Berber Whiskey: Day Drinking in Morocco

Fatima was plump and timid, dressed in a brightly colored jilaba and mismatched headscarf.  She did not speak English, nor we Arabic, but her smile was the glowy kind that only the kindest souls possess and she communicated by gesturing at the tray in her hand.  She was asking if we’d like a cup of tea.  Desperate for caffeine, we nodded and smiled back at her.  She set two tiny, elaborately painted glasses on the tray, lifted a worn, silver teapot high into the air and poured with expert precision while the foot-long reach of tea miraculously landed in the cups beneath a layer of bubbly foam.

Over the course of the next three months, we would see this ritual performed time and again, but this was our first and she had us captivated.  The tea was deliciously sweet.  That first time all I tasted was the sugar, which chased away the jet lag as it coursed through my veins.  We had been warned off drinking the tap water here in Morocco, but we had also been warned against declining an offer of tea.  The ceremonial serving of sweet, mint tea holds the essence of the Moroccan culture of hospitality.

Photo Credit: Camilla Dhanak

Photo Credit: Camilla Dhanak

Gunpowder green tea arrived in Morocco in the 1800’s from Europe.  Since then, Moroccans have made it their own using generous amounts of mint and sugar.  The gunpowder green is rinsed with boiling water, re-boiled with a handful of mint sprigs, and three spoons of sugar for every spoon of tea.  Once the pot boils, three to five cups are poured then dumped back into the pot to stir the flavors before it is poured and served from high above, the height of the pour giving it its signature layer of foam.

Because Morocco is a Muslim culture, the majority of public bars cater to tourists.   Day drinking, however, takes on a different meaning as a significant part of local café culture in Morocco.  Men sit outside cafes, their chairs turned to face the busy streets, sipping cup after cup of the sweet tincture humorously referred to as, Berber whiskey.  A large group of men sitting outside a sidewalk café might be unnerving to passerby were they aggressive and drinking real whiskey.  As it is, the men are sober, good natured, and hospitable, albeit wired and full of life and energy.

Mint tea in Morocco has its place in negotiations, business meetings, hotel hospitality, social interactions, and family occasions.  It is a tool in the negotiations of beautiful, richly colored rugs and blankets.  It complements a meal of kefta or a spicy tagine.  It is the supreme pick-me-up after a day of tourist sightseeing.

This continuous overdose of caffeine and sugar among Moroccans and tourists may explain the stimulating energy in the medinas of Marrakech and Fez.  The bustling centers are host to vendors selling an array of fruits, nuts, spices, oils, clothing, and trinkets.  These vendors are vibrant people dancing through the ancient alleyways waving scarves for sale and tirelessly crafting in their shops, no doubt fueled by the mint tea that is constantly flowing in each stall.  These vendors will not hesitate to share their tea and hospitality with serious customers while negotiations ensue.  It is a lively atmosphere, though the sensory overload can be quite exhausting.  Best to stop for a rejuvenating cup of tea one you’ve escaped the maze of the medina.

Moroccan hospitality extends beyond the big cities and the villages into the great desert.  While traveling through the rolling dunes of the Sahara, myself and four travel companions were waved down and invited into a Berber tent by a nomad and his young sons.  There was no one else for miles; in fact we could see nothing but sand all around us.  Likely the man was starved for company and he engaged my French speaking Canadian friends in the formal language of Morocco.  I’m not sure what was said, but he created a jovial and hospitable environment, serving tea while his sons peeked in at their visitors.  The experience of sipping tea while sitting on colorful, overlapping rugs that lay atop the soft sand of the Sahara, the fabric of the tent blowing in the hot breeze above, was surreal.

I have had mint tea with vendors in the medinas of Marrakech and Fez, in Berber tents in the middle of the Sahara Desert, in little cafes and shops on the road that winds over the Atlas Mountains.  I have even sipped the brew while negotiating camels for my hand in marriage.  But I have never had sweet, Moroccan mint tea outside of Morocco.  I think it would lose its charm.  Indeed the ritual, the people, the sounds, the bright colors, and spicy smells of the country are all part of the taste and tea itself.

