As I sit here shivering in an Arctic blast of early winter weather, it’s hard to believe that 7 weeks ago we were in the sunny, dry climes of Morocco. We spent a good chunk of October traveling in Portugal, Spain, and Morocco with my brother and sister-in-law … plus a few dozen new friends who shared our coach tour with us. It was a fast-paced tour covering lots of territory in three weeks. Everything we saw was new to me and, while on the one hand I wish we could have seen everything at a more leisurely pace, I can’t think of anything I would have wanted to miss (well, perhaps a palace or two, and maybe a cathedral every once in a while). I sure wouldn’t have wanted to miss any of our walks through the narrow winding alleys of the medinas of the old parts of the cities we visited throughout Morocco, aka kasbahs. Or our time in the sand dunes of the northern Sahara. Or our drives through the multiple ranges of the Atlas Mountains. We just needed more time, more time!
Our experiences in southern Portugal and southwest Spain were lovely, including visiting some splendid Moorish architectural gems similar to what can be found in Morocco, a consequence of several centuries of Moorish rule in those areas. However, it was Morocco that captivated us. The story of Morocco is one of which we had virtually no knowledge before our trip, and that is what I’ll focus on in this post.
The ferry across the Straits of Gibraltar from Tarifa, Spain, to Tangier, Morocco, is a distance of less than 20 miles. This is like the ferry ride between Connecticut and Long Island or Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. But with this ferry ride you’re crossing from one continent to another, and to different cultural realities.
Morocco had many surprises for us. We found answers to the question of why it was the only North African country not to undergo the Arab Spring. They had some early rumblings at the time, but the Moroccan monarchy, although an autocracy for sure, seems to understand the need to provide its citizens with progress that translates into improvements in their everyday lives. The monarchy and government have invested in education and housing. Their modern transportation infrastructure and pervasive telecommunication infrastructure is truly impressive. And they have their eye on employment. Although unemployment is higher than they’d like, it is nowhere near the unemployment rate in Spain, for example.
If you’re wondering what kind of industry they have, it’s quite varied. Agriculture is impressively diversified, with crops ranging from citrus (oranges, mandarins, and clementines, for starters) to a special resilient strain of bananas growing under enormous canopies of plastic to ingredients for cosmetics to grains. Olive groves are everywhere. Same with date palms. Vast planned cork forests now compete with the aged cork forests of Spain and Portugal for new markets such as cork flooring. And heavy industry is evident along the Atlantic coast. The desert town of Ouarzazate boasts a thriving international movie industry, with Morocco’s largest movie studio and an array of upscale hotels for the stars, supporting cast, directors, and staff that come for their productions. Movies like Lawrence of Arabia and the Gladiators were filmed here; buildings in the desert on the outskirts of town that were former movie sets compete with historic kasbahs. And, as with most emerging nations, Morocco has a significant revenue stream from ex-pats sending money back to their villages. We came away cautiously optimistic that Morocco may become the poster child for a stable and sustainable North Africa.
If you’re wondering what happened to the housing boom, it moved to Morocco! Regardless of whether we were travelling in big cities (and there are some big cities: Casablanca, for example, is a city of 4 million people) or small desert villages on the east side of the Atlas Mountains, massive numbers of apartment blocks and villas were either newly up or in progress. Some of the building is being done by the government as subsidized housing for civil servants, some by private developers, and some by ex-pats who are changing the landscape and future of their home villages.
If you’re wondering about education, the government now provides free education to every child, although it needs to work on making early education mandatory, not just free. Its universities are free to qualified students from all walks of life.
If you’re wondering what the countryside is like, it’s remarkably diverse. There are beautiful beaches and resorts along the coastlines, verdant rolling fields of green throughout the agriculture-intensive Atlantic Plain, extraordinary geological features in the mountainous and desert areas, including canyons, gorges, and sand dunes, and not one but two ski resorts in two different parts of the country!
If you’re wondering how you will be received by Moroccans, in our experience, very well indeed. The population is a combination of Arab and Berber; languages used include Arabic, French, and Berber languages, and the atmosphere on the streets is relaxed and welcoming. We left Morocco happily impressed.