It’s a café like any other, its round aluminium tables ringed by wicker chairs, a café in the French style, of which there are thousands.
Except that it isn’t in France but in the Moroccan holy city of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, which until a few years ago was so holy no infidel could even spend the night here.
A glass of mint tea teeters on the table’s edge as my eyes sweep the square, trying to read the sun-dazzled expressions that shuffle across the stone plaza at high noon, in that bustling time just before lunch.
On my left, arcades with facades as bright as the summer are dented by domed entrances, dark and dim, which hide the wares of an entire town. Once, these goods were mostly foodstuffs, stacks of round Moroccan bread, argan oil, embroidered napkins, gold and good luck charms. Today they sit next to gas bottles for cooking, stoves, and plastic bottles that back home would have been thrown away but here are resuscitated to carry water or oil.
Behind me, the mosque is blocked by a wooden barrier above which a sign proclaims, “No entry for non-Muslims.” This is, after all, Morocco’s holiest town, the one which supposedly introduced Islam to the country late in the 8th century. Walking past and taking a few photographs is perfectly acceptable and the good people of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun are warm and hospitable.
Ambling across the square – a triangle, really – a few uniformed men make sure nothing untoward happens. One wears navy blue, a perky cap sitting far back on his head. A white ornamental rope snakes from shoulder to pocket and he seems proud of the shiny leather holster snapped shut on his right hip. Other policemen, equally attentive, are olive-colored, in complexion as much as in dress, armed less menacingly with walkie-talkies. They glide quietly in the midday heat; there will be nothing unacceptable here today, it seems.
To my right, the road descends, one of the few roads worthy of that name in this town of twisted alleys and narrow stairways. Teepee-shaped tajine pots bubble over, their vegetables steeping gently atop charcoal fires, steam escaping beneath the ceramic lids. Fresh, red sides of beef hang from entranceways, confirming that while vegetarian dishes may be available here, this is a culture of meat – excellent, fresh meat – which enthusiastic cooks grill over open fires.
The square itself, the triangle, that is, fills and empties. Morocco’s clash of cultures, the old and the new, amble side by side. Young men debate earnestly, sunglasses perched on the bridge of their noses and baseball caps cocked sideways, as though in anticipation of a Justin Bieber concert.
A stooped old man in a battered maroon fez shuffles by my table, stringing prayer beads. I remember that one of the pillars of Islam is to give alms so I pull out a coin. He reaches out and misses. He is blind.
Many old men fill the square, in brown or striped wool djellabas, white beards matching their caps. One approaches me.
“Where are you from, Madame? Etes-vous française?” His French is impeccable, belying his decrepit clothing. I nod and begin chatting. He has lived near my town, he knows my mountains. He has no teeth and probably little money, but he has a history.
He pulls out a fossil, which he insists is real. I decline, knowing how huge the fossil industry is in Morocco. He smiles gently and thanks me for my kindness before leaving.
A few minutes later I spot him bargaining with a group of Germans. They don’t buy and he glides away. How can I possibly abandon my ‘compatriot’? I wander over and am now the proud owner of my own fossil, vastly overpriced.
It is March, on the cusp of spring, and the hot sun competes with the whistling winds from the mountains. Everyone is outdoors, it seems, welcoming springtime and enjoying that slim respite between cold and the unbearable heat of summer.
The dullness of earth colors worn by the men contrasts with the bright purples and blues of the older women’s djellabas, the limes and citrons and cherries, strangely mismatched with the headscarves, their collective color schemes almost at war. The djellabas unexpectedly end just above striped sports socks stuffed into old plastic sandals. A few of the younger women are slightly more fashionable, but still incongruous in their warm-up pants and light fleeces. Some cover their heads, others seem as free as the wind sailing through their hair.
This ebb and flow is shattered by Western laughter, a relatively new sound here, gregarious and self-centered, belonging to blonde hair and tight leggings moulding two clearly visible behinds. Dressed as they would be back home, the women, upper arms wiggling with cellulite, seem almost embarrassingly naked here, where only heads and hands peek out. The old men’s eyes drift slightly aside, not condemning, not appraising, possibly still surprised at such appearances in their holiest of cities.
While everyone struggles to ignore the women, a nearly comical clip-clop, clip-clop emerges, a donkey trotting through the crowd. He is a sad greyish animal, ridden by a man who hits him relentlessly with a gnarled stick, the treatment of animals sadly invisible on the list of things to modernize.
Suddenly the air bursts into Dhuhr, the noon prayer. Shops become still, the nougat salesman throws a cloth over his cart, and the pace of the piazza slows. At the next table, the Bieber wannabes don’t even notice. One lights a cigarette, another orders coffee, their voices rising slightly to be heard over the loudspeaker, which Imams have taken to using. At least here, though, there is an actual Imam, not a recording as in so many other mosques across Islam.
Moulay Idriss Zerhoun is caught in a vise of time. Many of its traditions remain intact but it has touched the 21st century and has no intention of ignoring it. Every home strives for that most modern of centerpieces, the television set, and there’s no ignoring what is happening in other parts of the world.
But here at noon, in the café on the main square, that future might as well be a thousand years away. The women shop for the lunch they are about to cook, the men gather in small clumps to discuss – whatever it is that old men discuss, and on the main street, tajine pots bubble much as they have for centuries, featuring that day’s cut of meat and that morning’s vegetable pick.
The Bieber cap and sunglasses may connect the town’s youth superficially to the outside world, but once they leave their wicker chairs, they will still go home to mama’s cooking, their brush with the 21st century limited to a second-hand television set. At least for another year or two.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- The town is steep – make sure you have good walking shoes.
- The wonderful Roman ruins of Volubilis are an hour’s walk away. You don’t need to take a taxi to go – it’s downhill. There’s a restaurant there for lunch, and the walk back up a gentle hill will do you good after the tajine.
- I stayed at the Colombe Blanche, almost across from Dar Zerhoune. Both are riads worth recommending, the former more old-fashioned, the latter beautifully redone.
- Although more tourists are coming, the town remains deeply conservative so dress accordingly if you want to feel comfortable. It’s very welcoming and people were quite friendly and approachable.
- Traveling soon? See what I have to say on Morocco travel for women.