Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

In 1987, during one of my first visits to Morocco, I attended a series of rock concerts in Marrakesh with a group of friends who had been invited to the event to represent their youth group. The organizers of the concerts, the local Grand Atlas association, invited us to tour the medina. During one such walk, one of the Marrakeshis talked about how delicious steamed sheep’s head would be for lunch. In spite of the torrid July heat, most of our group agreed that a casual lunch in a small restaurant was a fine idea.

Inside the stuffy, smoke-filled restaurant, one of our hosts began to dissect the steaming meat and offer the best pieces to us, his guests. Meanwhile, a young friend from Paris remarked to me that this was certainly no tourist spot: Imagine eating sheep’s head in such a run-down place! As the sweat poured down my face, I asked him what made him think we were not tourists. After all, we had come from Paris to a city we knew little about, and we were spending our time visiting quaint neighborhoods and eating what were, for us, exotic foods. “Tourists don’t go out of their hotels,” he explained, surprised that I did not affirm his feeling of having an exceptional experience. “They never come to places like this.”

My Parisian friend expressed much of what contemporary tourism is all about. In Morocco, although Club Med and its strategy of isolation prosper, one cannot say that tourists generally seek to remain sheltered from locals through the kind of tourist-village experience seen as typical by my friend. Rather, foreign as well as domestic tourists often consider their trips to be enhanced by some contact with “others.” Accounts of sojourns to the Atlas Mountains, the Sahara or the imperial cities of Fez, Meknes, Marrakesh, Rabat and Sale often include vivid accounts of how an individual has shown herself capable of engaging locals in conversation or making a purchase. While complaints about guides and market-haggling are frequent, part of the experience of tourism includes contact with the exotic, and a sense of having somehow mastered differences. Some seek out a heightened sense of risk and strangeness. For others, the exaggerated comfort of deluxe hotels assures difference enough from the everyday.

Tourism is one of Morocco’s main industries. Understanding its import is not simply a question of determining where tourists come from, or what kinds of accommodations they prefer. Rather, it is knowing which differences to emphasize in order to enable tourists to feel distanced from their everyday lives, without destroying the sense of remaining in a world which distinguishes work from leisure, the serious from the exotic. [1] Morocco’s ability to project differences within a framework of continuity shows up in the country’s tourist industry statistics.

The variety of available tourist “products” derives from a comprehension of the degree of unfamiliarity that a given type of tourist can handle. Indeed, the kinds of social differences that orient peoples’ cultural practices “at home” inform the diversified products of the tourist industry. Levels of education, age and income, which are related to the formation of taste and the way individuals live day to day, are also reproduced in their ways of engaging in tourism. [2] Language abilities also influence peoples’ choices. Working-class or elderly tourists from Europe, Asia or the US often prefer organized trips in tour buses, while Moroccans of the same socioeconomic background or age tend to travel by public transport. Younger people sometimes camp, while teachers and white-collar workers tend to prefer cultural excursions, archaeological expeditions or trekking.

The search for exotica is related to the global processes that have produced Orientalist writings and art. Unlike the scholar or the artist, though, the tourist follows a path laid out for the explicit purpose of providing strange adventures. He or she then transforms these adventures into oral histories of “being there,” often preserved in a journal of photos, slides and artifacts. This is as true of Casablanca businessmen going south to Agadir or north to Cabo Negro as it is of schoolteachers from Milan or Strasbourg.

Tourist Controls

The experience of tourism and the collection of its memorabilia correspond to the varied “products” (that is, possible destinations) proposed by tour guides and promoted by airline photographs of “natives” or breathtaking landscapes. The degree to which these experiences can be controlled, however, varies. Indeed, the ability to control the itineraries of individual tourists and tour groups is one of the ways in which the products are judged. In Morocco, tourist experiences are controlled by rating hotels, improving roads and producing posters of “local” young women or scenery which are then distributed from Amsterdam to San Francisco. Major Western cities now have Moroccan tourist offices. Yet certain aspects of tourism are difficult to control, related as they are to the social and economic conditions of a given place or time. Although white walls are often built around bidonvilles (shantytowns), and residents in poor medina neighborhoods sometimes take it upon themselves to dissuade tourists from entering their areas, even the most protected tourist finds it difficult to avoid these somewhat disconcerting sights altogether. Another aspect of Morocco’s economic and social difficulties appears with extraordinary consistency in tourists’ stories and official complaints: the phenomenon of the self-proclaimed tourist guide. [3] In my own notes from 1990, I find this entry:

