Marooned in Morocco

Traveling amongst plaster and a pandemic
Jeremy Mistretta
March 19, 2021
12 Min

The earliest known plasters were lime based.  Their existence dates back to 7500 B.C. in Jordan where limestone was crushed, burned, and hydrated again.  The pasty substance was then used to cover walls, floors, and roofs.  Despite our advancements in modern and traditional building materials, it’s amazing that after thousands of years, these structures still stand.  I’ve been obsessed with plaster finishes since the late 1990’s, and I take any opportunity to immerse myself in the medium. 

In 2007, I was leading a clay plaster workshop in Minneapolis and heard about Tadelakt.  A student showed me a book by Michael Johannes Ochs, which chronicles, in detail the Moroccan process that expands upon the ancient lime plaster formula.  I looked in awe at the images coupled with the process and became fixated on the method.  Morocco, the birthplace of this plaster system quickly skyrocketed to the top of my “must visit” bucket list.  

Also on my list were marriage, family and a strong career, so Moroccan dreams were temporarily placed on the back burner.  For more than a decade, I helped to cultivate the craft of lime plaster here in the United States, while raising two children and celebrating my wife’s medical career.  My company, New Age Artisans, specializes in lime plaster and we have successfully installed hundreds of thousands of square feet of plaster inside beautiful homes around the country.  In addition to lime veneers on sheetrock, we have been fortunate enough to install countless Tadelakt showers using our own blend of lime and aggregates.  Along with a pre-blended aggregate, Moroccan Tadelakt uses rudimentary tools like wood floats and stones to execute their system.  In the United States, we use steel trowels and westernized sponge floats.  The premise however remains the same.  A heavy scratch coat of hydraulic lime followed by a second coat of fine lime and an olive oil soap solution used to seal.   Many Europeans cry blasphemy at westernized Tadelakt systems.  I surmise that as long as it involves the three basic steps of scratch coat, finish coat, and soap impregnation, the installer can call it “Tadelakt.”  And to be a true “Moroccan Tadelakt” system, the lime must be from Marrakech, the material must be compressed with a smooth stone, and the soap must have been derived from black olives. 

In 2020, after years of work and gained maturity from our children, my wife Katy and I decided it was a great time to travel to Northern Africa and visit this magical place.  The land of high mountains, exotic hand woven rugs, intricate tiles, and prized plaster finishes.  We left our home in Bozeman, Montana on March 7, 2020 despite whispers from friends and family questioning our choice to leave amidst the unknown early Coronavirus static. 

We landed in Marrakech 27 hours later where we were met by our hired driver, Ayoub Abouelanouar.   Our family was taken by his kind demeanor and impeccable English.  Born in Safi, Ayoub spent several years in Europe before he returned to his native Morocco and settled into his career.  In his past time, he is an amazing still life photographer.  His images capture a feeling and bring the viewer into the scene.  We gazed in awe at many of his photos throughout our trip. 

While Katy and the kids toured Marrakech, Ayoub and Najla from Originally Morocco arranged a private Tadelakt course for me.  With excitement and joy, I bounded into Ateliers D’Ailleurs @ateliersdailleurs. Nestled amongst other commercial buildings outside of Marrakech’s religious souk, Ateliers invites its students to attend authentic workshops steeped in culture and tradition.  These workshops strive to keep the handmade Moroccan spirit alive.  They offer tile and mosaic classes, brassware, and of course Tadelakt.  My instructor was a man named Zachary who was a 3rd generation craftsman.  Zachary spoke Arabic so the owner of the school translated.  I was amazed at the details achieved by not only Zachary, but also pure Moroccan lime.

We plastered together in unison for several hours communicating mostly by gestures rather than words.  By the end of the class, I had made a small tile and covered the contours of a hand thrown clay pot that resembled a black egg.  Fully satiated with the experience, I rejoined my family and we pushed north towards Rabat. 

