Morocco is a country that beckons many a traveler. With its vibrant colors, unique architecture, and fascinating culture, it’s hard to ignore the pull to visit.
Writer Briana Moore recently spent six days in Morocco for a short holiday, taking most of that time to explore Marrakech. I caught up with her to hear about her experience there, find out what she was most drawn to, and learn a bit more about her conflicting feelings about the country.
What were your expectations for your first trip to Morocco?
I have to admit that I was swept up by the Instagram influencer perception of Morocco before I even arrived. Perhaps this was merely a case of confirmation bias, but our visit provided another glance into a phenomenon I’ve observed and repeatedly discussed over the years (notably in an interview with ONA).
In our attempts to experience a new culture, away from our comfort zones, we often bring our bubbles with us and remain safely ensconced inside. As I looked more closely into the hammams, shops, and public attractions repeatedly recommended online, I realized that many of these options offered little opportunity to connect with the community beyond a surface level. Many points of interest that are posted? over and over on Instagram are never visited by a single local. Often, a visitor’s patronage barely helps support the local economy, as the tourist experiences are typically owned by Western companies based outside of Morocco or by the extremely wealthy. Even shopping in the souks is a somewhat detached experience if the only conversation centered around the inevitable haggle.
After visiting Morocco, I feel this is a shame, because it’s easy to discover and enjoy similar luxuries in a way that also benefits the community. I would highly encourage anyone visiting Morocco to suppress the urge to explore or photograph just “for the ’gram.” There will be countless opportunities for a gorgeous photo, and your trip will be all the more valuable at the end if you walk away having experienced a genuine piece of the culture.
Other than that, I expected to get lost much more than I did! The medina was surprisingly simple to navigate once we got our bearings.
I was also curious about the degree of sexism I would encounter, but, truthfully, it wasn’t difficult. I managed to make it through the entire week without a single incident. I’m sure part of this had to do with respecting the culture, particularly when it came to my clothing, and I also found that a mix of a broad smile with a firm hand seemed to be the right balance when interacting with the men.
When you arrived, what were your first impressions? What things stood out to you?
Truthfully, I was a little uneasy! Not because of safety concerns, but rather because I’ve never been comfortable being waited on with hawk-eyed awareness. We were given such
incredible service from the moment we touched down in Marrakech — our accommodation included airport pick up and baggage transport through the bustling streets, and the service at our riad was impeccable. It was lovely, but it took time to get over my own discomfort. Eventually, I felt easier in the constant care of our hosts, but I still was playfully chastised for carrying our tea trays down from the roof myself.
Naturally, the colors stood out. Marrakesh is nothing if not vibrant. I noticed the children were a bit cheeky, which made conversation quite entertaining. Interestingly, I also observed a hardness in the locals, a callousness worn into their psyche by the side of tourism that treats them like background characters.
I’ve never struggled this much to document candid moments — in Morocco, people are always on their guard. Due to this hyper-awareness, I usually asked permission to take portraits of the craftsmen and used it as an opportunity to start a conversation. I also brought small change as a thank you to those I wanted to photograph but could not make a purchase, though many of them responded best to a broad smile and genuine interest. Kindness and respect go a long way when language and culture divide you, and I am grateful for all of the remarkable artisans that allowed me to document their livelihoods.
But a significant number of others wanted more — their focus split, always on the lookout for someone who may consider them simply as a photo op, not as a soul. Many reacted with anger just seeing a camera hanging from my side. They would respond this way no matter the interaction and, while some felt like insufferable bullies, there were so many others who simply seemed exhausted by the efforts to maintain a little privacy and dignity. I felt as if we travelers had taken a beautiful, native habitat and turned the area into a human safari park for our own pleasure. Honestly, it broke my heart.
Your photos from Morocco focus on specific details. What was your photographic process like while exploring? What things did you gravitate toward?
There’s a reason I always travel with a 50mm lens, and a majority of my favorite images from my editorial gigs and portraits are shot on an 85mm. I love the intimacy of tight, detailed shots because that’s typically where the narrative unfolds.
I gravitate toward the details that humanize strangers and reveal something beautiful about their own story. Due to the vigilance mentioned above, I found my need to photograph specific details, or simple portraits, to be even stronger while exploring Marrakech. When I was out, I typically asked myself: “What about this moment/location/interaction is unique?” and then zeroed in on that element. I gravitated toward color, texture, and expression.
Can you tell me about one or two of your favorite experiences from Morocco?
Hands down, my favorite few minutes of the trip was taking this portrait. We were meandering back from the photography museum when I noticed this weathered old man, walking slowly, taking in his surroundings with the sweetest smile on his face. I couldn’t stop thinking about him, so I turned back and asked to take his portrait. He spoke very little English, but I managed to tell him that I wanted to take his photo because I loved his smile. His beaming grin in response was so tender and warm. I live for these special connections.
Another rather intimate and hilarious experience took place right in our riad. There was a hammam inside the building, and we requested the use of it with little information about what was going to happen inside. It wasn’t a lavish spa with music and candles and perfectly quaffed staff, like we thought it might be. My fellow travel mate and I walked in to find a steam room complete with a few tubs of hot water, argan soap, exfoliating balms, and an elderly lady wearing nothing but her underpants. This was going to be an authentic hammam, and it was not an experience for the timid. She splashed, patted, and scrubbed with vigor and, though we couldn’t speak a single common word with her, we became rather adept at hand signals and flamboyant facial expressions, so all three of us were laughing within minutes. It was apparent that she had done this her entire life, and she playfully but firmly conducted us as if we were her own sullied, mischievous grandchildren. Upon exiting the room, my soaking hair freshly braided by her weathered hands, we parted ways with a smile and a wave. I’m fairly certain I’ve never been so clean, nor slept so well.
Sidenote: holding a soft baby tree goat is life-affirming. That is all I have to say about that experience.
What makes Morocco such a unique place? Why should people visit?
It is a land that assaults each of your senses in ways that you will yearn for upon your departure. The food is divine (given that you enjoy cumin), especially the tagines. I’ve even taken to chewing pieces of cinnamon bark since my visit. The colors and textures can make even the most reserved adult feel like a giddy child, igniting the urge to reach out and caress the textiles, spices, and carvings. Obviously the architecture and design are remarkable, particularly the enchanting use of Zellige tiling.
Morocco has a way of making you nostalgic for a life you never actually lived.
I highly recommend eschewing the traditional hotel and booking a stay at a riad. There is a magic within the riads that I haven’t felt in any other lodging. Sharing a pot of tea on the roof or reading a book while ensconced in the thick atmospheric walls (particularly after wandering through the narrow teeming streets of the medina) feels both effortless and indulgent.
What did you take away from your time in Morocco?
Sadly, I didn’t take away any leathers or textiles … though I desperately wanted to. We were on a budget, and I let my husband James indulge in the shopping on this trip.
Personally, though, I returned with a set of conflicting emotions, many of which I mentioned above. I consider Morocco to be a complicated and beguiling country, alive with creative spirit and divided by great inequality. It is a nation that we, as travelers, need to handle with far more respect and humanity. It is so easy to be overcome by the delightful satiation of our basic senses, but I encourage those who visit to thoughtfully nurture their sense of goodwill.