I CAN tell that she’s stunning, even beneath her Muslim hijab, as she sits next to me on my flight from Dubai to Casablanca, this pretty Palestinian woman and her handsome husband, a Moroccan man. She smells of musk and optimism and when I ask her about the name of her perfume, she opens her phone and conspiratorially shows me a photo of a beautiful woman with long, flowing hair.
“It’s me,” she whispers.
Despite her head covering, we are not that different, my seat mate and me. During the seven-hour flight she listens to Adele and watches Wonder Woman. I view a documentary on Whitney Houston, and punctuate the hours by listening to Mariah.
From time-to-time she teaches me a few Arabic words: Maharba (hello/welcome); Shokrun (Thankyou); and Smaheli (Excuse Me). The phrase I most adore, Mashi Muskil (no problem), rolls off my tongue with such delight I can practically taste the words.
But she looks perplexed when I ask her for a polite phrase to use in case I am hassled or harassed.
“You won’t be hassled,” she assures me.
Yet, I persist, until she asks her husband who eventually utters “Baed Meni” meaning “stay away from me.”
Seven hours later in Casablanca, a rusty, dusty place, my first impressions of the men pendulum from being complete gentlemen concerned about my welfare as a woman, travelling alone until I meet my tour group, to that of a bunch of leering, jeering fools.
Earlier that evening on the street, while talking to my hotel door man, I am hassled by three men speaking Arabic. I don’t understand what they say, but my hotel host looks horrified and explains: “They say something very bad to you. They are drunk.”
I have just met a bunch of Casablanca wankers.
“I can get this shabby treatment back in Brisbane,” I want to shout after them, but my limited Arabic fails me.
I have a long, dark night of the soul in my basic hotel room with an inexplicable amount of door locks. I can’t work out whether they are to keep me in or to keep someone out. Why have I come to this strange land all alone?
The solitary light bulb in my spartan room explodes, stranding me in complete darkness. I toss and turn until I hear the dawn call to prayer wailing out above the sleepy city.
So unfamiliar am I with this haunting, yet beautiful sound, at first I think it’s a motorbike in the distance. I lay in bed in the early morning cool and wait, impatiently for first light, still searching for meaning behind my latest travels. Of course, I am here to hunt and gather stories and photographs for my editors, but on a personal level, what is it that I seek?
The next day, I steel myself and catch a cab to the art deco museum which is a feat in itself, as cabs in Casablanca are shared affairs, with the driving stopping randomly to pick up other passengers. By now, I’ve learned the word for “hot” as in the weather. I practice my Arabic, telling the driver it is hot today. He replies “You are hot.”
I’m frustrated when, as each male passenger enters his cab, they begin a long conversation which, from the pointing and staring, includes me.
I make a lunch reservation for one and dine at Rick’s Café. Over Moroccan lemon roasted chicken with saffron rice, raita, and a cold Casablanca beer, the water asks: “You like Moroccan food?”
“Yes, very much,” I say.
“You like Moroccan men?” he asks.
“I don’t know yet,” I respond.
Is it fair to impose my Australian views on feminism onto another culture? I juggle this concept in my mind during my 13-day Intrepid Morocco Uncovered journey which starts in Casablanca before heading north to Rabat, east towards Meknes, north to Chefchaouen, south through Fes, Midelt and the Sahara, before hooking back west again through the M’Goun Valley, Ait Benhaddou and finishing at Marrakech.
Khaled, my Intrepid Travel tour guide and a proud Berber man from Morocco’s Indigenous people, teaches me about Moroccan marriage law.
As late as 2004, a man could have three wives under former laws which were brought in to support poor women. Now, a man can only take a second wife if his current wife agrees. And women can divorce their husbands, and in most cases, custody of the children is awarded to the mother.
It’s a complex system where if a Muslim man marries a non-Muslim woman, the woman need not convert to Islam, but if a Muslim woman marries a non-Muslim man, the man must convert.
Arranged marriage still exists in some villages and if a man visits a woman’s family and they serve him tea with sugar, he has been accepted into the family. If the tea is bitter, he has been rejected.
One magical morning, while wandering Morocco’s blue city of Chefchaouen, I catch an elderly couple holding hands. They disappear around a corner. Like a lost puppy I follow them for a while, watching him assist her up those steep streets. Wondering about their love story.
