Ten Moroccan Oddities

Morocco, the land of bougainvillea, snow-capped mountains, ochre pise’ walls, water sellers in hats with fuzzy red guy-ropes, sticky black soap, pointy shoes and leather trilbies, is perhaps unique in the Muslim world. It’s the only Muslim country with both Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines, the only one to keep much of its historic cultural property intact, including the only fully functioning classical Islamic city, Fez, and the only one with a King who claims to be Ameer al-Momineen, or Commander of the Faithful. Unlike its eastern neighbours it never became part of the Ottoman Empire. And while the king claims descent from the Prophet’s family, Morocco is perhaps the least ‘Arab’ country in ethnic terms – Marrakesh, Meknes and Tarroudant are capitals of a specifically Berber culture. Endlessly diverse, Morocco has generated figures of cultural worth from the great fourteenth -century globetrotter ibn Battuta to the taboo-busting twentieth century novelist Mohamed Choukri. It is a country at once of the twenty-first century and the eleventh, the First World and the Third, shaken not stirred. A society horizontally divided into layers that slide across each like wet fish on a fishmonger’s slab, of extraordinary wealth and extraordinary poverty, where goats climb trees and sheep ride motorbikes. The country’s rich history has left some strange traces, a fascinating nest of conundrums and contradictions. So here are ten of our favourite Moroccan quirks.

1. Multilingualism

Former Prime Minister Abbas el-Fassi famously claimed that he spoke fusha, or classical literary Arabic, with his wife and family, a claim that instantly became a joke. Nobody anywhere in the Arab world speaks fusha at home, and particularly not in Morocco, where the predominant dialect of Arabic – Durija – is a melting pot language brewing Berber rhythms and intonations alongside French and Spanish borrowings. An embarrassment for purist Arabists, a delight for cosmopolitans, Durija carries within it the history of North African polyculture. Added to this richness, almost half of Moroccans also speak one of three Berber languages – Tamazight, Tamarift or Tashelhit. After years of postcolonial struggle, the Berber languages are now broadcast and taught in school; in other Maghreb states the struggle continues. French is widely used in bourgeois life, and Spanish is spoken in the north and far south. Moroccans slip between languages as between the waves of the ocean, smoothly, hardly noticing the transitions.

2. Diabetes

The comedy film, Elle est Diabètique 3 (2012) is one of the biggest hits of recent times. Trois? You mean there have been two previous instalments on this rock about theme? Yes, indeed. Elle est Diabètique 3 is directed by two brothers who go under the joint name of Imad Noury Swel. Their father, Hakim Noury, made She is Diabetic, Hypertensive and Ready to Die I (2000) and She is Diabetic, Hypertensive and Ready to Die II (2005). In Morocco diabetes is both big and a big business. The country has a dangerously high rate – in the range of 7.6–8.3% of all adults – but this places it only seventy-fourth in the world, far behind the UAE (second), Saudi Arabia (third), Bahrain (fifth), Qatar (sixth), Kuwait (eighth) and Oman (twelfth). Sugar consumption comes in the form of viscous mint tea with cataclysmic quantities of sugar poured in. Once a cheap form of instant energy for manual workers, tea is now drunk at every opportunity, everywhere in Morocco. In its heyday the loaf sugar came from the British West Indies and the Hyson tea from China, both via London in British ships. As for the mint, well that just grows wherever you let it. And what is it about those Gulf countries? Sedentary or something?

3. Gymnastics

Wherever you go in Morocco, you will find gymnasts doing their thing. Gymnastics is one of the many specialties of Morocco’s brotherhood of Sufi acrobats, the followers of the sixteenth-century master, Si Ahmed Ou Moussa, who brought Sufism to the Anti-Atlas and founded semi-mystical guilds of archers and gymnasts. The gymnasts, who wandered from moussem to moussem, the religious and commercial fairs, giving highly symbolic displays of athleticism, stand in a direct line of ancestry to the street and artistic troupes which still ply the trade and are often to be seen in spectacular rehearsal on Morocco’s beaches. More secular now, and perhaps less symbolic, they still invoke Si Ahmed before a difficult routine. The old boy would no doubt be supporting a big grin while resting under his mausoleum. By the way, mausoleums are as common in Morocco as diabetes and Sufi gymnasts.

4. Hoopoes’ Blood

The hoopoe, for the uninitiated, is a beautiful, colourful bird with a distinctive crown of feathers. Though currently common in North Africa it could become extinct – thanks largely to the Moroccan tendency to drink the noble creature’s blood. Supposed to guarantee academic success if drunk in sufficient quantities, it’s a magical remedy on sale in all good Moroccan witches’ outfitters. With a first-round baccalaureate pass rate this year of only 37 per cent, there clearly isn’t a glut of the stuff on the market. Moroccan witches are highly esteemed across the Arab world, though consulting them is not a widely admitted habit, and they tend to be flown off to appointments in the Gulf in private jets with their supplies of wax, lead and hoopoes’ blood. The pass rate went up to 53 per cent on the baccalaureate resits, so perhaps stockpiles were released in time.

