I’ve just finished a three week visit to Morocco- my first time in Africa and an Arab country- and I’m glad to have confounded all expectations by not being blown up by Islamic terrorists nor trampled to death by camels.
In celebration of my survival, I’ve decided to write about my experiences, and a few of the things I learnt about Morocco, whilst simultaneously reminding you all how to order the alphabet.
A for Assault on the Senses
One thing you could never accuse Morocco of being is boring. Unlike the sanitised city life we have in the west, the Moroccan streets are bustling, hectic, and full of life. Shopkeepers are yelling out to get your attention, people are chatting, children are playing together. Loaded donkeys sometimes clip-clop by. The air is full of the sound- and smell of all the mopeds whizzing past. The packed markets spill out onto the edge of the streets, their smells competing with the moped fumes and the food cooking in restaurants for attention. Stray cats and kittens wander around picking at rubbish bags, beggars slouch on the floor. It’s pretty intense.
B for Berbers
From the outside Morocco may seem like an Arab country, but it is really more of an Arabised one. The native Berbers that have lived in North Africa for around 12,000 years still make up the majority of the population, with many of them speaking their own unique language. The name Berber itself originated from the Romans, who described them as “barbarians”, but a sense of cultural consciousness and pride is growing. While to outsiders like myself the differences between Berber and Arab culture seemed hard to distinguish, I’m told there are plenty.
C for Chefchaouen
Perhaps the prettiest place in Morocco, Chefchaouen is a quaint little town tucked away in the mountains of the north. Its location alone makes it a nice place to visit, but the town’s real claim to fame is that virtually every building in the historic centre is painted blue and white. Walking through the narrow cobbled alleyways and stairs, it almost feels like the town has been carved out of ice.
D for Distrust
When I go to a new country, I like to meet local people when I get the chance, to talk to them and learn more about where they’re living. In Morocco, this was far more difficult. Virtually every time somebody spoke to me on the streets, it would quickly become clear that their friendliness was just the prelude to a sales pitch. It’s one of the more distasteful aspects of visiting Morocco, and it didn’t take long before it got pretty annoying.
I tried not to be cynical, to give people the benefit of the doubt, but every time I did so it always ended up with something being offered for a fee: carpets, souvenirs, tours, drugs, directions, bus tickets, massages, food. The hassle was relentless and often persistent, and would strike in the most expected of places: farmers tried to sell me hash on a mountain, while a carpet salesman gave me his business card while I sat on a deserted beach. It’s not really in my nature to be rude and ignore people, but after a few days of this it was difficult to trust that anyone simply wanted to chat. In my three weeks in Morocco I had very few interactions with locals that didn’t have dollar signs in their eyes, and I think that’s a real shame.
E for Essaouira
Visiting Essaouira is a real port town experience, unlike any of the rather more orderly, sanitised coastal towns in the developed world. The air is thick with seagulls- and the ground even thicker with their crap. The harbour is full of ramshackle fishing boats manned by rugged-looking local men, with others hauling large ropes and nets down into the water. People stand over carts full of fish, gutting and decapitating them and dumping the remains on the ground. The town is also surrounded by impressive historic fortifications, and apparently they film Game of Thrones scenes there.
In fact, Morocco’s long Atlantic coast itself is a pretty impressive sight, with vast uncrowded beaches, huge crashing waves and spectacular sunsets.
F for Five Languages
Morocco is a somewhat linguistically confusing country, and I encountered five different languages. The national language is Arabic, though it is not spoken by everyone, and in practice people speak a Moroccan Arabic dialect quite unlike the version spoken anywhere else. But many people actually speak a native Berber language as their mother tongue. French was introduced during the colonial era and remains widely spoken as a second language, while Spanish is commonly heard up in the north near Iberia. And, of course, many of the locals now speak English too!
