My former life as an Army officer afforded me a myriad of opportunities to travel and see the world. My journeys to Iraq and Afghanistan may have added to the rich tapestry of my life experience, but they are far from what I would consider “enjoyable” adventures. Despite these experiences, I continued to immerse myself in the culture, language, and political affairs of the Arab World. For my efforts, I was rewarded with the opportunity to travel the middle east and work with the State Department for over a year. Digging through my records, I’ve uncovered some of my older pieces of writing on the matter (circa 2013-2014). Hopefully, it provides some interesting insights into the region.
Objectives of my Trip:
The purpose for my trip to Morocco was twofold: to assess the stability of Morocco following the Arab Spring and to gain a better understanding of the historic Islamic influence in Southern Spain. I chose as my study question: How is Morocco moving forward economically in order to avoid uprisings of their own in the Kingdom?
I coordinated with the [U.S. Embassy in Rabat] who coordinated for my embassy briefs as well as a site visit to USAID which is located off of the Embassy Compound. In order to prepare for my trip I read the Congressional Research Service’s Papers: “Morocco-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (May 26, 2005)” and “Morocco: Current Issues (December 4, 2008).
Note: The article, “Morocco: Current Issues” has since been updated. Current issue is October 18, 2013. To those who have been consistently reading this series of articles, you’ll note I spend a lot of time preparing for these trips by referencing the Congressional Research Service. It is a great resource for gaining insight into U.S. Policy, as it is the comprised of various staff members that research and provide these reports to Members of Congress that either serve on various committees, but also used by Policy Decision-makers to prepare for meetings and travel.
Morocco, like many of the Arab Monarchies, is finding itself at a crossroads where the local population is asking the questions about the relevancy of King Mohammad IV in the face of the siren call of democracy. The King has been savvy in blocking a number of smaller reforms in the past, only to extend his generosity later and grant them. Much of the time, the Moroccan people are content to blame the Parliament for the lack of movements towards economic reform.
The uneasy relationship between Algeria and Morocco was a topic of discussion which focused on internal security, Moroccan Foreign relations, and Counter-Terrorism. In the face of this tenuous position, the U.S.-Moroccan relationship has facilitated AFRICOM’s largest exercise (African Lion), and the paralleling Air exercise (Majestic Eagle).
Looking into the religious considerations within the Kingom; the division in Islam was further explained to me while at the embassy. Moroccans hold to the Malaki strain of Islam (in contrast to Hanbali, which is present in Saudi Arabia). It is a form of Jurisprudence exercised in Islamic Law that naturally includes the Holy Quran as a primary source along with various Hadiths. It does, however, also draw upon legal “precedent” of the Caliphs of old. This school of thought is is a testament to the more liberal strain of Islam present in Morocco and is important to examine if one is to address religious discussions in general terms.
The site visit to USAID was a particularly interesting visit, especially since my experience working with USAID prior to my [travel abroad] was limited at best. It was also incredibly interesting to understand the dynamic between USAID and the Peace Corps (which also maintains a presence in southern Morocco). USAID in Morocco primarily provides larger scope projects that are seeking to improve the status of education in country (since the low-level of education among the population has been a major contributor to poverty in the Kingdom). The Peace Corps However, is comprised of a number of skilled volunteers who spend time engaging locals in an effort to pass on better techniques for farming or crop cultivation.
Poverty and unemployment are unavoidable sights while in Morocco. The Moroccan government is attempting to create a strong and profitable tourist industry, however the unskilled labor and low-education makes it problematic to truly develop and foster a high-end tourist trade. Additionally, entrepreneurship has been a problem as well for much of the same reasons. Many Moroccans blame the European expatriates who own a number of the businesses in Morocco. One of the “local” Riads (Old Spanish Manors converted to Hotels) I stayed at was owned by a French couple who has lived in Morocco for over five years. This is not to say that Moroccans are not hard workers, everywhere one goes one can find enterprising locals seeking to sell you some service or another, but this is hardly the work that can sustain a nation or keep its own people enfranchised.
Finally, the opportunity to visit Southern Spain was an excellent chance to contrast Morocco with its wealthier neighbor across the strait. The superficial contrasts in regards to affluence and more well-established infrastructure were less important than the opportunity to observe some of the similarities in culture and architecture in Andalusia.
