Northern Morocco: Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Riffian Explorations

Last weekend was the last of our major group trips on the CLS program, and it was certainly the most pleasant even if the visit to the Sahara will likely be the most memorable and meaningful to me. I’d love to write much more, but every site was incredibly photogenic, so I’ll let the photos do most of the talking.

Our first stop was in Assilah, a resort town an hour or two south of Tangier on the Atlantic coast. It’s popular with Europeans, and we heard a lot more Spanish being spoken than in any other place we’d visited until that point. Assilah has some beautiful street art, and the old city is also whitewashed and in many ways resembles a village in the Greek Isles. We spent the afternoon exploring the town and then playing in the water; it was great to do some bodysurfing, punctuated by the occasional conversation in Arabic, while floating in the Atlantic!

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The second stop was Tangier, a city that has had a complex history on account of its strategic position on the Strait of Gibraltar. Indeed, it’s often been a haven for spies and as I looked out from my hotel room I had a very vivid sense that I was in a James Bond film. The only international intrigue I really experienced was the lovely ride in a taxi driven by a man from Barcelona. In a reversal of the general trend for African migration to Europe, unemployment is so high in Spain right now that he spends the summers working in Tangier to make ends meet. Riding with him was something of a hilarious experience because, right when I thought I was getting the hang of negotiating standard Arabic, Darija, and French, I had to start working with Spanish as well. It took some shaking out of the cobwebs and broken sentences in two registers of Arabic as well as Spanish to get back to the hotel. At one point I believe I said something along the lines of “nahnou estudiantes min los Estados Unidos.”

An unexpected delight for me was to find that the Tangier American Legation Museum—a former US embassy and the only US Historic Landmark on foreign soil—has a new wing dedicated to author, composer, and ethnomusicologist Paul Bowles. On display were a number of his works, including memorabilia from films, recordings and photos from his fieldwork, and scores from some of his compositions (Bowles had been a student of Aaron Copland). Bowles completed a comprehensive recording project, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, which aimed to document the major music traditions from throughout Morocco; some of the recordings were later released by the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Song, what later became the American Folklife Center—where I spent the summer of 2009 working in a very inspiring and educational internship.  The Bowles room at the American Legation opened in 2010, for the centenary of Bowles’s birth, and one important project for the occasion was the repatriation of the recordings that Bowles had made during his project in the 1950s and ’60s.

View from my hotel room in Tangier.

View from my hotel room in Tangier.

View of the Strait of Gibraltar from near Tangier. Que pasa, España?

View of the Strait of Gibraltar from near Tangier. Que pasa, España?

Part of the exterior of the American Legation Museum.

Part of the exterior of the American Legation Museum.

An image at the American Legation Museum, displaying the letter from the Sultan of Morocco in 1777 that was the first official recognition of the United States as a new nation.

An image at the American Legation Museum, displaying the letter from the Sultan of Morocco in 1777 that was the first official recognition of the United States as a new nation.

From the Paul Bowles wing.

From the Paul Bowles wing. Another panel captures the significance of his recording project: “The most important single element in Morocco’s folk culture is its music . . . . The entire history and mythology of the people is clothed in song.” – Paul Bowles, Their Heads Are Green (1963)

Finally, en route back to Meknes, we visited Chefchaouen, a fabulously beautiful town nestled up among the Rif Mountains in northern Morocco. I’ve seen photos for a long time and had always wanted to visit, so I was grateful for the opportunity. Of course, because it’s so attractive it draws a lot of tourists; I’m not sure I’d enjoy spending too much time there, but for an afternoon it was absolutely wonderful. We meandered our way through the maze of alleys to find ourselves at a waterfall, where dozens of Moroccan families gleefully splashed around in the heat. I took a much-needed rinse before we commenced the final leg of our journey.

View of Chefchaouen from the top of the kasbah (fortress).

View of Chefchaouen from the top of the kasbah (fortress).

One of many amazing sites in the winding alleys of Chefchaouen.

One of many amazing sights in the winding alleys of Chefchaouen.

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