The Story of Rugs from Hunza

August 18th, 2014

Natural Dyed Wool in the Hunza Valley. © Didar Ali

Our own interest in Hunza began many years ago in Africa when we began to meet Moslem friends who were followers of the Aga Khan.  These members of the Ismaeli Shia sect are the most liberal of all Moslems, and they often spoke about their homeland in the high mountain valleys of Central Asia.


Fred and Didar Ali. © Sharon Lundahl

The current Aga Khan has an estimated 15 million followers in more than 25 countries.  Their community supports less fortunate members in remote areas through humanitarian programs and successful world-wide businesses like the five-star Serena Hotel chain.


Hunza Poster. © Didar Ali

Sharon met Didar Ali, an Ismaeli from Hunza, when she was working in the Islamabad Embassy about ten years ago.  We started to buy wool needlepoint cushions made with natural dyes by women in his workshops to sell in the first years of our shop, Music for the Eyes, in Langley.

Traditional weaving in Hunza was historically quite basic — limited to a few village elders making coarse goat and yak hair rugs.  The Aga Khan provided support for the Hunza workshops dedicated to the training of young women, under Turkmen master weavers.   More than 250 women are now skilled carpet-weavers and earn decent wages.


Hunza man dyeing wool for our rugs. © Didar Ali.

Even in the best of times, there are almost no  jobs in Hunza.  There are few natural resources and almost no exports to support a growing population.  The bad publicity resulting from extremist acts in other parts of Pakistan has drastically affected tourism.

In January 2010 a landslide buried an entire village in the Hunza Valley and hit three villages directly. The debris caused a natural dam across the river and destroyed most schools in this area.


Hunza Girl Weaving Our Rugs. © Didar Ali.

In response to the resulting hardship, Didar Ali emailed us and asked us to buy some rugs.  We were able to send him pictures and colors we wanted, and his weavers created a new series of stunning gabbehs with natural dyes, intense colors and modern designs.

Even though we weren’t able to visit the Hunza workshops on this trip, we were able to send some boxes of books to schools where Didar Ali’s wife is a teacher.  We learned that at least 3/4 of the people in the Hunza Valley (and virtually all young people–including girls) are literate.  This is in a country where only about half of the whole population is literate, and millions of girls are blocked from attending schools.

This education has contributed to the high status of Ismaeli women.  Women and girls can even stroll bazaars alone at night without a problem, unlike in the extremist areas of Pakistan.


Schoolchildren in Hunza with the Books we Sent Them. © Didar Ali.

This foreshortened visit to Pakistan has been our most “eventful” trip in many years.  Perhaps we were naive in thinking we could visit all our friends and avoid bumping into the troubles of the region.  What we learned, sadly, was that extremism, whether left or right wing, whether Moslem, Christian, Buddhist or Jewish, has engulfed our world and made it increasingly difficult for the 99.9 percent of us who are not on those extremist fringes to live our lives, to raise our families, to weave our carpets in peace.


Hunza Ladies Weaving Rugs. © Didar Ali.

We will always be haunted by the image of the friendly young Pakistani children, amazed at seeing a foreigner, waving goodbye to us as they climb on board their school bus…and the bus door is closed by their armed guard carrying a machine gun over his shoulder.


Rug Made in Hunza for Music For The Eyes



Hunza: the Inspiration for Shangri-La

July 27th, 2014

Hunza Terraced Fields. © Gary Krosin.

We traveled to Pakistan in order to see the far-northern Hunza Valley, and especially to visit our friend Didar Ali and his designers and weavers who make rugs for our shop on Whidbey Island.


Girl in Hunza Hat. © Didar Ali.

We chose May to visit Hunza, as Google calendar predicted sunshine and clear skies every day.  Good flying weather is essential, as the area has 8 of the highest 20 mountains in the world.  Sadly, Google didn’t reckon with this El-Nino-year of unexpected rains and floods everywhere, including where we wanted to go.


Boy in Hunza Hat. © Didar Ali.

Formerly called simply “The Northern Areas,” Gilgit-Baltistan Province has the only snow leopard sanctuary in the world, as well as huge peaks such as K-2, the second highest mountain in the world.  This isolated, remote area has fascinated westerners for many years.


In the 19th century, the “Great Game” for influence between Russia and England played out here, and writers like Rudyard Kipling brought the exotic area to readers through books like “Kim” and “The Man Who Would Be King.”

In the 20th century, our fascination continued with James Hilton picking the area as his site GreatGame,Hunza,MusicForTheEyesfor the mythical Shangri-La in his book “Lost Horizons.”  More recently, the Hunza Valley showed up in Greg Mortenson’s school-building efforts in “Three Cups of Tea.”

