The first clue that things might not go smoothly in Morocco was when no one from Mugical Morocco, the operator of my Best of Morocco tour, met me at the Casablanca airport. Since I would be a guest of the company during the 17-day tour, I did not even know the name of the hotel I would be staying at, so I wandered around the terminal building, hoping that my guide was on his way. Twenty minutes later, a tall, thin man sauntered up to me, flashed a broad grin, and offered his hand with no hint of apology.
“Barbara, I am Jaouad. I was having coffee in the cafe.”
As we climbed into his car he dropped the next bomb. “I forgot to tell you that you will be sharing a room. I hope that is OK?” After a slight hesitation he added, “Of course, if you prefer a private room I can arrange this.” But the message was clear; I was expected to share accommodations.
I wish I could say things improved from that point but it soon became clear that organization and communication issues would plague this tour. At the Idou Anfa Hotel and Spa, I was not allowed to join the other members of my group at breakfast. Instead, I was shunted off to a separate room where the fare was coffee, bread and butter rather than the lavish Continental buffet being enjoyed by everyone else. That same hotel prohibited me from bringing in a bottle of water that I had purchased on the street, instead demanding that I purchase water from their shop at a price ten times higher. Though the cost of all dinners was supposed to be included, with lunches on our own, more than once we were provided lunch and expected to pay for a much more expensive dinner – in one case $40 per person.
On one occasion I was lectured about taking responsibility for ensuring that I was served vegetarian meals (difficult when you don’t speak the language) and in Marrakech I was chastised for going off on my own one afternoon rather than staying with the group, even though I’d informed the guides of my intentions and called when I returned. Within a few days my stress meter was pegging the red zone, so it was a relief when we rolled into a lovely resort in Ourika, a small village in the hills outside of Marrakech. I settled into an overstuffed chair in the open-air lobby and drank in the views of humpback red hillsides topped with lush green trees, thinking what a nice place this was. Moments later I was told to gather my belongings, as I would be staying in a different hotel.
I doubt that I will ever fully understand the dynamics that swirled around this tour, however in an attempt to be entirely fair and balanced, I need to explain what I do know. I was originally contacted by Jaouad Lahani from Best of Morocco Tours, who invited me to be a guest of the company’s Fez Festival of Sufi Culture trip. After numerous emails and phone calls, I accepted his kind offer. Over the ensuing weeks the details changed and I was instead invited to join their World Sacred Music Festival Tour. Ayoub Sadeddine, general manager of the company, also made this offer:
Also we would like to bring to your attention that every year before attending the World Sacred Music Festival, we organize a tour with an American Company, and this tour called the Mugical Tour Of Morocco, which Start from Marrakech and end in Fes, this Experience include all Traditional Moroccan Music also musical evening with Bleu Men’s in the heart of the Sahara…if the Mugical Tour of Morocco is on your interest…you are welcome thousands times.
What I did not understand at that point was that both tours were the brain child of Dror Sinai, a percussionist from California who had hired Best of Morocco to be his “feet on the ground” tour operator. A few years earlier, Sinai had been invited to perform at the World Sacred Music Festival in Fez, Morocco, where he met and played with many of the great Moroccan and Berber musicians, learning first-hand about their musical instruments, traditions, and songs. The experience was so deeply inspiring that Sinai developed his Mugical Morocco tour so that others could have the same opportunity.
My light bulb came on at the Ourika resort, when I turned to Sinai and asked, “Why am I being separated from the group?” When he shrugged his shoulders and said he was very much in the middle, everything clicked. After asking many questions of all parties involved, I surmized that Best of Morocco invited me without obtaining prior permission from Sinai, yet at the last moment he was expected to arrange for my accommodations. The hotels he had chosen were completely booked so alternatives had to be sourced for me and three other guests of the tour company. Once I understood the situation I was better able to cope with it. Instead of being frustrated by “cultural experiences” that were actually shopping trips, the incessant and overwhelming pressure to tip everyone from kitchen help to a drunken man who sat at the entrance to a Jewish Cemetery, and debacles like our camel in the Sahara Desert during a blinding sandstorm, I concentrated on the music.
