My apologies for the delay. I’m having a hard time keeping up with myself these days. Furthermore, I must also confess: I avoided the challenge of writing this post for a while. It’s Morocco- where do I even begin?
For those of you who’ve never visited an Islamic country before, let me just say that it leaves a vivid and lasting impression on you. For me, it was a bit of an eye-opener.
The night before our 11 mile ferry ride through the Mediterranean, me and a small group of my study abroad buddies spent one night in Tarifa, a coastal town located 200 miles southwest of Córdoba that hosts a large number of German tourists and wind-surfing enthusiasts.
That same night on Oct. 11, we met Felicie, our Moroccan Exchange program leader who finished her 27-month assignment as an environmental education volunteer with the Peace Corps and currently lives in Marrakesh, Morocco.
We arrived at El Puerto de Tarifa (pictured) the next morning at 8:15 a.m. and met another small group of American students who signed up for the program. About an hour later, we made it to Morocco.
As soon as we disembarked I had to adjust to the two-hour time difference, the change in scenery, and the significant language barrier. Arabic, French, and Berber are the mother tongues of Morocco, none of which I speak or understand. Even though there were translators with us, culture shock still smacked me upside the head like a sack of bricks.
Morocco is a country that stimulates the senses. In Tangier, the thick smell of produce and exotic spices from the souks, or the outdoor markets, permeates the air. The rich palette of colors from the murals painted over Asilah’s bare white walls pop out like 3-D puzzles.
Arabic music blares from vendor carts in public squares and the humming of motorcycle engines echo through the twisting alleyways of Rabat (The capital of Morocco). It all seems chaotic, but that’s part of what makes this country so interesting- there’s never a dull moment here.
There’s an old Moroccan proverb that says, “Feed your guests, even if you’re starving,” and the L’oauli family made sure my friends Lauren, Emma and I never went hungry during our stay. As soon as we arrived, our host sisters Weded, 20, and Sabah, 26, sat us down at their dining room table and offered us a plate of Msmen, or thin-fried Moroccan bread.
When my cup of hot Moroccan mint tea ran low, my host mother Naemi (pictured) always offered to pour me another cup. If I suddenly stopped eating, she would smile reassuringly, nudge my plate towards me and say Cooli cooli (eat eat).
Her homemade couscous with steamed veggies, tenderly boiled lamb and potatoes, meatball tajins, Bhegrirs (Moroccan pancakes), and khobs bread were savory enough to make me think of elaborate ways to show her my appreciation.
Should I give her a big hug? Rub my belly or find another silly gesture to show her how good the meal was? Maybe I should pay her a nice compliment and ask her why she hasn’t opened her own restaurant yet. Instead, I flashed a gracious smile and said shukran, or simply, thank you.
This blog post will not even begin to summarize the extensive itinerary of social activities and sight-seeing adventures we had. I’m still having a hard time processing everything we did in that short period of time, so, here’s a brief overview:
We rode camels along the beautiful Atlantic coast, hiked up the bouldered Rif Mountains, watched the sunrise over Chefchaouen (The Blue City), joined a family for lunch in a rural village, visited the Mausoleum of King Mohammed V, explored the maze of Medina markets with new friends in Rabat and toured the Roman Ruins of Chellah (pictured here).
We also took a tour of the Darna Women’s Center in Tangier where some women attend classes and learn a multitude of job skills for a small fee. After our tour we briefly conversed with Moroccan students about politics and city life over tea and pastries on the terrace, which was insightful, but our time was limited, so we couldn’t sit and ask more questions about their subjective worldviews.
During our road trips, I watched farmers herding sheep on donkeys, saw women trekking alongside dirt roads with what appeared to be large olive-tree branches tied to their backs, and witnessed a herd of brown cows crossing a busy highway while cars sat in traffic. Daily life passed me by and I didn’t want to miss any of it.
I was not only inspired by the Moroccan hospitality, but also their lively sense of humor. After our conversation with volunteers of Salé’s “Masal Youth Project Center,” I realized that even though a list of horrible stereotypes exist about Islamic countries, we couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of them. When an American student in our group accidentally cracked the plaster bench outside of a house in the rural village we visited, the elderly homeowner joked in Arabic, “You’re not leaving until you fix it!”
In a conservative country like Morocco, the hammams, or public turkish baths, is where Moroccan women meander and socialize (men bathe in a separate hammams). Once a week, they go to the hammam to strip down and sit together while they bathe and gossip in the sauna, sometimes spending as long as three hours in there.
During my bath, a naked woman sat next to me and kindly offered to share her hair products. At one point she grabbed a bucket, placed it under the splattering faucets and playfully splashed water over me. Another woman sitting nearby rubbed soap liberally over my friend’s bare chest and showed her how to scrub dead skin cells off her body. This uncomfortable situation turned into a carefree, authentic experience I was honored to share with the locals. These are the moments I live for.
Saheb el Kayed
No matter how hard you try to ignore it as a tourist, you will always face the harsh reality of this country’s impoverished economic conditions. Cruising past Saheb el Kayed, one of Morocco’s oldest and largest shanty towns was disheartening. Seeing this first hand opened my eyes, but most Moroccans dedicate part of their day praising Allah, grateful for what they do have (According to Felicie, 98% of Moroccans are Muslim, 2% Jewish and Christian).
At some point during a conversation, you may hear; Thanks to God, God willing, May peace be upon you, May God grant you the health to. etc. It’s mesmerizing.
Sailing through the Strait of Gibraltar on the way back to Algeciras, Spain provided the serenity I needed to reflect on my experience. I thought about my friends and family back home in the states, appreciative of their love. I also thought about my new friends and host family in Morocco, certain that I will one day return and see them again.
In the end, I learned that love and kindness knows no language barriers and to fully understand a culture, you must open your mind and experience it first hand.
If you’re interested, here are blogs written by my friends Isabella and Lauren, who also went on this trip. They’ve included more details than I did.
– I. Blasi: Honey, Mint, and Green Tea
– L. Feldon: My Weekend in North Africa
So until next time, may peace be upon you all.
If you plan to visit Morocco, here are some helpful tips:
Bring toilet paper, unless you’re staying somewhere where you know they have some. In public, you’ll either encounter a western toilet or a turkish toilet, so prepare yourself.
It’s considered unsanitary to dig into a shared dish at the table with your left hand. The left hand is used for cleansing in many parts of Morocco, especially rural areas.
To avoid unwanted attention, blend in. Women should cover their shoulders and musn’t wear shirts with plunging necklines or shorts above the knees (not even around the house if you’re staying with a family).
Learn some basic Arabic phrases. It will help you get around easier.
Make friends. What better way to experience the culture than to immerse yourself with those who live there?
For a short vacation, it really isn’t necessary to go with a fat wallet unless you plan to do a lot of souvenir shopping.
If you’re there for a short time, avoid drinking faucet water. Bottled water is perfectly fine.
Tensions in Morocco are high, so don’t voice strong political opinions with people you don’t know very well, especially about the Moroccan government, the monarchy, or the Western Sahara.
In Morocco, non-Muslims are forbidden from entering mosques and religious monuments. If you wrote that down as a part of your itinerary, scratch it.
Always bargain when you shop. It’s almost customary to do so.