Rabat is the capital of Morocco and sits along the banks of Bouregreg River and the Atlantic Ocean.  The city was founded in 1146 as a military town.  Because of its close proximity to the ocean, it was a fantastic port town.  Years of silt however have compromised its ability to maintain a stable port.  In the 1950’s Morocco freed itself from French protection and Rabat became the capital of the country.   We walked aimlessly around the narrow lime plastered streets noting the beauty and the time worn decay of the lime washed walls.  We visited the incomplete Hassan Tower; the once desired tallest Mosque in the world.  When its builder Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur died in 1199, construction was halted leaving the mosque and several plastered minarets and columns incomplete.  With excitement for more travel ahead, we dined on the banks of the Bouregreg on a boat converted into a restaurant, LeDhow @ledhow The service and kefta cuisine were fantastic and we loved bobbing slowly up and down with the ebb and flow of the tide.

 We awoke early on the 11th and traveled north towards Fes with a stop in Meknes.   Meknes is perfectly imperfect.  The city served as the country’s capital between 1645 and 1727. Sadly, most of the city was destroyed in the Lisbon earthquake in the mid 1700’s.  

Miraculously, the stables survived and are mostly intact today.  They were constructed to house the horses of ruler Sultan Moulay Ismail.  He treated horses better than people and at one time housed over 12,000 steeds. The stables are constructed of rock, lime, and clay and are an amazing sight to see in person, especially when we were some of the only visitors.  

After a fantastic tour of the stables, we headed northeast another 70 kilometers towards Fes.  In addition to its extensive religious roots, Fes is widely known for its art flare.  The majority of their art is exemplified in their intricate architecture.  Structures are known, for their “Moorish” style.  It’s a blend of North African Berber, Spanish, and Portuguese design.   Many door openings are curved, the glaze on the tile is fired at high temperatures in a process called “zellige,” and a large part of the plaster is hand carved in an “arabesque” fashion that celebrates rhythmic linear patterns.  We spent two wonderful days touring Fes. We especially loved the leather tanning facility and throwing our own pots at @artnaji.   

As we left Fes, we tried to not think about the ominous worldwide headlines.  Many visitors had retreated the country for security in their homeland.  Each place we visited became less and less populated.  During our seven-hour drive to the Sahara desert, we discussed our options.  Retreat to Marrakech and get bottlenecked at the airport, or stick to the itinerary.  Hearing horror stories about airline travel, we forged ahead towards Merzouga.  When we reached the town, it was completely empty.  A warm sand filled wind blew amidst the clay buildings where we were met by three men and several camels.  They carried us and our luggage deep into the Sahara.  We communicated by pointing and smiling.  It was the most desolate place I had ever been.  The internal fear I had of the unknown was quelled by the smiles of my family.  When we got to camp, we found several rows of idle tents and a few solely occupied by one other group of Canadians.  Despite our internal desolation, we had an amazing night gazing at the stars under a fire and we fell asleep to the sound of an African drum circle. 

We awoke the next morning and headed south towards Imlil.  We travelled over the one lane Tichka pass. The road was circuitous and in poor shape.  Many parts of the shoulder had fallen off thousands of feet into the abyss.  As we entered Imlil, we were stopped by four armed guards.  In Arabic, they asked for our passports and ran our identification numbers.  Ayoub told us that it was a security matter as the Moroccan government was beginning to take account of the tourists inside the country.  As we continued to climb high into the Atlas Mountains, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach.  Anxiety subdued for just a moment as we pulled up to Dar Imlil @darimlil. Nestled at 1800 meters high in the Atlas, this riad (the Moroccan equivalent to a bed and breakfast) is one of the highest businesses in Northern Africa.  Its beautifully plastered walls and mature vines encapsulating the building provided respite for our uneasy minds.  We entered the inn and were greeted with mint tea and sugar cubes.  The host told us that Morocco had just closed its borders to travel.  “No one in, no one out,” he said.  Our hearts sank.  We were stuck.  Fear and anxiety prevailed while walked the three narrow flights of stairs to our room.  As we entered the room, the host showed us the space.  With anxiety stricken eyes, I marveled at the floor to ceiling tadelakt, the warm radiance emerging from the zellige tiles, and the intrinsic smile and wise eyes of our host.  He told us that we were safe there and we would forever be safe there.  We had our children with us and that was all that mattered.  He promised to feed and shelter us until it was time to leave.  His kind nature settled our minds. 

