Friday, September 23, 2011

Cleanliness is next to Godliness

Zahra, our cleaning lady, who has become one of my dearest Moroccan friends.
Every Wednesday for the past year Zahra has come to clean our house, do our laundry, and sometimes cook for us her delicious Moroccan food.  I used to feel uncomfortable on those days, not only because I thought I should be the one washing my dirty laundry, but because of her thick colloqial Arabic which was very hard to understand at first.  Soon, however, I came to understand that her livelihood depends on the money she earns from her work, and shwiya b shwiya (little by little) we were able to make simple conversation. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Modern Art in Morocco

Graffitti art of a whirling dervish in Essaouira, Morocco.
I am always pleasantly surprised when I stumble upon modern art in Morocco.  Perhaps because of the strong traditional arts culture here innovation is hard to find.  I recently took a last trip down the Atlantic coast, looping back up through the south of the country, and saw some wonderful art.

The Painted Rocks, near Tafraoute, done in 1984 by Belgian artist Jean Verame.
The Blue House at the Jardins Majorelle in Marakkech. 
Originally built as a painting studio for Jacques Majorelle in 1924, this house and garden was bought and restored by French fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent in 1980.  His ashes were scattered here after his death in 2008.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Minaret

Sketch of a minaret in Tafraoute

The minaret, or منارة minara in Arabic, meaning 'lighthouse' or 'beacon', is the most distinguishing feature of the mosque. It is used for the adhan or Call to prayer, and is made up of a base, shaft and gallery, which is often decorated. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011


Shbekya for sale
There was a guy sitting across from this shbekya stand - a sweet eaten especially during Ramadan - and I asked him if I could take a picture to show my friends back home what Ramadan is about.  He agreed and then promptly introduced me to his sister who invited me over for iftar (breakfast) the following night. 

More than food and not eating it during the day, hospitality is what Ramadan is all about.  People reach out and invite others to break the fast with them, they give alms to the poor, they spend lots of time in the mosque.  And all without food or water all day, and it's hot.

Of couse, what you are going to eat as soon as the sun goes down and the canon goes off (yes, they actually shoot off a canon), becomes a fixation.  A typical iftar is a feast for the eyes: lots of small dishes like harira (tomato base soup), dates, figs, fruit, different types of bread, hard-boiled eggs, tea, coffee, juice... the list goes on.

Here (right) is the iftar I had tonight, not at the above mentioned house, but at Zahra's my housekeeper and good friend.


Happy, blessed Ramadan.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Mihrab in the Bou Inania madersa in Fez
The mihrab is an important element in Islamic architecture.  It is a semi-circular niche located in the qibla wall of a mosque.  Qibla, meaning 'direction' in Arabic, refers to the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, towards which Muslims pray their five daily prayers.

Friday, August 19, 2011

agave flowers

A surprise came shooting out of the agave plants that line the fields in Morocco this summer, huge flowering shoots the size of small trees.  I had never seen them before and they reminded me of something out of a Dr. Suess book.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

hijab fashion

The hijab, or headscarf, is a tricky subject.  As a symbol of religious and cultural affiliation, it is often politicized and misunderstood.  On a more basic level, however, the hijab and its various of styles, fabrics and accoutrements, poses an interesting challenge fashion-wise for Muslim women in Morocco and the world over.  Rather than try to capture the variety of styles seen on the streets of Fez (since photographing people here is also a tricky subject) I decided to have my language instructor bring some scarves to class and show me a few ways women wear the hijab.   

