Since our daughter had a gap between jobs in Jordan and Afghanistan, we met up for a hastily booked Morocco tour.
We had been to this North African country before, a brief side excursion. I remember exiting the tourist bus in Tetouan and saying, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more” – it was like stepping back in time a thousand years. But that was not representative of Morocco, whose modernity, this time, surprised me.
photo by Elizabeth Robinson
It’s overwhelmingly Muslim, with two main ethnic groups, the indigenous Berbers, and Arabs who came later. Ethnic tensions seem minimal. I asked our tour guide about this, in light of sectarian strife in other Islamic lands. “Those people aren’t Muslims,” he said, “they’re fanatics.”
Moroccans are bilingual, equally using Arabic and French (this was a French colony, 1912-56). The distinctive Berber script is seen occasionally; and of course there’s Globalspeak (English).
Morocco is a constitutional monarchy, not what you’d call a free country; but while the King, Mohammad VI (since 1999), is really still the boss, he’s done a fair bit to modernize, liberalize and democratize Morocco.
Volubilis – photo by Elizabeth Robinson
It was part of the ancient kingdom of Mauretania; later, of the Roman Empire. A nice surprise was visiting the extensive ruins of the Roman city of Volubilis – off my radar screen because (unlike the typical ancient city), Volubilis issued virtually no coinage.
We spent quite a few hours in the “medina” (old city) of Fes – a vast labyrinth of narrow streets. Here, and elsewhere, one finds an incredible profusion of little stores and seller stalls; the country is like one gigantic flea market, offering every sort of edible, wearable, or useable. One stall might have nothing but a mountain of peanuts; others with pyramids of dates, or cookies, or spices, etc. Even bathtubs! People mostly do their shopping, and many earn their living, through these markets.
My wife wanted to try a sizable disk-shaped bread loaf. The quoted price was Two Dirhems – about 20 cents. But for that we actually received two loaves.
I wondered aloud how they all could sell enough to stay in business. But my daughter pointed out the obvious: they wouldn’t be there otherwise.
Then we went to Marrakech, where the souk (marketplace) was orders of magnitude larger, with the profusion of goods bordering on unbelievable: mountains of shoes, foodstuffs, handbags, electronics, souvenirs, jewelry, handicrafts (one entire section, for example, with stall after stall selling brasswork); a lot of the production was being done on site too, making for quite a humming scene.
I had fantasized finding a pile of those cool cast 19th century Moroccan coins, but didn’t see any. At the end I asked our local guide, and he took me back to one gnarled ancient fellow who came forth with a bagful of about 30. But his price was way high. Then our guide knocked on a closed door, which opened into an antique shop, with a bucketful of silver coins. I bought a few Moroccan ones in unusually choice condition – and a 1929 Italian 10 Lire – good date! – and a steal. Meantime my daughter bought a handbag and some boots, proving herself better than me at haggling.
Photo by Elizabeth Robinson
We also had the obligatory tourist visit to a carpet emporium. Once on a similar excursion in Turkey, I made the mistake of agreeing to sign in with my phone number. I couldn’t believe how often those carpet pushers called me in subsequent years, despite my increasingly angry brush-offs.
The overall impression of Morocco was one of basic prosperity. There were, admittedly, a fair number of beggars. But many looked no scruffier than a typical seller in the souk. I suppose that holding one’s hand out is actually a more effective way of getting passersby to part with cash.
But Marrakech is also a very modern city, whose main drags might be hardly distinguishable from, say, Lille, or Dusseldorf. We visited one glitzy shopping mall, very different from the chaotic souk, with beautiful Moroccan décor, and the poshest brands. I remarked to my wife, “I must be the shabbiest looking person in this mall.”
And the Moroccan economy is not all souk sellers flogging kitsch. Everywhere you looked it was evident that every sort of modern business was thriving. The roads were jammed with vans and trucks displaying a profusion of their logos. If not politically free, this is manifestly a very open, free economy. I am always energized visiting countries like this. It’s part of a worldwide phenomenon, of recent decades, which many people fail to grasp amid all the gloom and doom talk. Economic openness, free enterprise, and trade, are transforming, for the better, the lives of billions of people.
I couldn’t help pondering the contrast with a country like Venezuela, where folks stand in line for hours outside the few stores, hoping for a rare chance to buy some meager necessities – thanks to their “21st century socialism.”