As the plane flew toward the Mohammed V Airport in Casablanca, all I could make out were medina-style buildings flanked by squares of farmland dotted with sheep. It half made up for the Morocco I’d envisaged, but I thought Casablanca was the meeting of Africa and Europe, and all I could see for miles was farmland. I was not complaining though. It was a nice break after being holed in America for two plus years.
I left New York City on Royal Air Maroc, which now has flights from New York to many African cities. After our take-off was delayed for two hours, a woman who wanted it known she was American swore loudly that she’d never take the airline again. After landing, our baggage took close to an hour before being hauled onto the baggage claim conveyor. Then she had to have her presence known again. She apparently asked security to let in her Moroccan husband, described to me as a rather tiny man, to help her carry her luggage. She started shouting that she’d sue the airport if she broke her back, after her requests were ignored. At that point I semi-empathized, but America was a whole ocean away.
My hosts picked up my overweight suitcases and we boarded a two-hour train headed for Rabat. Most of the ride took me through provincial-looking Morocco with concrete white-washed buildings. I was assured Casablanca had a lot more to offer than the view I’d seen from the plane and I will soon be taken there. After trying to sleep off my jet lag, I woke up and demanded to be shown around town.
Being used to walking around in New York, I enjoyed our twenty minute walk into Manal, a market area of Rabat filled with electronics shops, clothes and shoes stores. Lots of little boys were running around and I was warned to be wary of them, and told to keep my bag as close to me as possible.
After indulging in cheap and tasty ice-cream, we made our way back home and encountered boys sniffing something or the other. As they offered us some of their contraband material, I was once again warned to look away. .
As we rounded the corner, another boy, who couldn’t have been more than 15 years old, asked us for one dirham – the Moroccan currency. After we laughed in his face (me mirroring my hosts’ reactions), he shouted expletives our way and rode away on his bicycle.
In Morocco, the looking down of black Africans is palpable. It’s even worse being an African woman because the comments thrown at you are often riddled with innuendoes. My hosts told me stories of friends who had been stoned, called aziya (slave), or robbed down to their boxer shorts.
While a more liberal country compared to most of its North African neighbors, I have found that women are hardly visible – in Rabat, at least. In the boundless cafes that line the streets of Rabat, only in the most liberal part, Agdal, did I find women sitting outside the cafés. At all other places, it was men smoking, drinking tea and ogling every one passing by. Always one to look for an adventure, I entered a pool joint with my female host, but we went in with a male chaperon, just to be careful. We attracted a few stares before everyone turned back to their pool tables. Only one other woman was in there.
Morocco’s position as a transit point for many illegal immigrants from other African countries looking to end up in Spain and other parts of Europe, seems to be where the name-calling and stone-throwing stems from. “Les Illegaux,” as they have been dubbed, walk among others who have come to Morocco legally to study or work, but to the locals of Rabat, all black Africans are one and the same. Also, Morocco was one of the major centers of the Arab slave trade during the 18th and 19th centuries with black Africans mainly from East Africa.
Most of the black Africans living in Rabat I talked to didn’t have any kind words for their Moroccan neighbors. This sentiment played all the way to a friendly match between Ghana and Morocco. When Ghana beat Morocco by 2-0, the Ghanaians were gleefully jubilant, but had to contain their excitement lest stones be throne into their apartment.
Others have told me Rabat is no way representative of all of Morocco. When it comes down to it though, Rabat is at heart, an African city. Places I walked through reminded me of neighborhoods in Accra, where I grew up. People have the same laid-back attitudes; markets have essentially the same flavor. Smells both enticing and foul all mingle together. My next stop is Marrakech, Morocco’s Red City.