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Morocco: a genuinely exotic world at Europe's doorstep

Morocco is the African and Muslim country nearest to Europe and - 19 miles away from Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar - quite accessible. But set one foot in the country, and you'll wonder how a land that is African, Arabian, and European all at the same time can seem so far away from each of these worlds. Picture these typical Moroccan scenes: El Minzah Hotel in Tangier. Men in silk vests, baggy trousers, and pointed slippers whisk trays of mint tea through a spacious parlor decked with Persian rugs and gilded divans. At a turn-of-the-century grand piano, a robust Italian woman in heavy makeup plays schmaltzy renditions of Gershwin and Debussy.

The walled city of imperial Fez. Muezzins (criers) in Moorish-style minarets call the Muslim faithful to prayer in the holy month of Ramadan. Followers have fasted from sunrise to sunset, and the streets are now a fitful congestion of those preparing to eat at long, public tables. Conical ceramic pots conceal cuisine such as chicken-and-beef stews, called couscous, and gazelles' horns pastries, called kaab el ghzal.

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Oasis of palms in the desert outside Marrakech. A mass of Moroccans exits the ocher ramparts of an 11th-century palace, where annual Berber celebrations have lasted well beyond midnight. A ceremonial bonfire sends sparks skyward. Above the distant Atlas Mountains, a bright moon turns the desert into a moonscape of eerie shadows.

More-exotic memories: eating in desert tents while acrobats perform; watching turbaned horsemen charge, firing muskets in the air; and dining at restaurants where music and dancers seemed right out of ``The Arabian Nights.''

But Morocco also has aspects that are not so romantic. Long stretches of barren countryside lack the amenities some might find in continental Europe, for instance. Some roads are only sparsely marked, many only in Arabic, so it is easy for those not on guided tours to make a wrong turn.

Driving from Tangier to Fez, to Marrakech, and then to Casablanca, we were stopped three times in the rural reaches by country police for no apparent reason - and each time pressed for a ``gift'' of dirhams to the tune of about $4 or $5. And true to the famous line from the pickpocket in the classic film ``Casablanca,'' ``beware of vultures, vultures everywhere'' - we met our share of conniving salesmen. Some were in cahoots with the guides we hired to show us through the various medinas. And there were the omnipresent faces from the shadows - some from women behind chuddars (shawls) - that almost too intently followed you with their eyes.

Though the mundane memories have faded over time, they remain an essential ingredient of the baffling and entrancing mosaic that is Morocco.

Part of Morocco's mystique is its vast and complicated history. There were conflicts from the beginning between the native Berbers, the Arabs that brought Islam, and European powers.

Today most of Morocco's 20 million people are Muslim Arabs, but there are Berber, Christian, and Jewish minorities. Although Arabic is the official language, Berber, French, and Spanish are also spoken.

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We arrived by ferry from Algeciras, Spain. At customs, we encountered the most thorough luggage inspection I've had anywhere - owing, we were told later by guides, to a great concern about drugs and guns.

Then we were approached by a serious-looking man in a gray robe called a djellaba. Announcing himself as a government guide, and showing identification, he aided our passage through customs. Then he took us to our hotel and off on a four-hour tour of the city and environs in a government-owned Mercedes - all for a fee we would negotiate later. The fee we agreed on turned out to be $50 for two. We thought that was quite reasonable until we found out it was roughly four times what most other guides charged.

Ubiquitous guides-for-hire are, in fact, an interesting part of a visit to Morocco. All four of ours found us, rather than the other way around. Many were young students who wanted to practice their English (or Italian, German, etc.) and were willing to charge practically nothing for the privilege. Others were government licensed.

Though we found none was especially knowledgeable about historical dates and places, all were extremely accommodating in figuring out logistics and itineraries and helping to make purchases of food or souvenirs. Perhaps most important, I would not enter the labyrinthine medinas without one, for fear of losing my way for good. And it's helpful to have a loyal countryman to keep the aggressive hucksters at bay, not to mention other guides.

In a scenario that was repeated in three cities, we spent half days seeing the historic sites - famous mosques, casbahs (citadels), palaces, schools, museums, and shopping districts. The latter include open-air markets of spices and meat, fabric, leather, metal, and rugs.

Everywhere we went we were taken to special shops where ``special discounts'' were promised by our guides. In fact, the guides got a percentage of everything we purchased.

The old Arab section of Fez is the oldest and largest in Morocco and my recommendation as a must-see of the country. The walls, courtyards, and stalls were built in the 9th century, and to walk there today it seems like no time has passed since. Listen for the call ``belek,'' and watch out for ``donkey's coming,'' which announces a chain of pack-carrying donkeys that stop for nothing in their way.

In the heat of noonday, the stench of certain sections of the medina is enough to make your eyes water.

Early evening in Morocco is the most memorable and pleasurable time of day. The citygoers come out to be seen, and more of the street performers - fire-eaters, jugglers, snake charmers - abound. Swirls of cumulus clouds hug the horizon, turned aglow by the setting sun, which caps the Rif and Atlas Mountains with a thin ridge of gold.

If you wish just to find a vista and relax, you're in league with the caravans of old. Camel drivers who stopped at the outer edges of towns such as Marrakech used to toss their date seeds into the ground. This has resulted in rings of date palm trees that silhouette against both desert and snowcapped hills.

The image is so poignant that it is the romance of Morocco that lingers in the mind when the banal begins to fade.

Practical information.

For more details on tours, itineraries, and points of historical interest, you can write to the Moroccan National Tourist Office, 20 East 46th St., Suite 1201, New York, NY 10017; or call (212) 557-2520.

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