While everyone in the Western world, or at least the U.S., was watching the series finale of Mad Men on Sunday night, my cousin Jess and I were sleeping in a Berber tent without any access to the outside world and a rock for a pillow. ‘Cause that’s how it is here in Morocco.
I kid, of course. That is not how it is here in Morocco—at least, not here in Marrakech or Essaouira on the coast—but according to some locals we’ve spoken to it’s how they feel they’re portrayed in the Western world, specifically America.
“Americans don’t come here,” he said. “One time I met one who asked if we had phones and TVs and cars and houses!”
Well, that’s embarrassing.
No doubt about it: It is wildly different and exotic.
Streets aren’t well paved in the mazelike, stonewalled medinas (or old towns); roosters can be heard at the crack of dawn; there are stray cats everywhere; locals ride around on motorized bikes that also have pedals and turtles just show up at your feet while drinking a fresh fruit juice at a kasbah cafe.
Speaking of, they’ve got oranges coming out their ears with stands upon stands, on corner after corner, offering a fresh-pressed cup for no more than 10 dirham or $1.
There’s a constant smell of either warm piss (gross), burnt palm leaves (not for everyone, but better) or jasmine (pretty awesome) everywhere you turn. The stench can change from one to the other in a matter of seconds.
Various birds chirp endlessly either in beautiful birdcages, or while hopping from branch to branch in the palm-leaf courtyards of riads, which are petit, palace-like homes with central gardens that operate as hotels.
There are megaphones on the top of huge poles that project the call to prayer, which happens five times throughout the day: fajr occurs in the early morning before sunrise, dhuhur at midday, ‘asr in the mid-afternoon, maghrib at sunset, and ‘isha sometime in the evening. While hearing the words “Allahu Akbar” blare over and over again takes some getting used to, it does not freak me out and has started to blend in with the birds. Full disclosure, though: It does bring to mind Nicholas Brody in Homeland.
Which is why so many Americans, myself included, often have such warped visions and assumptions about countries as far way and foreign as this: a lot of what’s known for sure about them is what’s sensationalized in the media and on television shows.
It makes me sad to think many people are too scared or worried to visit such a place and smile at a toothless stranger because they think they might be hissed at, harassed or forced to worship Allah. I, myself, put off coming for years out of fear.
But Morocco, and Marrakech specifically, is actually safe. While I admit the constant barrage of “Come in, take a look, I will give you good price” gets a little tiring and annoying, they’re only responding to the Westerners who do come to this faraway land with the intention of gawking at actual donkey carts and bringing home a finely woven rug or a tea set for a better deal than they’d find at ABC Carpet and Home. (Again, myself included.) And a good deal you’ll get, considering many of these goods are hand stripped, dipped and dyed in small, windowless shops just beyond the souks they’re all sold in.
Plus, getting whistled at by a bunch of construction workers on Sixth Avenue is just as bothersome and degrading, if not more so, than the old man wearing a kaftan wanting to know where I come from and telling me I have nice eyes. They’re as curious as we all should be—without the fear and assumptions.
I don’t mean to sound preachy or know-it-all-y. Of course, we shouldn’t be frivolous and careless when traveling to unknown parts of the world that are vastly different from our own. It’s common to pause, or want to hold onto one’s bags a little tighter in strange, unfamiliar territory. And not every experience will be sweet as its nutty baklava. But I do feel travel is a see-for-yourself situation, and we’d all get a lot further with a smile and an open mind than a frown and fear.
So far, it’s worked here in Marrakech where more often than not the locals don’t just want to sell you a rug, they also want to talk about Obama and what you think of their country over an endless supply of sweet, sugary mint tea.
Maybe my speaking French is helping me feel more at ease. Or maybe it’s the fact that I don’t look American—seriously everyone thinks I’m either Spanish, Italian or Portuguese. Maybe it’s that I’m not traveling on my own (for a change!) so I have the comfort of a companion to further protect or qualm any concerns. Or maybe it’s just that you learn from experience and I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of it. But with the exception of a few men in Jaaman el Faa square who forbad us from watching their clearly-for-tourists musical spectacle unless we handed him some change, everyone’s been lovely. The number of authentic experiences we’ve had with locals who just want to share and learn grows each day, many with no expectation for anything in return.
What’s more, we have hot water, actual pillows and WiFi, too. In fact, I managed to stream Mad Men, albeit a few days later. I, too, caught Don Draper meditating on a hilltop, perhaps conjuring the idea of his giving the world a coke so we could all live in perfect harmony.
Well, ain’t that an idea. And from a TV show, no less.
Locals in the big cities and beyond here in Morocco may not have all of the luxuries we do, but they do know from them. They are aware. They may have vastly different customs like charming snakes and wearing head coverings, but they also occasionally shop at H&M, visit art galleries and crave KFC and Pizza Hut. (Though, I highly recommend the lamb tagine with dates and almonds instead.)
To really appreciate a place such as this is to acknowledge that appearances and assumptions can be deceiving. What might appear to be a totally sketchy alleyway leading to a short wooden door that seems like only a hobbit could fit through, will likely lead you to a riad where rose pedals are floating in a pool, arched doorways are intricately carved and parakeets fly from palm leaf to palm leaf under the blistering sun.
If one wanted to buy the world a home and furnish it with love, they might want to start here in the kasbah. It may very well be the real thing.