What Went Wrong in Morocco?

[ad#World Nomad 1]I realize this post is a little bit out of sequence with our trip to Turkey, but as many of you know, I’ve moved from Morocco to Turkey. A lot of friends on facebook and twitter are asking me “What went wrong in Morocco?” and there is some concern about what is happening.

I intend to clear all of that up with this post.

The short answer is nothing went wrong in Morocco. Here is the summary of what went very right.

I left Hawaii in 2008 looking for a home and not feeling like I would find it in the USA. I was drawn to Europe and had felt like Turkey might be a place for me for some time.

However, while I was in Spain, I kept hearing from people I met about how wonderful their travels in Morocco had been. Now I usually think of things like this: If I hear something once, no big deal. If I hear something twice, it’s coincidence but my ears perk up. If I hear it three times I start considering what the universe is telling me. And in this case, I heard from dozens of people about why I, me specifically, should go to Morocco. So I went.

I’ll be honest here and those of you who have been following my travels will remember this: I wasn’t crazy about Morocco from the beginning. I felt like the touts in Fez were among the most pushy I’d ever met. I felt like everyone I met had an agenda. I was aghast that a country with such a beautiful landscape should be filled with so much garbage and litter.

And yet, I felt like I was there for a reason. That’s when I went to Sefrou for the first time and met Hanane. The love of my life, now my wife. Still, I wasn’t crazy about Morocco. I tried to get her to run away with me. I tried to leave. Three times! And yet, I kept having to go back to her. I realized the only way I could get her away from Morocco was if I married her and so we began the nightmare of bureaucratic red tape to make our marriage.

In the meantime, I managed to start a successful business based on blogging and web design, I started to make money writing, and I landed a job teaching English in Fez. All of that was very right.

In fact, everything went right. We got our marriage papers, I got residency (which helped with the marriage papers), we were making some money, and I managed to rent an apartment in Sefrou and then to be closer to my work, an apartment in Fez. Since I was teaching on a contract, it was important to stay until it was completed, though I wanted to evacuate right away on one level as soon as we were legally wed.

The contract ended, we took an exploratory trip to Turkey, we both got jobs, and now I am here getting things going and she will be coming in about a month. So, there is the short answer, everything went right in Morocco and now, it seems to be going right in Turkey.

Now, the long answer is going to be a bit more controversial. Essentially, this is the answer to the question “Why don’t you want to live in Morocco?” This is going to piss some people off. In fact, it already has. The bulk of what I’m about to tell you was published as a guest post on a fellow travel writer’s blog and the negative reaction to it and to me was so strong that he asked my permission to pull the piece. I assented. The gist of the reaction was from those who had traveled in Morocco and went like this “I traveled in Morocco and found it to be wonderful, Vago should go back to his clean sanitized USA” or ” I lived in Morocco in the 1970’s and I can tell you this guy is full of shit”. And similar sentiments. Before I give my response, I’ll share my essay which is really a different answer to “What went wrong in Morocco?”

Morocco is a beautiful country. It is filled with a huge variety of natural landscapes from the sands of the Sahara to the magnificent peaks of the High Atlas mountains. Surrounded by two oceans and a sea of Sand, it offers an amazing diversity of scenic places. When you add in the exotic culture, the beautiful people, and the magnificent architecture, what you get is a photographers Disneyland, an ethnographers delight, and a visitor’s peak travel experience.

What you get when you are an expat is all of that…plus the frustration of learning to adapt to a country that has a built in excuse for not doing anything, a nightmarish bureaucracy, and a cultural history that is part fantasy, part reality, and totally fucked up….at least in the grand scheme of things. I’m not saying Morocco isn’t a wonderful place because it is. It is one of the most developed nations in Africa and it is figuring out ways to make itself a more important place in the scheme of the world. What I’m saying is that there a number of things in Morocco that by living here, you learn to recognize as just plain f***ed up.

I’ll keep this brief rather than going into all the details but here are the things that cause me to want to leave Morocco.

1) A large number of Moroccan men who are uneducated, living in poverty, not married, and under the age of 25 (a sizable percentage of Morocco’s male population) are a particularly disgusting sort of leches. These young men seem to consider it their duty and their right to harass unescorted women on the street whether it is broad daylight or any other time. Those who are least educated are the worst offenders. Harassment ranges from obscene gestures and words to grabbing and rape. While I am a man and don’t have to suffer this, each time I see it, I want to smash some guys teeth out. Unfortunately, if I acted on that, I would be leaving at least four or five guys toothless every day. My wife gets harassed unless I am with her. If foreign women understood what is being said to them, most of them would leave and never return.

2) Public health nightmares. Moroccans eat from the same plates, drink from communal glasses, and many ‘restaurants’ have a very loose idea about cleaning dishes in a sanitary way. Foods are often left out far longer than is safe without being covered or refrigerated. Restrooms are considered to be just about anywhere you choose to go for a large number of people (That’s not a dog turd you just stepped in Mister!) . Despite the frequent washing that Islam requires, soap is not used for hand washing by a very large number of people (from what I can see), even though the left hand is most definitely used in place of toilet paper. (Once again, this is a matter of income, education, and other factors) Now, I’m not a clean freak, but I do think that all of this adds up to a future public health nightmare and I don’t want my family or me to be a part of it.

