Have you ever visited Naples? Imagine yourself in a taxi being driven around a large traffic circle composed of 8 to 10 lanes, depending on the number of drivers at any one time. Cars dart in and out in a dance that is fast and terrifying in its unpredictability and near-miss collisions. Speed seems to be an irresistible compulsion to the drivers, even if brakes are slammed on immediately. Miraculously you get out of the circle alive. No collisions, no fender benders. You have survived your first 10 minutes in Naples.
Now think about that traffic circle but flatten it so that it is a 15-foot-wide brick path that is about 1 kilometer long. All of that energy to speed and overtake the person in front of you is frustratingly limited by the constraints of that narrow pathway. This is the setting for your adventure in a souk in Marrakech.
Luckily there are no cars for you to maneuver around. Instead you have bicycles, motor scooters, donkeys pulling wooden carts, and hordes of tourists who meander in front of animals and speeding vehicles oblivious to their imminent near death encounters. The scooters are constantly revving their engines trying to get through the crowds while billowing obnoxious smoke in their wake. The donkeys are implacable pulling their load, looking neither left nor right, but not giving over one inch on either side. The bicycles are ridden by little kids who are not only fearless but competitively race with the scooters. Now imagine an Ape, that weird Italian three-wheeled truck, loaded to the gills, trying to get through this space with no clearance on either side, and piled way too high with burlap sacks filled with spices. The large sacks appear secure, and then one starts to slip, and then another, and as you stand there helpless to stop it, they finally all tumble from the cart onto the pathway setting off a cascade of bright colors and smells as they hit the ground. The donkeys bolt, the tourists start coughing and covering their noses, the motor scooters start honking and everyone is yelling at everyone else because no one can move! I forgot to mention that on either side of you, there are vendors trying to hawk their goods; carpets, silver jewelry, wooden bowls and hanging lamps.
Oh, and by the way, it is Ramadan now, so according to our guide, things are much calmer/lethargic since no one can eat or drink until sundown. Maybe they have no energy to sell but they do have energy to yell at the donkeys, yell at the cart drivers, and then yell at the tourists in a futile effort to get them to stop and shop.
Welcome to the Medina in Marrakech.
Morocco is still a strange place in a strange land. During our four days there, we were escorted by four different guides who were talkative and easily answered whatever strange questions I threw at them. Better than reading my description of Morocco, here are some of the questions I asked, and the responses they gave me.
On the subject of women:
Q: I notice there are a lot of young foreign women in shorts. Does it bother Moroccans to see women dressed in immodest clothing?
A: No. We are a tourist economy and we know that people from across the sea have strange habits. We accept their right to dress as they please. The real religion in Morocco is to respect others.
Quite frankly, I was surprised by this answer. Although this was the politically correct answer, I also detected no disapproval from any of the people regarding foreign women. Of course, we were there during Ramadan and impure thoughts are banned for the month :) I loved the description of foreign people as those who come from “across the sea.”
Q: Would it be hard for a Moroccan man to work for a woman?
A: let’s put it this way, it is not common here.
I understood this to mean that it would be very difficult for a Moroccan woman and a Moroccan man. We saw photos of a work site, that had the workers gathered together smiling and the surveyor, who was a woman, standing off to the side and alone.
On the royal family:
Q. I understand that the “Queen” is from the common people. Is she well liked?
A: The queen is very intelligent, and I would say she is well liked. She is the first First Lady we have ever seen. We never knew who the mother of the King was before her.
Q: Really? That’s hard to believe. No one ever saw the wife of the King before this King?
A: Until this King, absolutely not. This is one of the reasons we think he is more progressive because we have been able to see his wife and the mother of his children with our own eyes.
This answer really surprised me and yet it makes sense given the cultural norms.
Q: Is the King well liked?
A: Not particularly. We believe that he can do more. After the Arab spring, he promised to make some changes to the constitution and the government. We did change the constitution, but we have a long way to go. I would say about 10 or 12 families still have all of the power in Morocco. They are treated differently from all the other people.
Again, I was surprised by the openness of the answer. It was stated matter of factly.
Q. Where is the King from?
A: I find this a very strange question. The King is from the Middle East. He was born in Rabat; his father and grandfather were born in Rabat, but he is from the Middle East.
This was probably a language misunderstanding. I was really wondering what area of Morocco the King was from and if he favored that area, but I did not pursue the question as the guide seemed mildly offended.
Q. Have you ever been inside the palace here in Marrakesch?
A. No. No one but the official people have been in there. We do not know what it looks like inside, but we have heard stories about it.
I wondered if this were a bone of contention with the people, but did not follow up. Here is a link about all of the palaces…http://tru-fi.blogspot.com/2011/03/moroccan-royal-palaces-8-and-counting.html
On relationships with other countries:
Q: What is Morocco’s relationship like with France?
A: It is complicated. We have many things from the French system. Our justice system, our school organization, part of our language reflects French words. Our children are still taught French in school. On the other hand, we find some of the French views toward us a bit patronizing and that irks some people. Our governments are friends, and we have individual French friends. We find people from Paris a bit difficult and arrogant. The majority of our tourists are from France.
Q: What is your relationship like with Saudi Arabia?
