On Being Conflicted; Morocco

by wired2theworld on January 24, 2013

Post image for On Being Conflicted; Morocco

“Morocco is like a tree nourished by roots deep in the soils of Africa which breathes through foliage rustling to the winds of Europe.” King Hassam II of Morocco

Morocco.

Just the name evokes images of exotic markets filled with fragrant spices, vast dunes of the Sahara, camels, snake charmers and monkey wranglers, cous cous and clay pot tagines. While it does have all those things, they can easily become cliches. I visited Morocco for the second time in October 2012 and it’s taken me months to wrap my head around writing about it. To be brutally honest, I continue to be conflicted in how I feel about Morocco. I wanted to passionately love everything about it. I wanted to erase my first experience there and have the country redeem itself in my eyes. Yet in the end, I still feel at odds; Morocco is simultaneously one of the most fascinating and most challenging of the almost forty countries I’ve visited in the last two decades.

My mother and I chose Morocco for our annual October trip because we are both enamored by the food. I’m also in love with Islamic architecture and the design aesthetic. We’d both (independently) visited Turkey earlier in the year, adored it, and felt comfortable as women traveling in a Muslim country.

Don’t get me wrong, you’re not going to get post after post here of me bashing Morocco. I enjoyed many parts of it, but I feel that I have to be honest about the negatives where they apply.

Many of my interactions with Moroccans left me feeling as if the country is as closed off as the high walls of the medinas, where the best food was most likely found in people’s homes, and not accessible to the average, or even intrepid, tourist. Where those walls protect the family (especially women) and keep outsiders out.

DSC_6746

Almost all of our exchanges were with men; shopkeepers, waiters, stall vendors, hotel workers, drivers. It was almost impossible to find a woman with whom to converse. Our interactions with men usually involved money so of course it became difficult not to feel like a walking dollar (dirham) sign. We certainly enjoyed some good food in Morocco, but not to the extent I’d hoped for, and much was simply mediocre. We did have one absolutely lovely guided food tour though the media of Fez, but even that was led by a British expat and not a local. We weren’t on a guided tour, locked down to following some guide and sticking to the bus. We were on our own, but still, the availability for genuine experience beyond a financial transaction felt extremely limited.

That lack of local interaction was not the most challenging part of travel in Morocco, just disappointing. The ultimate undoing was the consistent nagging harassment which ranged from a gentle “hello, where are you from, please come into my shop” every five feet, to food stall touts in D’jemma al Fna square in Marrakesh physically grabbing us by the arm to pull us into their stalls. The same touts got mock offended when we did not want to stay and or chat. We also found ourselves being called names and having bad luck cursed upon us in Allah’s name, because again, we did not want to stop and talk or shop for the tenth time in as many minutes. I was so frazzled by this last experience I posted this on facebook:

Before coming to Morocco I was more than a little concerned about being harassed by aggressive market vendors. For the most part, things have been fine. Say no, or ignore the persistent questions of “where are you from?” and it’s all good. I seem to get addressed mostly in Spanish, even though French is more common here. They’re always surprised to learn we’re American.

Today however, we did have a negative experience. We were walking through the Mellah, a neighborhood which was once the Jewish quarter of the city. We’d been led through a labyrinth of streets to the spice market by a teenage boy who kept his word and didn’t ask us for anything, just showed us the way. 

We were walking around and every 5 feet someone says “You want spices? Come into my shop. Where are you from?” One very persistent guy tried every country. We ignored him because we were tired of being bothered. Then he told us we could not stand there or take photos because this was HIS space. Ok, fine, we kept on walking. 

When we walked back past him I heard him say “Mala suerte, inshahallah.” This means, “bad luck, God willing.” I stopped in my tracks, spun around and said “Did you just say that?” He said yes. I asked him why he would say something so horrible and he said “why did you have to be so aggressive?” For the life of me, I cannot figure how my NOT saying anything to him, ignoring him, was “aggressive”. I tried to explain to him that tourists don’t like being harassed but the conversation degenerated quickly from there and we just walked away, but not before my mother told him God would punish him for being so mean.

This left me with a bad feeling for much of the day. I’m over it now, but someday I hope these guys will learn that tourists hate to be hassled and the old adage “you catch more flies with honey” actually works.

Yes, there were plenty of times when we ate well in the stalls with no harassment and we shopped where the shop owner was friendly, but not aggressive. I’m not sure I will ever fully be able to explain the traditionally dressed shopkeeper in full beard wearing all black who squealed like a teenage girl when he learned we were from Los Angeles “Oh Em Gee (OMG!)!” He made us laugh and earned the bulk of our purchases that day. After a while the negative stuff became oppressive and we started to feel like we had to build up our armor every time we left the confines of our riad. Even the children were in on it, telling us a restaurant was “closed” in the hopes we’d go to a relative’s place instead and then asking us for a tip when we decided to go to our original destination. We had very few conversations with people who ultimately did not want something from us in the end. And I can’t help it, but it colors my feelings.

