It seems that the two most commonly used words in conjunction with the Middle East are “terrorist” and “hijab”. While Morocco isn’t a country most people consider to be part of the Middle East, a shared history and religion keeps the country tied to the Persian Gulf and surrounding countries. The connection started when the Arab Empire first swept over North Africa in the 8th century on their way to Andalusia, what is now known as Spain. With them, they not only brought their language but also their religion and way of life through that religion. That’s where the hijab comes into modern Morocco. As the dichotomy between the West and Muslim world enlarges through the eyes of the media, the distinction between these two worlds in places like Morocco becomes increasingly blurred, and you don’t even need to talk to someone to figure this out. If you simply walk down one of the biggest market streets, or Soukh, in the Medina, or old city of Rabat, you can see and hear a mix of a variety of cultures and influences. From American to French to Egyptian to Mexican; in music, clothing, food, and toys, just to name a few. For instance, one day as I was coming home from a full day of classes, I heard David Guetta’s Sexy Bitch blasting from one of the music shops. Immediately after David Guetta, the song changed to a well-known Egyptian singer. Somehow all of these international influences create a coherent and uniquely Moroccan whole in the Souk and in the country as a whole.
This mélange of influences can be best seen in the clothing shops. Along the Souk street, you can find Western clothing shops with everything from skinny jeans to tank tops, and next to them there will be a traditional clothing shop with djellabas, the hooded robe-like garment many Moroccans continue to wear on a daily basis. Then further down the street you’ll find another shop selling scarves to wear as hijab. All of this is within about 100 feet of each other. The first time I walked down the Souk to get to my house and meet my homestay family I was completely overwhelmed not only by the shear amount of things being sold, but also the variety and seemingly contradictory things being sold. It still is overwhelming sometimes.
If you tear your eyes away from all of the things in the Souk and start to look at the people going by (which isn’t hard to do because it is almost always packed) you’ll also see a mélange of traditions in how people dress. There could be young woman wearing her skinny jeans, carrying a fake Louis Vuitton purse, with perfectly coiffed hair walking next to their friend who’s wearing a multicolored djellaba and hijab. Further along you may spot a mother pushing her child along in a stroller walking wearing jeans and a t-shirt walking alongside another mother wearing an older Moroccan version of hijab that covers most of the face. Some women take this mélange even further when they don the hijab but carry a fake (or real) Prada purse and wear high heels.
Moroccans pride themselves on being more tolerant of the West and of Islamist groups, and being able to balance these two apparently opposing perspectives. However, even Morocco is not immune to the subject of terrorism in the Middle East, and as one of the few Islamic states where the King holds the prestigious title, “Commander of the Faithful”, it holds the responsibility to uphold the integrity of Islam. This is why the Islamist terrorist bombings in Casablanca on May 16, 2003 were so shocking to Moroccans, who had believed that such a thing could never happen in their own country where tolerance and balance were supposed to reign supreme. Since 2003, the government has been attempting to enact a number of reforms and has begun a housing project for the infamous slums that used to surround Casablanca, where the bombers came from. All of these factors have contributed to the multidimensional Morocco you can find in the Souk every day.