Travelling Morocco is a joy.
Arriving into Marrakech airport, I was soon picked up by a local family. One of the advantages of travelling alone this time was going to be throwing myself head-first into culture. But one thing I was told at the very start “if you get into trouble and you feel threatened, the word in Arabic to shout is “shuma!” and people will back off. Now I’m not sure on the validity of this advice, and I didn’t intend on getting into trouble, so it went into storage at the back of my mind and basking in the 45 degree June heat took my attention away. Little did I know that I’d use that little phrase “shame on you” before I left the country.
From the packed Jamaa El Fna Square in Marrakech, to the hustle and bustle of the souk stalls of Fes, to the wonder of the Atlas mountains, the barren majesty of the Sahara and the surfing spots of Agadir and the coast around, Morocco is worth a visit, even in the lesser visited spots like the financial capital in Rabat (see above).
It’s been one country largely unaffected in recent years by terrorist attacks, so I could imagine its tourist trade is rocketing, with it being one of the cheapest destinations to reach from Ireland. Given the number of Moroccans leaving to fight further east, sadly I wonder whether it won’t come under the same fate soon.
Top travel tip: stay away from the tourist traps, and regardless of attacks, you’ll be fine! And you’ll probably also have some more genuine experiences, unlike the one I’m about to describe.
Visiting quite touristy Marrakech souks, I was hoping to strike up conversation enough to get to know stall-holders and get a feel for life behind tourism. Going to Fes, and I turned into a stallholder, with one of the most fantastic experiences ever, living in the medina with a local family and helping a man run his souk stall! (My thanks go to: Fes Homestay)
But being a stallholder for a day or two and travelling the length of the country means that one tends to be alert to prices. So when a market stall holder saw money (a westerner) walking towards his stall, he thought he was in for a treat. Declining to speak in English, I thought I was on safe ground, but when the bartering price started at £400 for a small earthen vessel, I looked amazed and declared that I have the local price and not the tourist price!
“No, no, I’m not a rich American!” (*price gets lowered by a third*)
“No, no, I’m not English…the English oppressed us for hundreds of years and left us with nothing!” (*price gets lowered by another third*)
“I am a poor Irishman” (*we agree a final price, a fraction of the first*)
I’ve only once in my travels felt so threatened and surrounded by several stallholders, all pushing excessive prices and starting to corner me and grab me physically, that I had to shout “shuma”. Shame on you! The ultimate Arab public insult. Later, having spent many more hours of life with Arabs, I wonder whether I over-reacted that day to cultural intensity and bartering banter.
But since my exposure to such cultures, I started to wonder. Why is shame and honour such a huge thing in Arab cultures? Why do I think more of guilt in western culture? Is it a western/eastern divide? Or perhaps an Islamic/Christian one? Because whatever the answer, shame and guilt poke uncomfortably into every human’s life at many points. And it’d be handy to know why to hopefully be able to start to remove them from dominating life!
I’ve been mulling over this a few months with folk and may pen a few thoughts soon. But in the meantime, if you know of any resources to help us all think further on it, I’d love to hear from you.