Morocco is a land quite unlike the United States, and therefore it should go without saying that there are many instances when the American visitor will be shocked with what he or she observes, whether they be major cultural assumptions or minor idiosyncrasies. This list is an attempt to document some of those instances for the purposes of cultural understanding. I should say that none of these are rules, nor do they happen all the time. They do, however, occur with enough frequency as to be significant. I have striven to be an advocate for the people of Morocco, and I will continue to do so, and. At the same time, however, it would be wrong to assume that all aspects of my host culture are wonderful.I find a lot of the following to be offensive and I’m not going to pretend that they aren’t. Consider this – like everything else I have written here – as merely a record of my observations on some of the more delicate issues.
1 – Moroccan culture puts great emphasis on the separation of sexes and their private areas. As is well documented, Islamic tradition frowns on the interaction between unrelated men and women, and even in places such as hammams where there is strict gender segregation, people still wear their last line of clothing. This is why it comes as such a shock to see so many people (nearly universally men) relieving themselves in public. Granted, this is just as shameful of an act here as it is in the States, but that doesn’t stop it from happening all the time. You’ll see men walk around a corner, behind a rock, or next to a tree and just let loose. That’s the way guys do it in America, but the biggest difference is that men here really don’t block off the visual path to what they’re doing. In fact, it’s so common that there are many street corners and external walls that have “urination forbidden” spray painted across them.
2 – Perhaps the majority of visitors will pass through completely oblivious to this, but it’s one of the most uncomfortable of situations for a volunteer or anyone else who submerges themselves in Moroccan culture. There is absolutely no hesitation when it comes to hitting children. It’s supposedly disallowed, but the guardians and teachers at school all carry a special hard rubber tube for keeping students in line, and families keep a special reserve of shoes, belts, and backhands for their children. Hitting in general is a lot more common here. A friend will often grab another – with much more aggression and zeal than we’re usually comfortable with – slapping and mock (or not) throttling each other. This carries over to children. A common game (similar to Peek-a-Boo in its mundaneness) is Slap-the-Young-Child-Upside-the-Head. It’s never done with any great force, but often enough that you can’t feel good about it. The real downside, though, to all this corporal punishment (aside from the child abuse) is that when not enforced, children often run amok. A good half of my Dar Shebab classes and school visits are spent in telling the students to pay attention. A Moroccan teacher would just put the beating stick on the table, and it wouldn’t be an idle threat.
3 – A PETA activist might have a conflicting time in Morocco. Unlike animals in the massive industrial farms of America, Moroccan livestock is pretty universally free-range. Herds of sheep and goats roam through town and the surrounding countryside, chickens run freely through streets and parks. There really aren’t enough resources to permanently keep any significant head of anything in one place. This doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that Moroccans have any great respect or love for animals. Dogs and cats also roam the town with impunity, but they are in no way welcome guests. A favorite game of children is throwing rocks at them as they scurry from trash pile to trash pile looking for food – as almost none are house pets, and even fewer are fed by the houses where they live. The children who live in my apartment community are fascinated by my cat, and run after her whenever she comes out of the house. Sometimes they’ll run inside to get her. And I don’t think they want to hurt her, but they tend to swat at her in the same way that people might dare each other to touch a snake. Some people want to like animals, and some even do take care of the ones that live in and around their houses. There are a few references to the prophet Mohammad’s fondness for cats, though dogs are generally considered dirty and it’s said that they scare off angels that would otherwise enter your house. In reality, they just don’t have much exposure to animal friends – even the idea is laughable to most people that I talk to about my kitten – and so they don’t have any idea what to do with them. I don’t know what to do with babies, but then again, I don’t throw rocks at them, either.
4 – We eat a lot in Morocco, and often. And when we eat, we eat fast. I mean, lunch is over in about fifteen minutes and that’s the biggest meal of the day. You can imagine, then, that we’re sucking down quite a lot air in this race to the bottom of the plate, and you’d be right. That’s my hypothesis for why Moroccans burp so much. And perhaps because they burp so much they don’t seem to think too very much about it. Some people will say “hamdullah” (“thank God”) afterwards. More often than not, you’ll just hear a massive explosion of stomach gas and then everyone continues whatever they were doing without much notice, kind of as though someone had just coughed. I was once close to teaching some young kids about burping the alphabet when one of them let loose a pretty big one, but something – good sense, probably – held me back.
