After the organized chaos of the Fez Medina we repaired to a nearby mountain village for a spot of R&R — a bit of hiking, a few ambles in a troglodyte village, a last dose of beautiful mountain scenery — or that was the plan. It seems that the deep freeze that has hit Europe continues to extend into Morocco and bitter alpine winds and rain buffeted the tiny village of Bhalil for the entire weekend. Added to that, I contracted a dire cough, so spent one day confined to an upper room, with soup and hot lemon tea supplied from time to time, while attired in all possible layers.
The only lodging in this conservative and slightly unwelcoming village was a tiny 4 bedroom guesthouse run by a highly eccentric Moroccan – Frenchman assisted by two long suffering Berber women. (He had a French wife but they decided she was happier in the south of France for some reason?) Meals were taken in the small kitchen and were traditional Moroccan tagines and couscous, though slightly more interesting than some. Niema was a very good cook but we are heartily sick of tagine and couscous after 5 1/2 weeks.
Our host was born in Fez, but sent to France for education at 18 where he acquired chemistry and engineering degrees and proceeded to work for Hewlett-Packard there and in Germany for 25 years. He then decided that he was losing his Moroccan roots, forgetting how to speak Moroccan, and though he and his children were fluent in French, Arabic, German, and English, he had never taught his children Moroccan and decided they were out of touch with the culture. He quit his job and packed up the whole family of 3 children and wife and returned to Fez. After a false start there he decided that the mountains were the place for him and somehow stumbled on Bhalil. The two older children left for France immediately, the wife and youngest child moved back to Fez, and then returned to France. He assured us that this was a mutually agreeable arrangement, that she was very busy with yoga and sculling, but that they were in very close touch etc etc,
His dream is to make a tourist attraction of this little place, which has 3 distinguishing characteristics: many caves (some inhabited), women who make buttons for Moroccan kaftans sitting outside (since the caves are so dark), and a typical white shawl worn by women. Maybe not a lot to build an industry on, especially when the village is badly maintained, quite poor, and not at all friendly. He’s been there 9 years, still trying to impose his ideas on the townspeople who want nothing to do with him.
And you could see why — his guesthouse provided absolutely nothing to the village — no income from guiding (he warns all his guests not to have anything to do with locals who offer, he will do all the guiding…but at such an exorbitant price that no one takes him up on it), there is no restaurant or cafe spin off as there is absolutely nowhere else to eat in the village, and the townspeople have nothing to sell except the handmade buttons which even the most charitable of tourists could not find a use for!
Our first night we were the only guests, and he launched into a spiel about his history, the culture of Morocco, strange opinions about everything under the sun…by the end of the second hour (trapped at the dinner table) our attention was definitely flagging..He wouldn’t allow questions of discussion —“I’ll come to that” but then he never did.
But the worst was the horribly condescending and patronizing way he treated the two women who cooked and looked after the house. He insisted on translating what he said and what we said into Moroccan (he doesn’t speak Berber, thankfully that gives them some privacy) and insisted on telling us how he has to look after them and various personal details of their lives. They were mortified especially the younger one whom he was trying to pressure into working full time and having her teeth fixed properly. They sat with us for dinner which he made an enormous song and dance about — so embarrassing for everyone but him. Later when we were alone, I spoke with them slowly in English and they understood perfectly, their French was even better, but later that day he insisted on teaching them the English word for “citron” even though the cook had told me she was making a tart with lemons.
By the next night we were joined by a Belgian couple and a young Dutch pair. I tried to insist that he do his spiel in French as the Belgian woman did not speak English, but he insisted that he could do his own simultaneous translation. It was bizarre in a horrifying way. The next night the two Dutch were replaced by 4 Bulgarians and there wasn’t enough room at the table so he had to content himself with making flying forays into the kitchen to continue his flights of fancy.