In Marrakech, the Abd El Wahed family welcomed us into their private home for a traditional dinner of cous cous and a performance by Dakka Marrakchia musicians. We were still licking our fingers from the communal cous cous pot when the musicians made a grand entrance with booming drums and six-foot long blaring trumpets. Hailing back to the Saadian Dynasty that ruled Morocco for more than 100 years beginning in the mid-16th century, Dakka Marrakchia music relies on polyrhythmic percussion and chanting that incorporates a good deal of humor. I couldn’t understand a word but it was obvious that they were “baiting” the audience in an attempt to get us to dance. No one was immune; they even taunted the senior Abd El Wahed as he walked through his own living room. With guests to attend to, I expected him to keep right on going into the kitchen but the musicians chanted something that clearly required a response and suddenly he was in the center of the troupe, taunting them back. Once he started, there was no stopping him. He danced throughout the evening, at times grabbing his big jelly-belly and flopping it up and down, to the immense amusement of his wife, who tried unsuccessfully to hide her laughter.
The following evening, we were treated to Andalusian-influenced music and belly dancing at a typical Moroccan restaurant, as waiters brought out course after course of mouth-watering salads, vegetables, spreads, and condiments. In the Ourika Valley, we were introduced to the Ahouach music of Berber tribes. After warming up their large panel drums over an open fire, the musicians squatted and began to chant to the slow rhythmic beat of their drums, while behind them Berber women let loose with high-pitched ululations. As the drumming ratcheted up to a frenzy, guests formed a circle and, clasping waists and shoulders, danced around the musicians well into the night. Gnaoua (Gnawa) music, derived from ancient African Islamic spiritual songs and rhythms, was the musical offering in the Sahara Desert, performed under a huge tent as a sandstorm raged outside.
Much of the indigenous Moroccan music is dedicated to prayer and healing, but the most mystical experience of the entire tour was the Mouloudia Ceremony performed by the Aissawa Brotherhood. This complex ceremony uses music, percussion, and symbolic dance to induce an ecstatic trance in participants. In years past, the ceremony was done only on the anniversary of the birth of Mahommet, but in recent years it is performed more and more, especially to welcome home Moroccans who have been living abroad.
One of our group, a Moroccan woman living in France, arranged for such a ceremony and invited us to participate. She rented the main hall of a local Riad (guest house), hired a band, purchased the required food offerings, and rented traditional costumes for all of us. With hennaed hands we gathered at the Riad entrance to welcome the musicians, who promenaded down the narrow lane and into the Riad’s inner courtyard. For five hours we danced, stopping every so often for a snack of dates or cookies that had been infused with the musicians’ prayers. One woman went into a full trance, falling to her knees and beating the floor. She danced with abandon until, exhausted, she fell into a chair to rest. Minutes later she was up and dancing again, lost in the music.
And that was only the first week! The remainder of the tour was centered around the World Sacred Music Festival in Fez, which featured some of the most inspiring spiritual singers and musicians in the world. Plus, the tour operator did make a concerted effort to incorporate visits to historic sites such as the dry wells of the Sahara; Kasbah of Ait Benhadou, where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed; the Saadian Tombs in Marrakech; and the Medina (old town) and leather tanneries in Fez, among others.
So, would I recommend this tour? I would, with reservations. For anyone from independent solo travelers to families traveling with kids in Morocco, this tour provides an excellent introduction to the country. Best of Morocco Tours is a young company – only four years old – and in my opinion they have a long way to go before they reach an acceptable level of professionalism. But the tour provided extraordinary access to authentic local Moroccan music and deep insight into Moroccan culture. If you’re the kind of person who can “go with the flow” (Dror Sinai’s favorite words when things fall apart) and are OK with a bit of what I call “seat-of-the-pants” traveling, go for it.
I was a guest of Best of Morocco Tours during my stay in the Sahara. However, the receipt and acceptance of complimentary items or services will never influence the content, topics, or posts in this blog. I write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.