Sunday, May 23, 2010

MisReading Morocco - A Travel Writer in Tangier

We do not usually re-post things that are displeasing to our tastes. But in this instance it is being done in what we hope is constructive criticism. The following piece was posted on and needs to be "unpacked." Western tourist in Morocco, can't help but think of gnomes when he sees the traditional jilleba, and overuses the term "modern." It seems as if he is obsessed with the impending modernization of Morocco. In other words, he is asking, when are these people finally going to be just like us? We are all too smart for this kind of voyeuristic travel writing about Morocco.

The Back Lanes of Tangier

Rick Steves: On the pleasures of wandering in the evolving Moroccan city

05.18.10 | 12:11 PM ET

A week ago Monday was my birthday, and no one in Morocco knew it. To celebrate, I took a couple of hours alone just floating through the back streets of Tangier, observing.

Looking at a window filled with photos of adorable little boys wearing fezzes and gauzy girls dressed like princesses, I realize why I like the display windows of family photographers throughout the world. They show the cultural ideals to the extreme—the way mothers dream their children might look—and provide insight.

I don’t know if men run the show here, but they outnumber women in the cafés 100 to one. I want to take a skinny teenage girl’s photo. She giggles with her friends, shows me her wedding ring, and says her husband would have her head if she let me do that. Yesterday my local friend told me, “Moroccan men like their women meaty, not skinny. But that is changing with the young generation and television.”

Old men walk around like sages in robes with pointy hooded jellabas. It makes me wonder whether a teenager might say, “Dad, I know you wear it and Grandpa wore it, but I’m just not going to wear the pointy hood.” Seeing these old men in pointy, rough cloth hooded robes, I keep wanting to ask, “Where’s the gnome conference?”

Wandering through the market, I collect a collage of vivid images. A butcher has made a colorful curtain of entrails, creating mellow stripes of all textures. Camera-shy Berber tribeswomen are in town today selling goat cheese wrapped in palm leaves. A man lumbers through the crowd pushing a ramshackle cart laden with a huge side of beef. He makes a honking sound, and I think he’s just being funny. But it isn’t the comical beep-beep I’d make behind a wheelbarrow. Small-time shipping is his livelihood, the only horn he has is his vocal chords, and he is on a mission.

Wandering deeper into the back lanes, I see henna stencils in plastic wrap—a quick and modern way to stain the designs onto your hands. Another gnome walks by with a pointy hood and a long beard—half white and half hennaed red.

Tiny shops buzz with activity. One small place, no bigger than a small bedroom, has been divided horizontally with a second floor five feet high. It houses a rickety loom on each level, employing four men who wiggle in and out of their workstations each day ... all their lives.

Around the corner, the click-click-click of a mosaic maker draws me into another tiny shop, where a man with legs collapsed under himself sits all day chiseling intentionally imperfect mosaic chips (as only Allah is perfect, the imperfection is considered beautiful) to fit a pattern for a commissioned work.

It’s pouring rain, water careens down the stepped brick lane, and, exploring on, I feel like a wet dog. Drenched, I follow a woman wearing colorful scarves into a community bakery. She carries a platter of doughy loaves under a towel ready to be baked into bread. The baker, artfully wielding the broom-handled wooden spatula, receives her loaves. He hardly misses a beat as he pushes and pulls the neighborhood’s baked goods—fish, stews, bread, sunflowers and cookies—into and out of his oven. After observing the baking action, I’m dry in minutes.

Spending my birthday in Tangier, barely seeing another tourist, I am struck by how the energy here just makes me happy. This Moroccan city is not pro-West or anti-West. It’s simply people making the best of their lives. This society seems to be growing more modern and affluent ... and on its own terms. And it’s a joy to experience it.

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