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Morocco during Ramadan- A cultural experience worth having or a nightmare for tourists

As the sun sets in Marrakech in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar “Allahu Akbar” rings out on speakers across the beautiful walled medina of the ancient city and the old defensive cannons are fired.

Paired with the traditional white cloaks with pointed hoods that are so commonly worn at the time, it is hard initially as a tourist not to find the event, which is purely a joyous one for the locals, eerie.

This trepidation, in my opinion, like many of our preconceived thoughts of Islam and its affiliated countries, comes from a lack of context by Western media when reporting the atrocities of such a minority of those who wrongfully claim to represent the religion.

My trip to Essaouira, a surfer’s paradise in East Morocco and the country’s capitol Marrakech, opened my eyes to the subconscious ideas that are so wrongfully inherent in most of us about these people and their communities.

While before travelling I would have attested to not judging anyone based on creed, race or religion, the mere apprehension and fact that I was consistently pleasantly surprise, showed that there was a part of my subconscious that had been filled with preconceived ideas.

Like learning that Allahu Akbar (God is greatest) is a message of joy and love for the vast majority of practicing Muslims and not a message of foreboding, my preconceived ideas of what a Muslim country would be like were shattered, even during Ramadan.

You might think, as I did, that this North African country would be austere, but the opposite is the truth and the warmth of the people is something to behold. The many stray cats that roam the beautiful walled medinas are fed well by the locals and the local beggars are treated with respect and dignity, far more so than their Dublin counterparts.

The entrance to Essaouira’s walled medina

The three kisses on the cheek that the locals share as a greeting is nothing compared to the barrage that any babies leaving their homes have to face before entering the maze that is their city.

Take a stroll down the strip of restaurants in Essaouira and you will come across Chez Ben Mustafa. In front of the restaurant Mustafa, after whom the restaurant in named, paints pictures with his mouth. After learning about the man’s condition that confines him to movement only from the neck up, the owners of the restaurant offered him a place to sell his art and regularly check on him and bring him food, drink and companionship, a simple but life-changing act of kindness.

Ramadan is a time of celebration in the Muslim faith and being in a predominantly Islamic country during it was an experience to behold. It did however come with its downsides, which may have deterred unadventurous tourists. During the day, locals cannot eat or drink and can be slightly more hostile than during the night as a result.

While on Essaouira’s beautiful beach, my girlfriend was wearing a bikini and a local Muslim man shouted, “cover up your f**cking girlfriend,” at me. Respecting the local culture and traditions was something that we were constantly conscious of but we were following the advice of our hostel owner who told us that we could do as we pleased, and no one would mind.

After Rachel covered herself with a towel, the man returned to kindly apologise and explain that during Ramadan sexual thoughts were also forbidden and that the temptation he faced was unfair. An important lessen into how you must act during this festive period.

Eating and drinking during the day is not as frowned upon for tourists however, and drinking water is not condemned at all for foreigners. You do however feel like you are deriding local culture when you eat in public and it is better to do it in private. Anyway, filling up during the day is a mistake when the bustling markets and the smaller restaurants, intended for the locals, open up after sun down.

The nation’s national animal, the Barbary Lion, was thought to be extinct years before they were spotted in Morocco’s wilderness. Many believe that the lion adapted its behaviour and went undetected with a newly adopted nocturnal lifestyle. Like the beautiful, black-maned lion, Morocco comes alive when the sun goes down.

The labyrinth of streets enclosed in both Marrakech and Essaouira’s walled medinas turn into noisy food markets, splattered with colour and excitement during the night. In the minutes before Iftar, the meal that follows sundown, the locals augment their meals by purchasing fine pastries, fried fish, baked goods and a plethora of other small morsels that have been cooked by street sellers who each specialise in only one of the many delicacies.

The market itself is incredible and one of the reasons that a trip during Ramadan is such an experience. The huge colourful bags of spice that are stacked in pyramids in the stores make you realise that, unlike in many other popular travel locations, the markets are not feigning authenticity and are there primarily for the locals. In all of my travelling, my main objective is to experience different cultures and the souks of Moroccan markets are some of the best places to do this that I have ever experienced.

If you are lucky enough to be invited for Iftar in one of the small houses by a local, the contrast in culture from the Western world is evident. Hungry from a day without food, we all waited to hear the prayers from the local mosque, our invitation to eat.

