Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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2004.03.31 : Morocco Photos, Part Deux
(with, you know, a little expository text, where I couldn't resist)

     The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca is the world's second largest mosque – or religious monument of any kind – outside of the one in Mecca. Its minaret, at 210 meters, is the tallest in the world and is visible for miles – not least when it shines lasers toward Mecca at night. It was completed in 1993, after 6000 traditional Moroccan artisans spent six years working cedar from the High Atlas mountains, pink granite from the anti-Atlas . . . It is earthquake-proof, has a heated floor, an electric sliding roof, and seats 25,000 faithful in the main prayer hall. Frankly, it gives St. Pete's in Rome (which is said to be able to fit comfortably in its main prayer hall) a run.
  • 65-foot ceiling of main prayer hall.

  • Some of that pink granite
  • .

  • Some of that cedar.

  • Heck of a capital.

  • Indoor/outdoor action. (Casablanca is actually a bit of hole, nothing to do with the glamour of the film of the same name; but the climate is nice.)

  • Traditional zelijj work on the exterior.

  • Hard to capture the scale, but there's a bird flying by.

  • It also sits over the water – King Hassan said something about sea and sky giving the faithful a sense of God.

  • This tile work on a Casa post office Ali took as inspiration for her bathroom renovation. She made me take the photo. I make you look at it.

  • My Driss, Jabrane, and Hatim – with whom we were extraordinarily privileged to share a train compartment from Casa to Marrakech. We spent most of the ride discussing the usual stuff: George Bush, Iraq, the Israel/Palestinian situation, the Jews, Islam, etc. As usual, the discussion was extremely vigorous – but somehow very civil, respectful, and productive. I now can't imagine never having traveled in an Islamic country. It was eye-opening. Hatim, by the way, is in training to be a fighter pilot in the Moroccan air force – which, if he finishes the program, he will never be allowed (for security reasons) to leave Morocco. ! As Ali put it, what a shame that the world will never get to meet this wise, serene, and lovely man. And he's, by the way, nineteen years old.

    My Driss runs a family import/export firm for Moroccan arts and crafts. He's also, as we soon discovered to our immense benefit, a Berber. And if you don't know anything about the legendary Berber hospitality, well, suffice it to say that it's legendary. And that you don't know anything about hospitality. My Driss insisted on calling for a company car to meet us at the train station, and then taking us to a hotel run by family friends. (It should be noted that we were very much on yellow alert through all the early stages of this – and it took us quite awhile to realise that he, and his family, wanted nothing more than to befriend us and shower blandishments upon us. But, you know, it's your first time in Marrakech, some guy you just met herds you into a car, and you naturally assume you're going to get your throat slit. Anyway.) After dropping off our bags, we went to his warehouse and had Saharan tea with his father.

  • He then took us by the local Berber pharmacy in the medina, where they vend such pharmaceutical staples as mandrake ("Berber viagra"), exotic spices, dyes, saffron, cardamom, perfume oils, highly organic moisturisers, ambergris, sandalwood, myrhh . . .

  • They also marked Ali up pretty good, though not as well as her henna tattooist would later.

  • We more or less kicked off Marrakech by taking a tour with an officially licensed guide, which trust me, as I learned in Fes, is the best way to brave the medina. Among the highlights was a medersa, or traditional Koranic religious school. Great woodwork.

  • And great tilework.

  • Tiny little chambers for the students, one of which Ali got locked into.

  • The Marrakech medina isn't quite as big as the one in Fes (world's largest), but it's plenty big enough to get lost in forever (without a guide). Here we are near, I imagine, the dyers souks.

  • We cajoled our guide into a side trip by the leather tanneries – which are rather less tourist-friendly than the ones in Fes (which Rough Guide still describes as "tourism at its most brutal"). In Fes, you're up on a roof looking down, but in Marrakech they put you right down among the lime and dyes and bleeding animal hides. And they give you a big sprig of mint to breathe through, against the odours, and to help keep down the tagine you had for lunch. And but this really lovely goat decided it had more need of the mint than Ali did.

  • But one sprig wasn't enough. And this is a woman who is always putting others' needs ahead of her own. But note her smile becoming slightly strained here.

  • Not least because this very handsome ram also turned up and indicated that he might like in on the action.

