A brief pause on the terrace of a café in Rabat or Casablanca is sufficient for you to become aware of the profusion of mobile phones, the Western-style dress of the young people or the modern international business buildings. Yet, just two hours from these major cities, on high plateaux, deep in valleys or on mountain slopes, are authentic mud-hut villages, some without electricity, where children on donkeys fetch water from the well. Even further afield, the more adventurous visitor will catch sight of nomads’ tents.
However, Morocco cannot merely be summed up as a land of urban and rural contrasts. The reality is more complex and is a result of daily compromise, between tradition (the lively medinas, the ancestral crafts and trades and traditional festivals) and a Western lifestyle; it is also a changing country in which women are gradually beginning to assert their rights.
Moroccans at home
Muslim dwellings in theory conform to a “principle of intimacy” and old houses are invariably walled and totally invisible from the street. However, modernism is taking over and in the well-to-do modern urban neighbourhoods, the house is becoming an outward sign of wealth. Most of Morocco’s major cities are divided into several areas: the medina, the new town and the residential district.
The design of the harmonious, orderly medina, derived from the first Muslim community founded in Medina by the Prophet Muhammad, reflects the idea that every believer has a role to play within society.
It is here that the modern traveller will discover Morocco’s traditional lifestyle. Family life takes place behind the high walls that line the maze of tiny streets, while social life takes place in the street, the hammam and market. The mosque, which is often in the heart of this old district, is symbolic of how important religion remains in daily life.
The design of a traditional dwelling (dar) conforms to a patriarchal concept of social and family organisation. All that can be seen from the street are high walls pierced with tiny barred windows. A heavy wooden door opens onto a winding entrance passage (skiffa) which leads into the patio (wast ad-dar) which is often refreshingly cool due to a fountain of water playing in a central basin. Generally also a garden (riad), complete with orange trees and bougainvillaea and zellij tiling over the walls, the patio is where the family and servants gather together. The surrounding rooms (bayt) are furnished with easily moveable objects: carpets, cushions, rugs, chests, etc. Visitors are often struck by the opulent decoration of the vast palaces, which can include marble columns adorned with plaster sculpture work, stained glass, fountains covered in zellij tiles, sculpted capitals, bronze lamps, etc.
The new town
Morocco’s first modern buildings were constructed under the French Protectorate. In order to preserve the heritage of old buildings in the medinas, the new towns were built on the outskirts of the medinas according to a grid design with wide avenues. Public buildings were grouped along a central avenue: at Rabat, they included the General Residency, ministries, banks, post offices and stations. The impressive façades of these buildings symbolised colonial power. The homes of the European community were built in styles ranging from Art Deco to any number of eccentric, ill-assorted designs.
Around 1950, large numbers of the rural population who had been dispossessed of their land (much of which was distributed among the Europeans) moved into shanty towns which grew up around the cities. The rare housing set aside for the local population, such as the Habous district in Casablanca or the Marsa in Rabat, was designed according to the traditional architectural concept of the medina. After Morocco’s independence, the mass emigration of the inhabitants of the medinas to the new town gave rise to the creation of new districts on the cities’ outskirts, among them housing estates, modern flats for management and civil servants, as well as clandestine shanty towns, often lacking water and electricity.
The southern and central regions of Morocco
Berber architecture, based on dry stone and mud collected directly from the land blends in with the landscape and is adapted to the climate. The heavy, austere quality of such buildings, a reminder of their initial defensive purpose, reflects a community life based on hamlets, villages and farms. One of the oldest Berber structures is the agadir or tigremt, which means “granary” in Berber. Dating back to Roman times, such buildings are composed of an impressive tower, often pierced with slits and sometimes surrounded with smaller battlemented towers. Based on the agadir, kasbahs and ksour abound in the valleys and oases of southern Morocco. Kasbahs are fortresses which housed the tribe’s leader and members. The most characteristic examples can be seen at Aït Benhaddou village, to the west of the High Atlas and in the well-preserved settlements in the valley of Dadès which is known as the “Valley of a thousand kasbahs”. Numerous examples of ksour (ksour is the plural of ksar), castles or palaces entirely built out of cob, can be seen in the Todra and Drâa Valleys. The motifs in unbaked brick which adorn their towers and strongholds are intended to ward off the evil eye.
The High Atlas
The nomad tent (khaïma) was originally used by the desert merchants and nomads, who so influenced the 19C Orientalist movement. Today, it is only used by the High Atlas nomad tribes, who move from pasture to pasture with their cattle and by the “blue men” from the deep south. The roof is made out of a canopy of narrow strips (flij) of goat or camel hair woven and sewn together by the womenfolk. Inside it is divided into two spaces: one for the men and for guests which is bordered by a mat (amessu) made out of vegetable fibres, and one for the women and children which has a bed, a weaving loom and a mill to grind grain. Herbs are strewn over the ground to ward off the evil eye.