Khaled, 35, is a modern Moroccan man who, by his own admission, is a “bad Muslim” who drinks alcohol and rarely prays.
He confesses how he once told a young Moroccan woman in Marrakech who was wearing a skimpy outfit to cover up, saying he found her outfit “disrespectful.”
She told him to “mind his own business.”
I ask Khaled why there appear to be no woman anywhere in the country who frequent the coffee shops at which there are copious men.
He explains that “women don’t like going out for coffee”. He believes Moroccan women have equal rights to men in his country.
Exploring feminism in Morocco is like stumbling into the Fez medina without a guide. There’s 10,000 streets here, and in one wrong turn you can become hopelessly lost. Hakima, our Fez guide, says if a woman is smart, she will learn to shut her mouth to a stupid husband, and then do what she wants anyway. Perhaps feminism isn’t struggling here, but cleverly hidden, under the veil many women discarded here 1912.
Despite its differences and difficulties, allow yourself to fall in love with the people of this colourful kingdom in northern Africa. For they are generous souls with an incredible history.
By the end of my journey I know about 13 Arabic phrases, one for every day of my trip. And I’m smitten. Arabic sounds as spectacular as it looks in its written form. A rush of long, curly sounds and words that stretch as far as the Sahara itself.
Wrap your mouth around Morocco. And open your mind and heart. Things won’t be the same again. Inshallah.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel https://www.intrepidtravel.com/au/morocco/morocco-uncovered-100927
THE scorching Saharan sunshine is beating down upon me as I stumble, for 1.5 hours, barefoot, through Africa’s famed desert. Lawrence of Arabia, I am not. Just a foolish Australian woman who has decided to trek, rather than ride a camel, across this magical Moroccan land. I’m as stubborn as a mule, something I could do with right about now, as I slowly shuffle, increasingly sinking both with the soft sand and emotionally, through this starkly, stunning landscape.
The ochre sand is surprisingly cool and silky underfoot, as I curse my blatant stupidity with every step. What idiot decides to walk through the Sahara, up and over steep sand dunes, when there’s a perfectly competent caravan of camels available? Something that was not lost on the rest of my party, who at this point, are perched high above me, tossing words of encouragement, and the occasional bottle of water, down in my direction.
In my defence, while I like camels as animals and admire their incredible efficiency, I once had a bad experience on one while in Alice Springs. It was here, in Australia’s red centre, that my sexually-charged camel at the back of the pack, decided he wanted relations with a hot female at the front of the caravan, and hence proceeded to gallop past the rest of the herd, taking me flying in his wake. Another journalist colleague was once thrown from a camel, breaking several ribs. Camels and journalists get on as well as journalists and accountants. The two just don’t add up.
I am on a 13-day Intrepid Tour through mystical Morocco and up until now, things have gone swimmingly. Khaled, my Intrepid Tour Guide, a man for the traditional Berber tribespeople of Morocco, and someone who has become a friend, walks beside me for a while, until it becomes abundantly apparent he is annoyed with my antics. He attempts to show me a “shortcut”, leading me along a knife edge of dunes that are as high as 150 metres and drop away dramatically either side, but I am having none of it. We come to a standstill and bicker like lovers. “You said the sand was hard,” I protest. “No, I meant hard to walk on,” he reasons. Ah, by “hard” he meant “difficult”. Eventually, frustrated, he dumps me back at the camel caravan and disappears into the desert, his long, blue Berber robes flapping dramatically against the rusty landscape.
I clearly read the trip notes which said: “If you prefer, it’s possible to walk alongside the caravan on the sand for about an hour. But don’t worry, as it’s a gentle, relaxing walk.” Are they insane? Whoever wrote these notes has never walked beside a camel caravan in soft sand for 1.5 hours under the October Saharan sun. I trek on, caught between the first half of our caravan, and the second. I receive the occasional pitying look from the young camel herder when I ask how much further we have to travel, each peak delivering just more and more desert. I think back to the young Palestinian woman I met on the flight over, who warned me to “watch out” while I’m in the desert as “you never know what’s going to crawl out of the sand…like snakes.” And here I am, barefoot.
