Transcript / SSoP Podcast Episode 07 — Morocco: Couscous, Camels, and the Kasbah

Transcript / SSoP Podcast Episode 07 — Morocco: Couscous, Camels, and the Kasbah

Monday, 2 March, 2020

This is a transcription of Episode 7 — Morocco: Couscous, Camels, and the Kasbah.


David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.

Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.

David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.

Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.

David: We’re on a trip around the globe. one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us. [music].

David: Welcome to season one, episode seven of Strong Sense of Place. Today is all about Morocco, the lovely country on the north coast of Africa. [moroccan music]

We’re going to recommend five books we love that took us to Morocco, and then we’re going to talk to Amanda Ponzio Mootaki, who runs MarocMama, a travel service that specializes in food and Northern Africa. She will tell us a story about how her love at first site moved her from Wisconsin to Marrakech.

[moroccan music]

Melissa: Gosh, that is a big romantic adventure, and I love that she focuses so much of her life on Moroccan food. I feel like she and I should be best friends.

David: I feel like that’s true.

Melissa: Okay. I guess we’re going to Morocco. [laughter] All right. You ready for the Morocco 101.

David: Give us the Morocco 101.

Melissa: Morocco is located on the northwestern corner of Africa, so it has water on two sides. On the west coast is the Atlantic ocean and on the north is the Mediterranean Sea.

David: There’s a spot where you can stand and see both seas at the same time.

Melissa: which always feels magical when you get to do that, even though it’s just a vast expanse of water. It feels really cool. Yeah, two for the price of one.

David: Exactly.

Melissa: Okay. Morocco has many cities that we associate with romance and espionage, like Casablanca, Fez, Marrakech, Tangier. Like, if these aren’t making you think of palm trees and dried dates, I don’t know what you’re thinking about.

David: Secret messages hidden in things.

Melissa: Fun fact about Tangier and by ‘fun’ I mean kind of fascinating and also surprising. After WWI it was declared an international zone, and it was jointly ruled by nine different countries

David: Which is how it got to the spy thing.

Melissa: Exactly. That’s how it became a hot spot for smugglers, spies, international businessmen, and movie stars. It kind of had this reputation for being a little bit dangerous and very glamorous.

David: Which it still has.

Melissa: Yeah, it does. And then the capital is Rabat. That is on the Atlantic coast and it’s a very pretty city right next to really sparkling blue water. A chunk of Morocco is covered by the Sahara desert, mostly on its Eastern border that it shares with Algeria. And I’m going to talk about that a little bit later with one of my books because in the ’60s there was some scrapping going on on that border.

David: Yes.

Melissa: And you know those pictures of sand dunes, like, the orange-gold sand dunes. There’s nothing except a sea of sand with maybe a camel caravan walking across the tops of them? That’s Morocco.

David: The Mummy was shot there. Romancing the Stone, in part, was shot there. A lot of the images that we have of the Sahara were shot in Morocco.

Melissa: And it all seems very romantic.

David: But there’s also a chunk of Morocco that is not that at all.

Melissa: Thank you, Dave. That was an excellent segue to the Atlas Mountains, which are tremendous, tall, beautiful mountains, cedar forests, and really glamorous beaches. So it really does have everything.

Melissa: For reference it is about the size of the U.S. state of California.

David: Yeah. As we were doing the research in my head, I was kind of picturing California, but instead of the farm line, it has desert.

Melissa: Yes, that is accurate.

David: You get a lot of different geography up and down the coast and then the further you go to the East, the more it sinks into the Sahara.

Melissa: Right. Thanks to its location, the culture is a mashup of African, European and Middle Eastern influences, and for foodies that should be ringing some bells. That’s why the food tastes so good. Every time you mix cultures, you get really great food. So there are earthy spices and slow-cooked stews called tagine, lots of dried fruit and nuts. Basically everything really good.

David: And according to you, some of the best food in the world comes from Morocco.

Melissa: I am a big fan of Moroccan food. The two official languages of Morocco are modern standard Arabic and Berber. Moroccan Arabic is a dialect called darija and it’s a spoken language, not a written language, that mixes together Arabic, Berber, and European languages. And most people in Morocco also speak French as their second language because there was a time when Morocco was a French protectorate.

Melissa: Finally, very relevant to our interests. The oldest library in the world is located in Fez. It was founded in 859 by a woman. Her name was Fatima al-Fihri, and she was the daughter of a wealthy merchant. She used her inheritance to establish a learning complex that included a library, a university, and a mosque, and that is the Al-Qarawiyyin library.

Melissa: In 2012, a Canadian-Moroccan architect — another woman — Aziza Chaouni was commissioned to rehabilitate the library and to restore all of its really beautiful architectural elements. There are cedar carvings and marble foundations and these really beautiful arches and colorful tile work. We’ll put a photo in show notes so you can see it. It’s really stunning and I love that it was founded by a Moroccan woman and then restored by a Moroccan-Canadian architect. It’s really cool.

David: It is nice.

Melissa: In that library you will find 4,000 rare books including a ninth-century copy of the Qur’an, which was printed on camel skin.

David: Wow.

Melissa: And written in Kufic script, which is the oldest calligraphic form of Arabic. Cool. So lots of cool old stuff and good food is my ding-dong summary of Morocco.

David: And it’s dry and the weather’s lovely. Amanda was talking about how much she enjoys hanging out on the rooftops and just watching the sunset.

Melissa: That is actually a big part of the first book that I’m going to talk about.

David: Are you ready for two truths and a lie?

Melissa: Indeed.

David: Okay, so I’m going to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel does not know what I’m about to say. Okay. Here we go. Statement number one: the largest movie studio in the world is in Morocco. Statement number two: You can swim from Europe to Africa—

Melissa: I can swim from Europe to Africa?!

David: One can swim from Europe to Africa.

Melissa: Okay.

David: Three: If the Sahara Desert was in the United States, it would stretch from the Mississippi to the Pacific coast.

Melissa: Hmmm. the whole Sahara. Yes. Not just the part that’s in Morocco.

David: Yes. The whole Sahara. Keeping in mind the Morocco is about the size of California.

Melissa: All right, so we have the largest studio in the world, swimming, and the Sahara desert. I mean the largest movie studio in the world, things sounds like a lie, which makes me think that is the truth because you’re tricky like that. I think one is true. I think two is true. I think three is lie.

David: Three is the lie.

Melissa: I did it.

David: You did it. It’s amazing. If the Sahara Desert was in the United States, it would stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It is huge. That is a big desert.

Melissa: I was thinking that it was… smaller. [laughter]

Melissa: Wow. So I was really off.

David: It is huge.

Melissa: That’s amazing.

David: A couple of other cool things about the Sahara desert. It is mostly rock. But there is of course a lot of sand. Some of the sand dunes are around 600 feet tall. That’s 54 stories of sand.

Melissa: Holy cow.

David: The average high temperature is between 100 and 104 Fahrenheit, which is 38 to 40 Celsius.

