Morocco: incomprehensively incredible
This text was originally published in German. Translation by Martha Houston
A babel of languages
Those traveling from Europe to Morocco for the first time will probably land in Marrakesh. The iconic desert metropolis receives more tourists by far than any other area in the Kingdom of Morocco. After leaving the airport, travelers will encounter traffic signs and for the first time read the name of the city, in which they have just landed, in alien, Arabic letters (مراكش) and in another, even more alien script (ⵎⵕⵕⴰⴽⵛ).
What appears to be a mix of Greek and cave painting is actually Tifinagh, the language of the Berbers or Amazigh, the “free people” as they prefer to call themselves. Besides Arabic, the Amazigh language is the other official language of the country. Many people in the Atlas and Rif Mountains grow up exclusively with this native language and don’t speak Arabic.
But the linguistic diversity is hardly exhausted here. Visitors who have mastered Modern Standard Arabic will quickly realize that nearly every word is different in the “Moroccan dialect”. Getting an orange when you asked for a lemon in Modern Standard Arabic is one of the more minor misunderstandings. Many linguists have even recommended classifying the Moroccan dialect as its own language due to the fundamental differences between the two.
Fortunately, there are a number of other languages that you can use to make yourself understood in Morocco. French is still widespread though not a linguistic key to the Kingdom, English is gaining ground and is proudly spoken by the young, urban population, while Spanish is a reliable tool for the North. In short, there is no language that all Moroccans speak, but there are a lot of languages to try to buy a lemon with.
Of palaces and puddles
The linguistic babel of Morocco is just one facet of many that make Morocco so diverse and hard to comprehend. Another is the contrast between rich and poor that appears nowhere as starkly as in the narrow alleys of Marrakesh’s old town,
where you move through a cramped, dark labyrinth between squalid façades, hoping not to step into a puddle of fish and various other mystery juices or be run over by a scooter tearing through the crowds. You can’t help but notice the poverty of many people who beg or try to sell their crafts in the passageways.
Behind small, nondescript doors that would hardly be worthy of a garden shed in Germany, visitors are admitted into sumptuous mini-palaces called riads. They are hotels, restaurants, museums, or cafes that enchant their guests with their historic and lavish atmosphere with breathtaking mosaics, small fountains, and centuries-old wooden decorations.
Moroccan artisanry ensures that everything in this country is incredibly aesthetic, regardless of whether it’s pottery, textiles, tiles, and mosaics or ornate columns, walls, or ceilings. Enthusiast or professional Instagrammers can easily stock up on material while everyone else enjoys their meals in a picture-perfect setting. In Morocco, splendor and beauty are mostly found behind closed doors, just like wealth—and alcohol.
This can be found at one of the countless rooftop terraces, for example, the bar of the trendy hotel “El Fenn” (meaning fine arts). There, young people frolic, foreigners and Moroccans alike, sipping cocktails and enjoying loud music. You could easily forget that you were in a Muslim country if not for the DJ temporarily turning down the deep house music at sundown so the muezzin’s call to prayer from the nearby Koutoubia mosque can sound out over the party. Afterwards the crowd carries on slurping their Aperol spritzes.
Both sounds are at home in the country and show that the diversity of Morocco is also manifested in the local lifestyle. It’s normal for many Moroccans to date, have a boyfriend or girlfriend, consider an abortion in case of pregnancy, or be homosexual. At the same time, all of these lifestyles and behaviors are criminal offenses in Morocco and are treated with contempt by the conservative majority of the population, especially when it affects one’s own family.
Therefore many people live in a legal and societal grey zone in terms of sexual freedom and manner of living, always careful to maintain appearances. In doing so, they are confronted from time to time with quite commonplace hurdles, such as when potential landlords or hotel operators turn away unmarried pairs or single women. Readers of this article can relax, however; such rules do not apply to guests from Europe.
Getting around in the Kingdom
Under no circumstances should a trip to Morocco be limited to Marrakesh. The spectacular landscapes of the Atlas Mountains, the Sahara desert, the Atlantic coast, and the imperial cities of Fez, Meknes, and Rabat await visitors. For many of these destinations, the train is a reliable and comfortable means of getting there. The Moroccan rail transport company ONCF beats Deutsche Bahn, the national railway company of Germany, in terms of punctuality (personal estimate of the author) and even offers the only high-speed train on the African continent between Casablanca and Tangier.
The drive from Marrakesh to Rabat, for example, proves to be more pleasant than a journey on the highway between Kassel and Hamburg (of the same distance). You glide on a wide and perfectly paved toll highway and have to be particularly unlucky to get caught in a traffic jam. Tourists are usually surprised to see more Porsche Cayennes than Dacia Logans along this route. Together with ramshackle buses and donkey carts, the Dacia Logans are plodding along on bumpy roads and through chaotic towns away from the highway. Morocco is simultaneously both donkey and high-speed train.
Don’t be afraid of hospitality
The objective of every visitor to Morocco should be to be invited by a Moroccan at least once. This doesn’t require luck since Moroccans are extremely hospitable and curious. It does demand a bit of courage and trust, since the reputation of always wanting to scam foreign tourists in the most ingenious ways often clings to Moroccans, at least among tourists. Without a doubt, this holds true of many so-called city guides and seasoned bazaar merchants, but away from tourist epicenters like the medina of Marrakesh, this mistrust is misguided and obstructive. After all, enjoying a cup of the famous mint tea with Moroccans is the best way of comprehending this incomprehensible country.