Mention Morocco, and many people's thoughts immediately turn to Casablanca: Its crowded streets and markets, the palm trees swaying in the breeze, Sam sitting at the keyboard in Rick's Café. Those images come from the classic 1942 movie of the same name, of course, and aren't necessarily reflective of Casablanca, or Morocco, today. In fact, while people have long been fascinated by this compact country sitting atop northwestern Africa, most don't know much about its history or traditions.
Thousands of years ago, the land now known as Morocco was occupied by the Berbers, an indigenous people spread across northern Africa. Although various groups of people passed through the land over time, such as the Carthaginians and Romans, no one stayed too long until the Muslims arrived during the Arab invasion in the 7th century. From that point on, the land became home to both Arabs and Berbers, who frequently battled for control. More recently, the region was colonized by the French, who brought their language to its shores. Finally, in 1956, it became the independent country of Morocco [source: Morocco].
So who, exactly, are the Moroccans today? Well, 99 percent are Sunni Muslims, whether they're of Berber or Arab descent [source: Every Culture]. But religion aside, Moroccans are considered a warm, welcoming people who go out of their way to be generous to others. "Feed your guests, even if you are starving," is a famous Moroccan proverb, for example, and it's not unusual to be invited to someone's home for a meal. (And if you are, it's likely to be unforgettable, as Moroccan food is deemed top-notch.)
While visitors don't forget the people of Morocco, they're also typically wowed by its towns. Moroccan cities are distinguished by their thriving souks, or open-air markets, and their architecture and design, which feature geometric patterns, Islamic calligraphy and bold colors. The country's most famous cities, furthermore, are known the world over: Casablanca, of course, but also Rabat, the capital; Fez, one of Islam's holiest cities; and Marrakech, home to Morocco's largest souk. But movie references and shopping aren't the only draws of this coastal country. Some people come simply to sample the local flavor.
The Spice of Life: Moroccan Food
An exceptional melding of flavors from the Arabic, French, Spanish and Jewish cultures that left their mark on the country, Moroccan cuisine is rich in color, spice and texture. Not only is it tasty fare (a given), but it's beautifully presented and created to have alluring scents. Interestingly, the best food is said to be found in people's homes, not restaurants; Moroccans serve guests bountiful meals, as it's considered a disgrace if you let your guests leave a meal while they're still hungry [source: Every Culture].
Lunch is the main meal and, like most, is served on low tables surrounded by cushions. You eat Moroccan food from a communal bowl with the first three fingers of your right hand (not the left, which is reserved for the toilet!). You may also scoop up the food with any bread that is served. While there are innumerable Moroccan dishes, of course, three of the most typical meals are couscous, tagine and harira. Couscous is a grain often cooked with spices, veggies, nuts and raisins; meat may also be added. It can be eaten as a side dish or main meal. Tagine is a spicy stew cooked in an earthenware vessel also called a tagine, from which the stew gets its name. Harira is considered Morocco's national soup, although it's more like a thick paste. Like couscous and tagine, it has many variations, but traditionally consists of bouillon, beef or mutton, onions, saffron and walnuts.
As Morocco is bordered by both the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, fish is a popular entrée. Lamb and chicken are also widely available; beef is rare. Some common spices used are cumin, coriander, saffron, chilies, dried ginger, cinnamon and paprika. Nuts are prevalent in Moroccans' diets, as is fruit, which is often served as dessert. Figs and dates are especially popular. When confections are on the menu, they're often treats made from almonds, cinnamon and fruits rolled in phyllo dough, then soaked in honey [source: Cuisine Net].
Moroccans always serve mint tea at the end of meals. But don't look for any alcohol, as imbibing is against the rules of Islam. Speaking of which, as Muslims, Moroccans must fast from dawn until dusk during the 30 days of Ramadan, so restaurants are closed during the day. Most families prepare harira to eat as soon as the sun goes down, followed by a larger meal later in the evening [source: Every Culture, Food in Every Country]. Religion influences other aspects of Moroccan culture as well, particularly when it comes to what people wear.
