Over the holidays, I was fortunate enough to spend some time down south, way down south. My parents, having both children for once on the same continent, decided that they wanted to visit us this side of the Atlantic. However, Scotland and Sweden, they decided, were too cold for their sensibilities. So, lucky us, we were off to Morocco for some forced family fun!
Possibly one of the most photogenic countries in the world, Morocco is a frequent North African destination for many travellers as a result of its accessibility, safety, and lingua franca (French) that makes Francophones feel at home.
Most recently colonised by the French, who were expelled in the mid 1900s, Morocco is one of the world’s oldest kingdoms (aside from Japan). Although the king technically could at any time dissolve the current parliament, Morocco is often considered one of the most democratic countries in the Maghreb compared to its neighbours (e.g. Algeria and Tunisia) and the king has sought to actively limit his power as a whole in his most recent reign.
However, Morocco is not without its conflicts. Homosexuality is still outlawed with jailtime as a harsh sentence for “offenders”, and ongoing diplomatic tension between Western Sahara, which claims independence from the crown, is still active in the southern territories. This conflict has partially prevented Morocco from joining the EU too among other concerns.
Nevertheless, Morocco is a hot destination for those who are looking for an aromatic (I mean it!), breathtaking, and relatively affordable experience.
We landed in Marrakech (مراكش) from CDG (the literal worst airport in the world; what’s up with all the freaking security?!) to RAK, which itself has a unique and varied entrance policy. Arriving and departing from Morocco, expect multiple sections of security and passport controls. Also, the government limits the possession of dirham outside the country, so prepare to spend any leftover currency at the airport or covert before leaving.
My stay in Morocco was run through Orion Trek Voyages (a tourist company) that contracts drivers that take foreigners around the country who supply them with rudimentary information and basic support throughout the trip. Orion also arranges accommodations for its participants and sends them vouchers to manage their bookings while onsite. This trip was by far the most luxurious I have had in a while. I stay in hostels or couches, not riads (gardened hotels with courtyards and water features), common in Morocco. For this reason, I was excited, but also a little wary, as I am not used to such above average service. New towels daily! Wow!
In my parents’ older years, they have become quite posh if I say so myself (my sister agrees), but their condition has its perks.
Located within the Medina (city centre) of Marrakech, Riad 72 is a quiet and glamorous riad tucked away next to the king’s local palace. The King of Morocco himself has multiple abodes around the country especially in the major imperial cities including Rabat, Fez and Meknes. As custom, we were offered some Moroccan sweets and classic mint tea upon arrival. Moroccans love their sweet mint tea, so be prepared for it during most encounters.
With fast wifi, free fresh fruits, and hammam (traditional Moroccan scrub), Riad 72 is both down to earth and decadent. Is that even possible?
Reopened after its purchase as a commercial riad, this establishment is classic in its design and provides a sensual atmosphere as well as a traditional breakfast with Berber pancakes, jams, and fresh squeezed juices daily. Service is prompt and accommodating with employees being multilingual and welcoming at all junctions. Concierge can assist in making reservations as well as hiring drivers, so just ask if one is confused or a little apprehensive about doing it oneself.
The clientele varies from Mainland European (mostly French and German), British, American, and Canadian.
The riad’s location is perfect for exploring Marrakech’s main draw, the local suq (or pl. ʾaswāq or suqs in English) or marketplace in English. Tangentially, just to know for communication purposes, Moroccans speak a unique dialect of Arabic called Darija. It has its own vocabulary influenced heavily by Amazigh, better known as Berber (although the speakers themselves prefer Amazigh, which means ‘free man’). Berber comes from the Mediterranean foreigners who could not understand their Afro-Asiatic language; thus, we also have the word ‘barbarian’ from their confusion and indifference. Both Arabic and Amazigh are official languages in the country while French is merely a lingua franca also taught in schools.
Personally, Afro-Asiatic languages are not my forte. I speak a little Hebrew and can read it, but not much Arabic. My friend Nusrat, who lives in Qatar, sent me some phrases to use that came in handy. However, half way through the trip, I learned I was using a lot of Gulf Arab pronunciation. Luckily, Moroccans understand all Arabic dialects (I was told), as their dialect is hard to understand for other native speakers; I sense a similar Chilean effect where the ‘weird speakers’ can understand everyone else, but not vice versa.
Anyways, when one is in the suq, a little Arabic goes a long way.
‘As-salaam alaikum’ is a common greeting, which will merit the response ‘Wa’alaikum salaam’. However, a more secular greeting one can always use too is, ‘Marhaban’.
To say, how are you, use ‘kayfa halak’ if you are a man and ‘kayfa halik’ if you identify as a woman. Afro-Asiatic languages are heavily gendered, so the way one speaks is determined by one’s sex. Fascinating!
