Before I go any further, know that the Morocco in Casablanca and the Casablanca in Casablanca are not real, or at least they no longer exist. But what the movie did get right is the overwhelming French influence here, one that is if anything more prominent than in the movie. Knowing Arabic would be helpful here, but if you speak French it will serve you far better traveling around Morocco.
Casablanca was made in 1942, so there are obviously elements of it that are tone deaf by today’s standards. There is no Rick’s Café Americain and no world of expat intrigue, but Morocco today is a better version of the world in the movie, one that still has character and ambiance and a cultural mishmash that, luckily, no longer includes Nazis and caricatured French policemen.
Overall, Morocco was way more developed than I was expecting. Driving into Marrakech, it felt like driving through inland California, with clean strip malls with McDonald’s and FedEx and Office Depot and the other usual suspects. But evidence of still-to-come development sneaks up on you, too. In Casablanca, the slums are along the waterfront less than 100 yards from the largest mall in Africa, complete with the requisite IMAX theater. Each of the Moroccan cities I visited had a very distinct personality and the first, Marrakech, is the sleekest.
Moroccan history boils down to a revolving door of Arab and Berber dynasties, the Berbers being the ethnic group native to Northern Africa. Though no longer the capital, Marrakech served as the imperial city for four dynasties, most recently in the 17th century. Based on what I saw of Morocco, Marrakech is the place to go for glamour and sophistication, the Morocco you see in architectural magazines. There’s a reason the fashion industry and interior designers obsess over this aesthetic; Moroccan handicrafts and design are impeccable in their subtle luxuriousness and attention to detail, from textiles and jewelry, to mosaic floors, ornate columns, and carved caligraphy on buildings. Everything about it is effortlessly sophisticated.
The Bahia Palace is the epitome of this design philosophy. The 19th century palace was built by Si Moussa, the grand vizier of the sultan, and has all the luxe markings of traditional Spanish Moorish and Islamic design, and is modeled in the style of Moroccan riads, with the rooms surrounding opening courtyards in the middle of the building.
The medina is the point of interest in a lot of Moroccan cities. In countries in North Africa, the medina is just the old part of the city, almost always walled in. The medina in Marrakech dates to the 11th century and still has all the hallmarks of a traditional medina: a communal oven, a hammam bath, and a Koranic school (a madrasa). In general, I think Islamic architecture is really beautiful and does not go overboard with gaudy details like you see in some newer Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist places of worship, but the Ben Youssef Madrasa is particularly stunning.
I’ll talk more about the medina environment in general in Fes because the medina there is much better preserved and more active today, but you still get an idea of what life was like in Morocco hundreds of years ago, and what it’s still like today. The Marrakech medina is popular among tourists, but it’s still a real place where real people live and shop, work, go to school, and socialize.
At the center of the medina is Jemaa el-Fnaa square, one of those notorious squares in the world with every activity under the sun taking place there. This used to be a trading hub for merchants in the city, but today, not so much.
The reality is this is just a hub of animal exploitation—see the snake charmers and men with chained monkeys in Messi jerseys for photo ops—and con men in the form of fortune tellers and various hooligans dressed up in a colonialist’s fantasy of a Moroccan person. Everything about this is a no. It’s not interesting or authentic. It’s repulsive and just a gross place full of tourists and the people scamming them, and totally not an appropriate complement to the medina itself, which is full of interesting activity and gives you something of an idea of life in Marrakech.
Marrakech is near the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains, where a lot of traditional villages still exist. This is a very different Morocco and kind of reminded me of the Himalayan mountain culture you see in places like Bhutan or Nepal (I am obsessed with Bhutan if you missed my love letter to it back in September). There’s something initially idyllic about these villages. People have 270-degree views of the valley out the window of their mud-and-stone houses, and the scenery is incredible. Richard Branson runs a hotel in a renovated kasbah nearby. But there’s of course a lot that’s not romantic about this area. Tourism and trekking have brought money into the region, but opportunities are still limited, education is scarce, illiteracy is common, and these are the kinds of villages that you wonder if they’ll even still exist in 50 years, for good or bad.