During our trip, we were supposed to stay in the Hunza Serena Inn, in a magnificent setting with views of the Hunza Valley.  Located in the ancient town of Karimabad at the foot of Mount Ultar, the Inn looks down to green terraced fields and the Hunza River.


Hunza River. © Jordi Boixareu@Flickr

The central city in Hunza, Karimabad, is basically a town comprised of six villages as you come from Gilgit on the Karakorum Highway.  There is a bazaar known for colorful shops and local dried fruits such as dried apricots, apricot nut, almonds, walnuts and mulberries.  Most meals are supposed to include apricots in at least one of its many variations.

Near the bazaar is Baltit village and the recently restored Baltit fort and museum.  The architects who built the Baltit fort about 500 years ago were Tibetan artisans invited to the valley by the wife of the Mir (king) of Hunza.


Butcher In Gilgit. © Jodi Boixareu@Flickr

Other sights we hoped to visit were the town and fort of Shigar, the village of Khaplu’s wooden mosques and Gilgit’s centuries-old Buddhist manuscripts.  We planned to take daily four-wheel-drive explorations and hikes in this fairy-tale land surrounded by beautiful rugged and snow-capped mountains.


Khaplu Fort. © Gary Krosin.

We chose to go via Islamabad and hope for good flying weather, as this was the simplest and least expensive way to visit the Hunza Valley.  The other more expensive and elaborate way to reach Hunza is to fly to China and then drive from the western Chinese city of Kashgar (now called Karshi) up the Chinese-built Karakoram Highway and over the high Kunjerab Pass into Pakistan to the Hunza District.

We chose wrong.  We later learned that a tour group of foreigners successfully visited Hunza a month later by driving in from China and seeing the sights we missed.  Oh well, maybe next time…

Stay tuned for the next blog, which will tell you about Didar Ali’s weaving cooperative.


Gilgit Serena Hotel



Islamabad the Beautiful

July 10th, 2014



The Serena Hotel in Islamabad. © Fred Lundahl

Islamabad has always been one of our favorite capital cities.  The construction of a new capital was begun in the 1960’s in order to reflect the diversity of the new Pakistani nation.


Two Pakistani School Girls. © Sharon Lundahl.

Set against the backdrop of the Margallah Hills, the city was planned in huge open space grids with evocative place names like F-6, G-2, etc.  In a country filled with crowded cities with teeming bazaars, Islamabad was always a contrast and a breath of fresh air.

Its wide tree-lined streets made it especially beautiful.  Government buildings, foreign embassies, universities and mosques were laid out on spacious plots with lots of gardens.  Market areas were packed with shops, of course, but there was plenty of parking and lots of open parkland around.


Security in Islamabad

In the old days, we hung out at carpet shops and wonderful book stores where modern hardback reprints of old 19th century histories and travelogues could be purchased for three or four dollars.  On weekends, when we weren’t hiking or biking in the hills overlooking the city, we could go to open air markets and buy wonderful handicrafts and rub shoulders with all sorts of people.


Yasin, a rug friend and shop owner, with Fred. © Sharon Lundahl

Sadly, that Islamabad seems to be gone.  On this trip, some of the wide boulevards were blacked off with huge steel shipping containers denying access to entire sections of town, often where foreign embassies are located.

Now the largest employers seem to be security guard companies.  You can see countless men in


Bilal, our Rug Supplier from Lahore, who showed us around.

uniform going to their guard jobs on scooters with machine guns slung over their shoulders.  These days companies making barbed wire and concrete barriers–both always in view–seem to be more successful than carpet makers.  Just getting into the lobby of the Serena, our five-star hotel, required four separate security checks.

Once inside the Islamabad Serena, you seem to be in another world.  Nested on fourteen acres of land and gardens, the hotel was built by the Aga Khan, to provide an oasis of beauty.  During our former trips, this premier hotel in Islamabad was full of Americans, many of whom were on temporary duty to or visiting the U.S. Embassy.  This time we only saw one American, a professor, during our stay at the hotel.  The few foreigners in sight were limited to mostly mountain climbers waiting, like us, for clear weather to fly to the high peaks in the north.


A favorite Restaurant in Islamabad. © Sharon Lundahl

The American Embassy, which numbers over one thousand American employees, now houses all on the Embassy compound.  It has filled all its gardens and softball fields with trailers as residences.  There are strict restrictions on travel outside the embassy because of security.