A: Let’s put it this way, I would rather have a tourist from Paris than a tourist from Saudi Arabia. They are even more arrogant. They voted against Morocco and with the US on the location of the World Cup in 2026. It would have been a very important thing for Morocco to host the games. We were all very upset by this. They not only voted against us, they got other countries to vote against us. We are not happy with them.
Needless to say, I had no idea about this “betrayal” by Saudi Arabia. Soccer is taken very seriously and it would have meant a lot to Morocco in both prestige and money to host the World Cup in Rabat.
Q: Are American tourists viewed in the same way as French tourists.
A: Well, no. Americans are quite generous, they tip well, and they seem to appreciate our country. The French and other Europeans are notoriously cheap.
This is a common comment about American tourists. We like to shop and it is appreciated. In tourist economies, it is fundamental to the survival of the people.
Q What about the Chinese?
A: OMG…or something similar. The Chinese?! They come here in big groups. They make the long line to go to the bathroom and then go to our restaurants and order hot water. We call it “ordering like the Chinese.” Then they take out packages of dried herbs that smell terrible, put it in the hot water, and then slurp it up very noisily like some soup. Strange.
The Chinese seem to have taken over the reputation of the Ugly American as far as travel is concerned. I heard many silly stories about the Chinese that are clearly made up but people seem to love to believe them, i.e. The Chinese never die. Why do they believe this? No one has ever seen them in a hospital or a cemetery. Logic is lost on this type of story. In Italy I have heard similar stories and complaints about Chinese tourists.
Q. What about tourists from Italy?
A: We love the Italians. I wish more would come. They stopped coming after the “crisis”. They are happy and want to always make a festival. When we ask them what restaurant they want to go to, they always say, the one with the most atmosphere. Italians really care about atmosphere.
I didn’t know this about Italians who travel, but I have told this to several of my Italian friends and they sheepishly nod that yes atmosphere is most important to them when they look for restaurants. Funny they don’t put the food at the top.
A: Yes, we have quite a few German tourists. They want to drink, eat big meals and go to the seaside.
Q: Do you have many tourists from Algeria?
A: Algeria?! No. The border between Algeria and Morocco is closed. There used to be quite a few Moroccans who lived in Algeria put the Algerians kicked them out and kept all of their money and belongings. We have Algerians here, but we did not kick them out. After this little problem we closed the border. Now no one can cross over.
Q. What about the Bedouins?
A. Now we make an exception for them. We know the families and the soldiers in Morocco and Algeria let them pass.
Another area I knew nothing about. In-depth look at this problem. http://www.iai.it/sites/default/files/menara_wp_20.pdf
All I can say is that is astonishing we have not blown all of ourselves up with all of the conflicts that are simmering across the globe.
Q: What are the religions here?
A: For Moroccans there are only 2 choices, Islam and Jewish. We are Sunni Muslims. We used to have a large Jewish population but in the 60’s they left and went to Israel. They left everything here and just left. Now some want to come back. If they were born in Morocco, they will always have Moroccan citizenship, but some of the Jewish people had their children in Israel. They will not be Moroccan citizens. You must be born here.
Another interesting citizenship discussion.
Q. What are the burial rituals here?
A; First you must be buried in 24 hours. If you wait for family, you can wait for 48 hours maximum. Then you are wrapped in a plain white cloth. There are people who volunteer to do this. No one makes money off of the death of someone. I have heard in the West that you make money when people die. We think this is terrible. Anyway, once the person is washed and warpped, they are placed laying on their right side and they are buried pointing in the direction of the east, toward Mecca. We have separate cemeteries for Jewish people and Christian people. We are respectful.
This is one of the few times, I thought the guide could go on a rant about American funeral practices. I changed to subject to women, a safer subject from my point of view.
Q: Do the women go to the mosque on Friday?
A; Yes of course but they must stay in the back behind the men.
Think about it, if they are bowing and praying and you are a man looking at their behinds, you will not be thinking about your prayers.
This was said without a trace of irony. There seemed to be a general opinion that men- especially Berbers- could not control themselves sexually, and so many of these laws were instituted to protect women. I didn’t push against that comment.
Q. Is Islam taught in schools.
A; In some schools, but in the private schools, that you send your children to if you have money, no religion is taught. English is taught in private school, not public school but no religion.
Q: What are the rules around Ramadan?
A: From sunrise, around 4:30 AM till sunset, around 8:00pm, no food, no water, no cigarettes, no gum. Nothing must pass your lips during that time.
Q: Could someone go to jail if they don’t fast during Ramadan?
A: There are certain exceptions. Children, women who are nursing, old people, but all of the rest are expected to do what it right. It is good for you. You should try it.
I had no comment to this suggestion. I could have gotten a pass since I’m old!
It was a very interesting four days. I found the people nicer and sweeter than I expected and I found the food not as good as I expected. Everyone said that the true food is only cooked at home and that the restaurants are mainly for foreigners. I loved Moroccan food that I ate in California, but didn’t have a meal that was as good as that.
Morocco was a country of extremes. Rich and poor, young and old, religious and secular. Traditional and conservative and yet fairly open about smoking hash.
It was not an easy country of me to visit, but it was definitely an interesting one.