The more pressing issue than snakes is that the sun is setting rapidly and we are not even at camp. I have two choices. To lay down in the desert and die, or to pull myself together and keep walking. I consider the first option for a good minute, before I decide I can do this desert thing. I can make it out of the Sahara alive. The caravan and I limp into camp just as the sun sets and the night is cooling. I am so exhausted I retreat to my basic mattress on the floor and hot, fat tears roll down my face. I’m so angry at Khaled, I can’t even look at him. And even angrier with myself. “The sand wasn’t hard,” I say. “The sand was difficult.” In that cool, crude tent I give myself a good talking to, pull myself together and rejoin the group. One of the group has taken two cracker photos depicting the moment Khaled and I had our spat atop the sand hill, and the other when we made up, strolling down the dune holding hands, smiling. We all look at these perfect pictures depicting one of life’s comical moments and burst out laughing. Khaled and I are friends again. Order is restored. Yes, this was me at my desert dumbest.
Later that night we eat a simple beef tagine and lay under the stars on woven Moroccan rugs. The clear, cool, North African night sky is a belly dancer’s costume of diamontes. I crawl into my cot and fall asleep to the sound of drums, before the desert finally concedes to a Saharan silence. The next morning, I lay awake, aching, to the symphony of a snoring camel. Yet there remains one problem. How the hell am I getting out of this desert? Luckily, Khaled, professional that he is, has arranged for me not to depart by foot or camel, but a 4×4 over the desert dunes. Under a yawning saffron sunrise, the 4×4 climbs the steep dunes, pauses, and then shoots down into the valleys. I squeal with pure delight. We repeat this giddy trek over and over before I arrive back at our meeting point and I can’t help smiling. These peaks and troughs remind me of why we travel. You never know what’s over that next sand dune. And it turns out to be the ride of my life.
The Global Goddess travelled to Morocco as a guest of Intrepid Travel https://www.intrepidtravel.com/au/morocco/morocco-uncovered-100927
MARHABI from Morocco where I am currently on assignment. Tomorrow I’ll be heading via camel into the Sahara Desert, 7km from the Algerian border. I’ll be back soon with plenty of travel tales from my Moroccan adventure. In the meantime, check out my photos on Instagram @aglobalgoddess.com
The Global Goddess is travelling in Morocco as a guest of Intrepid Travel https://www.intrepidtravel.com/au/morocco/morocco-uncovered-100927
ENSCONCED in an international airline lounge you can be anyone in the world. This journey begins in the Emirates Lounge in Brisbane, where, wrapped in my purple pashmina, I pretend I am a princess of Persia. I am whiling away the hours before my flight to the Middle East, dreaming of delicious dates that dance around my mouth like music, and figs that foxtrot. I snack on bright beetroot hummus and tangy tabouli. There’s beef carpaccio with truffle pecorino. I swirl Moet around my palate to wash down white and dark chocolate profiteroles with chiboust cream filling. It’s a delectable start to an exotic trip.
Fourteen hours later, and I land in Dubai where, in this Emirates Lounge, I am a maiden of Morocco, my ultimate destination for this travel tale. This close to my delicious destination, I can already smell the souks. The riads are becoming real. In this luxe lounge I sip mint tea, take a spiffy shower and daydream of cool Casablanca nights where I am Bergman in search of her Bogart. In another six hours, the warm north African breeze will frizz my hair and curl my mind. I can’t wait to wrap the foreign place names around my tongue. Marrakech sounds like a lover. Fez, like someone who could betray me. There will be desert nights and delights. Camel rides and sleeping under the stars. Haggling in the heat. Sandals and sand storms. Mosques and mountains. I am brimming with wonderment.
International airline lounges offer us that rare, brief, delightful pause in our travels. I want to announce to all of the other strangers with whom I share this sacred space that I’m off to Casablanca, slowly sounding out each brilliant consonant. But they are entwined in their own fabulous fantasies. Instead, I use this as a chance to stretch my legs and unleash my over-stimulated mind, allowing it to roam free. For it is here, waiting in airports, that we forage among our imagination and dare to dream of new horizons and bold beginnings. We think of old lovers and new friends we are yet to meet. As for Emirates, it’s one of the best in the business. Would I travel with them again? Play it again, Sam.
The Global Goddess was a guest in both lounges of Emirates https://www.emirates.com/au/english/ and is travelling in Morocco as a guest of Intrepid Travel https://www.intrepidtravel.com/au/morocco/morocco-uncovered-100927