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2013 Winter Issue 2 (January 25, 2013)

False Idealization of Developing World Exoticism

January 26, 2013
By Maddy Crowell

Recently I clicked on an advertisement that appeared on my computer screen:  “Experience Morocco: The Trip that Travels Within You.”

I never click on ads. But after having just returned from a four-month long abroad trip in Morocco, the temptation, and perhaps the deepening nostalgia, proved too great.

Photos of white tourists on camels backpacking for a night in the Sahara Desert were displayed first, followed by photos of ancient medinas vending fresh fruits and vegetables and oriental rugs, and men in kaftans performing live Gnawa music for starry-eyed audiences. The website was a grossly inaccurate depiction of the real Morocco.

During my time in Rabat, nearly every weekend without fail I would watch with slight disdain as tourists trickled out of mega buses hiding behind their cameras. They would take photos of the mosques, the infinite number of colorful mosaics, of women wearing hijabs hand-stitching rugs, and of men selling spices and hubs from wooden carts. The groups would traipse through my neighborhood for a few hours, have an authentic Friday couscous lunch, and then slowly, in a trance, float back to their bus, where they presumably would make their way south to “camp out” in the desert.

I am no anomaly. I too fell prey to the country’s foreignness when I first arrived. Feeling entirely free-spirited and lost in time, I walked slowly in awe through the narrow streets and out past the graveyard overlooking the Atlantic. I recall everything being very corporeal; bursts of motion followed by silent, winding alleys with walls of every shade of blue, yellow, and maroon, the smell of smoky meat, cobblestone streets replete with garbage, barefoot children playing soccer. I loved being able to eat with my hands and take cold bucket showers. I loved it simply because it felt “exotic” to me.

Morocco has seen a lot of first-world artists pass through, seeking its mysterious setting as a form of temporary escapism. Matisse painted in Morocco for seven months to gather “inspiration” from the landscape and people. Bob Dylan paid frequent but short visits to Chefchaouen, Morocco’s hashish capitol to smoke and write songs. Jackson Browne wrote a song, “Something Fine” about Morocco: “The dreams are rolling down across the places in my mind, and I’ve just had a taste of something fine.”

About a month into my trip, the real Morocco slowly revealed itself to me. I learned how to cook couscous with my mamati, how to bargain for good prices, how to clean the house, navigate my way through the country by train, and how to respect the conservatism of public spaces. I learned how the government worked and why the Arab Spring had not been successful. I learned about illiteracy and education and how to say bad words in Arabic.

This behavior is not just unique to Morocco; safari rides in Africa, zip lining in South America, elephant rides in India, long-tail boat rides in Thailand...

Yes, Morocco, and other developing countries certainly will be “The Trip that Travels Within You.” But only if it is done with proper curiosity and due respect.

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