A Foreigner’s Reception

In this post, American Matthew Helmke explores the ups and downs of living as a foreigner in Morocco.

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American researcher and writer. 5 comments

Thursday, July 29th, 2010


I first visited Morocco in 1999 as a self-guided tourist. I bought plane tickets and
went from place to place with a couple of friends. We made decisions about what
to see and where to go day by day with help from guidebooks like Lonely Planet
and The Rough Guide. Our goal was to meet people and learn about the country
first-hand while having a relaxing holiday while eschewing the mass-transit tour
bus and 4 or 5 star hotel experience.

During that visit I had the privilege of meeting tons of people everywhere we
went. Some were hucksters wanting money for a “tour” or to take us to a trinket
shop, however most were genuinely nice people who seemed to enjoy meeting
and talking to American tourists willing to spend time learning instead of gawking.
A couple of experiences stand out in my memory and were instrumental in a later
decision to move to Morocco.

Deep in the Southern Souss plain, in the town of Tiznit, I sat in a public area in
the shade during a hot part of the day. A young man, obviously a student, came
and sat next to me and began practicing the English he was learning in school.
We had been enjoying a nice conversation for only about 10 or 15 minutes
when I found myself invited to bring all of my friends and have a meal at the
young man’s house. We gratefully accepted and found ourselves escorted to the
modest home of a typical, lower-economic-status working class family. We were
treated like royalty with a huge, multi-course dinner and hours of gracious and
friendly hospitality.

As the sun was setting, we were asked where we planned to stay that night and
we gave the name of a local one star or unclassified hotel we had found in the
guidebook. Our hosts insisted that we not check in to the hotel and that we stay
at their home, even after we refused multiple times. Finally, we assented and
accepted their kind offer, the five of us staying the night sleeping on the couches
in the main room of the house and sharing the squatty potty with the family next
door as well as the family with whom we were staying.

This scenario was repeated several times all over Morocco, in big cities like
Marrakech and Fes as well as smaller towns. We were always treated with great
deference and kindness as our hosts offered us food and housing, which we
always refused the first and second times they were offered, but those offering
were usually so insistent that we gave in and were humbled to watch Moroccan
families sacrifice to treat us like kings.

The next year I returned with a different set of friends and we toured new areas
of Morocco using the same method, self-guided “let’s see how real people live
and meet as many as we can” flexible-schedule travel following our interests
and fate. We never failed to meet kind and friendly Moroccans everywhere we
went and, even though we sometimes stayed in hotels and ate in restaurants,
we always went away from a town thrilled that we had visited and we again went
home with great stories of kindness and hospitality.

It was at that time that I was looking for a change in my life, a new adventure. I
packed my bags and moved to Morocco, thinking I would study Arabic for a while
and see where that led. I stayed for seven years, first working at a language
school and later starting and running a consulting firm working with foreigners
looking to do research or business in Morocco.

In some ways, Morocco was consistently hospitable to me the entire time I lived
there. It was different than when I was traveling, perhaps because in the earlier
instance people knew they wouldn’t be hosting me for a long time, but just a day
or two, whereas once I lived there, once you open the door and allow someone
in your home, you don’t close the door to them again unless you want to break
off the relationship. Even so, people consistently treated me with gentleness,
kindness and respect and for me, Morocco was an easy place to make friends
and live (it helped when I learned Arabic, and especially became highly proficient
in the local dialect).

However, not everything was sunshine and roses. Systematically, Morocco is
not hospitable to foreigners. It is unusually difficult to get a work visa (you must
first prove no Moroccan is qualified to hold the position for which you were hired).
Starting a business is a bureaucratic nightmare; for me this involved trips to
multiple government offices in more than one city, interviews with people in each
one to explain what I was doing in the country and why, a background check
with the police and extensive questioning that was occasionally uncomfortable
and weird in its implication that I might be up to no good, and I couldn’t apply for
a resident visa until the process was complete…a process which outlasted my
tourist visa by 4 months, so I had to travel out and back in to Morocco several
times just to stay legal.

Most people I met in Morocco, when I told them I lived and worked there, had
one of three reactions. Some were thrilled and expressed joy at my presence.
These became my friends as time went by. Others acted glad but soon asked
me for a job, either for themselves or relatives or friends. I can’t blame them
as I could easily see how difficult it can be to find work, but I could only hire a
limited number of workers and the constant barrage was sometimes taxing.
The third group looked at me with suspicion or derision, either because I was
a foreigner who may be taking jobs from Moroccans (even though I was doing
things impossible for locals to do, according to the paperwork I had to provide the
government demonstrating so), because they thought I was there for nefarious
purposes as a spy or a missionary, or in a few cases because I was a dirty infidel
who didn’t and couldn’t live up to their conservative-fundamentalist religious
standard of morality. Thankfully the last group was the smallest by a large
margin, and I should also interject that I ended up becoming friends with some
people who started out in our relationship as members of that group.
In each government office I was forced to visit, from the Ministry of Education
in Rabat to local bureaus in Fes or Casablanca, workers were apologetic and
kind. Some even asked me why my dossier was sent to them and why anyone
thought their signature should be necessary as they smiled, sighed, and signed.
I was given the impression in one or two places that processes would be faster
with a little money to grease the wheels, but I was never explicitly asked and
never paid a bribe. I know this has not always been true for foreigners, but was
never an issue for me. However, the detail and expense made starting and
running a business in Morocco something I do not wish to repeat. Even closing
my business took time, visits to many offices, and lots of signatures. This is
what made Morocco less than hospitable for me as a resident foreigner. It was
near hostility in the midst of one of the most welcoming society I have ever
experienced and another example of what makes Morocco such a difficult place
about which to generalize. I’ll go back and spend time with the people and culture
I fell in love with, but only to visit. I don’t expect ever to live in Morocco again.

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Posted on Thursday, July 29th, 2010

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5 comments on “A Foreigner’s Reception”

  1. There is a clear distinction between people and government in this article.


  2. alice frances

    This is a very interesting article, very illuminating, and I can relate to every word. There is a distinction between visiting and living in Morocco, as a resident. The latter is nightmarish, because the Government discourages infiltration by other cultures, the
    Arab Islamists want to keep other cultures ‘out’. The Berber people you meet day to day are extremely kind.
    The small percentage of hostile people, who rule the country, sadly they are very paranoid and suspicious of foreigners. Largely due to their Islamic code of life. However, they realise the value and necessity of tourists and the code of hospitality in Arab culture is observed by these also.
    Morocco is not a place to settle for any Westerner, without a reliable and independent source of income, and preferably for a few months at a stretch, long term, forget it, imho.
    I spent a month there and discovered the truth about living in Morocco first hand, I met a lady who is struggling with a business there. My Berber friends there also told me the truth about Morocco and its attitude to foreign residents, not a healthy system.
    I admire your courage and spirit of adventure Matthew, and learning Arabic was a great thing to do. It will stand you in good stead for the future I am sure. I believe it is important to understand this language in order to understand people who have such a profound impact on the world.


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