Well of Rage
I think it is fair to say that, although I love the country, the landscape, the architecture and the history of Morocco, and although I did meet some wonderful, warm people from all walks of life and in many tiny interchanges, I found Morocco personally uncomfortable.
It’s really the only place I have travelled to where the majority of my casual interactions – everything from making eye-contact with a mother and child walking down the street, to ‘good mornings’ exchanged in an elevator, to my attempts to politely refuse to buy something, or buying something, or just the thousand little recognitions of other humans that happen when you’re walking down tight little alleyways, letting people by, waiting to get through a bottle-neck – were at best very cold and at worst patently hostile.
I’ve been to rich countries, poor countries, to countries where the dominant religion was Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, Animist, etc. I’ve been in cultures where the separation of the sexes was rigidly observed and those where there was greater integration. I’ve been to countries that have never been colonized and those that suffered under successive colonial regimes, wars of liberation, etc.
In Morocco, the quotidian level of hostility towards Westerners was like nothing I’ve ever felt before.
I have one tiny snapshot for you.
I was making my way up one of the thousand tiny alleyways towards one of the Museums in Marrakech and I passed a group of quite young boys. I’d guess their average age was about eight. I’d become quite used to hearing things hissed in Arabic behind my back as I walked by, but this time, I passed this huddle of kids, and a little, skinny kid on a bike, in a bright green t-shirt hissed and spat at my feet. I ignored it and kept walking. He drove his bike up beside me and started yelling at me. I have no idea what he was yelling but after you’ve learned a few different languages, you know when what is being thrown at you is a string of very nasty insults.
It was so loud, so vehement, echoing off the walls of this little alley, I actually stopped and looked at him. I didn’t scowl, I just looked straight at him with a composed and passive face, and then I watched all these adult men around him watch while he worked himself up into what I can only describe as a paroxysm of rage.
I wasn’t dressed immodestly or ostentatiously, I hadn’t said or done anything to this child. I hadn’t even made eye contact with the kid until his shouts turned into this blatant hissy fit. I was just a passer-by, just a single, middle-aged female tourist on my way to a museum.
I stood there and watched him until he exhausted himself. Then I pointedly looked right into the face of each of these adult men, sitting around, outside their houses and their shops, standing in the alley. And not a single one of them would meet my eyes. Not one would acknowledge the oddness, the excessiveness or the impoliteness of this behaviour. Not one would acknowledge my humanity. Not one.
My first thought: I have never been to any other place where that kind of absolutely causeless, triggerless, verbal violence coming from the mouth of a child would be tolerated by every single adult who witnessed it.
My second thought was: perhaps he’s suffering from coprolalia, but before I passed him, he seemed to be interacting normally with the kids he was with, and after he stopped screaming, he spat, huffed and went back to interacting normally with his friends. And usually, if a child is known to have some sort of handicap of that sort, someone will look at you and at least shrug. These are tight neighborhoods. The men sitting around knew this kid. They knew his parents.
My third thought is: Sure, kids pick up the rhetoric of adults and there is a lot of anti-Western rhetoric going around in this part of the world. Kids will echo what they hear, of course. But the rage? That kind of rage is born of something else. The sheer visceral nature of it was staggering.
My fourth thought is: this kind of rage is born of the experience of something awful. Someone has been horrifically cruel to this child, and this is the permissible outlet he has found for it.
My fifth thought is: perhaps I got the ugly treatment worse because I do look vaguely Moroccan. I just don’t know.
This was not the first or the last encounter with vitriol I had. I got told my mother was a whore in Spanish for not wanting to buy spices. I was told my whole country was shit in English because I didn’t want to go into someone’s restaurant. I was told in French that my father was a dog for … Honestly, I don’t even remember what that was for.
As I said at the beginning of this essay, I met some lovely people in Morocco, but I’m sad to say their warmth and their politeness did not outweigh the oppressive sense that I was traveling through a country where I was seen as nothing other than a despicable opportunity to earn a few Dirham.
This is not about Islam. It’s not about Arabic culture. I’ve been to Turkey and to Jordan. I’ve been to Indonesia and to Malaysia. My experience with all the other Islamic cultures I’ve encountered has been either wonderfully warm and engaging or – at worst – studiedly polite.
This is not about a nation that has suffered under colonial rule. I’ve been to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia… all colonized countries that have had to struggle their ways to independence and strive to reconstruct a sense of national identity for themselves.
Partially, I think this is about recent Western wars in the Middle East and a sense that rich countries have treated North African and Middle-Eastern countries poorly. There is an anti-Western discourse that has grown progressively less rational and productive to everyone but the media outlets that cash in on it. I think there are certain cultures that find the kind of service-focused industries that make up the tourism business demeaning. Their governments and their affluent members want a thriving tourist industry, but perhaps the culture itself simply doesn’t make for a good fit.
Furthermore, I saw a surprising number of men who I suspect are woefully under-employed. This is not good for people’s pride. Especially too many young men with too much time on their hands can make for trouble in any culture.
It didn’t used to be this way. Writers, composers, photographers through the years have raved about the warmth and the generosity of the Moroccan people, the beauty of the country, the richness and diversity of its culture and history.
Here’s the sad thing. I’m never coming back. If you go to Morocco to lie on the beach and hang around your big, air-conditioned hotel, I’m sure you’ll have a great time. But I spoke with way too many fellow travelers while sipping coffee, on trains, at cultural sites, in museums, in restaurants that said the same thing: they really don’t like us here.
And, fair or unfair, no one willingly exposes himself or herself to that kind of hatred as a form of leisure.