First, a bit of the basics. Morocco is a country in the Maghreb region of North Africa. It is one of the most diverse nations on the continent with vast desert, high mountain ranges and rugged coastline. It is one of only three countries including Spain and France to share both Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines. To its south lies Southern Sahara and to its east Algeria. The total population of Morocco is approximately 34 million. The largest city is Casablanca followed by the capital city Rabat. Other major cities include Marrakech (where I am currently based), Tangier, Tetouan, Fes, Agadir and Meknes. Morocco is a diverse and dynamic blend of Arab, indigenous Berber, African and European cultures (French of course, but also Andalusian due to its close proximity). On any given day you will hear at least five languages being spoken – Darija, the Moroccan Arabic dialect, French, Berber, English and Spanish. Often times one conversation will include a mix of two or three of these languages – Moroccan creole if you will.
The country is 99% Muslim, but unlike other more conservative Islamic countries (i.e., the Persian Gulf Arab states), Moroccans are pretty open-minded. They live in harmony with their Jewish populous and seem to be pretty accepting and easy-going. Women dress as conservatively or non-conservatively as they choose – some in full niqab and others with no head covering at all. There is no legal mandate in Morocco for women to veil or not to veil. There are bottle shops throughout the new cities selling alcohol (considered forbidden by many conservatives). Kif (hash) is widely available and I’m told the younger generations are rejecting the older tradition of men taking up to as many as four wives.
Morocco is steeped in history and culture, a centuries old trading hub long considered the gateway to the west, where you will find Berbers, Arabs and Saharawis still living as they did ages ago. All North African cities have a central medina or old city, which is a concentrated maze of narrow passageways built in imperial times to keep invaders out. Medinas are equal parts fascinating and frustrating. They are teeming with spice markets and souqs, tea shops and tanneries, donkey carts and motos. The medina is the central pulse of any given city. But be prepared to get lost – even maps and GPS won’t help you. Medina derbs (small streets) are narrow, most of them unmarked, and they all look more or less the same. Let yourself get lost! It’s guaranteed after all and it’s half the fun!
Marrakech is in the central region of the country with a population of approximately 1 million. It is rumored to be Morocco’s number one tourist destination with an influx of visitors from all over the world. Its medina, as mentioned in my previous blog, is home to the famed Djemaa El Fna or main square where you will find snake charmers, Barbary apes, apothecaries, henna artists, storytellers, palm readers, magicians, musicians, tumblers and Chleuh dancers. Djemaa El Fna was named a UNESCO World Heritage site and is rumored to be the busiest square in Africa. It boasts an almost carnivalesque atmosphere – a perfect place for people watching, interacting with locals and getting into some hilarity. It’s nearly impossible to take it all in. As the sun sets and the heat of the day subsides, the square comes alive and it seems everyone in the city congregates in the square. Be prepared for shoulder-to-shoulder crowds and, of course, loads of entertainment.
If you are not careful in Marrakech you may experience what I like to call “retail rape” – the act of someone forcing something upon you that you did not request and then demanding payment for it. Most commonly found in the form of henna artists, acrobat performers, snake charmers and the like. Marrakechis take retail forcefulness to a level I’ve never experienced anywhere in the world. Be on guard, learn to haggle like a Berber, stand your ground, and remember: you are never required to pay for anything you didn’t ask for or consent to. Morocco is hard sell all the way. Here, a sense of humor is essential.
Morocco is also home to one of Africa’s most flavorful cuisines, incredibly intricate design and architecture, both traditional and upscale spa hammams, and a complexity of culture. I’m completely enchanted with the flavors, colors, sights and sounds. I am tantalized by Magical Maroc and I’m incredibly delighted to be here! I am learning to cook Moroccan cuisine including all variety of tajine. I’m 100%, unequivocally addicted to hammam and I am excited to explore more. As of today, I have been in Marrakech for exactly one month. It feels like I’ve just arrived while simultaneously feeling like I’ve been here much, much longer. I’m still getting my bearings in the Red City and hopefully there is much more to come…