I had a difficult experience in Morocco. When I stepped out of my cab into Tangier’s kasbah, I was immediately approached and asked where my hotel was. I said I didn’t know, and began walking to find it. The older man kept on asking “which hotel, which hotel?”, so I finally gave up the name of my hostel. He began running through the circuitous medina, all the while checking if I was still behind him. When we finally arrived at the hostel, he asked me for money - a ridiculous amount by Moroccan standards, and for a service I had not asked for. This chain of events, where a stranger would insinuate that he was offering a friendly gesture and then attempt to guilt me into paying him excessively, happened more times than I can count.
My impression of Morocco was salvaged by people like Ayoub, the manager of Tangier Kasbah Hostel. Ayoub not only created a warm living environment for visitors to Tangier, but also legitimately befriended all of his guests. He shared a genuine interest in cultural exchange, listening to travellers’ stories over the authentic Moroccan breakfast he provided, and even arranging small urban excursions at no cost. Still, the harassment that I felt was waiting for me around every corner made me extremely wary of locals on the street. Tangier was the first place that I felt on edge when exploring on my own.
Luckily, I met a large group of American students on my second day who came from Rabat, where they were studying Darija (the Moroccan form of Arabic). I joined them for a trip to the Tangier American Legation. The beautiful museum and cultural center explored the long-standing ties between my home country and the country I was in, which turned out to be much more extensive than I could have imagined. Unbeknownst to many, Morocco was the first nation whose head of state officially recognized the fledgling United States after the revolutionary war. The Sultan also sent a small gift as a token of appreciation to the Americans: a lion. This caused a legislative debacle in light of our strict gift-receiving policies (and the fact that the Moroccan official in charge of shipping the lion was to be executed if it wasn’t delivered), which eventually ended in the lion going to auction.
After the Legation, we walked around the winding, rainbow colored medina and went to Salon Bleu for lunch. We ate creamy hummus and a fresh grape tomato salad along with some puréed watermelon juice drinks. Ayoub arranged a taxi to a beach across town later on, where we relaxed and stepped in the chilly waters. A few of the locals and Americans tried some fishing - they didn’t catch dinner, but a few small throwbacks.
We then explored the fresh produce markets and bought ourselves ingredients for a family style dinner at the hostel. A trek was required to find some wine as alcohol is highly stigmatized in Morocco, but we finally found it and went home to cook. We served dinner on the roof of the hostel, complete with “candles” constructed of iPhone flashlights shining upward through water bottles.
After the Americans left for Rabat, I spent the next day cautiously walking around the medina, fending off people trying to sell me hashish, and finding an incredible meal at La Casita Del Pescado. The host and chef, Balil, served an impressive three course meal: chickpea soup spiced with the highly prized Ras el Hanout, a fish tagine, and a dessert of shaved carrots in honey and rose water. Even more impressive than the food was the hospitality; Balil shared stories of Morocco with me while I ate in the beautiful two-table dining room. He even confirmed, to his own surprise, that the small rug I had bought in the morning for twenty-five dollars (after an hour of painful haggling) was authentic and handmade.
Just before I hailed a taxi to Chefchaouen the next afternoon, I asked Ayoub where he would suggest I grab lunch. He recommended a nearby spot which appeared to be some mix of a market and a collection of prepared food purveyors. I couldn’t find the exact booth he recommended, but I noticed some locals eating soup at a tiny counter. I sat down and asked for a soup, and then followed another local’s example of ordering a small plate of pickles in the opposite stall. The meal was delicious, wholesome, and far less expensive than the tourist traps I kept on getting stuck in inside the medina. This, if anything, was my small taste of real life in Tangier.
It’s only right to acknowledge that because of the way I was treated on the street, I unfortunately began to feel some xenophobia in Tangier. While I am conscious of looking beyond these experiences and focusing on the warm interactions I had with people like Ayoub and Balil, it will take time to fully rid myself of the reactionary feelings that arose. I will remember Tangier not only for the aromatic food, the beaming children playing soccer in the alleyways, and the stunning architecture, but also as a significant emotional learning experience.