Sunday, April 26, 2015

Real Moroccan Culture Part 2

This is part of a series. For the first two things we learned, check out Real Moroccan culture part 1.

3. Americans are rich

Our next stop, Zagora, is the last oasis on the edge of the Sahara desert. In our quest for real Moroccan culture, this outpost is for being the jump-off point for the 52 day trek to Timbuktu. Economics, politics, deforestation, and climate change have been slowly driving the traditionally nomadic families to permanent lives in towns, increasingly dependent on tourism. We don’t even pretence to know the half of it, but our host Mustapha, an Amazight (Berber) man our own age, had a simple and revealing statement:

“My grandfather live always the desert. My father live six months in the desert, six months in the oasis. Now, my family live always in the oasis. Three years ago, we sell our camels.”

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Tombouctou, 52 jours

The economic depression is only surpassed by the generosity and resilience of the Moroccan spirit. We suspect generosity is the most resilient staple of real moroccan culture, as it is the way a people have to be to survive the desert for so many eons. There's a Moroccan saying, "The Swiss have clocks; we have time." Infrastructure is terrible in the south--the nearest hospital is in Ourzazete, hours away. Moroccan women die of the slightest childbirth complication if the clinic is closed and no one is available to take her north, if her husband was in the desert with on a camel excursion, the most popular means of Morocco tourism in the south, and their best resource for making ends meet. Very little government funding trickles down from Rabat, the roads and buildings are all made of mud, the police and judicial system are corrupt. And yet the Amazight endure, nobly preserving their place in real moroccan culture, and giving a new meaning to the common Muslim phrase: "Inchallah."

"Inchallah" literally means "if God wills it." It's hard for Americans with our go-get-em attitude to deeply understand this concept. But it is a bedrock of real moroccan culture that allows them to get through each day with their spirits in-tact. We were made humiliatingly aware of the difference when working for Mustapha.

When we arrived in Zagora, they were experiencing floods from the first rain in four years--roads washed out, people, cars, whole houses swept away. We were on a bus on the road south, on a narrow road clinging to the side of the mountain, when the road simply crumbled out in front of and behind us. The Moroccan passengers on the bus were amazingly calm about it... because honestly, what could one do? Raging, as a bus full of Americans would have done, wouldn't make the rain stop. The road was simply gone, and road crews were trying to build it back. We would get out eventually, inchallah.

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The roads are built on muddy terraces on the side of mountains.

We arrived on one of the only buses to get through in a three week-stretch and got to work for Mustapha rebuilding his guesthouse, Riad Dar Zaouia. A riad is a traditional inward-facing Moroccan home focused around a courtyard. Many Moroccan buildings are often made of mud mixed with straw, and many had been damaged--in Mustapha's, a staircase had collapsed. The repairs went well, but absolutely no tourists had made it through for weeks, and he was beginning to worry about how he was going to feed all his workers, so we starting chipping in and making family meals (you could buy enough food to feed twelve people for about $3).

We cannot over-emphasize how generous they all were with what they have. That’s real Moroccan culture in a sentence: they take care of you as family. Some British tourists en route to stay at the riad were stranded in the desert by the floods, and Mustapha immediately rushed with a 4x4 to rescue them. The 4x4 had to be pushed and dragged through mud at many points, but he got them out. He refused to accept money for it when he got them back--it was just what one does when friends are stranded in the desert. Another example of real Moroccan culture: They were returning customers, but Mustapha saw them as friends.

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Mustapha taking tourists on excursion during non-flood times.

After a month with nearly no business (other than the Brits, who only stayed one night) the family was in a panic. The landlord was threatening eviction if rent wasn't paid soon. Mustapha's extended family got together, but given how large and expensive the property was (8 en-suite guest bedrooms, kitchen, living room, office, atelier, grand courtyard and garden) they were unable to raise enough funds to cover it. Mustapha was facing going out of business, and no one in Zagora would rent to him in the future once he was known as unreliable. He was just going to have to find some other way to survive, inchallah.

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Guess what the rent is on this place.

His rent? 3,000 dihrams. That's 277 Euros, 201 British Pounds, and 311 US dollars. He was standing to lose his business (including all the improvements he'd done to the building and investments in furniture and bedding) and have his local rental credit ruined over 300 bucks.

So we paid it. It’s not that $300 is by any means small change for us. We’re pretty broke by American standards, our telecommute jobs don’t pay much. But we have the luxury that when we return to the states, we can easily get some bar jobs to pay off our debt. However grueling, tedious, or degrading some of our stateside jobs can be, they pay us over a weekend the amount of money this man’s entire family couldn’t raise to save the business. Mustapha and his family don’t have our options. With borders closed and trans-Saharan trade stopped, there is no economy but tourism for Berber peoples. So when the rain washes out the roads and no tourists can get in, we discovered that real Morccoan culture is a graceful resignation to what may come: ‘inchallah.’

Mustapha all but cried when we gave him the money. He kept trying to refuse it, but we insisted that he had treated us like family, and so we were doing the same. He told us we were family, and we would always have a home in Zagora.

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Mustapha and the riad.

America’s economy has been really hard on all of us these last few years, but it’s important to maintain a sense of perspective. To not let your own desperate circumstances blind you to the desperate circumstances of others. America’s health care is notoriously bad, but (thanks to Obamacare) we both have insurance and access to hospitals, unlike the women here who bleed to death in the street because all the hospitals are too far away.

