Morocco Feature

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Quintessential

For a sense of Moroccan culture, a good start would be to embrace some of the ongoing rituals of daily life. These are a few highlights—customs and sites you can experience with relative ease.

Mint Tea

When in Morocco, it's a good idea to make friends with mint tea. This sweet and aromatic brew is the national drink, offered for, with, and following breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It's served as an icebreaker for anything from rug selling in the Meknès souk to matchmaking at the Imilchil marriage market. Dubbed "Moroccan (or Berber) whiskey," thé à la menthe is Chinese green tea brewed with a handful of mint leaves and liberally loaded up with sugar. Introduced to Morocco only in the mid-19th century when blockaded British merchants unloaded ample quantities of tea at major ports, the tradition has now become such a symbol of Moroccan hospitality that not drinking three small glasses of tea when your host or business contact offers it to you is nearly a declaration of hostilities. Generally ordered by the pot and poured from on high in order to release the aromas and aerate the beverage, mint tea is recommended in cold weather or in sweltering heat as a tonic, a mild stimulant, and a digestive.

Music

Music is integral to daily and ritual life in Morocco, both for enjoyment and as a form of social commentary. It emanates from homes, stores, markets, and public squares everywhere you go. Joujouka music is perhaps the best known, but every region has its own distinct sound. In the Rif you'll hear men singing poetry accompanied by guitar and high-pitched women's choruses; in Casablanca, rai (opinion) music, born of social protest, keeps young men company on the streets; cobblers in the Meknès medina may work to the sounds of violin-based Andalusian classical music or the more-folksy Arabic melhoun, sung poetry; and you know you've reached the south when you hear the banjo of the roving storytelling rawais in Marrakesh. Gnaoua music is best known for its use in trance rituals, but it has become popular street entertainment; the performer's brass qaraqa hand cymbals and cowrie shell–adorned hat betray the music's sub-Saharan origins. Seek out live music at public squares such as Marrakesh's Djemaâ el-Fna, or attend a festival, a regional moussem (pilgrimage festival), or even a rural market to see the performances locals enjoy.

Markets

Moroccan markets, souks, and bazaars buzz with life. Every town and city in Morocco revolves, in one way or another, around its market, and beginning your exploration at the hub of urban life is one of the best ways to start a crash course in wherever you find yourself. The chromatically riotous displays of fruit and vegetables are eye-bogglingly rich and as geometrically complex as the most intricate aspects of Islamic architecture and design. Fez el-Bali is virtually all market, with the exception of the craftsmen and artisans preparing their wares for market. Fez's henna souk is famous for its intimate ambience and archaic elegance. Marrakesh's central market stretching out behind Djemaâ el-Fna square could take a lifetime to explore. The Meknès market next to Place el-Hedim is smaller but loaded with everything from sturdy earthenware tagines to a wide selection of Moroccan spices and fish fresh from the Atlantic. Casablanca's Marché Central in the heart of the city is one of the most picturesque and least Europeanized parts of an otherwise unremarkable urban sprawl. Essaouira's crafts and produce market shares this light and cheerful town's easygoing atmosphere, and shopping there becomes a true pleasure rather than a grim battle over haggling leverage.

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