As we drive through the outskirts of Fez, a couple of young men on minibikes are already fast on our trail. A Moroccan friend is at the wheel, but the car has Casablanca license plates. A dead give away: we are tourist material. My window is open, and the first young man begins asking if we don’t need a hotel. “No thank you, we’re visiting friends,” I respond. A second biker draws closer, to describe the beauties of “one of the best hotels in Fez, but a cheap one!” As we shake them off, we drive on toward the center of town. After parking, we head toward a cafe. There too, a few boys who look like they should be in school assail us. Each wants to be our “guide.” They begin to fight among themselves to decide whose territory we are.

The authorities have tried, more or less successfully, to eliminate non-official guides from Marrakesh and Fez. Official guides wear identifying badges. The actual eradication of non-official guides seems difficult to imagine, though, given that large numbers of poor and unemployable youths live in and near the old medinas frequented by tourists. Most guidebooks advise that the only way to be free of the incessant demands of would-be guides is to hire one of them, and he will shoo away the others.

The fact is, moreover, that the attitude of shopkeepers, cafe owners and hotel managers is not fundamentally different from that of the guides. For all of those involved in selling a vision of Morocco to tourists, the distinctions between “national” and “international” tourists, and between rich and poor tourists, are negligible. Whether selling themselves, or a vision of their city, or rugs from rural areas and local factories, these Moroccans see tourists as people to listen to their stories and to exchange money for goods. Only in a city like Casablanca, which is listed in most guidebooks as “uninteresting” because it is not “historic,” can visitors shake free of constant demands that they need to be “guided.”

Even in remote villages, small children flock to see tourists, already savvy about the wealth of these city folk. From my notes:

As my son and I walked with a friend amidst several qsar [villages], groups of children asked for dirhams and said “Bonjour, madame,” “Bonjour, monsieur.” It was Ramadan, and many people working in Agadir, Casablanca or Marrakesh were visiting families in the area. The older people yelled at the children, telling them it was hshuma [shameful] to follow us around. In Ouarzazate, we met Tarik and Hassan, two young men walking about as aimlessly as ourselves, except that they were accompanied by a large boom box playing English rock. We all decided to visit the souk, because our new acquaintances thought that it was the most “typical” thing to see in the area. We chatted about the journey we planned to Zagora, further south, and about how one of the two youths, still in high school, dreamed of studying French literature in France some day. The fact that I had lived in Morocco for a number of years struck them as oddly interesting, as did our conversation in Moroccan Arabic. But what seemed to interest them most was simply the occasion to talk to people from a different place, and to tell us about their work and their villages.

My recollections of that afternoon with Tarik and Hassan are the flip side of hassled tourist-guide discussions. Here, in a remote village, I learned about the latest British bands and spoke in French with a young man who had never been to Casablanca, let alone Paris. While our relationship involved no money, our meeting was clearly somehow profitable for them as well as for us, a rupture in daily routine. Our interaction was facilitated by what we had in common — foremost language, but also music, previous journeys and commonly read books. Once we proved interested, and interesting, questions followed to elicit comparisons of our versions of Casablanca or the way Europeans live or what immigrants in Italy experience to those versions available in television and newspaper reports or from the stories of friends or other travelers.

