Morocco During Covid

Sonia is a young Moroccan woman who plans visits to Morocco for travelers from other countries. It was she who scouted and sourced places for many of the sites we visited while in Marrakech for Joanne Weir’s Culinary Adventure. Several of my traveling colleagues and I also asked Sonia to plan extra excursions for us. She joined me for an end-of-Ramadan celebration dinner at a popular Moroccan restaurant, Al Fassia, owned by two sisters and totally staffed from kitchen to servers, by women. https://youtu.be/vOIxYl2T5kU. You can enjoy a video that includes dinner at Al Fassia if you click on the link above. During the course of our nearly five-hour dining experience, she shared with me a bit of what it was like to be in Marrakech when the town was totally locked down—for two years. Most stores, restaurants, and businesses were closed. The tourism business was particularly hard hit—which I had heard while in Casablanca as well. Because Morocco, the country, was closed to visitors as well.

Two years of no income with barely a week to plan for how to provide for family and self, with no idea how long the lockdown would last. Most vendor’s doors in the souks were fastened closed. Local food supplies were limited, International supply chains ceased. It has just been within the past month that visitors to this country have started to return. Our guide and driver in Casablanca told us we were his first customers since the country opened. While driving from Marrakech to Casablanca for the return flight to the US, my driver confirmed that he, too, was out of work for nearly two years. The government, like ours, provided small monthly payments for sustenance to Moroccan families, but for many, homes and cars were lost, marriages shattered and lives lost not only to Covid but because folks were unable to cope. By small stipend, I mean the equivalent of $200 a month. 

Out of respect for privacy I will only say that for individuals responsible for food, rent, utilities, daily sustenance, the experience was dire, depressing, and at times desperate. I believe my friend Sonia had to dig deep into her soul and psyche to find out how strong she really is. It has given her the strength and courage to grow her business with a clearer vision, experience new energy and to write a new chapter to a story that veered towards desperation during that two year period. Here is a link to Sonia’s website in case any of you readers are thinking about traveling to Morocco.

https://www.absolutemorocco.com

So, the Morocco we saw was like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon—still a bit tentative, still making repairs and restoration to restaurants, hotels and businesses and so excited and grateful to have tourists back in their country. But a closer look into the eyes and countenance of some vendors revealed a fatigue, a deep sadness, a tinge of worry that sometimes seeped through their gracious personas.  This was particularly true in Marrakech because it was completely shuttered to outside visitors during COVID.  There were absolutely no tourists—which is the major industry of that city.  The larger industrial towns like Casablanca and Rabat (capital of Morocco) maintained some levels of international business. It wasn’t until I slowed down to a meandering pace in the last week of my stay in Marrakech that I could really read those faces and confirm my assessment with a couple of trusted staff at the hotel where I spent the last five days. 

Photos below are from the end-of-Ramadan dinner we enjoyed at Al Fassia. First course was all those little plates of salads you see on the table plus some tasty appetizers wrapped in a filo-type casing and stuffed with cheese based fillings. Below that is a tagine of lamb shoulder with slow roasted, almost caramelized tomatoes topped with sesame seeds. It was fork tender and tasted both sweet and savory.   And below the lamb is a vegetable couscous main dish that was also part of our meal. 

I loved everything about this visit to Morocco. I knew I’d appreciate the architecture, decor, tile work, fabrics and colors—but what surprised me most was the gentille graciousness of almost everyone I came in contact with. To a person, they were polite and welcoming, would and did do almost anything to help make their visitors comfortable. This was particularly true for me as I wobbled and lurched sometimes while using a walking stick and battling vertigo. Stellar support from taxi driver to tok tok driver, from hotel housekeeping to the hotel concierge.  There was always someone at my side, unbidden, when there was a step.  I could not crack the very hard shells of king crab legs at Sunday lunch even with all the tools they gave us. My server not only cracked those legs, but all the other hard shelled seafood, took out the meat, and removed all the shells.  Now THAT was above and beyond service. 