3) Great starters, lousy finishers. If you travel or live in Morocco for any length of time you will see countless unfinished projects from houses to hotels to highways to bridges. Moroccans are great starters, unfortunately, it seems that they usually start a new project before finishing those they have already started. This includes work at the office, bureaucracy, and even housework. My mother-in-law works ten times harder than she needs to because she starts everything and finishes nothing. Part of this is a result of interruption, no matter what you are doing, if someone enters the room you are expected to stop and exchange greetings and formalities.

4) Inchallah is used as the ultimate cop out. Those Moroccans who choose to can have a built in excuse to not do whatever they don’t want to do whether it is their homework, attending a meeting, or fulfilling their duties. Inchallah, basically “If God Wills it…” such as “I’ll find a job, Inchallah” which means, “I’m not looking but God will give me one if he wants me to have one, meanwhile I’ll sit in this cafe all day and harass the women God sends by for me to harass.”

5) French Bureaucracy + Inchallah = Total Hell. The French have the reputation as having the most nightmarish bureaucracy on the planet, but Moroccan is worse. During the French Administration of Morocco, the French installed their bureaucracy and when they left, the local administrators added “Inchallah” to it. The result is a system that combines French leave with the will of God, meaning that no one is willing to answer any questions and they don’t want to send you to someone else because they don’t want that person to get any sort of improved status from helping you (not that they would anyway) or to have anyone see that they really aren’t doing their job.

6) Crabs in a bucket. Moroccans are a status crazy people. Unfortunately, the easiest way to bring your status higher is to drag someone else down. Gossip and slander are non-stop in Morocco. Like crabs in a bucket, as soon as someone gets near the top, the ones under them pull them down to try to climb over them. The result is a nightmare of everyone trying to protect themselves while they try to attack anyone seen as a threat. In the pre-French times, this was common among tribal clans. When a leadership coup happened, it was common to take the ousted leaders, seize their possessions, leave them destitute, publicly humiliate them, and often kill them. Even if it was your brother or father.

7) Hshuma. Hshuma is the concept of shame. It is a complex subject that causes huge misunderstandings and difficult situations. One example is concerning lying. It isn’t hshuma per se to lie, but to admit being a liar or to be caught in a lie is a big time hshuma. So, no matter how outrageous the lie, a Moroccan will almost never admit to it. Lying is very common. Admitting a lie is almost unheard of. Here is an example. A boy in the medina might meet you and tell you he is an orphan. Later you become friends and he invites you to his house where you eat with his mother and father. Despite the obvious truth of the situation, the boy will never admit that he is not an orphan. This happens in millions of situations daily in Morocco from prices to gossip to homework being late. And it’s not just lying, hshuma dictates a huge portion of daily life from who you can talk to, to where you can go, to what you can do. There are anthropological tombs written on it. It’s fascinating, but I don’t want to deal with it or be subject to it. In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t have much shame.

8) Litter. Garbage simply “goes back to nature” and even if you throw it in a bin, it is likely that it will go there.

9) The evil eye and djinn. Morocco is a Muslim nation. The educated have a more enlightened view of the Koran as a guidebook that needs to be interpreted, but for most of the masses, if it is written in Koran or Hadith, it is true. Ignorance on a scale that can only be matched by Christian Fundamentalists trying to convince you about their Creationist theories or Mormon’s telling you how Joseph Smith was able to talk to God through his hat.

10) Begging. Begging in Morocco is accepted and tolerated, even if you are sitting in a restaurant eating a meal or on a bus, don’t be surprised to have a beggar hounding you for coins or even picking the food from the leftovers on the plate. There is virtually no respite from them. If you meet their eyes for even an instant, it is through, they will be on you. This leaves no room for a sympathetic word or look, or for any kind of human decency. You have to ignore, pay, or tell them to bugger off.

This list could go on and on, but as I said at the beginning, Morocco is a beautiful country filled with exotic landscapes and cultures. The Moroccan people are for the most part friendly, educated, charming, helpful, and incredibly sweet. Once you get used to everything above, it starts to not drive you as crazy as it does at first, but in my opinion, until these problems are solved, Morocco will continue to be a developing country and perhaps it will even move backwards on the chart of human development.

So, as a start…that’s what I think went wrong in Morocco. To those who don’t want to hear my opinions or think I’m an ass for voicing them, I can only assure you that I’m not alone. I’ve been accused of being culturally insensitive, but then so were Levi Strauss, Franz Boas, and Margaret Meade, so at least I’m in good company.

To be fair, I know a lot of Moroccans to whom none of the above apply, but in my experience they are the very small minority. I think the King of Morocco is doing an incredible job and that he is actively trying to change things for the better, he is the Muslim version of Obama (in my humble opinion) but like Obama, his work is hugely overwhelming.

