No two cultures are the same, and it is the differences that define a country to a visitor. No one comes home talking about the food of a foreign country if it’s the same at home. In Morocco there were a lot cultural differences, most I wasn’t expecting, but all adding to the feel of the country. While I can’t write out each one, here are some things I saw and experienced that I think really speak to the character of Morocco.
Take the public bathrooms, for example. First: there are two types of toilets; the western style ones we’re used to in the US, and Turkish toilets, which are reminiscent of holes in the ground. Sometimes there will be both available, and sometimes there won’t be. Second: there will often be someone sitting outside the bathrooms, and you are expected to pay them. These attendants will supposedly clean the bathrooms and give you toilet paper in exchange for a dirham or two.
Personal space is also looked at differently. Moroccans are very touchy, but only with the same gender. I asked a man for directions once and he ended up patting my arm, shoulder, and hand several times throughout the 30 second explanation. Moroccans will also get right up in your face sometimes, and aren’t afraid to get close. Men of all ages sometimes hold hands or have an arm around each other as they walk and talk.
The personal space also applies to begging. The beggars will put their hand in your way and keep asking you for money or food for quite a while. As a foreigner, I stuck out more and got a lot more attention then a Moroccan would.
Transportation was also pretty different, but that’s a whole post in itself.
But what I will remember the most about the people and culture of Morocco is the kindness and generosity I saw and experienced.
There was the typical stuff that I always like to see, like giving up a seat on the tram for someone else, but even then it went further. I saw a man give up his seat to make room for a mother and her 3 young children, then take one of the kids’ hands and make sure the boy was holding onto the pole and didn’t fall off the seat. The mother was preoccupied with her other two children, so he watched the boy and put out a protective arm when the tram went around curves and the boy began to slide.
One evening I was in the center of Rabat right before Iftar (breaking of the fast once the sun sets). The area has the Parliament, the Gare de Rabat (the main train station), and the police headquarters. The area has a lot of people going through it all day long, and usually a few demonstrators outside parliament. The police presence is usually big, with cops everywhere and a van of them in light riot gear (helmet with visor and batons) parked on a side street.
For some reason there were a couple of vans today, but hardly anyone else around. Everyone was at home or inside, eating. The police vans were clumped together with their doors open, and the officers were digging in, handing each other food and drink. As I passed by, one of them jumped out and ran to a beggar on the sidewalk. He handed her something then jogged back to the van. I didn’t know what he had given the beggar until she lifted her hand and began to eat. The big bad officer in riot gear had, instead of focusing on his own hunger, brought her dates to eat.
Another time I was walking a few miles home for Iftar. The sun was setting quickly, but I only had 13 and a half dirham on me, which wasn’t enough for a cab ride. I kept walking, but the sun got lower and lower and the streets started to empty. A taxi beeped at me, and I decided to hop in and at least try to get closer to home.
I asked the driver to take me towards Agdal (the area where I live) for as far as I could go with 13 dirhams. He asked me where I was going and I told him the place I ask all cabs to take me, a school a few minutes from home. He just nodded.
We drove, and soon picked up two men, who wanted to go to Suissi, which is near Agdal, but not along the way. I offered to get out, but the driver just waved me away. We drove on, and the counter kept ticking. It reached 13 dirhams, and I told the driver I had to get out here. He just waved me away again.
We approached the intersection that decided whether we went towards Suissi or Agdal, and I prepared to get out. The kind driver had already taken me farther than I could pay for. But then he spoke in Arabic to the two passengers we had picked up, and they paid and got out.
The driver ended up not only taking me all the way to the school I wanted, but further, right to my street. He had chosen to take me all the way, even though I couldn’t pay the full fair (which should have been double what I had), even though it was right before Iftar and he had to get home, and he did so instead of taking two paying customers.
One afternoon I was pretty exhausted from not getting much sleep the night before, and needed a nap. I was near the Old Medina, across town from my host residence. Another member of my NSLI-Y group suggested we stop by the house of her host family’s friends, a few minutes away. We arrived there unannounced, walked through the perpetually open door, and were introduced to the owners, a married couple who were complete strangers to me. Within 5 minutes I was asleep on their living room couch.
When I awoke a few hours later the husband had put a blanket over me, served my friends mint tea and Ramadan cookies, and was reading the Quran quietly as my friends studied and journaled. We had to leave to get back to the Medina as soon as I awoke, but before we left he made sure I had some of the tea and cookies he had saved me. I think this is the perfect example of Moroccan hospitality and friendliness. The couple welcomed me, a complete stranger, into their house where they gave me something to eat and drink as well as a place to rest.
People are friendly and welcoming, like the man who leapt to his feet and personally guided us to the destination we had asked directions for, or the street cleaner on my walk to school who always greeted me and asked how I was doing.
Morocco is a fantastic country with great people, and I hope to return one day. A single trip isn’t enough!