Of the cities I saw in Morocco, Marrakech felt like the newest, even though it’s not, but it still has that charm that I think will satisfy someone’s idea of typical Morocco. It definitely felt like the most livable city that I saw and the atmosphere was just generally pretty cosmopolitan in a way I didn’t encounter elsewhere. At the same time, it can feel like a sterile version of Morocco. Outside the medina, it can be hard to know exactly where you are because much of Marrakech feels generically developed. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, but the atmosphere is a little wanting at times. Something you cannot accuse Fes of lacking.
If there’s one place in Morocco where you might find Humphrey Bogart brooding and smoking in a corner, it would be in Fes. The word “atmospheric” was invented to describe things like the medina in Fes. It’s predictably buzzing in its controlled, chaotic sort of way and every aspect of the medina makes its impression on you one way or another: the smell of the leather tannery, the calls to prayer, the smoke from a guy cooking tagines, the sound of looms clicking, the colorful scarves rustling against the wall where the merchant has hung them. It’s the kind of atmosphere someone making a movie about Morocco could only hope to replicate, and the variety of activity and sights and smells is totally cinematic.
The medina in Fes is huge and still dominates much of the city. Whereas in Marrakech it felt like you had to make an effort to get to the medina, in Fes you have to try to leave it. There are newer parts of the city, and the old Jewish neighborhood is still preserved, but the metaphoric and geographic heart of the city is the medina. More than 150,000 people still live there today.
This medina is even older than in Marrakech, dating back to the 9th century, and is where you’ll find the oldest continuously operating university in the world, University of al-Qarawiyyin, which was actually founded by Tunisian refugees in 859. Rabat is now the capital of Morocco; Fes was the city that preceded it and it still feels like the cultural capital of the country.
Around Fes is a region with a lot of Morocco’s Roman history. Those Romans, they really got around. Having just come from Turkey, I have a particular appreciation for just how big their empire was. I took a five-hour flight and I’m still seeing Roman ruins, which helps quantify the scope of the Roman Empire in a way a map in history class doesn’t.
Volubilis, aside from having a name that’s fun to say, is an ancient Roman city outside Fes that was once the capital of the Kingdom of Mauretania. The city was in pretty good condition until an earthquake in 1755 that pretty well wrecked the place. The epicenter of that earthquake was in Lisbon 350 miles away, which gives you an idea of how strong it was.
If you didn’t know any better, you’d think Volubilis was in Tuscany. The setting is almost stereotypically Roman with gentle green hills sparsely dotted with trees surrounding the plateau on which the city sits. The French have been intermittently excavating Volubilis for almost 200 years and after my thorough explanation of Ephesus in Turkey, I don’t think it’s necessary or even interesting to go into depth about Volubilis because Roman cities definitely follow a pattern and all the usual stuff is there. Volubilis is special though in that it still has the marble basin remains of the vomitorium, something that is pretty self-explanatory given that the Romans loved to eat and drink to excess, and the wealthy ones didn’t do a whole lot else.
The nearest living town to Volubilis is Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, which has its own interesting history. The name comes from Moulay Idriss I, the guy who brought Islam to Morocco in 789 who is buried there, making the town a sacred spot for Moroccan Muslims. Away from the more tourist-heavy medinas in Fes and Marrakech, the medina in Moulay Idriss Zerhoun is much smaller and quieter, with literally nothing that caters to tourists.
Finally, Meknes is the other major town in the region that became the capital of the Alaouite dynasty under Moulay Ismail in 1672. Everything left from that era is basically just a testament to what a ruthless guy he was. Ismail was a big fan of horses, so much so that he had 12,000 that he kept in an enormous stable inside the city walls. What’s left of the royal stables is essentially a bunch of stone arches, but he seems to have taken a lot better care of his horses than half the city.
