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 brilliant sun-burnt hills. I remember the morning when a stranger handed me a mug of warm mint tea as his way of saying “welcome,” and the wind was just cool enough to bristle the hairs on my arms — an enormous, palpable relief in the low-slung heavy belly of a Moroccan summer.
I remember the important bits. The romanticized, orange-tinted bits. I know, and even knew back then, that memories often become clouded by rose-colored glasses; the ever-expanding gap between now and then dulls the difficult moments and embellishes the good moments.
So of course, my memories of my first visit to Morocco were rich and warm and swollen with sweet memories. They reminded me of a time in my life when I particularly felt like the world was at my finger tips, and I was often overcome with a sense of possibility and opportunity. I was constantly finding inspiration around every cobblestone bend in an old market alleyway.
Then years later, I was standing across from a woman at a dinner party in San Francisco, about to depart on a round-the-world trip. I remember she was telling me how difficult and dangerous and atrocious Morocco is, despite me telling her that I had already spent time there and was, actually, very fond of it. But for the following days, I couldn’t shake the question of why so many people I knew, including that woman, had such obviously negative experiences in the same small nation in North Africa where I had once had a profound, wonderful time. When I thought of Morocco, I only conjured memories of honey, of the flow of Arabic over medina walls, of laying under stars with a soft layer of Sahara sand on my back.
But then I remembered everything I thought I had left in the past.
And it took me going back to Morocco, being there for only two hours, and standing in the central fish market in Tangier for me to suddenly remember.
Morocco is not an easy place to travel. Sometimes, it's just 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 challenging and difficult bits — of being a woman traveling in Morocco.
When I decided to revisit Morocco on this round-the-world trip, I was naturally curious to see how my second visit would differ from the first. Morocco was always held in such high regard in my mind. Which, I guess, is an issue that’s always somewhat faced whenever anyone revisits places they’d previously been (comparison can be the thief of joy, as 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 to me this time, when I would be the trip leader, I would be the guardian, I would be the one to show Morocco to a group of travelers and offer them experiences that would — hopefully — enchant them just like how Morocco had enchanted me.
But upon arrival — really upon the first hour I left my guesthouse and walked down Tangier’s crooked streets — my reintroduction to Morocco was anything but enchanting.
Slurs were flung at me left and right, sexist 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 meals of soggy tagine, the borderline-unbearable heat, the wild roads and rage from drivers, and the aggression from local men weighed heavily. I watched as my guests struggled to understand this country, this place they’d decided to visit, which turned out to be harsh and hot and inarguably hard.
And, I really did understand what they were going through. With the weight of everything that makes Morocco challenging on your shoulders, sometimes you look at those brilliant orange sun-burnt hills you’d been so excited to finally see in person and you realize with a sort of sobering melancholy that 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 late afternoon light, vibrant tapestries lining turquoise streets, towers of decadent freshly baked breads soaked in honey, it’s clear why photographers have poured over Morocco for decades, and why so many seek out an opportunity to photograph it themselves.
And 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 on in the pages of a travel magazine, you don’t see the thousands of missed-moments and almost-had-it’s where the photographer was chased away from a market scene by someone wielding a stick, or the photographer returning to their 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 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 they do in some other places in the world, because here, we have to work for it — and we have to respect Morocco enough to appreciate the challenge. To keep trying. To keep seeking, to shake off the dust of missed moments and discouragement, no matter what.
I think this applies to anyone traveling through; not just photographers. By constantly pushing against Morocco — complaining about the food, the heat, the traffic laws, the sometimes harsh assault on the senses — 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 went wrong. You might find yourself thinking, Morocco wasn’t supposed to be like this; it wasn't supposed to be this hard.
But Morocco can be whatever it wants to be. It is what it is — not what we want it to be.
When we're guests in someone else’s home, we must adhere to their customs and way of living. We must recognize our differences when faced with situations that we may personally find difficult or impossible to understand.
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 should try, at the very least, to 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’ve 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 opportunity to recognize that it’s just something different, not bad.
It's just different. And that's okay.
2. Be receptive, and don't 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 take anymore of it, 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 corners of the world where I felt unwelcome. It’s easy to point fingers at strangers and to blame your surroundings rather than to recognize that you are the foreigner in a far-off place where life is different, and beliefs are different. We as visitors are not entitled to think that we deserve special treatment or flawless travel just because we actively chose 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.
Finally, with blinders up, it’s impossible to see the good. And Morocco does have so much good.
For every challenge Morocco presents, something beautiful presents itself as well.
For every angry stare or taunt in a market street, there’s someone shaking your hand with genuine delight, welcoming you deeply and sincerely to their country. 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 just minutes beforehand. For every dusty bus ride and broken AC, there are clear nights cool and quiet, paired with the perfect relief of a shower and the clean clothes you’ve kept tucked at the bottom of your backpack, and the breeze of a rooftop restaurant in Chefchauen. There’s watching the swollen setting sun reflect off the tiles of the mosques that dot the rolling cityscape, with 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 just how important they are when it feels like rest of the country has hardened you. 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 you that.
Travel to Morocco, but take an open heart with you. If you do, then you will sit on a rooftop with a mug of mint tea in hand, and you will watch those brown hills quietly fade into the brilliant sun-burnt ones you came here for.