Spain’s Canary Islands are so far south that the coast of Morocco is only 100 kilometers east of easterly Fuerteventura. That made it easy for me to continent hop in early September from Europe to Africa.
My reason for doing so was a friend’s milestone birthday, which was celebrated in Taroudant, a walled city 80 kilometers east of Agadir, Morocco’s primary seaside resort city. Due to flight schedules, I had 24 hours in Agadir before being picked up to go to Taroudant. Lucky me, I was able to enjoy Riad Villa Blanche, a Moroccan-style hotel filled with candlelight at night, and watch a spectacular sunset over the Atlantic Ocean.
Agadir has 300 days of sunshine per year and a 10-kilometer beach with fine, golden sand from Western Sahara. (Note this beach is partly trashed with litter because Morocco lacks proper waste management – a huge problem throughout the country.) Around the beach are a range of hotels from boutique riads to all-inclusive international brands along with French eateries and shops catering to European tourists. Outside of this tourist quarter, Agadir is more culturally authentic.
Most notable is its massive covered market Souk El Had with a maze of 6,000 shops and stalls in the old, walled medina quarter. This souk is one of North Africa’s largest, selling everything under the sun at negotiable prices – from Moroccan lamps and carpets to household goods and foods. Think huge piles of spices, dates, fresh fruits, flowers and more. While I didn’t have time to go to Souk El Had on this trip, I experienced covered and outdoor souks in Taroudant and previously, in its “big brother” Marrakesh. The souk scene well represents Morocco as a sensory experience full of life, colors, grit and magic.
Morocco has the fifth largest economy in Africa, largely due to tourism, agriculture and seafood. It is a member of both the Arab League and African Union. This represents a cultural duality between Berbers, the indigenous people of North Africa, and Arabs, who invaded this region in 647-709 AD. Berbers remain the dominant race group in Morocco – with settlements in Algeria, Tunisia, Canary Islands, Libya and Egypt – but the majority of Moroccans consider themselves Arabs. That’s largely based on cultural, not genetic, affiliation or “Arabization.”
Many Moroccans identify as Arab or Arab-Berbers because Arabic is their native language. Arab-Berbers are an ethnolinguistic group of the Maghreb (northern African countries excluding Egypt), 16-25 million of whom also speak Berber (officially Amazigh, also known as Tamazight). But some Moroccans consider themselves Berber because of their spoken language and/or family, tribal or territorial ties.
“Nowadays, many Moroccans claim to be either Berber or Arab, which is causing friction between the two [self-identified] groups,” noted my driver Mustafa, who gave me a cultural crash course in French en route to Taroudant.
Contrary to popular belief, French – while widely spoken due to France’s colonization of Morocco (1912-56) – is not an official language there. Standard Arabic and Standard Moroccan Amazigh are the only official languages.
Morocco has been inhabited by Berbers for at least 5,000 years. Its oldest known sovereign state was the Berber Kingdom of Mauretaina in 110 BC. Most genetic studies show that Maghrebi Arabs and Berbers are nearly identical, hence, their identities are primarily cultural. But almost all Moroccans are bound together by Islam: about 99 percent are considered Sunni Muslims religiously or culturally.
Taroudant and the surrounding foothills of the Anti-Atlas Mountains are dominated by agrarian Berber culture, including ancient granaries and the “breadbasket of Morocco” known as the Cédrat Valley. Several party-goers and me hiked through this valley for a day, seeing a range of fruits from Biblical cédrats (wrinkly, yellow citrons prized by Jews from which lemons were created) and pomegranates to date palms and Argan trees. We even saw a chameleon and 700-year-old “agadir,” a fortified, communal granary that stored food. (Ironically, the city of Agadir does not have an agadir, but its huge souk offers a lot of foodstuff.)
In Taroudant, we went to an outdoor, Sunday market, which sells all essentials for Moroccan kitchens from mounds of fresh produce and spices to large bowls made from recycled tires. A larger, covered souk in the center of town features manufactured goods from Moroccan clothing, leather shoes and ceramics to made-in-China plastics (like the “high-quality” suitcase I purchased for €20 that fell apart upon arrival in Brussels). That’s where I found my dress to pose as singer “Dalida,” a European icon in the 1980s, which was the decade theme of my friend’s birthday celebration.
Known as the “Grandmother of Marrakech” because it is similarly walled, Taroudant is much smaller with far less European influence (an exception is Palais Claudio Bravo Camus, former home of the Spanish painter). It was the capital of Morocco in the 1500s and used as a base to attack the Spanish and Portuguese on the Atlantic Coast. Its six kilometers of terra cotta-colored walls, the oldest in Morocco built in 1528, are largely intact today.
Taroudant also offers charming, boutique riads for enjoying the sun, fantastic Moroccan cuisine, argan oil massages and calls to mosque (five times a day from dawn to nightfall, depending on the position of the sun). The latter can be beautiful, thankfully, as the first call is around 5 am before sunrise.
Rivaling the call to mosque was the birthday boy’s cameo among friends of the French classic “Je T’aime” (“I love you”) by Lara Fabian, which he belted out dramatically at his poolside birthday party. Thankfully, he did not fall (or get thrown) into the pool. All of us were wearing our Saturday best green and gold as the party’s dress code. These colors were fitting as they were in line with the topography of Morocco that goes from fertile and lush in the north to arid, desert conditions in the south.
Culturally, Morocco is even more colorful. Upon leaving, we all sang, “Morocco, je t’aime.”