Washington, D.C., in June is usually warm, a prelude to the steamy summer ahead. But this year it brought a few cool nights. Dreary rain put an end to the plans my husband and I had for grilling dinner. So I had a chance to use my new Dutch oven months before I expected I would.
What to make? In the freezer, I had leftovers from a roast chicken. On my shelves, there were cans of tomatoes and chickpeas. I had a box of currants, and most important, spices needed for an impromptu attempt at Moroccan stew. Bit of paprika, cumin, ginger, and cinnamon. Well, more than a bit of each, and a good shake of that last one.
The blending of cinnamon and tomatoes in the sauce reminded me of visiting Morocco in 2007. In a post for my first blog, Lookingaroundabit.com, I wrote about our favorite restaurant in Marrakech. Sitting among tables filled with construction workers, my husband, David, and I split a clay pot of lamb with onions, carrots and potatoes. This dish is called tagine, named for the cone-shaped pots used to cooked it, as shown in the photo here.
We paid less than $5 for our tagine and a pot of mint tea. The waiter gave us a fork because we’re foreigners. Still, we copied the people around us and scooped up our tagine with bits of bread. It was a lot more fun and a good way of getting every last bit of flavor from the dish. David and I tore our bread into smaller and smaller pieces. We tried to get every last bit of lamb and onion from the clay pot we shared.
“This is our best meal since… ,” David got as far as saying, before I teased him.
“Since breakfast?” I said.
Almost every meal we had in Morocco was a treat. There are few cuisines that can match Morocco for complex flavors, with many dishes mixing savory and sweet.
Writing in the cookbook, “Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco,” author Paula Wolfert describes a nation with an “ever-changing landscape and geographical situation” to rival that of France. She notes Morocco’s close proximity to Europe and its coasts on the both Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. With fertile agricultural land and five mountain ranges, Morocco “has every type of environment except tropical jungle,” according to Wolfert.
Here’s an excerpt from Wolfert’s classic book, which was first published in 1973:
“There are the mint, olives, and quinces of Meknes; the oranges and lemons of Fez and Agadir; the pomegranates of Marrakesh ; the almonds, lamb, and za’ atar of the Souss; the dates of Erfoud; the shad of the Sebou River; rosebuds from the Valley of Dades ; walnuts, chestnuts, from the Rif ; Barbary figs, also known as prickly pears, from the region of Casablanca; the honey of Tagoundaft; the barley of the Dra; the cherries of Sefrou; the melons of the Doukkala; the fish caught by the men of Essaouira; the seafood collected by the men of Safi; and the spices that for thousands of years have been brought to this country, first by Phoenicians, then by Senegalese traders and caravans that crossed North Africa from Arabia, the Sudan, and the Middle East.
It is all there — Morocco is, literally, a land of milk and honey.”
Coffee With Obi-Wan
Morocco is also a treat for the eyes. The nation is known for its beautiful crafts and decoration.
And there was much to see in its street life. In the picture below, David is telling a story to our friends Janis and Rich at a cafe in Marrakech.
Sitting at the next table was a man in a traditional brown robe of Morocco’s Berber tribes. Look at the pointed hood and see if it reminds you of anything. “Star Wars” was shot in nearby Tunisia. We wondered if Obi-Wan Kenobi’s famous robe maybe came from a traditional Berber market. (If anyone reading this knows, please tweet me at @dalymysteries.)
At the cafe, the glasses of mint tea were so fragrant that they had to be sniffed as well as sipped. Our breakfast also showed the lasting influence of France on Morocco. The French were active in Morocco even before running it as a protectorate, or colony, from 1912 to 1956. Our cafe sold pain au chocolat with a perfect blend of buttery and bittersweet tastes. The cafe’s plain croissants tasted of pure butter. Steamed milk accompanied the coffee.
Tourism on the Rise
In addition to splendid food and gorgeous buildings, Morocco has a sunny climate that allows for lush gardens. That’s another reason the nation has long drawn travelers, including many artists. For French painter Henri Matisse, Morocco “represented a kind of earthly paradise,” according to a press release about a 1990 show of his work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
“He was struck by its strong southern light and bold architecture, which inspired him to flatten and simplify his compositions while employing bold juxtapositions of color,” wrote the organizers of the 1990 “Matisse in Morocco” exhibition in a press release.
Morocco has seen a steady uptick of visitors in the years since our 2007 visit. The uprisings known as the Arab Spring (2010–2012) rumbled into Morocco. But the Arab Spring did not shake Morocco as it did many countries in North Africa and the Middle East.
In Morocco, the nation’s leaders used donations from richer neighbors to “appease popular anger,” wrote Elena Ianchovichina in the World Bank’s 2018 report, “Eruptions of Popular Anger: The Economics of the Arab Spring and Its Aftermath.”
The Moroccan government also put reforms in place in an attempt to ease social tensions, she wrote. These may have helped spare Morocco from the fate of some of its neighbors. Much of the region experienced “a period of intense political instability and violence” following the Arab Spring, with persisting consequences for many, Ianchovichina wrote.
“Sadly, the Arab Spring, which started with calls for fairness and improvements to standards of living, has led to a drastic drop in the quality of life throughout the region and devastation and hardship in war-torn Arab states,” Ianchovichina wrote. ” Since 2010, dissatisfaction rates have continued to rise, especially in war-torn and war-affected economies.”
Yet, the situation in Morocco appears to have improved for many people. That’s shown in this chart from the World Bank report that details reported levels of suffering in different nations. I drew in the circles around Egypt and Morocco. (There is a full citation for the report at the end of this blog.)
Morocco has clearly done better than many of its regional neighbors, particularly Egypt, in sustaining tourism in the years following the Arab Spring. Remember the fairly steady increase in visitors to Morocco shown in this chart?
Now compare Morocco’s gains to what’s happened to tourism since 2007 in two of its regional neighbors, Egypt and Syria. In general, the perceived stability of any nation greatly determines how many people will visit and spend their money.
My husband and I still regret not adding Syria as a stop on our 2007 round-the-world trip that took us to Morocco. We considered heading south into Syria when we were in Turkey.
We could have been among the roughly 4 million people who visited Syria in 2007. The World Bank data I used for this blog does not post statistics on international tourism arrivals in Syria beyond 2011. That’s the year in which a civil war began in that country. The U.S. embassy in Damascus suspended operations in 2012, according to the State Department.
The U.S. State Department these days strongly warns Americans to stay away from Syria. “No part of Syria is safe from violence,” the State Department says. “Kidnappings, the use of chemical warfare, shelling, and aerial bombardment pose significant risk of death or serious injury.”
The State Department has its strictest warning — “Level 4: Do Not Travel “ in place for poor Syria. It advises those who must visit that country to make sure to have wills drafted. “Discuss a plan with loved ones regarding care/custody of children, pets, property, belongings, non-liquid assets (collections, artwork, etc.), funeral wishes, etc.,” the State Department travel warning says.
As of July 26, the State Department now has “Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution” warnings in place for Morocco and Egypt. That’s the same level of threat that the State Department has in its travel warnings for France, Spain and Italy. In all of these cases, terrorism is cited as a potential risk.