Like others before me, there is part of me which wants to preface this post, or perhaps end it, with a defensive statement along the lines of I’m not an inexperienced newbie tourist but this was different. I also know I’m not alone in my conflicted feelings about Morocco. We spoke to many other travelers who experienced the same and worse. Fellow travel bloggers found themselves harassed and threatened or misled and then harassed. I think we actually got off light in the end, but that didn’t keep me from putting my guard up every time we left the hotel or feeling exhausted by the end of the trip. Nor did it keep me locked in my hotel room.

I guess I simply want to get it all out of the way now so I can move on to lighter stuff. There was plenty to enjoy in Morocco; the gorgeous orange juice guy, the glorious architecture, charcoal grilled meats, fried seafood, dozens of different types of olives, the Marjorelle Garden, the souk in Fez, and everywhere, kittens. More of the good stuff to come…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kent @ No Vacation Required January 24, 2013 at 6:43 am

I know *exactly* what you are talking about and am very glad you are addressing it here. The next time we are face-to-face, I want to dig deep into this topic. And hear about the good stuff too!
Kent @ No Vacation Required recently posted..Introducing… Our 2013. Finally

Reply

2 wired2theworld January 24, 2013 at 6:31 pm

Kent- Don’t worry, we will. I have a feeling that’s going to be one LONG conversation.

Reply

3 Rachel January 24, 2013 at 7:55 am

Negative experiences can totally taint a place–I was harrassed by a night porter in Venice when I was much younger and it left a bitter taste in my mouth. I’m really sorry to hear you had such trouble in Morocco. It’s somewhere I desperately want to visit but I’m saddened that being a woman means I can’t go on my own without harrassment. I look forward to hearing about the good things!
Rachel recently posted..Eating my way through Cambridge

Reply

4 wired2theworld January 24, 2013 at 6:32 pm

Rachel- I’m not exactly sure being a woman is the issue there. I think foreign men are harassed in equal measure. Plenty of good stuff to come, promise!

Reply

5 Margaret January 24, 2013 at 10:21 am

I think you really nailed it Kristina. It’s the lack of being able to find an authentic experience. Whether it be food or other people, it all comes with a price. We have no idea if we liked Morocco, they never let us get close to enough to see it.

Really great. Well put!

Reply

6 wired2theworld January 24, 2013 at 6:30 pm

Margaret- I know you can relate! Especially since this was a HUGE topic of discussion when we met in Marrakesh.

Reply

7 Margaret | Destination Here&Now January 24, 2013 at 3:59 pm

This is so complex … We visited Marrakesh as a family in 2007 and after 3 days took off to a little place on the coast to escape the pressure of the souqs. I’ve been to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul 1985, 2007, 2010 and those last two visits I had the same reaction. The pressure to buy is insane. Some shopkeepers openly pissed off if you didn’t. The world is changing. But interestingly, despite feeling a sense of relief upon leaving Morocco, the place gets under your skin and I really want to return. We were treated with such kindness in the little riads we stayed in. Our daughter was sick for a couple of days and the staff (unasked) went out seeking remedies. I did a little piece on it here (http://destinationhereandnow.com/2012/09/tales-from-marrakesh-because-thats-where-it-all-began/) … But back to the question of cracking the locals … I’ve got a new Moroccan challenge and it picks up on what you’ve struggled with. I want to ‘virtual’ travel my way around the Mediterranean (from Tangier to Tarifa) over the next 3 years then do it for real in 2016. I want to build up as many local contacts and relationships as I can in each country, share stories from a local perspective – so if any of you can help me on my way I’d be grateful for any Moroccan leads. Particularly from an arts perspective: local artists, photographers and dreamers. Here’s the fb link https://www.facebook.com/destinationhereandnow?ref=hl (Kristina I rarely put links into my comments on other people’s sites. I hope you don’t mind in this instance but I can use all the help I can get x)
Margaret | Destination Here&Now recently posted..Duckmaloi revisited … because that’s where her story began

Reply

8 wired2theworld January 24, 2013 at 6:29 pm

Margaret (Here & Now)- That’s ok, I rarely allow links in the comments, but for you I’ll make an exception. ;-) I wish I could provide some of those leads for you, but alas I cannot. But I wish you luck!

Reply

9 Margaret | Destination Here&Now January 24, 2013 at 6:34 pm

Thanks lovely. Let’s see if we can find some locals. Surely there’s some Moroccan girls blogging out there. On a journalistic mission now. x
Margaret | Destination Here&Now recently posted..Duckmaloi revisited … because that’s where her story began

Reply

10 jenny@atasteoftravel January 25, 2013 at 4:34 am

I am not in a rush to return to Marrakesh and I couldn’t put my finger on the reason until I read your article. Yes, the hassling by the shopkeepers is annoying and the food is disappointing but the fact that you never really get to ‘know’ the country or have interesting conversations with locals resonated. I’ve just returned from Jordan where we were constantly stopped, welcomed to the country and ended up chatting for a long while to locals. I’d love to go back to Jordan but Marrakesh just doesn’t add up to a wonderful experience!
jenny@atasteoftravel recently posted..My Favourite Cities in the World

Reply

11 wired2theworld January 25, 2013 at 6:34 am

Jenny- I’ve always wanted to go to Jordan. I’m glad to hear you had an easier time there.

