The people of Morocco

The people of Morocco

«You have a small gift for me?» asked the young man. Every inch of my body ached to smack him, but for a tourist in Marrakesh, following such a violent, although perfectly natural, instinct would not be advisable. Instead, I quickly placed a 20 DH note in his outstretched palm and made a retreat, burning with anger.
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The person I’d just met was a faux guide – false guide – a sight apparently as natural to Marrakech as the storks on the Badii palace or snake charmers on Jemaa el Fna.

As part of my pre-travel preparations, I spent hours reading online forums about Marrakesh. The common theme there was beggars, touts and sexual harassers, including groups of young men ganging up and groping western women. Terrified by the stories I’d read, and the warnings from my college who had visited Marrakesh in the nineties,

I devised a «protective» set of clothing – a pair of baggy jeans, an oversized khaki safari shirt and a hat to cover my very blond hair; I also bought a pair of mirror shades to hide my eyes and thus deceive the potential touts. In my head I practiced scenarios with themes like «Getting rid of a faux guide» or «Getting a tout take no for an answer». Although I hoped the stories were exaggerated, by the day I left for Marrakesh, I was prepared for the worst.

Having arrived to the Medina, it did not take me long to realize that the people of Marrakesh are just like people everywhere – some are polite, some are rude, some are welcoming, some are not, some are traditional, some are modern and so on. Sadly, the Moroccans a tourist is exposed to in Marrakesh are more often then not people trying to make a profit at any price.

Since Morocco is such a poor country, many opportunists see western tourists as a walking income source, and try to squeeze the last dirham out of them. The hub of this activity is Medina, and especially Jemaa el Fna. The square is full of henna ladies, snake charmers, monkey handlers, male belly dancers wearing drag, gnawa musicians and water sellers, all fighting for tourists’ attention and their dirhams.

Refusal to pay the often exuberant price for their service is met with loud, aggressive behavior. «Everybody» has heard about someone ending up spending 100 bucks for a natural henna tattoo or 20 dirhams for a photo with a snake. It was in fact one of the first things the landlady in our riad warned us against. However, the situation on the square seems to have improved a bit lately as a result of the government’s measures to encourage tourists to choose Morocco as their next holiday destination.

One of the improvements is the eradication of faux guides in the Jemaa el Fna area. Those fellows, that every guide book and web page warns against, are acting friendly, promising to show you the way to a tourist attraction, or helping you to find your way in the maze of the souks. In no time the «victim» ends up in the «guide’s» shop, or being asked for a «gift». Even if the Jemaa el Fna and the souks seemed to have been freed of this plague, they did not disappear, but only moved their hunting grounds to the Mella (Jewish quarter) and the area around Badii palace.

That is where I met the friendly young man who informed me that the palace was closed for lunch, but that the synagogue was open for visitors. I thanked him and started to move in the general direction of the Mella. The guy followed, and quickly took the lead. At first I did not realize he was one of the faux guides, and interpreted his behavior as an attempt to pick me up.

My illusions however were quickly dispelled when he «invited» me to his shop. When I declined  and tried to leave, I was asked for «a small gift» instead; and order, rather then a request, which I felt obliged to execute. True, if it wasn’t for the guy, I would probably not be able to find the synagogue, but the episode left me feeling bitter and disappointed, and angry with myself for letting him fool me that easily.

On the other hand, most Moroccans are either friendly, or, in worse case, totally indifferent to tourists. Shop owners and stallholders make you feel welcome and are attentive to your needs, even if the service can be a bit «in your face». Apart from pick-pockets, crime seems to be non-existent in the Jemaa el Fna area, and walking after dark feels safe, the only danger being huge holes dug up in the streets with no apparent reason.

Contrary to clichés many westerners have, Western women are usually safe to walk on their own, and they are not subject to more attention that they would be in for instance Spain or Italy. In fact, the only day I actually did use the above mentioned «protective» clothing was the day I was so sick with bronchitis I did not care about my looks, nor did I bother  to wash my hair.

 To my huge surprise, the effect of the «protective» clothing seemed to be totally opposite to my intentions – the day I used it was the only day I seemed to attract male attention, although not of the harassing nature. In fact, one of the men I met that day, a 35 years old employee of an up-market furniture store, seemed to be quite serious about getting to know me with possible marriage in sight.

However, his interest faded away instantly after I’d disclosed my real age (32) to him – on hearing this revelation he quickly excused himself and went into hiding in the far end of the shop.
On the last day of my week-long stay I looked back on the woman that had arrived in the town a week before, anxious, seeing touts and harassers in every singe person crossing her path.

Now, seven days later, I was feeling sad to leave this town full of ordinary people who welcomed me to their land. By that time the anger caused by the very few unpleasant episodes had already faded, and the episodes themselves had become nothing more then anecdotes to spice up the story of my Moroccan holiday.

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The people of Morocco The people of Morocco Reviewed by Zahir Style on August 08, 2019 Rating: 5

1 comment:

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