We awoke the next morning to chirping birds and a light breeze.  Spring had come early to the Atlas.  The brook below us babbled, the laundry flapped perfectly in the wind and the mountains shined.

Katy and the kids headed out on a mule ride with a local guide as I checked the world headlines.  We were in the midst of a worldwide shutdown.  Our flights had been cancelled, and borders began to close everywhere.  I looked at the plaster walls and found such dimension in them.  They were rich with color and smooth to the touch, yet incredibly dimensional.  I reserved my mind to the fact that fate had brought us to this place in time and we would be “forced” to enjoy it. What I once looked at in pictures online was right in front of me and there was a strong potential that I could be gazing upon this scene for months to come.  Imlil residents speak “Berber.”  A language and a religion that has no standardized written word.  This was the original tongue in which the Tadelakt tradition was passed down.  As I struggled to articulate my thoughts to loved ones back home, I found irony in our serendipitous immersion in this setting of place and time.

My family returned from an exhilarating tour in the mountains high in the sky with apprehensive smiles.  After hours of dynamic familial conversation, we decided to change our mental narrative.  We would absorb every ounce of this giving place.  For several glorious days, we hiked and ran in the Atlas Mountains, viewing waterfalls, ancient mountain trails, and perfectly time-wrinkled, stucco buildings.  The ancient buildings and their mild decay aging with noble dignity provided light for us amidst impending darkness. 

 The afternoon of March 18th, Najla of “Distinctly Morocco” called us.  She had tirelessly fought for us to get on an emergency flight to the UK.  Within a matter of minutes, we packed our bags and were met by a driver who raced us down the perilous roads.  For an hour, we sped across deteriorated pavement and oncoming traffic.  Our kids became so scared that they clung together and passed out.  Katy and I clenched our hands together around every turn.  We raced past a police blockade outside the airport and officially entered the travel craze where primal pandemic pandemonium unfolded every moment. Travellers pushed, and shoved, and screamed and yelled at each other willing to do ANYTHING to get on an airplane.    Ayoub stood by our side praying and not once letting us lose faith.  Hours later, the flight was cancelled.  Our spirits were broken.  We entertained heading back to Imlil where we were safe.  As we exited the airport, my phone rang with promising news.  Najla had battled to get us on another emergency flight the next day.  We retreated to the only open establishment in Marrakech, the Kech hotel @kechhotel where the staff was gracious and allowed us to use their computers to print necessary documents.  I slept just a few hours that night as we entered the airport 8 hours before our scheduled flight.  With delayed screens and increased chaos everywhere, we clenched our children’s hands and promised them we would be escaping soon.  They played cards and drew pictures and watched as their parents did their best to control their mounting fear.  As the ticket counter opened, we grabbed our belongings and bolted to the front of the line.  We were narrowly checked in before the Ryan Air employees threatened a strike.  

After six lengthy hours, the plane left the tarmac and the wheels retracted.  Once entirely airborne the cabin erupted in raucous cheer.   Katy and I hugged and softly cried together. We were safe and amazingly on the LAST commercial plane to leave Morocco in 2020. 

3 hours later we landed in Stansted airport and were met by a driver arranged by an amazing English client.  He drove our family and another lone American across London in the cold steady rain to Heathrow.  Once at Heathrow, we contacted a Delta employee who was also client and friend from Bozeman.  He worked tirelessly to get us on a flight to the US.  12 hours later, we boarded the second to last flight from England to the USA.  After a five-hour layover in desolate NYC we made our way to SLC and then to Bozeman.  We had made it HOME and exited Africa in the strangest time the modern world had ever seen.

As I sit back exactly one year to the date, I reflect fondly on the saving graces of Moroccan humanity and art.    Not once did we feel alone.  All we needed to do was glance at a wall, or a mountain, or a structure and we were able to find integral beauty.  Humans want to help other humans.  We saw amazing selfless acts of kindness given to us by total strangers that helped us get back to our reality, while theirs was crumbling before them.   I posit that the elemental beauty that is painstakingly crafted by the citizens of Morocco comes from inside their kind hearts. Moroccan arts will live forever, as will the people.  As the world begins to slowly reopen its doors, I urge tourists to visit Morocco to see the beauty of not only the craft, but also the people.  You won’t be disappointed.