Now, as to my critics: It’s different to live in a country than it is to travel in one. As a person with many Moroccan friends, a Moroccan wife, and an extended Moroccan family that is far from priveliged (not to mention a background in cultural anthropology) I think I have a fairly unique position that is considerably different from that of someone who travels there for a few months, buys a riad and restores it, or someone who employs Moroccans (as servants, workers, carpenters, drivers, or even teachers). As to me going back to the United States because it is clean and sanitized…lofl…I dream of trading my USA passport for a Hawaiian passport or a Cascadian passport. In that case, you can expect me to come running, but otherwise, the USA and Morocco both have far too many problems for me to want to call them home.

So, my friends, my readers, please excuse this rather longwinded answer, but I wanted you to hear it straight from the horse’s ass … err… mouth.


Vago Damitio

Damitio  (@vagodamitio) is the Editor-in-Chief for Vagobond. Life is good. You can also find him on Google+ and at Facebook

10 thoughts on “What Went Wrong in Morocco?

  • August 31, 2010 at 4:34 am

    I knew something had to lead up to the reason for you new home. I have been following your travels for 2 years and have become accustomed to knowing when you “!@#$” and where. LOL. Vagobond changed skins and it seemed your site lost the insight into Vago that I find interesting. Thanks for sharing what led to the ending of another amazing chapter in Vago’s life. I hope you will be at liberty to continue to share some of your personal experiences in this new chapter in your life living in Turkey. Oh and Vago I can do with out knowing when you “!@#$” and where Mr. comedian. Take care and God bless you brother.


  • August 31, 2010 at 5:13 am

    lofl James. Don’t worry, this site is still @%#$ flavor! ( 7:58 am, teacher’s house in Manisa- bathroom needs to be cleaned, watery which I attribute to the change in diet) but for a lot of the personal things that affect people other than me, you’ll have to wait for a ‘fictionalized’ book’ or a sit down over too many beers.

  • August 31, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    You have to live where its most comforting or its just not living…

    I spent quite a few years as a consultant around the globe.. and… sorry colonists – the worst of my placements have been in the colonies. Amongst other places, I’ve been to Newark/Jersey City – and you can put those cities into perspective as most US cities are roughly the same in attitude towards their fellow man and Mother Earth. If only you had saved a little piece of Europe in your mannerisms… then again, I’ve also been to France – but there its easy to block out the French and look at architecture… but not so in the colonies. Reminds me of the seagulls in Finding Nemo – “mine, mine mine – mine”. Pound for pound the largest country on the planet.

    While the place may not be the problem insomuch as the inhabitants that screw it up – you have to love where you work and live – or you dread being social and it all looks gray. Then again, knowing you can get the f%$# up and leave at anytime is also a blessing… or at least knowing the work will be over soon –

    The gulf coast states were extremely cool – the people were colourful and the food (I am a foodie) was wild. But, then again – I wonder why US taxpayers keep paying for people to live there? Why not just send those people luggage? Its confounding to see that much dough continually being spent on a place that is going to get hammered year after year… when other states and education systems could use the money being burned on a punchbowl. You wanna rebuild the wetlands – kick out the human inhabitants. ahhhh venting…..

    Kudos on the move V –

    P.S. I also hope one day that Hawaiians take back their islands and gain their independence. Just me thinking out loud…

  • September 1, 2010 at 6:02 am

    I left a long reply but forgot to put in my email address and it evaportated.

    suffice it to say, I’m on your side. If you can get Hanane to smoke a cig every now and then, she might get out of the bucket too.

  • September 2, 2010 at 10:59 am

    Well, sorry to hear that your long comment didn’t make it. As to Hanane smoking, that will never happen, inchallah, instead it will be me who quits. Hope you’re doing well my friend. ~v

  • September 3, 2010 at 9:25 am

    Vago, this is Carolyn from Fes and Hawaii. Please let me know how to contact you by email.

  • September 3, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    Just use the contact form. ~v

  • September 28, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    I had to giggle in while reading this because at one time or another I have felt the same about where I am living.. that is, Turkey. Not quite the same but there are similarities. Actually, although you can see those things here, it is just as easy to ignore them and not let them intrude on your enjoyment of the culture and the Turkish people. It’s probably a matter of degrees.

    Anyway, Hos geldiniz, dostum.

  • October 20, 2010 at 2:11 am


    Your top ten list is hilarious, and unfortunately so true in so many aspects.

    I am Moroccan, and lived in Morocco most of my life. I was reading this out loud with my family around. We had a good laugh but were able to ponder of some of the unfortunate realities that are keeping this beautiful country from developing at a faster pace.

    I found your insight on the Moroccan culture to be so on-point, especially the “Crab Bucket”, and your ability to explain the historical/colonial of some of the issues to be fascinating.

    Keep traveling, and keep posting your experience … and to the readers that don’t like your comments/experience:0 there are sanitized websites for them too.

    Tarik Essalama in your travels

  • October 21, 2010 at 7:55 am

    Thanks M. – It’s funny, I thought that maybe when I left Morocco I would think differently, but unfortunately, it’s become even more clear now that I am living in Turkey, but I will admit I miss some things about Morocco. The coffee and tea, the cheap fresh fruit and veg, the chickens being killed to order, and of course, many of the wonderful people there.

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