Melissa: But it’s a dry heat [laughter]

David: But the sand temperature can reach 176 Fahrenheit during the day, that’s 80 Celsius. Also the Sahara, every 20,000 years, it’s estimated that the Sahara vacillates between being a desert and a savannah because the earth wobbles.


David: Isn’t that weird?

Melissa: That is weird. And what is the definition of a savannah?

David: Like grasslands.

Melissa: So the Earth wobbles and it gets less dry?

David: Yes, exactly.

Melissa: Every 20,000 years. I feel like my puny human brain is having trouble understanding the words that are coming out of my own mouth. [dave laughing]

David: That is accurate. Yeah, so the Sahara is big and vast and mysterious and dangerous and amazing.

Melissa: I mean, it’s kind of like the mirror of the sea, which we talked about last week. Also, vast, mysterious, romantic, human brains can’t really get there all the way.

David: Right.

Melissa: The planet is amazing, you guys. [laughter] Thanks, Captain Obvious!

David: Cliff Notes on this entire series: The planet’s pretty cool.

Melissa: We should keep it. [laughter]

David: Right. Stop messing it up.

Melissa: Largest movie studio —

David: The largest movie studio in the world is in Morocco. Morocco has been, as you mentioned, the setting for every time you see the desert, it tends to be Morocco. So Lawrence of Arabia was filmed there. Parts of Gladiator, The Bourne Ultimatum. There a studio that’s south of Marrakech called Atlas Studios, named after the mountain rang, that claims to be the largest in the world by just pure acreage. It is a big chunk of desert where they build lots and lots of sets. They filmed The Mummy there.

Melissa: I love that movie.

David: Yeah. Jewel of the Nile, the live-action Aladdin, parts of Game of Thrones were filmed there. The thing about that studio is that when they’re not shooting there, it’s abandoned, so you can go to a city and hop on a bus and go out and look at the studio and see the huge plane that was part of Jewel of the Nile and a Tibetan pagoda-like building from one of Martin Scorsese’s movies, and an ancient village that was featured in Gladiator. They’re just sitting in the desert decomposing.

Melissa: Wow. I mean, now I kind of want to go do that.

David: There’s a post from a guy who did that and we’ll link to that. And the location itself is featured in the Atlas Obscura with notes on how to get there. And then finally —

Melissa: I’m going to swim from Spain to Morocco. I’ll just go get my bathing suit.

David: So at the narrowest point, it is about nine miles or 14 kilometers from Punta de Tarifa, Spain to Cires Point, Morocco.

Melissa: Right. The ferry ride is something like 70 minutes.

David: The first person who we know who made that swim was a woman who worked as a typist in London.

Melissa: Wow.

David: Yeah. Mercedes Gleitze. She became famous in the twenties and thirties as a professional, open water and endurance swimmer. She was the first British woman to swim the Channel and the first is slammed the Straits of Gibraltar. It took her six attempts to get across the straits of Gibraltar. She did it in 12 hours in 1928.

Melissa: That’s pretty fast for open water.

David: Well, so it’s amazing for open water swimming and she was the first. People are doing it now in, like, two and a half, three hours.

Melissa: What?! Come on.

David: 12 hours is an amazing time.

Melissa: I mean, particularly when you’re talking about the ’20s and ’30s when endurance athleticism was not so codified, and they weren’t all these nutrition tricks and training tricks and technology to help you.

David: Her will alone must’ve been amazing. So she did that swim and then she went on to become famous and she endorsed honey and tea and whiskey and bathing caps and corsets. The Rolex family asked her to wear a watch on her swim across the Straits of Gibraltar and she did that. She went on to establish an institute for homeless men and women, which is still active.

Melissa: So she was a nice person too.

David: And then she retired from swimming, raised three children, and didn’t tell them anything about her previous life. They did not know until they were adults that she had done these things. So now if you want to swim the Straits of Gibraltar, you go and you talk to the Strait of Gibraltar Swimming Association.

Melissa: There’s a swimming association. So I could do it. With some training —

David: Yep. It is slightly dangerous. As you might imagine. The Strait of Gibraltar has great white sharks in it and killer whales and over 300 cargo ships pass through there daily. So you’re fighting all of that stuff. And if you want to get through, you contact the Strait of Gibraltar Swimming Association and they have you fill out a form and send in your passport and send in a doctor’s thing and they set up a time for you.

Melissa: And the form acts as a shark repellent? [laughter]

David: They support the swam across the Strait. You go there and you hang out in southern Spain for — they give you a window of 10 days because, like, the wind has to be just right. And then they tell you the night before you’re going to swim the next day and you go down to the shore with a bunch of other people and you —

Melissa: So do people do it as a group?

David: Yeah.

Melissa: Oh, that would feel a lot nicer than doing it all by yourself.

David: And they group together people who are similar swimming speeds.

Melissa: Aw, you have a swimming buddy. That’s nice.

David: Yeah, a swimming buddy.

Melissa: Also, you only have to out-swim them, not the shark. [laughter]

David: There is a blog entry from a gentleman Elliot Newsome with plenty of photos and all that stuff. If you’re interested in seeing what that would be like — about 150 people did the swim last year. The waiting list is about two years and right now.

Melissa: Cool. Yeah, new life goal.

David: So that is two truths and a lie.

Melissa: I feel like we learned a lot here today.

David: I’m glad. [laughter] Do you want to talk about our books?

Melissa: I do. My first book is A Street in Marrakech by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea and I’ve been carting this book around with me since college. That’s when I read it the first time. I absolutely loved it. And I’ve reread it several times since. This is a memoir of a woman who went to Morocco for a year with her husband who was a professor and he was teaching there and they packed up the whole family and went to live there. The first time I read the book, I didn’t really know much about her. I just read it as a memoir of someone doing something that to me, at the time, seemed so extraordinary — that you would just pack up your life and go live in a foreign country.

Melissa: That was a new idea to me because you know, I come from a small town in Pennsylvania. People don’t really do that, so I was just smitten with the whole idea.

David: Is that why we live in Prague?

Melissa: I mean, I feel like the idea started there somehow. You know, just the little seed that you could do something really out of the ordinary, and it might be hard, but it would also be okay.

Melissa: She is an amazing woman and I didn’t realize all of this about her the first time I read the book. She was really a pioneer in the area of women’s studies in the Middle East. And this was all happening in the sixties, seventies, and eighties her interest in anthropology actually started when she was a kid. She moved to Canada with her family during the Depression. She was American. They moved to Canada and she was made to feel like an outsider like immediately.

Melissa: One of her schoolmates actually told her, ‘It’s not that we hate you. It’s just that you’re an American.’

David: Hmm.