Dressed to Impress: Moroccan Clothing and Style
Modest dress is the norm here, as Morocco is an Islamic country. But it's a progressive Islamic country, so there's a certain amount of latitude in what people wear as well, though dress is definitely more conservative in rural areas than it is in the cities [source: Hey Morocco]. Traditional women's dress generally consists of a djellaba (a long, loose robe), a button-down blouse called a kaftan and a headscarf. Modern women may don more form-fitting, shorter djellabas, and/or pair them with jeans, and some don't wear headscarves. Footwear is a babouche, or leather slipper without a heel. Women's babouches come in a wide variety of colors and decorations. High-heeled sandals are another popular choice.
Interestingly, while Western wear was increasingly popular in the 1980s and 1990s, and more and more Moroccan women were foregoing headscarves, today Moroccan women are embracing the headscarf as a way to symbolize their pride in being Muslim, much as Muslims in other Islamic countries are doing. But this doesn't mean they're becoming more conservative overall in their dress. The headscarves are viewed as a fun, decorative accessory, and come in many pretty colors and patterns. Furthermore, young women in particular often pair their headscarves with Western attire such as tight jeans, sexy tops and designer shades [source: Vagabond Journey].
Men have more latitude in their dress. It doesn't matter much whether they wear Western attire or traditional Moroccan garb -- jeans, for example, vs. a traditional djallaba, which is worn by both sexes -- instead, it's the quality of their clothing that takes priority. Generally speaking, of course, Moroccan men are image-conscious to a fault, and take a lot of time primping before they go out. Their clothes must always be clean, neatly pressed and the best quality they can afford. Wealthier men, in fact, often have their clothing hand-tailored from fine fabrics. (But not from silk, which is considered too effeminate for men.) Moroccan men generally wear polished shoes or babouches, depending on whether they're wearing Western clothing or traditional Moroccan outfits, but they rarely wear sandals, and always have neatly trimmed hair. Beards today are associated with fundamentalist Muslims, so most Moroccan men usually don't have them, although moustaches and goatees are fine. The kaftans and felt caps called fezzes that were once standard attire for males are today worn mostly by older men [source: Costa Sur].
With all of that Moroccan coastline to enjoy, what about beach attire? Moroccans are allowed to wear swimsuits at the beach, but only reveal them once they've arrived.
Natives of Morocco may be relatively conservative in terms of clothing style, but when it comes to architecture, they pull out all the stops.
Home Sweet Home: Moroccan Architecture and Décor
Morocco has been influenced by many cultures throughout its history, resulting in architecture and décor that's cosmopolitan, yet a bit mysterious, dramatic, yet welcoming. Architecturally, you'll see lots of imposing arches and domes, thanks to Islamic influences, plus the use of courtyards and expansive gardens. Cities typically feature a medina, which is a walled section within which are houses and shops. And, of course, there are plenty of mosques.
Moroccan homes are interesting because they're often deceptive, featuring plain exteriors but ornately decorative interiors. This practice may be a way for Moroccans to separate the public from the private -- to reserve the intimacy of their homes for family and friends [source: Every Culture]. Most Moroccan homes have an interior courtyard (the front door often opens into this courtyard), while rooms sport arches, vaults and doorways covered with gauzy drapes. A blind, or indented, arch will be found somewhere within the home, a nod to the mihrabs, or semicircular niches, that are set in mosques to show the direction in which Mecca lies, and thus the direction Muslims should face when praying [source: The CGI Site].
The furniture Moroccans prefer is usually low, made of wood and accented with plush pillows. Lanterns are a popular lighting source and decorative accessory; most are handcrafted, not mass-produced, and can be finished with brilliant dyes and henna paintings. Moroccans also incorporate a lot of geometric patterns and intricate designs in their décor, paired with earth and desert tones, such as muted yellows and reds. Decorative ceramic tile, or zellige, is also quite popular, and can be found on pretty much any surface: floors, ceilings, walls, roofs and furniture. A popular Moroccan decorative technique dating back centuries is tedelakt, which involves using a colored limestone and black soap paste to create smooth, waxed surfaces on walls or floors.
Finally, fragrances are considered part of every Moroccan home's décor; most homes will combine floral scents with spices [source: The CGI Site]. These exotic aromas might not instantly transport you to Rick's Café in "Casablanca," but they're welcoming and quintessentially Moroccan, just the same.
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