In Morocco, they call it liquid gold: argan oil, a lusciously hydrating by-product of the argan trees found in a corner of the country, is used to treat everything from frizzy hair to wrinkles. Drizzled on salad, poured into the bath or mixed into soothing lotions, argan oil is the number one beauty secret of Moroccan women.
Praised and treasured in this North African nation for at least a thousand years, argan oil is now also a pathway out of poverty for some of the most disadvantaged members of society.
At the Assous Argane co-op, located on the road linking cosmopolitan Marrakech to seaside Essaouira, we stop to meet some of the women who have found work extracting oil by hand. The oil is then sold in the co-op shop - mixed into cosmetic creams, massage oils and face masks - for a fraction of the price charged by international beauty brands eager to include argan oil in their products.
It’s a wonderfully authentic opportunity to meet and talk with local women while picking up useful souvenirs, and we have our tour guide Soufiane to thank. Soufiane is the local’s local, full of tips, insights and the best suggestions for where to stay, eat and shop.
We started our Moroccan adventure at La Sultana Marrakech. A peaceful retreat in the middle of the Marrakech rush, La Sultana is a dreamy oasis of shaded courtyards, Berber antique furniture and a rooftop breakfast that is the perfect indulgent start to the day.
Coming straight from the airport, we had cooled off in the glamorous pool, sipped on some refreshing mint tea, then headed straight to the spa. La Sultana’s spa is the crown jewel in the hotel’s offerings; forget notions of a sterile white European-style beauty salon with piped Celine Dion tunes and anti-ageing facials on the menu. Here you’ll find a glorious jewel of a spa, decked out with signature Moroccan tiles in bright, bejewelled colours. Imaginative types won’t find it a stretch to escape into the bygone worlds of pampered harems, as ever more mint tea is offered and the sensual aromas of Arabian essential oils fill the air. We can hear the soft strains of music played on the oud, a local guitar, and the distant call to prayer at the local mosque.
Led to a treatment room by a smiling young attendant, I was handled with all the love, care and attention normally reserved for newborn babies. Lathered in black soap to soften the skin, I was then scrubbed with a loofah mitt to remove every last dead skin cell. Then scrubbed again for good measure. Washed, rinsed and certified clean from head to toe, it was then time for a relaxing massage with scented argan oil. If ever there was a cure for jetlag, this must be it.
For most Moroccans, regular visits to hammams in the old medina marketplace for a steam and scrub are a routine part of everyday life. It’s about cleanliness, health and purification as much as relaxation. Traditional, simple hammam practices have been luxe-ified for international tourists, and La Sultana does it best.
Zoned out and zenned out, we rested until sunset before the siren call of shopping in the souk drew us back out into the thick of Marrakech’s street theatre. The souk marketplace’s dozens of winding alleyways, secret doors and squares within squares could stump even the most experienced navigator: best to visit with a local guide.
This time, our local guide Abdullah took us in hand and led us directly to the herbalist’s shop. Enormous metal drums heaped high with colourful spices marked the entrance to this Aladdin’s cave of health remedies, beauty enhancers and wonderful potions you never knew you wanted until you saw them.
Ever suffered from nervous anxiety? There’s a herbal cure for that in the souk. Constipation? They’ve got you covered. Natural henna lipstick? It’s even kiss-proof, we are told. As the herbalist paints my eyelids with inky black kohl, he explains that for local women, kohl eyeliner is a tradition that dates back centuries.
We are showered in rose essence, offered natural fennel toothpicks (surprisingly more effective than dental floss) and given instruction on henna hand painting. There is argan oil au naturel, or with ache-soothing arnica, or mixed with fragrant sweet orange oil and many more scents. It is indeed a cure-all, packaged to remedy ailments ranging from cold sores to sore feet.
We leave the store with bulging shopping bags, having only parted with what seemed to be a tiny amount of dirhams, the local currency. In Morocco, beauty is within reach for all.
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