To celebrate my 30th birthday, I spent five weeks in the spring of 2017 with my family traveling through the Kingdom of Morocco. I have fantasized about visiting Morocco ever since I was introduced to the character T. E. Lawrence through the movie Lawrence of Arabia at eleven years old. I was entranced by Lawrence’s charisma and self-certainty, especially alongside the mysticism of the Berber tribes and the stark ferocity of the desert.
Unsurprisingly, Morocco was rather abruptly different than the images of camel treks across the desert and Atlas Mountain mystics I had envisioned. What I found was even more special.
A brief word on Moroccan History
Morocco is a country dense in history and culture. Frequently called the “Kingdom of Morocco,” it is ruled by a king, who is by all reports benevolent, well-loved, and politically savvy. While not rule of law, it is customary for every establishment in the country to display a photo of the king, and most show him in cinema-perfect wilderness or religious setting. For more than 50 years, Morocco was a French colony, and French is still the language used to conduct government business today.
Morocco is on the North-Western corner of the African continent, with coasts along both the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. It has always been a export-rich country, through which salt, gold, and other valuables were ported to the coast, and from there shipped to Europe or Asia.
Morocco is a majority (98%) Islamic country, which comes with it’s own history and philosophies. The pervasiveness of the Islamic faith influences every aspect of life, such that those few locals I met who consider themselves religiously atheist, simultaneously are still culturally Islamic. While Morocco is liberal compared to many Middle Eastern countries, a call to prayer echoes around even the smallest of Moroccan towns five times each day. On my first night in Morocco, the call to prayer woke me up in fear at 4am with long drawn-out Arabic chanting that even native speakers may have a hard time deciphering. We eventually came to recognize the most common phrase, “Allah akbah,” which means “God is great.” By the end of 5 weeks, the call to prayer had become such a comfortable ritual that my first morning back in the United States I woke up confused for lack of the pervasive chanting.
The headscarf is a mixed symbol of oppression or free speech depending on one’s perspective. In Morocco, the headscarf is not encouraged by governmental institutions, and generally frowned on by urban middle and upper classes. That said, throughout Morocco, the headscarf is very common. In the city of Fes, for example, I rarely encountered local women with their heads uncovered. To further highlight these complicated socio-political factors, in January 2017 Morocco banned the manufacturing, marketing and sale of the burqa — the full head and face covering which leaves only a woman’s eyes visible. And yet it was not uncommon to see women in full burqas in the inland cities we visited.
Prior to Islam, Morocco was inhabited by three culturally distinct tribes of Berber, which continue to exist as their own integrated-yet-distinct cultures today. In my time in the Dades Gorge, for example, I encountered several groups of locals who spoke not a word of French or Arabic, but only their local flavor of Berber. I had even learned a few words of Berber a few days before, which didn’t translate at all across the several hundred miles we’d traveled since.
Culture isn’t ever black and white
There are some truly beautiful things about Moroccan culture. If you are a guest visiting the house of a neighbor and admire something of theirs, it is customary for the host to offer the admired object to you as the guest. There’s an emphasis on family honor, that it is sacred to each individual, that another is respected and felt welcomed. As a tourist who has traveled in a variety of countries around the world, I have never felt more welcomed and included as I did in Morocco.
There is a tradition, adopted from the Berber, of mint tea to celebrate every occasion. Moroccan tea is made with a large bunch of fresh mint, Chinese green tea, and an overabundance of sugar. (It is not a coincidence that a preponderance of Moroccans have bad teeth.) If you stop by the house of a local in an city or town throughout the country you will be offered tea, and turning it down can be difficult to do.
Over several days of strolling the souks (open air markets) of Fes, we downed gallons of the extra-sweet mint tea. Every shop we visited had someone ready to run and fetch us a fresh brew, and the longer we stayed in a single location the more pressure to join for yet another tea ceremony.
Fes is by far the most magical city I’ve ever encountered, and often referred to as the country’s cultural capital. The narrow streets of the Fes El Bali, or old Medina, would be called alleys in any other city, just wide enough for two mules to pass abreast. The walls are of thick mud-brick, 10 feet high, overshadowing the streets. Ever few feet these streets twist and turn, and side streets branch off in a variety of directions. The side streets get smaller and smaller until they dead end to a Hobbit-sized door, which is the entrance to someone’s home.
The city has several distinct districts, including the UNECO site of tanneries, which have been used as a within-city leather manufacturer for thousands of years.
As tourist walking aimlessly through the city, you will periodically get accosted by a carpet seller and brought into his Dar (Arabic for house), while his wife or cousin runs to bring everyone tea. Dars in Fes consist of a majestic central courtyard, usually open to the sky, with a variety of rooms surrounding it. It is startling to find the majesty of these traditional Dars at the end of the dark, narrow lanes of Fes.
My family stayed in one of the five rooms at Dar Romana on the northern edge of Fes Medina. From our rooftop terrace we had a panoramic view of this mystical city, the old fortified walls of the Medina, and the surrounding countryside.
I quickly befriended Semu, one of the servers at Dar Romana, and he and I spent hours together over the next week. I taught him some of my daily physical routine and he taught me Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, which is Arabic intermingled with the variety of linguistic characteristics unique to Morocco, including French, Spanish, and Berber.
Semu and I would sit and study together for an hour each evening. We began with some basics of the language. “Hello” is “Shalom aleichem” which is from Hebrew and translates as “Peace be upon you.” The proper response is “Aleichem shalom.” I was taught that it is improper not to respond to this greeting.
My friendship with Semu also gave me the opportunity to ask all of the questions that a 30-something male has in a foreign country.