What seemed to remain the same were Tarik and Hassan’s notions of what we might want to see or know about Morocco. Their vision of Morocco, and of what visitors should see, was not radically different from that presented in tourist guides and travel brochures: souk, medina, palace. They notice what travelers go to visit, and their extensive information about other places gives them some idea about what their areas have that other places do not. The Moroccan media, too, presents a notion of traditional Morocco and Moroccan identity which emphasizes some of the same characteristics as tourist literature: hospitality, Islam and historic monuments. [4]

Perhaps most interesting was the way in which the conversation shifted from questions about Europe and explanations about the market and silver jewelry to talk about Casablanca and Rabat. What was it like, they wanted to know, to live in the big city? Could one study there? How much did it cost to rent a room? Much in the way that our interchange tested received images about Europe, Morocco itself became an object of scrutiny.

Available Images

Travelers offer occasions to compare various kinds of knowledge about the world. Even if visitors do not talk with locals, they are observed, and their actions are mentally recorded and compared with those of members of other groups. Rather detailed notions of what Germans, Saudis, French or Americans are like get pieced together according to how they buy things or what kinds of shoes they wear. These images interact constantly with images coming from other types of sources.

So when my French friend used the image of the Club Med tourist — the parody of someone totally and deliberately cut off from his or her environment — as a means of establishing distance from the “tourist experience,” he was wrong in assuming that a voluntary openness to “real” local culture is both central to communication and something from which tourists shy away. For all the various motivations and itineraries among tourists in Morocco, each person or group contributes to ideas about others. The result is an often detailed version on the part of tourists, and those who receive tourists, about how behavior relates to place of origin, gender and social class.

These perceptions are constructed from available images, which convey a sense of nationality or of local custom. Indeed, produced images continually mediate interpretations of “self” and “other,” emphasizing differences that count and promoting journeys that will provide adventures. The production of the image of a nation has both internal and external components, and it is impossible to separate one from the other. [5] Local tourism industries produce or expose images for others and encourage the creation of new desires, while shared cultural references increasingly have come to blur some differences highlighted in guidebooks.

The notion of the journey itself becomes less clear. Mass transportation by car, train and plane has made the distinction between tourism and work or other types of leisure increasingly dependent on the creation of itineraries specifically designed to produce exotic experiences. The exotic can include viewing nomads, if one is from Marseilles, or sampling whiskeys in a hotel bar, if one is from Riyadh. Morocco presents a variety of images attuned to diverse things that visitors might not see, or be able to experience, at home. Presented as Islamic but liberal, open yet traditional, Mediterranean and African, francophone but Arab and Berber — the Morocco of tourist brochures is as accommodating as that country’s official political discourse. Control of this variety, of this something-for-everyone, and of the kinds of contacts it encourages, remains difficult to implement.

Footnotes

[1] For general information on tourism in Morocco, see Abderrahim Daoudi, L’Organisation et la reglementation du tourisme au Maroc (M. K. Bennani, 1994). For a view of “national” tourism in Morocco see Mohamed Berriane, Tourisme national et migrations de loisirs au Maroc (Rabat: Universite Mohammed V, Publications de la Faculte des Lettres et des Sciences Humaines, 1992).
[2] These remarks might be related to Bourdieu’s work on distinction. However, as recent anthropological studies on tourism indicate, a broader, less “national” perspective on movements and their relation to consumption and taste than Bourdieu’s is in order. See Pierre Bourdieu, La Distinction: Critique sociale du jugement (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1978).
[3] I am currently coordinating a project on “Cultural Practice and Communication Technology in the Maghreb” at the Institut de Recherche sur le Maghreb Contemporain in Rabat. Two of the projects included in this program, conducted by Yves Winkin and Justin McGuinness, deal with tourism in Morocco and Tunisia. I would like to thank them for their ideas on guide-tourist interaction.
[4] See the debates in the Moroccan press throughout March and April 1994, just prior to the GATT meeting in Marrakesh, for numerous debates about guides, cleaning up cities and general procedures for receiving visitors (Le Matin du Sahar, al-Ittihad al-Ishtiraki, Liberation, al-‘Alam).
[5] For discussions about the construction of the image of Morocco and its reception in homes or public spaces, see Susan Ossman, Picturing Casablanca (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994).

How to cite this article:

Susan Ossman "Boom Box in Ouarzazate," Middle East Report 196 (September/October 1995).
Cancel