PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — Morocco Day 3

Normally when I get up in the morning, I do not plan my wardrobe to coordinate with the city to which I am traveling. However, this wasn’t a normal day and Chefchauoen is not a normal city.

We set out with our driver from the previous day and drove two hours up to the mountains to this famous blue city. It was founded as a military base in 1471, shortly before the Spanish conquest of Granada, and its population grew quickly with Muslim and Jewish refugees fleeing from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition as Christians persecuted them.

At first, Jews were not allowed to stay within the city walls. However in 1520, they were allowed to live within the city because they had a skill set that was necessary to allow the city to thrive. In particular, the Jews were expert leather workers and able to craft the saddles for the donkeys that were essential for survival as they carried and transported food and everything that they needed.

The two communities lived peacefully together, with the Jews painting their windows blue, so that others would know where they lived. As time went on, the differences between the two religious groups was hard to distinguish, and the color blue expanded within the city because it absorbed the heat and stayed cleaner than other colors. But as the years went on the blue disappeared.

The city was really a unique fortress where Jews and Muslims lived peacably  together and only three Christians ever entered  the city until 1920.  Apparently their corporate memories of persecution ran long.

During the 1930s, Jews fled here from Nazi persecution and were received with open arms. However, after the war ended, most of the Jews migrated to Israel, with the last two leaving in 1962.

The city remained a quiet mountain city until 2005, when the people decided to return to the blue that had been it most notable attraction. And now, the whole place was painted blue again along with the occasional white and Andalusian Brown from the Spanish heritage.

The success of this attempt to draw tourism is simply astounding. The city of about 50,000 is unlike any place I have ever seen, and rather than talk about it. I will let the pictures there speak for themselves.

I would be doing a disservice to our day if I did not talk about our amazing guide, Mohammed, and all that he taught us. He was incredibly knowledgeable as he was working on his master’s degree and for his bachelor’s in English had translated Moroccan fairytales into English. In between conversation about our shared love of literature, we learned everything from the meaning of the Moroccan flag — it has a red field with a green pentagram in the center, the green star representing the five pillars of Islam and the red representing the blood of the ancestors and unity — to how dating and marriage unfolds in their culture.

Mohammad is getting married to Hagar in May, a love match and not arranged, and they will be betrothed until next year, when he procures a house and they will live together as husband and wife. She has a degree in Islamic Studies and teaches about the faith. We learned that he gives her a gift, like a dowry, to establish her wardrobe when they marry that will signify the start of a new life.

His willingness to answer every question we had truly gave me a new education in Muslim culture as it exists in Morocco. One thing we learned is that the Morrocan government wants to empower women and give them a sense of ownership of their lives. I am really impressed by so much of Morocco, which has a benevolent king who seeks to make this a truly welcoming Muslim country.

One of the incredible treats of the day was visiting the ovens, where families bring their own bread to be baked for themselves, some of which is turned into food for the entire community. Communal ovens are one of the five obligatory institutions in every Muslim community, which also include a mosque, a school, a shared fountain, and a hammam (steam bath). While there, I also had the most amazing chicken spiced samosa I will ever eat — I will dream of it forever, I think — along with some delightful fresh squeezed orange juice and a visit to the requisite carpet and blanket places where Gretchen and Martha made some lovely purchases.

I dressed to coordinate and not clash with the city, but the truth is that I think the city stands as an incredible example of what can happen historically when people focus on coordination and not clashing, allowing Jews and Muslims to live peacefully in the same place for over 450 years.

It was a patch of blue that’s brought color and light to a divided world.

Leave a Reply