A Guide to Customs and Etiquette in Morocco

As part of the Culture Shock! series published by the Graphic Arts Center in Portland, Oregon, Orin Hargraves has added his insight to this important series of guides for travelers who plan to visit, work or are just curious about living in other parts of the world. Hargraves brings his experience with the Peace Corp in Morocco to this book, and his approach to developing an understanding of the culture and customs, is a valuable contribution to travel literature.

Early in the book, Hargraves encourages visitors to leave behind any preconceived notions of what Morocco should be, and to experience the country on its own terms. Being a successful visitor requires an acceptance of others way of living, and their quality of life. He encourages language study before departure, for “if you speak only English, life in Morocco will very often be a struggle.” Therefore, sign up for French and Arabic classes before you embark on your trip. Understanding that Morocco is a poor country, and the Western sense of time and efficiency may not be viable, makes patience a definite virtue. To help the adaptation process, Hargraves recommends befriending someone of your own sex, who will act as a bridge to Morocco family and business life.

Location and Government

Morocco is located in the northwest corner of Africa, and, according to the author, is “intrinsically African.” The Sahara Desert is located in the northwestern portion of Morocco, and the Arab culture and language have heavily influenced the country. The indigenous people of Morocco were the Berbers and their communities can be found in the mountains of the country. European interests started in the 15th century, when Spain, Portugal, England and France set out to control the coastal areas. By the 19th century, the Europeans controlled Morocco and finally in 1912 France established a Protectorate (which was really a Colony), giving the French government control over all civil authority, foreign and economic policy.

It was not until 1956 that Moroccan sovereignty was restored to the Sultan and the country became independent. The US State Department Advisory for Morocco dated January 7, 2004 describes the country as a constitutional monarchy with a Parliament and independent judiciary, with the ultimate authority resting with the King, who, according to Hargraves, also carries the title of “Commander of the Faithful”, in recognition of his religious authority.

Religious Considerations

Morocco is home to both Muslim Fundamentalists and “Europeanized Moroccan”. The Fundamentalists reject everything Western, non-Islamic and modern as well as new, while the Europeanized Moroccans privately reject Islamic, Arabic and traditional mores. These two extremes provide an interesting environment for the traveler, and a challenge to finding the correct approach to the Moroccans one meets in everyday transactions.

Islam is a dominate force in the country and therefore “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet”; prayer occurs five times a day; it is important to give alms to the poor; fasting takes place during Ramadan and at least one pilgrimage to Mecca is a necessity. Islam provides Moroccans with a fatalist viewpoint with all events pre-ordained. This perspective translates into passivity and an acceptance of one’s position in life, for “If God wills” the situation; there is nothing that can be done, and there is no need for remorse, regret or blame.

According to Hargraves, Morocco is among the most liberal countries in the Islamic world, but there is a significant Fundamentalist group that strictly follows the Koran, which translates into rigid separation of the sexes, and in some cases, complete seclusion of women. The Fundamentalist influence is found in universities, where students are frustrated by the gap between rich and poor, which is perceived to be a result of Western and anti-Islamic influences. The Koran also limits the amount of education available to women.

Family

The family is at the core of all Moroccan activities, with work, friendship, love and even marriage taking second place. A Moroccan man may bring his new wife to live with his family, until the children arrive. Living alone in Morocco requires an explanation, and brings forth the remark of “meskin” or “poor thing.” Marriage is both an economic and social necessity, and parents play an active role in seeking appropriate partners for their children with the focus of the match-making on “good working relationships” and not on long-lasting love. If a woman has reached her 20s and it not married, it is assumed that she is no longer a virgin and would not make a suitable bride, so the pressure is on to get married at a very young age. According to the Koran, men are in charge of women, and a good woman is obedient; if she does not follow the rules, she can be admonished and banished. Leisure time for men in Morocco is spent at cafes, evening walks, enjoying the public baths and cinema, or watching sporting events. Where are the women? They probably are engaged in household endeavors such as cooking, cleaning and tending the children.

Saving Face

Hargraves found that Moroccans have a strong sense of “hshuma” or shame and because of this people should never be reprimanded in public, and even in private, the criticism should be indirect. Very often, intermediaries are used to convey displeasure, for the loss of face can negatively influence all future relationships. This need to “save face” is found in differences between public and private agreements, with one message sent during a meeting, and another meaning shared in private.

