Saidia, photo by Gabriela Mills
I didn’t know much about Morocco before going there. I had read The Alchemist, and heard the name a few times, so I knew it existed, but that was about it. Of course when I found out my Peace Corps assignment had been switched from Mozambique to Morocco, I did some research, but I only had a month or two to learn about it before shipping out. A well-traveled friend of ours actually told us not to go there because he had an unpleasant experience when he visited. My mother-in-law was worried about us going to an Islamic country. Meanwhile I watched surf videos and skate videos and became enchanted with the idea of goats in trees, colorful marketplaces and camel rides in the desert. I was enticed at the prospect of learning Arabic because I had been to Israel and Palestine and loved it, and saw a potential future for myself in Middle Eastern conflict resolution. I heard about harassment and unwanted attention, but felt excited to take that on as well as a recently certified empowerment self defense instructor. I wanted to learn more about the most misunderstood and misjudged world religion and study the Quran. What’s more, whenever I mentioned to anyone that I was going to Morocco, the first thing they always mentioned was the food. I didn’t know what tajine was but my mouth watered for it. I fell in love with the idea of the country before I even got there.
Now, I just want to say that my limited experience with and perspective of Morocco in no way reflects the vastness of this very richly diverse country. I was there as a Peace Corps volunteer, not a tourist or a traveler, and I was only there for six months, with the majority of that time under a travel ban which prohibited me from leaving my region. It’s an interesting phenomenon how we sometimes will visit a place or even live there briefly and then feel a sense of kinship or ownership to that country and culture, as if we are the experts in a conversation, despite the fact that we really have and are no such thing. That being said, I did get a taste of a few different areas in Morocco and I hope to honor it by sharing it as best I can. Here are some of my main takeaways, and advice for anyone looking to add Morocco to their travel list (once the borders reopen).
Fes, Photo by Gabriela Mills
Morocco is such a rich and diverse country, both geographically and culturally. Geographically, when I pictured Morocco in the past, I would think of the desert, but I came to see they also have beautiful mountains – the Rif and Atlas Mountain ranges, and areas that get super green in the spring. They have beautiful beaches and waterfalls as well. I thought it would be hot all over, but some highly elevated places—such as my permanent site assignment—got very very cold in the winter, even down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The big cities are pretty developed, in fact the ones I’ve been to felt European, but the small towns and villages, where you won’t see many tourists—unless just passing through—are quite different.
On the cultural side of things, obviously there is a lot of Arab influence, but what I didn’t know much about before going there was the indigenous people of Amazigh background (commonly known as Berbers, however this name is slightly offensive). There are three different Amazigh languages—Tamazigh, Tashla7it*, and Tarrafit, all spoken in different regions of Morocco. Some Moroccans don’t even speak Arabic at all. Traditional Amazigh people dress slightly differently and have very fun wedding traditions– also face tattoos are a thing. There is some conflict there, as with all indigenous cultures that aren’t properly preserved or respected by the colonizers, but a friend of mine once told me “Underneath every Moroccan is an Amazigh,” meaning we’re all really Amazigh people anyways. He of course was Amazigh. Unfortunately, my site didn’t have much of that because it wasn’t in one of the heavily concentrated Amazigh regions (which are mainly the south and the Rif mountains where they speak Tarrafit).
My Main Takeaways
Honestly, my six months living in Morocco was really difficult, but not because of the country or culture itself. It was just hard spending three months in intensive training with so many cultural adjustments and language barriers. Emotionally, it was fairly exhausting. But from everything I’d heard from other Peace Corps Volunteers, it would also have been the most challenging part of my two years’ service. So I mourn what could have been, the relationships I could have deepened, and the places I could have visited. But I am still grateful for the experience I was able to have and the people I was able to meet. At times it’s hard to share my experience because I want to be authentic and honest about it and not paint an unrealistic fairytale, but I also don’t want to be overly negative. I hope I can share the most beautiful parts of my experience with Morocco and that it can guide others if they choose to visit one day!
Despite all the beautiful geographical features of Morocco, the people definitely had the biggest impact on me. Two families with very little for themselves offered up their homes and the best of what they had, adopting me as one of their own. And countless other families who didn’t host me still treated me as if I was a part of their family, made me feel so welcome and so loved and looked out for. Because that’s what they do in Morocco, they look out for their neighbors. That’s the spirit of Islam as I know it. Visiting Morocco just wouldn’t be the same without those local connections.
