After spending the month of October traipsing through Paris and all over Italy, being in Morocco is our first experience that feels particularly new and foreign. Within the mud brick city walls of the Medina in Marrakech is a barrage of stimuli at every turn. The winding streets of the Medina, mostly too small for cars, are packed with weaving motorcycles, fruit-laden mule carts, buzzing tourists and locals, wares spread for sale (rugs, pottery, paintings, piles of cotton underwear, etc...) with sellers trying to make eye contact and conversation by shouting “hello” in multiple languages to anyone who looks like a tourist (8 out of 10 times, they could guess we speak English, which is impressive given our ethnic ambiguity), “fake guides” hoping to get paid to walk you to your hotel or the market square, and lots and lots of stray cats. The latter made me sad, and a bright spot was seeing a woman with a backpack full of dry cat food tossing handfuls of kibbles to every kitten she passed. I wished I had a backpack of kibble.
Simon and I have both visited developing countries in the past (in Central and South America), but perhaps the prevalence of Spanish speakers in California made those experiences more familiar. I unhelpfully took German in high school and college, but can get by with a few Spanish phrases learned via California osmosis. Tourists in Morocco are mostly European, and the tourism industry particularly caters to French speakers. In fact, there appear to be several French ex-pats in Marrakech and Essaouira (the 2nd city we visited) who own or manage hotels and restaurants. The French phrases we learned before visiting Paris are once again useful, as it's the official third language in Morocco (after Arabic and Berber). Shop/stall owners in the vast souks (open-air markets) call out to us, trying multiple approaches to get our attention: “Bonjour! English? Hi! Hello! Indian? Namaste!”. Speaking to one of the housekeepers in our riad, we learned that in grade school, Moroccans learn two forms of Arabic: classical and modern, as well as French. Many of the people we've met also speak English. I feel pretty inadequate with my arsenal of poor German and handful of French and Spanish words. The hand-talking Italian in me has been somewhat useful.
Morocco's population is primarily Muslim, and this is the first time either Simon or I have visited a country steeped in Islamic culture. At least in the cities we've visited, public life seems pretty easy-going in terms of dress. Most Moroccan women wear headscarves and long caftans, but many wear a headscarf with western-style outfits, or skip the headscarf altogether. Men mostly wear western clothing. We see many tourists wearing whatever they want, but I haven't felt comfortable without my shoulders covered. A maxi dress with some kind of cover on top has been my uniform, as it's been mostly too warm for jeans. It is slightly irritating that Simon doesn't have to change his dress habits at all....
As relaxed as the social scene may be, periodic city-wide prayer recordings that broadcast through the streets from loudspeakers are clear reminders that we're not in a secular country. I had a similar realization in Peru, where life-sized icons of Jesus on the cross were paraded through the streets on Good Friday, but since I was raised Catholic, that form of non-secularism was novel in a way that I personally related to. Though I've had Muslim acquaintances and done a bit of reading about Islam (freshest in my mind is Malala Yousafzai's memoir I Am Malala, which is quite educational about Islam in Pakistan), and of course got my middle school history education on the world's great religions, it's unfamiliar enough to make me doubly conscious of my behavior, wardrobe choices, etc. I'm cringing at how culturally clumsy this all sounds....clearly I need to continue my education.
Some highlights of our stay in Morocco thus far have been feasting on delicious tagine (we even prepared some ourselves in a cooking class), watching soccer games on the beach in Essaouira, taking in the gorgeous architecture and tile work in Marrakech (particularly the Ben Youssef Medersa Quranic school), and sharpening our haggling skills in the markets (it's a skill that lies mostly dormant in my Indian blood, jumping out to surprise me when the proper situation arises). I am now stuffing colorful harem pants into my too-tiny backpack, among other things.... We're excited to start a camel tour of the Sahara tomorrow, followed by a trip to Berber country in the High Atlas mountains. I'm looking forward to learning more about beautiful Morocco as we leave the cities and experience the dunes and the mountains!