5. Tablecloths

If they’re not selling you leather goods in the medina, then they’re urging you to buy one of their fine tablecloths made of plant – cactus – silk. No tourist has ever left Morocco without a tablecloth in their luggage. But the tablecloths have a more subtle use than the obvious. One of the greatest risks of Moroccan dinners is the relentless quantity of food that comes in wave upon wave like advancing infantry – salad, bastilla, roast lamb, chicken, fish and fruit on even quite a modest occasion. If you miscalculate and eat too much too early you can be really stuck well before the end of the meal (a risk intensified by the curious habit of serving sticky cakes before it). So count the tablecloths. In the old days, when the cloth was changed between courses, diners surreptitiously riffled through the cloths with their fingertips, to count how many courses there were going to be, and paced themselves accordingly. Mind you, if you go for a second helping of bastilla, the exquisite sweet pastry envelope of almond paste, pigeon, cinnamon and icing sugar, you are doomed anyway. We recommend a quick test for Diabetes before they release She is Diabetic, Hypertensive and Ready to Die IV.

6. Eels and Eggs

On the edge of Rabat is a splendid walled enclosure called the Chellah, which is perhaps the site of the first Punic settlement, and certainly that of the Roman port, Sala Colonia, whose forum is still to be seen there. In one corner there is an old basin, perhaps a Roman cistern, long inhabited by giant eels. It is the habit of the barren ladies of Rabat to visit the eels, and to feed them a hard-boiled egg (conveniently available from a vendor by the pool). The symbolism is obviously lubricious, the efficacy unknown. But the ministry placard by the pool used to say, until it faded away in the sunshine, that this was a lieu de culte (religious site), an unusual statement to find in a Muslim country, and an excellent symbol of Morocco’s syncretism.

7. Oral Tradition

The average Moroccan is said to read for two minutes a day, or three pages a year. So they are very slow readers taking 122 days to read a page! Literacy, according to the World Bank’s figures is 56 per cent, but a good deal of this is still ‘signature literacy’. On the whole, Morocco remains in many ways an oral culture with remarkable facility of memory: the number of Moroccans who memorise the Qur’an (and other religious texts) by heart is much higher in absolute and proportional terms than any country of North Africa. In many areas of education and life memory remains king, which is not the strongest of bases for building cultural capital in the twenty-first century.

8. The Shehonk Calendar

The Berber calendar begins in 943 BC when Pharaoh Sheshonk I, a seminal figure in Amazigh history, seized the throne of Egypt. The calendar was actually invented by Berber exiles in Paris in the 1960s, so that although it is now 2963 by this After-Shehonk reckoning, the first 2903 or so New Year’s Days (every January), passed the world by entirely uncelebrated. Morocco’s Berber newspaper Le Monde Amazigh (also known as Amadal Amazigh) bears the Anno Domini and the After-Sheshonk dates, but pointedly omits the Hijra year. And as you may have noticed, 2963 actually starts the clock at 950 BC, so the pharaoh’s accession date may itself be a bit of a guess.

9. Black Shoes

When the Alaoui Sultan Moulay Ismail (1634–1727) captured the harbour town of Larache in northern Morocco in 1689 he decided in his usual impetuous way to lay down the law. He started by banning black shoes, which he regarded as an abominable emblem of Christianity, imported and encouraged by the Spaniards. Thenceforth only Jews could – and indeed must – wear black babouches, the strange, flat, lightweight Moroccan slippers with pointed toes. The God-fearing Muslim was to wear the gorgeous canary-yellow ones that every respectable Moroccan sports to this day.


10. Bowler Hats

The Jews of Mogador, a city in western Morocco on the Atlantic coast, used to be famous for their bowler hats. It acquired its name when it was seized by the Portuguese and turned into fortress in the sixteenth century. Nowadays it goes by name of Essaouira – the ‘Beautifully Designed’. In 1900 Mogador was still a Jewish majority city – probably the only one in the Muslim world – and the focus of city’s commerce was the Manchester cloth trade. It used to be said that Mogador was closer to Manchester than to Marrakesh, and its Jewish traders would often seek to be naturalised as British citizens – a quick trip to Gibraltar would do the business. And when Mogador’s Jews came home as newly-minted Brits, they cast off the black turbans which the Sultan’s Jewish subjects had to wear, and began to flaunt their bowlers, as signs not just of their British citizenship, but of protection. A tradition that lives on! Brollies of course were more problematic in Mogador’s extraordinarily windy conditions.