My host dad in his 7anut (cornerstore), photo by Gabriela Mills
That being said, the food was also really amazing. I mistakenly thought that Moroccan food would be Mediterranean food, like hummus and falafel, but it’s not. In fact, hummus is the word for chickpea, so if you ask for it they’ll have no idea what you’re talking about. But I loved tajine (with or without meat), and couscous every Friday. I’d also recommend trying milwee (a thin flaky flatbread), 7arsha (kind of like cornbread), kafta (Moroccan meatball dish, sometimes made with fish) and ssfa (vermicelli with powdered sugar, cinnamon, and raisins—I know this one sounds weird but trust me it’s so good). Another common dish you’ll find in restaurants is a whole chicken, crispy on the outside, in a broth with French fries on top. My mouth is seriously watering just thinking about these dishes!
To be honest I didn’t eat that much traditional Moroccan food at restaurants, because I was getting it so much from my host families and friends that when I had the opportunity to eat something different I went for my non-Moroccan cravings (like sushi, or Thai food). Sometimes I ate “tacos,” which turned out to be not at all like my idea of tacos, but still tasty in a fast food kinda way. I also love the freshly pressed pomegranate and sugarcane juices they’ll often have in city squares.
Lentils, Photo by Gabriela Mills
Cities I visited
* Bouznika – Close to Casablanca, a small coastal and touristy town where I spent my first 10 days. I actually never even made it to the center of town because I wanted to spend all my free time (which wasn’t much) at the beach. We did have one day off while there, which we used to surf the little waves. Super affordable and super fun.
* Meknes – located in northern central Morocco, Meknes is one of the four Imperial cities of Morocco, meaning it used to be the capital of Morocco way back in the 17th and 18th centuries. I spent a lot of time in Meknes, mostly evenings walking around the old medina (city), or sometimes in the new city for food. One time we came on a Sunday evening and the marketplace was so packed. I also held a snake (thanks to a very persistent snake charmer) and drank pomegranate and sugar cane juice. Some of my friends ate snails, but I wasn’t in the mood.
* Fes – I only spent two days there, but I really liked Fes. Just the feel of it. It’s about an hour away from Meknes and it’s the second biggest city in Morocco. Both days I mostly just roamed around the narrow alleys of the old medina, looking at the colorful rugs and leather bags and musical instruments. The oldest continually-operating university in the world, University of Al Quaraouiyine, is located here, founded by Fatima al-Fihri (a woman!!). I also really enjoyed the tannery, where you can watch men tanning leather from a rooftop. Very cool.
* Moulay Idriss – in between Meknes and Fes, Moulay Idriss is the most beautiful small city on a hill. It’s seriously so gorgeous. All I did here was make a quick stop to walk to the top of a hill through alleys to see the view, but it was worth it. I also heard there’s really good kafta (Moroccan meatball dish) in town here but it was closed that evening. It’s also near Volubilis, which are ancient Roman ruins that I only got to see from afar, but you can hike to them and it’s also super cool.
* Nzala – my small community-based training site! Basically a village nestled in the countryside. Tons of olive trees and some shepherds with their sheep.
* Ifrane – almost like Europe, they get snow in the winter and I heard there would be monkeys there. I didn’t see the monkeys but they were somewhere close by.
* Oujda – a big city close to the Algerian border, but not that exciting, just the biggest city closest to my permanent site.
* Tendrara – my permanent site! I was there for only three months. In the desert tundra, it was very cold. Not much to do there to be honest.
* Bouarfa – a town close to my permanent site, I hiked to mining caves from here and it was sick.
* Figuig – Was only here for a few hours, but they had date trees everywhere and you could see Algeria from here.
* Saidia – You can also see Algeria from here. It’s the longest beach in Morocco, on the Mediterranean Sea.
* Rabat – the capital, only spent one night there, but it’s very modern and I liked it
* Melilla – technically in Spain, we had to cross the border on foot to get there. Once we were there it was very much Spain, kinds cool stepping into a different country.
* Casablanca – I did not like Casablanca much, but was only there for a night. Just a big city and chaotic.
* Marrakech – Spent about a week here for training, so just could go out at night but I was enchanted by Jmiaa al Fina (the marketplace and square).
Spices in Fes, photo by Gabriela Mills
Cities I wanted to visit and will visit when I get a chance to go back
* Al Hoceima
*Because arabic script has some sounds that are not accurately represented by the English alphabet, when typing in transliteration (basically this just means using another language’s alphabet to depict a language), a few numbers are commonly used. These are:
7 – it’s an “h” sound but not heavy, like your breath fogging up a glass
9 – in arabic there is a “k” sound and a “9” or “q” sound (it’s depicted as both), which is similar but comes more from the bottom of your throat. very hard for me to make…
3 – this is a difficult sound that also comes from the bottom of your throat, i don’t know how to describe it. If you’re really curious youtube it, otherwise just ignore it haha
gh – not “gh” as in “ghost”, but rather a kind of gargle-like sound. Or like the French “r” sound if you speak French.