Reply

12 The Weekend Traveller January 25, 2013 at 10:49 am

I share your sentiments and I can fully understand where you are coming from. I was very fascinated with Morocco when I first went there, so few months after, I brought my husband with me. Staying in Marrakech was a bit of culture shock for him, the combination of the chaos, the haggling, the heat and the harassment. One time, he was taking photos of the snake charmers and one of them took his camera, put a snakes in his hands and one around his neck, took photos of him and would not take the snakes off his neck until he paid him €7 and the guy was still annoyed that he gave too little.

Luckily we got out of the city and stayed in a mountain retreat in the High Atlas on our last weekend. That is where we have experienced genuine kindness and enjoyed the real beauty of Morocco away from the maddening crowd of it’s capital.Whenever somebody asks me tips on going there, I always advise them to stay away from Marrakech and only visit for a day trip or a weekend. The city can drive you crazy.
The Weekend Traveller recently posted..A leisurely weekend in Luxembourg

Reply

13 Rick January 26, 2013 at 2:09 am

It’s quite obvious you hit the nail on the head. We travelled to Morocco last spring and experienced the same thing. The harassing, games with the kids trying to take your money, lack of a real ‘experience’. Even our tour guide in Marrakech was extremely condescending. He did tell us that all the traditional trades (handicrafts, wool dying, etc.) are dying in the souks, and the new generation is looking at making a quick buck selling touristy souvenirs. The landscape is changing, and they are heavily relying on tourism to make it. But if they continue at this rate, and visitors keep experiencing the same thing we have, the word will get out and they are going to be in a big mess, tourism wise. I do agree with the previous comment that the experience can be quite different outside of Marrakech. We had a similarly beautiful experience in the high altas with the kind and gracious Berbers. Probably the highlight of our trip. The best people we met besides the Berbers were expats running businesses or riads. Isn’t that sad? We also fell in love with turkey specifically because of the people. It’s a shame that this wasn’t the case in Morocco.

Reply

14 Elaine J. Masters February 1, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Thanks for the honest glimpse into Moroccan travel. I’m the first to glorify the idea of a place and last to acknowledge some of the challenges – especially in hindsight. Loved traveling in Sri Lanka, for example, but visiting the larger temples was a gut-wrenching experience. The harshest of disabled beggars, blind children, limbless young men, you can only imagine, were set up in a gauntlet that every pilgrim, especially the foreigners, had to run. There’s only so much one can do or take. It was all the more startling for the lack of beggars elsewhere – a conundrum whose source would be another story. Still, I long to see Morocco and am reading Casablanca native, Kitty Morse’s, cookbook-memoir, Mint Tea and Minarets. Yes, it seems the best is tucked away behind the riad’s walls.

Reply

15 Rebecca February 3, 2013 at 2:06 pm

After reading this entry and the others you linked to, I wonder what’s going on in Morocco socially and politically? There’s seems to be a real tension between welcoming and resenting the potential business and trade foreign tourism brings. I can’t help thinking that the aggression and frustration, which seems out of proportion with the perceived offenses (especially in the case of the ‘Notes from over there’ blog post you linked to), must be aimed at some larger issue.
Rebecca recently posted..‘Behind the beautiful forevers’ and the futility of undirected anger

Reply

16 wired2theworld February 3, 2013 at 4:15 pm

Rebecca- Very true and I thought much the same myself. What I can’t figure out is why there and not in other countries with similar economic issues?

Reply

17 Jim @NeverStopTraveling April 21, 2013 at 3:15 pm

I’m sorry to read of your experience in Morocco. It shows how places can change when they’re overrun with tourists, and not travelers who want to experience a culture and its people. I was there forty years ago as a magazine photographer and the people were kind and tolerant. I’ve often wondered how things would be today since I’ve been thinking of going back for another visit. I’ve also seen places in Eastern Europe change for the worst since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Reply

18 Adam @ SitDownDisco October 4, 2013 at 6:09 am

Very interesting. I’ve been to places before where people have felt that way and I haven’t. I wonder how Morocco will feel… I’m heading there tomorrow for about 10 days and plan to visit all the usual places. Should be interesting if I can be patient when people are harassing constantly.
Adam @ SitDownDisco recently posted..Saudi Arabia Airlines review

Reply

19 Marta Ruiz September 5, 2014 at 8:39 pm

So glad you wrote this,I was feeling guilty about my experience in morocco ( both fez and marakesh ) and you put it in perspective perfectly. We had exactly the same parallel experiences and in the end were walking around just a shell of ourselves,avoiding interaction with all as a result as the many negative , rude and abusive interactions in the medina.

Reply

20 wired2theworld September 5, 2014 at 8:50 pm

Marta- I’m sorry you had such a bad time. I still think of Morocco as one of my more difficult travel experiences and every time I sit down to blog more about it I find myself not able, which is a shame. I know there are good parts to the country, and to my experience there, but to this day I just can’t seem to put more of it into words.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Like this post? Make my day, say something...

CommentLuv badge

Previous post:

Next post: