Ali from Merzouga and his faithful camels
When thinking back on my various travels, an inanimate object usually comes to mind to summarize the place—Florence’s Duomo, Cambodia’s Temples of Angkor, the fjords of Western Norway. Not so Morocco. I returned from that colorful country last week filled with slivers of stories of the lives of people with whom I intersected for only a moment or two as I passed through their world. The varied fabrics of their personalities left me with a fondness for the country that no dazzling riad or crumbling kasbah could similarly impart.
As a photographer, as a writer, and as a traveler I struggle with being able to accurately capture moments that reflect the unadulterated soul of a people and a place. I usually travel alone or in a small group—one, two, three friends max. Morocco was my first foray into organized group travel. I canvassed the country on a National Geographic Photography Expedition with nearly 20 others, all of whom were ardent photographers seeking out the best shot. We tripped over one another in narrow medina alleyways, peeking into the shops of local artisans in hopes of stealing that perfectly crafted moment—a shoemaker drowning in a sea of overhanging animal skins, an iron-worker standing proudly with his latest singular creation that took four days to craft, a leather tanner standing knee-deep in a vat of dye—as if capturing the earnestness with which they work or the sincerity of their smiles would tell us all we need to know about their lives.
On the first day of the trip, while eating lunch at a Casablanca restaurant perched above the Atlantic, I had a conversation with a fellow group member about why he traveled. He told me that he’s been on a binge of late, venturing to the far corners of the globe on a cargo freighter to the Marquesas and in the back of a Land Cruiser through Tanzania. “The world is changing,” he told me. “Places that I visited twenty years ago are almost unrecognizable now. Everywhere is becoming homogenized. I want to see certain cities before they have a Gap and a Baby Gap on the same block, before the world is a string of interconnected Starbucks.”
He’s right, of course. The world is changing. There’s that thing called globalization; everyone seemingly has an iPhone; people are being lifted out of an isolated existence and thrown into an interconnected world at an unprecedented rate. If you travel in search of the authentic and your definition of authenticity is derived from a sepia-toned snapshot of the world as it existed during the days of T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, then reality will disappoint you. There were numerous times in Morocco where I would catch myself thinking ‘this would be the perfect picture if only there wasn’t a cellphone tower on the horizon’ or ‘why are there so many tourists in Marrakech? They keep stepping into my frame.’ I have pictures of one of our camel drivers sitting atop a sand dune in the Sahara talking on his cell phone. Every isolated Berber village in the High Atlas had earthen homes hewn out of craggy hillsides, and on the rooftop of nearly all of these homes sat a gleaming white satellite dish pointed skyward. This is the authentic Morocco of 2016, a country of men concurrently wearing traditional djellabas and Adidas sneakers, a country of camel crossing road signs and Wi-Fi signals in the Sahara.
I loved the place, and I loved the people. I’ll let their smiles and their stories say the rest.
Abdul, an employee in one of Fez’s leather tanneries, shows off the end result of a long day of labor: hands dyed yellow from working with the saffron that colors the animal skins which later become the bespoke leather goods we purchase.
His coworkers stand in vats of waist-deep dye engaged in the monotonous routine of soaking leather then flinging the skins into heaping piles to saturate before soaking and flinging and soaking and flinging again and again and again. The smell, some mixture of decay and dye, infiltrates everything.
Once you leave Marrakech and begin your journey into the High Atlas, every scene is populated by traditional pastoralism. Here a woman herds sheep off the side of the main road into the mountains. Wherever you are today, mon amie, thank you for glancing my way long enough for me to capture this image.
Crafting the light in the narrow, labyrinthine streets of the medina of Fez, founded in the 9th century and home to the oldest university in the world, as a woman walks past at exactly the right moment.
The iron worker from Marrakech for whom it takes four days to create one lock. He sells these locks for 30 USD. His father received a degree with honors in iron working, of which he is indescribably proud, in 1956.
The snake charmer working his magic in Marrakech’s iconic Jemma el-Fna square.
The man who polishes eons-old fossilized rock slabs so that they might be purchased as table tops.
The woman sitting in the sun on a pile of bricks in one of Fez’s narrow medina alleyways who graciously and patiently let us take her picture.
In the old medinas of Morocco, artisan skills run through bloodlines. If you’re born into a family of shoemakers, you become a shoemaker. To prove that point, this young man works in a stall directly across from his father, but his chosen environs reflect his age, his tastes (soccer), and the world we’re living in today.
In the leather tanneries of Fez, there’s a man named Abdul work works in tight quarters with two other Abduls (it’s one of the most common names, he told me, everyone is an Abdul; it means ‘servant’). His hands are stained yellow from working with saffron dye all day, and a hashish cigarette is his constant companion.
The young boy who wanted to demonstrate his strength by lifting a baby goat in the souk of Rissani, a historic camel caravan stop bordering the Sahara.
The modelesque Berber camel driver, Ali, who asked that I take his camel Bubbly-Bubbly back to Washington, D.C. with me because Bubbly-Bubbly would love the big buildings.
The young woman who paints pottery in Fez and has mastered the art of conveying intensity and concentration in a single glance.
The man who operates the loom in a textile shop in Fez’s old medina, masterfully spinning agave silk into shawls and blankets.
The man who embodied 21st century Moroccan street style by wearing a striped djellaba and a fedora while leaning on his umbrella against a perfectly textured door in the old medina of Marrakech.
The Berber camel driver striking a pose before we set off to chase the sun as it set behind the dunes.
The snake charmer who wanted to demonstrate his daring by going tongue-to-tongue with a cobra in Marrakech’s historic square, Jemaa el Fna.
The vegetable seller with the kindest eyes on the streets of Fez.
The brilliant man who drove me from Erfoud to the tented desert camp outside of Merzouga. In addition to his native Berber, he speaks four languages fluently, can drive at high speeds through deep sand with heart-racing adroitness, and indulged me by cranking up the volume on some Berber tunes as we sped through the Sahara.
The breadmaker in Marrakech who stands by a fire pit in his subterranean bakery and makes bread to order.
Two men sitting in the Rissani souk wearing traditional Berber headscarves to protect their faces from wind and dust.
Being greeted with open arms and wide smiles by two employees of the tented desert camp outside of Merzouga. My Moroccan experience in a nutshell.