Friday, April 5, 2013

Collected Lessons Learned From a Trip to Morocco

A few days ago I got back from a one-week journey to Morocco over Spain’s Semana Santa holiday, the first time I had ever visited the Arab or Muslim world. In the weeks leading up to the trip I was both excited and terrified: excited because Morocco is rich with history, architecture, good food, and friendly people, and terrified because I don’t speak Arabic, I speak French poorly, and I had no idea how I was going to get around while keeping myself and my belongings safe. In the end, I had a great time traveling across the northern part of the country, appreciating Islamic art and architecture, gaining an addiction to mint tea, and perfecting how you say “hello” in Arabic (as-salaam alaykum).

Moroccan mint tea
Moroccan mint tea

After coming back from France back in January, I did a little write-up about my initial thoughts about the country, what I learned, and the ways I grew from the trip. I’d like to do something similar here for Morocco, talking about the things I learned about the country, about travel, and about yours truly.

What I learned about Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco
Chefchaouen

* Moroccans are really good with languages. Perhaps it was because I stuck closely to the tourist trail, or perhaps it was the legacy of colonialism, but every shopkeeper, restaurant server, and faux guide spoke French and English and often Spanish or German—in addition to their native Arabic and/or Berber. French was the most commonly-spoken foreign language, from the concierge at a fancy hotel to the snail shack server on the side of the road.

* The loose, colorful robes I see the immigrant Moroccan moms wearing when they come to pick up their kids at the Spanish school I work at aren’t necessary an example of Islamic oppression/patriarchy, but simply non-Western clothing that both men and women have the option of wearing in Morocco. Called the jellaba, it’s basically a lightweight, floor-length hoodie that can be worn on top of Western-style clothes or typical Moroccan shirts and trousers.

* Although most Moroccan women wear the hijab, or religious headscarf, quite a few do not, which doesn’t seem to cause a scandal in Moroccan society. This would never pass in Saudi Arabia, but I think the two countries operate under different schools of Islamic thought of varying strictness.

Fez, Morocco
Bab Bou-Jeloud, Fez

* Morocco really wasn’t that smelly, at all. Apart from the hordes of cigarette-smoking men and the occasional donkey or herd of sheep, things smelled relatively pleasant throughout my time in the country.

* Spoken Arabic sounds a lot like German.

* And spoken Arabic really isn’t as harsh-sounding language as I thought it was; it’s just the foreign consonant clusters that make it sound so, uh, foreign. In reality, Arabic has as many trilled Rs, SHs, and ZHs as any European language might have.

* Apart from the female headscarves, daily calls to prayer, and the absence of booze and pork products, Islam didn’t have much of a public presence that I could discern. Although, now that I think about it, I do remember hearing some people interject an insha’allah (“God-willing”) or an alhamdullilah (“praise God!” or “thank goodness!”) into their conversations.

* One week was far too short to spend in this fascinating and beautiful country. I’m looking forward to returning one day to the southern city of Marrakesh, riding camels into the Sahara, and soaking up the sun on the Atlantic beaches. Super touristy, but I don’t care!

* There were stray cats everywhere. Some were beautiful, but there were a lot of pretty rough-looking kitties, too.

* In Arabic society, houses when seen from the street are plain, unadorned, and window-less, because they are all centered on an inner courtyard or patio. This is part of the reason why Spanish-influenced Chefchaouen was so unique; they had Andalucía-style windows and balconies.

What I learned about travel

Meknes, Morocco
Place el-Hedim, Meknes

* I realized it is OK to hire a tour guide. I had to swallow my pride, come to terms with the fact that I knew very little about Morocco, and accept that I can’t always be an independent traveler like I tend to be in Spain. It worked out for the best because my English-speaking guide in Fez showed me all the big sights, took me to the shops and souks (markets) I wanted to visit, and was able to answer all the questions I had about Moroccan culture. And besides, on my own I would have been hopelessly lost in the Fez medina, home to over 9,000 streets!

* I realized it is OK to buy souvenirs. I think in the travel blogosphere (and also the minimalism/personal development ones, too), we tend to emphasize having meaningful experiences—a rich life—over acquiring possessions—a life of riches. This is a great maxim to live by, but I think it’s totally fine to pick up a few items here and there that hold meaning for or give value to you personally. I still don’t think you should buy trinkets or magnets as “reminders” of a country—that’s what pictures are for!—but if you come across a unique and useful item that represents what you loved about that country, I think it’s fine to indulge and pick up something here and there. For instance, I’ve become a big Tea Person lately, so I purchased a small, gorgeous silver teapot to brew, among other drinks, Moroccan mint tea.

Fez, Morocco
Minarets in Fe

* I’m not entirely convinced about using a money belt. Over the trip, I kept my passport and debit card inside and my daily money/wallet in my pocket. I mean, I didn’t have to worry at all about losing the passport and bank card, but on big walking days, it got kind of uncomfortable and sweaty hanging right over my crotch beneath my jeans (sorry for the TMI).

What I learned about myself

Volubilis, Morocco
Roman ruins of Volubilis

* I ran into a Spanish couple from Bilbao, a girl from Galicia, and a guy from Chile while in Chefchaouen and had no problems talking with them Spanish…which I think says a lot about how difficult the accent in Andalucía is to understand. I could definitely use more conversational practice, could pick up more idioms and everyday words, but I feel a lot better about my command of the language after speaking with non-Andalusians for a change. I tend to feel pretty disheartened about my grasp of the language living here in southern Spain!

* I continued to push myself out of my comfort zone, and it was great: from the decision itself to cross over into Africa, to being bold and asking if I could join a group of Americans taking a taxi to Roman ruins, to eating snails, to patronizing a (non-getting-naked) public bath. You just have to put yourself out there sometimes!

* My first experience at bargaining came naturally to me, even though I’m not known for having much of a backbone. Thankfully I knew exactly what kind of souvenirs I wanted, so I was able to distance myself from “package deals” or buying other gifts for my nonexistent girlfriend. The carpet seller in Chefchaouen even remarked I was a pretty tough bargainer!

Meknes, Morocco
Zellij tilework in Meknes

* I learned to take a different perspective on Islamic practices that are traditionally seen as oppressive. For example, prohibitions on representing the human or animal form in art were what led to the intricate, beautiful geometric plasterwork and tilework that the Muslim world is famous for; and the requirement of women to wear the hijab gives them another way to put together an “outfit” or express themselves (although it’s still patriarchy…). I think this exemplifies a principle of creativity that you create better work, faster, when you put limits on your work, whether they be deadlines or a specific genre/style or even a focus on a single idea.

* I had to struggle between wanting to buy souvenirs and support Moroccan families and avoiding cultural appropriation. I loved the jellaba-and-leather-slippers look that many Moroccans rocked with style, and was tempted to get some neon-yellow pointy slippers and a warm, brown jellaba. But I knew to actually wear the robe + slippers would be to blatantly steal someone else’s culture—something I saw a handful of tourists actually doing. The whole struggle was really awkward, because when my tour guide in Fez took me to a clothing shop, the manager wanted me so badly to buy a jellaba, cap, shirt, and trousers, and even made me try them on for size. It was fun! But I just couldn’t do it. (Full disclosure: I did buy some blue camel-leather house slippers.)

If you’ve ever traveled to Morocco or elsewhere in the Arab or Muslim world, how did your perspectives on the region change as a result? What sort of lessons have you learned from travel? Start the discussion below in the comments section!
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