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).
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.