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.

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