During breakfast at our Riad Dalia, I found myself making a new friend, the young daughter of our cook, who is just learning to talk, but is very mischievous. She’s already gotten stitches from what looks to have been a fall a few weeks ago, but that hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm or sense of adventure one bit. Taking our inspiration from her, we headed out for a day of exploration of the Tetouan Medina and its surroundings.
We first walked over to the Palace grounds, which the king occupies for one month a year, usually in the summer. The rest of the time, the beautiful Palace grounds, and the square in front of the Palace, are blocked off from public access, and guarded by quite a few royal soldiers, even though no one is there. In any event, the barricades do form a good support for the rickety tables of the many vendors selling all kinds of clothing, shoes, and other consumer goods to the crowds walking from the medina, around the palace and out into the nouvelle cite.
We found the entrance to the far end of the medina on the other side of the palace grounds, an area we did not explore yesterday. We entered there, and walked down a long covered sidewalk, filled with small hotels and pensions. We saw a woman bringing her bread dough to the neighborhood baking ovens, for the attendant to bake for her. This is a common sight in many of the medinas we’ve visited so far, and seems a great way for a neighborhood to share in the expense and benefit of a resource that all can use. It was at the entranceway to a small hotel directly across from the baker’s that we met Abdul, a tall thin man who began chatting with us in very good English.
It is so important to judge situations and people for yourself, rather than relying on the stock warnings and recommendations of guidebooks. Sometimes the guidebooks can point you to a place which turns out to have closed years ago, for example, or to a restaurant which has changed hands, or changed cooks, many times since its review was written. The same is true about guidebook warnings, for example, here in Tetouan, about unofficial guides, who are supposedly the scourge of all tourists who visit.
Abdul spoke good English, he had a very friendly and accommodating air about him, and he wound up taking us to places we wanted to visit, but would have probably never found on our own, at least certainly not as easily as with his guidance. He was also a source of very good stories, and at the end of our time together, accepted the amount of money we were comfortable in giving him. Would an “official” licensed guide have showed us as much? Or have spoken English as well as Abdul? Maybe yes, maybe no…but meanwhile he was an enjoyable and interesting tour companion for us. Just a suggestion that we should not easily accept the fears and warnings promoted by others, without first letting the light of our own beliefs and experiences shine through them.
We chatted with Abdul about what we had already visited in Tetouan, and he named a number of sights that we hadn’t yet seen – the Kasbah, the Moslem Cemetary, the leather tannery, a herbal pharmacy, a rugseller, and the Berber market square. All sounded interesting to us, and so we began by taking the long and gradual climb up to the ruined Kasbah, situated on a high point of land overlooking both the medina and the nouvelle cite.
Abdul mentioned that the King had visited the Kasbah during his last stay in the Palace, and had promised to beautify and clean the area, which is now strewn with trash and quite run down. The buildings of the old fort are so large, and have been vacant for so long, that it would be a gigantic project to rebuild them, but even if the area could just be cleaned up and better maintained, it would be a big step forward. There is also in the Kasbah the entrance to a system of tunnels that runs all the way to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, a distance of over 30 km, but which is not accessible to the public.
On the way up to the Kasbah, we passed by the house of Rachma, a woman of 104 years, who is a famous healer visited by many women seeking help for all kinds of physical and psychological ailments. Her healing is miraculous – first, a woman in need of healing visits the hammam, and thoroughly cleanses her body. Then she visits with Rachma and tells her what is troubling her. Rachma takes a few drops of plain water and touches them to the area of the woman that is in pain, then speaks with her. And by the time the woman returns home, her ailment is gone! Rachma heals by donation only, no set fee, and lives very simply in her house, receiving all who come to visit her. At this point in her life, Abdul explained, Rachma has very few needs – she prays, takes a little food, and heals…that is all.
Further up the stairs to the Kasbah, in an area of stucco houses beautifully painted in a wide variety of watery colors, we came upon an old woman struggling to make her way up the steep steps while holding a plastic bag full of breads and other food. I offered to carry her bag for her, and let her hold my hand for support…and so we slowly made our way up, step by step. Abdul told Tali and me that she is a widow who now lives in a small two room flat in the neighborhood. She is supported by her neighbors, who buy her a half kilo of potatoes, some coffee, some tea, some sugar, and some bread every five days…and on this meager amount, plus the dirhams pressed into her hands by those who help her, she lives! After I helped her up the stairs, she kissed my hand a hundred times, thanking me…and again, after I pressed a twenty dirham note into her hands as well.
After visiting the Kasbah, we headed back down the steps to have a look at the leather tannery, which is still in active use as a community cooperative, perhaps three hundred years or so after its construction. The workers were tanning cow, goat and sheep hides, for use in making blankets and rugs. To tan a hide, salt, urine and pigeon droppings are used, so as you can imagine, the smell in the area is very strong! A part of the tanning process is the scraping of the hide with a long knife, attached to a worker by a chest brace, so he scrapes the hide by bending down and straightening back up again…hour after hour! It is very difficult work, and one requiring great skill, but at least the pay is good – as much as €100 per day, during which he might be able to finish 4 or 5 large hides.
Our tour continued with a visit to a traditional herbal pharmacy, where we learned from the proprietor the many uses developed in Morocco for essential oils and spices. The emphasis here is on natural healing, rather than on high-powered pharmaceuticals, as in the West. The proprietor explains some of the products he has available, then gives you the prices of what he has for sale. It is expected that you will buy at least something, but it also only felt right to do so.
After a few more stops, we said goodbye to Abdul, and headed over to a restaurant just outside the medina for a late lunch. Then across the street, at a patisserie, we sat outside for a few hours, writing down these stories before we forgot them, and enjoying the passajero that began in the late afternoon – the pedestrian street in front of us jammed with all manner of people strolling in both directions. It was a great conclusion to a very enjoyable stay in Tetouan.