A day in the life
In the souks of towns
This is where all craft and trading activities take place. Pedestrians, donkey-drivers, cyclists and motorcyclists weave incessantly in and out of the narrow lanes piled high with goods which exude a thousand scents and colours. The tradesmen, some standing, others sitting on little mats under the shade of lattices of reeds, are hard at work. Each trade, potters, coppersmiths, dyers, carpet-makers, carpenters, spice merchants, has its own specific district and all work in minuscule booths. The kissariya (from the Latin Caesareum: “Caesar’s” market) overflows with brocades, silk, haberdashery and clothes. The fondouks, a sort of caravanserai which used to house the passing caravans and were made up of stables and warehouses, are now only used to stock goods.
The souks in the country
Depending on the region, a rural souk might have between 200 and 20 000 tradesmen. They are held weekly and are named after the day of the week on which they take place: for example, tnite for a Monday souk, khemis for a Thursday and so on. They are generally located at a crossroads, sometimes at a holy place, in order to be easily accessible. Peasants, merchants and craftsmen gather together in this giant marketplace, whose roads, districts and activities are like a vast city, albeit an ephemeral one. The men arrive on donkeys and mules early in the morning, loaded down with baskets full of their produce, which they have come to sell or barter for manufactured goods, such as tea, oil, spices or cooking utensils.
Wearing a burnous and with an embroidered satchel slung over their shoulder, Berbers enjoy this occasion to meet one another, taking the time to greet old friends and exchange the latest village news. They congregate in canteen-tents to gossip over tea and listen to the strolling musicians. A whole range of artisans ply their trade in the souk, among them, cobblers, tailors, blacksmiths, weavers, hairdressers, photographers, public writers and tooth extractors. When the souk is located in a small town, administrative matters are also be dealt with (for example, legal affairs, post and registry offices).
The café is traditionally frequented by men only: they meet together over a mint tea or a coffee and a glass of water, to talk among themselves, enjoy the silence in the cool shade, discuss business or furtively watch the elusive outlines of the women as they pass by. In big towns such as Rabat or Casablanca, modern tea rooms are now open to men and women or sometimes to women only.
The hammam, a legacy of the Roman baths, was introduced into North Africa by the Umayyads from Syria. As a general rule, they are reserved for women during the day and for men in the evenings, but in the big towns, there are often separate hammams for women and men, often just adjacent to each other. Moroccans go to the hammam with a small travel or sports bag containing several towels (for the hair and body), a cotton wrap to wear or lie on, a pair of plastic sandals, a rough massage cloth, and of course, soap, scrubbing brush and shampoo. The women also take mud for their hair and henna as a body mask. A hammam consists of a succession of rooms. The first is for undressing (el-guelsa); then follow three main rooms: a cold room (bayt el-bared), a warm room (bayt el-wastani) and a steam room (bayt eskhoun). A visit to a hammam is an occasion to relax and purify one’s body according to an ancient ritual: first a scorching steam bath, followed by an ice-cold shower, before succumbing to the energetic hands of masseur or masseuse, who vigorously rubs the whole body with a rough massage glove.
The major stages in life
In the countryside, all the womenfolk of the family attend a woman giving birth. They are in charge of washing and dressing the new-born baby, while the grandmother applies henna to the baby’s right hand and attaches an amulet around his or her neck to ward off evil spirits (djinns). In cities, other customs are gradually replacing these timeworn rituals, making a birth a more festive occasion. The ritual ceremony takes place on the morning of the seventh day after the baby’s birth. After sacrificing a sheep – the blood must run onto the ground towards Mecca –, verses from the Koran are read. Once the child has been named, the women sing to the glory of the Prophet Muhammad. Deqqaqa are often hired to come and play on their gigantic horn instruments and tambourines. In the evening, family and friends meet and shower presents on the mother and child.
Practised as far back as ancient Egypt, the excision of the foreskin is commonly performed among Copts, Jews and Muslims. For Muslims, circumcision symbolises membership of the community (Umma) and the beginning of manhood. It is carried out by a doctor or, in some rural areas or working-class districts, a barber. The child is generally aged between 2 months and 5 years. The ceremony is the occasion for a number of rituals, although these now often only take place in rural Morocco. To protect the child from the evil eye, a talisman, wrapped in a piece of black or white fabric, is tied round the child’s wrist. The mother wraps the baby in a white sheet and smears his feet with henna. On the day of the circumcision, she places his right foot on a tray (qas’a) filled with water, while holding a reed and a mirror in both hands. Her immobility during this act is a symbol of maternal protection. During the operation, the child’s screams are muffled by the women’s youyous (strident shrieks) and singing. The child is dressed in traditional costume (wide-legged white cotton trousers, tied below the knee (serwal), green velvet waistcoat and green Fès embroidered in gold) and is then placed on a convalescent bed. For a week he is cared for by the women, who bring him candies and coins to reward him for his courage.
