Blog Post 3: The Ever-Present Past – Kayla Smith

While the country of Morocco has only existed independently since 1956, Moroccan traditions go back a long way.  From handmade crafts to outdated modes of transportation to ancient ruins, Morocco certainly doesn’t lack traditional practices and commodities, even though the country is modernizing rapidly (along with the rest of the world).  It is an odd contrast seeing these ancient practices alongside modern equipment, transportation, and decor, but this somehow suits Moroccan society.  Through this combination, there is created an interesting meld of past, present, and future.  

Postcards and Plates in the Souks

In our first week in Fes, we visited the souk or market to tour the oldest part of the city.  The various shops lining the narrow streets of the Medina offer food items like spices, meats, nuts, and fruits, traditional craft items, leather goods, “hand-crafted” souvenirs of dubious origins, and more.  The possibilities are limitless in the souks.  There is a bit of irony to the concept of the souk – it serves as food and goods market for those who live in the Medina, a place to buy very “traditionally Moroccan” items; however, it is also home to thousands of goods made solely to serve the desires of tourists who want to bring home something “authentic” from their travels, but often turns out to be a cheaply made simulacrum hanging on a keychain.  

Chaouwara Tannery

In the middle of the Fes Medina, there is the Chaouwara Tannery.  The entrance – a small door in an alley – leads you into the shop where many hand-made leather goods are sold that were died and dried in that very spot.  After winding through the shop’s various rooms, I found myself on an upstairs balcony that overlooks the vats of colored liquid in which the leather is dipped to gain its color.   Out in the blazing sun, men stand in the vats to dip the skins in and out of the mixtures, and then pull them out to be lain and dried in the sun.  The fact that they perform this arduous labor to produce such beautiful leather goods, especially in a world full of factory-made ‘designer’ leather products, amazes me.  

Hand-operated loom

The last shop we visited in the Medina was the weaving workshop.  Not only do they make all the goods by hand, but they use cactus silk to make the thread and a human-powered loom to do the weaving.  They make everything from blankets to scarves to bags and the finished products are of excellent quality.  Family-owned and going back numerous generations, the workshop is clearly a source of pride for the men who work there.  Authenticity sets their products apart from those which are machine-made.

The Amazigh Riad’s kitchen

During our stay in Meknes, the owner of an Amazigh Riad allowed us to tour her residence.  Imazighen is the proper term for the Berber people, originally named “Berber” by the Greek because they viewed the Imazighen as barbaric people.  The owner of this riad, however, proudly displayed her accommodations – all in the traditional Amazigh style.  I couldn’t help but notice alongside her tajines and clay vases the presence of modern appliances.

Interior of the Basilica of Volubilis


Reconstructed olive-oil press in Volubilis


Dining-room mosaic in The House of Orpheus


Atrium mosaic in The House of Orpheus


Not far from Meknes lies the ancient ruins of Volubilis originally built by the Roman Empire.  It was the capital of the kingdom of Mauretania.  Inhabited by Romans from around 30 BC to 280 AD, the city held an estimated 20,000 Roman occupants at its peak.  While much of the city was destroyed in the following centuries by Imazighen, Christian, and Arab inhabitants who were unable to maintain the city’s infrastructure, many of the city’s ruins remained.  After being excavated by French and Moroccan authorities in the 1900’s, you can see the ghosts of Volubilis’s structures such as a few grand houses, the basilica, the Capitoline Temple, and more.  The intricacy of the city’s design rivals modern civil architecture.  The mere existence of a two-thousand-year-old city within kilometers of present-day civilization is incomprehensible. 

Riding off into the Sahara on camels (note the cars parked in the parking lot next to the camels)

Last, but certainly not least, we rode into the Sahara Desert on camels this past weekend.  Whereas camels used to be the main mode of transportation in the desert, they now serve an honorary role.  Tourists pay through the nose to experience a lite version of Berber life as it were, even suffering through the rough camel ride, 100+ degree heat, and lack of bathrooms to stay in a Berber camp in the desert overnight.  Though cars are the more efficient alternative by far, the small presence of still-nomadic Imazighen and the modern world’s veneration of camel riding/racing prevents such activities from becoming obsolete. 

The melding of ancient and modern, while contradictory in theory, can be complimentary due to the modern world’s ever-present desire to preserve that which needs preserving and to remember the ways of the days of old.  This sort of contrast has become the rule rather than the exception in many developing countries around the world.  As technology increasingly pervades daily life, it does not precisely render the old ways obsolete, but it does set the traditional apart from more modernized goods and methods.  Even I feel torn between my preference to embrace the new and my longing to cling to the old, unable to find a reasonable balance.  I can only imagine how the world as a whole feels.

7 comments to Blog Post 3: The Ever-Present Past – Kayla Smith

  • Mayra

    Woah! Touching on the camel topic, I think it serves a dual role. On one hand, it generates revenue for country. On the other hand, it sort of serves as a way to preserve a memory from an iconic past. I think that the idea of this past and it being cherished not only by the people who live there but also by those who visit is quite interesting.

  • Judy Thomas

    It has been a great experience to go on this journey with you. You have given those of us the opportunity to see inside the lives of a nation that we have only wondered about. Granted lots of countries create items for tourist because it is a way of making a living. The thing is that do it in the old style because they don’t have all of the modern machinery with which to turn these products out. That makes them mean more. Congrats on learning these things.

  • Judy Crissman

    I think it is great that you have had the opportunity to go back in time and live in and walk in the foot steps of people that you are unfamiliar with. This gives you a real chance to experience life lived in a style to which you have not been subjected too. There aren’t all the luxuries and amenities that we have available in this country even if we can’t afford them in each household. People with the money are the ones that have those options.

  • Stacy W. Barbour

    Excellent post, Kayla! It’s really interesting, maybe a little perplexing, that such a charming place as Morocco exits today. Today, as in times past, people are drawn to Morocco from many parts of the world. Some choose to visit, take it in, learn from it, enjoy it and simply leave without leaving so much of a trace of having been there. Some, today as in the past, choose to go there and to stay, leaving subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle traces of having been there-their language, architecture, design, culture, etc. All, most importantly the native population, have played a part in so many important ways, and have contributed to what is today’s past and present Morocco–as if Morocco’s past and present have been melded (fused) together to create the charm that is today’s Morocco.

  • Judy Cairns

    You have done such a fabulous job of giving me the feelng
    I too have just visited all these beautiful ancient Moroccan cities
    which seem to be holding on to their ancestor’s culture with their
    family and time honored traditions. I am learning so much from
    your personal insights, experiences and explanations of a world I have
    never had the opportunity to explore. What a dream come true! Thank you!
    P.S. The pictures are worth a thousand words. They allow me to view
    this journey through your eyes! Amazing!

  • Collene

    I love the way you have been able to embrace the old with the new. It’s wonderful that the people born in countries of old that are foreign to us have changed with time, but still hold dearly to their roots and values.

    It is truly an honor that you and your classmates have had the opportunity to experience this venture.

    I hope you appreciate the kindness you’ve been shown, and appreciate how dear all people hold their heritage!

    Great post!

  • Staci Ross

    What an amazing juxtaposition of a step back in time, side by side with the modern-day! To be able to watch the amazing craftsmanship of goods done in the time-honored way rather than on an assembly line in a factory. I can just imagine touring the ancient city of Volubilis, with its splendid mosaics and architecture well ahead of its time. I do have to admit, the camel ride seems far more romantic from my armchair than in person in 100 degree heat.

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