By Jacob Sprecher
Though I’ve done plenty of traveling in the past, I’ve never officially left the Western world. Eastern Europe, for example, with all its ex-Soviet oddities, is still the West. Morocco, however, though just nine miles from Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar, is most certainly not the West. So instead of waxing romantic on a very new place that I’ve spent so very little time in, I’d like to simply rattle off various observations from my first week spent in the northernmost portion of Africa.
Morocco isn’t really a classic party destination. That being said, it’s not all that conservative either. Many would think with the prevalence of the Islamic faith (98 percent) and the conservatism associated with the religion that certain stereotypes apply. But Morocco is the most liberal of all Islamic nations; women are not second class citizens. In fact, they dress with quite a bit of flair, especially around the city, and you see very, very little of the veiled head-wear.
There’s a serious trash problem in urban areas. It’s literally everywhere. Alleys, streets, freeways, parks, beaches—everywhere. This isn’t me looking down my nose; it’s just a reality. It’s obvious that people simply aren’t brought up in the same manner, environmentally speaking, so folks just throw their trash on the ground. Poverty is different. Beggars are pious, but there’s also a fair number of homeless children, which is depressing. When riding the train across the countryside, you see a lot of cinder block housing and thatch roofs. But a lot of that’s just traditional, simple living, and can be quite beautiful in such a sense.
I’m also learning that Islam is practiced with a daily/public fervor that Christianity doesn’t really compare to. The first time I heard the Call to Prayer ringing out across the city streets of Casablanca, I was awestruck at the power and authority the amplified wails carried. It’s one thing to hear Call to Prayer opening some segment on CNN, and it’s a whole other thing to hear it in person from the fourth floor of an apartment in the Maarif. It made my pagan ass wanna get down and pray. And really, I mean get down. On Friday afternoon, for example, hundreds of people stop in the streets, take off their shoes, roll out prayer rugs and bow to Allah.
Medinas are a trip. In Fes, Morocco’s beacon of ancient history, 160,000 of its one million inhabitants live in the medina. This is a place diminutive in size and not more than five or six stories high at any point that boasts over 9,000 streets, not a one of which is wide enough to drive a car. Donkeys and handcarts are used to transport goods to the 10,000 hole-in-the-wall shops, making the medina the most interesting living environment I’ve ever laid eyes on—and that doesn’t begin to do it justice.
Oh, speaking of cars: Nobody really uses lanes. And if you want to cross the street, you just walk out into traffic and dodge traffic. But it works, because nobody speeds. And all the taxis are tiny red Fiats on the brink of collapse.
Camel is abundant, especially in grilled sandwich form. And it’s delicious. I love it so much that last night Conor and I shared a camel pizza.
And everybody is really nice here. I haven’t been made to feel unwanted in any facet despite my overt Western appearance.
Here’s a story: I had just gotten off a train from Casablanca to Fes, a four-hour ride. I had to take a piss. I go to into the bathroom and open a stall only to find a mess left behind by someone else. All the other stalls are occupied. I look around. I see a latrine at the other end. I roll up, unzip, and am literally pulling out Mr. Winky when I hear gasps of horror from a young boy and a female bathroom attendant behind me. “No!” I was about to urinate in their foot bath, a place of sacred Islamic ablution utilized before all prayers. Would you believe?