School Children Visiting the Museum. © Sharon Lundahl

When we were out with Pakistani friends shopping or eating in restaurants, we NEVER saw another westerner.  In museums, which used to be full of foreign tourists, they turned on the lights for us.  We were the object of curiosity to groups of children on field trips, who were not used to foreigners.  They left on their school buses, each armed with the guard carrying the ubiquitous machine gun.

Each day we returned to our hotel to find that the flight to the mountains had once again been cancelled by bad weather…or by finding we were not next in line for the few available seats.   There was just one daily flight to Hunza in a propeller plane to the 12,000 foot landing strip, and the view had to be clear to fly.


The Serena Hotel. © Sharon Lundahl

The fallback plan had been to drive to Hunza, which took about 20 hours…if there were not any landslides.   Clearly, we did not want to drive through Taliban territory in Waziristan, and so decided to cut short our trip and return home.

When we travel we always use the free online “Smart Traveler Program” run by the U.S. government to register when and where we will be in case of emergency.   As we had left Pakistan early, we were in our shop on Whidbey Island when our phone range with the “Amber Alert” text sound.  The message was a warning from the Embassy in Islamabad to all Americans in light of the bombings at F-6 (our favorite hang-out) the night before.


Musicians at the Serena Hotel. © Sharon Lundahl


Getting There is Half the Fun–

June 22nd, 2014

Dubai. © Eugene.Kaspersky@flickr

Our trip to Pakistan, once we decided not to go the expensive and problematic route through troubled Western China, was a simple flight on Emirates, a great airline, from Seattle to Dubai, followed by another up to Islamabad.  The flights were as a good as any 16-hour trip in Economy could be.    We were given a hard drive full of about 100 movies and tv shows, and had multiple empty seats to let us expand.


Emirates Air Hostess (Gabriella from Argentina). © Philip@Flickr

The trip over the International Date Line dumped us in Dubai at one of the world’s busiest airports for a seven-hour layover.  We were in Dubai International Airport’s $ 4.5 billion Terminal 3, the exclusive province of Emirates Airline.   Covering nearly 18.5 million square feet, it is the largest air terminal on the planet.  It is also ranked as among the world’s most passenger-friendly terminals.

As of this time Dubai’s traffic is 75 million passengers a year, moving it past London’s Heathrow as the world’s busiest international airport.  By 2018 that number is expected to pass 90 million.

Dubai Airport at 3 AM. © ColleenLaughlin@Flickr

Dubai Airport at 3 AM. © ColleenLaughlin@Flickr

Dubai is a favorite destination for Middle Eastern travelers, both for its open-minded acceptance of all cultures, as well as for its catering to all kinds of tourists.   There is everything in Dubai from Disneyland-like resorts, to beaches, to ice-skating, to over-the-top seven star hotels and to themed shopping malls.

There were lots of long “sleeping” chairs, so we catnapped and watched humanity pass by.  Even though it was after midnight, shoppers were crowding in the 100 or so stores in our terminal, buying everything from the usual airport gifts to $ 11,000 bottles of 1947 Cheval Blanc.


Down on the Docks in Dubai. © CharlesRoffey@Flickr


The airport was the most culturally diverse place we have ever been.  Through this ultra-modern terminal passed more different type of people than we had ever seen anywhere.  This being the “Little Haj” season, the were numerous Moslem men and women of all ages clothed in white haj dress, wandering through the high-end boutique shops and restaurants…many of whom looked like they had never been on any flight before.


Islam Hitat and Sharon. © Fred Lundahl

We encamped on a couple of sleeping chairs beside a beautiful young Moslem girl, Islam Hitat, dressed from head to toe in black.   Sharon engaged her in conversation (she spoke both fluent English and French) and learned her fascinating story.   She is from Morocco, has a college degree in economics, and has parents who are quite secular–her Dad is a policeman.  Evidently Islam found herself a bit at odds with other Moroccans her own age who were becoming less Islamic while she was becoming more religious.

Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai. © JamesForsyth@Flickr

Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai. © JamesForsyth@Flickr

As it was nearing the time to marry, Islam did what many young people now do–go on-line to look for a mate.  She signed up on and struck up an on-line relationship with a young educated Afghan man, who had also found himself becoming MORE religious than others around him.   Their only common language, interestingly, was English, as he was then living in London.

After only six weeks of on-line courtship, those young people–both from cultures where arranged marriages are still the norm–decided to get married.  Her new boyfriend flew to Morocco and formally asked her father for her hand in marriage.  After the wedding, they went to Jalalabad in Afghanistan to meet his family.  Although they were nice to Islam and gave her a couple of expensive diamond and ruby rings, she said she became afraid when hearing shooting at night… and did not like not being free to leave the compound.