Melissa: And that kind of got her interested in the idea of being an outsider and anthropology and how you fit into a culture. She eventually grew up, and she got her degree in English from Reed College in Portland, Oregon. And that’s where she met her husband Robert. And they went on to have this incredible partnership throughout their lives. In 1956, he was finishing his doctorate in anthropology, and they went to Iraq together. And that was the first time they traveled to the Middle East. And when she first got there, she was very rebellious and didn’t want to wear the veil.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: And she got like way more attention than she really felt comfortable with. Right. And she realized that if she wore the veil, she would blend in a little bit better. Not only then would she not be kind of accosted on the street, but that also made the women feel more comfortable interacting with her. And she started to be a little bit more integrated into the society and the culture and the neighborhood there and actually made friendships that lasted her whole life.

Melissa: But when she was first kind of settling into Iraq, she said, this is such an amazing quote. She said, ‘The women pitied me, they pitied me, college educated, adequately dressed and fed, free to vote and to travel, happily married to a husband of my own choice who is also a friend and a companion.’ So she was seen as like unfortunate because she was kind of skinny and she had short hair and she didn’t have children and her mother wasn’t there and she wasn’t wearing lots of gold jewelry. So it was this kind of awakening for her of how different the cultures really are.

Melissa: And it got her really, really interested in it. She and her husband moved around a lot. They lived in Cairo. They lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts because he taught at Harvard. And then they ended up in Austin, Texas, where he was teaching at UT and that’s where they were when they went and spent this year in Morocco. So given all of that, she should have felt really comfortable in Morocco. They had been in Iraq, they’d been in Cairo, she spoke Arabic. And when she got there, she realized she was just as much an outsider as she’d ever been.

Melissa: So they spoke Arabic, but they spoke the wrong dialect. They spoke Egyptian Arabic, and they had a typical Moroccan house. Which is from the outside, it just looks like a regular house. There’s of kind of adobe wall and a wooden door. But inside, all the rooms are built around a central courtyard and there’s a second floor balcony and there’s a fountain in the courtyard. So this was one of her introductions to the way homes work in Morocco where the family life is very vibrant inside your house, but outside it’s very reserved.

David: Yeah.

Melissa: So they were living in the old medina. They wanted to live in a Moroccan neighborhood, not a Western neighborhood, because they wanted to be part of that culture and even though they were trying so hard to fit in, like, everything about them screamed privilege and Western, despite their attempts to be respectful and to make friends in the neighborhood. Their house was much bigger than everyone else’s. They had money to buy a Coca-Cola is at the little corner store, so even though they were trying to fit in, it was not going very well. And so this book is just about her experience trying to have some kind of breakthrough with the women in Marrakech. One of the things I really like about it is that it’s not a memoir that is meant to be like, ‘Oh, these crazy Moroccans! Look at what they’re doing!’ Like typical fish out of water story: ‘I’m so goofy, I don’t know what I’m doing in this foreign country.’

Melissa: She’s really trying to understand how would to behave so that she can become friends with these women. It’s just absolutely fascinating because she makes little inroads, and she’ll have these moments where she thinks, ‘Okay, I’ve done it. We’re having a real conversation. I’m not such an outsider anymore.’ And then she’ll make a tiny, tiny little mistake and suddenly, the doors slam shut. Just back to that chilly, ‘You are you and I am me and we’re not gonna be able to do this.’

David: Right.

Melissa: There was a great moment where she gets invited to a wedding and you get this really detailed experience of what it’s like for her to go to this wedding. They make food, they do henna tattoos. That is one of my favorite parts of the book that always stays with me because that’s a real triumph for her to be invited into this family situation. And it’s a real celebration of sisterhood. As you would expect, a lot of the activities, at least at the time this book was written, were divided between the men and the women. The men eat first and the women then get to gather together and listen to music and eat and do the henna tattoos and basically relax and hang out. And it was really, oh, it’s just really cool to kind of see that kind of joy because I feel like we don’t often get to see that when we’re, you know, seeing Middle Eastern or African countries in the news. I feel like we don’t always get to see that.

David: Yeah, so it’s a story about a woman who’s an anthropologist who has got an anthropologist mindset trying to settle into trying to make a connection.

Melissa: And she does, and it’s really, really moving.

David: That sounds great.

Melissa: Even though she has this really amazing background in anthropology, and she and her husband are both really strongly associated with the university culture, this book is not academically written. It’s very respectful, but it’s also very evocative and emotional and has lots and lots of details. It’s not as poetic as say, the John McPhee book that you mentioned in our Scotland episode, but it is really well done.

Melissa: I should probably also mention that when I got my first tattoo in 1993 or ‘94, it is a bracelet on my right wrist and it’s inspired by henna tattoos and that is 100% because of reading this book. So yes, I’m the nerdy person who got a tattoo based on a book. It’s my literary tattoo. That is A Street in Marrakech by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. Okay. Dave, what’s your first book?

David: My first book is The Last Storytellers by Richard Hamilton. Richard Hamilton is a correspondent for the BBC, and in 2006 he went to Marrakech and he talked to storytellers who have been telling stories in the main square of Marrakech. They’re part of a tradition that goes back literally a thousand years. So those guys have been sitting there listening to or telling stories their entire lives. It’s a dying art, though, because of screens, right? Because all of our storytelling is going to screens now and the oral storytelling tradition is not what it used to be and it’s hard to get an audience and so it’s hard to support it.

Melissa: It’s makes me a little sad to think about that because when talked about oral storytelling in our Scotland episode. I listened to a bunch of that stuff. And there’s a real difference when you have a human being telling stories to other humans in person.

David: Yes. Versus the screen.

Melissa: And I know that big screens and you know, the wraparound sound, are really exciting, but that connection of having someone personally tell you a story is just extraordinary.

David: Yeah, it is. And it is sad. It’s bittersweet book because of exactly that. Hamilton interviewed one of them and he got intrigued about it and over three years he kept coming back to track down more and more storytellers, and he recorded their stories. And this book is 37 of those stories. In the book, he writes an introduction which talks about his experience with the storytellers. And then there’s the stories themselves. The stories are a little dark. There’s murder and mystery and magic and evil relatives and animals that can talk. Creatures that transform from one thing into another. All the stuff that you would sort of expect from fairytales.

David: Hamilton’s done a little bit of work so that he’s trying to make these stories that you haven’t heard before in any form.

Melissa: That sounds right up my alley.

David: Yeah, I think it is. There are happy endings; there are tragic endings. They’re all morality stories. One of the stories has a cat genie in it. Every night she waits for a master to fall asleep and she gets dressed in her clothes and she leaves the house.

Melissa: She gets dressed in her clothes!

David: The stories are laced with ancient beliefs and the culture they’re from, which makes them both beautiful and interesting and perhaps something you don’t want to read to a 10-year-old. It depends on your 10 year old. Most of the stories are pretty short. There are a few pages or so. They do a really nice job of conjuring up some of the magic of Marrakech and the surrounding area. Reading the book is bittersweet because of the reason that we talked about it. He’s collecting these stories because the trade of storytelling is leaving the square. And with that goes that whole craft of person-to-person storytelling, which we’ve had since language.