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My Beloved Sahara

This was not the fancy tourist bus station.  There was nothing fancy or even civilized about this bus station in Marrakech and mine was the lightest, blondest head in the place.  Even with my shesh wrapped around my painfully distinct features, I could feel every eye in the place on me as soon as I negotiated my fare and stepped out of the dirty yellow cab.  I slung my small, bright yellow pack over my shoulders and confidently made my way through the masses to the interior of the station.  My peripherals and sight line were attuned, not only to the signage that would lead me to the right counter, but also very aware of any potential trouble around me.  I was not afraid of or intimidated by the Moroccans, I had been in Morocco for 3 months and had come to see them as one of the most gentle and hospitable people I’d ever had the pleasure of encountering on my travels.  But any smart and travel-savvy woman alone in a foreign country is constantly on her guard and ready to dodge and weave her way out of trouble or confrontation.

After approaching three ticket counters and being pointed to yet a fourth, I managed to haggle for my ticket in terrible bits and pieces of French and Arabic.  I guessed they figured that if this petite blond girl with the bright yellow backpack had the wherewithal to try and get to Ouarzazate with the local traffic, she deserved a break.  It’s also possible they felt guilty about their game of pointing me back and forth from the ticket counters like a pinball.  Regardless, I was pleased with the price at a fraction of the tourist ticket and made my way out to the line of buses, none of which seemed to be headed for Ouarzazate; either that, or all of them were headed for Ouarzazate.  Again, feeling like an abused pinball, two of the six bus drivers I asked actually pointed to the same bus, so that’s the one I picked to board.  I grabbed a window seat and sent out a little prayer and some hope that in a few hours I’d actually make it to my destination.

Atlas Mountains over Marrakech

Weeks prior, I had been on this same, breathtaking route up through the narrow winding roads of the Atlas in an SUV on a work related road trip and witnessed the most stunning views I’d ever seen.  This time I was in large, uncomfortable bus, but I was on my own time and able to train the entirety of my focus on the desert around me.  The narrow, winding road led up to impossible heights inside the snow capped peaks .  I had been captivated for months by those peaks that hung over the city of Marrakech in a surreal way, almost like a royal city or castle in the sky.  The country of Morocco is incredibly beautiful and diverse in its landscape.  It provides layer after layer of natural beauty and architectural surprises the farther you carve into her, and this trek was just as thrilling as the one I’d taken over the same terrain weeks before. I was thrilled because I knew that on the other side of the flat desert and snow capped layers of the Atlas Mountains, the great Sahara Desert lay in wait.

My first experience of the Sahara Desert weeks before had taken me completely by surprise.  I had never been in a place that made me feel as small and humble.  The rolling dunes of soft, fine sand mesmerized me and I traversed among them feeling like the only person on Earth.  The place was peaceful and serene and seemed to hold some kind of tangible power.  I’d run up the dunes, fallen into the sand, and just sat there grinning, letting the powdered granules fall through my fingers, the texture seeming to me a cross between powdered sugar and silk.

Gateway to the Sahara

I loved every second of my experiences in this country.  I loved the grizzled but playful cab drivers and how the price of everything from a toothbrush to a hotel room had to be scrupulously negotiated.  I loved the vibrant colors of the textiles and crafts in the medina.  I loved the taste of the sweet mint tea and the pungent flavors and spices in the tagine.  But I especially loved the land and I was so excited to be going back into the powerful Sahara to bask it its expansive beauty.

Six hours later I did, fortunately, arrive in Ouarzazate, the Gateway to the Sahara.  I climbed into a diesel SUV alongside 4 new travel companions and we set off for my beloved desert where I would begin one of the greatest adventures of my life.