Marrakesh & Fez: No Hassle-Free Guarantee
‘Salam!’ This traditional Arabic greeting literally means ‘peace’. Its more formal version ‘Salam Alaikum‘ means ‘peace to you’. I love this greeting and how similar it is to the Jewish greeting of Shalom. Despite prevalent stereotypes the majority of Arabs and Jews live in peace and are exceedingly friendly! Hello stranger, peace unto you.
Sometimes you will hear this greeting in the big cities and it doesn’t promote a feeling of peace but rather impending hassle. Fez and Marrakesh are two of the most popular destinations in Morocco, just don’t expect to have a hassle-free stroll in the city streets. If you make eye contact with a shopkeeper they will certainly try to entice you into their shop. Everyone is fighting for your attention, doing everything from whistling to shouting out the country they think you’re from. ‘Australia!’, ‘Sweden!’, ‘England!’, sorry fellas, three strikes and you’re out. It’s often best to ignore the calls or respond as you keep walking. Stop and you may find you have a companion for the rest of your journey who kindly offers to show you the directions to your destination or offer advice. Afterwards they will persistently demand that you give them some dirham for their help, no matter how necessary or helpful their company actually was.
One such instance occurred in Fez as my friends Tim and Achmed were walking towards an ancient schoolyard. We declined a lanky local’s offer to lead us there but he began walking with us anyway. He was amicable enough, making idle chatter and talking a bit about his home city. When we arrived at the school his demeanor changed as he said ‘You pay me 30 dirhams.’ Huh? You want money for following us? He kept insisting we pay him and when we ignored him he started to become ignorant. Singling out Achmed who has Senegalese blood he spat out ‘Your heart is as black as your skin, shit tourists.’ Becoming perturbed by his ploy to intimidate us into paying him I politely told him he was extremely ignorant and he could go shove it up his ass and we went on our merry way. (If you’re alone this might not be the best response but blatant racism gets me fired up.)
You’ll meet more than your fair share of pushers in Moroccan cities but the majority of Moroccan people are extremely kind hearted and hospitable. As I was leaving for the bus station in Fez the hostel owner at BackHome hostel asked if I had some snacks for the ride. Replying that I hadn’t picked up anything yet he insisted that I take one of the sandwiches he had just bought, thrusting it into my hands and wishing me a safe journey. Encounters like these are a reminder that there are both good natured people looking to share their city with you and people looking to exploit you in every city; don’t be put off by a single bad encounter or judge everyone before you experience their personality firsthand! Kids are especially friendly!
To get some cultural insight into Fez I took a walking tour. There are an astounding 9,400+ streets within the city’s medina, a veritable maze filled with hidden alleys. In each little sector of the medina are five elements: a theology school, a local bakery, a mosque, a drinking water fountain, and a Hammam. Moroccans eat a lot of bread and baked goods, take their religion very seriously, and indulge themselves in the purifying black soap scrubs of the spa-like hammams.
Occasionally we would pass by a woman dressed all in white, a signal that she is a recent widow. Widows wear all white for 4 months and 10 days after their husband’s death. In the west black is the typical color of mourning, but in Morocco you can empathize with the women dressed in its opposite. The white garb is in sharp contrast to all the brightly colored fruits and produce in the markets, making one another more likely to catch your eye.
We also passed by the oldest tannery in Morocco where animal skins are made into high quality leather, a process that takes at least six weeks to complete. You have to walk around with mint leaves under your nose to fend off the strong smells. I really feel for the young kids and older workers who complete this back breaking work every day so people can sport a flashy new handbag.
Marrakesh has a bit different of a vibe to Fez as it attracts many more tourists. The main plaza is filled with acrobats, magicians, snake charmers, and other entertainers looking to earn some money for your viewing pleasure. At night the plazas becomes packed with spectators and food stalls selling harira (Moroccan soup), snails, and other Moroccan cuisine.
If you venture outside of the medina into New City you’ll find modern buildings and western restaurants like KFC and Pizza Hut. This is where most of the bars are located. If you plan on drinking be prepared to pay a lot. A small beer (usually around 27cl, less than a normal bottle) can cost you between 4-6 euros. Definitely not Spanish happy hour prices so if you’re on a budget you can just embrace the local sobriety. You also don’t want to be blatantly drunk in public which can be interpreted as very disrespectful.
So when you find yourself in the big cities be respectful of the people around you, even when a pusher aggressively tries to get your business. Keep your wits about you, ignore the pushers, explore the local culture, and embrace the friendly locals who will treat you like family.