shifts that come in the form of compassion; in the form of Moroccan mint tea
When I think of my first visit to Morocco years ago, I remember spices.
I remember gloriously orange, sun-burnt hills. I remember the morning when a stranger handed me a cup of warm mint tea as his way of saying “welcome”, and the wind was just cool enough to raise the hairs on my arms, and a sense of relief and calm washed over me.
I remember the important bits. The romantic bits. The good bits. I know that memory distorts reality, it fades difficult moments, and most significantly, it embellishes. En yet, my memories of Morocco were rich and warm and deeply provocative, reminding me of a time when I felt like the world was at my finger tips, overcome with a sense of possibility and opportunity; where I constantly found inspiration around every cobblestone bend in an old market alleyway.
Even when I was standing across from a woman at a dinner party about two months prior to the beginning of my current round-the-world trip, who told me about how difficult and dangerous and atrocious Morocco is — despite me telling her that I had already spent time there and was extremely fond of it — I couldn’t shake the wonder of why so many people I’d known, including this woman, had such obviously negative experiences in the same small nation in North Africa. When I personally thought of Morocco, I only conjured memories of honey, of figs, of the poetic flow of Arabic, of laying under the Milky Way with a soft layer of Sahara dust on my bare shoulders.
But then I remembered everything I thought I had left in the past. And it took me standing in the central fish market of Tangier two weeks ago for me to suddenly remember.
Morocco is not an easy place to travel. It is simply not an easy place to be.
As a photojournalist, I think I’ve taken some of my best photographs in Morocco. Through the lens of a clouded memory where I only saw Morocco through the handful of snapshots I’d taken years ago, I’d forgotten about the exhausting bits, the difficult bits, of being a woman traveling in Morocco. When I decided to revisit the country on this round-the-world, I was naturally curious to see how my second time around would be different than the first. Morocco was always held to such a perfect standard in my mind. Which, I guess, is always an issue that’s faced when anyone revisits locations (comparison will kill you, so they say), and because I’d been warned so many times by various travelers before my revisit to be careful, I was ready, and a bit nervous, to see what would unfold. How Morocco would present itself this time when I was the leader, I was the guardian, I was the one to show an experience to a group of first-time-to-Africa travelers that would, hopefully, inspire them like Morocco had inspired me.
But upon arrival, upon the first hour I entered Tangier’s crooked streets, my reintroduction to Morocco was anything but. Slurs were flung at me left and right, aggression was abound, stomach-churning cat-calls that I’d forgotten about suddenly came right back, and something clicked in my memory, and as I stood there in that hazy fading light, I thought, “Oh. Oh, right. I forgot about this part.”
The challenges didn’t diminish. If anything, over the course of my time there, more distinct hardships presented themselves. The repetitive food, extraordinary heat, and local aggression were the worst offenders, and I watched as people struggled to understand this country, this place they’d decided to visit, which turned out to be harsh and hot and poignantly hard. And I understood what they were going through. With the weight of everything that makes Morocco challenging on your shoulders, sometimes you look at those gloriously orange sun-burnt hills you’d been so excited to finally see in person and you realize with a sort of sober melancholy that maybe they are just brown.
Someone asked me the other day what advice I would give to someone looking to travel to Morocco, and after thinking about this for awhile, I’ve thought of two.
1. Leave your preconceptions, projections, and biases at home.
With its colorful tiled mosques glinting in evening light, massive ornate doorways, vibrant tapestries on turquoise streets, decadent-looking towers of freshly baked breads, it’s clear why photographers have poured over Morocco for decades, and why so many seek out an opportunity to photograph it themselves. (Insert me raising my hand here). En yet — and I think this is more true in Morocco than anywhere else I’ve ever been — for every profound image you may see of Morocco on social media or in a National Geographic magazine, you don’t see the thousands of missed-moments and almost-had-it’s where the photographer is chased away from a market scene by a lady wielding a stick, or the photographer returning to her room to stay inside for the rest of the day because of the exhaustion of being consistently objectified by men on the sidewalks. Morocco doesn’t hand out gifts if you don’t work for them. It does not offer you an easy pass simply because you’re a young, eager photographer. And most importantly, Morocco does not owe us anything. I’ve found that when someone does capture a great image in Morocco, it’s usually one that’s filled with emotion, light, color, a fleeting moment that’s then gone. And then it may be another week, or two, or thirty, until another brilliant image unfolds before them again. In Morocco, these fantastical moments don’t pour into our peripheral as easily as most other places in the world, because we have to work for it, and we have to respect Morocco enough to appreciate the challenge and the push to constantly fight to succeed. To keep trying. To keep seeking, to shake off the dust of missed moments and discouragement and doubt, no matter what.
