Le pays froid où le soleil est chaud

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Sefrou. 1970. Street in Seti Messaouda.

I was recently reading the blog of a PC volunteer now in Morocco, who complained bitterly of the cold. That post certainly brought back memories. El-berd! The cold! It even sounds cold in dialect. The first French resident general, Maréchal Lyautey described Morocco as a cold country with a hot sun, a remark I repeat with misgivings as it has almost become a cliche. Still, I remember Morocco’s winters far more its the summers.

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Sefrou. Bab Mkam. 1970.

For anyone living away from the Moroccan coast, cold winters forced volunteers to hunker down and cope as best we could. Our living allowance never permitted us to live with the French and the more prosperous Moroccans in the Ville Nouvelle, where there were European houses with central heating.

I lived in Sefrou, about 3,000 feet above sea level. Snow was uncommon. It only fell two of the four years I lived there.

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The Seti Messaouda gate, from inside the medina (old city).The door to my house is the last on the left.

In Chauen, where I lived for two years, I never saw snow except on the mountains, but the altitude of Chauen was only 1,800 feet.

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Chauen. Road to Ouazzan. 1977.

In Tlemcen, Algeria, at the start of the trip across the Sahara, there was a snowfall. Tlemcen is almost the same altitude as Sefrou. It was March, and snowing in Sefrou, too.

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Tlemcen, Algeria. March, 1971.

The Sefrou snow falls were dramatic, but the snow melted quickly.

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La piscine de Sefrou en été
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La piscine de Sefrou en hiver
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Sefrou, gate in city wall. Summer.
Gate in city wall, winter after snowfall.

If you lived in Ifrane, it would have been really cold, though Ifrane had no Peace Corps then, nor much of anything else.

Ifrane. 1969.
Les environs d’Ifrane. 1969b
Hôtel les Tilleuls. Ifrane 1969.

Like an Indian hill town, Ifrane then consisted of a hotel or two, shuttered houses dating from the Protectorat and a palace of the king.

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The lion and the palace.
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King’s palace. 1969.
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House in Ifrane. 1969

Today Ifrane has a university, where one of my old friends teaches.

The Morocco X group arrived in January 1968. The sun was shining on that clear, warm day as the 40 agriculture volunteers debarked from the PanAm 707 at Sale. In New York it had been frigid, so the weather in Morocco was a great contrast. Pan American airlines flew to Rabat from its remarkable Eero Saarinen terminal at JFK. That was a great convenience, but the airport in Sale was subject to occasional dense fogs. Today most trans-Atlantic flights land at Nouaceur, a former U.S. SAC base outside of Casablanca. Our flight stopped briefly in the Azores, and, I think, in Lisbon, though I don’t recall leaving the plane there. The Saarinen terminal in NY, despite much architectural acclaim, has been demolished and replaced by a larger structure, and Pan Am is no more.

Pan Am 707 refueling in the Azores. 1968.

The Morocco X group had trained in a migrant labor camp in Hemet, California. The original training locale was to have been Taos, New Mexico, but a switch took place sometime before the training started. Hemet was a small agricultural and retirement community in a large inland valley in Riverside County, and the town sat in the shadow of Mt. San Jacinto and Tahquitz Peak. Behind these dry, but forested, mountains is Palm Springs and the Mojave Desert.

The weather was summery when we arrived in Hemet in early October, but, by the end of training, had turned colder. The camp rooms were basic and had no heating. The concrete floors were unsealed, and gave up an unpleasant dust. We slept, four to a room, in the sleeping bags that we must have been counseled to bring from home. By late December, there was plenty of snow in the mountains, and we wore coats and jackets both inside and out. The only entertainment was a morning visit by a food truck selling Mexican-American food such as tacos, and a daily volleyball game. The camp food was horrible, and we all looked forward to leaving.

We weren’t in Rabat long before were went to a rural agricultural station near Tiflet, in Zemmour country, for in-country training. There was no heat there, and no hot water. Sometime into the second week, the boiler was turned on so we could all have a hot shower, but the only real warmth came on the occasional sunny day. Then we lay about on blankets, like lizards, hoping to warm as much as we could while the sun still shone.

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In-country training, Tiflet. 1968.

How much colder it got depended on the altitude of the place where you were going. Through the prism of my Weather Channel app and the Internet, I now have figures. In Morocco, the coldest part of the year is called the ellyali, and starts in mid-January and goes for a month or so. Watching the temperatures in Sefrou this year, I noticed that the nighttime lows were regularly about 32° F or 0° C. for much of December and January. While I never recall ice forming, one could always see one’s breath, inside as well as outside. I lived in a masonry house, and my room had no outside windows. It made a reasonable refrigerator, but not always a comfortable place to live. If you compare the weather now with Rabat, on the Atlantic coast, on sunny days, the daytime highs are similar, but the nighttime temperatures are 10° F or more cooler in Sefrou.

