Jamal was our driver and guide for a one-day tour of the Atlas Mountains valleys. 27-year-old Moroccan Arab. Chatty, helpful, lame sense of humour. One of the best guides I’ve encountered.
After a delicious traditional Berber lunch, Jamal made a pit stop somewhere up a mountain. We stepped out to admire the valley and green terraces below us, and ice-capped peaks in the far distance. The sky was a clear azure. The winter air was cool and crisp. A perfect day.
I forgot how it happened. But at some point, during a conversation about Morocco’s attractions, Jamal started telling us about himself.
Jamal came from a small town in Southern Morocco. It was the kind of place where people trusted each other enough to leave their doors unlocked and their mopeds out in the open.
But it wasn’t the kind of place that had a lot of growth opportunities. So, Jamal had to travel further and further afar to pursue his education. He eventually got accepted into the University of Marrakesh.
Jamal studied accountancy there but hated it. He was never a numbers person to begin with, the only reason he took up accountancy was because everyone around him said it was “useful”. Compared to the arts and humanities, which was where Jamal’s heart lay. Finally, he had enough of accountancy, and switched to English and English Literature. Being good at languages, Jamal was a lot happier with his new programme.
After graduating, Jamal aimed to work as a translator. Due to various reasons he didn’t go into detail about, that did not work out. He tried various jobs in marketing and sales. Being an English teacher was out of the question as the pay was not good. Finally, he got his current job as a tour guide.
Jamal still enjoys learning languages. His English is fluent; you’d think he grew up speaking the language. Besides English and his native Arabic, he knows French and Spanish. He is studying German now.
The two sides of Morocco
We gazed at the blue mountains in the far distance during the pause in our conversation. Such tranquil, beautiful scenery. There’s nothing like that in Singapore.
Jamal continued, “Morocco is blessed in many ways. Natural resources, stunning landscapes, and plenty of food here. It’s a rich country … but with no money. Corruption caused a lot of money to end up in the wrong hands, leaving little for the people. So, here in Morocco, unemployment is high and a lot of people are poor. If you don’t have a job, well, you’re on your own. The government does not do much to take care of you.”
He smiled. “Well, that was a brutally honest take on Morocco, coming from a tour guide. I ‘ve heard visitors gush over Morocco’s natural beauty and rich culture. But not many are truly aware of the other side of Morocco – the inequality, poverty, and everyday fight for survival.
Some tourists asked me if the crafts people and local guides they encounter are actors who perform for tourists. I’d look at them, incredulous. Of course not! They don’t do what they do for ‘show’! These folks are trying to make a living from their traditional and local knowledge.”
A little more understanding
I can’t say that I have an intimate understanding of Morocco. This was my first visit. I was there with my family for a week, mainly in the areas surrounding Marrakesh and the Sahara Desert.
But after the conversation with Jamal, I paid closer attention to the “other” side of this beautiful country.
In the Atlas Mountains region, I observed lonely hawkers along the main travelling routes, peddling cheap souvenirs.
In the warm-hued Berber villages, I observed young men loitering around in the afternoon, not at school.
In the colourful and boisterous souks, I observed veiled ladies holding babies sitting by the roads, hands outstretched for some coin.
I became aware of my privilege as a traveller, pretty fast.
Before we came to Morocco, I read about all kinds of scams that could befall tourists.
Grossly inflated prices at the markets. Taxi drivers who refused to turn on their meters. “Guides” who offer to help people find their way, and then demand payment after that. So many more.
Indeed, we had to be extra vigilant in Morocco. We encountered many men, women, and even little children who wanted something or other from us. Once, there was a toilet cleaner at the airport who asked for payment for using the toilet. This was definitely not an official airport policy, so I refused.
At first, I was annoyed that people saw me as someone they might make a quick buck of. But after spending more time in the country, and especially after the conversation with Jamal, I understood better.
People were just doing what they could to survive and provide for their families in a country where you’re pretty much on your own. Tourism is a major contributor to the Moroccan economy. Everyone, from government officials to the locals in the tiny Berber villages up in the mountains, wants a piece of this growing pie.
Sure, there are some downright unscrupulous or greedy people out there. But I think most people do not have malicious or spiteful intent.
I had never once felt threatened during my time in Morocco. No one said anything offensive, or tried to hurt me, when I said “no thank you”. We let each other be.
There was no need to be on guard all the time, no need to respond to every act of kindness with suspicion. Or else I’d wall myself off from genuine human connections and experiences. Getting to know the hopes and dreams of young Moroccans like Jamal, for instance. Then there was the guide we met at Tinghir province. A chirpy older bloke who was enthusiastic about showing off the Berber culture he grew up with and mighty thrilled about being featured on Instagram.
We enjoyed our one week in Morocco. For all its good, bad, and ugly, we had no regrets about visiting. I hope I’ll have another opportunity to explore the rest of the country.
In the end, we are all trying to (do more than) survive
We want the best for ourselves and our loved ones. Wherever we live in the world, whatever our circumstances.
Sometimes, I’d glance over at Jamal during pit stops. While the rest of us marvelled at the mountains and valleys, he’d glance at a different direction, deep in thought.
He must have seen those beautiful scenes many times already over the course of his work. Or maybe he grew up with mountains and valleys, so these are nothing new to him.
What was on his mind, I don’t know. Does he still dream of being a translator? Does he wonder about travelling abroad and marvelling at other wonders of the world?
I think he’ll turn out fine. He’s an educated, hardworking, and independent person. Still young too, so his future is ahead of him.
I wish him well, and hope he achieves his dreams, whatever they may be.