The Real Morocco

I’ll admit it: Richard Halliburton was not at the front of my mind during most of my travels in Morocco. It’s not that Richard’s memory was difficult to reach. Indeed, many of his observations of Morocco are still so true today it’s almost as if he wrote portions of The Flying Carpet last year instead of last century. The problem was that Morocco had so many fun and interesting ways to divert my attention that I found myself lost in the moment more than I was lost in history.

That changed when I reached Fes, a city Richard unexpectedly fell in love with in the summer of 1931. “It just about killed me to leave Fez,” he wrote after spending two months there. “Rarely have I been so in love with a city.” He’d made the city his home while writing up the stories he’d collected around Mali, Morocco and Algeria in the preceding weeks.

The famous and ancient open-air tanneries of Fes, Morocco

The famous and ancient open-air tanneries of Fes, Morocco

Through his writing we are provided a glimpse of Fes circa 1931. He wrote that Fes had “entirely escaped the invasion from the West”, with the new French city squatting on the outskirts of the medina, but not yet infiltrating it. These days Fes is a large city of roughly one million souls, with the majority of people, land and businesses residing in that Ville Nouvelle, the New City. Still, the medina remains much as Richard described it.

During my own explorations I found the “jumble of tortured lanes, tiny shops and cul-de-sacs, in which I was always, to my delight, getting lost.” Though motorized traffic rumbled along the roads of the Ville Nouvelle, in the medina I heard “only the soft slow pad of camels and the scrape of sandals worn upon the feet of undistracted Moors” and men with heavily laden carts barreling down the streets “in Arab fashion, shouting ‘Balaak! Balaak!’—Make way! Make way!”

A tunnel-like alleyway in Fes's medina

A tunnel-like alleyway in Fes’s medina

I shared those alleyways with “donkeys and camels…dogs and brats, veiled ladies, porters, princes, Arabs, Berbers, Jews…”, but also with Americans, Australians, Spaniards, Germans, and tourists of a dozen other nationalities.

I meandered wide-eyed through the souks, which he described as “first in variety, in color, in evil and fragrant odors, in richness and age.” But where in 1931 he and his friends “were the only ones who ever purchased anything,” the streets are now filled with tourists buying the “perfume and embroidered leather slippers…tin bangles, hashish, and stick candy.”

Colorful goods for sale in Morocco

Colorful goods for sale in Morocco

While many aspects of Morocco are the same now as they were nearly a century ago, much has changed in that time. Richard was one of a handful of tourists, I am one of millions. Consequently, the goods sold in the souks are now aimed at tourists instead of locals, and many of the products are mass-produced in China instead of handmade in Morocco—though a shop owner would never admit to it. The men on horseback are busy shouting into cell phones, and the veiled women sport knockoff Gucci handbags and tight jeans studded with rhinestones.

Let’s face it: this is no longer Richard’s Morocco. But does that mean the experiences of Morocco-1931 are unattainable in Morocco-2014?

In pursuit of an answer, and still following in Richard’s footsteps, my friend Chris and I took a trip to the much quainter town of Moulay Idriss. Other visitors to the mountain community have lauded the town as “the real Morocco” and “a glimpse into the life of real Moroccans”. I was curious to see what they meant.

Overlooking the sprawling mountain town of Moulay Idriss, Morocco

Overlooking the sprawling mountain town of Moulay Idriss, Morocco

The differences between Fes and Moulay Idriss were found in what wasn’t there: no artisan souks, no stands of postcards, no horse carriages waiting to carry you to your hotel, and, most striking of all, no other tourists. The shops lining the streets sold goods like packs of strawberry yogurt and rolls of toilet paper, goods that actual Moroccan consume.

So yes, Moulay Idriss was a different side of Morocco than what one finds in the more popular cities. But does that make Moulay Idriss any more “real” than big destinations like Marrakech and Fes? Are we claiming that the man in Fes selling braelets to Spaniards is somehow less Moroccan than the man in Moulay Idriss selling toilet paper to other Moroccans?

We seem to have confused the concept of “real” with that of primitiveness. A hundred years ago, when Richard was exploring Morocco, there were no alternatives to camels as transportation, or to hand-woven fabrics as clothing. Now there’s a world of choice available to Moroccans, and yet we arrive with the expectation that Moroccans remain stuck in the past so we can marvel at their “authentic” lifestyle. Do we really expect a country to remain stagnant just for our entertainment?

And, more to the point for my purposes, were Richard’s experiences more real than mine?

Sunset over Fes, Morocco

Sunset over Fes, Morocco

All these thoughts and more were cluttering my mind the evening we returned to Fes. In search of peace, I climbed the stairs to the rooftop terrace of my hostel. Away to the west the sun glowed soft and orange, spreading its gentle rays over the city. I could hear children laughing in the street below, the braying of a donkey, the honking of a distant car.

Shortly after the sun sank below the horizon, a new sound erupted to the east—the evening call to prayer, broadcast on loudspeakers from a minaret. “Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!” One by one the hundreds of other mosques in Fes joined the call, washing over the city from east to west, chasing the sun with their invocations. Then, one by one, the voices cut off, until the westernmost mosque fell silent, too. It was an utterly beautiful and special experience, a real and personal one.

Only later did I find this passage in Richard’s The Flying Carpet: “…we climbed to the terrace atop our house to watch the sun go down. Everything seemed hushed, expectant…And then, just at sunset, it happened—the evening chant, and from all the hundred other minarets of Fez a hundred voices took up the cry…Al-lah! Al-lah!”

Despite guidebooks and smart phones and menus in half a dozen languages, can we still find the same novelty and foreignness in modern Morocco that the travelers of old enjoyed? Can we find the “real” Morocco? Absolutely, yes. But I think we have to leave our expectations and definitions at the gates of the medina, and leave ourselves open to the beautiful reality of a modern country.

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  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on such concepts as “real” and “authentic” as they relate to the experiences we have as travelers. Sights, shops and performances specifically directed at tourists have always left me feeling somewhere between uneasy and dissatisfied. It is as if the experience has been designed to meet the visitor’s expectations rather than reveal the unexpected quirky glimpses of how other people’s world views differ from our own. No experience is innately more “real” than any other, but some experiences delight us more through their surprising insights into the richness of cultures different from our own.

  2. Sarah, that is an absolutely STUNNING photo of the sunset over Fez.

    Was enthralled by your commentary.

    But one burning question: did you ever get to Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca???

    • Yes indeed! I posted a blurb about it on my Facebook page. Very cool experience, very classy, not cheesy! And I’ve had that song stuck in my head for three days now ;-)

  3. So glad you found your travelling feet (read:heart) again in Morocco. That pic of Moulay Idriss…. wow! I just NEED to go now. I’ve said it before – all of my jealousy. ALL!

  4. Excellent ending! I love the parallel’s about the evening and the prayer.

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