A lot of people have helped us along the way. It’s important to do the same for anyone you can that is gracious enough to treat you like family. If there's one thing we learned is the meaning of real Moroccan culture, it is generosity and paying it forward. It doesn't matter how broke we are. If we have three dollars to eat today, we are rich. The rest we'll figure out somehow. Inchallah.

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We'll continue with other things we learned in our next post. If you want to read more about real Moroccan cutlure and Amazight life, we recommend this article on walking with a nomadic family, and this one on why the nomadic lifestyle is vanishing.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Real Moroccan culture, part one

Real Moroccan culture, part one.

People tend to imagine traveling is a means of gaining knowledge, which is backwards. If traveling has shown us anything, it is how little we know.  Generalizations like “Mexico is Catholic,” “Morocco is Muslim,” “San Francisco is filled with hippies,” aren’t necessarily untrue, but they are myopic simplifications that lose their meaning as soon as you visit these places. Any country is filled with individuals, with unique attitudes about themselves and where they live and how they do or don’t fit into those boxes.

In some ways we feel less entitled to give advice about Morocco tourism than someone who has only ever read about the country. We have been humbled by how Morocco culture is so unbelievably distinct in each city, how singular every neighbourhood of those cities are, and the diversity and uniqueness of every street, cafe, and storefront.

So if there’s one thing we hope to impart on people about Morocco tourism, it is not our expertise, but rather our ignorance and humility. We tried to enter Morocco with an open mind and experience as many different texture of Morocco culture as we could. Here are some things we learned from what we tried and observed, and we encourage you to observe your own.

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We said we'd try things. We didn't say we'd look elegant doing it.

1.) The Marrakech medina is a special level of hell.

 The hub of Morocco tourism--what most people think of when they think of Morrocco culture--is the Marrakech medina. We spent the first four days in the Marrakech medina, which is an aggressive tourist trap. You are accosted nonstop by people trying to swindle you. We’re grateful we moved on to spend a month each in Rabat, Zagora, and Asilah before we made a judgement, but many people don’t have this opportunity. The medina, or central market, is a fundamental element of Morocco culture and daily living. Most major cities have a medina, and the salesmanship in all of them can be a bit obnoxious, but the Marrakech medina is a whole other level.

You will be followed aggressively by people trying to “give you directions,” then lead you to their cousin’s carpet store. They’ll serve you tea and be so congenial that it will be really uncomfortable trying to get away. The other version is when they follow you around no matter how many times you tell them no, and then demand a tip. If you give them 10 dirhams just to leave you alone, they will get indignant and claim they deserve more. (10 is enough to buy a cup of coffee, 20 is enough for a pack of cigarettes, to give you some scale).

If you  really want to see the Marrakech medina, by all means go for it. Just keep in mind that that is NOT what the entire country is like.

Also, to be fair, there are individuals who are nothing like that in the Marrakech medina as well. One time, we did actually get lost (we're pretty good at directions, but it's a particularly labyrinthine medina,) and we asked a young kid working in a restaurant. He asked another waiter to watch his section, led us where we wanted to go, and took off before we could even offer him a tip.

For every street hustler, there’s a Moroccan that’s really embarrassed by that representation of Morrocco culture who will try to make up for it. The government has been running Morrocco tourism campaigns that compel their citizens to treat tourists respectfully, their argument being that Morrocco tourism benefits the citizens financially.

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What you can't hear in this picture is all the shouting of "You want to buy?"

2.) Living somewhere is nothing like visiting there.

Our month in Rabat couldn’t have been more to the opposite of our short stint in the Marrakech medina. We weren't there just as a cog in the wheels of Morrocco tourism, we were actually living there. We sublet a room from a Moroccan guy our age, worked daily, cooked at home, and made local friends.

The medina there is simply an outdoor mall where Moroccans sell ordinary life commodities like food, housewares, shoes, and cell phones to each other. It helps that Rabat is the capital. Many expats, students and people who work at embassies simply live there. It’s nice. It doesn’t matter what colour you are. You can just live.

A few people have asked us “Eh, what is there to do in Rabat? How much of Morocco tourism is really focused there? There’s like, half a day worth of monuments.”  Well… everything else? Go out for happy hour with a crazy international blend of Moroccans and expats? Go to the indie film festival? Get a coffee and watch the futbol game? Go jogging on the beach? Learn to surf? Hang out at  the hamam? Check out the mind-bending contemporary art museum? Poke around the Roman ruins? Read a book and get Turkish coffee in the Kasbah? Cross over to see the beautifully preserved medieval architecture in the pirate city of Sale?

Don't get us wrong, we enjoy eating out and visiting monuments of Morocco culture as much as the next fellow. People are right to be proud of their own history, and we're not suggesting anyone be a travel hipster who ignores landmarks of Morocco culture simply because they're famous. What saddens us is to hear people assume photo ops are "all there is" to a given city.
At the same time, we need to emphasise that we're not promoting the exploitation of niches that are not prepared for Morocco tourism. You'll see scathing tripadvisor reviews, for example, of favourite local restaurants by tourists who went out trying to "discover" something new. First of all, that's a bit like white men "discovering" America, as if it previously didn't exist for all the people who were already there. Secondly, these entitled tourists lambast the locals for recommending something not adequately westernised. How dare a place exist on it's own terms, not as a disposable service to be chosen or rejected by you, the almighty tourist!

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Blvd Mohammed V, right up the centre of town.

This article has been getting extremely long, so we've decided to break it up. More things we learned in our next instalment: things we learned from Morocco culture, part two.