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The Cultural Crossroads of Morocco

Posted on 4/21/2020 12:00:00 AM in Traveler Insights

Jann stands by the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea—just one of many crossroads that she experienced in Morocco.

By Jann Segal, 11-time traveler & 2-time Vacation Ambassador from Redondo Beach, CA

Morocco has more cultures to explore then the average tourist is aware of. In fact, I traveled there solo a few years ago and noticed bits of it. But it wasn't until I took Morocco Sahara Odyssey with Overseas Adventure Travel that I was able to truly experience the country and learn about all the cultural influences. And to me, this was pure bliss.

Cultural variances can be seen as soon as arrival in Casablanca. Although the language there is French and Arabic, Casablanca is clearly Spanish for "white house". In fact, the white house from which the city derives its name is located on the coast. I saw it when I arrived a couple of days early and had a driver and guide take me up the coast to the once Portuguese occupied town of Al Jedda among others. The Portuguese cannons facing the water can be seen in various parts of the country up and down the coast.

When the tour began, we soon left French Morocco for Spanish Morocco when we started the pre-trip to the blue city of Chefchaouen, which also included a couple nights in Tangiers. Although my French is choppy (and my Spanish choppier), I enjoyed speaking with the locals we met along the way in the little Spanish I know for this part of the trip. When we later started the base trip in Rabat, it was back to using my butchered French. Although while in Tangiers, it was geographically fun to see the coast of southern Spain and Gibraltar, and to stop in the spot that is the exact confluence of the Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans. Having been in southern Spain years ago, it was fun to be on the other side of the great divide.

Stars of David adorn a 14th-century mosque, symbolizing the cooperation between Muslims and Jews.

With all these different nationalities having invaded or having otherwise been part of Moroccan history, religions followed. The original Moroccans were Berber and were considered pagan. Many converted to Judaism. And of course, during the time of the Inquisition in the 1400s, many Jews fled Spain and Portugal for the safety of Morocco. But many also became "New Christians," and thus Christianity was introduced to Morocco.

We visited a ninth-century synagogue in Meknes in northern central Morocco, complete with a Torah, a mikvah, and even a place to make matzo for Passover. And while in Fez, where we were pretty much locked into the 14th century, we saw Stars of David on buildings, including on mosques in the medina. These were not just symbols of peace, we were told, as one would see in India; they were signs of true cooperation between Judaism and the relatively newer Muslim religion.

The Torah of a ninth-century synagogue in Meknes.

The Jewish influence could be seen everywhere; in pottery shops, where a good majority of the items for sale had Stars of David on them or were meant for Jewish rituals like the Sabbath; to the ordinary tourist shop, where very old Berber merchandise was for sale, and which had Stars of David on them. Although the Jews in Morocco were revered by the King at times in history and he held high positions near him, after World War II and the formation of Israel, they were asked to leave Morocco. Although Jewish history in Morocco is long and extensive, it also includes periods of persecution across the centuries. By 1948, when a significant number left Morocco, over quarter million Moroccan Jews left, and only about 2,500 remain today. To underscore the more violent part of this history, we saw a guillotine with a Star of David on it.

A nomadic family in the Sahara.

We also visited nomadic people in the desert, who were likely more Berber in heritage than anything else. In our visits with them, we saw a completely different class of people than some of the more middle-class people we had been meeting. One nomadic woman we met had lost all her teeth by the age of 25 because of the heavy use of sugar with their tea, a common custom. We saw nomadic children on bicycles in the Sahara, coming from seemingly nowhere to try to sell us goods. It was so heart breaking, some of us just gave them money and told them to keep their goods.

An especially unexpected cultural crossroads: a silhouette of the Beatles at a restaurant in Marrakesh.

But of course, today Morocco is largely Muslim, and in French Morocco the language is combined with Arabic. There are so many mosques in any one area, you can literally hear the trope of a call to prayer coming from multiple mosques simultaneously, and often it sounds in harmony with one another. Morocco can be many things to many people, and French-speaking Marrakesh is perhaps the most delightful of them all. But as a sign of how it has also reached more modern times (well, at least the 1960s), right next to our riad inside the medina was a restaurant with a huge silhouette of the four Beatles crossing Abbey Road! It was even on the front of the menu. As the owner explained to me with Beatles music playing in the background, his favorites were John and George.

Yes, Morocco and all its varied cultures has something for everyone indeed!

Experience the many cultural influences that come together in Morocco during Morocco Sahara Odyssey.

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