Thursday, May 2, 2013

It Was a Very Moroccan Place [Guest Post!]

Sidi Harazem sits about 10 miles east of Fez. Like Moulay Yacoub, Sidi Harazem has mineral springs believed to possess healing properties (unlike Moulay Yacoub, Sidi Harazem is also a popular brand of bottled mineral water sold in Morocco). Sidi Harazem is a popular recreation destination among Moroccans. Very popular. Actually, when we visited it with my sister and brother-in-law on a Sunday morning during a school holiday the place was packed to the gills, and not including ourselves we saw a grand total of one person who, based solely on appearance, was likely not Moroccan.

Sidi Harazem’s overwhelmingly Moroccan presence contrasted sharply with many of the places to which we had gone the week before, most of which were blissfully uncrowded and where the majority of the visitors generally appeared to be foreign tourists. This of course was not the case everywhere. Active Islamic religious sites are generally not open to non-Muslims in Morocco* and since most foreign tourists are not Muslim the proportion of local-to-foreign visitors was generally higher in places such as Moulay Ismail’s mausoleum (which actually constitutes a rare exception to the general prohibition, though only Muslims may enter a central chamber) and Moulay Idriss. But no place that we had visited remotely approached the concentration of Moroccans at Sidi Harazem.

*I do not know whether this is the reason in Morocco, but the Ninth Surah of the Qur’an (called At-Tawbah) contains verses (17-18) which some people interpret as forbidding the presence of non-Muslims in mosques.

We had spent the previous week visiting places of exquisite beauty (to our eyes) and tremendous cultural and historical significance (in our perceptions), yet the locals were flocking to Sidi Harazem. To be fair, Sidi Harazem is certainly not without allurements; it is situated in some lovely hilly country and is very clean. But it just seemed, to us, rather bland and somewhat artificial.

Sidi Harazem has two mains areas. The first consists of a flat and somewhat featureless stone-like space, with grassy sections and cafes off to the side. There was a massive concrete structure (possibly a sculpture, though of what I cannot imagine) at the entrance and a fountain in the center. The fountain is less like the Fez medina’s beautiful Nejjarine fountain and more like a rectangular pillar with spigots sticking out. And of course there are pony, horse, and camel rides; people selling balloons; snails, for eating; and harsha.

Sculpture(?) near the entrance to Sidi Harazem.
Where it says "fountain" above, you could be forgiven for
picturing something that looks like this
(the Nejjarine Fountain in Fez) ...
... but the fountain in Sidi Harazem is more like this.
Seen here with people filling vessels with the water.
Not sure what he used to dye the horse's hair, but I prefer not to know.
This could be the only living camel within a hundred kilometers.

To reach Sidi Harazem’s other main area you walk downhill, first past a big fancy hotel (not obviously occupied when we were in Sidi Harazem except for the cows grazing on its grounds) with a high fence, presumably to keep out the common folk, then past some carnival rides, including a disturbingly fast-moving (to us) Ferris wheel. The second area has more cafes, a second fountain, a larger grassy open space, and a group of shops catering to Moroccans, many selling cheap souvenirs. Football (soccer) matches and families picnicking or relaxing shared the grassy parts. Further down and off to the side there are two swimming pools, sparsely occupied while we were in Sidi Harazem.

Cow grazing on the grounds of a large, fancy, 
and not otherwise obviously occupied hotel.
I'm pretty sure this Ferris wheel was breaking the speed limit.
In some ways Sidi Harazem reminded me of Ifrane, a town in the Middle Atlas which the French developed to resemble a faux-Alpine village (it also houses Al Akhawayn University). Lauren and I will often ask young people in Tiflet what their favorite place in Morocco is, and Ifrane is the most frequent response. We visited Ifrane briefly on January 1, 2012, on a daytrip bus excursion with some of the youth of Tiflet. I did not much care for Ifrane, I found it expensive and artificial, even though it is pretty, well maintained, and clean. But for many young Moroccans with whom we speak, their idea of a great day is to take a bus to Ifrane and stroll around. Similarly, for many Moroccan families, a fun day out is apparently to pack the family, a pressure cooker, a Butagaz tank, and lots of empty water bottles in the car and then go to Sidi Harazem for a picnic (and to fill the water bottles with the special water).

Forgot to bring your empty water bottles to fill at the spring?
They've got you covered.

I do not at all mean to say or imply that they’re wrong or to mock, belittle, or denigrate  this idea of a good time as inferior to mine, it’s just a different notion of what constitutes fun. I don’t think it’s not a matter of accessibility, because there’s a lovely (and free to enter) botanical garden in the middle of Fez (Jardins de Boujeloud aka Jnane Sbil). We poked our heads in at the Jardins de Boujeloud when we walked by and while there were certainly people there, it was nowhere near as crowded as Sidi Harazem, which requires more effort to reach. And the entrance fee to most public monuments and museums in Morocco is only 10 dirhams (about 1.20 USD), which I cannot imagine covers their operating costs and is almost certainly less than the cost of the gasoline required to get to Sidi Harazem (gas is very expensive in Morocco). So this really seems to be a matter of preference.

Big grassy area used for football and picnics. 
The makeshift structures on the left provide shade for picnickers. 
It's not a picnic without a pressure cooker and 
Butagaz (a tank of cooking gas, the blue thing).
Please forgive the metal bars in the frame, 
I took the picture zoomed-in through a fence 
from a distance, to avoid seeming extra creepy

Then again maybe I shouldn't find it odd that Moroccans would not flock to their monuments. I lived in New York most of my life and only visited the Empire State Building for the first time (and the Statue of Liberty for the second) in the summer of 2011 in anticipation of leaving for Morocco, and it’s not like we spent every weekend at the Met. My friend Badr (who, by the way, loves Sidi Harazarm) and I have talked about the idea of Morocco that the Moroccan National Tourist Office promotes – camels and deserts and belly dancing, even though this idea bears little resemblance to the vast majority of Morocco. So then foreigners (myself included) come to Morocco and go to museums housed in old palaces, take tours of the medinas, and head down to the desert pursuing a certain idea of Morocco and wanting to experience authenticity, and these certainly are facets of Morocco. But in a way the experience of visiting Sidi Harazem gives a more accurate idea of contemporary Morocco (and Moroccans) than many of the other places we have been, and I was especially glad that we were able to bring my sister and brother-in-law there to share it with them. Even though none of us were thrilled by Sidi Harazem, it was a very Moroccan place.

Mmm...still warm.
Feeling healthier already. 
Though we were later informed that one must
drink several liters of the water 
(while still warm of course)
to enjoy the supposed health benefits.

Without knowing anything about this guy, I'm guessing that, 
in decreasing order of likelihood, this t-shirt is (a) intended as a joke,
(b) a political statement (not endorsing terrorism), (c) something the 
wearer thought looked cool without noticing, understanding, or caring 
about what it said, or (d) meant to be taken at face value (very unlikely).

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