Atlas Mountains, Imlil

“It was as though, in this encounter full of pictures from a beautiful, refined civilization, his memory was striving to take in the treasure, which was new for him, having never set eyes on it before.” –Mohamed Berrada

Before writing this blog, and nearly two years after actually visiting Imlil, I paused to remember the deaths of two hikers, Louisa Jespersen from Denmark and Maren Ueland from Norway who were murdered there a mere five months after Doug and I visited. It was a tragedy that really shook me. Not only because two innocent lives were lost, but because of the racism and fear about Morocco that had become pervasive for many months afterwards. I remember getting onto all my social media platforms saying, “No, no. You’ve got it wrong. This doesn’t happen in Morocco. Not ever. Moroccans are good people!”

Moroccans are good people. They’re beautiful people, I said. And then I read a Guardian article entitled, “The people are so beautiful” That’s enough of colonial tourism” It popped up in Google on a random search for something else, and at first I dug in and read it in the hopes that I would learn how to be a more responsible world traveler. But I finished feeling that the author was a.)  generalizing and simplifying white travelers, and b.) writing about a lack of sensitivity that simply doesn’t exist as it did 50 years ago. The gist of what he says is that by generalizing and using simplistic terms like “beautiful people” we end up objectifying individuals who then become to us like “Disney sideshow attractions there for our entertainment.”

I don’t know what kind of traveler or tourist out there views people–anywhere on the globe–as a Disney sideshow. I suppose those kinds of people exist. But the truth is we do have a human response to people, places and things that are different. That’s why we travel.

Moreover, generalizing a country and its people is not a bad thing, especially when we tilt to the positive. We have an increasingly important need to generalize and see the beauty in all people and cultures because when we do, it directly benefits their economy. Every time I post a positive review of a country, whether it be a shallow “people are beautiful,” comment or something more detailed, I am helping to support that country’s tourism industry. We need to consider whole cultures and people “beautiful” otherwise we would never connect with them, nor they with us. Otherwise, the door might not be open to our mutual necessity for acceptance and knowledge of culture. Our personal, human relationship with beauty and our desire to seek it out and connect with it, is not a white person thing. It is what propels our human innate yearning to know people.  And if we don’t have that, we cannot get to the deeper levels of appreciation of anyone.

This brings me back to the tragedy in Imlil. The after effects of the murders that had occurred in this remote village were astounding. The world went bonkers and those that don’t know Morocco completely miscommunicated the country’s political stance (find the bad guys and punish them), their response to the crime (immediate) and the people’s overall sentiment towards the murders (they were heartbroken, who wouldn’t be???). Because the two young women were foreign travelers, and the Moroccans that killed them were claiming affiliation with terrorist groups, many people condemned the entire country for “breeding” terrorist groups. This could not have been further from the truth. Morocco, like many top tourist destination countries, works exceptionally hard to keep extremism out of its borders. Simultaneously, the Moroccan government prioritizes tourism–which is actually a very competitive (albeit fragile) industry.  And while Moroccans themselves can have varying attitudes and opinions about the tourism industry in their country, and while tourism can impact people in different ways,  the general view is that, overall, it’s helping to improve individuals’ lives.

So, after the tragedy passed, in a rush to support Morocco, I tried my best to tell everyone who would listen, “Moroccan people are beautiful.” It was necessary in order to combat many false beliefs and misunderstandings. It was important for travelers to understand that this was an isolated incident and that Morocco is one of the safest countries to travel to (another generalization, by the way).

I cannot deny that there are a gazillion ugly remnants of colonization. I mean, the truth is, I am a white western traveler (though my DNA has some Middle Eastern and Spanish in it, and the entire time I was in Morocco everyone thought I was Moroccan or Italian); my husband is a blond, fair-skinned German-American. We tend to wreak white privilege, whether we like it or not. But! The same logic applies to western travelers themselves as it does to western travelers’ notions about the places they travel. You can’t make Disney-fied descriptions or assumptions of us either. And this happens all the time. Part of what I have learned through my travels is that the “ugly American” stereotype is alive and well and that supposed white privilege doesn’t exactly have many privileges in non-white countries. That being said, I suppose colonialist white privilege can attempt to play out (we can attempt to objectify or simplify local people in the way in which we interact with them) but the author is not factoring in the power with which the host country has when it comes to dealing with, er, asshole tourists. I am reminded of the two Austrian men who were banned for 15 years and deported from Peru for taking naked selfies at Machu Picchu last summer. But is that remnant colonialism or simply two idiots with a complete lack of respect for rules? Tourism can be seen in a dark light from both sides. The colonial tourist who travels to objectify his host, “bringing back specimens of those communities for public entertainment and lurid fascination” is equally objectified and made fun of behind his back as the local sells him a ridiculously useless and over-priced trinket that he’s been trying to get rid of for months.