On One Hand, and On The Other

Another important point to note is the difference in the roles of your right and left hand; the right is used for shaking hands, eating out of a common dish, for drinking, offering of gifts, money and food; the left hand is for private business, including personal hygiene, and cleaning after using the toilet. Obviously, the left hand should never be used for handling or receiving any objects.

What to Drink and Eat

Islam forbids consumption of alcoholic beverages – but they are available and bars are found in the French built areas of the cities, but, according to Hargraves, they are “dives.” Hard liquor is imported, making it very expensive, although is available in foreigner’s commissaries and the “haunts of the urban bourgeoisie.” Local beer and wine have merit and Hargraves recommends Vieux Pape (red), Guerouane (red, rose and gris) and Valpiere (white). The coffee is excellent, and tea (especially green flavored with mint and heavily sweetened) is the national beverage. Shopping is good in the souqs (markets) and souwiqa (or little souq), as well as the neighborhood hanut (shop). More expensive than the souq, the marche is a French style market, for fruits and vegetables, meet, fish, and flowers and the supermarche is an indoor market with imported foods which are expensive and meet the needs of foreigners. The visitor will also find butchers, where meet is slaughtered according to Islamic dictates, which means it is freshly killed and cut to meet customer needs.

Scratch My Back

Tasks get accomplished in Morocco through the exchange of reciprocal favors, bribes and kickbacks, making it difficult for some Americans to do business in this country. Teachers may be approached to change a student’s grade, government clerks may be asked to expedite passports, and contracts may be awarded based on contacts and not on merit. By not participating in the common culture, opportunities may be lost, and Hargraves suggests a middle ground where personal contacts are developed and assistance provided whenever and wherever it does not comprise Western and corporate guidelines. Presenting yourself as a person with “incorruptible integrity” is acceptable, but if this position is ever compromised, you will be forever marked.

Doing Business

The government of Morocco does welcome foreign investments, and it is well positioned to develop economic relationships with Europe and the United States. There is discussion of creating a free trade zone similar to NAFTA that links Canada with Mexico and the United States. New banking and investment laws were passed in the 1990s to encourage the investment of foreign capital, and investment incentives are available, including tax set-asides and import duty exemptions. Procedures for entering into business in Morocco have been streamlined, and it has become easier to set up new enterprises in this country. Business executives looking for employees will find skilled craftsmen, unions (representing five percent of the full time workforce) as well as emigrants. However, only a small number of Moroccan businesses accept international credit cards and are principally found in the tourist area, including the four and five star hotels, better restaurants, expensive souvenir shops, and dealers in large Moroccan handicrafts. The Bank of Morocco is based on the French banking system, and is government controlled.

Transportation

Driving in Morocco is easy, for there are excellent roads, and car rentals are available, although expensive as compared to European prices. There are many car accidents, and the author recommends driving defensively, and with great caution. “Never assume that you have or will get the right of way when you and another driver are on the same course,” Hargrave recommends, for driving can be a battle and courtesy is not in large supply. Trains, built by the French, have been well maintained with first, second and third class seating available, although first class seats are recommended. There are CTM busses which are run by the government and private busses with loosely scheduled, but established routes. Royal Air Maroc operates domestic flights between major cities and resorts and there are 15 airports. Fares are cheaper than European air travel over comparable distances, with seasonal variations and occasional bargains.

Security

Theft and robbery are common in Morocco, and tourists are often the target. The US State Department reports a series of terrorist bombings that took place in Casablanca in May 2003 and finds the potential for violence against American interests and citizens to be high.

Security personnel in Morocco may place foreign visitors under surveillance, and it is best to maintain a very low profile while traveling and to not take photographs of anything that might be construed to be of military importance. The State Department also reports that some travelers have been befriended by persons of various nationalities, who offered them drugged food, drink and cigarettes. In addition, tourists may be harassed by unemployed Moroccans posing as guides, and prudent travelers will hire only official guides through hotels and travel agencies.

Thieves also bump cars from behind and rob their victims when they get out of the car to inspect the damage. While taxis and trains are generally crime free; buses are not. Unescorted women in any area of Morocco may experience verbal abuse and the US government recommends ignoring the comments, for women who have protested have been physically attacked.

Ready to Go

Morocco is a country that is attractive to the tourist looking for a new adventure and is willing and able to accept the differences between their own culture and that of the country they are visiting. Criticism and comparisons should not be made in public, and in private – only to very good friends. There are many travel opportunities to visit Morocco – and if personal prejudices can be put aside, there is every reason to enjoy a holiday in this developing part of the world.

Elinor Garely
eTurboNews New York

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