called 'Takaza'; and earrings called 'Tizabaten'; leather and metal saddle decorations called 'trik'; the finely crafted Tuareg sword (Takoba); amulets containing sacred objects like verses from the Qur'an worn by all Tuareg ; pilgrimage boxes with intricate iron and brass decorations and household items. 



                                 Nomadic Tuareg architecture is the tents.  
The modern city of Ouarzazate was started in the 1920s as a garrison town to guard against invasion from the desert. It's situated at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, and is the last habitation before the Sahara desert, hence the nickname " The door of the desert".  In the 60s to 70s huge pop concerts were held in the desert nearby, they'd stopped since the occupation of Western Sahara.The last university ever built in Morocco was here, good students are allotted scholarships to the US as the school program is American. Ouarzazate is a popular holiday destination and the shopping is pricey ! 
 
Ouarzazate is best known as the film capital of Morocco. It's popular with Hollywood as well as Italian and local film makers as shooting cost is low, and the ancient kasbahs, not to mention the desert, are ready stand-in for places as disparate as Somalia, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Tibet. The 5 star Berber Palace Hotel where we stayed was purposefully built as a real Kasbah (easy to tell, the old authentic houses were built with earth, the new ones with cement ), was filled with left over props from old films.
 
 
 

There're 3 film studios, the Atlas studio outside town is open to the public for tours. Films made here are legend, the ones I've seen are Lawrence of Arabia (1962),The man who would be King (1975),The Jewel of the Nile (1985),The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Mummy (1999), Gladiator (2000), Babel (2006) , as well as TV series like Star Wars and Game of Thrones. 60% of population have work related in films, many of them experienced extras. 

We visited Ait Benhaddou, one of the best preserved Kasbahs and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987. A striking example of southern Morocco architecture, it was established in 757 and its founder, Ben-Haddou's tomb still lies within the city. It was an important trading post on the commercial route across the Atlas Mountains, linking ancient Sudan and Marrakesh. Today the trans-Saharan trade route has died and most of the original inhabitants have moved to a new village across the river, but as Ait Benhaddou has become a popular tourist destination some have returned to run small stalls selling artifacts and souvenirs to tourists. 
 
The Ksar of Ait-Benhaddou has a high defensive wall encircling crowded houses made of red mud plaster, which makes them extremely vulnerable to weathering. The Kasbah is maintained with public money as a historical monument.
 
 

 
        On the top of the hill there is a large fortified granary (agadir).  
                              Lunch and a small hike in the Atlas Mountain
 
wayside shop
 
                  Rock climbing                                                                                                            
Argan oil produced from the kernels of the Argan tree that is endemic to Morocco, is produced only in Morocco. The oil is used in Moroccan cooking and the price has gone up substantially since the West realized its value in beauty treatment. The extraction process is labor intensive and can't be mechanized, production is by co-operatives employing 2.2 million people, mainly women.  

 
 
Marrakesh is a Berber word meaning "Land of God", it's Morocco's 4th largest city. Berbers have lived here for over a thousand years, it's also an imperial city and the old town was declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. Marrakech is built on an oasis surrounded by a huge date grove, irrigated by rhettara ( underground water system introduced from Iran). Marrakesh was once a crossroad of caravan route and exhibits a wonderful mix of Berber, Moorish, African and European influences in its architecture, culture and people. The bustling streets are full of heavily veiled women walking alongside women in body hugging tops and jeans, and nobody bates an eyelid." Do you know why we prefer our women to wear a veil?" Mourad asked, I shook my head and he explained " If my wife's pretty I don't want other men to look, if she's ugly I don't want them to know" 
Marrakesh is sometimes called the red city because of the 16 km red wall surrounding the old city with its 20 gates and 200 towers. It's possible to tour the walls on a horse drawn carriage (calèche). 
 
