Reflecting on my trip I find that if forced to describe Morocco in just 3 sentences I would say:
The country of 1001 “you’re welcomes’”
The country of 1001 cups of tea
The country of 1001 Arabian tales
You are welcome
From the moment you arrive in Morocco “You are welcome” is a phrase you will hear almost constantly and not just in response to Shukran, or thank you in Arabic, but just for being there.
On a remote mountain pass, enroute to Le Auberge Festival, we stop on the shoulder of the road to take in the view. Dry dusty paths wind among craggy mountains of rust and ochre, in the middle of this a slash of green palm trees, almost incongruous among the shades of red and brown. Here we stand, lost in thought in the middle of this empty, wild place, the presence of inhabitants only implied by the mud plastered homes far, far below. Out of apparently nowhere, a nomad appears. ‘Bonjour; Hello. ‘Followed by ‘you are welcome’ when he hears us respond in English. ‘Where are you from’ ‘Afrik du Suid’ we reply. A huge smile from him. ‘You are welcome’. After more conversation he sells us a small curio and then disappears back up the path into the mountains where I can now discern a shelter of some sort almost growing organically from the rocks above. Later, we walk into a café and greet the owner who responds ‘You are welcome’. You are welcome is so much more than just a phrase in Morocco. The sense of being welcomed is as tangible and pervasive as the dust you encounter everywhere. I have travelled broadly and seldom do I find people unfriendly but the Moroccan people have to be some of the warmest, friendliest people I have ever found anywhere. In this regard they made me feel proud to be part of the African continent.
As everywhere there are a few wealthy citizens, but overall poverty is rife and for the most part almost everyone is living day to day, month to month, the more fortunate year to year. However, rather than a sense of need or desperation I found a sense of acceptance of things as they are and gratitude for what they have. I suspect their faith contributes a great deal to this outlook and seems to offer them succour in the face of what we’d consider hardship. This acceptance of what comes their way is reflected in another oft used phrase “Inshallah” or as Christians may say ‘God willing’. Whereas in modern times the latter is largely used simply as a turn of phrase ‘Inshallah’ feels like a deeply held belief said with sincerity. (A sneaky tip, if ever feeling really put upon and cornered in a bartering situation or when being followed by a persistent self-styled ‘tour guide’ you can always follow up with ‘I can’t now but perhaps tomorrow morning? Inshallah’ – said sincerely, no one will argue with Allah’s will if they are a virtuous follower of Islam.) The majority of Moroccans’ are of the Islamic faith (most sites put it at 99%) but respect is expressed with regards to the faith of Islam even by those who are not. Of course they would, considering that when it comes to the constitution, the tenants and values of Islam have final influence and are given preference over any other influences. So for instance while Christians, Jews and other faiths are free to congregate and practice their religious beliefs at their places of worship, according to Wiki, it is a crime in Morocco to have a Christian bible written in Arabic. (Part of a wider law prohibiting proselytisation or converting of Muslims to any other belief.) Essentially, in Morocco, (and not unlike the rest of the world) its relationship history with religion is complicated. I have to say though that there is a definite sense of tolerance among the people I met.
While their faith, and trust in Inshallah, seems to bestow an acceptance of things as they are, this in no way implies a passivity in the way the people of Morocco engage with their environment. In fact they are incredibly innovative and inclined to work together as a community to ensure their welfare and we saw more than one example of little areas of crops where people in the village had worked together to create an irrigation system. An ingenious arrangement bringing sea and rain water filtered through the dunes into a network of miniature canals breaking off a central canal at right angles. Each family working on the irrigation system gets a patch of land on either side of the main canal and is allocated a time during the day when they can irrigate their patch. Then a stone is placed in the channel blocking their access to the water and it’s the next patches turn for irrigation.
Morocco challenged my preconceptions on all levels. After all no matter how I try to suspend all expectations and ‘ideas’ before encountering the new (place or person) I know it’s impossible to be totally open-minded. I spend time imagining what I am about to encounter, I read about it, I ask people what they thought and then try to put that all aside but of course consciously or not I have an idea or perception before I arrive. I was looking forward to something vastly different, exotic from my perspective, beautiful vistas, a totally different way of life – I found all of this but I was also prepared for a patriarchal, conservative, ultra-religious, narrow-minded, judgmental world view and in this regard I was challenged to some extent.