The table had been laid out with local dishes like tagines and bean soup, along with fresh breads from the market. After a few rounds of the savoury foods we moved on to the sticky sweet pastries also bought at the market and the spectacle of the famous local mint tea. Ignoring the huge lump of sugar that is put into the teapot with the sprigs of mint and boiling water, the taste of the tea is intensified by its pouring to-and-from the cup on several occasions from a standing height.

The local food of the North African country is full of flavour from the spices acquired on the street and the hearty meals leave you feeling satisfied both in quantity and quality. The Muslim influence means that pork is off the menu but the goat meat used is far more flavourful and a welcome change from our usual bland food.

If you have managed to abstain from eating before sundown in Essaouira you will be rewarded with what must be some of the best fish restaurants there are. Going to the docks as the fish arrive in the morning is a must-do in Morocco. The arguments, bartering and eventual deal-striking appears hostile at first but spending a period in this fascinating country will make you realise that the people are extremely expressive and to them this is just normal negotiation.

A spice stall in Essaouira

Their bounty, which arrives daily, is spread throughout these restaurants, which open too late for tourists to be the target market, and the resulting dishes are fresh and flavoured to the North African palette; delicious.

This prioritisation of locals is present in almost every aspect of life in Essaouira. Although ‘the kite surfing mecca’ has a bolstering tourism industry on the beach with surfing equipment rented and camel and horseback rides available, this industry ends where the sand does and after that tourists are ignored and not made a fuss of. This authenticity is refreshing and the city is constantly in a laid-back state.

While the people are for the most part Muslim, the various cultures that have occupied the coastal town are all present in the architecture and culture. The town was originally named Mogador after Sidi Mogdoul, the Muslim saint who is buried there but was renamed to Essaouira stemming from the Arabic for rampart (defensive wall) and it is aptly named.

The walls, like the ones in Marrakech, were built to defend the city against the intruders. Before gaining independence, the City, which was originally inhabited with indigenous Berber people, was under the influence of the ancient Greek, Roman Empire, Berber Arabic dynasties, France and Spain and its coastline was controlled by Portugal, whose offshore prison can still be seen. They now remain however as a beautiful encapsulation of the bustling cities, and will be easily recognised by Game of Thrones fans.

While, in the presence of the mixed influences, the laid-back attitude shines through in Essaouira, in Marrakech, it could not be more different. While we were constantly warned before traveling there that the people are a lot more hostile, the frenzy is something to cherish, although you have to be on your toes.

A souk in Marrakech selling fine hand crafted pottery

The deviation in wealth between those inside the walled medinas and those in the suburbs is extremely evident. Walking around the boroughs outside of the city walls, most of the cars are new shiny jeeps or fancy sports cars whereas those selling their trade inside have considerably less.

Where there is poverty, unfortunately there is also often crime, and in Marrakech we witnessed this first hand. An elderly man approached us telling us that it was a holy day and offered to bring us to the mosque to take pictures and enjoy the local culture. He seemed very friendly and so we agreed to go with him however when he suggested getting in his car we kindly refused and went on our way.

When a young man in the medina offered us the same experience, we began to believe that it was a holy day, however on edge from the previous experience we decided to decline the offer again. We did however walk in the direction of the mosque thinking that if both were sincere, we would be able to walk in.

A while passed and still walking in the same direction we bumped back into the young man. Seeing us walking to the mosque, he seemed extremely saddened that we were questioning his intensions and told us he would show us the best view of the city “for no money” and it would only be a five minute walk.

After walking for some 25 minutes I told him that we wanted to go no further but he insisted that we were just around the corner. We were. Around the corner from his house. When we got there he marched us aggressively up the stairs to the roof, where he told us to take photos of the city. In truth the view was OK but nothing special but when we were finished the boy put himself between us and the exit and demanded money.

When we reluctantly handed him the only 50 dirhams (€5) we had, he became extremely aggressive trying to extort more money from us by not letting us leave the roof. Luckily for us, his partner in crime arrived up with more tourists and urged him to stop in fear of frightening them away. We gave a warning and made a very brisk exit from the roof and out of the medina.

While this frightened us and left a temporary sour taste in our mouths we forced ourselves back into the medina and after that we encountered no trouble at all. The best approach while over there is to kindly refuse any unsolicited services while having craic with whoever is offering it. Usually then they leave happily without any fuss, the same tactic can be employed for the market sellers, snake and monkey charmers and women who will forcibly try to henna tattoo you at a cost found by them.