Unlike in Tunisia and Algeria, polygamy is still legal in Morocco and a man can have up to four wives. This practice is dying out, however. A man can marry a non-Muslim, but not vice versa. If the husband-to-be is not Muslim, he must convert to Islam. In the case of a second marriage, the husband must inform the first wife, but is not obliged to respect her wishes. The average marrying age is increasing, but in the country, people still get married very young, at around 17, compared to 23 in towns. In towns and villages alike, the wedding is an important ceremony which is performed according to traditional rites. First, legal clerks (adoul) draw up the marriage act in the presence of the husband and the wife’s father. The husband’s family offers gifts in addition to the dowry brought by the husband. The future wife, dressed like a princess, assumes a ritual posture. Her gestures and words are modest; her joy, meekly expressed. The subsequent celebration is a spectacular event.
In compliance with the Prophet’s (sunna) recommendations, the deceased is washed on the day of their death. The body must then be buried as soon as possible, during one of the five daily prayers. It is laid out on a piece of wood, wrapped in a white shroud and scented with orange blossom water and incense. The deceased is then carried into a room emptied of its furniture and all the family members file in to pay their last respects. The house is cleaned from top to bottom before the relations arrive. Men and women do not sit together. No food is served, but jugs and bottles of water are placed on trays. Some families go as far as removing all “signs of life” from the home: they remove the fabric covers from the mattresses, lower the shutters and conceal the television, mirrors and precious objects. After a reading of the Koran (talba), a male procession accompanies the deceased to the cemetery, on foot or by car. Once the communal prayer is over, the body is laid directly in the ground, facing Mecca. During the two days after the death, the family does no cooking; meals are prepared by friends and relatives and sent to the house. The third and the fortieth day, which signifies the end of the mourning, are devoted to readings of the Koran and to preparing couscous, part of which is distributed to the poor. On the three Fridays after the death, the men and women of the family go – separately – to pray on the tomb. For four months and ten days, the widow must wear white and is not allowed to remarry.
Despite the numerous traditions and discriminations which oppress women, their lot is constantly evolving in Morocco, particularly in urban areas and among the more affluent classes. Much however remains to be done.
The division between town and country
In towns, women account for a quarter of the economically active population, working particularly in banking, administration, teaching and industry. In rural areas, on the other hand, most women are still illiterate. Relegated to a host of domestic tasks and burdened by a titanic agricultural and craft workload (harvests, crops, weaving, pottery, etc), they are extremely active and often responsible for the livelihood of many villages, despite their lack of education.
Even though Moroccan women have, by dint of sheer tenacity, managed to promote equality of the sexes in working environments, they remain fettered by the legal status of women. For example, according to the Moudawana (the body of law affecting individuals), women continue to be considered as minors in certain areas. They cannot marry without the consent of their father, and are unable to divorce or do certain things (travel, for example) without the consent of a man, normally their husband. A man is able to repudiate his wife quite easily. Women for their part can only apply for divorce in a few extreme cases. According to inheritance law, women are entitled to half that of men. Brothers also have influence and the right to oversee their sister’s behaviour and affairs. Things seem to be changing, however. In 1987, the feminist movement Union de l’action feminine (UAF) was created and feminist demonstrations took place on the streets of Rabat in March 2000. It must be noted, however, that the Rabat women’s march also gave rise to a parallel demonstration in Casablanca in favour of the preservation of traditions. Discussions are currently underway to reform the individual status code, including the abolition of repudiation and polygamy, the equal distribution of possessions on divorce and raising the minimum age of marriage for girls from 15 to 18. The changes undertaken until now far from satisfy most Moroccan women, but hopes are high for further change under King Mohammed VI.
School is compulsory from the age of 6 for 6 years, but this rule is not always respected, particularly in rural areas and for girls, who spend more time working in the fields and in the home. The government is currently attempting to make up for lost time. Fines of between 1 000 and 5 000Dh are theoretically meted out to parents who fail to enrol their children of school age. The illiteracy rate is high, with an average of 47 % of the population, higher in the country and among women.
Between the ages of 3 and 6, children attend nursery school, followed by primary school. In theory this leads up to either the chahada (entrance certificate for secondary school) or vocational training. Secondary education lasts 7 years and finishes with a high-school leaving exam.