I haven’t come to Morocco because of the predominantly alcohol-free culture. Nor have I come because of my fondness for couscous or tagines, or because I like having the crap hassled out of me.
No – I’ve come because I’m looking for somewhere to get some serious writing done. What I’ve not factored in is the distractions, and one of the biggest distractions of that of the smells.
You could walk around Morocco with your eyes closed, and you’d still be party to a sensual experience. Along with numerous cuts and bruises, of course, and some strange looks (though you’d be oblivious to the latter anyway, so that’s kind of alright). Just wandering down a typical market street, you pass through drifting scent-clouds of everything from cumin to fresh bread, from snail soup to resinous incense.
One of the classic Moroccan scents is that of mint, not only from fresh bundles of the stuff in the market, but also in the guise of green tea with mint, the steamy vapour rising up from the little glass cups accompanying a shared ornate metal teapot, else from individual beakers stuffed with branch-like sprigs of the stuff.
Being a non-drinker, it’s always great when you come across a way of socialising that doesn’t revolve around alcohol, and this definitely falls into that category.
It makes for a very pleasant social experience, diving into a little hole-in-the-wall place with a friend and greeting the locals there, before going through the pouring and re-pouring process that I think is meant to aerate it and makes it ready for drinking (actually I have no idea what it achieves – we just saw them doing it and followed suit). This is followed by something of a small mutual celebration when one of you accurately nails the right pouring height: high enough that it’s churning and frothing in the bottom of the glass, but not so high that it’s coating everyone in a two-metre radius in a patina of sticky mint juice.
Whilst I am a big fan of the drink, my teeth are most definitely not – it comes sweetened as standard, and tastes strange any other way. I quickly regret it on the couple of occasions I dissolve one of the Lego Duplo-sized sugar bricks in there without tasting it first.
Tea isn’t the only escape from alcohol, there’s also the Hammam (public steam bath), but I’ll never find out what one of those smells like as I choose against a visit: my skin gets cross at the thought of mere soap, so a firm scrubbing with a sand-paper like glove is not really my thing.
Despite Morocco being a predominantly dry country, for religious reasons, alcohol is still actually available – it’s just a bit more of a faff to get hold of than in most places. Some of the other foreigners I met in the port town of Essaouira are showing a hankering for it, so I join them on their quest to see what they can find. It does take me by surprise when I see people going out their way to acquire alcohol – I’m always a bit like ‘Oh, I’d forgotten people are so into that stuff’.
I spot one customer tucking such a package up the sleeve of his jacket as he leaves, like an alcoholic magician.
We find an alcohol-shop just outside the medina (old city) – the boxes of Heineken, Carlsberg and Casablanca (a Moroccan brew) piled up in the window being the giveaway. It’s a funny little place – despite being windowed and having an open feel to it, there are only men inside, and all purchases are getting wrapped in newspaper by the attendants. I spot one customer tucking such a package up the sleeve of his jacket as he leaves, like an alcoholic magician.
One of my friends is particularly happy at acquiring a bottle of rum, given the translational difficulties he has to overcome to do so. Only to discover once back at the hostel that he’s actually purchased a 70 Dirham (7 Euro) bottle of sugar syrup.
Moving on from Essaouira, the capital city of Rabat turns out to be a surprisingly good escape from the tourist trail, with its clean, crisp new town and hassle-free medina. Whilst the day is good for exploring the jigsaw-puzzle alleys – which, as in much of Morocco, owned by cats and rented to humans – the evening is time to follow your nose and graze at the food stalls.
This means communicating of course, and that’s not always straightforward. I generally start in appalling French, accidentally switch to Spanish (which my brain for some reason considers to be the default foreign language) and end up in English after the stall holder interrupts with the few words he knows. Finally, I terminate the conversation with a cheery ‘Šukran!’ as if we’ve been conversing fluently in Moroccan Arabic the whole time.
In Chefchaouen, meanwhile – a captivating town of blue-washed buildings nestling in the Rif mountains – the collision of scents takes a distinct turn for the hippiesh due to the availability of more mind-bending substances.
One thing I find in general in Morocco is that it’s kind of strange being out in the evening and not having the social scene dominated by bars. They do exist, apparently, although I’m told they tend to be fairly grim, male-only affairs. That said, a lot of the tea-houses can be similar: on my evening wanders I see plenty of dense, smoky establishments of packed with men, their lines of sight all converging on the wall-mounted television showing football.
In the end I leave Morocco not having achieved what I intended – my writing suffered at the hands of the cold winter weather (most rooms aren’t heated) as well as the sheer distraction levels of being in such a fascinating country. But if I was looking for an exploration of the olfactory senses, then this would be a good place: Morocco certainly makes a lot of scents.
Yeah I know. Sorry.