A Dubai Police Car. © MubarakFarhad@Flickr

A Dubai Police Car. © MubarakFarhad@Flickr

So when her husband had to leave on a business trip, Islam insisted on returning to wait for him in Morocco.  Obviously, he is a wealthy Afghan, as he promised to buy a condo in Dubai for when they are in the area.  We asked Islam if she planned to continue with her career.  She said that wouldn’t be necessary, as her new husband has promised to give her anything she wants.  We wish Islam well.

Off in the dusty distance we could see the iconic high rise towers of downtown Dubai, including the Burj Khalifa–the tallest building in the world.


Dubai from a Viewing Platform on the Burj Al Arab. © JonChoo@Flickr


Pakistan! You’re going where?

June 13th, 2014

The Road to Hunza. © JamesTworow@flickr

Yes, Pakistan.  Actually, the far northern part was our goal.  Our May trip was planned to see a number of good friends and business colleagues in a country that is mentioned every day in our newspapers…and not in a good way.


Security is Everywhere. © BennyLin@flickr

We have both visited Pakistan on a number of occasions during our diplomatic careers–Fred, first in the 1980’s, and Sharon, last in 2004.

Frankly, in our era it has long been a troubled place.  It has been ranked the 20th most climate-vulnerable country, because of many serious floods, earthquakes and avalanches on mountain roads.


Flooding in Pakistani town in 2010. © DvidShub@flickr

Also, terrorism and extremist activity have caused dangers not only to foreigners, but to Pakistanis too. Most recently, the U.S. unilaterally killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad.   Even in earlier decades, there was danger; a mob sacked the U.S. Embassy and killed diplomats in the late 1970’s.

99.9 percent of the population is peaceful and pro-western, but that other .01 percent has caused a lot of trouble.   Can you imagine the stress of trying to live a normal life in Pakistan?  A school girl is shot in the head for advocating education for girls!  Wow.


Pretty Girls in Pakistan. © Sharon Lundahl

A recent Gallup poll asked nationals of over 100 countries how happy they were, and the results showed Pakistan as just about the most unhappy country in the world.

Still, we have a number of close friends in Pakistan, and we buy the majority of the rugs in our shop from there.  Pakistanis weave amazing carpets and are good business partners.  We thought it was time to visit them…however carefully.

Our goal was to visit the wonderful Ismaili weavers in the Hunza valley of far northern Pakistan.  We will be writing several blogs about our trip but, with all honesty, must admit that we didn’t reach our goal.   We curtailed our trip early and cannot recommend Pakistan–as the situation now stands–as a destination for even an intrepid traveler.


Making Rugs in Hunza. © Our friend Deedar Ali

Pakistan is a big country ranging from hot tropical coastal plains and deserts in the south to very high mountains, the Hindu Kush, in the far north.  In between Karachi (yes, the airport attacks) in the south, and the capitol of Islamabad, (yes, the bombings), are fascinating ancient civilizations dating back thousands of years.

But, our destination was Hunza, a 12,000-foot valley in a region containing eight of the 20 highest  peaks in the world.  This includes K-2, also known as the “Savage Mountain” because of the second-highest fatality rate of its climbers.  It is the second-highest mountain on earth, after Mount Everest, at 28,251 feet.


K-2, the “Savage Mountain”. © AamirChoudry@flickr

Our plan was to fly to Islamabad and then skip over the dangerous Waziristan bits by flying up to the far north.  Unfortunately, the global bad weather brought by this year’s El Nino not only has caused bad floods in England and Bosnia, but has resulted in unseasonal torrential rains in Afganistan and Pakistan and messed up our plans to fly to Hunza.

Stay tuned for later blogs on Islamabad and Hunza.


There is a Train Beneath. © Lucio Virzi@flickr

Jimi Hendrix’s Favorite Beach Town

January 17th, 2014

Essaouira. © Sharon Lundahl

In previous trips we haven’t made it down from Marrakesh…and our buying sprees…to the coastal city of Essaouira.  This time, however, we faced a day of “shops closed” due to the big Eid El Adha holiday, so we decided to try to find out why our Seattle neighbor Jimi Hendrix liked the town so much.  We found out.


Street Salesman in Essaouira.© Sharon Lundahl

Essaouira owes its centuries-old existence to its strategic position along the Atlantic coast.  The Portuguese, the first of several European powers to occupy the site, name it Mogador…a wonderfully sinister-sounding word that supposedly was Tolkien’s inspiration for the name he took for his citadel of evil–Modor–in the Hobbit books.