Monday, May 16, 2011


خاتم or "ring" is the name used in zellij making for the eight-pointed star shape.  This shape can be paired with a cross shape to create a simple pattern, and can also be found at the center of many complex star-shaped patterns. The "ring" was one of the first shapes I learned to make at the zellij workshop, and since then I have noticed the shape everywhere, and in many different mediums. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


  Taqsheer means 'peeling' or 'exfoliation', and refers to this type of zellij work where the glaze of a 10x10 cm tile is chipped or peeled away to reveal a design of high contrast.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Making Milawi

One of the best ideas my roommates and I had a couple months ago was to have Zahra, who comes once a week to help us clean the house, cook for us as well.  An even better idea was when I decided to take notes.  Here's how to make 'milawi', also called 'nsimin' in other parts of Morocco: a flat, layered bread that's eaten by itself or with my favorite, tomatoes and avocado.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Space and surface

Muqarnas are stalactite or honeycomb ornament that adorn cupolas or corbels of a building.
In Islamic architecture, "space is defined by surface, and since surface articulated by decoration, there is an intimate connection between space and decoration.  It is the variety and richness of the decoration with its endless permutations, that characterizes the buildings rather than their structural elements, which are often disguised.  Muqarnas, for example, are explained by the desire to dissolve the barriers between those elements of the building that are structural (load-bearing) and those that are ornamental (non-load-bearing)."  Architecture of the Islamic World  George Michel

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Moorish Spain

Please excuse my long absence, dear readers!  A string of trips and visitors, my recent engagement (!), as well as my upcoming mid-year Symposium has kept me away and busy, but certainly not uninspired. 

One of the many former mosques-turned-churches in Sevilla

Saturday, January 29, 2011

An Almohad legacy

Detail of a pattern on a minaret.
This abstract floral motif I have noticed repeatedly throughout the Fez Medina in varying forms and materials. 

The diamond-shaped meshing became a classic in the Al-Andalus region of Morocco and Southern Spain during the Almohad Dynasty around the 13the century.  The most famous examples of its usage are the three 'sister' mosques, the Koutoubia in Marrakesh, the Giralda in Sevilla, and the Tour Hassan in Rabat. 

The design's geometry, repetition and frequent use of green-colored tile, are all symbols of the lush gardens to be found in Paradise.  

Monday, January 24, 2011

Calligraphy in architecture

Geometric Kufic script. 
Calligraphy is a common decorative element in Islamic architecture.  I have noticed beautiful script on buildings throughout the Fez Medina, and was inspired to make this drawing after a recent discovery. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

An Artisan Paradise

The Funduq I have been measuring and studying for the past few weeks has come to symbolize much of how I see Fez as a city: in constant flux.  Each time I visit, there is a flurry of activity within the 60 or so artisan workshops.  Leather slippers, intricately embroidered belts, guys drinking mint tea, a donkey waiting in the courtyard to deliver supplies; these are just a few things I find. 

Monday, January 3, 2011

Back in Fez

Laundry out to dry on my rooftop
I was welcomed back to Fez by a big sun and temperatures of about 30 degrees warmer than in Europe. There's nothing more satisfying than hanging your hard-worked, hand-washed laundry to dry out in the sun. 

Holidays in Europe

Icecaps on the Spree River, running through Berlin.
I decided to take advantage of the cheap Ryan Air flights to Europe and spent the holidays in Berlin, Warsaw, and Bologna.  I traveled with another American who teaches in Fez, and the two of us enjoyed lots of delicious food (including a good share of pork), drinks (anything alcoholic will do), and Christmas cheer - all things that are hard to get in Morocco.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

So cute!

I found these 2 kittens in my alley one morning.
I decided that if they were still there when I got back, I'd at least give them some milk. (The door to my house is at the end of this alley, on the left.)
Luckily for my roommates, when I got back, they were gone.
Street cats in Fez are pretty tough.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Zellij: the art of Moroccan tile

'Musharra', the name of this mosaic, refers to the number of points of the arabesque or star that creates the pattern (10, or asharra, in Arabic).
I've decided to supplement my architecture research by learning a practical (or not so practical) skill: zellij making.  Zellij is an art unique to the 'Al Andalus' part of Morocco and Spain and it's capital is in Fez.  It consists of firing and glazing tile in an assortment of colors, cutting out each shape by hand with a chisel, and fitting each piece into place within the mosaic. Here is the basic process: