Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps


7/14/09 Ouarzazate

Ouarzazate - pronounced Waar-zuh-zat, rhymes with Car-the-cat - is an often-overlooked city in southern Morocco. Perched on the edge of the Sahara, it used to be known as the Bab Sahara - the gateway to the desert - since every caravan traveling across the great desert would stop here to take advantage of the rivers and palm trees.

Ouarzazate looks like what tourists imagine Morocco will look like. Low buildings with crenelated roofs, scattered palm trees, huge expanses of scrub desert... Also, it's within an hour drive of a dozen different desert subecosystems (scrub desert, sandy desert, New Mexico-looking-desert, oasis-in-the-desert, etc), which is one of the many reasons it has become the filming destination of choice for most desert movies.

If you've watched a film made in the past 20 years with a desert scene in it, odds are it was filmed in or near Ouarzazate. Which we PCVs call Oz for short (and which suddenly makes me wonder if there's any connection between the nickname and the film industry...enh, probably just a coincidence). Kingdom of Heaven. The Mummy. (All the Mummy movies, for that matter.) Gladiator. Lawrence of Arabia (which, I know, is way more than 20 years old - it was the birth of the Oz film industry). Babel, which is one of the few actually set in Morocco. Charlie Wilson's War. Thanks to Hollywood's recent interest in desert-set movies (Rendition, Charlie Wilson's War, The Kingdom, Three Kings - notice a theme?), dozens of film crews come to Morocco each year...and over the years, a true film industry has grown up in Oz. There are hundreds of Moroccans trained as grips, sound boom technicians, sound engineers...all those names at the end of the movie? The ones that aren't actors or special effects guys? Yeah, those people. Morocco now has hundreds - maybe thousands - trained to do all that stuff. Plus, Oz citizens get to be extras a lot. Moroccans are mostly golden-skinned, black-haired, and black-eyed, which means that, especially in crowd scenes or in deep background, they can pass for most of the world's ethnicities. Mexican, African-American, Arab...

So that's the film industry. Which has been immortalized in Ouarzazate's Museum of Film History, well worth a visit.

But there's also the casbah - a gorgeous, if crumbling, testament to Oz's strategic importance in past military conflicts - a half-hour walk from the center of town.

There are the juice places, where you can get any conceivable combination of juices blended, smoothie-style (though without ice). *Any* combination. I usually play it safe with something in the mango-orange-peach-banana family, but some of my friends swear by the avacado-almond, and my sister fell in love with the mint juice. Yeah, you read that right.

And there's my all-time-favorite-place-to-shop-in-all-of-Morocco, the Fixed Price Store.

Of course, there aren't any useful posted signs or anything...just look for the shop to the right of the SuperMarche on Boulevard Mohammed V. (Oz has at least 3 supermarche's, I know, but only one on MoV. It's also across from Chez Dmitri's, a famous - and famously overpriced - restaurant.)

At the Fixed Price Store (not a real name, just what my friends and I call it), you can buy all the same things you'll find at other shopping-friendly cities (like Essaouira and Fes), but with posted prices that you don't have to haggle for. And the posted prices are *fair*. Not a ripoff for you, not a ripoff for the artisans. Fair prices. (Happy sigh.) Plus, if you buy a lot, as I tend to when I'm there, the owner will drop 5-10% at the register anyway. Although...that might be the discount for those of us who speak the language. So if you don't get the extra reduction, don't feel bad. The prices are still excellent, plus you don't leave with that icky Did I just get ripped off? feeling that dogs me whenever I haggle.

These days, there aren't many caravanseri crossing the desert on camels. Oz fills its role as the
Bab Sahara by providing treking tours. You can explore on foot, on camel, in a 4x4, or some combination thereof. Resist the urge to ride a 4x4 through the desert. Desert polish - that scrubby, weather-beaten surface - is actually incredibly fragile, and host to a surprisingly delicate ecosystem. In some places, the desert winds can repair damage from 4x4 tires within weeks or months...but in others, you can still see treads from WWII convoys. So go hiking or take the once-in-a-lifetime camel ride. :)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps