The first time I went to Morocco I was 15 years-old. Just like most teens I’ve met, I thought I knew all about the world. Eventually, I grew up and my experience in Morocco played a crucial role in this process. In most western countries, we are used to having things “our way”. This is good. We exert ourselves and make ourselves heard.
However, when trying to fit into a country like Morocco you need to hold it a bit. Simply, you need to stop talking and start listening, to stop looking inwards and start looking outwards. Learning how to be culturally smart was my biggest challenge. As I tell the hundreds of UBELONG volunteers I have the privilege of being a mentor for every year, you need to take off your culture goggles. Morocco is not better or worse than where you come from, it’s just different.
Morocco can seem daunting at first. The fact that you can’t understand what people are saying, or even recognize the alphabet, can seem like a huge barrier to overcome. But that’s where you have to focus on what’s common to all of us - we’re all people. The ability to communicate without sharing a culture or language is something we are all born with. If you're given the opportunity and approach it correctly, all people can communicate with each other. Armed with a decent sense of adventure, a willingness to laugh (often at yourself), an awesome Moroccan volunteer program, and these few cultural tips, you will be ready to meet many new people and hopefully make some good friends.
Armed with a decent sense of adventure, a willingness to laugh (often at yourself), and these few cultural tips, you will be ready to meet many new people and hopefully make some good friends.
1. Dress appropriately.
As a volunteer, no matter where you are serving, you don’t want to give the impression that you are a tourist who is just doing some work on the side. You are at work: you can dress casually, but be smart!
A good rule of thumb for all volunteers Morocco: nothing too low on your chest and nothing too high on your legs. And girls, be particularly on aware when it comes to dress. Don’t show too much skin, and keep your shoulders covered. Morocco is probably a much more conservative country than where you’re from—when it comes to dress, what flies in New York may not be so welcome in Rabat.
2. Talk the talk.
Social skills are a must-have for all volunteers. You must demonstrate that you are there to help, but you must also make an effort to reach out. If you don’t, you will mostly be seen as an observer and people will keep their distance from you.
We always recommend you learn the basics of the local language. A few phrases of Arabic - or even French - can win you smiles from your local hosts, and enrich your whole experience. Remember, when greeting someone, to place your right hand over your heart as you reply. It’s a gesture of sincerity and friendship.
3. Don’t play the wealthy foreigner.
There’s a lot of poverty in Morocco, and it’s very much in view, from beggars to shanty homes to street children. People may come up to you asking for money or favors. We all want to help and it’s easy to just open our wallet and give out money. But slow down. Think. In some cases your dollar could be the difference between a hungry belly and a warm meal. So give. But in other cases your dollar may perpetuate a culture of handouts that keeps people from achieving their full potential.
Remember, you didn't travel far from home just to give out money. You're there to share your affection, experience, time and labor. It is the face-to-face exchange between volunteers and local communities that drives bottom-up impact. Unfortunately, over the years tourism companies have created a culture of handouts whereby locals view foreigners as sources of money. This prevents local communities from truly advancing and standing on their own two feet.
If you are asked to provide money or favors, whether at your project or elsewhere, use your judgment - every situation is different and there are cultural implications to consider. If you are unsure of what to do, talk to the local team for advice. Remember, don’t be shy!
4. Mint tea rules!
It’s a well-known tradition for Moroccans to get together and drink… Mint tea! We generally recommend that volunteers don't drink alcohol, since we all know that it can easily make you do some dumb things. When volunteering, you’re representing your family, your school or company, your country, and the organization who coordinated your volunteer program. Plus, public consumption of alcohol is prohibited since it's a Muslim country. This just means you'll need to stick to mint tea.
Morocco is a country that puts a high value on hospitality. If your host offers you tea, make sure to sit and drink it with them as a matter of courtesy. It shouldn’t be a hassle though - Moroccan mint tea is the best tea that most people have ever tasted!
Morocco is not better or worse than where you're from, it's just different.
5. Snapshot your way home.
Picture this: you’re chilling out after a long day of work at a café in your hometown. A Moroccan comes up to you holding a camera to your face, takes a picture and goes away without saying a word. Would you like it? Of course not! The same goes in Morocco. It’s OK to take pictures of people, but remember to always ask for permission first. Moroccans usually don’t mind, but you don’t want to come off as rude.
Taking pictures can actually be a great opportunity to break the ice and strike up a conversation. So, after taking a picture, hold up your screen and show it to the person. They'll love seeing themselves - especially if the subject is a child. Even better, jump into the picture yourself - it’s more natural and there’s something about being in a picture together that naturally makes people feel closer.
Your camera can also be very useful in the medinas, which are notorious for their maze like layouts. I have no sense of orientation, so the first time I went into a Moroccan medina I took random pictures of crossroads and monuments as I was walking. When I wanted to go back to the hotel, all I had to do was rewind my photo gallery for reference points. It was a simple but surprisingly effective trick. Finally, remember that you should always avoid taking pictures of government structures and portraits of the royal family, which you will see hanging throughout the country. For many Moroccans taking a picture of these is a sign of disrespect, and it can also be illegal.
Morocco can seem daunting at first. The fact that you can't understand what people are saying, or even recognize the alphabet, can seem like a huge barrier to overcome. But that's where you have to focus on what's common to all of us -- we're all people.
Morocco is a country of 32.5 million people, all of whom can be your friends with just a little effort from you. Generally speaking, Moroccans are incredibly welcoming and gregarious people who will surprise you with their hospitality and genuine interest in you. With a little effort of your own, you can open the door to meeting people with incredible stories to tell, and a wealth of knowledge and experiences to impart.
Most important when meeting others is to make yourself approachable. This doesn’t mean holding up a ‘come talk to me’ sign, but actually making yourself fit in culturally— nobody wants to talk to someone that offends all of their cultural sensibilities. Hopefully these suggestions will get you on the right path to fitting in culturally. Combined with a little adventure and good sense of humor, you will be able to connect with the wonderful Moroccan people and make some new friends. Happy travels!
Photo Credits: UBELONG.