For a start, as I mentioned, every encounter I had in Morocco whether with a man or woman, poor or rich, tourism employee or casual encounter, made me feel so welcome. In fact the attitude of the vast majority of Moroccans towards the poorest of the poor also put me to shame. They don’t seem to have the same judgmental, meritocratic attitude towards their poor as we in the West often do. Here we tend to, consciously or unconsciously think; “if only you worked / studied harder, you didn’t have so many children, weren’t’ an addict’” without understanding how the very state of poverty and addiction changes the choices you and I see as obvious or easy. Here the poor (and among them were so many young black men and women, and so many Syrian families) are given a few coins, a cup of tea, at the very least a kind word of acknowledgement. I saw women on the street whether it was an old lady limping along, a woman struggling up some stairs with a pram or a beggar were assisted and treated gently by those around them.
The men are very comfortable and expressive in the way they relate to other men. Something see among young European men as well and which I really like. A greeting with a hand on the wrist would often lead to a long conversation, hand on the wrist the entire time, a hug, a farewell. They openly adore their children, the boys especially are considered ‘little kings, future heirs’ but even little girls are clearly adored and the men are again very gentle and expressive with their children kissing heads, stroking cheeks and lifting them up for hugs.
The current sentiment is a sense of pride and a feeling that while struggling with poverty, things are improving. Everyone seems approve of the current King, King Mohammed VI who seems to be genuinely interested in providing growth for the country. He has, reportedly, brought back family money from Swiss Bank accounts to invest in construction and infrastructure. This is particularly apparent in Casablanca. In fact he’s so progressive he’s recently apparently mentioned with regard to the common law that a husband may beat his woman if she doesn’t ‘behave’ that “a man should first try and speak to his wife’ – yes, I know, my inner feminist raised one eyebrow sharply.
On the other hand while you’d often pass coffee shops or outdoor restaurants you would see it covered from end to end with men sitting outside around tables drinking coffee or tea. There would be not a single woman unless she was working there. One exception was in the bigger city of Marrakesh. I find it hard to imagine these women I see only when they are in the act of working, or shopping for household necessities or shepherding children to / from school aren’t somehow aware of how tradition and the law of their country makes them vulnerable, disadvantaged and robbed of choices. Or are they too exhausted with the daily struggle to make ends meet to think about it? And in this place, where life is so simple, I am more aware than ever how despite the advantages given to myself and future generations of young women simply by being born where and when we were, despite having so many more choices than our mothers and grandmothers we waste so many of these advantages on competing for attention, worrying about getting old, buying stuff we don’t really need. Botox and Gucci dahling. I come from one of many democratic nations that enshrine women’s’ rights within their laws. Yet in South Africa, several sources estimate that at least if not more than half of female homicides are killed by their intimate partner. So, if I was faced with these facts how much has our enlightened view really helped women in the West.
Of course I didn’t get to speak to any ‘average woman’ on the street to hear their view, which in and of itself is probably a shadow effect of the largely patriarchal social viewpoint. One feisty lady I met at one of the Riads (I still thought, mmm if I lived here you and I would definitely be mates) was quite open and shared the frustrations of being a divorced woman in Morocco, but to be honest, in many ways her complaints are pretty identical to women the world over. Double standards, especially around divorced women, and a ‘lover’ who was “going to “convince my 1st wife to allow me to take a 2nd wife”- from all I’ve heard and read a hard thing to achieve in this day and age, even in a country which allows polygamy. Yet, I failed to encounter any blatant or even subtle or unconscious misogyny (and trust me my radar is acutely attuned for that!) But then I was in my tourist bubble and it can be hard to tell how things really are. Certainly we were given special treatment as tourists, allowed to buy alcohol and at the many, many gendarme stops along the highways, once they heard we were foreigners we were always waved on.
Life overall requires hard work and remains simple for everyone man, woman and child. In the vast majority of the villages, mountains and desert, people are self-reliant in providing for their tables and thus very in touch with nature and the bounty it offers them. There appears to be no large scale commercial farming – a fact I highly approve of since commercial farming is one of the single cruelest legitimised form of industry around today. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t travel everywhere, but from what I saw and heard in response to my queries; while animals are by and large not regarded as pets (big cities such as Marrakesh and Casablanca being exceptions where you might find one or two pet stores) and have as hard a life as their owners they are respected for what they offer. (Protection, guarding and pest control). Donkeys are not beaten or starved since the donkey may be the family’s only means of transport and help with labour, you can’t overwork an animal you need when money to buy another is scarce. Herds of goats and sheep are small and are free range in a way animals in commercial farming will sadly never experience. There is little trauma (except perhaps market day) until the day they are killed. While they exist in Morocco I didn’t see veal or foie gras on the menu either! Marrakesh is the one place I visited where this was the exception and animal abuses were carried out in the name of commerce and entertainment.