“How do you meet women?”
“What do you think of arranged marriages?”
“Do you believe in God?”
Semu, and other similar friendships I forged throughout the country, provided a brief glimpse into Moroccan culture that went beyond the superficial look allowed by more typical tourist interactions.
When I opened up my cafe, I spent every waking moment for several months taking care of small emergencies. When there weren’t emergencies to solve, I spent my time afraid of the next fire that I would have to put out. I came to resent the amount of time I spent opening the cafe, establishing protocol, and picking up the pieces when things didn’t work out. In juxtaposition, a restaurateur in Fes who spent so much time teaching us how to make Moroccan mint tea to perfection, my friend Semu who taught me the basics of Darija, and the countless carpet salesmen who spent endless hours pulling rugs down from ceil-high stacks to find the perfect fit — these people didn’t attempt to calculate their time in the way I had. Looking back, I wish I had savored the process of opening the cafe, even the most difficult aspects, rather than constantly trying to optimize my time.
While so many of us in the West are constantly set on optimizing every moment of every day, there’s a sense of spaciousness to Moroccan time. It is more important to deeply appreciate your mint tea in this moment then to rush to be on time to whatever appointments you have coming up next.
The Gender Gap
Juxtaposed with these beautiful aspects of the culture, there are many that I find less favorable. I am quite social and befriend new people everywhere I go. As a tourist in Morocco, I befriended dozens of local men. Over the same period I met exactly three local women. Women in Morocco work and socialize mostly in the home, so my experience is understandable, but far outside my day-to-day norm.
While there are no laws forbidding women to work, it would be very strange for a local woman to sit down for cafe noir, a national favorite consisting in equal parts of espresso and sugar, at the men’s-only cafes that exist on almost every street. It would be even more strange for a woman to serve customers at any one of these cafes. Highlighting my own lack of expertise in Moroccan culture, female friends who have had homestays in inland Morocco describe the interior of the home as the women’s domain. All those men, drinking cafe noir and smoking endless cigarettes in street cafes, are reported to have been kicked out of the home by their domineering wives. I don’t know the truth of this gender dynamic, but it is clearly complex and substantially different than my own day-to-day.
Young People Everywhere
After Fes, and a brief visit through the Sahara Desert, we traveled through the south of Morocco over a stretch known as the 10,000 Ksars. A Ksar is a mud-brick fortified village, usually around a small oasis, and inevitably surrounded by hectares of parched, dusty, desert countryside. Most of these 10,000 villages are abandoned or have fallen into disrepair. However, we discovered one in the town of Tinejdad, that had be repaired and re-inhabited.
We spent a single night in Tinejdad. Late that night, after my family had gone to bed, I found myself in a conversation in broken French, English, and Arabic with a couple young men in their early 20s who were working the front counter at our hotel.
The conversation began because, with the four foot thick mud-plaster walls and desert temperatures, I was searching for an extra blanket. I asked how to say “blanket” in Darija, and my hosts, who turned out to be brothers, spent several minutes in friendly bickering about word choice and pronunciation. My new-found friends asked where I had learned Darija, and I explained about my friend Semu and our lessons. I asked questions about the various languages they spoke and they launched into a description of Berber, interspersed with good-natured sibling squabbles.
Half an hour into this conversation, a young woman who also worked for the hotel, joined us. She sat down on the couch next to us and began looking through my notebook. She was clearly well-educated and curious, and flipped through my entire notebook, correcting my spelling, offering pronunciation suggestions, and changing several of my most frequently-used phrases to the local dialect. In return, I taught her words in English that she struggled over as she read my notes on our previous day’s travel.
I sat and watched, intrigued but also a bit stunned, since this was the most familiar interaction I had had with a woman on the entire trip. Looking back at my notebook, I’m also in awe of the amount of diligent correction and adjustment she offered.
Our lesson ended when her fiancé called, as translated to me by the two brothers, who had continued their playful bickering throughout. In the midst of my new-found friend’s call with her fiancé, one of my companions turned to me and asked quite frankly, if I was married. I explained that I was not. He nodded in understanding and said that he, too, was “searching for a wife.”
There are so many parts of that evening that stand out in my mind — the openness of the brothers, the familiarity of my tutor and her insatiable curiosity, and that short exchange with another single man. It could have been a conversation with a acquaintance in the San Francisco Bay Area, discussing a recent date. In a country, frequently strange and magical, that was a refreshing reminder that young people are young people everywhere.
Culture is a felt-sense.
Walking paths in the Dades Gorge, which that have seen constant human habitation for 3000 years, or through the narrow alleyways of Fes, which has been lived in for 4000 years, there was a permanence of place unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Throughout so much of our lives, there is a sense of impermanence, the idea that things might change so quickly that you wouldn’t even notice.
As much as I might explain about Moroccan culture, words aren’t nearly as important as experiences. You can watch Lawrence of Arabia for images of the Sahara (actually filmed several hundred miles from the Sahara), or Indiana Jones for Marrakech (this time filmed in Hollywood), but none of these compare to the lived experience of a Saturday night in the Marrakech Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square, or a week wandering through the narrow alleys of Fes. There is a depth of lived experience in these places that cannot be fully understood unless experienced.
It seems obvious when I state that you cannot know Morocco without traveling in the country, and I would argue without living there for years. Culture is a felt sense. It has to be experienced to be even partially understood. There was a richness I experienced throughout my time in the Kingdom of Morocco: aspects that I loved, others less so, and many that I will never understand. I’ll always be somewhat haunted by the country and its people, and grateful.