A rug Store in Essaouira. © Sharon Lundahl

At one time it was called the “port of Timbuktu”, as it was the destination of trade caravans bringing products, including slaves, from black Africa.

Essaouira lies at the crossroads between two tribes: the Arab Chiadma to the north and the HaHa Berbers to the south.  Plus they  have the Gnawa, who originally came from further south, and who are especially known for a special and respected kind of Moroccan music.


Fred and Sign About Gnawa Music. © Sharon Lundahl

Gnawa music seems like one long song, but is actually a series of chants which describe various African spirits and is used by followers for a state of trance.  It is also known by its instrumentation, using large heavy iron castanets known as qraqab and a 3-string lute called a hajhuj.  The rhythm is is traditional and hypnotic.

The present fortified seaport of Essaouira dates from the 18th century.  It is a wonderfully atmospheric little beach town surrounded by massive crenelated masonry walls.  Its houses glow white in the sun with embellishments of that wonderfully bright deep Moroccan blue paint.


Fishing Port of Essaouira.© Sharon Lundahl

As expected, most of the shops were closed for the holiday.  We were able to stroll, un-distracted and un-tempted by bargains, along the fishing harbor and through the sunny narrow paths and alleys.  Those were filled with the debris of the previous night’s celebrations of outdoor street barbecues.   It is the custom for each family or group to kill and consume a sheep for this holiday each year.


Fred Playing Harmonica. © Sharon Lundahl

Scorched metal bed frames and piles of still-smoking hot coals were often paired with the decapitated sheeps’ heads of the night’s feasts, complete with pitiful open little sheep eyes staring up at us as we stepped around them.  Much of the Moslem world eats the entire sheep, including the head, but apparently not the Moroccans.


Dyes and African Viagra. © Sharon Lundahl

Most groups of residents out in the streets and alleys cleaning up the mess were not keen on having their pictures taken.  We were rebuffed until we heard a boy in a group of street kids playing a harmonica.  Fred–who has carried a harmonica in his pocket for over half a century–whipped out his instrument and played along with the young Moroccan to the delight of his friends.  They even let us take pictures.


Beach at Essaouira. © Sharon Lundahl

In one of the few open shops, we were finally, at long last, able to score something written in Berber script .  We came across wonderful little badges in Berber and French that said “I’m Berber and I’m Proud of It!”  We bought them all.


Goats in a Tree.© Sharon Lundahl

On the road between Marrakesh and Essaouira we came across the iconic photo that is in all the books of a bunch of goats balancing on high branches of an Argon tree eating its nuts…exactly that photo.  We screeched to a halt and piled out in awe to take photos after a fee was duly collected by the owner of the goats.  The goats were not tethered to their high spindly branches, so we could only imagine that they received a cut of the photo fees their owner had collected.

…and we never found Jimi Hendrix’s stash.


Our companions on the trip: Linda, Jean, (a Moroccan), Greg and Shevaun. © Sharon Lundahl

Marrakesh, the Red City

January 1st, 2014

Marrakesh. © Ron@flickr

Marrakesh is at the place where sub-Saharan Africa meets Arab North Africa.  The name means “Land of God.”


Kids Playing on our Street in Marrakesh.© Fred Lundahl

It was once again thrilling for Fred and Sharon to drive up to Marrakesh, its unique  red walls and red sandstone buildings of Moorish architecture shining in the sun.  This view gives the city its nickname, “The Red City.”  It is also sometimes called, “The Daughter of the Desert”.

The ramparts encircle the old city (the “medina”)– which teems with life and energy…carts and animals carrying huge and strange loads, and people of all colors and various clothing.  At this point it is wise to leave your vehicle in a parking lot and proceed by foot.   All of our excursions in the medina during the next week were done on foot.


Busy Street in the Medina. © Fred Lundahl

The medina  is filled with souks (markets) which meander along labyrinths of curving alleys, leading to the most famous (and most fun) city square in Morocco–the Jemaa el-Fnaa.  This square is the heart of the city and the hub of activity.  Jemaa el-Fnaa means “Assembly of the Dead” because it used to be the place where criminals were beheaded–sometimes up to 45 in a single day.  After execution, the heads were pickled and suspended on spikes from the city gates.


Taking a Break on the Roof of our Fabulous B&B–Riad le Clos des Arts. © Sharon Lundahl

Historically the square attracted tradesmen from the surrounding desert and mountains; snake charmers; musicians with their pipes, African drums and tambourines; and dancing boys.  Even now we saw many of the above, as well as henna painters, herb sellers, fortune tellers and monkey handlers.