Melissa: Well, and the ability to tell a story, is a real gift. That seems like an art form that is worth trying to preserve. Like, the text of the stories is important, but the skill to deliver a story is also not something everyone can do.

David: Yeah. In his introduction to Hamilton quotes, a local saying” ‘When a storyteller dies, a whole library burns.’

Melissa: That made my eyes sting when you said that.

David: Me, too. [sighs]

Melissa: That’s really beautiful, though. What a lovely way to express that.

David: Yeah. This book was written a number of years ago. Since then, Hamilton’s also written a book on Tangier called Tangier from the Romans to the Rolling Stones. I thought that was nice. So that’s it. I don’t want to tell you too much about it because it would give everything away. That’s The Last Storytellers by Richard Hamilton.

Melissa: It seems like a fun reading project to get a partner and just read a story out loud each day until you’ve gone through the book.

David: That would be great.

Melissa: Note to self. Let’s start that project. [laughter]

David: Agreed. What’s your next book?

Melissa: My second book is The Salt Road by a British novelist, Jane Johnson, and this is a historical novel that also has a modern plot thread that kind of kicks off the action and then the two kind of twist and weave together throughout the course of the book.

David: That sounds like catnip for you.

Melissa: It is. We know this is one of my favorite genre.

David: Trope.

Melissa: Yes. Yes. I always feel like trope makes it sound negative.

David: Yeah, it’s not.

Melissa: Okay. Then it’s my favorite trope.

David: It’s similar to one of the books you read for Scotland, right?

Melissa: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah — The House Between Tides. Yes. I wrote about that book for a blog post, which also had modern heroine solving some mystery from the past. Yeah. It’s one of my things.

David: And romance.

Melissa: And romance. So that’s what we’ve got here. We have two amazing women. We have a modern, kind of straight-laced accountant from London. Her name is Izzy. And in the 1960s, we have a dynamic woman named Mariata, and she has descended from Berber royalty and she lives in the deserts of Morocco.

David: Okay.

Melissa: At the beginning of the book, we find out that Izzy, our accountant in London — her father has died and she inherits a mysterious Moroccan amulet. Both of her parents were kind of terrible. Really terrible. And they were archeologists.

Melissa: So she has a sort of love hate relationship with them, but she can not resist the idea of trying to solve the mystery of the amulet.

David: Who could resist to that mystery?

Melissa: No one could resist that mystery. So, like, I’m all in at this point. I’m like,’Yes, let’s go to Morocco! Let’s find out what’s going on with this necklace.’ [laugher] And so she does. She heard me yelling at her to go to Morocco and she went. She goes to Morocco to go mountain climbing with her friends and to see what she can learn about the amulet. And then we start learning more about Marietta. That’s when her story starts to come in. She is a Berber queen. She’s a member of the Tuareg people who are nomads in the Sahara desert. They are sometimes called the ‘blue people’ because they wore bright blue clothing and the Indigo dye got on their skin.

David: Oh, I didn’t know that.

Melissa: Yeah. So their clothes are beautiful, really, really beautiful blue. And then sometimes their skin was a little blue, too. And the women had very intricately braided hair. So it is very striking. And we’ll put some photos and show notes so you can see what that looks like.

Melissa: So we’re getting Mariata’s life story, and it is a doozy. So we know from my intro that Morocco was a French protectorate and both Morocco and Algeria gained their independence in the late fifties, early sixties, and when they were free and they didn’t have to worry about their French overlords anymore, they started fighting with each other.

David: Oh, great.

Melissa: Yeah, so along their shared border, there was the War of the Sands and this has a direct impact on Marietta and the nomadic way of life in this story. I don’t want to give anything else away, but I feel like the author does a really good job of taking this big thing and showing us how that trickles down to people who are just trying to live their life every day.

David: Right.

Melissa: And then eventually we learn how Izzy and Mariata’s stories connect and it is very satisfying. Like, all through the book, they’re slowly circling these truths in their independent lives. And then we see how these things fit together. It’s really good.

David: That sounds good.

Melissa: As you might expect, there are lots of big adventures in the desert. There is lots of romance, there’s some heartbreak, there are battle scenes. It’s like a big, big swashbuckling adventure that could only take place in Morocco. So it’s pretty much perfect for Strong Sense of Place.

David: I think I would like that book.

Melissa: I think you would like that book if you wouldn’t mind the romance part.

David: I think that’s sexist.

[mel laughs]

Melissa: One of the things we talked about before we started this podcast is, yeah, I feel like they are kind of ‘lady books’ and ‘dude books’ and whatever. There are good books.

David: Yeah, exactly that.

Melissa: Okay. One final note, because I really love this story about the author. The author Jane Johnson traveled to Morocco in 2005 to research a different book. At the time she was working in publishing in London and she was doing research for something else, and while she was in Morocco, she had a near fatal accident while she was climbing.

David: Wow.

Melissa: And while she was recovering, she made a deal with herself that if she made it home, she would become a full-time writer. And so she went back home. She became a writer, and she married the handsome Moroccan man who came to her rescue after the accident. And that is what inspired this book.

David: That’s amazing.

Melissa: Yeah, it’s a great story. That is The Salt Road by Jane Johnson.

David: So if you’re keeping track, that’s two women that we’ve talked about who’ve gone to Morocco and fallen in love with Moroccan men.

Melissa: Yeah.

David: So far and we still have like half the podcast.

Melissa: I mean, it is a very romantic-seeming place. And you know, tall, dark and handsome is —

David: Yeah, swarthy. Okay. Are you ready for my next book?

Melissa: I am ready for your next book, although I know what it is and I was getting snippets while you were reading it and it’s pretty intense. So everybody, fasten your seatbelts.

David: [David laughs] It is pretty intense. Okay. My next book is Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King. First, I want to thank one of our Instagram followers, Kristen Green. Kristin Green pointed me to this book. Kristen, you were so right. Thank you very much.

Melissa: Well done, Kristin.

David: Yeah, this is a book about survival. It’s true. It’s nonfiction. It reverberates through history in a way that’s fascinating and kind of turns on itself. So it starts in 1815. There’s a merchant ship called the Commerce and it’s got 12 men on it. It leaves Middletown, Connecticut. They went to New Orleans and on to Gibraltar. That was the plan. They’re taking hay and bricks down in New Orleans and then tobacco and flour from New Orleans to Gibraltar. And the plan was to bring salt back to New England.

Melissa: That would seem like a really big, harrowing adventure now. So 200 years ago —

David: — in a wooden ship —

Melissa: You would have to be really brave to do that.

David: Like, the boring part of this story is it takes them six weeks to get across the Atlantic in a wooden ship. Wow.

Melissa: Also fascinating is that they’re going for salt, which it seems like not such a big deal now, but spices were so valuable.

David: Yes. So the problem is, they get to the shores of Morocco and the ship gets caught between a tide, an eddy, and a rock outcropping. Over about a day and a half, the water and the rock bash the ship into nothing. It’s just hammered over and over again. They can’t move the ship, they can’t get out. So what they do is they get everything they can off the boat and onto the shore, and that’s pretty much where the trouble starts.

