Prior to visiting Morocco my perception of the country was filtered by movies (Casablanca, Babel, The Wind and the Lion) and by music (Crosby, Stills and Nash’ “Marrakech Express”, the Moroccan influence on the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Donovan and others). Now that we are here, it is our experiences in other Muslim countries, particularly Egypt, that have influenced our first impressions of Morocco. We spent 5 weeks in Egypt earlier this year and it’s fitting that the two countries that bookend North Africa are our comparison points.
Even though one of the first Moroccans I met – a taxi driver at the Nador border – had a bruise on his forehead, we saw very few of these “piousness indicators” while in Morocco. In Egypt, many men had these bruises, clearly the result of vigorous prayer when pressing their foreheads to the ground. According to a 2007 New York Times article, “The zebibah, Arabic for raisin, is a dark circle of callused skin, or in some cases a protruding bump, between the hairline and the eyebrows. It emerges on the spot where worshipers press their foreheads into the ground during their daily prayers.” The Moroccans with their blemish-free foreheads could have been from anywhere in the non-Muslim world. The decibel levels of the call to prayer are also lower in Morocco than in Egypt. We were in the heart of the Fes Medina for 2 full days before I heard the muezzin’s call. In Cairo and other Egyptian cities, the call to prayer could be heard from anywhere at full volume. One would think that with a more fervent outlook on Islam, that access to mosques would be tighter in Egypt than in Morocco, but this is not true. Ironically, mosques are closed to non-Muslims in Morocco yet open in Egypt.
Another thing that stood out for us was clothing. In Egypt, men typically wore gray gowns and almost every woman we saw in public wore a black or gray gown and veil and many had their faces covered. In the traditional Moroccan cities of Fes and Marrakech there were definitely some older women dressed that way, but most of the women wore jeans and dresses and did not have their heads covered. The young trendy Moroccans walking through the Medina wearing designer clothing could have just as easily been in New York or Paris.
Perhaps Egypt’s proximity to the Middle East and to Mecca explains why they seemed more intense to us. One thing that Morocco does share with Egypt is the intensity of bargaining inside the souks. The Moroccans may be more laid back when it comes to Islam, but step inside a carpet or leather goods shop and you’ll be lucky to leave without a purchase.