Since the 1960s Marrakesh has been the mecca for international pop and film stars, wealthy tycoons, celebrities and fashion icons.Yves Saint Laurent loved the place so much he bought the Majorelle Garden together with his partner, the industrialist Pierre Bergé, in 1980. 
The inner walls are painted Majorelle blue, a color developed by the former owner Jacques Majorelle, a landscape painter, and the garden has a large collection of plants from 5 continents including cacti, palms and bamboo. The painter's studio in a dark blue building, has been transformed into a Berber Museum ( the only one in the world), housing the private collection of Berber art of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. 
 
 
 
After Yves Saint Laurent died in 2008, his ashes were scattered in a small rose garden beyond the lily pond, and a Roman pillar set on a pedestal with a plate bearing his name was erected as a memorial. In 2010 the street in front of the Majorelle Garden was renamed the Rue Yves Saint Laurent in his honor.
 
 
The Jemaa el-Fnaa Square is the high light of any tour to Marrakesh. Day or night the Square is a blur of colors, hustle and bustle of hundreds of tourists and locals, and a cacophony of noises from vendors, street performers, musicians, snake charmers, acrobats, monkey trainers, dancing boys, magicians, story tellers...... and a multitude of cooking stalls serving a wide variety of food and drinks.

 
 
 
The Jemaa el-Fnaa Square had its moment of terror. In 2011 a bomb left in a bag in the Argana cafe went off by remote detonation and killed 17 people, among them a group of French students and a British travel writer. The explosive used was similar to that used by shoe bomber Richard Reid who attempted to blow up an American-bound plane from Paris in 2001 and the al-Qaeda "underpants Bomber" on Christmas day 2009, as well as the 2005 London bombings. Ironically the name 'Jemaa el-Fnaa' means "the assembly of trespassers", and historically the square was used for public decapitations.
 
 
 
 
The Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group ( North African branch of al-Qaeda) was founded in the 1990s by veterans from the Soviet-Afghan War; while the headquarter was based in the UK, it had sleeper cells in Spain, Belgium, Italy, France, Denmark,Turkey,Egypt and the Netherlands- all countries where there's a sizable Moroccan diaspora. It was implicated in the 2004 Madrid train bombing that killed 191 people and wounded over 2,000. Though by 2010 most of the GICM leaders are reportedly imprisoned or killed, the picture has shifted : the first wave of Moroccan jihadis to join the fighting in Syria arrived in early 2012, public statistics in 2016 on ISIS foreign fighters indicated over 1,500 are of Morocco-origin, all first and second generation immigrants to Europe. The true number is probably far higher.
                      

King Mohammed VI tried a 2 pronged approach to contain religious extremism. All imams are State employed, and as the Amir al-Mu'minin ( Commander of the Faithful) he monitors all sermons delivered in the 30,000 mosques in the country. He also set up the Mohammed V Holy Quran Radio and the Assadissa satellite television network to propagate moderate Islamic doctrine. At the same time167 imams and 9 morchidates ( female religious guides) are sent to diaspora communities in Europe and North America to preach the same message. Burqa is banned in Morocco.
When the Arab Spring erupted Moroccan economy was in shambles, a result of both a drought and the downturn in foreign investment and remittances from the dispora caused by the global financial crisis. Wide spread abject poverty : two-thirds of people do not have access to drinking water or electricity and 90% receive no or poor medical care ; overall unemployment rate is 25% (youth unemployment is over the top - 50% of the population is under 25 years old and 50% of them are jobless) would have made Morocco a hotbed for Islamic radicalization, so in 2004 the Villes sans Bidonvilles (Cities without slums) program was launched as part of a $1.2 billion National Initiative for Human Development, aiming to fight social marginalization and reduce economic disparity through building subsidized apartment buildings, community centers, and set up social services including adult literacy classes, micro-finance and cultural programs.

 
The Moroccan inborn trait of constant and compulsive need to know everything about everybody is called "tberguig", something akin to the water-tight surveillance network undertaken in China in the 70s and North Korea even today, mostly by gossipy old ladies. Tberguig turns out to be a powerful tool for the authorities to dismantle terrorist groups and trace misdemeanors committed in the community. Ha !
By the Jemaa el-Fnaa Square is the souk, one of some 18 in Marrakesh. Crafts employ a significant percentage of the population, who primarily sell their products to tourists. 
Local cinema
The Saadian tombs of Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur (1578-1603) and his family were discovered in 1917, the beautiful decoration of the tombs make them a major tourist attraction. Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur built the El Badi Palace which is now in ruins.
The Marrakech Museum housed in the traditional stone-built Dar M'Nebhi Palace built at the end of the 19th century, is admired as much for the classical Andalusian architecture as the exhibits.
Zellij tiles and stucco work in geometrical patterns. Green and blue are predominant colors.
 