Melissa: I’m just imagining the ship kind of stuck between the eddy and the rock and then people who swim across the Strait of Gibraltar. These are not calm seas.

David: No. So one of the things about swimming the Strait of Gibraltar is if there’s a strong enough wind, you will get sucked out into the Atlantic and it doesn’t have to be that strong. It’s just the combination of water and wind will and the distance will take you out.

Melissa: It’s like that swim in Alcatraz in San Francisco. When you get to the starting point, you have to swim away from the end point because the wind and the current push you. All of that is a no for me. I love the water and I love to swim and that is so much nope. Okay. Back to our adventurers who just got their ship bashed to smithereens.

David: So the ship is destroyed and they’re now on shore with the stuff that they can recover. And first they are visited by nomadic bandits, and there’s a remarkable scene there where they take most of their stuff and they’re ultimately responsible for the death of one of the men on the ship. Then there’s an ill-conceived trip out to sea in a rowboat where they almost die of thirst and exposure. They come back —

Melissa: Ugh, that would be such a heartbreaker.

David: And they are almost immediately captured by slavers. Not that there’s a good place to be a slave, but the Sahara desert is a horrible place to be a slave. And you hear about every detail: the heat and the sand and the scorpions and the slavers and the relentless sun. There’s a lot of time when you read a line that ends, ‘And they were never seen again.’

Melissa: [Mel laughs] I mean, it’s not funny. I feel so uncomfortable.

David: I know! If you extend your empathy even a little it’s just horrible from both sides of that. I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say this story ultimately evolves into something of a buddy story.

Melissa: That’s nice.

David: Yeah. And obviously, well not obviously, but ultimately, somebody survived to tell the story. Two books are written about the adventure. The captain survives and writes a book about it, and one of the ship’s mates survives and writes a book about it. So fast forward to 1995, Dean King is a writer. He’s doing research in the New York Yacht Club library, which by the way is a lovely room. Very nice. Very a 1900s, you know, rich white guys smoking cigars and talking about what they’re going to do next.

Melissa: Do you think they pipe a salt smell into the room? They have a little background noise like the waves? [makes wave noises with her mouth]

David: They might. Dean King runs across an old leather-bound book with the title _“Sufferings in Africa: An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce.’ And it calls to him, as it would.

Melissa: It literally sings a siren song.

David: It does. It’s written by the captain of the Commerce. King reads it and he gets hooked and he does a bunch of research. He discovers there’s a second first-hand account written by one of the crew. He compares these two stories and they match up and then he thinks, ‘You know what I really need to do is go over there.’ So he does. He goes to Casablanca, and he travels a hundred miles across the Sahara by foot and camel. He runs barefoot across the burning sand and sharp rocks just to see what that’s like. He’s scales cliffs.

Melissa: Wow! So he’s not just a writer, he’s an adventurer.

Melissa: Yeah. So warning, this book is not for the squeamish. There is a lot about physical pain, like skin bubbles and black and lips and weight loss. There is eating locusts, there is eating infected camel. There’s a passage about drinking one’s own pee that goes on for a while. So now I know about that. [laughs]

David: One of the reviews said, ‘King is almost pornographic in his description of physical pain: skin bubbles, eyeballs burn, lips blacken, and men shrivel to less than 90 pounds… It’s sensational stuff.’ King is almost pornographic in his description of physical pain, skin bubbles, eyeballs burned lips black and amend, shrivel to less than 90 pounds. It’s sensational stuff. And it really is.

David: Also, there’s an epilogue.

Melissa: Ooh, I love epilogues.

David: I love an epilogue, too, because there’s the story of, ‘Okay, you guys went through this horrible trauma and then you got home and then what happened.’ And there’s an answer for that.

Melissa: It’s like DVD extras for nerds.

David: I’m just so curious about when you go through a trauma like that, how do you balance out your life after. And there isn’t an answer in here, but there is an answer about what happened to these guys, and it’s satisfactory. Anyway, I highly recommend the book. It’s a good read. It’s a Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King.

Melissa: My final book is really different than anything else we talked about today. It’s called The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida. This is a literary thriller and it is super tense and very atmospheric. The premise is something that I think anyone who’s traveled has thought about at least a little bit. So here’s what happens. The story opens when the unnamed narrator is on an airplane from Miami to Casablanca, and you get the sense from her internal monologue that she’s running away from something but you don’t know what it is. As she’s flipping through her guidebook, she reads the sentence, ‘The first thing to do upon arriving in Casablanca is get out of Casablanca.’

David: Jeez.

Melissa: And she has booked a room in Casablanca for three nights.

[dave laughs]

Melissa: So right away there’s this very uneasy feeling. And then when she arrives at the hotel, she’s all distracted and kind of jet lagged as you would be.

David: Yup.

Melissa: And when she’s checking in, someone steals her backpack and inside her backpack is everything that matters. Her passport, her laptop, her credit cards, her cash, her camera, a pair of coral earrings that are very significant to her. Everything that makes her her is gone.

David: This is kind of the traveler’s nightmare. What if I lost everything right now?

Melissa: Exactly. And so the rest of the story is exploring what happens when you lose everything that kind of defines who you are in a foreign country.

David: Right.

Melissa: She becomes completely untethered from her at-home identity and that gives her the freedom to do all kinds of things that Morocco has to offer. She kind of becomes, I’m not going to tell you what those things are because you have to read the book to get them. That’s what makes the story the story. But I will say that she becomes kind of a chameleon and sort of a mirror that’s reflecting back to people what they kind of want her or need her to be.

David: Okay.

Melissa: And as she travels around Morocco, she gets involved in increasingly unusual capers. When I read this book, I wrote in my notes, ‘Every time she comes to a crossroads, she makes the choice I would not make.’ Which is one of the things that’s really fun about reading, right? You get to have these experiences vicariously that you never would because I would not make that choice.

David: It is fun to read about people who are like you. And it is fun to read about people who are NOT like you.

Melissa: Yes, yes. So Vendela Vida is a really accomplished writer, and she has a real eye for picking the details that put you right in Casablanca. And her Casablanca is very gritty and a little menacing and you can kind of feel that, like, hot, shimmery heat that makes everything edgy, but also kind of lazy and languorous.

Melissa: Yeah, that feeling when you’re hot and dependent, tense, tired. It’s like that. This novel is really short. It’s only about 225 pages, but it really tackles questions of identity and captures that feeling that you get sometimes when you’re traveling, where you’re anonymous and home feels really far away and you’re kind of just drifting a little bit in this new environment.

David: Yeah. Sometimes when we’re traveling far away, I’m very aware that it is very unlikely that I will see any of these people ever again. That’s a weird thing.

Melissa: It’s a very singular sensation.

David: And I know some people would do something with that information. For me, it’s just interesting to just sit there and bask in how many people there are —

Melissa: And I think sometimes it feels lonely. Sometimes it feels freeing.