I have to say the guesthouse was interesting and quite beautiful, made of wood with an ingenious heating system using an airtight firebox to heat the floors and small radiators so it could have been far worse as there was at least warmth in the kitchen and a kind of off chill in the bedrooms. All the doors and windows were custom made by hand by a man who works for him. Apparently he can’t work for anyone else as he only does what he feels like doing and only when he wants to, so no one else can stand him. Sounds like a perfect match. He is also an outsider in the village, no one who wasn’t born there ever becomes an insider according to Kamal.
This man, aka “the carpenter” does unique and rather lovely primitive paintings on scrap boards and they were hung all over the guesthouse. We went (uninvited) to visit his cave home which was filled to bursting with odds and ends he had collected (those of you who knew her, think Mrs Day…). Thousands of old records, CD’s, African carved heads with old Tide boxes balanced on their heads, old TVs, radios, well a picture is worth a thousand words…
Not long ago they had a guest from Australia who does multimedia work incorporating bird feathers among other things into her paintings. The carpenter took to the idea eagerly and has begun incorporating all kinds of found objects into his newer works — bits of hardware, buttons, magazine pictures, quite good really.
Kamal has the idea that this Australian artist is dying to return and become his first “artist in residence”, eventually he envisions an entire colony. To that end he is preparing a small room in a neighbouring house, his first task being to apply a lovely wooden door made by the carpenter over the metal door which he finds aesthetically distasteful but which the owner of the room refuses to remove, and to have the carpenter construct a lovely round window. When the carpenter finds black screws for the hinges, or when they have time to go to Fez (45 minutes away) the window might get installed, in the meantime, isn’t it a lovely window?
One last crazy project — he decorated the stairs leading to his house with paint and some of the carpenter’s pictures, very nice, so he decided that of course everyone else in the village would paint their stairs and outside walls in pretty colours to complement his. Strangely, in a village with a practically cashless economy, no one saw the need to buy paint and do the work to paint the walls. They suggested he could do it if he wanted to! What a concept…
At any rate, it was an experience and not a wasted weekend at all! But we were happy to head for the train station and catch a train to Casablanca our last stop before flying out to Paris, and after a few days back to Vancouver and home.
Casablanca is Morocco’s biggest city and the business centre with all kinds of international companies’ Africa headquarters there. They have retained many lovely Art Deco buildings from colonial days and the city’s setting is gorgeous, stretching along miles and miles of Atlantic surf (Where the rich man lives said our taxi driver, and rich they must be judging by the vehicles alone.)
The cityscape is dominated by the minaret (tallest in the world) of a modern mosque built by Hassan II, the present king’s father. Unlike most mosques here, visitors are allowed to enter in non prayer times after paying a fee and joining an obligatory guided tour. No expense spared, craftsmen laboured twenty four hours a day to create it from all local materials except for a couple of chandeliers from Italy (totally unnecessary, the ones from Fez were more lovely) and a bit of special marble from Spain (again the marble from Agadir was equally nice.) Since god resides “over the water” according to the Koran, or so said our guide, it is built out over the beach so it appears to be floating. The terraces are absolutely stunning with the surf crashing in. 20,000 men and 5,000 women can be accommodated at once for prayers, with double that number spilling onto the outdoor areas at Ramadan. Why such a small proportion of women? Why of course they have to stay at home and mind the children…
Anyway, we then lunched at Rick’s Cafe, which actually has nothing to do with the film “Casablanca” which was shot on a sound stage in Hollywood, but most tourists think it is the original “Rick’s” and thus it is exceedingly popular. Then a quick stop at Africa’s largest indoor mall in hopes of obtaining some warm sweaters for Paris (no luck, but fyi prices at Zara and H&M are identical to Canada) and back we went to our cute hotel to prepare to say good-bye to Africa.
It has been a great trip, we have so much enjoyed both countries and recommend them highly to travellers. Senegal was so different for us on our first foray to West Africa and a very easy entree, despite having to dredge up our little bit of French to survive. Morocco we enjoyed a great deal, they are very accustomed to visitors and lots of English is spoken except in small places where they don’t speak French either. We have pretty much covered the interesting cities and so if we return some day we will continue the road trip which we loved. Lots more twisty roads to explore!
Thanks to all who read along, after 4 days in Paris we’ll be back in tranquil Canada!