This even applies if one isn’t a photographer and is simply traveling through. By constantly pushing against Morocco — complaining about the food, the heat, the traffic laws, the smells — Morocco pushes back, and before you know it, you’ve left the country with a massive barrier built between you and the nation. For every moment you want to fight Morocco for being Morocco, the barrier grows bigger, creating such an obvious tension and disdain for the country that you end each day feeling frustrated, closed off, and leaving wondering what possibly went wrong. Morocco wasn’t supposed to be like this; it wasn't supposed to be this hard.
But Morocco can be whatever it damn well pleases. When we are guests in someone else’s home, we must adhere to their ways, we must accept and recognize our privilege when facing situations that we may personally find abhorrently difficult. I’m not saying you have to leave Morocco feeling like it’s your favorite country. I’m not even saying you have to like it. But you must accept it, you must recognize your preconceptions and ideals that are preventing you from truly seeing the beautiful underbelly of Morocco, and you must know that you can wish and wish and wish that Morocco turns into the Morocco you’d always dreamed of, but if you don’t first acknowledge that Morocco may not be what you thought it was, you’ll never allow yourself the have the capacity to recognize that it’s just something different, not bad. Or, as I've found, something great.
2. Be receptive, and never stop seeking the good.
When you travel in a country that seems to hand you challenges again and again and again, especially when you think you can’t possibly hold any more, it’s easy to find the temporary bandaid solution: put up your blinders, keep your eyes down, blame the country and its people for ruining what should have been an easy vacation. I understand this; I’ve struggled with it myself in the corners of the world I’ve felt most unwelcome. It’s easy to point fingers at strangers and to blame your surroundings rather than recognize that you are the foreigner in a far-off place where life is different, and beliefs are different, and you are not entitled to think that you deserve any kind of special treatment or painless travel just because you actively chose, and spent the money, to be there. Being a visitor doesn’t mean we have a right to decide how a country is or should be. It is what it is. We must seek and appreciate that.
And finally, with blinders up, it’s impossible to see the good, and Morocco has so much good. For every challenge Morocco presents, something beautiful presents itself as well. For every angry stare or taunt in an overcrowded market, there’s someone shaking your hand with a genuine gusto, welcoming you deeply and sincerely to their country; who will teach you the constellations and tell you stories of their grandfather trekking through the Sahara over a cup of homemade mint tea. For every meal that tastes like countless others, there are just as many wonderfully decadent dishes; tastes of caramelized onions in a French-Moroccan stew, of complex spices toasting over a fire, of orange juice squeezed minutes before. For every dusty bus ride and broken AC, there are clear nights that are cool and quiet, paired with the perfect relief of a warm shower and clean clothes and the breeze of a rooftop restaurant in Chefchauen or under the stars of the Sahara; watching the setting sun glimmer on the tiles of mosques, the cacophony of the Call to Prayer echoing around you.
I’ve seen, countless times, people grow jaded by the hard bits, which blinds them to the beautiful bits. It’s hard to actively seek these moments and to recognize their kindness and softness when it feels like rest of the country has made you hard. But for someone willing to travel to Morocco, they must be aware that there are treasures to be discovered if they’re willing and ready to find them. They are there. I promise, they are there.
Travel to Morocco, but take an open heart with you. If you do, then you will sit on a rooftop with a cup of tea in hand, and you will watch those brown hills quietly fade into that glorious sun-burnt orange. The one you were looking for.