David: Right.

Melissa: You know you can dance in the middle of a fountain and — well now it might end up on the internet — but you won’t necessarily see those people again.

Melissa: The title is taken from a Rumi poem, which is also an examination of identity and our place in the world, and I will link to that in show notes because of course it’s a great poem. Thank you, Rumi. I should also mention that this book is written in the second person.

David: Oh really?

Melissa: Yes, and it’s a really interesting experience to read it because the narrator says ‘you’ instead of ‘I’ when she’s describing herself. When it comes time to have these strange experiences, it’s as if I we’re having them. I really like first-person narratives because it feels like someone is letting you in and being vulnerable and sharing their story with you. You get their secret thoughts.

David: I am doing this, I’m doing that.

Melissa: Yeah. With the second person, I was right inside that story, right? My backpack was stolen. I was in an uncomfortable discussion with the police. It’s a really different experience reading a book like that. I think in less-competent hands, it could kind of annoying and a little precious or cute. It works so well in this book. Vendela Vida is really great. So I listened to an NPR interview with her and she said that this novel is, in fact, based on an experience she had in Morocco.

David: Really?

Melissa: Yes. She and her husband were checking into a hotel called The Golden Tulip, which is, in fact, the name of the hotel in the book and her backpack was stolen with a bunch of her important stuff in it, including her laptop and a book she was working on. Luckily, they were checking in and she had her passport in her hand, so she did not lose her identity.

David: Right.

Melissa: But she did have to go and talk to the police about getting her backpack returned to her. And while she was sitting with him and they were, you know, talking about official stuff, her mind started wandering because she had had this idea about wanting to write a novel about identity. And so she’s sitting there in the police station and realizes this is her entry into the story. This is her inciting incident for the novel. And she started laughing because she was so happy and she said the policeman looked at her like, ‘What is going on with this woman?’ I thought about this book literally for weeks after I read it, and I kept wanting to shove it into peoples’ hands. It’s the kind of book where you read it and you want to talk to someone else about it because it’s really fascinating and raises some interesting questions, at the same time that it’s very entertaining. So it’s both literary and a page-turner. That is _The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty’ by Vendela Vida.

David: Okay! Those are five books we love set in Morocco. Visit our show notes at for links and details. Mel, can you tell us about the special blog posts you wrote for this episode?

Melissa: Yes, we have really tasty content to go along with this episode.

David: Excellent.

Melissa: We have a recipe for Moroccan meatballs, which is one of my favorite recipes that I’ve ever written. They’re so good. Everyone please make them.

David: Yes, we have eaten some Moroccan meatballs in our life.

Melissa: And there’s a recipe for a Moroccan orange salad, which was inspired by another book that I read, which I didn’t have time to talk about in the podcast called Tangerine. There’ll be a writeup on the website review and the recipe for that. I also wrote a little article about Moroccan leather because books bound in Morocco leather are some of the most expensive and most cherished books in the world, and I wanted to know what that was all about. So I fell down the rabbit hole of Moroccan leather, and I’m taking all of you with me.

David: [laughs] Excellent.

Melissa: And finally, I have a little roundup of photos of henna tattoos because they are absolutely beautiful and intricate. That is all at Next up, David is talking with Amanda, also known as the MarocMama about her life and Morocco and the food tours. She leads around her adopted country.

[cheerful music]

David: I’m here with Amanda Ponzio Mootaki who owns and operates MarocMama, a travel company that specializes in culinary travel in Morocco. Thanks for being with us.

Amanda: Thank you for having me.

David: You bet. Now, where were you born?

Amanda: Not in Morocco. I actually grew up in far Northern Wisconsin, near the upper peninsula of Michigan.

David: Very far from Morocco.

Amanda: Extremely far. About as you can possibly imagine.

David: In many ways, right?

Amanda: In so many ways.

David: And now, how long have you been living in Morocco?

Amanda: So we’ve been living in Morocco for seven years, but I first came here in 2004, which I guess like, 16 years ago now. So I came here on vacation for the first time. And then many things happened that caused me to keep coming back and then eventually move here.

David: Okay. Do we want to talk about these many things that happened?

Amanda: I would be happy to, yeah. So I came here on vacation with my dad and my younger sister and her best friend. My sister was 16 — important to this story. And when we were in Marrakech, we just did like a regular, like, a tour of Morocco. When we were in Marrakech, we were in the souk. And at that time, not many people at all spoke English. It was kind of just, Morocco was just kind of opening up to, you know, kind of the inflow of lots of tourism.

David: Yeah.

Amanda: And so she met a guy who spoke English and behind our backs she told this man where we were staying and told him that he should come to our riyadh, which is like a guest house.

David: Wow!

Amanda: Yeah. Right. And so he did. And my dad and I and her and the friend who were going out that night — and here’s this guy that we recognize, but we’re like, ‘Why is he here? And how did you get here?’ She said, ‘Oh yeah. I told him to come because I am tired of eating tagine and I wanted to have him help us get other food. And so we’re, like, ‘Okay.’ So she’s walking with him and her friend about 50 meters ahead of my dad and myself. And he and I are trying to figure out what are we going to do with this guy?

David: Yeah, of course.

Amanda: Trying to be responsible adults about the whole thing

David: And still respect her and her desires.

Amanda: Yeah, exactly. And so again, behind her back she tells this guy, ‘Why don’t you call one of your friends to keep my friend company so that she’s not like the third wheel?’ So he stopped at a pay phone and again, my dad and I really know what’s going on. He makes a phone call and then we keep walking and probably about 10 minutes later, I can feel someone walking next to me. And I assumed that it was just a man who wanted to, you know, catcall and be a bit obnoxious. So I turned to say, ‘You get outta here! Leave me alone. I’m not interested.’ And the first thing that I thought when I turned and looked at this person next to me was, ‘You’re going to marry this guy.’

David: Wow.

Amanda: And I had no idea who he was. I didn’t know where he came from. I didn’t know them, but this was the friend that had been called to keep my sister’s friend company, except he spoke no English and was in his neighborhood, and was extremely shy. So he had been trying to, like, very casually and quietly drop back from walking with them to kind of leave without being rude And ended up next to me, and he didn’t leave. And I spoke very basic French from school and we were able to communicate that way. So he didn’t leave, and we’re still together and have three children.

David: It’s such a lovely story. So you met your husband on a blind date, basically.

Amanda: Exactly! The blindest date possible. [laughter]

David: Now you live in Morocco. You run a travel company there that specializes, obviously, on Morocco and the areas there. So give me your best pitch on why I should visit Morocco. What attracts you, what attracts the people you work with?

Amanda: So I think that Morocco is not always, or I wouldn’t consider it, an easy place to visit. And I know a lot of people struggle with that because it’s really — as my mom says, it’s like a sensory overload completely, which I think has its benefits and also its negative. So I’m not going to be negative, but I do want to put it out there that it’s not like going to Germany. You have a lot of cultural and language and sensory things that are very different. But I also think that that has its benefits. I feel like it’s — I read a quote once that said, ‘Morocco is a destination to be earned.’