Hotel staff, restaurant servers in most of the tourist places still wear masks. Occasionally one sees a mask on a chin, but for the most part, mouths and noses are completely covered. And during all but two days of my three week stay in Morocco, all the Muslims in the country were fasting from sunup to sun down. By fasting I mean, breakfast before sunrise then no food, no water, no sex, no THINKING about sex, until fifteen minutes past sunset. As the month of April unfolded, sunset kept getting later and later. One could tell that nerves were frayed and patience short the closer it came to the end of each day, particularly if in a car. Horn honking and hand waving took on a sense of frenzy. Our bus driver Samir was in a clatter of cars that came to a total impasse as he tried to drive us out of Marrakech to our suburban riad late one weekday afternoon. He backed his bus down a narrow street in search of another way out of town—cars, bikes and donkeys coming within a fraction of an inch from our vehicle.

One of my travel colleagues brought a big sack of See’s lollipops to hand out as tokens of kindness to our drivers and guides. They were able to take them, but had to set them aside until time for fasting had passed. Without thinking I would offer a guide water on a particularly warm day and of course they declined. I imagined how hard it must be to prepare and serve food to others throughout the day if you were a Muslim, fasting. While I had lunch, my guide, Mustapha, went to the mosque to pray.  The call to prayer is broadcast five times a day from all the mosques in the cities.  There was an aire of lightness and relief on Monday May 2nd as the final day of Ramadan ended. Streets were packed with people celebrating, restaurants filled to capacity as families gathered to celebrate the holiday called Eid.  It is a high holy holiday for Muslims. Tentatively, I  wished people within proximity Eid Mubarak which, loosely translated, means holiday blessings. Tentative because I was never quite sure I was pronouncing Eid correctly. It’s more like ‘aid’ than the way we would pronounce ei.  Those wishes were always joyfully reciprocated with bright smiles and a hearty thank you—“Shukrun, Madame, Shukrun.”  Fasting and multiple daily prayers during Ramadan are intended to strengthen one’s faith, cleanse thoughts, re-affirm and refine personal goals and habits.  A server at one of the restaurants where we ate a meal said she has focussed on losing weight during Ramadan.  

Now, not all in Morocco was beautiful riads and red roses. I was appalled at the condition of horses, who waited all day long in the sun, in their feces, harnessed and ready to give rides to visitors. One could see their gaunt ribs and protruding hip bones, flesh, dull coats hanging loosely, they kept raising one foot and then the other while standing on hot pavement all day long, flies all about. There was not much evidence of food or water along the line of maybe twenty horse carriages. The stench when passing by the carriage line said it all about their conditions. There was no way I could give business to those drivers.

It was slightly better for the camels that were tethered to each other in large dry fields in the Palmeraie suburbs of Marrakech, many with their babies beside them. They did have plenty of hay and maybe they did not need as much water as horses. The area where they waited to give rides appeared much more clean. No, I didn’t ride a camel and somehow left Morocco without getting a photo of them—decked out in their bright red blankets and camel saddles. This photo is one I found on the internet from another traveler.

8 thoughts on “Morocco During Covid

  1. Wonderfully honest with a compassionate heart you shared the joy you experienced as well as the effects of COVID’s lock down on the residents.

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  2. Thank you for an insightful account of a foreign land and it’s people. Different language, customs, religion and culture, but truly tied to the same Divine. We are one!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Love your posts, especially this one. You certainly got into the heart and soul of the people and country. Thanks for the trip. Joan

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  4. Susie, your post makes me want to go to Morocco, if only to support the local culture. I imagine this same scenario across so many countries and cultures. It also reminds me to be much more grateful for the business I do have. When my tours don’t book up I’m wondering why, but realize this recovery will be slow even in our country. Love all your thoughtful descriptions of the people and food and overall experience!

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    • Heather—When you start planning your trip to Morocco (ahem!) I will introduce you to Sonia—who can help you put it together, and to Mustapha, guide extraordinaire and just a fabulous gentleman. That goes for any other reader of this blog as well. They are such great people.

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