KETAKI BARDALAI experiences the exotic Mecca of the West – Morocco
Every time we set off on a trip, my husband always tells me that we should pause for a moment to reflect on all the excitement and anticipation because once the trip starts you will have gone from one experience to another and before you know it, you will be back home looking at your photos and a blur of memories….
Last month I got a chance to go to Morocco for a Study tour with Art of Islamic Pattern, run by geometry teacher Richard Henry, biomorphic guru Adam Williamson. Although the trip was in September, the plotting and the planning started way back in April, when I received the first email announcing this trip. So for almost 5 months along with my young friend Aziza, a true Geometry junkie, I spent many an hour poring over emails, and websites to plan this trip. A casual conversation with Gaye Reeves of Aya Sofia hotel in Istanbul last year, about her daughter Michele Reeve’s travel agency Plan-it-Fez, in Morocco, proved to be most providential and that took our trip to another level completely.
Finally, the day dawned or rather night fell and we were winging our way to Casablanca!!! (I kept pinching myself to convince myself that it was really happening…). Arriving in the morning, navigating nervously past French and Arabic signage and speakers, five hours and two train rides past some very alluring glimpses of the blue waters of the Atlantic ocean along the way, we reached Fez. We were staying in Fez-el-Bali, deep inside the medieval medina – an ancient city, parts of it dating back to the 9th century and now a Unesco World Heritage site, and also the world’s largest car free urban area, it is also known as the Mecca of the West.
Our first night was spent at Dar Finn, a beautiful and lovingly restored Dar – courtyard house- with a stunning zillij, the traditional Moroccan tile mosaic work, central fountain in the inner courtyard that just took our breath away. Within the hour we were out on a Tasting Trail with Sihame and Hassan of Plan-it-Fez tasting and sampling our way through the street foods of the Souk that began with ‘sheep’s head stew’ and ‘snail soup’ (we couldnt get ourselves to taste these though) to a wide array of fried breads, meats – spleen is very popular as is preserved meat – a delicious Jewish style salted meat that is preserved in stomach fats !!!
There were a wide array of fried breads (leavened) – melui, harsha and beghrir, some savoury and some sweet, served with fresh goats cheese and honey, there were kefta and stir-fried meat sandwiches, olives, dates and a wonderful variety of fruits from juicy nectarines, plums and grapes to the mouth watering and sweet cactus fruits (my favourite) and many refreshing fresh and dry fruit juices – the almond milk and pistachio juice was quite amazing. We checked out the fresh herbs – thyme, mint, lemon verbena, and the popular rose and orange blossom waters and tasted at least a dozen types of honey (I bought a small jar of ‘thyme’ honey). At the spice stores we saw some similarity with Indian spices – cumin is very popular and used extensively in Moroccan cuisine – we came away with a packet of pricey freshly ground fragrantly spiced coffee, that I am slowly and sparing savouring every morning to revive memories of the hustle and bustle of the busy streets of the Medina. The sweets included prettily coloured nougats and delicately shaped and fried pastries filled with a mixture of almonds and honey. The only downside of this tour was that we were so busy tasting and taking in the sights, smells and sounds, that we forgot to take pictures….
The next day we did a Cooking with a Family tour that started with shopping for ingredients in the market and ended with dining at home on delicious fare that we had cooked together with Fatima and her mother. The high point of this tour was learning to make the local bread Khobz, from Fatima’s mother – complete with making the dough, leaving it to rise, then kneading it again to just the right consistency and baking it at the local bakery like everyone else. The lamb and vegetable tagines kept us licking our fingers for a long time afterwards.
