Friday, May 11, 2012

The last of Morocco

26.02 - Chefchaouen - Tanger Med, 131 km, four rides.

Before I say goodbye to writing about Morocco, I'd like to mention some topics I had no chance to write about before and which are so inseparably linked with Morocco and its culture that it would be wrong to omit them

Women: to cover up or not?

Morocco is considered the more liberal Muslim country with pro-western leanings as far as female clothing is concerned, on the contrary to other Muslim countries in Northern Africa which have more strict ideas about correct dress. It's said the further east you go, the more women have to cover up and the less colorful their clothes become. In Morocco I've seen both women dressed in very eye-catching, revealing (for a country like this) clothes and women whose ONLY visible part of their body was their eyes But such cases are on the opposite ends of Moroccan clothing repertoire. Usually women keep their clothing modest, but not too conservative. What's interesting, short sleeves aren't very common, even if the temperatures reach boiling level. They prefer to wear long-sleeved shirts made of light, drafty fabrics instead of exposing their forearms.

I was really curious about headscarf-wearing requirements in Morocco, so I asked some women I got to know closer what they think about it. According to Quran, women are obliged to cover themselves in the presence of unmarried men they're not related to, so that they don't encourage any boyfriends. My personal observations varied.

In Agadir, one of the most Europeanized cities in Morocco, my only female couchsurfing host voluntarily took off her headscarf when her mother and Guido went out in the evening to get groceries (in some places it's not advised for women to go out on their own when it's dark). She told me in her closest family women never show up unveiled in men's presence, even if they're close relatives. What if you're at home with women only and you're all 100% sure no man will show up, I asked. Then yes, we don't have to cover our hair, she answered.

In El Kelaa-des-Sraghna, a town in Middle Atlas, Rachida, a teenage daughter (almost a young woman) of one of my drivers who invited me for tea, felt very comfortable without a veil at home. She said there's nothing wrong to show your appearance to members of your family who know how you look without a headscarf anyway. However, before we went out to the internet café for just something like five minutes, she meticulously hid her hair, not leaving even a single ringlet visible. Her mother was also not covered throughout my visit, but when I wanted to take a photo of entire family, she put on her veil. Rachida didn't.

What about swimming suits and showing even more pulchritude that is supposed to be reserved just for husbands? I haven't seen any women wearing burkini or other conservative swimming suit. "European" swimwear isn't frowned upon, as long as the girl respects herself and doesn't try to leap out in her skimpy suit.

Mating habits

I widely discussed this topic with my French-speaking host in Fes (that means, until my French deserted me). Contrasts between Europe and Islamic Morocco surpassed my expectations. I raised my eyebrows when he told me in Morocco a standard age for a girl to get married is twenty-four years. That means, I could qualify as a spinster there. But European way of living seemed shocking to him as well. He was beaten when I told him that nowadays more and more European women prefer career and personal development over marriage and family, thus put them off until late twenties/early thirties.

What about shacking up and having kids? In Morocco it's inconceivable that a couple could live together without legalizing the relationship, never mind have children. A good European juxtaposition to this attitude could be Scandinavian countries, which have the world lead in percentage of couples living together without marriage and births out of wedlock. My host did a double take as I explained how liberated we are.

But that's not the end of differences. Another host put "what is a one-night-stand?" as his facebook status. Somebody explained "it's something that exists in Europe but doesn't exist in Morocco." I told him not to follow loose Europeans. It's better for them to stay pure.

God is great

Moroccans are very loyal to their faith which has strong influence on everyday life (regular prayers, fasting during the Ramadan, the way people express themselves using phrases where god is addressed, like "inshallah" - "if god will" or "if it's possible;" "mashallah" - "god has willed it," used to show respect and appreciation for a person; or "bismillah" - "in the name of god," said before starting any activity - without any religious intention). As Muslims, they are usually tolerant towards other religions and barely ever ask whether you're a believer because it's obvious for them that you are. Seeing a white person from Europe, they'll automatically assume you must be Christian.

But what if you don't believe in anything? The best advice is to simply avoid this type of conversation; people trying to change your religious standpoint will give you a headache. Their attitude towards atheists is rather hostile and I made a mistake of owning up to it once. A pleasant conversation with one of our hosts' sister suddenly became tense when I proudly disclosed my religious beliefs. She gave me an incredulous stare and asked: "Really? But why?" As if fifteen years ago some of my girl friends had asked me whether I liked Spice Girls and I had given a negative reply.

I played by the rules I'd follow in Europe: if you don't like my point of view, it's your problem and if you want, you can refuse to talk to me. I didn't want my positive reply to cue any further questions that I'd be unable to answer the way a religious person would. Fortunately Guido managed to to save the situation by telling some fairy tales about agnosticism. The girl, so reluctant towards atheists, seemed fascinated listening about the skeptical, yet not denying approach to any deity. Conclusion? You'd better believe in something or doubt that any higher power exists rather than not believe in anything. At least in Muslim Morocco.

We're both nomads

I don't like to label people but in my opinion it was usually Arabic people who were interested in trade and getting money out of tourists. Berber people, on the contrast, took their time to get to know us, even if language seemed an obstacle. Because of being backpackers (thus, nomads, just like Berbers) we seemed more approachable to local people. Our ragged clothes, minimum amount of possessions carried with us or standing on the roadside and smiling at passers-by was what told us apart from tourists who get package holidays, stay in fanciest hotels, move around by 4x4 cars and carry as much luggage per person as the two of us combined.

All in all...

Morocco fascinated me with its multitude of contrasts: streets filled with laughter of locals congregating there round the clock and utterly desolate landscapes; alluring souks and filthy roadsides; annoying hustlers and assiduous people eager to share heartfelt feelings with you; elaborate architecture bearing hints of European and African influences and confusing traffic with drivers skillfully avoiding potholes and ignoring pedestrians; crowded cities and sedate villages. Here I discovered the pleasure of eating with my fingers, felt the desert sand underneath my clothes and the heat from the Sun burning my skin, lived like locals in very basic conditions, found myself in places where everything looked the same, met people fluent in four languages and people who couldn't even type a phone number.

Back in Europe, I struggled a lot to readapt to "normal" society. I felt my place is
in some forgotten village in the middle of nowhere, where people have no idea how it feels like to have access to running water or electricity, not in a town where I can have all commodities or western life and a wall for a view. It's not much of a stretch to call Morocco the most exciting land I've ever visited. One could spend a lifetime in this varied country. It deserves much more than once-over-lightly given by Ryanair tourists.

Another trip to this land of wonders is definitely in the picture for the future.


See you later, Morocco

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