While it sounds like an intimidating environment, after employing this trick the souks in Marrakech are an incredible experience. The colour and variety of products on show is vast and the precious metal and ornamental glass stalls glitter the twisting roads with sparkles of light. Bartering is allowed and the stall owners, on the many convoluted pedestrian streets connecting the picturesque main square with the outer walls of the medina, usually get as much enjoyment out if it as the buyers.

Getting lost in the medina is all too likely but is about the most trouble you are likely to encounter. The local police are extremely tolerant of tourists and drinking is permitted for the majority of the year. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of travelling to Morocco during Ramadan however is that the nightclubs and bars close and alcohol can only be purchased in restaurants and hotels.

Some of the bars that remained open, but didn’t sell alcohol, showed what a promising nightlife Morocco has to offer. One particular bar in the heart of Marrakech was beautifully adorned with local pottery on every wall and the non-alcoholic cocktails were delicious along with the live reggae music.  The local youth, I was informed, are beginning to change the course of tradition and drink regularly but for the older members of society, hashish is extremely popular. Although it is technically illegal, its consent in the Quran means that the police turn a blind eye and its smell, especially in Essaouira, is inescapable.

Outside of Marrakech in the Atlas Mountains, the wealth of the people is even lower than that of those in the medina; however these Berber people live their lives off the mountain. Their food is all grown and reared there and local carpet makers, who bring in the other main source of income here, are some of the last remaining to use the oldest forms of hand weaving.

The women do the majority of the work in the community, farming the land before weaving clothes and carpets and making food for the men. While they are still second class citizens, conversations with locals taught me that the women are well respected and have more rights here than in most Arabic countries. 

A trip up the mountains encapsulates perfectly the culture of the Berber Arabs who inhabit the rugged landscape. A bus from Marrakech will stop along the way at one of the traditional argon oil manufacturers to see the locals hand-pressing the oil or to buy some of the amber-preserved animals or metamorphic rocks from the mountain.

If you are lucky you might even see the famous goats of Morocco relaxing in the high branches of the argon trees. As you move closer to the mountain’s edge the bus will continue to ascend on meandering roads that allow only feet either side of the bus before a drastic cliff edge drops into the green abyss hundreds of metres below.

A camel trip at the base of the Atlas mountains

At the bottom of the mountain you disembark the vehicle and instead climb upon awaiting camels. Ours, Cappuccino and Michael Jackson, negotiated the large chasms and peaks of the lower mountainside far faster than we could have walked. Despite a few unnerving slips and scrambles of their long legs, the view of the jagged peaks above and the pond life below made the journey a pleasurable one.

After our one-humped dromedary camels knelt unceremoniously to indicate that they had reached their journey’s end, we opted to stretch our own legs and walk the remainder of the trip. Countless donkeys, colourfully adorned in local carpet and carrying local Berbers’ food and crafts, however, highlighted our leisurely pace.

The relaxed speed however allowed the beautiful scenery to be enjoyed. At just over 4,000 metres (4167m), at the Toubkal peak waterfall, the true majesty of the mountains can be enjoyed. Dotted and isolated across the vast hilly terrain are nine ancient villages. Each one an ecosystem in itself, the tall mosques of each soar above the compact brown areas of the antiquated houses among the otherwise green surroundings.

Half-way up, a local three-course meal of meaty tajines and lemon couscous with the crusty bread that is present at every single meal, overlooks the famous tiered paddy fields that seem to cling ominously on to the purple Precambrian cliffs and young boys can be seen herding their mountainous goats.

The serene beauty of these mountains, capped with snow, even during Morocco’s blistering heat, encapsulates the perfect juxtaposition of Marrakech in its hectic walled centre and its imperturbable hinterlands. In stark contrast to this mountainous landscape, but another picturesque and truly tranquil escape from the busy Marrakech, is a day trip to the Sahara desert.

After a long journey in an off road vehicle from the luxurious traditional riad-cum-hotels, camels await to bring you to the extremities of the vast desert, where quad bikes are optional to delve deeper into the outer crust of the dusty desert. Palm trees on the horizon break up what is otherwise a beautiful picture of nothingness. The parching effects of the open air in 40C heat highlights just how difficult Ramadan can be for those working in these conditions without food or water.

It is the new-fond appreciation of the Muslim people and faith that makes a trip to Morocco during Ramadan truly an experience worth having. That said, the experience is not for the faint-hearted or unadventurous and is not recommendable for those looking for an easy sunshine holiday.

During Ramadan the tourism industry comes almost to a standstill and as a result the authentic version of Morocco comes to the fore. If travel for you, as it is for me, is an opportunity to experience different cultures and traditions, then this is a trip worth taking.

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