G for Gender
It’s hardly a surprise that conservative Muslim country would have a rather outdated approach to women, but it was still quite eye opening to see. It was very notable how men far outnumbered women in many social places, that they were generally better educated and more confident. 99% of all the people approaching me on the streets were men. Young men would loiter in groups on the streets, but aside from young children there seemed to be minimal gender mixing. Occasionally, I passed a young man and woman talking quietly together down a dark back alley, as though they couldn’t risk being caught conversing in public.
I heard stories of harassment from so many women living in or visiting the country: men asking them for sex, following them down streets, exposing themselves in public, and generally acting in a way that would be completely inappropriate in the western world. But when society keeps different sexes so strictly apart, such crude behaviour is hardly surprising. I pity the Moroccan women who have to live their whole lives with such people.
H for Hashish
Cannabis is grown in huge quantities in the mountains of northern Morocco, and it is supposedly responsible for the majority of hashish smuggled into Europe. It’s illegal, but I didn’t see anyone enforcing the law. In fact, I heard it’s one of their major exports, and it certainly seems to draw a lot of young tourists to the country! Throughout my time in the country I was regularly offered hash by random men on the street, and in Chefchaouen- the heart of the cannabis growing region- I couldn’t go five minutes without some blokey approaching me to flog the stuff.
I for Islam
Morocco is a Muslim country, with everything that brings: women are typically veiled, the call to prayer rings out five times a day, alcohol is limited, and pork certainly isn’t on any menus! That said, it’s not Saudi Arabia. Apparently, a lot of young people claim to be Muslims but don’t follow the rules particularly strictly, and I was told a growing number don’t really believe in God at all. But the smaller towns and villages out in the countryside are said to be far more religious and conservative.
K for Kasbahs
Kasbahs are essentially the castles of the Arab world, but in Morocco they are commonly made of mud bricks. I don’t know how well such a structure could have protected its inhabitants back in times of war, but they certainly make for interesting tourist attractions in the modern era!
L for Labyrinths
Every town I visited in Morocco was divided into old and new districts. While the modern areas roughly resemble typical western cities, the historic centres- known as medinas- are small, densely packed urban islands surrounded by fortifications at the heart of the city. The streets inside are usually little more than winding narrow alleyways that follow no logical pattern, full of dead-ends and other little surprises. In some, getting lost in the maze of alleys was utterly inevitable!
M for Markets
While shopping in the developed world is more and more dominated by huge supermarket chains, street market culture is alive and well in Morocco. It was never difficult to find a food being sold at a stall on the streets, but inside the proper markets the variety of stuff for sale was amazing: carpets, souvenirs, electronics, ornaments, shoes, clothes, crockery, pots and pans, fabrics, glasses, spices, health products, old TVs, live animals…
N for Negotiating
Many items in the aforementioned Moroccan markets don’t come with price tags- you have to haggle over the price. Some people enjoy the experience, but I found it all rather awkward. A lifetime of shopping in regular stores has imbued me with the belief that everything should have a fixed price. I almost felt like I was questioning the vendor’s integrity when I didn’t accept his price.
O for Ornate
Moroccan architecture can be incredibly ornate and intricate. Some of the old mosques and madrassas were covered by the most detailed decoration carved into both wood and stone, made up of curvy flowing lines, florid patterns, and Arabic calligraphy. Very pretty.
P for Politics
Morocco has an absolute monarchy, led by the chubby middle aged King Mohammed IV. He’s effectively a dictator, worth several billion dollars in a country where most people are poor, and he does not tolerate any dissent- and yet he seems genuinely popular. There is a democracy of sorts, but it’s the royal family that holds the real power.
