Morocco: Introduction

  • © woschie,

    © woschie,


If you take the boat from Spain to Morocco, it's possible to make out the outline of the city of Tangier well before you get there; a mass of white houses glimmering in the sunlight, picturesquely huddled together on a cliff that drops steeply to the sea. 'Once you've seen the white city once, you'll always long to return,' or so the inhabitants of Tangier like to remind us.

It might sound a touch sentimental, but it's part of the myth of the city of Tangier, which, prior to Morocco's independence, was an 'International Zone': a meeting place for the rich and famous, rogues and artists, and known for its cosmopolitan flair. This 'Gateway to Africa' lies barely 14km/9mi from the coast of Spain on the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar. It isn't just Tangier that you will find unforgettable, but all the impressions and experiences you bring back from Morocco. Thanks to its extraordinary geographical, historical and cultural diversity, this is a country that really is very different.

Vast deserts, broad, fertile plains and long beaches

Morocco covers an area of 446,550 sq km/172,414 sq miles. Its landscape includes snow-capped mountains, vast expanses of desert, fertile plains and endless sandy beaches. In Oukaimeden, an idyllic resort in the Atlas mountains, you can either go skiing or hiking, depending on the time of year. All along the 1835km (1140 mile) coast, practically deserted beaches invite you to relax in the perfect sunny climate; for those who want to be more active, there are small and sleepy towns like Sidi Ifni to the south of Agadir, where you can surf all year round. Most of the big cities have first-class golf courses, including the Marrakech Royal Golf Club and the Royal Golf Dar Es Salam course near Rabat, which are among the best in the world.

Amazing expeditions in the Sahara

Particularly enticing are expeditions into the western Sahara Desert, which accounts for about one-third of the total area of Morocco. Anyone interested in ancient history will find evidence and traces of the early conquerors of Morocco, the Phoenicians and Romans. The Roman administrative centre of Volubilis near Meknès is one of the most important archaeological sites in the country, and its presence here demonstrates just how far the Roman Empire reached.

The early history of the coastal regions of Morocco is one of foreign conquest and rule. This had a big impact on the development of the country, whereas the interior, especially the mountain and desert regions, remained largely untouched. After the Romans, the Vandals from southern Spain penetrated into northern Africa. Then, in the 8th century, the Muslim Arabs came to occupy the area of present-day Morocco. They introduced not only their delicate and ornate architecture, so typical of cities like Marrakech and Fès, but also their religion, Islam, which remains the official religion of the country to this day. The muezzin calls the faithful to prayer five times a day, and all religious holidays are strictly observed. If you want to glimpse Islam in action, it's worth scheduling your visit to include at least a few days of the fasting month of Ramadan: in the late afternoon there is traffic chaos as everyone races to get home on time; as the sun sets, cannon shots signal the breaking of the fast, and then, for one or two hours, the towns are completely deserted, and the noise of cutlery on plates can be heard through the open windows.

From the time of the Arab conquest to the 20th century, the political history of Morocco was that of an uninterrupted succession of local Muslim dynasties. After the collapse of the Arab Empire in around 1400, the country was also subjected to interventions by the Spanish and the Portuguese, and by the 19th century the Spanish and the French were realizing their colonial ambitions. Eventually, Morocco was divided into separate Spanish and French protectorates, whereby the Spanish acquired the northernmost portion, and the French took over the remaining (not to mention largest) piece of the country. Only in 1956, after bloody uprisings against the colonial powers, did Morocco achieve its independence.

The King responds to the needs of his people

As elsewhere in the developing world, Morocco, with its population of 32 million, faces huge economic and social challenges. Nevertheless, it is the fifth largest economy in Africa, boosted in part by the export of phosphates, of which it is the world's third-largest producer. Per capita GDP stands at around $5,000. The official rate of illiteracy is around 40%, while unemployment is officially 11.5%. Today, however, the country is much better off than it was as recently as 1999, when the present King, Mohammed VI, succeeded to the throne on the death of his father, Hassan II.

Most Moroccans love and trust their young king, which isn't surprising when you look at how the economic figures and crime statistics have improved in recent years, and also how ready the monarch has been to respond to the wishes of his people. In 2011, for example, during the Arab Spring, the constitution was amended to give more powers to the elected parliament and significantly curtail those of the monarch. Women have gained equal rights, press freedom has advanced and education has been significantly improved. The economy, too, has stabilized, with healthy growth rates in comparison to most of the Western world. Administration has been decentralized and land ownership has been opened up to foreigners. The establishment of companies and enterprises has also been promoted in order to diversify manufacturing and exports beyond established products such as textiles. In 2005, King Mohammed launched the National Initiative for Human Development, a programme aimed at alleviating poverty by such means as expanding electricity to rural areas, and replacing urban slums with public housing. Social security has also been introduced.

Generous hospitality

Corruption, one of the country's main scourges under Hassan II, is being confronted and tackled. However, it is clear that things can't change overnight. One of the major challenges the country faces is improving job prospects for young Moroccans, particularly as they make up more than 50% of the total population. Large-scale youth unemployment breeds dissatisfaction, which manifests itself partly in the fact that radical fundamentalists continue to find willing foot soldiers from these groups. There are still far too few jobs in Morocco, and it isn't surprising that there have been demonstrations against unemployment, particularly in the capital, Rabat, which grew louder with the onset of the so-called Arab Spring. However, in contrast to elsewhere, the process of change and reform in Morocco had already been set in motion, and so the authorities have been better able to meet the campaigners' demands.

Today, the influence of the former colonial powers is still very noticeable. The official language is Arabic, but French is widely spoken, and in parts of the north you’ll also hear Spanish. You can buy French baguettes in the bakeries, and in some restaurants the menu might include salade Niçoise, escalope or paella. Most shops are closed during the afternoon; after a late lunch a siesta is part and parcel of the daily routine for most people. Together with the Arab attitude to life, which places more importance on the present than the future, which is in God's hands, there is in Morocco a perfect blend of Mediterranean and oriental lifestyles. It is this laissez faire, as well as the generous hospitality of the Moroccans and their openness towards foreigners, that makes the country such an attractive place to visit.

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