Perhaps our favorite of the souk stalls are those selling fresh orange juice.  The counters are piled high with stacks of fresh oranges, and a glass of OJ costs from the equivalent of 50 cents.  Different qualities are more expensive and you can pay as much as $ 1.25 if it’s squeezed in front of you and, therefore, clearly unadulterated.

Marrakesh, Morocco

Shopkeeper and Son on our Street. © Sharon Lundahl

At sunset, the Jemaa el-Fnaa makes an astonishingly quick change;  it is transformed into a  a huge open-air show.  Depending on the night, we heard and saw a variety of musicians, storytellers, tooth-pullers and magicians.  This is really the gathering place of everyone who lives in or visits Marrakesh.


Places to Eat in Jemaa el-Fnaa. © Robbie@flickr

After dark, one whole side of the square is taken over by local “pop-up” restaurants (makeshift food stalls) with grills and long tables, most even without piped-in water, but which often sell fabulous food at low prices.  Hundreds of men and boys in chefs’ dress prepare food every night.  Beware of the stalls with few customers, as their reputation might be for unsafe food preparation.


Fred Carrying Purchases to our B&B. © Sharon Lundahl

One favorite of ours had fried squid  served them with a few side dishes.  At one stall, Ahmed served bowls of escargot for $ 1.25.  You also would probably recognize the slow-cooked lamb served in Moroccan bread with a sprinkling of ground cumin.  Moroccon cuisine is a combination of Moorish, Berber and French influences.

Sharon’s favorite dish in Marrakesh was pastilla.  The classic dish is made of pigeon–cooked, chopped and prepared in a flaky pastry, along with finely chopped almonds and pistachios.  It is topped with a dusting of powdered sugar and cinnamon.   Fred’s favorite was a tagine (exotic warm stew)  of caramelized pumpkin and chicken.


Rug Store in Marrakesh. © Sharon Lundahl

One of the best activities in the souks of Marrakesh is shopping.    Buyers and sellers come to Marrakesh as the recognized trading center of Morocco.  Bargaining is required, and the best products are hand-made.  Many shops specialize in spices and oils; fresh fruits and vegetables; djellabas–long coats with hoods; exotic metal Moroccan lamps; local pottery; argan oil, produced only in Morocco, used for both cooking and beauty; leather goods from their tanning industry; woodwork; antiques of all kinds; jewelry, and, of course, carpets and textiles.


Tuareg Leatherwork. © Sharon Lundahl

While not eating or shopping, we visited many museums and other sights.  Our favorite was probably the Majorelle Gardens.  Established in 1923 by Jacques Majorelle as a Moorish villa with deep blue, green and red tiles, it was later bought by Yves Saint-Laurent and his partner Pierre Berger.  Now the deep blue tiles highlight a garden of tropical flowers, yucca, bougainvillea, bamboo, hibiscus, and so on.  There are more than 400 kinds of palm trees and 1800 species of cactus.

The villa is now a Berber Museum, with incredible displays of Berber clothing and antique jewelry.  The museum shop had prints of YSL posters and books on subjects such as tuareg jewelry.

Once again this trip re-confirmed Marrakesh as our favorite city in Morocco.


The Majorelle Gardens. © Sharon Lundahl



Fez the Mysterious

December 24th, 2013

Famous Tanneries in Fez. © Fred Lundahl

The medina (walled city) in Fez, the oldest of the Moroccan imperial cities, is the best-preserved ancient locale in the Arab world.


Music Shop in Fez. © Sharon Lundahl

Paul Bowles wrote about Fez in 1984 in a travel article; he thought  Fez among the great cities of the world because there a medieval style of life was still functioning.  He talked about a local industry which was based primarily on handmade goods.  This still exists.


Chickens for Sale in Narrow Alleys. © Sharon Lundahl

Fez’s fascinating twisting, sometimes dark, up-and-downhill lanes and alleys can be really confusing to newcomers.  On our last visit a few years ago, its crowded casbah with narrow streets really flummoxed us.  To solve the “where am I?” question, we bought a small Garmin GPS.  Not only did it not work in the narrow passageways with no sky view, but Fred’s brandishing it brought unintended attention from a pick-pocket.  I suspect the thief was quite surprised when he realized he had scored not a valuable cell phone, but a useless GPS.


Jewelry Shop in Old Moroccan Mansion. © Sharon Lundahl

This time was different.  We found a great riad (B&B) inside the walls of the medina with nearby parking for our huge van.  A little study of a pocket-sized city map, coupled with a half-day guided tour to feel out the main routes, made all the difference to our comfort level in wandering the medina.  We were able to find exotic restaurants, as well as shops we could (this time) find a second time…not always easy to do.