 
 
 
Who knew demonstration in downtown Marrakesh could be so cheerful ?! 
The Koutoubia Mosque from the 12th century is the largest mosque in the city. The spire atop the minaret is decorated with gilded copper balls that decrease in size towards the top, a style unique to Morocco. The 77M high minaret was designed such as to prevent any person on the top of the tower from looking into the king's harem. Even today privacy is preserved by blocking Moroccans access to Goggle Earth. The Arabic word koutoubiyyin means "bookseller", referring to the book selling trade in the nearby souk.
 
King Mohammed VI has vowed to attract 20 million tourists a year to Morocco by 2020, unfortunately not all tourists come to Morocco for the scenery and culture. Like Thailand there're organized sex tours to Morocco, and specialized websites abound listing best locations and tariffs.  Marrakesh has the unsavory title of 'Capital of Prostitution in Morocco', as it has the lion's share of the 50,000 prostitutes across the country, followed by Casablanca. The most sought-after clients are the Saudis. As by law unmarried couple cannot rent a hotel room, 98% of prostitutes conduct their business in apartments rented by their clients exclusively for this purpose. Girls working in expensive bars and nightclubs cost from $30 and $200 per transaction, older women outside the souk might ask just $3 . Many prostitutes are either separated or divorced women, and with 70% female illiteracy, there're scant other employment options.  There're far more underage boy prostitutes on the ground than girls as it is culturally unacceptable for young girls to live on the street, besides girl children have more work opportunity as child maids. 
beautiful Moroccan girl
Islam is ambivalent regarding cigarette, so there're a lot of lung diseases due to smoking. Diabetes are also prevalent. Moroccans are addicted to mint tea with sugar, tea is taken 5-10 times per day, or whenever people meet. One family can go through 1 kg of tea per day. Because of the lack of work, there's a lot of sitting around in cafes and chatting.
 
Diabetic Association
Our last stop was Casablanca, the largest city in Morocco with 5 million inhabitants, and the most cosmopolitan on account of the ville nouvelle built by the French. Casablanca was founded by Berber fishermen in the 7th century BC, but was subsequently used as a port by the Phoenicians, Romans, Merenids, Portuguese (who named it Casa Branca), then the Spanish traders who changed it to the Spanish spelling (Casablanca), lastly the French before independence. In the 19th century it was a major port of wool and gunpowder tea (Chinese tea, each leaf rolled into a small pellet) to Britain. Even today Casablanca is a major port and one of the largest financial and industrial center of Morocco, with fishing and fish canning being 2 of its biggest industries. Casablanca is also famous for sex change private clinic started by French surgeon in the 1940s.
Modern downtown Casablanca
I've noticed time and time again in all the poor countries I visited, the best looking buildings are always 1) Religious buildings 2) Government buildings 3) Banks. The Hassan II Mosque, the landmark of Casablanca and a magnificent edifice in commemoration of the Sovereignty of Morocco, certainly cost enough : $800 million, all paid for with public money, in a country where 15% of its population live below the poverty line - over 5 million Moroccans were living on $1.2 per day, though the minimum wage is supposedly $6.58 per day. Gross National Income (GNI) per capita in 2013 for Morocco was $7,000 ( ranked 126 out of 177 countries in terms of human development. As reference : GNI was $10,650 for Egypt ; $10,960 for Tunisia; and $54,260 for HK in the same year).
Shoe shine guys all over the place
Meanwhile King Mohammed VI came 7th in Forbes " The World's Richest Royals", with an estimated fortune of $2.5 billion. He's also considered the most costly monarchy to his people in the world. The State pays him a personal monthly salary of $40,000, twice that of the French President. In addition the Public Treasury dishes out one million dollars a day for the operative expenses of his 12 royal palaces, 30 private residences, his personal fleet of pricey and flashy cars (he's said to love cars to death !), private plane and his whims for fashion and jet skiing. The Royal Budget is 5 times larger than that of Britain, though Britain is at least 20 times richer. Against the call for austerity for the rest of the nation to offset the impact of global economic crisis, the Royal Budget was raised by yet another $1 million in 2014, and the Royal businesses are continuously subsidized to ensure profit. Makes me want to cry.
 
