I cannot even tell you how long I’ve been waiting to share my photos from Morocco with you all – every time I look at my Instagrams from those last two weeks of our Europe-Africa trip, I miss the sweet mint tea, gritty dry heat, crystal hustlers and being covered head to toe. Then, life takes over and my millions of SD cards take a backseat. But today, in Sydney, I’m slowly wilting and my computer is screaming in heatstroke – so, here’s to wishing I were back in Northern Africa during Ramadan, trying to find some meaning in my broken (non-Arabic) French.
Chefchaouen was our first real Moroccan stop after spending a night in the scatterbrained Northern port of Tangier, meeting Youssef (our brilliant guide – we seriously lucked out), and exploring Hercules’ Cave and Asilah before a nail-biting and winding road up to a little blue town nestled in the waist of a mountain fifty times larger. The town is out of the way of a usual Moroccan Imperial Cities route – it adds at least 24 hours of driving time to your itinerary, but our choosing it was no rookie error. Certainly, even a night or half a day here is worth the fuel and detour. Only in Morocco, can you find indigo paint pigment as vivid and as enduring as this shade. And, as much as Yves Saint Laurent’s Majorelle Gardens made the lapis lazuli pigment famous, only in Chefchaouen is every concrete surface drenched in blinding and baby blues – an Impressionist’s dream, as far as I’m concerned.
And, it keeps the mosquitoes away, said Youssef. Even my jungle deet isn’t doing half as good a job in Sydney tonight.
Being a step down in population from Tangier’s port and even Asilah’s tourist throngs, Chefchaouen was a place of firsts for us. We did our first fast and enjoyed our first Ramadan Iftar, succumbed to sweet talking rug salesmen and thanked or damn lucky stars that a 30kg rug was not physically feasible (for I surely would have been guilted into dropping Dirhams on at least three), and here, I bought my first proper headscarf and, with Youssef’s thorough and patient answers to my questions, began to understand the mentality of a Muslim woman.
Not to say that I was completely ignorant before my arrival – I had packed my fair share of long pants, jumpsuits and head covers in preparation (Princess Di taught me well). But it was first in Chefchaouen that this display of cultural respect went a long way. For all of the forewarning I’d received from friends on the aggression of men in Morocco and gender inequality, I experienced none of that. Curious stares, yes – Asian tourists (let’s be honest), don’t pass through Morocco too often. But racism? Sexism? None. Only the most incredible hospitality I’d experienced in my whole six weeks abroad, and an intrigued hunger for knowledge about Australia and Asia. I didn’t even get pick-pocketed.
Women are not forced to wear anything, said Youssef. If they want to wear a niqab, a burqa, a hijab… nobody will comment. It’s a reflection of your personality and perhaps how progressive or traditional you and your family are, but it’s no longer a written rule. Certainly, I saw a good number of girls and women in some bigger cities with not only no headgear, but also shorter hemlines and uncovered shoulders. And what about foreigners? What are the rules for us? Youssef looked at my new blue scarf in the rearview mirror of the car: it’s against my culture to disrespect your choices. Then, a cheeky grin – but you should protect yourself from the sun.
The next day in Merzouga, I passed a tour group of American college girls in strapless tube tops and short shorts. A week later, while surfing in Taghazout, I wore shorts for the first time since I arrived in Morocco and felt completely naked and utterly offensive. I cringed and understood any reaction that those precautionary friends had received in past trips to this vibrant corner of the world. With temperatures as high as 43 Celcius, of course it would be acceptable in Sydney to be lounging outside in a dress that should be a top (as I am now) – hell, in Corsica, you could be topless at much lower mercury. But in Morocco (and any such similar location, for that matter), you endure some mild discomfort as a way of acknowledgement that you actually care.
You should try it.