The Usual Transport in Narrow Fez Alleys. © Sharon Lundahl

One reason we liked Fez was the unusual absence of cars–even though the cries of “Balek, balek” (look out) usually meant a mule or some other animal heavily laden with goods was coming and we had to squeeze to the side.  Because few roads extend within the city walls, it is the world’s largest car-free urban zone.

Fez has the most complex medina with more ancient monuments, mosques, Koranic schools, souks and riads than any other Moroccan city.  Besides those, we saw weaving studios, watched pottery being made, went by wool and silk being dyed, smelled perfumed oils and spices, tasted strange fruits and figs, and listened to musical instruments.


Scarves for Sale. © Sharon Lundahl

Walking through the alleys off the main walking streets through children playing and neighbors gossiping, largely being ignored even though we were foreigners, we felt like we were really participating in the ancient city’s life.

The most unique and neatest sight to visit in Fez also had the most


Shops on the Lanes. © Sharon Lundahl

unique and un-neatest smell–the tanneries.  Watching the dozens of men tanning sheep skins by stomping on the skins in vats of vile-smelling liquid made us wonder if this were the most unhealthy occupation in the world.  Still, we managed to score some colorful leather slippers (tarboush) which are now gracing our shop.

A favorite restaurant was one set up inside a building that housed a medieval “water clock” that kept time through water dripping from one box to another.


Cafe Clock, Popular Hangout in Fez. © Fred Lundahl

Apparently only the builder knew how it worked…so after he died…the clock ceased to work.  It has now become a notable landmark for everyone…”Let’s meet at the water clock at 6.”

UNESCO designated the Fez medina as a World Heritage Site, and we know why.  It is our favorite mysterious, Medieval city.


Sharon Buying Handmade Moroccan Slippers. © Fred Lundahl

The Berbers: Live Free or Die

December 14th, 2013
Morocco Berber Desert

Our Traveling Companions in the Moroccan Desert. © Linda Ridder.


Berber Morocco

Arabic, Berber, French and computer languages. Sharon Lundahl

The single most noticeable change in Morocco in the years since our last visit has been the sudden appearance of the Berber language, with its exotic ancient alphabet, on all official Moroccan government signs and documents.

The Berbers were the ancient peoples of Morocco who were forcibly converted to Islam by the Arabs who conquered the country over a thousand years ago.  Thought to

Berber Merzouga Morocco

A Berber in Merzouga. © Graye/flickr

descend from mixed peoples–including, Saharan, Oriental and European–they are of different tribes and do not make up a homogenous race.

More than 60 % of Moroccans now call themselves Berber, and “Berber Pride” is now mainstream in Morocco.

Many of the Berbers still

French, Arabic and Berber. © Sharon Lundahl

French, Arabic and Berber. © Sharon Lundahl

live in the Atlas mountains, although others populate urban areas.  The southern nomadic  Berbers (“blue men”–named because their skin was stained by the indigo dyes of their robes and turbans) live in the deserts.

For centuries up into modern times, the Berber culture has been ignored or sometimes suppressed.  The importance, however unspoken, of acknowledging the Berber segment of the population, has led Morocco’s kings to always make sure that one of their wives was a Berber.

Berber Morocco Food

Berber Food Served in the Dessert. © Linda Ridder

Despite this, the ancient non-semitic “Tamazight” language, while spoken in Berber households, was not allowed to be taught in schools or be accepted as an official Moroccan language.  In much the same way that Kurdish language was suppressed in Turkey, the Berber language was devalued.

Berber in Blue Robes. © Sharon Lundahl

Berber in Blue Robes. © Sharon Lundahl

This changed two years ago when Morocco’s young king Mohammed VI correctly perceived that continued ignoring of the contribution of the Berbers to Morocco could risk the rise of the kind of violent discontent that has marked the Kurdish movement in Turkey.  At his encouragement, the government did a total about-face in its policy towards the Berbers.  Suddenly, Berber, with its ancient alphabet, was recognized as an official Moroccan language.  Berber culture began to be taught, along with the language, in schools.

Berber Ladies' Hats. © Sharon Lundahl

Berber Ladies’ Hats. © Sharon Lundahl

The government began to require that all official documents and even touristic signs be written in Arabic AND Berber.  All of this government attention, especially to an ancient language which has six spoken dialects and no commonly agreed upon written form ,was puzzling to many Moroccans, including many Berbers themselves.

