This was the second visit to Morocco and although essentially quite similar Fez was significantly different to Marrakech with fewer tourists and much less evidence of western influence. We were quite clear and fully aware that we were temporary guests in an Arab country with a wholly different culture to Europe.
I use the term guests in a wider sense here because it was clear that in some places we were tolerated rather than welcomed, taken advantage of rather than warmly embraced and mostly kept at arm’s length, treated with suspicion and excluded. The Riad was different from the streets because the owners were French and the staff were mostly Christian Armenian so there was a certain European atmosphere but once outside the front door it was a different world altogether.
Earlier in the journal I told you how we were unwelcome in the holy city of Moulay Idriss, so much so that Abdul, the taxi driver wouldn’t stop for even a moment or two for a sightseeing walk through the intriguing streets but there were other exclusion zones in both Fez and Meknes. These were the Mosques and although we could look through the open doors and windows we were certainly not allowed to step over the threshold. I find this difficult to understand, apparently even the prophet Muhammad invited Christians to pray in a mosque before meeting with them but it seems that attitudes have changed and intolerance has become an Arab religious characteristic. I am forced to compare this with our own balanced approach which certainly (I hope) wouldn’t exclude a Moroccan visitor to the UK entering, for example, Westminster Abbey or any other religious building.
I really liked the experience of the souks, the colours, the merchandise and the sounds, sights and smells which filled the senses to overflowing, a mad overdose of random commotion which left us giddy from the experience but on the down side shopping was a nightmare. The shopkeepers were persistent, rude and irritating with no concessions made to the European way of shopping, no browsing allowed and eye contact instantly interpreted as a desire to haggle and buy so whilst we could see, hear, smell and taste we certainly couldn’t touch.
Most shopkeepers clearly see European tourists as fair game and the collective objective is clearly to separate them from their cash as quickly as possible. If I want to buy, say, a pair of shoes, I want to look in all of the shops and compare the styles and the prices but in the Moroccan Souks everyone wants to pester me into making a hasty decision before I am ready which is rather self defeating for them because feeling uncomfortable, unfamiliar and intimidated I buy nothing and spend no money.
Worst of all are the groups of young boys and men who hang around the streets preying on puzzled tourists and offering their services as guides. Even when you say no they persist and hang on like barnacles and are extremely difficult to shake off. I told you about the visit to the restaurant which had been recommended to us (and for which he was taking a commission) but even so other men insisted on accompanying us to the front door and then tried to claim the percentage cut for themselves. During the meal the waiter even brought a boy to our table to ask if he had made the recommendation that he was claiming. This naturally makes things surprisingly expensive because street economics appear to be based on tips, backhanders and commission and with every one taking a share this inevitably forces prices up.
Don’t get me wrong because on balance I enjoyed the experience of Fez, the Riad was excellent, the food was good, the sightseeing was unexpected and we were treated with courtesy and respect by everyone associated with the Riad but I have seen Morocco now and I think it may be some time before I return to North Africa as we resume our travels through Europe.