In addition to there being no commercial farming that I could see there is also very little access to convenience foods financially or otherwise, specifically in the smaller villages and towns. As a result there is almost zilch obesity problems in Morocco. Unfortunately their love of sugar sold in huge slabs or cones, and lack of easy access (outside of the bigger cities such as Casablanca and Marrakesh) to health care means that diabetes is a huge problem. Furthermore years of break backing physical labour required just to go about daily life means that I see old people literally bent double, hobbling and even in this state carrying a load of firewood on their back. I also with my obsession about bone health find myself wondering if the women, largely restricted to remaining indoors and covered extensively when out may be more prone to osteoporosis.
1001 Teas and Tales
Everywhere you go someone will try and sell you something. After all these are the descendants of traders, merchants and shopkeepers. Don’t let it overwhelm you it’s all part of the experience. Many sales people could learn from the inherent skill that comes along with every transaction. First, there will be tea. Always the tea, also fondly referred to as Berber whisky. Once the tea is served there will be a tale (or ten) of the wondrous things you are about to see. Only at this point can the negotiations begin. A good rule of thumb,I learnt too late in our visit, is to offer exactly half of whatever original price is offered. Go up until as far as you are prepared to pay while still feeling you got a fair deal. And, regardless of whether you buy or not, you will still be treated to that tea, that Moroccan warmth and hospitality. This is another thing you will learn in Morocco – the facts of any matter are often inter-woven between the threads of a thousand and one tales. Ask a Moroccan citizen where such and such place or street is, and regardless of whether they know or not they will give you directions. You may need to do this a few times before you find where you want to be. The less generous may call them fibbers, but in truth they want only to please you and it would offend their nature to say “I don’t know”. Perhaps someone suggested it is because so much of their history, particularly among the Nomads, is passed on orally each telling slightly changing the original version with very little written in black and white. And when it comes to sales well this ability to weave tales of myth and fact is such an art that even where you may perceive you are being taken for ride you cannot help but enjoy the journey.
I loved just about everywhere we went in Morocco, (a bit of the Northern region – Casablanca, Fez and Marrakesh and Southern regions (Merzouga, Todra Gorge and Ait ben Haddou) From the working ports of Casablanca, the bustling quaint charms of the old Medina at Fez, the vast stretches of scrub covered plains and the rolling ochre dunes of the Erg Chebbi desert and the awe inducing Todra gorge this was a truly different experience from any other I’ve had the good fortune to experience. Note, if you’re given to being very disturbed by less than pristine conditions Morocco may not be the place for you –with open Souks everywhere the intoxicating scents of the spices and incense mingle with the odour of rotting cabbage and donkey dung. Everywhere outside is dusty, there are a few very smart places however and we stayed at some top class immaculate hotels but if you are going to really explore Morocco one cannot stay in your 5 star Hotel or Riad all day so anticipate encountering the grit and grime of life un-mediated by many modern conveniences. Time is dictated by the sun and the season, and in fact seems frozen, as though the artefacts of the past couple of centuries that we see dotted here and there (satellite dishes covering the mud plastered village homes, the odd café with packets of Lay chips and Halls lozenges, cell phones..) are nebulous. No more than more litter from the ‘modern age’ capable of being dispersed in a puff of wind leaving only the land and its people, as they have always been unchanged for centuries.
The one place that failed to charm me was Marrakesh, which while busy and extremely cosmopolitan (the one place I didn’t feel the need to cover my arms) seemed to my mind to have combined the worst aspects of the less developed world, poverty and squalor combined with the mercenary commercialism and neediness of the developed world. I need to add that my view may be coloured by the fact I was very disturbed by the animal atrocities I saw within the popular Jemaa EL Fnaa square and, I may have found it a bit of a culture shock after the calmer quieter pace we’d enjoyed over the previous ten or so days. Possibly had I started my trip with Marrakesh I would have found more to love and it would only have got better from there. It pleased my sense of coming a full circle when at the end of our holiday upon departing from Charles De Gaul airport, the French gentleman stamping my passport, noticed my henna tattoo and asked if I’d been to Morocco, and when I said yes, he said with a huge grin, “I’m from Morocco” But I knew that instinctively, I recognised it in his warm wide smile. Like the Erg Chebbi sand that I am still trying to shake out of my suitcase a week later Morocco and her people cling persistently to my soul.
If you decide to go to Morocco I can highly recommend the following places:
Riad Kniza in Marrakech http://www.riadkniza.com/
Riad Laaroussa in Fes http://riad-laaroussa.com/
Sara and Ali’s Desert Paradise Merzouga – Erg Chebbi desert https://www.facebook.com/Ali-Saras-Desert-Palace-122740641089716/
and Auberge Le Festival in the Todra Gorge http://www.aubergelefestival-todragorge.com/