Q for Quad Biking
This is a rather self-indulgent choice for a topic, but hey, Q is a bastard of a letter to work with. I went quad biking (that’s a really rubbish, oxymoronic name when you stop and think about it) in the desert around Marrakech, and wow, it was a lot of fun! Powering through the sand, shrouded in my guide’s sun lit dust cloud most of the time, it was virtually impossible to see where I was going at times, but that was all part of the fun. Of course, had I fallen of the big beast the Q would probably have stood for quadriplegic instead…
R for Rif Mountains
While I sadly didn’t get to explore the famous Atlas Mountains, I did spend a day exploring the smaller-but-still-lofty Rif Mountains in the north, near Chefchaouen. The views from the mountaintop were spectacular, and the sense of silence and solitude a welcome break from the craziness below…
…Until a young goat herder appeared, and began trying to communicate something to me, yelling at his herd below, and playing music on his phone, completely ruining the ambiance. He then compounded this by suggesting I could take a shortcut back to town. I followed his directions, and spent the next few hours lost, ploughing my own trail through the spikiest bushes Morocco has to offer…
S for Sahara
For me, the main reason to visit Morocco was to see the Sahara. As it turned out there was plenty more to the country than that, but visiting the desert was still an amazing experience. Contrary to what people might think, the Sahara, like most deserts, predominantly consists of rocky, barren plateaus and mountains. There are, though, some areas that are covered by towering, orange sand dunes. We also came across little oasis towns, patches of greenery surrounded by the desolate, brown landscape around it.
The vastness of the Sahara is quite hard to get your head around. I spent hours and hours travelling being driven across it, and the lifeless plains I saw seemed big enough on their own, and yet I hardly even scratched the surface- I’d have had to travel another 2,000km to get to its centre. It’s really, really big.
T for Tanneries
I paid a brief visit to a tannery in the city of Fez, where animal skins are processed into leather the old fashioned way. They are really filthy places, with an incredibly disgusting smell emanating from the multi-coloured pools of liquid.
U for Undeveloped
Morocco is actually one of the most developed countries in Africa, but that’s not really saying much. While there were clearly some wealthy people in the big cities in particular, the overall impression I got was of a rather poor, undeveloped place. Apparently, wages are low and youth unemployment is high, and many young Moroccans try to migrate to Europe to find jobs.
It struck me that, as a poor country with high levels of tourism, us foreign visitors are indirectly creating a problem for Morocco. Being poor isn’t so bad when everyone around you is in the same boat, but when relatively wealthy tourists show up the economic disparity becomes much clearer. I’m told the recent influx of tourists, while benefitting the economy, has had the more unwanted side effect of creating a more money orientated, materialistic society.
V for Very Cheap
But hey, for us foreigners Morocco is a very cost effective place to visit! Flights to and from the country are numerous and surprisingly well priced, transport within the country is cheap, food is good value (and tasty), while accommodation prices are so low I don’t really see how hostel and hotel owners can make a profit. And if that’s not enough to persuade you to go, how about…
W for Weather
While I wouldn’t want to visit Morocco in the summer- I was told temperatures regularly exceed 40°C inland- it’s a brilliant option for people looking to escape the European winter. Even in December, temperatures well still pretty high, it virtually never rained and the sun shone nearly every day.
X for Xmas
Oh, X. How I hate you and your uselessness as an initial letter. Well, I can confirm that, as a Muslim country, Morocco does not do Christmas- though the shopping malls were still decked out with decorations and Christmas trees. I was told that the Moroccan equivalent of Christmas is the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, though since Islam follows the lunar calendar the date of this changes year by year.
Y for Youthful
Going to a developing country, it’s often noticeable how youthful the population is compared to the UK. Apparently, more than a quarter of the population is aged 14 or below. Having lived in Korea for a year, a country where kids do little but study in their spare time, it was odd to see groups of kids playing together on the streets. I just hope for the country’s sake that they’re all getting an education too…
Z for Zig-Zag Roads
On the way to and from the desert, our bus passed through the Atlas Mountains, one of the biggest mountain ranges in Africa. While it was a shame not to be able to go and explore them on foot, the view from the bus window was special enough. The narrow road coiled its way along the steep mountainside, just metres away from a sheer drop into the valley below, full of winding hairpins and blind bends. It was one of the most spectacular roads I’ve ever travelled on.