by Laura Pelzmann
“How much you want? How many camels?” The Kaftaned merchant gestured at my sister and me with an ingratiating smile. My mother stared. We giggled, embarrassed. This was the third time this had happened. Was it a joke? We couldn’t be sure. But these two questions accompanied our entire journey through Moroccan cities and countryside, usually followed by a smirk. While it was a bit uncomfortable and disconcerting, it offered us a view of another culture. Jokes and personal stories would follow us on our journey, and while we were never entirely sure how serious or how much truth lay in them, our encounters were always full of warmth.
Throughout our ten-day trip from Casablanca to Essaouira via Fez and Marrakesh, we had many encounters with locals. After all, three women travelling together on their own raised almost as much alarm as my sister’s light hair, though never in a negative sense. Children as well as adults were generally open to conversations – mostly in French. Whenever my translation abilities permitted, even longer discussions were possible about the country and its inhabitants.
Historically-speaking, Morocco was inhabited by indigenous Berbers even before the Phoenician colonization of the Mediterranean coast in the eighth century BCE. Since then, the country has belonged to many great empires. Morocco was handed over first from Berber monarchs to the Roman Empire and later to the Byzantine Empire. Conquered by the Muslims during the seventh century CE, the country then became part of the Islamic Empire, which brought Arab civilization and Islam to the Maghreb. Until the colonization of the French and the Spanish at the beginning of the twentieth century, Morocco was ruled by dynasties. Only in 1956 did Morocco finally gain independence from France, restoring the Alaouites as the ruling dynasty.
As one of the most diverse countries in Africa, Morocco boasts many contrasting cities and landscapes, which include not only mountains and desert, but a magnificent long coastline bordering both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. The cities are characterized by souqs, open-air bazaars, and chaotic marketplaces that seem to best capture the energy and variety of this fabled country. It was in Rabat – one of Morocco’s four imperial cities – that we encountered our first “medina,” an ancient walled district of narrow maze-like streets, where we wandered happily through the bazaars that lined the winding passage ways, stopping for tea and freshly-squeezed orange juice in a café and maneuvering through the throngs of people in the inviting atmosphere of cheerful turmoil.
As we dived into the long-established shops, the bargaining battles began. Although this is often described as an unsettling experience for Western travelers, we had a great time negotiating prices with sellers, as we listened to the histories of the hand-crafted objects and the importance of traditional techniques intended to preserve Moroccan culture. So intrigued were we that we wanted to take as many souvenirs back to Europe as possible. In our efforts to learn more about Moroccan handicrafts, we also visited a small mosaic factory as well as a little weaver’s shop, where the proprietor told us all about the difficulties of teaching old Moroccan carpet patterns to his children. After an hour of bargaining, which involved a Berber tea ceremony and us sharing our life stories, we were also persuaded to buy a camel-hair carpet.
The tourist experience would not have been complete had my sister not insisted on riding a dromedary through the dunes of Essaouira along the Atlantic coast. As all those who have ridden a dromedary know, it is not as elegant as riding a horse. The lanky, uneven steps of the animal may indeed be perfectly suited for making one’s way through the sand, but they certainly do not take into account the comfort of the rider. Still, it is a great opportunity to imagine oneself trekking through the desert.
In addition to the different art forms that contribute to Moroccan culture, we could not miss out on its culinary delights. From Beghrir and Msemen, Moroccan-style pancakes, for breakfast to chicken or mutton tagine and couscous, we sampled just about everything. But it was the traditional mint tea, offered at every occasion, that had the deepest influence on us. Drinking tea at 45° Celsius seemed somewhat odd to us at first, but as the generosity and hospitality of the Moroccan people manifested itself in the offering of mint tea, throughout our journey, we became fond of the ritual. Indeed, wherever we went, we encountered a combination of openness and warmth mingled with new aromas and stories.