August 06, 2008

Everybody's Got Something to Sell

There are a lot of things I don't understand about Morocco. I understand why a camel man would take my picture and hand-walk me up a sand dune, so that he could try to sell me his fossil wares after and work out a nice gratuity (though I only gave him 5DH). But why would a woman living in a tent, who makes her own rugs and has two beautiful daughters to care for, allow 40 desert tourists into her home and serve them mint tea?

I almost felt guilty for taking her picture, especially since none of us actually spoke to her (though I managed a "Shokrun" and a "Merci beaucoup" on my way out). But the tour director, who received a warm greeting of eight kisses, four on each side, from her said it was OK so I snapped away. Life is hard for these Berber women, and it's hard not to throw money at the children, who scamper around you and stick their hands in your back pockets and purses (of course not mine). But our handsome local tour guide Ali advised us not to give them coins or sweets because "they should be in school," echoing the disdain I felt at American tourists throwing change at Mexican children from our train to Tecate.

The children are everywhere in Morocco, and they're smart. They hide behind rocks at popular tourist stops and scenic overlooks and event sometimes hold adorable baby animals in their arms to attract attention (and photographs, for which they expect payment).

On the contrary, the Berber women don't like to be photographed, and will tell you so by waving their arms, turning away and covering their faces (even more) with scarves. I was appalled when some of my fellow travellers boasted that they snuck photos of the old women sitting on the ground in the souk in Rissani. They're not National Geographic photojournalists. Those photos won't help or educate anybody. And yet they didn't pay the women anything. It just doesn't seem fair to take something from someone who doesn't have anything.

I think there's an inclination for tourists to treat locals - who live simple lives and don't speak a Western language - like animals in a petting zoo, cooing and gawking like we do at the donkeys in the donkey park, or the camels at the sand dunes. But even when I took a photo of a camel sitting on a cliff above the Tinerhir Oasis - who craned its neck and posed and flirted with the lens like a real supermodel - I gave the camel owner 3 DH, one DH for each picture I snapped.

donkey park Tinerhir Oasis prickly pears
Everywhere you go in Morocco, everybody's got to get paid. They've got something to sell - fossils, prickly pears, or even their own image. Everyone's got a family at home to take care of, and everyone thinks you're a rich tourist (especially if you can afford to go there - which is not really true since everything was so cheap there). In Marrakech, which is nicer (and newer) than the other big cities we went to, the main tourist attraction - Djemma El Fna ("La Place"), a big market in the center of town - is where all the people who have something to sell converge. Snakecharmers, henna artists, and even little boys who box for money. Walking through it is like being dragged through the middle of Times Square on New Year's Eve, your eyes blinded by bright white lights reflecting off the smoke that fills the air (especially with Stand #31 on fire). And the shopping is equally chaotic, and surprisingly like Chinatown - lots of fake designer bags, cheap scarves and shawls, plastic sandals and bootleg CDs.

La PlaceYou can't blame anyone for making a living, but in the end, it's kind of hard being constantly sold to. And a little scary when women chase after you with syringes of brown henna ink and men jump in front of you and rattle off a greeting in every language you're likely to speak: "Hello!" "Bonjour!" "Buenas Dias!" "Shalom!" I tried to speak French as much as I could, and that certainly helped the bargaining process (except with the photogs, who insisted on a fixed price for crappy photo prints). I got a great price on the caleche ride back from the market to our hotel, the lovely and luxe Hotel El Andalous, and somehow I (mistakenly?) got free argan oil, Moroccan all-spice, and a weird lipstick rock from the Berber pharmacy.

In the end, I wondered if the locals found my French condescending. They already assume tourists are French, and given the imperialistic relationship that the French had with Morocco, I don't think that's a good thing.

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