  • Unfortunately, the goat took quite a dim view of sharing. And thusly was Ali leapt upon by a goat. Suffice it to say, the goat got the goods, in full, and the woman left empty-handed – and quickly.

  • Back on our own, we toured the Dar es Said museum – which is a rather lackluster collection – but in a truly stunning building.

  • We were also later invited to My Driss's family's home in the medina, where we got the full-bore Berber hospitality treatment, including the best veg tagine we've had before or since. My Driss has like 17 siblings, all of whom work in the family business, in various parts of the world, and who kept wandering in and out. Plus, we got to play with his two-year old son Anwar, who is pretty much an angel of toddlerdom. Shown here are his wife and two of his younger sisters (who were also so lovely to us it kind of took our breath away). The conversation around this table, by the way, took place in bits of English, Spanish, French, Arabic, and Japanese (My Driss lived and worked for three years in Kyoto, which he calls his favorite city in the world).

  • Inside of the Saadian Tombs, where the good and the great of Marrakech's antiquity are interred.

  • Another big highlight was the ruins of El Badi Palace – known in its day as "the Incomparable". Evidently when it was unveiled, the sultan who built it asked his factotum what he thought. "Sidi," the servant said, "this will make an outstanding ruin."

  • It was largely such an affecting and atmospheric place because of the current residents: storks.

  • Big birds.

  • They sit overhead in and around these big nests.

  • And occasionally fly back and forth.

  • And make this incredibly cinematic clacking sound with their bills. Like something out of a John Carpenter film.

  • "Hot stork-on-stork action!"

  • That ole nesting instinct.

  • After digging around the underground chambers, we climbed up to one of the few safe promontories, in the last light.

  • And watched the commuters. It was truly an amazing couple of hours.

  • This is about the best shot I took in Marrakech. At first, I was incredibly miffed to find that big van in front of the monument. But, you know what, Marrakech is all about the horrors of the road. I know. I tried driving there one night, more on which in a minute.

  • One of the nicest times we spent in Morocco, actually, was just lounging in the the courtyard of the Marrakech Museum, doing nothing. They had butterflies.

  • As nice as the Dar es Said interior was, it looked like five miles of bad road compared to the Marrakech Museum, which was in a restored palace. The main interior courtyard was the big draw. Here's the crappy side.

  • Here's the better side (with my better half).

  • A little more light woodcarving and painting, in a side room.

  • Aww! Us, happy, in our slightly dingy but cosy room at the Hotel Toulousaine. (Also good for a close-up look at my "Berber Caravan Chief disguise", which lasted only so long after Ali flew in.)

  • So we spent quite a lot time agonising about the risk, then ultimately rented a car and drove across central Morocco, over the High Atlas mountains and through the Dades Valley. And it was pretty much the drive of a lifetime.

  • We didn't make good time, as I kept locking up the brakes to stop for photos: Red rock.

  • Mesas and palm trees.

  • The vast wasteland of the Djebel Sarho.

  • The Dades Valley is also known as the Valley of 1000 kasbahs.

  • We stopped here, simply for a toilet break.

  • Which, the view notwithstanding, the wind might have made that a bad idea.

  • Despite trying to get to Tinehir, the staging town for Todra Gorge, before dark, we couldn't quite resist stopping at Hanging Rock, where it looks like God was playing dice and left in a hurry.

  • We were mobbed by a mob of lovely small children, one peeking out here, who all immediately fell in love with Ali, and with my camera.

  • Kasbahs #873 and #874.

  • #891.

  • "You wanna ride, or what, bucko?"

  • Lush palmerie, aka oasis – yes, this is the real deal.

  • Overlook, on the drive from Tinehir to the gorge.

  • We stopped on the front lawn of an abandoned structure for lunch. It was windy.

  • Having checked in at our hotel we began a hike up the back side of the gorge.

  • Higher.

  • Nice outing, though we were forced to turn back by weather. (Pretty much the one episode of rain all year, feh.)

  • Did I mention the walls of Todra Gorge are 300 meters high (and the cut itself only 10 meters wide in some places)? Here are hotels, including ours, inside the gorge itself.

  • The next morning, the weather was back to normal, so we bouldered around for awhile.

  • Sunlight on red rock.

  • Then we drove out the road that leads out of the back of the gorge. We had a long drive back to Marrakech, but I couldn't seem to turn around. "Just past that bend! Wait, just this section here!"

