Africa Zina, Tamazight or Berber for Beautiful Africa became the byword of the two-week adventure my wife and I just had in Morocco. Maybe one day it will classify as a vacation, but right now, it’s still an adventure. We had a blast and enjoyed ourselves immensely, but by virtue of the itinerary we planned, and it wasn’t entirely a surprise, this was not a stress-free trip.
First, a few things about Morocco. Because of the media and our propensity to make things identifiable and simple, we tend to classify all of North Africa and the non-European parts of the Mediterranean basin as “the Middle East”. It isn’t so. Moroccans identify wholly as Africans – North Africans. Mention the Middle East and the Moroccans we met will point vaguely east and tell you the Middle East is over that way, where the Lebanese, Syrians and Israelis are. It’s not a political writing off, just geo and ethnographic fact setting. Along with our geographic lumping together, we pretty much classify most of the citizens of the North Africa / Middle East area as Arabs. While mostly true, it’s a matter of degrees. Forty to fifty percent of Moroccans are Berber or Amazigh, and they’re proud of that distinction. Berber is actually a shortened version of Barbarian, a term conferred on the Amazigh (and others, including the Corsicans) by Rome as the empire was collapsing. While Rome ruled the region, the Amazigh were never entirely subdued and didn’t wholly embrace the glory of Rome.
Morocco is a Moslem country, but by virtue of its history and location it’s also cosmopolitan. Historically Morocco hasn’t been insular and offers visitors a culture and history influenced by sub-Saharan Africans, Jews, Islam, the Berber-Arab mix, and a French (and Spanish) colonial past .
While we saw many people in traditionally modest dress, and guide books recommend that even men eschew shorts (except maybe in the desert,) and remain sensitive to local mores, our guides intimated that many Moroccans (like High Holiday Jews or Easter Christians) manage to find their mosques around Ramadan. Maybe in the bigger cities, but the villages certainly seemed more observant.
So, the stress. This experience was unlike anything either of us have experienced. Going into the medinah (old city) of Marrakech makes midtown Manhattan seem almost sedate and Midwestern by comparison. Either the Rough Guide or Lonely Planet commented that a visit to Morocco’s historical cities would involve “sensory overload”, and they were absolutely correct. The whole older city, whether Marrakech or Fes, are warrens of narrow, nameless alleys, and merchants in stalls selling every variety of good, food, spice, fabric and clothing. Marrakech, more so than Fes is the living embodiment of commercial capitalism. If you stop and make eye-contact for more than 3 seconds, you’ve effectively entered a contract to try and buy something through bargaining. If you stop to look at a map or read a non-existent street sign, you are inviting a score of helpful but not necessarily altruistic youth (boys, never girls) to show you where you want to go, or think you w
ant to go. And, usually for a fee. It can be unseemly and uncomfortable at times, but it’s normal. We learned to look determined in the face of wrong turns, and to ask directions from vendors or shop owners, or men (again, never woman) in cafes. As Chicago is less intense than NYC, so Fes is several degrees more manageable than Marrakech, and to a degree, more interesting historically.
We spent several days with some wonderful people learning to prepare Moroccan
dishes, gallivanting from butcher to baker to the spice man with a delightful young woman in Fes. Her demeanor with the stall vendors was reminiscent of how our grandparents interacted with the neighborhood butcher and grocer before the coming of the supermarket. We also had a serendipitous encounter with a “healer” who beckoned us into his shop, but was fun to listen to and provided a relaxing reflexology massage to weary feet and strained shoulders, and a recommended selection of Argan Oil, musk and Amber.
Finally; despite geographic, social and cultural differences, we really are all human, and have more in common than we sometimes think. Even when there’s no snow.