Having evaluated the situation before we left Tiflet, each and everyone in our group began developing his coping strategies. I had brought long underwear, and it helped. I also acquired an Aladdin kerosene heater. If you’re a cousin from across the ocean, and don’t recognize this American term, kerosene is what you refer to as paraffin in the British Isles.

There were many kerosene heaters for sale in the larger towns, but the Aladdin brand seemed to be the best, burning evenly and producing few fumes and little smell. None of the knockoffs were nearly as good. The trick was getting hold of new wicks. Though they were sold at the U.S Navy base store in Kenitra, we weren’t allowed to shop there, so if you knew someone with PX privileges, and they wanted to break the rules and buy one for you, you were in luck. Otherwise you had to have a wick shipped from the States or find one in Spain.

The Aladdin heater could bring my bedroom up to a tolerable temperature quickly. I used it most evenings, and even, once in a while, let it burn all night long. Though there was no exterior ventilation, the 16-18’ ceilings and huge doorway seemed to provide adequate ventilation.

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The courtyard, facing the front room on the street. It was the only room with real windows. My room, out of sight, behind me in this photo, had an equally impressive door, but no outside windows.

The door was always ajar as one of the cats would insert his paw and exert enough force to swing it wide, at least wide enough for himself to enter. I always wished he could have learned to shut it, too! The Aladdin heater was also quite portable, and could easily be moved, even while lit. Through its portal, the blue kerosene glow of the wick was quiet comfort, and never disturbed my sleep the times that I slept with it on.

While the kerosene heater did not seem to pose a serious health problem, propane fueled water heaters were another matter altogether. Today in America one might refer to them as on-demand systems. The pilot ignited a gas jet that was triggered by turning on the tap or shower. These were relatively common in apartments in larger cities. They were also commonly found all over Europe. Unfortunately, they came in many different grades and conditions, and their installation required proper venting and checking for gas leaks. Sadly, during the eight years I lived in Morocco, three volunteers died, asphyxiated, in two separate incidents. They were all girls, and, in one of the cases, two shared an apartment and died together. I, myself, was seriously poisoned by carbon monoxide while living in Chauen, but managed to crawl across the street to my French friends’ house, where I received first aid. Luckily, my friend was a doctor, working off his military service as a coopérant.

In the Sefrou house, there was no water heater. Everything was done with cold water or water heated on the kitchen two-burner stove in the large kettles we used for tea water. I had somehow acquired a very large galvanized wash tub for laundry. I could fit in it, though not without a little contortion. Occasionally the other volunteer I lived with, Gaylord Barr, or myself would heat up a lot of water, carry the tub down to our bathroom which had no sit down toilet or even much of a sink, and use it for a bath. Kettles of heated water were also handy for shaving, though I had to forgo that luxury when I was late for work. Peace Corps volunteers refer to Morocco as Posh Corps. The country was developed, and close to Europe. Just the same, depending on where you lived, you could freeze all winter long.

More often than not, we would go to the hammam in our neighborhood, sometimes with Moroccan friends. The hammam was a Turkish style bath, with a changing room and three wet rooms, each progressively hotter. The last room was the hottest. The rooms were dimly lit, and the floors warm. Perhaps there was a hypocaust as in Roman baths.

Larger cities had larger and more elaborate structures, with variations on the design, but you really need to go to the Middle East to see fine bath architecture. Our neighborhood hammam was a simple box, divided in two parts, one for women and one for men.

The hammam in Seti Messaouda, outside the wall, but not far from my house.

In the changing room off the entrance, men would strip to their underpants. Nudity for men was an offense to Muslim notions of modesty. On the other hand, women would undress completely, and, perhaps, a bit unnerving to the western women who entered the hammam, were all the prepubescent boys running around. Of course, women either had their own facility or different hours from men. My neighborhood hamman had separate entrances and facilities for men and women. One would grab a wooden bucket, go to the hottest room, which had a basin of hot water, and then, if it was too hot, retreat to the middle room. The hot water had to be diluted, too. The idea was to sweat and clear the pores of dirt, then use soap to wash and fresh water to rinse. Pumice stone and fuller’s earth helped, too. There was always someone there who would rub you down and give you a massage, for which you would pay a few ryals. If you went with friends, they would wash your back. The massages I witnessed were pretty strenuous, and I never had the desire to have one. The hot temperatures and the soap and water seemed to do their job.