On the other side of the medina is the Bab Mansour gate. It was supposed to be the most beautiful gate in the world, but it barely seems like the best gate in town. It’s so unmemorable by Moroccan gate standards—which sounds stupid but there are a lot of very cool gates—that I didn’t even take a picture of it. Apparently Ismail felt similarly because when he asked the architect, El-Mansour, if he could do better, the guy answered yes, thinking the sultan just wanted him to build another gate. That infuriated Ismail, who executed El-Mansour on the grounds that El-Mansour hadn’t actually tried hard enough if he said he could do better.
To get a sense of “true Morocco,” whatever that means, Fes is your best bet. At night, the medina feels like a place from a different era, like a less quixotic, Moroccan version of Midnight in Paris. The very practical downside to this is that of course there are problems that such well-preserved history creates in modern society. Overcrowding is a huge problem in the medina and I can tell just by looking around that the infrastructure is poor and surely not a good situation for the residents there. I don’t bring this up to try to downgrade Fes, but at the same time, as a visitor I think it would be tempting to romanticize the Old World charm of a place like Fes and overlook why it might not be so great for Moroccans living there now.
If you’re not a diplomat, there’s not a lot going on in Rabat. The coastal city is the capital of Morocco and has that very no-nonsense atmosphere of a political city. The medina here is not particularly memorable, nor very well preserved in comparison to Fes. The coolest thing here, and arguably the only cool thing here, is the Kasbah of the Udayas.
A kasbah is essentially a variation on a medina and the one in Rabat is of interest because of its doors. I feel like “Doors of Morocco” is a print you can buy at any cheap poster shop, so while it’s totally cliché, it’s true. A lot of people still live in the Kasbah and today it’s essentially just a walled neighborhood, like a 12th-century gated community, but with a lot of tourists.
So with that, let’s move on to Morocco’s other city of little interest.
For a place whose very name conjures images of old-school Hollywood romance, Casablanca is pretty unremarkable in almost every way. It’s Morocco’s most important port city and the center of commerce in the country so like Rabat, it can feel sanitized and uninspired to someone not doing business there. Casablanca was also never one of the imperial capitals of Morocco, so its sense of living history is not really there the way it is in Fes or Marrakech.
Because there is money here, a lot of Casablanca looks like the Hollywood Hills with palatial villas behind huge white stucco walls and your usual upscale restaurants and whatnot to boot. The other part of the city, the majority of it, is either completely undeveloped and covered in trash, or poorly and only partially developed, and covered in trash. I’m really only talking about this because if you go to Morocco, you can’t at least mention Casablanca, so consider it mentioned.
Today the city’s most interesting feature is Hassan II Mosque. It absolutely dominates the skyline of Casablanca and it’s brand new. The previous king put the plans in motion to build the mosque in 1980 and it was eventually finished in 1993. This is a really beautiful mosque. It’s built on the edge of the city overlooking the water and the construction and design are both stunning. The inside has shades of Versailles, but the outside is a showcase of world-class craftsmanship.
Not surprisingly, this was not a cheap project, estimated at 600 million euro, which is well into the billions in US dollars today. That’s not great to begin with in a country that could use 600 million euros to address, shall we say, more practical concerns. However, the project was largely funded by private donations, which would be a great solution except that what that really meant was a program of government extortion to get people to donate to the construction. Five dirhams (equivalent to 50 cents today) was the minimum donation, which as you’d probably guess is not an insignificant amount of money for someone living well below the poverty level. So nicely done, you guys.
Morocco is similar to Turkey in that it’s a place with an identity crisis. They don’t really want to be African (you have to actively remind yourself this is an African country), but they don’t want to yoke themselves too closely to the Arab world, lest they annoy the French, who they have a very positive view of. But as an Islamic country, they have an interest in maintaining close ties with the rest of the Arab world, which isolates them somewhat from the French. It’s a complicated issue to be sure, and this manifests in interesting ways. I noticed that Moroccans tend to be racist toward “black Africans,” a term applied to people from Mali, for example, which I think perhaps has something to do with their ambivalence about how they fit into the African continent, culturally speaking.
