Morocco Diary - March 8

Start from the beginning

Our first stop of the day was at a Touareg and Jewish Berber Art and Utensils Museum housed in an 18th-century Kasbah that was once used by the ruling family (family that included Moulay Ismail).

Aziz explained that, while this Kasbah dated to the 18th century, many of the area’s Kasbahs, including all the ones we will see during our drive on Friday, were built by Pasha Glaoui. Glaoui controlled the salt trade and ruled this region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was immensely wealthy and powerful, but was also quite cosmopolitan. Glaoui was friends with Winston Churchill and even attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Glaoui built more than a thousand Kasbahs! Aziz recommended Gavin Maxwell’s book Lord of the Atlas, which is a history of the rise and fall of the powerful House of Glaoui, which ruled until 1956.

The Kasbah we visited is still the property of Morocco’s royal family. When the royal family moved north, this Kasbah was used for many years to exile problematic or mentally deficient family members.

The Kasbah had high ceilings and immensely thick walls, which made the interior vastly cooler than the desert outside. We wandered beneath high arches and through impressive doorways, across myriad courtyards, and through rooms filled with paintings, jewelry, and practical items, such as saddles, weapons, and cooking bowls. Aziz pointed out a series of very large (almost as large as my hand, in some cases), silver Touareg pins, some with chains. He said these pins are called fibulas. (This must reflect the period of Roman rule in Morocco, as fibula is a Latin word: the ancient Romans called the pins with which they fastened their cloaks fibulas.) In Berber culture, when a woman wears a fibula on both sides of her cloak, with a chain connecting the two, it signifies that she is married. A woman who has a fibula attached on only one side is single (or, as Aziz said it, it shows that her heart is free). These were the most common types of jewelry we saw.

As we skirted one courtyard, I noticed a painting that had sayings in French, rather than Arabic. It offered a number of Touareg proverbs. My favorite was, “Regard le ciel pour devenir grande”—“Contemplate the heavens to become great.”

While there were many rooms that held fascinating collections, the Kasbah itself was also part of what there was to see. We viewed the steam bath, the furnace that heated the steam bath, and a secret passage that was used by women to move about unseen. In one splendidly tiled room, there was a pile of rocks that looked like huge chunks of pink to brown quartz. Aziz related that it is, in fact, mineral salt, the treasure that the Berbers carried in their caravans from Timbuktu to Marrakech.

On the road again, we rolled past date palms and through villages made of mud bricks the same color as the land.

Our next stop was at a ksar, which Aziz told us was one of the most fundamental features of the region. It was how the region’s people lived long ago—and how many still live today (though Aziz predicts that in another three generations, ksars will no longer be populated). A ksar looks much like a Kasbah from the outside, with its long stretches of blank, earth-colored, exterior walls interrupted only rarely by gates and never by windows. But ksars are not palaces, they are the humble homes of large, extended families. The population of a ksar can be more than 1,000 people, as is true of the one we visited. The ksar offered protection, both physical and economic, to the extended family, though inbreeding became a problem.

Each ksar has its own laws and group of elders. Children within the ksar family unit may be married as young as 7 years old. A ksar has separate houses for married couples, but all within the walls of the ksar. There is a common well, common flocks, common storage. There are a few large rooms, where elders, families, or groups can gather, otherwise, rooms are small.

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