The Hassan II mosque, the largest in North Africa, and third largest in the world, rises above the Atlantic Ocean. It has room for 25,000 worshippers inside the mosque hall and a further 80,000 in the courtyard. The minaret is the world's highest at 210 M, topped by a laser, the light from which is directed towards  Mecca. The building is built partially on land and partially over the ocean, accomplished by creating a platform linking a natural rock outcrop. The idea was inspired by the Qur'an, which says God has His throne on water. The environmental advantage is it is free of noise and the fresh breeze from the sea disperses pollution. Two large breakwaters were also built to protect the mosque from the erosive ocean waves, which could rise to 10M in height. The building is of Hispano-Moorish and Art Deco design, the walls are hand-crafted marble  and the roof is retractable to reveal the sky and to let air inside the mosque. It's one of 2 mosques open to the public in Morocco.
 

 
Jasmina, a little Moroccan girl doing a drawing on the steps of the mosque. She and her family'd emigrated to Italy some years ago and were only back in Morocco for a holiday. There're about $460,000 Moroccans in Italy, the third largest non-indigenous minority ethnic group after the Romanians and Albanians in Italy; unfortunately over 40% of the Moroccans are unemployment. It's estimated there're over 4 million Moroccan migrants scattered all over the world, the majority in European countries, the largest diaspora are in France and Spain.
 
The Corniche west of the Hassan II Mosque is a thriving beach resort, full of expensive hotels, nightclubs and western fast food stores and cafes. It's a favorite haunt for the locals for a game of football or cycling on rented bikes, or simply just taking a leisure stroll. Swimming however could be hazardous because of rip currents, and the water is cold even in summer months.
 
 
 
Demonstration in Casablanca, this time it's the pharmacists complaining about the usual : long hours and low pay. "I'm Union!" I waved at them and was instantly made welcome. The sad reality is only 1% of Moroccan workers are Union members, the majority aren't even protected by employment contract ! Child labor though illegal is prevalent, young girls as young as 8 toil for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for as little as $11 a month as domestic maids, while young boys mostly work in the souk, or beg in the streets.
 

People queuing outside Worker's Union in Casablanca
I was bemused to find in Morocco begging is accepted as a career, albeit grudgingly. Beggars are everywhere, in the cafes, mosques, buses and busy streets. The total number of professional beggars is estimated to be close to 500,000, more than workers in the textile and tourism sectors put together, and the daily income varies between 50 to 200 Dirham a day, a better pay than a lot of jobs. 56% of the beggars are male and 15% are children under the age of 7, the kids are paid between 50-100 Dirham a week to beg for their employers.
 