As far as Islamic countries go, they’re moderately conservative. Headscarves among Moroccan women are not ubiquitous, but I was harassed a lot by men. Those sound like two unrelated things, but I think there’s a connection there. Women have a certain degree of freedom here not afforded in other Muslim countries, but they’re still relegated members of society, regardless of what the law or people on the street tell you; women were not allowed to file for divorce until 2000.
I don’t know what the law is in Jordan on issues like that, but even though local women dressed just as conservatively in Jordan as they tend to in Morocco, they seemed to have more agency and freedom than Moroccan women. That’s not meant to be a pejorative comment on Morocco, but they tend to think of themselves as very open-minded and while that’s not completely untrue, they are not the most laidback country in the Islamic world based on my experience.
I came to Morocco with very low expectations because I’d talked to a lot of people who had a lot of experience traveling in the developing world and were really unenthusiastic about Morocco. It’s hard to come up with a list of specific complaints, but people in general seemed to react with “Oh, Morocco…” By contrast, I’ve never met anyone who’s been to India and didn’t light up at the mention of it, so I don’t think this was a matter of Westerners being uncomfortable and squeamish about traveling in places outside the cocoon of the developed world.
I really enjoyed Morocco and I wouldn’t grimace if someone mentioned it to me in the future, but I understand where critics of it are coming from. There’s something about it that sometimes just doesn’t sit right, and that has nothing to do with any Western prejudices I might have about what equality means in a society; we’re far from perfect in achieving equality in the U.S. in thousands of ways.
What I found odd was just this unwillingness to talk about, this insistence that they are so tolerant and open-minded when general attitudes about women and people from other African countries is not particularly open-minded or tolerant, if not overtly hostile and oppressive. I don’t think any country has figured out how to manage this inherent hypocrisy, but the one thing I think you can say about a place like the U.S. is that at least a lot of us are willing to talk about it, and willing to admit we’ve fallen short of our ideals.
As a female Western traveler in Morocco, you will be harassed, not so much maliciously but incessantly. This happens in Italy or Spain too, but I see why that would sour people on the experience of traveling here.
I have a hard time making up my mind about Morocco because it’s such a mixed bag. I really loved it at first but something about it kind of wore on me after a while. I felt similarly about Vietnam. There’s something intangibly just a little disconcerting about it. In Vietnam, the pressures of the communist government became more of an inconvenience the longer I was there; in Morocco, I found the hypocrisies increasingly difficult to handle, which is not really fair because every place on earth is full of inherent hypocrisies.
The one thing I will say is that the tourists in Morocco are a special brand of annoying. What follows is a rant, so feel free to skip it if you can’t stand my pontificating. As I said earlier, the general architecture in Morocco, particularly the doors, is unusually beautiful, so naturally every girl between the ages of 15 and 25 views every doorway as a photo shoot opportunity. Bitching about millennials is hands down the most curmudgeonly, “get off my lawn” thing ever, but I can’t just stand by. This aggression will not stand. Please, selfie stick owners and study abroad students visiting Marrakech on spring break, can you just not? Nothing about that profile picture will be original. Observe the page on Instagram for the Ben Youssef Madrasa in Marrakech.
Now with that out of the way, I just don’t know. Would I ever discourage someone from visiting Morocco? Definitely not. Would I go back? Yes, but of everywhere I’ve been, it would be near the bottom of my list for a repeat visit. Which I can’t fully justify! I think I spoke pretty highly of it above, but I just didn’t totally jive with Morocco.
So one can only end a trip to Morocco in Paris, so that is where I am now and where the next phase of my trip begins. Starting Friday I’ll have a Renault and three months to see the Continent and if ever you’re wondering where I’m going next, so am I. This part of the trip is very unstructured so if you know a lot about Europe, speak now. Tell me about that random Danish village you found that one time. I’ll start by working my way south through France and we’ll see where it goes from there.