This past weekend, I had the amazing opportunity to visit Morocco. The trip began as I rushed to the train station after finishing a Dynamics exam. I was a little worried about time, but I ended up finishing
the exam a little early and everything was fine. We took a 5.5 hour train to Algeciras, Spain where we spent the night. Early in the morning on Friday, we met our guide, Noor, and boarded a ferry to take us across the strait of Gibraltar. On the ferry, we were given some cultural suggestions for our time in Morocco. Here are some highlights:
In Morocco Do…
- Remove your shoes in the home
- Ask for the restroom or trash can discreetly
- Ask before taking a photograph
- Shake everyone’s hand when entering a room, regardless of how many people are present
- Offer to share your food
- Walk behind (rather than in front) of people while they are praying and be sure to be quiet and respectful
- Sit in the same sex designated area when asked
- Have a second cup of tea
- Try to sit next to people of the same sex
In Morocco Don’t…
- Touch someone from the opposite sex
- Use your left hand when eating or giving gifts
- Use English swear words (Moroccans know these even though English is not widely spoken)
- Bargain to a low price and then not buy the merchandise
- Speak negatively about Islam, the king of Morocco, or the Western Sahara
- Dance in public
Most of these turned out not to be too big of a deal. Moroccans are some of the nicest, welcoming, and accepting people as a whole that I have ever met.
When we got off the ferry, we got on a bus and drove to Tangier. On the way there, we stopped to ride camels. Noor knew that we were really excited about the camels, so she tricked us by saying that she would try her best to find time for us to ride camels, but she couldn’t make any guarantees. Our bus exploded with excitement when we stopped.
In Tangier, we met with three college students at a women’s center with whom we talked about Moroccan culture over tea and pastries. This was the first of many conversations we would have with Moroccan students and I would say that these experiences are really what made the trip so valuable.
After we finished talking, they brought out a traditional Moroccan meal of seven-vegetable couscous. Moroccans typically eat couscous on Fridays, because it takes a long time to cook. The meal was wonderful. On Friday afternoon, we walked through an old town called Media before driving to Rabat, Morocco’s capital city.
Once in Rabat, we met with our host families. My host family was wonderful. The only people who were home were the mother and the 19 year old daughter, Rhita. Rhita started teaching herself English two years ago and she was already easily conversational. I was very impressed. I can’t even put into words how wonderful and welcoming they were. They told us “our house is your house,” and they seemed to really mean it.
Before dinner, Rhita showed us around the market, which was really cool. I was a little surprised when they put dinner on the table. The food was all on one large plate. I assumed this was just a serving dish, but I was wrong. Rhita handed us all spoons and we all ate from the same plate. The spoons were to help with the chicken broth pasta, but it was mostly finger food.
On Saturday, we began our day by visiting a NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) called “Hope for Salé.” Hope for Salé works to provide education and thus greater opportunities for children living in the urban slums outside Rabat. We spoke with some more Moroccan college students there and they tried their best to explain the issue to us. The people are living illegally on government owned land, stealing electricity and water from neighbors, and grow most of the food they need. Even when the government offered free apartments to the residents, most didn’t want to leave because then they would have to pay taxes.
One of the things that really struck me was that nearly all of the dwellings in the urban slums had satellite dishes for their TVs, yet none of them had running water. Another thing that came up in this conversation was the Moroccan monarchy. We got into the conversation when the topic of free speech came up. As an American, I hold my First Amendment rights very dearly and it seems nothing short of oppressive for a government to regulate speech and in a broader sense, thought itself. Under the reign of the previous king, saying something disrespectful about the king or his family would get you buried alive. The Moroccans I met were all excited about how wonderful and nice the current king is. Disrespecting him will simply land you a six month jail sentence. Much better than being buried alive, but still less than ideal.
Even though the current king is clearly much better than his father, I wondered if some of their excitement about the monarchy stems from a cultural conditioning over generations to never say anything negative about the monarchy. Furthermore, I found it reckless that Morocco has no system of checks and balances to control the situation if there is another bad king. The Moroccans on the other hand saw nothing wrong with the way their government is structured.
After leaving Hope for Salé, we visited some Roman ruins in Rabat (there are Roman ruins everywhere in Europe it seems) before heading back to our host families for lunch. Lunch was delicious and afterwards we got to explore the city in small groups of three along with a Moroccan college student to show us around.
All of the college students we met seemed to be majoring in either English or Linguistics. I guess they are the only ones who spoke English as English is not widely spoken there. While we were walking, I heard one girl behind us say to another “wait, that was English!” I turned around and started talking to them. They were from central Pennsylvania and were studying abroad in Rabat this semester. They knew exactly where Lafayette College was and where Towson, Maryland was which was really cool since the vast majority of people in Morocco are not experts on American Mid-Atlantic geography.
After exploring the city, we all met at a house to be recruited for the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps volunteer we talked to was really nice. She talked about her experiences during her three months of training and 24 months of service in Morocco. It sounded really interesting. From there, we went to the Hammom (the Moroccan Bath). Rhita told me that she goes once a week and spends four hours there. She also takes one shower in-between her visits to the Hammom.
When you go to the Hammom, you start in a changing room. Everyone strips down to underwear and gives their stuff to the person behind the desk to hold. You bring your bucket, ladle, scrub glove, and soap into the bath with you. The glove was very rough and the soap was brown and thick enough to hold its own shape.
There are three rooms. The first one is hot, the second one is hotter, and the third one is just like a sauna. The steam was so dense that you couldn’t see very well. In this third room there is a basin with two spigots. One with scalding hot water and the other
with room temperature water. Where you dip your bucket determines the temperature of the water you receive.
From there, you find a spot on the floor, sit down, and scrub yourself. After a while, a man comes around and asks if you want to be washed. It costs 50 Durham ($5.19).
I wanted the full Moroccan experience so I along with many others in our group took him up on the offer. He laid me down on my front and washed my back side and then flipped me over and washed my front. He was very systematic in the way he went about his work and he scrubbed very hard. I think I lost about 12 layers of skin. When he was finished, I could see the rolls of dead skin covering my body before he washed them off with the bucket.
Then came the massage and this is the interesting part. The massage included him walking on me, jumping on me, contorting my body in odd configurations and then jumping on me… It was pretty weird and a little painful. Though I must say, it did feel good afterwards and after I left the Hammom was perhaps the cleanest I have ever felt.
I think I’ve written enough for now, so I’ll continue with the second half of the weekend in a few days.