Morocco nestles on the northwest coast of
Africa bordering the shores of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean with a
finger of land pointing north-ward to Spain. This is also part of the
region known as the Mahgrib, where great extremes of climate occur between
the coastal regions, the tips of the Atlas Mountains where snow is not
uncommon year-round, and on the parched expanses of the Sahara Desert.
Despite only 20 percent arable land and the
historic concern of drought in Morocco, modern farming and irrigation
produce prodigious crops of grains – wheat, barley, corn, and oats as well
as fruit and vegetables for export and domestic use. Ancient orchards
still burst forth with the rich scents of blossoming trees that ripen into
almonds, figs, olives, and many varieties of dates. Gnarled grapevines
yield fine grapes that are pressed into a distinguished variety of wines.
Herds of goats, sheep and some cattle are watched over in pastures and
carefully guided along roadsides. As in most of North Africa and the
Middle East, meat is usually in short supply and fish is consumed mainly
where it is caught because of limited storage facilities.
Long referred to as Moors, the people of Morocco are actually a mix of
Berber, Arab, and Black peoples. The 800-year occupation of Spain by Arabs
and Moors (from the seventh to the fifteenth centuries C.E.) probably
established the term "Moors" because most Christians at that time referred
to all Muslims as Moors.
The Berbers were the first known inhabitants of Morocco and even today
make up more than 75 percent of its population. These non-Arabic tribes
inhabiting many parts of North Africa are a lean, hardy people, white to
dark brown in coloring. Belonging to more than 200 separate groups each
with distinctive customs and dialects, they live by herding sheep, goats,
and cattle and increasingly work as crop-raising farmers.
Two facts illustrated their individualism and fierce independence:
adoption of both Islam and Judaism did not replace but enhanced their
former beliefs and traditions; and the continued agitation of the Berber
tribes against the French occupation of Morocco actually led to the
Moroccan independence of 1956.
The fact that almost 80 percent of the Moroccan population is illiterate
can be misleading. For it must be understood that most of the Berber
dialects do not have a written form, knowledge having been carefully
transmitted verbally to succeeding generations. However, these peoples
have a great appetite for education. French and at least one Arab or
Berber dialect is spoken by educated Moroccans, but today Arabic and
French are commonly taught in the increasing number of schools springing
up even in rural and mountain areas.
Despite successive foreign conquest by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans,
and Byzantines, the Berbers stoutly maintained their own lifestyles. It
was the sweeping Arab conquest in 682 C.E. that left the deepest mark. The
entire population, with the exception of the few Christians (from Roman
times) and the Jewish settlers in the larger cities. intermarried and
adopted Islam but never really replaced their own ancient Berber
traditions. Even now, of all the many sects of Islam, the Berber brand is
one of the loosest and varies from tribe to tribe.
In fact, the Berbers had a profound effect on the Arabs. The rituals of
serving and eating foods as well as many classic dishes are definitely of
Berber origin. These include the eating of foods with only three fingers
of the right hand. However, the ceremonial hand washing that precedes the
meal seems to be of Jewish rather than Arabic or Berber origin.
The classic dish of couscous - national dish of the entire Maghreb which
includes Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria - is also enjoyed in Egypt
and other Middle Eastern countries. Mechoui (succulent roast lamb), with
its many variations, is found all around the Mediterranean. Bisteeya or
pastilla, the whisper-thin pastry layers shaped in an 18 inch to 20 inch
pie enclosing scrambled eggs and pigeon meat, closely resembles the spring
roll pastries of China. The tagine, prepared and served in an earthenware
dome-shaped dish, is the classic of all stews.
Berber traditions are deeply steeped in the supernatural. Arabs, Berbers,
and even many Jews profoundly believe in the power of the color of blue to
ward off evil spirits; it would be impossible to count the doorways and
even the windows that are painted blue in Morocco and in many other areas
of North Africa and the Middle East. And it is attributed to a mysterious
supernatural power called kimia that lowly but faithful peasants are able
to survive despite only subsistent levels of food - often only scant
quantities of bread dipped in oil. Satiety is said to be attained more by
faith than by food.
"What isn't known can't be stolen...." Who can say whether this ancient
saying was born out of folklore or the reality of prevalent thieves?
Nonetheless, in Morocco perhaps more than any other area of North Africa,
the cloak of secrecy and the characteristic of self-debasing modesty exist
side by side with scenes of secluded walled courtyards, hidden door-ways
painted a luminous blue, women clad in burkas (head-to-toe enveloping
cloth "veils"), and djellabaclad men together with vendors of amulets,
potions, and formulas all guaranteed to ward off the evil eye.
Great wealth and lovely women, like other treasured Moroccan possessions,
are never displayed openly. Even the great cuisine of Morocco is seldom
tasted in public places but is reserved for the hospitality of the home.
Such is the Moroccan world: a curious blend of faith and superstition,
lore and leg-end, Arab, Berber, Black, and Jew all touched by history and
ancient customs, yet secretive.