What’s important here is that travel is symbiotic. We need each other. We cannot just arrive somewhere and be idle viewers in certain places. Especially in places like Morocco. The people pull you and demand that you participate in their culture. You learn that the moment you step foot in the medina. And so, I will continue to support and rave on and on about this country, even if that means stating that the people are beautiful. And what happened in Imlil when Doug and I went is not so much a story of travel or tourism as it is of connection.

Imlil is about 50-60 miles south of Marrakech. It’s perfect for a day trip. And if you have the time, a trip with a private driver or by bus is relatively fast and convenient. Our driver for the day is a guy named Jamal who Khadija at el Cadi recommended. The three of us hit it off immediately when, to make small talk, Jamal asks what we saw and did in Fes before coming to Marrakech. I immediately mention this particular guide who claimed he was a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and Jamal laughs and replies, “That guy sounds crazy.” We kind of agree, and then I ask if this is a common thing in Morocco, for there to be people who claim stuff like this. He says, yes, there are a few, and that it is, technically,  possible. He says, that most historians believe that there exist direct descendants through Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, but that her line is massive, so really, there’s no way of knowing if you are or aren’t. “At this point,” he says, “we’re probably all direct descendants.” That was mind blowing. With the one bar I have left on my international roaming, I look it up and find an interesting fact. Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn Abbad, who historians claim was a direct descendant of the Prophet, ruled Seville, Spain from 1023-1042. Heck, my sons (who are half Spanish) could be direct descendants. With traces of DNA from Spain, I could be too! I tell this to Jamal. He says, “I think you are. You look Moroccan!” We laugh and the conversation, as so many here do, turns to how people are the same all over the world.

We stop for a bit in a small village and meet a family who has opened their house museum-style for exploration on weekends. We are in luck. We can take a peek. They have a hammam, and a kitchen with a chiminea where all the food is cooked. We sit and take in the views for a while, talk, and eventually, travel on. We come across a Berber woman in another small village carrying a bushel of what looks like lavender on her head. She approaches us (for money) and I ask politely if I can take a photo. She immediately agrees, we smile at each other, she removes the lavender from her head and puts on her headscarf. Her hands are working woman hands. They remind me of my Aunt’s. Farmer’s hands. Shukran, I say, and hand her dirhams. I am happy to have met her, if for a brief moment.

Once up to the base of the mountain, we wander around a bit, but then decide to have lunch. We ask Jamal to have lunch with us (we actually implore him), but, hesitate though he does,  he opts to see his friend in the coffee shop across the street instead. He pats Doug on the back and says he’ll meet us out front in an hour. It’s a sharp reminder that he is in work mode and wants to remain professional. And I certainly can’t fault him for it. But, more than a driver, Jamal has quickly become a teacher and a friend.

Doug and I find Maison Ait Mizzen, a tiny 3-star hotel with a restaurant. The host, as all good hosts do, smile at us warmly and hand us menus to bring us in, seating us out in the garden, on a floor covered in berber carpets. We sit on cushions and nibble on some olives and Moroccan bread, and before our food comes, we start up a conversation with some former FBI agents who are visiting the area. I recognize the East Coast accent. One had worked for 20 years at the US Embassy in Rabat, but she’s from NJ. Another lives permanently in Marrakech, from NYC. They are old friends, catching up and vacationing together, and I can’t help but be completely in awe of their international lifestyle. Oh, the assumptions, the generalizations. Anyway, we eat couscous, just Doug and I, and then sip our hot mint teas and pay our bill. Jamal is already waiting for us out front when we finish. He’s speaking to the manager of the restaurant, whom he doesn’t know, and the manager is trying to convince him to recommend his restaurant to more of his clients. I chime in with a smile and a Cétait excellente! confirming that I too will recommend. We’re basically networking. He shakes our hands and says merci. It’s getting late and I want to be back in Marrakech before dark. The drive back seems shorter and at parts, we all sit quiet and enjoy the peaceful yellows of the summer tall grasses of the countryside, the blues of the wide open sky, and an almost empty road. It is dusk when we pull up to our hotel. Jamal comes around and we exchange warm goodbyes and a promise to reconnect. I ask for his card so I can recommend his services to anyone who might be coming to Marrakech.

You know, both visitor and host play a strange game. The visitor, if she’s trying to be respectful feigns a sort of submissiveness, “Am I a good traveler through your country? Do you approve? Do you like me?” Whereas the host, if he’s trying to earn money, puts on a feigned sense of interest in the visitor, “Oh you’re from America. I love America. I love baseball and hamburgers.” It’s a shallow but harmless artifice that must be done to meet the needs of both involved. She wants to see the sights; he wants to earn money. It happens all the time. But every once in a while you genuinely click with someone, the walls come down and a connection is made. And yet, when this happens, it’s rare. And at times, you may even doubt its validity. But you hope anyway. You hope because it’s important to know something like this is real. Perhaps, then, the point of travel is not so much to see the differences but to find what is common. To be shocked and awed not by what separates us, but, what brings us together. If that isn’t a specimen of sensational fascination I don’t know what on earth is.

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