Amanda: And I think that’s true. So I think that it’s worth it because it challenges you in a lot of ways. And I also think that it really challenges peoples’ preconceptions about what Morocco is or what North Africa is. Because a lot of times they discover once they’re here, like, ‘Wow, that’s not what I thought at all.’ So I think you can have any any experience here you want. If you want to get away from people and you want to have a really rural experience and you know, just be away from people, you can have that. If you want to spend your days on the beach, you can have that. We have 1300 kilometers of coastline in Morocco. If you want to go surfing, downhill skiing, and ride a camel, like, basically all in the same day, it’s possible.

Amanda: You know, we have cities that are thousands of years old. Amazing architecture, incredible artisans’ work. Good food. It does take a little work to get, but in definitely there. And at the same time it’s also a very modern, like, you have very modern cities. You know, I’m in America and people are surprised. I can’t tell you how many times I get off a flight — because usually when I’m coming to Marrakech, I’m coming home — but 95% of the people on the plane are tourists. And the number of times people say like, ‘Wow, this is a lot nicer than what I expected.’ It’s shocking, I guess in some ways. But yeah, I think that it’s — a lot of cities here are very modern, so you have a very good mix of tradition, more exotic things that people expect, but also at the same time you know, any of the conveniences you might be looking for.

David: And is there a part of that that particularly speaks to you? Is there some part of Morocco that’s your favorite?

Amanda: Oh, yeah. I mean, I really love everything, but for me, I love having a beautiful climate with the most amazing mountain range view. I think that people forget, Morocco is mostly mountains and not desert. And I mean just to sit on a rooftop at night and see the sun setting behind the Atlas Mountains is just, I don’t know — it takes my breath away every time, and it’s been 15 years, and I still like never get tired of it.

David: Oh, that’s nice. So I know that you do like a seven day food trip. Tell me about that.

Amanda: So this is something new that I’ve started to offer. So my husband and I own a company in Marrakech called Marrakech Food Tours that we started five years ago. And the goal of that with to get English-speaking guests an opportunity to eat really authentic Moroccan food in Marrakech because, unfortunately, a lot of restaurants cater to tourists and the food isn’t always great. And if you only speak English, if it adds an extra layer of complication. So we we set out to create this food tour, the company that we run. But people have been asking me, ‘It’s great. I love doing your one-day or your half-day tour, but I want to come and just do a week of food.’ I love to travel based on food, which is me personally, how I travel. So that’s always intriguing to me that there are other people like me out there.

Amanda: So I created it with a travel company, a seven-day food tour, and I’m hosting the first one — that’s the second week of March of this year. And it’s a small group, eight people — because we want people to be able to be as hands-on as possible and really make it very personal and not like something anyone could do. It’s special, you know, it’s something really special. So the first one is in March. That’s escorted by me, but then I also have created a seven-day, 10- day and 12-day option that can be anytime privately. So somebody wants to come and they want to come in the middle of July, which I don’t recommend. But if you did, you can. And we have those itineraries and they’re just really awesome immersive food experiences from morning til night.

David: Is travel a part of this — are you going from one place to another?

Speaker 6: Yeah, absolutely. So the 7-day tour is Marrakech, the Atlas Mountains, Essaouira — which is on the coast — and a visit to the Agafay desert, which is about 45 minutes outside of Marrakech, not the Sahara desert, because that’s a 10-hour drive from Marrakech. But the longer tours — the 10- and 12-day tours — go much further into the north to Chefchaouen, to Tangier, nd to the Sahara desert. So if you wanted to do the others of Morocco that’s an option. And I think that’s something people forget, too. Morocco is a big country. So it’s not — YOU can’t do everything and in a really short period of time.

David: Yeah. I was surprised. I looked it up the other day, and Morocco is a little bit smaller than California.

Amanda: Yeah. Yeah. Similar in size, pretty much same latitude and longitude. Similar climate and you know, different geographical areas. So you have in the north lots of trees and forests and things like that. Desert areas, mountains.

David: Yeah. So on this food tour, what are your, let’s say, top three?

Amanda: Yeah. So the one thing that you have to eat, especially if you’re coming to Marrakech, is tangia, which is not tagine. It’s a different dish. It’s called the ‘bachelor dish.’ It’s something that typically the men who worked in the souks, the artisan areas of Marrakech would eat, would make on Thursday nights because it cooks all night in the cold. So, it’s in a slow cooker and it’s lamb meat, and then Fridays, would be their day off, so they’d all get together and have a picnic and eat this. So it’s a really special dish, and it has a really deep history here in Marrakech.

David: Is it like a stew?

Speaker 6: Sort of. I mean, I think it’s similar to a tagine in that it’s meat that’s slow-cooked and has a sauce that goes with it. But there’s no vegetables. And it kind of just like — the meat just sort of falls apart, and it’s got garlic and preserved lemons and saffron and olive oil and it’s super slow-cooked in a clay pot. It’s just got this kind of smoky, delicious flavor.

David: That sounds fantastic. What’s number two?

Amanda: Number two is very simple, and that is a bread that’s made in a couple parts of Morocco but especially in Atlas Mountains and it’s called tafernout. And it’s sort of similar to how tandoori bread is made. So it’s a piece of dough that’s made and then it’s kind of slapped against the side of a clay oven that’s got a fire going in the middle area and then cooked pretty quickly because of the high heat. That with olive oil — locally pressed olive oil — honey, argan oil, butter — all of those things that make, like, the perfect mountain breakfast here and with a giant pot of super-sweet mint tea. So that’s my like — I would eat that every day.

Amanda: And then I think you have to have a traditionally cooked tagine that’s cooked over charcoal. A lot of places shortcut and cook in pressure cookers to make the tagine, which is fine because it does take a lot of time and not every housewife or every mom has time to make a four-hour tagine every day. But if I’m going to eat a tagine, I want it cooked over charcoal. Slow-cooked with fresh ingredients and there’s nothing better. It’s so good.

David: That sounds great. Are there special places where you eat these things? Because I noticed that sometimes food and location, one improves the other.

Amanda: Right. So tangia is something that is basically only cooked in Marrakech. You will see people coming from other cities in Morocco going to the area where you can buy tangias — these giant clay, urn pots — and then taking them on the train as they go home to Casablanca or other cities because Marrakech is known for it. So if you’re gonna eat tangia, you should eat it here.

David: Okay.

Amanda: And then tafernout bread, you can find it in some places. But again, like sitting on a rooftop or in the garden of a home in the mountains where its quiet, and you can see the mountains and maybe you see a little stream or a river that’s running through. I mean it’s just… okay, I’m not going to lie, it tastes good everywhere. But it tastes really good there.

Amanda: Everything they have comes from — they press the olive oil. It’s olives from their trees and you know, so they made the butter. You know. It makes a difference.

