Moroccan Clothing

Imagine walking down any street in your home town and suddenly coming upon an old man or woman dressed like a Pilgrim, or like the chief of a local Native American Indian tribe. In many ways, that's what Morocco is like. In every town and in every city, on every road through the valleys and the mountains, in markets and in cafes, many of the locals dress in the traditional robes that have been used in Morocco for centuries.

The most universally seen local garments is the djellaba, a loose-fitting outer robe that men and women pull over their garments. There are many different kinds and colors, made from different materials and cut to different patterns that are specific to different regions. Additional features like belts and bags, jewelry and hats, even shoes, help identify a person in terms of his or her region and cultural heritage. In fact, Morocco, unbeknownst to too many of us, is made up of a fantastic mix of people who continue to speak a multitude of languages and dialects and come from a variety of backgrounds. There are the descendants of the original Berbers who once occupied all of North Africa even before the first official settlers -- the Phoenicians -- made their landing. The Berbers of Morocco are roughly divided between those of the north occupying the Rif Mountains -- which is the region through which we are cycling -- and those of the south who come from the different parts of the Atlas Mountains or from the arid regions along the edge of the Sahara. There are the Bedouins, and the descended families of the Arab and Moorish settlers who arrived in the 7th century, and the families that came with the different waves of Spanish and French colonizers. And there are others. Morocco is home to a fantastic assortment of people.

But back to the djellaba, the typical robe that you cannot miss from the very first few seconds after arriving in Morocco. According to the many people we have met who have professed to be experts in many areas, there are three basic types of djellaba for men and two basic everyday options for women. For both sexes, the machzania or "government" djellaba is the most common throughout the country. For the men, there are also the northern and the southern djellaba, and for the women there is the kaftan

The djellaba machzania is a long, hooded robe that fits over regular work clothes and hangs almost all the way to ones feet. It usually also has wrist-length sleeves and a v-shaped opening at the neck which is often embroidered and, on women, closed with a decorative clasp. It has no pockets but does provide openings through which one can reach to get at the pockets of clothes worn underneath. In general, men wear light colors, which is important since it reflects the light of the very strong Moroccan sun. There are also light colors for women, despite which many of the women use dark greens and browns, reds and pinks and even blacks. For everyone, the hood is vital as a protective shield against the sun or, in earlier times when it was a particularly terrible problem, against the sand carried by the desert winds. The hood is quite large so that it can fit over the traditional erraza or turban. We have not seen too many of these, but they are not necessarily typical of the north.

For the men, the northern djellaba is much shorter and more ornate. The thicker, more brightly colored and ornamented material hangs to around the knees. The sleeves are short and the neck opening is much wider. We were given a number of different explanations for this, all of which made clear a need for greater mobility than what the machzania allows. Is it because the shepherds and cultivators of the north needed the relaxed fit or because the northern inhabitants who fought through decades of resistance against the Spanish colonial presence needed to be able to hide and run with their guns?

The southern djellaba is seen only rarely in the cities of the north. It consists of incredibly baggy pants -- especially in the crotch -- that reach down to the knees, and a separate, long, smock-like shirt. No one we met could explain why these changes to the classic robe had occurred. Perhaps it is because the people in the south are often found riding camels or horses?

The djellaba, as functional as it is, is not sufficient protection against the elements on rainy or cold days, or even during autumn evenings when the sun has dipped behind the mountains or can't reach into the narrow streets of a medina or kasbah. To guard against the chill that can rise from damp shadows, there is a heavier outer robe called a selhame that many men wear. With an even bigger sorcerer-like hood that stays pointy because of the thick fabric, and a typically darker, earthen color, the selhame is the perfect cold-weather complement to the djellaba.

The final piece of clothing typical of this costume is the footwear. Flat-soled and made of soft, light-colored leather, the strapless and heel-less slippers, or balra, are worn both at home and in the street.

For women, the clothing is in general both interesting and dizzyingly diverse. On our first day of cycling, we could not help but notice some colorful and often bulky outer trappings worn by some women, like a cloth tied many times around the waist and hanging down to the ankles, and tall straw hats decorated with four thick, black, woven strands stretching from the very top of the hat to the brim from which black woven balls were hung. The hat, called a domme hat, is typical of women in the north, as is the waist sash we saw used to hold up the thick skirt. We later learned from our visits to museums in Tetouan and Chefchaouen that there are many additional layers that can be worn, topped by a healthy load of jewelry, depending on the ceremonial importance of a procedure -- marriage, circumcision, etc. -- or the social significance of an activity -- receiving guests, going visiting, etc. Some women, generally of older generations, still wear the covering outer garments of more orthodox Muslims: a djellaba with a full head cloth pulled down below the eyebrows, and a final piece of cloth stretched across either just the mouth or the mouth and the nose. Finally, an outer smock worn by women at home and in the place of a djellaba is the kaftan.

However, all of this having been said, while such clothing is more than prevalent, it is far from typical. Like so much of the rest of the world, jeans and sneakers, skirts and blouses, jackets and button-down-the-front shirts prevail. There are no baggy pants or North Face jackets or Timberline shoes. Just the basic clothing more or less identical to what students wear at home in America. Many of the T-shirts and baseball caps are even in English. In Tetouan, we saw a newspaper seller with a Yankees cap! It seemed so out of place, and yet, in a weird way, it also made sense. What else should you find on a baseball cap than the name of a baseball team?

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