What I’ll mostly remember about my first visit to Morocco will be the reception: two stops by policemen one afternoon, and a pair of roadside random checks on another. And that was just on the first two days.
Let me be clear: I’m not in any way suggesting that this north African Kingdom, the USA’s closest ally in the region whose No. 2 industry is tourism, is a police state. This is merely anecdotal evidence underscoring my uncanny ability to attract police wherever I go.
I spent the majority of my 72 hours (4-6 June 2011) on the ground in Rabat working, sequestered in a sprawling five star resort compound on a beautiful stretch of Atlantic coast beach. This isn’t a complaint about my accommodations – I’m just not generally a big fan of places like this, even when my cozy room is larger than some apartments I’ve lived in. There’s little differentiating these all-inclusive escapes to give them their own unique sense of place. I could have been dropped blindfolded here by helicopter and I’d have little clue as to whether I was in Morocco or Mombasa. Or somewhere in the south Pacific or Caribbean.
This compound, protected by gun-toting guards at each end, happens to be about 30 kilometers south of the Moroccan capital. (Just up the road is one of King Mohammad VI’s sprawling palaces – this one has the famous golf course – where a soldier stands guard every 100 feet or so.) But it’s a world away from interaction with typical Moroccans. I hate to think that some guests at the L’Amphitrite Palace Hotel never leave their comfortable holiday confines.
I managed to get away briefly on the Saturday afternoon, a four-hour visit to the city proper, which included pleasant strolls through the vast market area of the Medina, the grounds surrounding the impressive Mausoleum of Mohammed V, and the hilltop Kasbah of the Udayas. It was at the latter that a plainclothes officer made his presence known.
He was straight out of film: appearing from the edges of the scene, wearing midnight black-tinted sunglasses, a folded newspaper in hand. He asked my driver/guide who I was and what I was taking pictures of. The encounter took a more relaxed turn when I showed him my credentials for the event I was in town to cover. He then went on to explain how some visitors and tourists are “very aggressive” with their snapshots and videos which too often and too easily wind up on Youtube and Facebook. That was the second time I heard a Youtube and Facebook reference that day.
The first came at the Mausoleum about an hour earlier, where, following the lead and joining with other visitors who were standing directly beside me, I snapped a few shots of one of the ceremonial guards standing watch at one of the stunning building’s entrances. Taking my guide aside, he explained in a painstakingly long and detailed diatribe that locals taking pictures of him was different than visitors taking pictures. After checking my passport, he bid farewell. Unlike the plainclothes officer, his goodbye didn’t come wrapped in a smile.
The Arab Spring hasn’t blown through Morocco as forcefully as it has its neighbors to the east, but that doesn’t mean that all the King’s men aren’t dutifully keeping an eye on things. The roadside checks I saw were set up at regular intervals, both along the four-lane toll highways and the local two-lane byways. On both sides of the road, strips of metal spikes sat at the ready. The officers who stopped us there were extremely polite, pleasant and professional as they checked my driver’s documents. After engaging in some small talk, they allowed us to proceed.
The heightened security was put in place, my guide said, after the 28 April bombing in a café in Marrakech killed 16 people and injured another 23. It was the deadliest blast in Morocco in eight years. According to the national news agency, an al-Qaida group took responsibility for the remote-controlled nail bomb.
The incident was a major setback for Mohammed VI, who has managed to placate – for now – demonstrators with promises of constitutional reform. When he ascended the throne in 1999, he promised to take on poverty and corruption, to create jobs, and improve Morocco’s human rights record. (More in his wiki entry). But his reputation took a bit of a battering last December when cables in the Wikileaks dump suggested that corruption in the Royal family – Forbes estimates that Mohammed’s wealth tops $2 billion and that he shells out nearly $1 million per day on Palace operations – is alive and well and remains standard operating procedure.
There was little time for sight-seeing, but what little I saw was certainly well worth it. The Mausoleum of Mohammed V, built in 1971, is stately and beautiful, situated across a square from the 12th C. Hassan Tower, an unfinished minaret. The square itself is an unfinished Mosque.
The Kasbah of the Udayas provides nice views towards the neighboring Salé to the north and northeast, and the open Atlantic and some public beaches to the west. The walk to the top through narrow streets lined with blue and white-washed houses is pleasant, as are the few street musicians.
But it’s the Medina, or old city, that was most interesting to me. I didn’t do any shopping, but enjoyed the browsing, the scents, the sounds, the bloody butcher shop and fish market stalls. Don’t leave without having some absolutely exquisite mint tea.