Berber Jewelry.  © Fred Lundahl

Berber Jewelry. © Fred Lundahl

Oddly, these new policies have perhaps had just as big an effect internationally as at home.  Just this year, in a surprising turnabout, the Turkish government suddenly reversed decades of suppression of the Kurdish language and culture; Morocco’s king reportedly had told the Turkish prime minister that just as speaking Berber didn’t make one less Moroccan, speaking Kurdish shouldn’t make one less Turkish.

Back in the tourist shops of Morocco, however, merchants usually well tuned to tourist interests, had yet to pick up on foreigners’ interest in the exotic Berber language.  Our exhaustive 3-week search turned up only one “Teach Yourself Berber” book in French, one shawl with a Berber letter on it, and a single T-shirt with one Berber word  nestled amongst the Arabic.

Our shop (in collaboration with our favorite store in Marrakesh) plans to produce t-shirts with “Music for the Eyes” written in Berber.

Berber Morocco Tents

Berber Tents in the Moroccan Desert. © cbertel/flickr


Tangier–Close to Spain

November 30th, 2013

A Tangier Sunset. Sharon Lundahl

In October we made our first ever visit to Tangier, Morocco’s gateway to Europe.  The purpose of our visit was to see a close friend, Lisa, from our diplomatic days.  She recently married a Moroccan-American,  and now splits her time between Morocco and the states.

Handmade Tiles in Lisa's House. © Sharon Lundahl

Handmade Tiles in Lisa’s House. © Sharon Lundahl

Lisa and Charlie have been engaged in a several-year struggle to build a Moroccan mansion in Tangier–with recalcitrant workmen and even cultural problems to overcome. Our friends have never lost their sense of humor about it all, and their experiences are similar to the hilarious house-building adventure in Casablanca that author Tahir Shah chronicled in his great book, “The Caliph’s House”..even to dealing with “djinns”, mischievous spirits that inhabit the house.

Shopping in Tangier. © Sharon Lundahl

Shopping in Tangier. © Sharon Lundahl

Being a Tangerine (resident of Tangier), Lisa knows the city intimately and was a great tour guide.  Tangiers, with the coast of Spain visible on the horizon, sometimes seems more like Europe than the Middle East.  Seacoast resorts filled with European-owned condos stretch away from the old city.

Although one hears the Islamic call to prayer, as in all Moroccan cities, few Tangerine women wear headscarves.

American Legation Museum. © Sharon Lundahl

American Legation Museum. © Sharon Lundahl

The old city still has a famous 1930’s gay bar, “Dean’s”, as well as a centuries-old English church which still holds services for a mostly elderly crowd.  Tangiers is also proud of being the home of many 20th-century expatriate writers, such as the American Paul Bowles and William Burroughs.

Fred Looking at Rugs.   Sharon Lundahl

Fred Looking at Rugs. Sharon Lundahl

Tangiers was the location of the first diplomatic embassy a young United States set up outside of Europe in the early 1800’s.  The purpose at the time was to deal with the 19th century hostage-taking issue of the Barbary Pirates, who preyed freely on U.S. shipping in the area until U.S. Marines intervened “to the shores of Tripoli.”

Selling Fish Products on the Street.  © Sharon Lundahl

Selling Fish Products on the Street. © Sharon Lundahl

The elegant old American Legation building inside the walls of the old city, which has been made into a museum, played a role in another hostage-taking episode a century later during Teddy Roosevelt’s time, when a mountain chieftain (played by actor Sean Connery in the film, The Wind and the Lion”) kidnapped the American consul.  Once again U.S. Marines marched in to force the Bey of Tangiers to ransom Consul Petticaris.  Hollywood naturally thought it best to change the gender of the hostage for dramatic effect, and the victim became Mrs. Petticaris (played by a feisty Candace Bergen.)

Door into the Kasbah.  © Sharon Lundahl

Door into the Kasbah. © Sharon Lundahl

Tangiers was an outstanding surprise.  A favorite outing was to the famous “Kasbah,” former residence of sultans.  We loved wandering in the medina, which was a dense maze of shops houses and narrow, steep paths and streets.

Lisa took us to great restaurants, and we especially remember long paper-covered tables at the port, hidden away from tourists, where local families feasted on freshly cooked platters of shrimp, fish and squid.  Wow.

In all, though, we loved Tangier better for its atmosphere, rather than any specific sights.  We hope to return, especially if our friends manage to rout the djinns from their house.

Vacation Pleasures on the Beaches of Tangier.  © Sharon Lundahl

Vacation Pleasures on the Beaches of Tangier. © Sharon Lundahl