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7.10.2009

7/02/09 Moroccan Cities: The Big Six

Morocco has villages of a few households and cities of millions, and everything in between. It therefore defies broad generalizations and sweeping statements. As your faithful blogger, though, I try to describe snapshots and windows, hoping to paint the big picture Seurat-style, dot by dot.

I’ve spent most of the past year talking about my Moroccan village. Today, I’m shifting gears to introduce you to Morocco’s major cities, which I refer to as The Big Six. In no particular order, they are Rabat, Fes, Meknes, Marrakesh, Casablanca, and Agadir. If I were to expand it to The Big Seven or Eight, I’d add in Tangiers and Oujda, but I’ll keep it at six.

These cities house and/or employ the vast majority of salary-holding Moroccans. (Most farmers grow enough to feed themselves and their families, but they don’t have a cash salary, so getting real “employment” statistics is a little tricky.) Many of my fellow PCVs’ small villages are depleted in men, because most or all of the males between 15 and 75 are off in one of these cities working, coming home to their wives and families for holidays or the odd long weekend.

If you read tour book blurbs on these cities, they’ll tell you that you can visit the walled medina, which they usually translate as old city. The truth has more nuances, as it usually does. Morocco has been inhabited for most of human history. Just this year, archaeologists unearthed 80,000 year old shell-bead jewelry up in Tafoughalt, a lovely off-the-beaten-path village in the northeastern corner of Morocco.

In its millennia of history, Morocco has been home to cave dwellers and city folk, Berbers and Arabs, pagans and Jews and Christians and Muslims, and seen the entire pagent of humanity. It was part of the Roman state of Mauretania Tingitana but never part of the Ottoman Turk empire.

It has had many capital cities – including most of the Big Six, at one time or another – and most of those cities had giant stone walls around them. In an era when conquest by sword and spear was the rule, not the exception, all cities were designed to be fortresses. Within these walls, shops and houses cluster and meander, making straight streets rare and twisty alleys common. Some are paved with asphalt, more with pavingstones, and a few with only packed dirt.

When the French began to make their influence felt, back in the 19th century, they took one look at these maze-like medinas and threw up their hands in cultural surrender. Rather than venture through the giant vaulted archways of the bab gateways, they constructed their own cities, featuring broad, straight roads and spacious, modern buildings, next to them. So now the Big Six have new cities, aka Villes Nouvelles, flush against their original cities, still called medinas.

But medina means city, not old city, and in these original cities you find the heart of each of the Big Six. The Villes Nouvelles can have their palm trees and McDonald’s and villa-style homes. In the darker, shadowy (and therefore cooler) alleys of the medina you’ll find artisans creating crafts exactly the way their forefathers have done for centuries or millennia. You’ll find tiny Berber ladies, still wearing their traditional chin tattoos, haggling down to the centime. You’ll find families living in houses that have been in their families since longer than anyone’s grandfathers can remember. This crowded, noisy, bustling, thriving medina is far from being old, especially in the somewhat condescending way that tour books make old city sound like a quaint little historical tourist stop, like Williamsburg or Plymouth Plantation. It’s ancient, yes, but it’s still very, very much alive. Explore and enjoy. :)

One other thing: Every city (and most towns) in Morocco have an Avenue Mohammed V, which is usually the biggest street around. But isn’t the current king Mohammed VI? you ask. Yes. Mohammed V was his grandfather. Some find this confusing, and wonder if they’re confused or if they’re misreading the signs. So why is Mohammed V - the monarch's grandpa - so beloved? From what I’ve been told, he’s the one who was removed from power by the French, in their brief attempt at formal colonialism here, and who was reinstated to huge acclaim just a few years later. He didn’t rule long before being succeeded by his son, Hassan II, but his return to power is still celebrated on Moroccan Independence Day (November 18). He’s viewed with the same nostalgic reverence as, say, George Washington, America’s first leader after colonialism. :)

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