A nice reply is ‘Zayn’, which means good, or better yet, ‘Alhamdulillah’, a very common response, that means something like Praise be to God – use this phrase and expect a nice surprised smile!
Marrakech as a whole is divided into a few sections, but not as much as a city like Agadir for example. The Medina is the old town and is home to most of the cultural and touristic attractions while outside the city walls and gates, the newer more modern Marrakech awaits with shopping centres, more restaurants, and residential areas. One neighbourhood in particular is Gueliz, which is regarded as upscale! Check it out if you have time.
One major site outside the Medina is the Yves Saint-Laurent house, the famous writer’s Moroccan residence before his death.
A popular attraction, it costs a few dirham and the lines can be long, so if you are lucky enough to have someone like Mohammed (our driver) who offers to pick them up while you are out, take it up! Be aware; the ticket to the interior Berber museum is sold separately, so get those before one enters to see hundreds of Berber belongings inside the separate section.
Known for its blue walls and immense greenery, the museum is an instagrammer’s dream, but is a quick walkthrough.
Anyways, back to the Medina …
Within the old town, the main mosque, the Khoutubia, acts as a regional direction marker and is the tallest building in the region. Meaning ‘the mosque of the booksellers’ in Arabic, it is well preserved after completion in 1158, but cannot be entered if one is not Muslim – RIP everybody else. Surrounding the mosque are multiple gardens with fruit trees (that are not for consumption). The edible fruit is grown in the north while these oranges are better for the marmalade one might eat at breakfast. As the most prominent place of worship, the Khoutubia signals the other mosques’ adhan (call to prayer) from the muezzin (the guy who does the call) that can be heard five times a day in accordance to Islamic teachings – these can wake you up!
Another main attraction in Marrakech is the Jemaa al Fnaa, which is one of the many entry points to the main suq. In the daytime, snake charmers, performers, and salespeople fill the square and expect some cash from spectators. During the evening, the same crew is present as well as a flurry of meat stalls that will hound you to eat at their establishments if one passes by.
As a note, for the square and the suq and most of Morocco, if one is Asian, expect a lot of people shouting at you in Chinese and Japanese. These remarks can be anywhere from asking where you are from, prefacing with “China? Japan?” to the classic, yet racist ‘Oriental sounds’ to get your attention …
I will say after a week or so of it, I got sick of it. I would respond in French and Arabic angrily at them. For the most part, the hounding is harmless if not embarrassing and dehumanising … okay … so maybe not that harmless, but it is just a sales tactic for many of the vendors. I respect the hustle, I really do, so a whole different level of offense that I take is that shouting at unsuspecting Asian people in horrible accents is a terrible tactic to make a sale.
Just ask us where we are from? Or, start a conversation like a normal person? Jesus Christ. Astagfirullah!
What is ironic that some vendors are actually completely fluent in Mandarin and Japanese from practice and speaking with customers. These people are awesome and will explain their craft and everything else to tourists fluently with all tones and honorifics. It is a huge disparity between these two groups and their sales tactics and their interactions with tourists. Unfortunately, not many speak Korean (yet).
My rule of thumb: if they shout at you and misidentify what ethnicity you are, tell them that they are wrong – correct them – chances are they will apologise and then try to make the sale in a different manner or just welcome you to the country. However, if their calls are actually offensive (you’ll know when), tell them off a bit. No apologies.
I understand the sentiment that, well, there are different cultural norms etc, but in the reverse, what would happen if someone were to make random ‘Arabic-esque’ sounds at them? Would that be okay? I think not, especially since at times, it does come across as just mockery when some people are not even selling anything. That is not cool anyway one slices it.
Like any things in Morocco, you have to be a bit assertive and act with conviction. That is my best advice for travellers; stick up for yourself or be prepared to be overwhelmed in the markets and streets. Morocco demands your attention and travel savvy.
Therefore, on the topic of conviction, be prepared to haggle in markets. Moroccans haggle, and it is not good manners to just accept the ‘sticker price’. Main goods to buy include silver and jewelry, dyed scarves, and leather bags. Moroccan designs are almost as ubiquitous Scandinavian pieces to be honest nowadays. So, to get the OG textiles, Marrakech is the place to secure them with full knowledge and confidence that nothing is appropriated. Merchants are generally happy to discuss their wares with you, so before being ask questions, they will be more than happy to chat a bit before a sale. Just be prepared to buy; no one likes a time waster.
The ʾaswāq are also sometimes, although not always, divided into guilds. Some areas carter to metalwork while others are home to dyes or food stalls and spice houses where one can find saffron, argon oil, orange blossom oil and much more with a specialist. The main suq on the surface is rather mixed while the deeper one goes into it, the more specialised it becomes. This observation is important to keep in mind if one gets lost. Look for the light and more mixed shops to exit the bustling centre of commerce.