5 – George Costanza once remarked: “I guarantee you Moses was a picker. You wander through the desert for 40 years with that dry air. You tell me you’re not going to have an occasion to clean house a little?” He was talking, of course, about picking one’s nose, and he couldn’t have been more right about either the effects of desert dust storms, or the sociological tendencies of the people who suffer them. There is dust absolutely everywhere in Morocco – even in places like Freedonia that are about as un-desert as possible – and everywhere you look, you’ll find someone digging for nose gold. Snot rocketing, too. It’s startling for us, being so prudish about nasal penetration, but there’s no shame associated here. It’s about as ordinary as wiping your eyes.
6 -The biggest reverse culture shock I’ve suffered so far has been from care packages and the packaging. Everything is vacuum packed and double-sealed for freshness. It’s so unnecessary, and it’s one of the major contributors to America’s garbage problem. We’re working on it, though, through education and public trash disposal. Packaging really isn’t an issue here, but littering is epidemic. Opening a candy bar? Just drop the wrapper where it is. Finished your Coke? Toss the can in the bushes. No one’s even going to think about it, let alone say anything to you. The most common foliage in Morocco is black plastic bags. I once had a kid who tossed the little piece of saran wrap that came with his peanut brittle no the ground. I told him to pick it up. He looked at me with such incredulity you’d have thought I told him to eat it. I repeated myself and he actually ran away. I had to just about beat this child into putting his trash in a trashcan, all the while, Moroccans were watching me and helping, but more out of a sense of compassion. You could tell that they didn’t care, either. Unless it’s for complaining. Freedonians love to talk about how ugly their home is because of trash, but I’ve never seen anyone do anything about it. I pity the environment volunteers.
7 – Most people don’t have showering facilities in their homes, and most people don’t take showers anyway, they go to the hammam. It costs money, though, and there is a very strong dislike for spending money in the poor regions of this country. Consequently, it’s not rare to find someone who only goes to the hammam once a week, usually in conjunction with ablutions of their Friday prayers. The rest of the time, they just make do. This, combined with the fact that people have both relatively much smaller wardrobes and a much more labor-intensive process for cleaning their clothes, means that there is a general funkiness in the Moroccan air. You can’t get away from it, especially in the summer, especially in taxis. Added to this is the most unfortunate byproduct of Ramadan: “fasting breath.” Most Moroccans don’t brush their teeth any time of the year, but it’s so much worse when they don’t eat breakfast and have something to cover it up.
8 – Moroccan men and women don’t have much opportunity to interact with each other – an obvious byproduct of gender segregation – and yet they still suffer from the same biological need to procreate as the rest of us. Consequently, you’ve got a country full of horny guys who don’t know how to talk to women. This problem is compounded by (a) horniness can be resolved legally and morally only through marriage (read: neither frequently nor expediently), (b) prostitutes are more socially acceptable than self-love, and (c) it is generally accepted that men are incapable of controlling their sexual impulses. This last point is accepted not only by women but by the men themselves, and thus they often feel no shame in voicing responses to their baser instincts. Take, for example, an attractive woman walking down the street. (“An attractive woman” could be “a woman with a pleasing physique,” “a woman with an unpleasing physique but wearing pleasingly revealing clothing,” or “a woman.”) The frequent response will be for the man to express his approval of her physique, choice of dress, or chromosomal fortune with the intention of this leading to her having sex with him. He will most often hiss, but sometimes whistle, call out to her, gape, or even give her a little pinch. The general philosophy is that if any of these succeed in getting her attention – “turning her around” in the local parlance – and he’s well on his way to enjoying all the pleasures he can imagine (a reason for him to be severely surprised and disappointed if she walks away). This is especially true of Western women, who are generally perceived as dynamos of sexuality. If she doesn’t turn around and provide instant gratification, she must be having a bad day. Try again tomorrow.
9 – Moroccans are famous for their hospitality, and in no way is this more shockinly clear than in their giving of invitations. It’s not uncommon for you to be riding in a taxi or talking with some vendor in the souk and for him to invite you back to his place. Where we come from, there’s usually only one reason for this, and no matter what people tell you, it’s usually not coffee. In Morocco, this is just a normal part of the equation. This is partly because we’re visitors in their country, partly because they’re interested in learning more about us, partly because they may want to show off their new friend or ask for help in getting a visa, but mostly because their social code requires it. It doesn’t matter if they’re rich or poor, or if they’ve known you a while or you’ve just met. If I accepted every invitation, I’d probably never cook again for my entire service. And this grates on a lot of volunteers, who usually want a little peace and quiet after a long day of servin. For the most part, people you’ve just met don’t expect you to call them up (they’d take you in if you did, though), and people you already knew are understanding if you don’t take them up on it. But if you don’t come around from time to time, you’re going to have some ‘splaining to do.