MOROCCO: A Destination For Happy Endings…

A group of people climbing the fence that separates the borders of Morocco and the Spanish territory of Melilla in an attempt to migrate to Spain, on April 3, 2014. (Blasco Avellaneda/AFP/Getty Images) A group of people climbing the fence that separates the borders of Morocco and the Spanish territory of Melilla in an attempt to migrate to Spain, on April 3, 2014. (Blasco Avellaneda/AFP/Getty Images)
A group of people climbing the fence that separates the borders of Morocco and the Spanish territory of Melilla in an attempt to migrate to Spain, on April 3, 2014. (Blasco Avellaneda/AFP/Getty Images)

The term ‘happy-ending” is ambiguous at best. Depending on who you are, where you are from and your perspective in life a happy ending could infer an illicit activity, behaviour or inversely it could mean something sweet, innocent, and wonderfully miraculous.  Be that as it may, Morocco’s third largest city and tourism capital  Marrakesh, has all the happy endings you can dream of.

LET YOUR HEART DECIDE

Picture the spirit of Marrakesh through the words sung by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle in the song “A whole new world”, a soundtrack for the 1992 Walt Disney animation fantasy film “Aladdin”.

“I can show you the world, shining shimmering splendid, tell me princess, now when did you last let your heart decide? I can open your eyes take you wonder by wonder, over sideways and under on a magic carpet ride.  A whole new world, a new fantastic point of view. No one to tell us no or where to go or say we’re only dreaming”. A whole new world (don’t you dare close your eyes) A hundred thousand things to see – (hold your breath it gets better). I’m like a shooting star, I’ve come so far… I can’t go back to where I used to be….” 

It is these words which spring to mind as I reflect on my recent week-long trip to Marrakesh – Morocco.  It is surprising to me that I didn’t think of it at the time, because, it’s a song which best describes my experience of the country.  But in that week I was entirely focused on something else. In fact there was no room to wonder. I had been given, offered, an opportunity to tell a story which I had been training and preparing for retrospectively for the past 13 years. In a competition initiated by the African Media Initiative (AMI) called The African Story Challenge   aimed at improving the quality of news stories in the continent.   By this time I knew that there was more to see than I could ever see and more to do than I could ever do. My heart had decided on what was most important to me and the story was all I could think about. I had enough on my proverbial plate, and was, as a result content to remain within the tall palm trees and the beautiful landscape at the Pullman Resort and Hotel were we had been booked.

MAKE A SHOPPING WISH

Before travelling to Morocco, I did a bit of online trolling to see if there was anything tourism related which I’d love to do or see whilst there. The souks and historic Mosques and buildings popped up prominently as popular tourist destinations. Online pictures of course looked magical, an amalgam of colours, and endless choices of shiny trinkets which reminded me of markets in Egypt. I had accompanied a colleague of mine to one of them en-route to Syria some years ago.  She needed to buy Louis Vuitton bags for her relatives back home, but she didn’t want to go shopping alone and I was the only person willing to go with her.  After what seemed like hours of walking around, the novelty of the souks quickly wore off.  I felt as though I had been swallowed into a rabbit hole of monotonous stalls, shops, wares and people so much so, I could no longer tell my left from right. Everyone beckoned, begged, bickered, haggled, hustled, insisted, in an effort to lure customers into their shop, for the best price for this, good quality that, cheapest this you could ever find in the world. The alleyways were narrow, hot and crowded. Everything started to look identical, the heat was suffocating, and the vibrant noise was loud enough to silence the sound of my heart beat.  I had no energy to engage in endless banter or mindless negotiations for goods I knew I had no intention to purchase. I just smiled and laughed the rest of the way, the least offensive response to people hard at work, making a living. No amount of no thank you would stop them.  Egyptians were relentless negotiators.

ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY

By the time I was physically walking through one of those Moroccan souks in Marrakesh – accompanying a colleague who was eager to experience what Moroccan Markets had to offer and needed some company I was claustrophobic. As we walked through the popular tourists square Djemma El f-na  the crowded evening streets, meandering through the mosque, horse driven carriages, through to the main square where musicians, magicians, fortune tellers, snake charmers and artisans employed their best tricks for a dirham – I realized that I had no desire to see more. Perfumes, scarves, clothes, carpets, lamps, lamp shades, fabric, electronic gadgets, everything for sale, I had seen before countless times. I committed instead to enjoying the experience through the eyes of my colleague who was curiously excited about the new-ness of everything and was in  search for a special gift for a special friend back home.

FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD

The food stalls near the entrance of the souk were, bright and honestly very inviting. Mountains of fruits and vegetables, fish, beef, lamb kebabs, seafood, pizza, pasta, patisseries, burgers, pita bread, all lit brightly and prepared while you wait were hard to resist. Maybe a taste of something, I thought to myself.  The food stalls reminded me of food quarters in Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon.  It suddenly occurred to me  as we  meandered through the different  stalls and I feeling a  bit like a famous movie star who was being pursued by the  “paparazzi”, who all shouted  enticingly with animated hand gestures, inviting me with their gleaming eyes,and striking smiles on bright young faces begging me to  “please join us for dinner, please come this way, madam please” while  ignoring my please of  “no thank you, I’m not hungry’ responses as if  I  were speaking a language they didn’t recognize. It was only then, in that totally unrelated haze that I realized – I hardly ate in Beirut.  I cannot remember what Lebanese food tastes like.  A late colleague of mine, Dudley Saunders, a camera-man who had been in Beirut for a while before we arrived had organized a fixer in the city who invited us to a place said to serve the most delicious food in town. It was full, lively, and vibrant, people were talking and shouting everywhere, food was in abundance the tables were overflowing. The atmosphere was electric for lack of a better word, people’s faces were animated with laughter and loud passionate conversations about war. It was June 2006 the hottest summer in Lebanon. We had just walked down from a five-star hotel chain Les Commodores Hotel, where we were staying for a few days.  The hotel is famous for its 50 year history of hospitality to international journalists and reporters in the centre of the Amhara business district. The festive scene, the hustle and bustle of waiters traipsing back and forth like busy buzzing bees between tables, serving plates piled high with falafel, shwarmas, Tabbouleh, pitta bread lamb, chicken on rice, coca cola and sprite in an endless list of food items on the menu, all of it belied the fact that just a few kilometres away people were dying. The festiveness of the restaurant did not give an impression that just south of the city rockets were being fired, there were no signs that Lebanon was under attack.  So even though the food looked deliciously inviting in Marrakesh – I had no appetite for any of it.

PEOPLE AND PAPERS

I considered writing one or two news stories about Morocco’s migration policies  in the absence of a tourist activity worth pursuing within that short space of time. I had read news articles of Moroccans specifically targeting, assaulting, abusing and tormenting sub-Saharan Africans from neighbouring countries such as Mali, Guinea and Senegal. “ Moroccans are racists” warned a  friend before my trip “they don’t consider themselves African, even though the country is on the continent of Africa” She insisted “Cover up, it’s a Muslim country” she advised.  It seemed there was an endless number of news stories to pursue.   Moroccan authorities had refused entry visas to artists traveling by road from Lagos, Nigeria en-route to Sarajevo called the Invisible Borders Trans-African. The project which has been running since 2009, aims to document life and movement on the continent and use that information to create art for Africans by Africans. Invisible Boarders founder and director Immeka Okereke said they hoped to open up a dialogue between Europeans and Africans to re-negotiate the imaginary and physical borders between the two continents. But it seemed Morocco – a gateway country to Europe – was under pressure to further tighten its borders. Which meant that that migrants and or travelers from sub-Saharan countries would face even tighter restrictions for travel and those that didn’t have the required papers or permission for entry  did so illegally and hundreds have lost their lives in the process.

ON A NATURAL HIGH

Morocco is also a source, destination and transit country for drug trafficking. It is known to many as the hashish capital of the world, though a recent study by Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy &Kenza Afsahi “Hashish Revival in Morocco”- reports that Hashish production levels have fallen by 65% percent in the past decade. Even so Morocco is currently the second largest producer of Hashish and exporter of the drug after Afghanistan.  The drug is offered fairly openly by peddlers in the souk who I heard calling out “hashish! Do you want some Hashish” to a group of American tourists who were loudly incensed and offended by the insinuation.  This exchange which I found humours I witnessed with my ears during my second trip to the souks in Marrakesh.  This time I was with three colleagues who were eager to experience the what Marrakesh had to offer. And since I had been there before I was invited to come as a “guide”.  “The square is shaped like a star, I know exactly how to navigate the space, we are not lost” said one of them as we walked aimlessly in circles on the outskirts of the city. There were no tourists milling about in that area, and  after a while, the fear of the unknown  trickled down with the stcky sweat on our bodies. Two of  our colleagues decided to ask for directions “Just to confirm that we’re in the right direction” from local boys who were willing to show us the way for 50 Dirhams or a full packet of Marlboro cigarettes.  It seemed like forever before we emerged back to where we had started and the search was now  for  a restaurant to sit, and cool down  after two hours of walking.  My colleagues yearned for a cold pint of Beer, but Morocco is a Muslim country: alcohol consumption is strictly forbidden and highly regulated for tourists who can only drink it in secluded or well covered licenced international hotels and restaurants at very high prices.  Sweet Mint tea is the preferred national beverage.

THE HONEYMOON

After our walk around the food stalls and the market it was hard to imagine what it is that makes Morocco such an attractive holiday destination for hundreds and thousands of people especially tourists from Britain, France and Europe each year.  But for those who can afford it, those who had  copious amounts of money to spend Morocco is a place of dreams. Even Hollywood actor George Clooney was rumoured to be honeymooning in an undisclosed location in Morocco with his new wife Amal Alamuddin.  Morocco is popular with LGBTQI travelers who can enjoy time spent luxurious in  Hammams across the city(steam room similar to a Turkish baths where Moroccans habitually go each week to cleanse themselves and each other) While same-sex relationships are forbidden in Morocco – the separate lives between men and women in Morocco  (and most Muslim countries) makes it a perfect environment for  people in same sex relationships to enjoy each other freely without any judgement or suspicion.  Men and women take Hamman baths  separately.   There are  many  Hamman Hotels and spas which cater for all kinds of tourists  looking to experience something new. And if  you’re not unfortunate enough to be caught like the 69 year old British tourist Ray Cole who was detained for four months for ‘homosexual acts”  – you can also order a massage with a Happy Ending!

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