People with disabilities are also often rented out by their relatives as they do not receive any social protection. In many regions begging is well-organised, all the hot spots have claims of "right of occupancy", and new beggars to the area must pay the "owner" or else ! Because beggars bring dishonor to Morocco's image, the government has tried to curb the ever expanding industry by imposing 2-6 month prison sentences on beggars older than 18 years, but the law is seldom implemented as alms giving is one of the pillars of Islam. Seasoned beggars memorize special prayers for different time of year, festivals and different clientele.
In the past decade tens of thousands of rural Moroccans have fled the drought-ravaged interior to find non-existent jobs in cities, only to end up in the huge slums with zero amenity which they share with the urban poor on the outskirts of all big cities, a parallel world most tourists to Morocco never see. At the 15th annual commemoration of his accession to the throne in 2014, Mohammed VI hilariously asked in astonishment in an official speech : “Where has Morocco’s wealth gone? And who is benefiting from it?!” In the 15 years of his rule Morocco had dropped ranking in UN's Human Development report despite an investment of at least $1.3 billion in Human development programs - poverty, unemployment and inequity have all risen; in the same period of time the King's wealth had mushroomed by 500% !
                                                 Broken graves, all Muslim burials face the East
Social works center
The secret is in the king's unholy marriage of power and business - the King has his hand (not just fingers) in all major economic sectors and basic services in the country: banking; agriculture (he's also the biggest landowner); distribution; construction materials and real estate; mining; telecommunications, energy.......you name it, he owns it. Moroccan citizens are basically customers who multiply his wealth. There're only 3 decision makers on big investments in Morocco : the king, his secretary Mounir Majidi, and the monarch's close friend, adviser and former classmate Fouad Ali Himma. WikiLeaks documents as quoted by Britain's Guardian newspaper stated : corruption is prevalent at all levels of Moroccan society and reaches the highest levels in Morocco. In April 2016, Mounir Majidi was named in the Panama Papers.
                                       Road worker posing for a picture. 
         Friendly Arab, owner of a most interesting antique shop in a local souk . 
Old cinema poster of Faten Hamama, Egyptian actress and ex-wife of Omar Sharif
                              
                                                                            Local wet market

        
Since I was in Casablanca I felt obligated to track down the Rick's Cafe, though of course the cafe in the 1942 movie was actually a Hollywood studio 6,000 miles away. I promptly got lost and found myself wandering in the poorer part of the city with faded buildings, graffiti and greasy car repair shops. Again I was most impressed by the politeness and helpfulness of the Moroccans I stopped to ask the way. 

 
Light rail $1 per trip.Traffic is horrendous in Casablanca with 14,000 cabs and 2 million cars.
Historically Casablanca has always been a flash point due to its location and population mix . In WWII Casablanca was a strategic site for the British-American invasion of French North African, the "Operation Torch"; it also held the 1943 "Casablanca Conference", in which Churchill and Roosevelt met to discuss war progress. After WWII, Casablanca was a major center of anti-French rioting. On X'mas day 1953, a bomb went off and killed 16. In 2003 and again in 2007, the city was hit by a string of suicide bomb attacks.  

As of 2015 there're about 8,000 Chinese residing in Morocco, most of them in Casablanca. Mr Chan, the restaurant owner, had only been in Morocco 1 year. His cousin has worked in Morocco for 10 years, he's in IT and commerce.

While France remains Morocco's primary trade partner, Chinese investments in Morocco has risen by 195% between 2011 and 2015 to hit $40 million. In 2016 during King Mohammed VI's official visit to Beijing a strategic partnership was signed between the 2 countries involving investment amounted to $1.2 billion. Recently Morocco lifted visa requirement for Chinese tourists, so a sharp rise in Chinese tourists is to be expected.
What have I learnt of Morocco ? Morocco is full of inconsistencies and big contrasts : there're as many swindlers as there're polite honest people. Morocco is 2 countries, one rich, educated and totally westernized, the other poor, uneducated, devoutly Muslim and conservative. For a Muslim country Morocco is remarkable for its tolerance (the only taboos are politics and religion where there's zero freedom of expression), people can take Pot, drink alcohol, eat during Ramadan, fornicate, be homosexual, nobody cares as long as it's done privately. 
Belly dance in restaurant show
 
The rich vibrant colors of Morocco attract photographers from all over the world. The leader of our trip was a Mr Yung, a well known photographic master in Hong Kong and Macau. Most of the team members were either his students or acquaintances in the photographic world, so I was particularly touched by his kindliness to make me feel at ease, a complete stranger and a non-photographer. Sadly Mr Yung passed away a year later, upon given the news I did a painting as a remembrance of this thoughtful old gentleman.
The painting : There're many doors in the world opening onto many different lives, some doors are opened through a camera. Many feet walk up and down many different paths, but ultimately all paths lead to the same blue sky. My wish for Mr Yung is that his path is easy, sunny, and lined with beautiful flowers on both sides.