From a historical context, I think taking the ferry from Tangier to Tarifa is an important trip to make. It allows you to truly grasp the proximity of the conflict between the Spanish Christians and Moors of old when you view with relative ease the coastline of Spain form Morocco (and vice-versa). I can only imagine the sense of yearning for the days of old that some Moroccans may feel when they look across the Strait of Gibralter and ponder that long ago, the Moors once held dominance and sway a mere stone’s throw away from their current position on the northernmost shore of Morocco.
Regional and Cultural Knowledge
The European influence is ever present in Morocco. I was able to conduct myself around Morocco fairly well with my Arabic, however, understanding the Moroccan Dialect (Darija) proved more problematic.
Recall a joke related to me by one of my Moroccan Arabic instructors from the Defense Language Institute that one of the reasons that the Moroccan dialect is so difficult to understand is the result of Iraqi advisers (seeking to spread the gospel of Ba’athism) teaching them bad Arabic (the joke itself is more humorous in Modern Standard Arabic). The point is that many Arabs not from Morocco have difficulty understanding the local dialect as well, and that if Modern Standard Arabic is not being spoken, an interpreter between the two variations of Arabic are required (whereas across the middle east other dialects can be readily understood and comprehended among Arabs).
It is this dialect that shapes the culture of Morocco (having developed from a very diverse pool of cultures: Spanish, French, Berber, Tuareg, and Arabic), and it can be easy to forget the the kingdom has integral relationships with the African Continent. This is a seemingly obvious point to make when looking at a map: Of course Morocco has ties with Africa! That’s where it’s located. It’s hard to explain, but because the cultural identity of modern-day Morocco is largely Arab, we tend to think of it as part of the “Middle-East,” which ultimately paints a very different mental image.
Since I have close to no knowledge of the local dialect, I would venture to say my French improved whilst in Morocco as a result, as French (in most urban settings) is the lingua franca of the land. Spending time in Agadir and Essouria was the opportunity to see how many Europeans have taken advantage of Morocco as a cheap and affordable vacation resort (as one of the State Department’s Political and Economic officers at the embassy put it: “Morocco is the Mexico of Europe”).
So, upon reflection, this statement is not really the most Politically Correct or culturally sensitive of statements, but I kept it in my report so as to illustrate the point. You can easily lay equal claims of cheap vacation locales across the world..and I have no desire to intimate that Mexico is somehow a “third world” nation; it’s not. It has a robust economy (thanks in part to NAFTA – guess I should refer to NAFTA in the past tense as the current administration in the midst of waging a trade war at our borders) and ultimately our neighbor to the south.
Spain was a fascinating visit and a nice change of pace from the bustling markets and Ancient Medinas of Morocco; from Tarifa, where old Spanish Forts still stand and one can still see the Moroccan Coast from Spain; to Algeciras where a large Moroccan Expat community still lives and Arabic can be seen on most storefronts nearest the port; to Granada where the grandeur of Al Hambra is the most famous cultural landmark left by the Moors; and finally in Cordoba where one has the opportunity to view the transition between Christianity and Islam…where old Mosques have been converted to cathedrals, and where monuments to Spanish Generals gives one sense that the Spanish were more than happy to display their victories over the Moors without restraint.
Travel Tips for Morocco
Ensure that you take time to stay in Fes. I had only stayed in Fes for two nights, and that was insufficient time to investigate the sprawling Old City. Along that same vein, spend at least two-three nights in Granada, as I wished I had more time to explore Al-Hambra. If taking the trains in Morocco, splurge for the First class ticket, the difference in pricing is marginal, but your comfort level will be much improved. Finally, and I cannot emphasize this enough; avoid the legions “guides” who will meet you at taxi platforms or at the train station. They are unofficial and will seek only to extract as much money from you as possible as well as introduce you to scammers who will have you overpay for “traditional” carpets that are (in reality) machine-made and worth a quarter of the price (even at haggling prices).
Disclaimer: These writings constitute my own observations, opinions and viewpoints seen through the lens of a military veteran and shaped through my interactions with my professional colleagues. It in no way reflects an official statement by the US Government nor are any details being revealed that could constitute a breach in confidence or security.
Thank you for reading. Hopefully you liked this light departure from current US Domestic Affairs ravaging our country. More will follow as I continue to unearth my old records. Please comment, like, and share at your leisure. You can, as always, also follow me on Twitter @streamingdan82