After Casablanca and Fes, we had the opportunity to do a tour of Morocco with a driver and guide- Mohamed and Lessen.
We travelled together over 1,400 km and talked throughout the trip about culture, religion and the way of life here. Population wise, Morocco is a bit smaller than Canada (33 million in Morocco versus 35 million in Canada). But the country is half the size of Ontario with about 40% of that being desert. So we got a good look at the country.
From a political and cultural standpoint, Mohamed and Lessen were quite upfront in identifying themselves as Berbers, indigenous to Morocco and North Africa. About half the total population of Morocco are Berbers with 'ordinary' Arabs (Sunni Muslims) making up the difference. Berbers consider themselves true Moroccans. They are die-hard in their pursuit of autonomy versus the 'arabization' efforts that has been happening over many centuries. Apparently the Middle East are saying that everyone is an Arab including Berbers and that they should really be one. But the Berber movement is very alive and distinct. To them, they will forever remain independent.
So it was an interesting discussion when we saw a lot of Arab signs on construction sites (for example a lot of EMAAR Dubai construction). They acknowledge this but tend to ignore any future responsibilities this may entail. And there is construction everywhere, I've never seen so much in cities, towns, villages. The road construction is just one example.
The country is absolutely gorgeous. There are the Atlas mountain ranges (we drove them, not trekked them) from the Atlantic over to Algeria. The landscape from Marrakesh to the south in the Sahara goes from plush greenery to desert and the differences are profound.
Along the edges of the mountains are irrigated lands, the most beautiful being 190 km of Palm trees where they produce dates (did you know that dates are grown only on Palm trees?).
When talking about the problems of Morocco, unemployment is high among the 20- 30 year olds (out of total unemployed, almost 4 out of 5 in this age group) and both Mohamed and Lessen were grateful they had jobs. They both have friends who have gone to Europe for jobs.
One area that stuck with us was the culture they are trying to maintain. When we stopped on our desert excursion, we were treated to tea and there was a spontaneous music session with Mohamed and a friend. For Berbers, on weekends when getting together, they will sing their own music.
They certainly are aware of North American culture and the changing world but they hold their own music and customs quite high; I don't think they will ever give this up.
Finally, bartering is something I'm still getting used to. Apart from groceries, lodgings and restaurants, you barter for everything. It's a cultural thing, it's what people here are born and trained to do. For cabs, I thought I had it down pat. Upfront you negotiate the price. If you don't like it, you go to the next cab and the next. So, arriving in Essaouira, I did just that and got a great price although we had to share with someone. Unfortunately, the cab driver dumped us in the Medina telling us to walk to the left, then right. Turns out, the place we are staying at isn't even in the Medina but 5 km away. So, we walked back to the cabs, negotiated a price and finally got to the Riad where we're staying. I personally don't like it but it's the way of life here.
Next stop- Egypt.