Like any traveler to a foreign country, I carried more than just luggage. I carried a few preconceptions of Morocco and its people.
Ancient kasbahs, veiled women, mile-long camel caravans and endless Arabian nights, the Morocco of my mind was the mysterious country of literature, lore and glamorized Hollywood films.
But there is more to this great nation than just fantasy. What is myth and what is reality? My aim was to find out.
Myth: Morocco is a poor, undeveloped nation.
My reality: What most people genuinely don’t understand is that not all of Africa consists of tribes, dusty villages and livestock. There are cities, universities, museums, banks and malls. In fact, several cities in Morocco reminded me of major U.S. cities, with the exception of maybe a donkey or two.
The city of Casablanca, for example, conjured sweet memories of Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and a timeless romance. What I discovered was the industrial capital and commercial epicenter of Morocco.
Another surprise awaited in Morocco’s famed tourist town Marrakech. The Old Town, situated inside the rampart-walled medina, dates back to the Middle Ages. Step back in time as snake charmers blow magical tunes into the faces of hissing vipers, mysteriously shrouded henna artists promise good fortunes and cross-dressing belly dancers gyrate to castanets.
The New Town, more commonly referred to as “Villa Nouvelle,” exists outside the medina walls. Built in the 1920s during the French occupation, this modern municipality brims with wealthy locals, expats and tourists sipping cappuccinos between shopping sprees at Gucci and Gualtier. Two miles is all that separates thousands of years of history.
Myth: Morocco is all desert.
My reality: True, Morocco contains miles of isolated Saharan sands, but miles of less-familiar landscapes lead up to this reputed void. Bordered to the west by the Atlantic Ocean and to the north by the Mediterranean Sea, beautiful sandy beaches, verdant river valleys and brilliant red earth race inland to the country’s distinctive spine, the Atlas Mountain Range. Reaching toward an endless sapphire sky, these craggy cliffs create a natural border between the coastal region and vast Sahara Desert. By all means, enjoy a camel ride over the dunes, but don’t forget a dip in the Atlantic or a stroll through one of Morocco’s lush, hidden valleys.
Myth: Shopping in Moroccan souks (markets) can be aggressive and dangerous.
My Reality: “Come to my family’s shop.” “Only look, don’t need to buy.” Almost as predictable as vendor one-liners are tourist responses “I have no money” or “I will come back tomorrow.” This game of cat and mouse has led many tourists to raise the proverbial red flag before daring to enter a souk.
For a moment, let’s consider Morocco’s roots: An outpost between the Sahara Desert and Mediterranean Coast. A trade route between Africa and Europe. A community of merchants in a perpetual state of motion. Morocco has flourished due to the resilience of local vendors and souks, which are living, breathing examples of what Moroccans do best.
How do you find a souk? You don’t. Souks typically find you. A mixture of poor directions, serendipitous turns and dumb luck usually lead to the heart of these beating mercantile neighborhoods. Like bees to the honeycomb, locals and tourists buzz between walls of colorful textiles, jewelry and endless spices in search of a deal. Breathe in the assertive scents of recently tanned leather goods. Shake your hips to exotic melodies of Gnawa musicians. And for goodness sake, relax. You will be approached for purchases. You will need to bargain. And you will get lost in the labyrinth, if not once, multiple times. Pushy, friendly, aggressive or helpful, souks are reflections of your responses to their inhabitants. Go on, have fun!
Myth: Morocco is a Muslim country so foreigners, women in particular, must practice strict conduct.
My Reality: “Allah Akbar…Allah Akbar…” The Muslim call to prayer slices through the dense, humid air like a hot knife through butter. Imams, Islamic leaders of worship, call followers to mosque five times a day while tourists like myself do … what? We go about our day.
Morocco is a liberalized community of believers. Exposed to Spanish, French and British missionaries along with varied European occupations, Morocco is no stranger to foreigners and their beliefs.
As for women, contrary to popular belief, they are not locked away in some private room of their family riad and prevented from interactions with men. The women of Morocco work alongside men. They drive cars. They go to school. And they model all forms of attire. Some women wear hijab, head scarves, others choose full coverage burqas, while still others select casual jeans and t-shirts. Western women must merely dress conservatively and travel respectfully.
Myth: Moroccan food is spicy!
My reality: Define spicy. If by spicy you mean a cornucopia of dry and fresh spices, then yes, Moroccan fare is spicy. Saffron, cumin, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon and paprika abound in most meals; but hot spice, taste bud-searing chili, is minimal. “Tajines,” stewed meats with vegetables, along with couscous, cucumber salad and lightly spiced meat skewers can be found on most menus along with a favored utensil, bread. “Khobz” refers to the disc-shaped, inch-thick bread loaves used for dipping, scooping and easy cleanup.
Morocco, like every other country, has a diversity of people and cultures. Exposing the misconceptions is easy, but painting an accurate picture of this enigmatic nation continues to mystify scholars, locals and tourists alike.
The stories of yesterday may dance through our imaginations, but the realities of today are what truly meet us at the arrivals gate.