  • The car, our trusty Fiat Uno with an actual choke, took this shot (not its first).

  • Overlook on the way back out.

  • In all the wasteland of the Djebel Sarho, they have these flanking gates on either side of the road (far left of photo), many miles from anything they might be marking the entrance or exit to.

  • We continued to keep compulsively stopping for photos, despite having seen everything on the way in. (And despite the fact that I both declined to bring a laptop, and managed to forget my spare memory cards. "It'll be a great exercise," I said, "like shooting on film! I'll have to select my shots!" But by this point I was scraping for frames, and hating life.)

  • With scenery like the High Atlas, you can imagine why.

  • Ali's one shopping mission was some colourful Moroccan bowls. You can bet a copy of this picture, illustrating where we bought them, hangs in her kitchen.

  • A major side-trip on the way back was up to Ait Bennhadou – one of the biggest, oldest, and best-preserved kasbahs in the country. It's so cool-looking that they've been filming movies here since "Lawrence of Arabia" and through to "Gladiator": when Maximus is first enslaved, and fights his first contests, it's here. (We had to flag down a donkey to get across the river.)

  • They have their own storks.

  • Our very cool and informal tour guide took us inside and up, alternately relating Moroccan and Hollywood lore. Here's my fave shot, from one of the higher parts.

  • The kasbah is built on a hill, which rises even higher behind it. Here Ali and our guide banter in French, while I inadvertantly shoot the helipad (you can just make out the white 'H') where they flew in Russell Crowe et al.

  • By the end of the drive back, going through the twisties up in the mountains, our heads were literally snapping at divergently stunning views on opposite sides of us. You know what, with 10,000 photos, I couldn't have captured it. Naturally, didn't stop me trying.

  • We didn't get back to Marrakech until after nightfall - and immediately got spectacularly lost. I couldn't really begin to characterize driving in Marrakech, but major themes included thundering herds of grand taxis, petit taxis, horse-drawn buggies, lorries, mopeds, bicycles, and thousands of pedestrians who had indisputably lost the will to live. Directions driven were arbitrary. Lane sharing was de rigeur. Pedestrian crosswalks were a grand joke. It was one of the most surreal and stressful experiences I've ever had – but somehow great fun. My only real regret is that I never quite got up the nerve to take down one of those cheeky bloody mopedists who assume you're going to dodge them when they drive straight at you; it was impossible to feel that it would have been a big deal, really, and it would have been immensely gratifying. Anyway, having finally found our way, avoided catastrophe, and dumped the car, we were able to relax, enjoying dusk in front of the Koutoubia minaret – Marrakech's "nearly perfect" architectural prize, constructed in 1150.

  • Looks pretty good lit up at night, too.

  • On our last night in the country, we sat on a rooftop cafe terrace, overlooking the Djema el Fna – the huge open square that is the center of spectacle: snake charmers, singers, story tellers, healers, fakirs, monkeys, acrobats, musicians, fortune tellers, henna tattooists, and oceans of food stalls. Paul Bowles said that without the Djemaa, Marrakech would be just another Moroccan city. Anyway, I used my last little smidgen of memory to take a 4-second video of the square from up top, which hardly captures it, but here you go (realmedia, 235kb).

  ali     architecture     art     people     photography     travel  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

You can reach him on .

THE MANUSCRIPT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
PANDORA'S SISTERS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
D-BOYS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
COUNTER-ASSAULT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book One - Fortress Britain, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Two - Mogadishu of the Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : Genesis, by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Three - Three Parts Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Four - Maximum Violence, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Five - EXODUS, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Six - The Horizon, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Seven - Death of Empires, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Eight - Empire of the Dead by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : NEMESIS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Nine - Cataclysm by Michael Stephen Fuchs

ARISEN, Book Ten - The Flood by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Eleven - Deathmatch by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Twelve - Carnage by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Thirteen - The Siege by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Fourteen - Endgame by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : Fickisms
ARISEN : Odyssey
ARISEN : Last Stand
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 1 - The Collapse
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 2 - Tribes
Black Squadron
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 3 - Dead Men Walking
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 4 - Duty
ARISEN : Raiders, Volume 5 - The Last Raid
ARISEN : Fickisms ][ – This Time, It's Personal
ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple
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