We shifted to our home for the next four days, and venue for the Study Tour, the amazing Dar Seffarine -right round the corner from the famous 12th century Quaraoulyne Mosque, restored and run by the widely travelled Indophile architect and designer couple Ala and Kate. We were twenty odd eager students in all, who had travelled afar , some seasoned experts, some amateurs like me, and few wide eyed newbies wielding compass, ruler and pencil (not to forget the erasers), as we tried our hand at recreating motifs and patterns, some from the surrounding monuments. The patterns jumped out at you from everywhere – on the dar walls, the gateways to homes, the souks and streets, the mosques and medressas. We were taken on a walkabout along the alleyways for the “ hidden gems of the Medina” with David Amster, an eccentric but passionate expert on houses in Fez, with strong views on the merits of traditional limestone over modern day cement. He is fighting hard to ensure that restoration of the old houses is as true to the original as possible. Another morning was spent walking around to see the different artisans of Fez, with Jessica Stevens of Culture Vultures. We met with the dyers, carpenters, knife sharpeners, bone and horn jewellery maker, coppersmiths, metal engravers, and weavers and learnt first hand about these traditional crafts that date back thousands of years….we saw the harsh and malodorous toil of the tannery workers who spend hours in foul smelling pits to wash, cure and dye the leather before they are crafted into the beautiful poufs and lovely bags and shoes on display in the shops in the Souk.
Between more geometry and biomorphic art classes and eating some truly mouthwatering Moroccan meals, washed down with gallons of herbal teas (Moroccan mint and Louiza – lemon verbena!) we were taken to see the Bou Inania and Attarine Medressas only to have our minds blown away by the intricate details of the plaster work and the richly carved woodwork. We even got to try our hand at zillij -that is pieced together from behind! We watched the master tile cutter at work, as he chipped delicate pieces and later tried our hand at assembling different shapes and colours to make our own little Zillij tile…my piece now holds pride of place among my travel souvenirs…
Our stay in Fez was quite exacting physically, we were constantly clambering up and down steep, narrow winding staircases ( a hallmark of the Dars), and the maze like slopes of the Medina (Fez is not for the weak kneed !!!) all the while encountering friendly Fassis, as the people of Fez are known, welcoming us, and when they found we were from India, they would greet us with cheery “Namaste”s and occasional filmi lines and songs . It was incredible to see how Bollywood crazy Moroccans are -we met fans of Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachhan, Hema Malini and of course ShahRukh Khan was a hot favourite – I even sat and watched a bit of a tv serial ‘Malika- e- Jhansi’ or Jhansi ki Rani dubbed in Arabic, with a shopkeeper one evening.
Four heady days later we moved again…. this time it was to the very ornate and even more knee challenging, Masriya Mia – an annexe to the newer Dar Mia. A Masriya with the main rooms on the top floor, is traditionally a guest house used for male guests, or the elder son and his friends or his family, who are not usually allowed to sleep in the main house.
Once the course got over my friend and I took a couple of day trips to the countryside beyond Fez. We walked around the ruins of Volublis – a partially excavated Roman city dating back to the 1st century AD! and admired the still so well preserved and detailed mosaics. We went on to the city of Meknes nearby and wandered in the cool granaries of Hri Souani and saw the enormous water tank built by Sultan Moulay Ismail for his 12000 horses. We drove up to the pretty Andalusian influenced town of Chefchaouen up in the hills, with its blue rinsed houses and colourful tribal handicrafts that was such a contrast from Fez.
The trip was sadly coming to a close and after some mad dash last minute shopping, we found ourselves lugging our bulging bags on to the train to Casablanca. Since we had some time on our hands, we decided to give in to the allure of the Atlantic ocean and took the train back for a quick tour of Rabat – the capital of Morocco – we wandered around the Kasbah Oudiya, walked up to the ocean waters amid surfers and young beach trippers, drank the ‘ best orange juice in the world’ in the Medina area, before heading back to Casablanca. We made it in time to watch the sunset from the phenomenal Hassan II mosque, apparently the third largest mosque in the world, wrapping up the trip at Rick’s Cafe – a somewhat snooty restaurant commemorating the famous film Casablanca in which Humphrey Bogart famously toasted Ingrid Bergman with “….here’s looking at you kid…”
Looking back at a very chequered three decade plus career that started as a lowly account executive trainee in a small advertising firm in Kolkata, and running her own advertising and marketing agency in Guwahati, to a longish stint at Shishu Sarothi and raising the flag of activism on disability, and more recently to laying the groundwork at FST – an indigenous philanthropic organization with the mantra of ‘enabling Northeast India’, Ketaki Bardalai has been on a constant learning curve as she navigated different places and spaces. Largely self taught, she is now trying to virtually find her feet, in Doha, Qatar.