Morocco, Land of Endless Hassles – part 2
by John Massaro
MOROCCO IS WITHIN SLINGSHOT range of Spain, just across the Straits of Gibraltar, an hour by ferry from the sleepy port town of Algeciras. If its proximity to Europe lulls you into thinking that the atmosphere will be much the same, you’re in for quite a jolt, because the onslaught of hustlers, swindlers and dope peddlers begins within minutes of docking. Some travelers who arrive mentally unprepared simply can’t cope and take the next ferry back to Spain.
It’s a rough introduction to the Third World. I didn’t take the Tangier ferry, choosing to avoid what Mark Twain called “that African perdition” – modern travelers call it something else – and instead sailed to Ceuta, a tiny Spanish protectorate pasted on the Moroccan coastline. Here at least I could sip one last cafe con leche in peace before the short bus ride to the frontier post. The Spaniards waved me through and I walked over to Moroccan customs and passport control. I laughed after they handed me back my passport and noticed that one-third of the circular entry stamp had missed the page. Nothing surprised me as I looked around: the ripped up sidewalks, the wind-blown trash, the whiff of dry human crap, the crummy shop where I bought a liter of mineral water.
I was immediately approached by an ugly, unshaven hustler and his friend. There were taxis that shuttled between the border and Tetuan, a city twenty minutes away where the hustler was going. The taxis left as soon as five people filled them; we had to wait a few minutes for the fifth passenger. The friend told me I was lucky to be arriving today as the Berbers had come down from the hills for their colorful weekly market in Tetuan. I believed him because he wasn’t going there and didn’t seem to have anything to gain by lying. “See you lat-uh, alligat-uh,” he said as we pulled away. I laughed out loud and waved to him.
I sat next to the hustler in the back seat. He told me he had gone to Ceuta for his sister’s wedding. “That’s nice,” I said. He mentioned the Berber market again but I brushed it aside, now suspecting a ruse. By the end of my trip I had visited six towns where, if you can believe how uncanny my timing was, a Berber market just happened to be in progress the day of my arrival. I’m sorry to say, though, that I never took advantage of my incredible luck.
This is my definition of civilization: the ability of a people to form and maintain an orderly queue. It’s invariable: those countries where everyday life runs smoothly and which boast a high literacy rate and standard of living, are those where people can line up without any commotion, wherever that might be, and wait their proper turn. The more backward the country, the more anarchy you’ll see at a ticket counter. Morocco is a prime example. It’s impossible to convey in words the rage, the maddening frustration you feel when trying to purchase a bus ticket and you find yourself getting nowhere because men are shoving from the left, from the right, drilling in from behind – and meanwhile the seats are going fast. The ticket seller has no idea how long anyone has been waiting and doesn’t care. He’s confronted with three or four fists clutching bills pushing at him through the narrow window opening and responds to the one who shouts the loudest.
“You are still here?” the hustler asked in disbelief. I’d shaken him off fifteen minutes earlier when the Berber market failed to materialize, but now he was back and I felt I really needed him to get me a ticket, though I dreaded being indebted to him. It was a problem. Shouting angrily above the others in Arabic, he caught the attention of the ticket man and I fought my way to the window to hand over the money; I had my ticket to Chefchaouen, a lovely town of ochres, whites and pastel blues. He again offered to show me around the Berber market, claiming we had plenty of time to go there and return before my bus departed. I politely refused, saying I wanted to read my guidebook. He was persistent, as they all are, but finally he waved his hand at me in disgust and left. I sat on a bench in the waiting area outside and opened my book. An old hag sitting next to me asked me for a drink of water. I said no; I didn’t want her mouth on my bottle. When the hustler was out of sight I walked down the street looking for a place to eat. I found a small restaurant and bought a sandwich of grilled chicken, rice and vegetables, my first meal in the country; it was surprisingly good.
I asked a policeman where I could find a bank. A young man nearby overheard me and offered to take me there. There was no use objecting. We found the bank but the line for currency exchange was way too long and I left, cursing myself for changing only $20 at the border where the rate was the same and there had been no wait. This hustler wanted to show me the famous phantom Berber market too, with an added bonus: I could see women having their chins tattooed with henna. I insisted on returning to the bus station, and he insisted on taking me to another bank and then to the Berber market. “I am not guide, only want to be your friend, to practice English,” he explained, producing a card which showed his enrollment in an English language course. He clung to me for eight blocks, trying to direct my movements. I spoke to him in a friendly way, but the whole time marched resolutely to the bus station. Finally he slapped me on the back, said, “Good luck,” and drifted off.
I went through this routine every day. The worst places were Fez and Marrakesh. Until I’d spent a few days in the interior, in smaller towns like Azrou, Er-Rachidia and Ouarzazate, I was convinced that Moroccans were a collectively loathsome people. Why had I never encountered such constant hassles – I mean hassles that just never end – in any other Arab country? I later concluded that tourism is to blame; in that sense Morocco differs only in degree from other exotic, impoverished lands. No other exotic country in the world is so easily accessible, however; few Westerners require visas, it’s dirt cheap, fascinating, and an excursion from Spain is as simple as driving to work, and so they arrive on the ferry in droves. Millions more fly in from England, France and Germany on tour packages. Those arriving from Spain must pass through Tetuan or Tangier; most will visit Fez and virtually no one leaves without making the pilgrimage to Marrakesh. With so much interaction between the haves and have-nots, confrontations are inevitable, especially in the two last-named cities. But I still ask myself, why is this behavior absent – in my experience, at least – in Egypt, the other huge tourist destination in the Arab world? I must say that in the smaller Moroccan towns it’s not as bad. The hustlers are still there but they’re not as obnoxious, and it’s possible to meet nice people.
At the end of my 23 days in Morocco I was glad for having gained a wider perspective on the country by spending time away from the major tourist attractions, and also for getting through it relatively unscathed. The key is to remain friendly and talkative with hustlers, while also showing confidence, giving the impression that you’re going to do things your way no matter what. Those who display anger or fear can find themselves in tense situations. In Chefchaouen I met a young German fellow who was frightened to death of Morocco. He’d been in the country only three days but intended to return to Spain. Too bad because on this day there was a festival where all the townspeople killed a lamb inside their homes and had a feast; the buses weren’t running and the few operating taxis were charging astronomical rates. We were going different ways but we were both stuck there, so we hung around and enjoyed each other’s company. He said it was his first time traveling alone and he was scared all the time, especially when dealing with hustlers. He reacted to them with stony silence, believing this to be the best approach. I told him that only made them more aggressive when they sensed his fear, that it was much better to chat it up, as annoying as they were. Just then a sleazy man walked up to us and said, “Parlez-vous francais?” “Quoi?” (“What?”) my companion replied. “You speak English?” the bum asked. “Quoi?” the German boy repeated. He spoke both English and French, but he pretended to be puzzled by the questions, which the Moroccan took as mockery. “Quoi?” “Quoi?” “Quoi?” he mimicked, his voice rising in volume and anger each time he repeated the word, before cutting loose with some awful-sounding Arabic. Then he left. I didn’t say anything, but I think my point was well-taken. I hope he got back to Spain okay.
(to be continued)
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Source: End the Shots