Photographer Ruth Medjber writes about her trip to Morocco, a place she describes as a country of hot deserts, cold mountains, hidden women, underground bars, kind souls and rip off merchants.
I spent three weeks in Morocco, travelling by bus, sleeper train, taxi, camel and mule to see major cities and rural towns. I saw a lot during my trip but what I didn’t see a lot of was women.Visiting a farmers’ market one morning, I posted an Instagram video of the sights, capturing the mountains of fresh fruit and olives, the haunting screeches of chickens being decapitated and rows of camel heads on spikes. “Where are all the women?” one person commented.[restrict]
Throughout the market, not a single woman was to be seen. It was men working in shops, men waiting on tables, men sitting in cafes drinking mint tea in the middle of the day. I rarely saw women, except when I visited co-ops where women made Argan Oil, painted ceramics or baked bread. These co-ops had been specifically created to give local women jobs.
On my trip, I joined a tour group for safety and ease. On the first night, the tour leader hit on my friend and made uncomfortable comments. This was not a good sign. He guided us to a village town high in the Atlas Mountains. There are no roads up that high, so you leave your van and hike for an hour to get to your Riad (guesthouse).
Awaiting us was a fabulous banquet of Moroccan food – tagine, it’s always tagine – cooked by women and served by men. After lunch, our small group hiked the surrounding mountains, watched the sunset and then returned home to play cards.
It was only when we googled the village the next morning that we found out that two young female tourists had been brutally murdered by four local men just some months ago. They had been walking on the same trail that we had. Our tour guide never mentioned this to us, presumably because we might have decided to skip that village, resulting in him losing a commission.
Moroccan tours operate on a kickback culture. Whether we visited a tourist attraction or a roadside restaurant, our guide would get his bonus but we would all feel shafted after paying over the top prices for a soggy bottomed pizza.
Even outside of the tour group, I got a sense of being shafted everywhere I went. The taxi drivers will happily charge you double or triple prices and they would swarm around us at the edge of the Medina (market stalls). I felt overwhelmed and anxious at times, always wary of not getting ripped off.
However, within the Medina you come across so much of Moroccan culture that you just don’t get anywhere else. Haggling is the way of life. I excelled at this, making bargains with spices, leather, silver jewellery, art and Argan oil, and I thank my North African heritage for this trait.
I’ll admit that my view of Morocco was a tourist’s view; a sometimes disappointing one of snake charmers and dancing monkeys in every square. However, there is a new generation of Moroccans rising. Ones who are breaking stereotypes and empowering women.
In the city of Fes, we hired a local guide to show us around. Her name is Layla and she is extremely proud of her hometown. She points out that only three per cent of guides in Morocco are women but she assures us that things are changing. She celebrates the fact that the first university in the world was set up in Fes by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri, over 1000 years ago.
She also introduces us to the old secret door knock system. A big knocker for men and strangers and a dainty one for women. This was so the women in the house knew to hide themselves if it was a strange man at the door.
Layla is fierce and inspiring. She tells us about her grandmother who pleads with her to get married and have children at every opportunity; a tale I know only too well. She laughs it off, saying that what is good for her grandmother is not good for her. She is boisterous and kind and incredibly witty – she gives me hope. In fact, the Moroccan women I meet all share these traits.
The bar woman who served me and my tour group friends in a Casablanca bar was cracking jokes and slagging the men. Filled with smoke and blaring Arabic pop music, Moroccan bars are sights to behold. Since it’s a Muslim country, alcohol isn’t readily available so big cities have off licenses in supermarkets and these have queues out the door. The bars are few and far between, which is an absolute shame because after you’ve picked a chicken head out of the grooves of your hiking boot, you really need a drink.
On my last day of the trip, amidst the incessant cat calling and wolf whistling that fills the Medina, I stumbled upon an oasis; the Women’s Museum. A tiny gallery with an unassuming sign outside, I would have missed it had I not been trying to avoid eye contact with a young lad who was shouting at me in broken Spanish. They all assumed I was Spanish.
Inside, I was met by a young woman who seemed surprised by my presence. I don’t think it’s a busy space, not in the off season anyway. Over the three compact floors of the gallery, I was introduced to some wonderful Moroccan women; a filmmaker, a painter and the city’s first female journalist.
I didn’t set out to publish these photos, they are simply my holiday snaps. There is no carefully constructed meaning or depth to these photos – I was supposed to be a photographer on my travels, not a travel photographer after all – but on reflection, my chosen photos feature a lot of solitary people, both men and women. This isn’t intentional but it must be something I was processing subconsciously while I was traveling alone.
Tech Specs: I shoot using a very small and lightweight Fuji XT-100 camera using a 27mm 2.8 pancake lens when I go away. It’s cheap, small and perfect for slinging in a rucksack.[/restrict]