David: Yeah, of course it does. The peak of freshness and all.

Amanda: Totally. And the tagine, I’ll take it anywhere. Like if you’re going to get the charcoal going on your rooftop and make it on the grill, that’s fine. I think it, it tastes great anywhere. I always need outside. So I think, you know, anytime you can eat outside, food tastes better.

David: Yeah, I agree. Let’s talk a little bit about books. Do you have any books that you recommend that really capture the feeling of Morocco or parts of Morocco or made you understand the culture a little bit better?

Amanda: So I am an avid, avid reader. I read 50 to 75 books a year. So books are a huge part of my life. And I have tried to read literally every single book that comes out that mentions Morocco or has Morocco included. Any reference to it, I try to read it because I’m always curious how it’s being portrayed. You know, what I found is that a lot of times the books are written either in a very negative way portraying Morocco, or from a point of view of somebody who doesn’t necessarily understand the culture completely. So they write in a way that doesn’t portray it accurately or things that they don’t understand are portrayed negatively, if that makes sense. But there’s a couple that stick out. If I say like what books really make me think of Morocco or have a special place to meet. And the first one is called Stolen Lives. It’s the first book that I ever read about Morocco. I was probably 14 or 15 years old — before I knew my husband, before I ever came to Morocco. And I only remember it because I was always interested in other places in the world and it was one of Oprah’s book club picks.

Amanda: And I remember seeing the author — her name is Malika Oufkiron — the Oprah show talking about it. And it’s not a light book by any means. And it was actually banned in Morocco for quite awhile. So Oufkiron was the daughter of a general in the Moroccan military. And this general was accused of plotting a coup against the former King of Morocco. And he ended up being executed, I believe, and his whole family was imprisoned including including his children. And so it tells their story about how they grew up and they were very close to the Royal family. And then, you know, there’s subsequent challenges that they had. So it just really brought together this period of time that I had no clue about. And, you know, thinking about it as a young as a teenager was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’

Amanda: I think that it does a good job of giving a firsthand account of what people went through.And it later it gave me an insight into just some of the ways that people are and how life was in Morocco. Like, even from my husband growing up — because he grew up during that time. You know what things were like. So that’s a good one. It’s a good read. It’s a biography. The second one is called A Street in Marrakech and it’s written by a lady named Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. I believe that’s the pronunciation of her name. She and her husband lived in Marrakech with their children. He was an anthropologist. And I just found her stories were just really interesting and she told them in a way that is, she tells them in a way that’s like very matter of fact but also like her coming to understand this new society that she’s living in.

Amanda: But she does it without any judgment or bias in how she’s doing it. Like, she doesn’t necessarily understand things, but she doesn’t say, ‘Well I don’t understand it, so it’s stupid.’ Do you know what I mean? Just very good at telling these stories even when she doesn’t necessarily fully understand that. Then the third author I actually recommend, her name is Laila Lalami and she’s a Moroccan author. And that’s another thing, a lot of books about Morocco are not written by Moroccans. So that makes it a little difficult to understand. And there are books that are written but they’re not typically written in English. So she is an author. A lot of her work has been translated to English. She tackled some tough subjects, but it’s the reality of life for a lot of people.

Amanda: And I think she just does it in a way that’s matter of fact without being too depressing or too harsh I guess. You know, they’re very insightful. I really enjoy it and I just really enjoy her writing style, which I guess probably is a tribute to her translator.

David: Yeah. Did you mention a specific book?

Amanda: So there’s two books that I know specifically talk about Morocco. One is called Secret Son and the other is called Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. The second one kind of focuses on the issue of irregular migration from Morocco to Europe. And it just tells, you know, people’s stories. It really just kind of tells an understanding of why people do what they do.

David: Thanks for the recommendations.

Amanda: You’re welcome.

David: Amanda, are you ready for the speed round?

Amanda: I’m ready. Okay.

David: Favorite mode of transportation?

Amanda: I like cars. I like road trips.

David: Must have in your suitcase or carry on?

Amanda: Hair conditioner and lip balm.

David: How do you document your trips?

Amanda: I am an avid photographer. I love taking pictures. And I’ve gotten better at doing little videos, too, which is a lot of fun.

David: Oh, that’s nice. If you could go right now to an airport or a train station and visit another place, where would you go?

Amanda: Iran.

David: Oh wow.

Amanda: Yeah, it’s the top of my bucket list.

David: You’re adventurous.

Amanda: I mean, I’ve traveled a lot. I do travel a lot, so I’ve been to a lot of places that I’ve always dreamed about. And that’s just the one that’s kind of an outlier. I was supposed to go in June, but my trip got canceled.

David: Besides the city you live in, what’s your favorite city?

Amanda: Can I pick two?

David: Sure.

Amanda: So I pick Istanbul and Seville, Spain.

David: Oh yeah. Okay. Who do you admire the most?

Amanda: My mom for sure. Yeah.

David: That’s great. Why is that?

Amanda: She always knew that I had bigger dreams than where I grew up and she never laughed at them and she never poo-pooed them, even though she could never imagine herself doing the things that I dreamed of. And so she always gave me my wings without even really knowing it. And always supported me no matter what.

David: Oh, that’s, that’s great. What’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever been?

Amanda: Oh, the Maldives. It’s just amazing. Can’t imagine — just the water — it’s just gorgeous.

David: Can you describe that a little bit more?

Amanda: Yeah, I mean, I remember waking up and we were in one of those like over-water bungalow things and just looking out and seeing this turquoise water, beautiful sunrise you know, trees swaying, silence, just complete silence. And just thinking like, ‘Wow, this is heaven. This has gotta be heaven.’

David: That’s nice. All right. We’ve been talking with Amanda Ponzio Mootaki who owns and operates MarocMama. If you’d love to see Marrakech or Casablanca or travel by camel across the Sahara, she is the person to talk to you. You can find her online at

David: Thank you so much for talking to me.

Amanda: It’s a pleasure.

David: Thank you for listening to Strong Sense of Place. For more on Morocco, including the books we discussed today, more book recommendations, information about our guests, and literary landmarks in Morocco, visit our website at

Melissa: Be sure to sign up for our free weekly newsletter. It’s packed with our favorite book and travel related things. And please follow us on Instagram for photos, illustrations, short book reviews and other things we love. We are @strong sense of.

David: So we launched the podcast a few weeks ago and we’re so grateful to everybody who listened. Thank you so much for listening and leaving notes and emailing us and putting comments on Instagram and Facebook made us feel so welcome. Thank you so very much. If you like the podcast, it would mean a lot to us. If you could tell a friend, if you have a friend who reads and is interested in books, just let them know about it. That really helps us out. Another thing you could do is go to Apple podcast and leave a review — that helps other people find us.

David: Mel, what are we covering in our next show?

Melissa: This is such a good one for books. I mean, they all are, but this one is really, really, really good for books and literature. Pour a shot of vodka — we’re going to Russia.

David: Thanks for listening.


Top image courtesy of Wei Pan.

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