Wanderings of an artist in the trenches.

Morocco or Bust: 2


Installment Two

By Ali-Baba


It’s now about a week later and we are in the coastal town of Essaouira. I’m finding it hard to keep up with the blog because there’s so much to see and then try to put down. We’re wiped out at the end of the day because of the heat and the amount of walking we’re doing. Plus, not being able to post puts a damper on things. Yet, here I am again hoping to dig in and play a little catch up.

We were shown the tanneries, after being handed off to someone by Mustafa. We were given a clutch of fresh mint branches so that we could smell them instead of the various noxious smelling vats (pigeon shit!) where they were curing and tanning. It was pretty stinky. They weren’t working with color yet, so it was kind of a letdown. Also, it looked nothing like the photos I’d seen in books. Bummer.

We were then led and handed off to a shop which we were told was a Government shop (not sure if it was or was not as we hadn’t yet heard about those shops having the red flag outside). We were taken to a room and mint tea was brought in (did they just throw the mint leaves we were using to sniff into the kettle? We’ll never know) and then the hard sell commenced. We were surrounded by wondrously colored rugs and they began to present them to us, laying them out on the floor, telling us all about their history and how they were made, what the symbols stood for, which tribes made which rugs, etc. It was fascinating. They showed us how they resisted burning by waving a lighter over the coarse weave (we were shown this repeatedly at various rug dealers).

And, since it was our first day and we had jet lag we were sucked in and eventually broke down and bought some things.

My first Moroccan rug.

On leaving the rug dealer we were led through what looked like a pharmacy, which I guess it sort of was, but what got us was the colors in jars. Unbelievably rich colors lined the shelves like rare jewels. The man who ran this shop wore a white robe and immediately set about describing the colors to us. I couldn’t resist and began asking about different colors on the shelves. He would grab the jars and line them up on the floor. Then he grabbed a spoon and a water mister. He squatted on the tile floor and using the spoon would dip into a jar, scoop a small amount of color and transfer it from the spoon to the floor. With the mister he would spray the color and using his finger swirl the color out from the small pile of powder. The colors were luminous and rich. I had to have some! I ended up buying several colors in powder form.


Our first several days in Marrakech were good ones. Tiring, but neat. Hey, we were in Morocco! We did a couple of drawings but have been slow to draw consistently each day, instead relying on photography to capture impressions for now. Every time you turn around there’s something visually interesting. Stopping to sketch means missing a pile of stuff.

The Main Square comes alive at night. Throngs of people fill the square and the smoke from all the food vendors lends an otherworldly atmosphere to the spectacle. Snake Charmers, guys with monkeys on chains, African and Moroccan bands, drum circles, blinking drones in the sky, young Senegalese men selling art made with butterfly wings, each professing that the art was theirs (yes, we bought a couple), iPhone knockoff sellers, watch sellers, little children selling travel packs of tissues, all are instant tour guides (happy to take your money if you look the least bit lost), sheep being tied for the upcoming Eid holiday, and more.

We shot all over the place and trying to get to the other side of the Medina a guy with a monkey on a chain came and threw it on Jon’s arm, against his wishes. He did the same to me, also against my wishes. To get the thing off our arms we had to give the guy some dirhams. The ape was heavy and the fur dry. It kept going for the fountain pens in my pocket. I posted these pictures on Instagram and Facebook and got slammed because  some felt I was supporting animal cruelty. Far from it. But as Jon said, “There’s no way I’m going to startle and manhandle a primate that could rip my face off and hand it back to the guy.” I had to cover my pens as the monkey was trying to grab them. We were able to keep the snake charmers from putting the snakes on us. Score one for us!

In our minds’, “Get this thing off me!”

We finally got away from there and went to Café de France for dinner. The food has been very good, especially that cooked in a traditional Moroccan tajine, which is like a sort of Dutch oven. They bring these out and lift the lid revealing a sizzling, bubbling, and aromatic feast of fresh vegetables (carrots, beans, potatoes, sometimes eggplant, and, if you order it so, with meat — chicken, lamb, or beef.). Another treat is the couscous with vegetables. So good. And of course, mint tea. We’ve been constantly drinking piles of water. And every once in a while we’ll get an Orange Fanta or a beverage called Hawaii, which is a carbonated fruit drink that’s very good. During dinner we saw the traditional drummers form their circle and I was quickly drawn to them. Sitting around a bright electric lamp, five drummers beat an incredible traditional cadence that I couldn’t resist. I approached them and the leader waved me over. I held up some dirhams and indicated my camera. He nodded “yes” emphatically with a smile and they increased their tempo.


Using my Canon and my iPhone I snapped as many photos as possible while they played some beautiful music, the rhythm resonating deep in my chest, their faces lit by the orange glow of the light. My Canon 35mm lens is a fixed lens (I don’t use the zoom on the iPhone either) so I’m constantly moving back and forth between subjects to get close. I remember reading Annie Leibovitz’s book, “At Work”, and how she loved her 35mm Prime lens because it forced her to get up close and personal with her subjects. That motivated me to search one out. I picked the Canon Prime lens up for a steal several years ago when one of the big photo suppliers went out of business, and I haven’t looked back. There’s a lot that happens when you get close to your subject that way. There’s an energy there that cannot be had any other way. And the thing is, they have to let you into that space, to feel comfortable enough with you. It’s invigorating.


From my sketchbook.

These guys have the most remarkably expressive faces. They were lost in their music, their individual drums dodging and weaving themselves into a singular powerful rhythm. I started capturing everything I could, alternating between my Canon and my iPhone, getting closer and closer to them and they were into it. That moment signaled to me that I would be able to find a path here in Morocco for myself. That Morocco would let me in. You know when you click into something real and honest. It’s like pouring water out of a glass. It’s a rare and wonderful feeling.

On the iPhone I shoot almost exclusively with the app Hipstamatic. I love the filters and the square format. Sometimes I’ll shoot something with Camera+ by taptaptap because it allows a lot of control over exposure and focus. 

I was able to photograph these guys a few of times. The successive times were neat because they remembered me and and waved me in to photograph, smiles all around. I still gave them money, but it was nice to be let in.



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