Ahlan Wa Sahlan min Al-Magrib: Welcome to Morocco

by Danielle Boyd

I’m not really sure what I expected when I booked my trip to Morocco, but I can tell you what I didn’t expect. Lush farmland. Crystal water over white sand. Unbelievably friendly people. Being inspired to learn Arabic. I´d heard so much about how supposedly dangerous the country would be, but it wasn´t until I was immersed in this culture that I realized I´d jumped to conclusions that were completely wrong.

I´d left Spain on a Thursday with the hopes of avoiding the typical weekend traffic.  From Sevilla to M’Diq (in Tetuan, Morocco) takes a little over five hours with traffic and a slight delay at the border between Europe and Africa.

The first city I visited was Chefchaouen, also known as “The Blue Pearl”. All of the buildings, streets, and even walls are painted blue, making it one of the most unique views I´ve ever seen.  Chefchaouen (or simply Chaouen) is located in the Riff Mountains in the northern region of Morocco. Situated in the mountains, Chefchaouen’s markets offer a lot of handicrafts that aren’t available in other parts of Morocco, such as Casablanca and Marrakech. This is due to the proximity to the Berber people who live exclusively in these mountains. The city is most well known for wool garments and blankets along with goat cheese.

Morocco is a country where bargaining is a part of the culture, something that was definitely new to me!. While at a market, I decided to try my hand at it. I saw two striped scarves the same shade of blue as the city for 350 dirham, which is about 36 U.S. D. The man came over and we started negotiating. Eventually, I was able to wiggle the price down to 200 dirham, about twenty-one dollars. As I handed over the colorful paper money, the man placed the scarves in my hands and I couldn’t help but fill up with pride. This was my first time bargaining and I was pleased with how well I did.

What I enjoyed the most about bargaining was, having to think about the value of the product that we normally don’t do in America. At first, I felt bad knowing that I was putting a limit on someone´s income in a region where poverty is evident. But after a bit of thought, I realized that the prices were set higher with tourists in mind. Still, I felt like the process changed my view of shopping. Instead of thinking of price in terms of comparison, it was more of a calculating consideration. When I want a scarf at home I’ll try to remember the cheapest one I saw, accepting what the American economy tells me a scarf should cost. In Morocco on the other hand, I found myself assigning a value to the scarf completely independent of what the price was. What material is it? How much time and effort went into making it? How unique is the product? How good is the quality? I figured since I was buying two hand made products that I got to watch being made, $21 USD or 200 dirham was a pretty decent price. Bargaining is an experience I know I’ll never have in the United States and certainly one that I will not forget.

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The second city I visited, Tangier, is one of the largest cities in Morocco. The city has a coastal vibe and city life feel to it at the same time. When I got to Tangier, the first thing I did was ride a camel on a beach where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean. It only cost about $3. After that we went into the center of the city and went to a fruit and vegetable market.

After just a day in Tangier, I circled back north to Tétouan. We went to a traditional market and restaurant. There were hundreds of people bargaining but it was mostly food and spices unlike the one in Tangier which had more jewelry and clothing. I bought a couple souvenirs and gifts, my favorite one being a shoulder bag made from camel hide from the only stand that sold something aside from food. The asking price was 270 dirham, but I got it for 70 since that was the last of my Moroccan currency.

After the market, we went to a traditional Moroccan pharmacy . The blue and gold mosiac tiles arranged into patterns reminded me I wasn´t in America or even Europe. The pharmacist began by talking about some of the products in Arabic and then apologizing by saying “lo siento… no hablo espanol…” (sorry, I don’t speak Spanish), but then switched to perfect English and French. Turns out he really did know Spanish to but wanted to see if we understood any Arabic. He was hilarious and had many super interesting things for a decent price. Most of what he was selling was cheap makeup.  I had a few dirham coins left, so I bought some lipstick for my mom. The cool thing about it is that it looked green, but when you put it on it was actually a pink color that blends according to the color of your skin.

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I learned a lot of interesting things about Morocco. The flag caught my attention. I asked a man in Chaouen while I was having lunch. He moved his chair moved the next table over to mine and began to explain its significance. If you´ve never seen the flag, it’s red with a green five-pointed star at the center. The red represents bravery and strength while the star represents the five-pillars of Islam. Ninety-eight percent of the country practices Sunni Islam, and unlike lot of other Arab countries, there isn’t conflict between religions. Although Islam is the most common, it is acceptable for Muslims, Christians, Jews, and all other religious groups to live and work together. After having heard so much about conflict between these religions in the past, especially in the middle east, I really appreciated Morocco´s ability to allow all of them to coexist. It´s so easy to forget how fortunate I am as an American and that not everyone has the freedom to live how they want.

Although it is a very agricultural country, it was pretty clear while we were there that resources aren’t as abundant as in America or even Europe. We had to buy bottled water since Moroccan water isn’t safe to drink and nearly every neighborhood we walked through had its share of street vendors, desperate to make even just a few dollars (or dirhams) so that they could provide their family with something.

On the way back to Tangier, two teenage boys jumped on the back of our bus thinking that it was going directly back to Europe. Going back through customs on our way out of Morocco took a while. One of the reasons it took so long was because they had to search our cargo space for children. It’s incredibly common for parents to put their kids there with the hopes that the children will make it to Europe and have a chance at a life in a wealthier country. It´s not uncommon to hear stories like this, but seeing it firsthand left me speechless.

 

Read an interview with Danielle here.

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