Another major suq in the Casbah of the Jewish quarter (what what!) is also divided by trade.
The Casbah itself (which means fortified area) is south of the Khoutubia and houses some of the most beautiful, unique architecture of the city as well. The Jewish buildings can be determined by their outward facing balconies (while Muslim homes would have balconies on the inside) and their Jewish stars that might adorn them. The Jewish population of Morocco is relatively small now with only a few thousand residents with most in the United States or Israel. However, the Slat Al-Azama synagogue is still maintained and can be entered. We actually ran into a person we know there – small Jewish world.
For exquisite Sephardic artistry and tiling, go no farther!
Some of the best shopping can be done in this region too, so save a few dirham for this section too. Look out for great white iron work characteristic of this quarter.
The final major type of attraction for travellers in Marrakech is the open palace. It is common for groups of tourists to have a tour guide, so if you hire one, ask if he or she can use his or her licensing and savvy to cut the line or just get tickets beforehand. It is a few dirham again. One such palace of interest is the Bahia. Our tour guide Zaid was a lifesaver and got us in rather quickly and provided an informative walkthrough (as with the rest of the city). Tour guides are often multilingual, so it is easy to find a tour in major world languages – English, French, Spanish – with some also in German, Mandarin, and Portuguese.
Once the tour is finished, be sure to tip all those who have assisted you in Morocco as is the custom. A few dirham (50+) or more to anyone carrying luggage, helping with camels, or giving tours is much appreciated. Do not get swindled however by those who randomly come up to you and say hello/shake your hand and then ask for money out of the blue and then act unsatisfied if you do not comply; it is a common tactic used to guilt people done to obvious foreigners aka my father … Basic, but I guess not for him [insert shrugging emoji]
Anyways, named and built for the favourite wife of Ben Moussa, this massive building complex was the home of actually all his lovers aka harem. It is an exquisite example of Moroccan architecture with influences from the sculptures and workers including classic Muslim mosaic designs and Jewish inspired carvings. The palace is a tourist hot spot, so be ready for some crowds, especially during midday when it is coolest right before lunch.
The winter season is a popular time for foreigners to visit Morocco as the temperatures are manageable. In the summer, Marrakech can reach the mid 40s Celsius. Thus, winter is more attractive obviously for those unaccustomed to extreme heat.
Fortunately, in the Medina by law, the buildings are all a light reddish colour that reduces heat saturation better than darker hues, but still keep in mind of the extremes when booking as anything 40+ is pretty insane for me at least. In the winter when it is usually hovers around 16-20 degrees in the daytime, Moroccans will bundle up in coats and scarves as relatively it is cool for them.
Packing-wise, think conservative, but comfortable. If one is like me and is used to frigid temperatures, it will feel like a scorcher in December and January and t-shirts will be a must to pack much to locals’ surprise.
As for dining and drinking, Morocco is a relatively dry country, but that does not mean one cannot find a drink. For foreigners and place that cater to them, one can order a cocktail or some local beer; however, the availability is much less common than in other countries. It should come at no surprise however as a result of alcohol consumption being haram in Islam. Be prepared for a bit of detox if one is travelling from Europe unless alcohol is deliberately sought after while visiting.
Eating out is easy in Marrakech with the Jemma al Fnna’s open air stalls at one’s disposal, multiple kebab shops around the suq and main square, and various upscale restaurants including Le Jardin and Zeitoun Café. The riad we stayed at also has a restaurant that deserves decent Moroccan fare at a moderate price. Be prepared to spend anywhere between 65 to 130 dirham depending on the quality of the meal.
As a FYI, of Jan 2019, 1 CAD = 7.12 Moroccan dirham (MD); 1 USD = 9.52 MD; 1 Euro = 10.85 MD.
A local dish to try is the tangia, which is cooked meat inside a pot/urn with lots of lemon flavouring. Traditionally cooked only by men (as it is very simple), it is a speciality of Marrakech and is best enjoyed at dinner as it is a bit heavy.
Finish off all your meals with a little Moroccan tea to feel like a real local; be sure to pour the tea to get bubbles at the top of the glass! The trick is to pour from a great height. Practice makes perfect.
We stayed in Marrakech for a total of three days, which is not a long time to be honest. One could stay at least a week in Marrakech as a result of the depth of the ʾaswāq, the complex art history of one of Morocco’s cultural capitals, and of course, the food. The tagine and couscous dishes are to die for and far superior to the replicas one might sample abroad. Additionally, Marrakech is a great HQ for excursions in the surrounding areas. By car, most locations are between 1.5 to 5.5 hours away, so Marrakech acts a major hub for tourists going into the desert or mountains and other parts of Morocco as a result of its airport. More to come about the different terrains one can enjoy in Morocco, local eats, and more upscale travelling (for once). Stay tuned!