The hammam was not like a shower, in and out in minutes. You went for the afternoon or the evening. It was a social event. And while you were there, you were warm! You could stay as long as you wanted, and if you got thirsty, you could go back to the changing room, buy a soda or eat an orange that you brought yourself, and then re-enter for more washing. Friends often sat around and talked. The hammam was a way to get clean, and Islam requires cleanliness as a part of ritual purity, but it was also a nice way of passing a free afternoon or evening. When you finished, you put on fresh clothes, maybe your pajamas if it were evening, threw on your djellaba, and, suffused with warmth, walked home under a cold, starry sky. No matter how cold it was, you felt warm for a few more hours. In my case in Sefrou, home was only a few hundred yards down quiet, shadowy streets, along the city wall, and through the city gate.

Speaking of djellabas, for men, at least, they, too, were a part of the strategy of keeping warm in winter. There really was nothing finer than a good djellaba. Women’s djellabas were cut from different materials, but men’s cool weather djellabas were made of wool. I bought mine in the Sefrou suq.

The wool suq, Sefrou.

I actually ordered it, and it was made to measure. It was rough wool and heavy, and I always wanted a black and white one with the fine, geometrical patterns that the Middle Atlas Berbers made in places like Imouzzer des Marmoucha, but, in the end, I never did make an effort to get one.

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The suq (market) at either Missour or Midelt. The gentlemen greeting each other wear Middle Atlas style djellabas.

Mine was serviceable, just the same, and I wore it indoors and out during the cold months. It kept me warm inside, when I could see my breath, and outside it kept me dry for hours in steady rain. The wool fibers would swell as they got wet, and keep the water out, and though the djellaba got heavier and heavier, and eventually damp, I never got wet wearing it.

Convenience was also a virtue of the garment. No one could see what you were wearing under it, so I could go out of my house in pajamas to buy milk and sfinj (doughnuts) for breakfast, without worrying about dressing.

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The sfinj maker, just outside the Seti Messaouda gate. Some people powdered them with sugar. I liked them just as they came out of the oil.

The sfinj were strung on the fronds of dwarf palms, doum (Chamaerops humilis) the only palm native to Europe by the way. In good weather, the hood became an extra pocket to carry small items like eggs, if necessary. When I took it off before going to sleep, I folded it carefully, lest a djinn would enter it at night and cause me harm. No sense taking chances.

On sunny winter days, it was possible to go up to the flat roof or terrace, and catch some sunshine, but that was not sunbathing! Warm clothes were still necessary until the weather warmed in April. The locals would promenade if the weather was warm enough, enjoying the sunshine, exercise, and fresh air. Students often studied as they walked in groups of two or three.

We tried buying a wood fired cook stove for the room used as a kitchen, but the stove never had an adequate draft, and smoked. I also bought a small stove for the guest room on the room, but that room was very cold, and when we eventually abandoned it,

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My rooftop. The little room proved impossible to heat. Khadija and her helper doing dishes. A little piece of the city wall visible to right.

I moved the stove into the courtyard and tried burning charcoal briquets in it. It produced a fair amount of heat, but it proved to be too messy and too much trouble, and it was eventually discarded. A full fire only heated the courtyard.

Occasionally volunteers moved in with others, or their girl friends came over from the States or they met a coopérante, who wanted a roommate. That sometimes proved a fun, but costly, way to stay warm. One English teacher in Sefrou got his live-in girl friend pregnant, leading to all kinds of serious complications.

Determined not to be cold in Chauen, I brought over an electric blanket. You probably have already guessed how that worked out. The power fails in the middle of the night, while you are asleep, and the bed gets colder and colder, and you slowly wake up and finally awake, realize that you are freezing and begin to desperately look for more blankets. Electricity is wonderful as long as you can count on it. You could always count on wool blankets if you had enough of them.

In the end, staying warm depended on long underwear (if only it had been woolens—the Brits know what they are doing there), the faithful Aladdin, the hammam, my djellaba, and plenty of blankets. And, maybe, my attitude. I wasn’t living that much better than my neighbors. I never spent a warm winter in Morocco, but I never took much notice of the cold after the first winter. I was young and Morocco had a lot to offer whatever the temperature inside or out.

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City gate at Derb el-miter

Where I live now, this February has been well above normal. The first days of March seem to be shaping up nicely, too. March will not come in like a lion this year. Still, I can hear the words of my late Aunt Mary, repeating what her mother, my maternal grandmother from Abruzzo, always said: “Marzo è pazzo.” March is crazy. We shall see.

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Samira, the cat. The roof was her playground, and the snow was not welcome.

Author: Dave

Retired. Formerly school librarian, social studies teacher, and urban planner.

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