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Suspicion, Lifestyle, Wedding, & Rescue

What Lies Beneath, Part 2: The Morocco Tourists Don’t See

I'm doing this completely wrong. You're supposed to hold the pitcher really high and not close to the glass like I'm doing it. The Sahrawis have a specific way of pouring the tea, once in the glass they pour it back and forth with another glass a couple of times

by Zaina Brown
posted 2-19-13

Click here For What Lies Beneath, Part 1, The Morocco & Western Sahara Tourists Don’t See


“Lonely Planet” calls Laayoune (El Ayoun in Arabic, meaning the springs–or the eyes) depressing and says to avoid it if possible. I suspected this to be mostly a political statement, in a book that must stay neutral if only to prevent travelers from getting into trouble for carrying it. I was right. What’s depressing about Laayoune is the idea of it: what it represents, not the city itself (at least when protesters are not being butchered). Buildings, painted in salmon color like Marrakech, palm trees planted in pretty town squares, clean streets, restaurants and cafes, busy market places and a gorgeous plaza where people stroll at night.  If you didn’t know any better, you would love this place! In reality, you are inside an enormous military base, while the city is a mere facade.

My hotel was fairly cheap, and best of all, had a bathroom with a shower. Hooray! You don’t even realize how much you miss a real sit down toilet until you have one–all to yourself. I ventured out and found a nice restaurant. The food was great and the bill was close to nothing. After Smara, I really appreciated Laayoune for what it had to offer, politics aside.

The following day, after having breakfast and walking around a little, I decided to call up Ahmed, the shopkeeper from Smara. I had returned to the shop to get more water, and to have a word with him without any peacekeepers hijacking the conversation.

I’d said I was coming to Laayoune, and he’d told me he would be in town too for his cousin’s wedding. Of course, he invited me.

"Where are you staying?"
"At the xx hotel."
"When did you get here?"
"Why didn’t you call me yesterday?"
"Well…I’m calling you now."
"Okay. I’ll be there in ten minutes."
Whoa! I needed to put some clothes on.

Sure enough, Ahmed was downstairs moments later, and I got in the car.
Its windows were down and music was blasting. I asked if it was Sahrawi music, and he declared that, yes, this was Polisario music! We cruised through the town and arrived at his family’s house. He promptly shoved me into a room full of women getting henna tattoos on their hands and feet, and he left. I was pretty amazed at my good fortune. I should talk to random guys more often!

A Sahrawi wedding was unlike any other I’d seen. Culturally, the Sahrawis are a cross between Arabs and Africans. The wedding traditions really highlighted this. It was a days-long process. No fancy gowns or suits were involved, and the bride and the groom got legally married at some point, but that was not the focus of the celebrations. The party of families and friends began without the actual couple; women and men were separate for the most part, but not strictly so. They gathered in different areas, but people walked in and out as they pleased. Most of the time, the wedding really involved just hanging out. When someone got tired, they slept a little bit on the floor or the couch. Food appeared at certain intervals, couscous and meat or chicken–eaten communally. It was all very unofficial and relaxed.

Culturally, Sahrawis and Moroccans (which is a diverse group) are totally different. Sahrawis speak Hassani Arabic, Moroccans speak Darija and Berber languages. The desert people have a distinct way of life. Nothing is the same: food, customs, clothing, music etc.
Next photo:Lucky me, I was invited to a Sahrawi wedding. The event goes on for days and most of the time is spent just hanging out. On this day, all the women were getting henna. Married women do their hands and feet, unmarried women hands only.
Top photo: I’m doing this completely wrong. You’re supposed to hold the pitcher really high and not close to the glass like I’m doing it. The Sahrawis have a specific way of pouring the tea, once in the glass they pour it back and forth with another glass a couple of times. Playing dressup- Melhafa is not easy to wear when you’re not used to it!
You have to keep adjusting it for it to stay on,
and if you don’t
know how, you yank the wrong part of the fabric in the wrong direction
and the whole thing falls apart. For Sahrawi women it’s like second skin,
they make it look so easy

There were no white girls in Laayoune. This town was not used to visitors either–especially ones that made it inside private homes. Someone asked if I worked for the UN. (That’s probably what people who saw me on the streets assumed as well, and it worked to my advantage. Laayoune was big enough to offer some anonymity. The last thing I wanted was any more Smara-like attention.) All in all, the women seemed delighted to have a guest who had traveled all the way to the Sahara to see how they lived, and they were proud to show me their culture. Little girls with a glow in their eyes surrounded me. They wanted to know everything about me and tell me everything about themselves. I could tell that people here loved their community. I came from another world. We lived alone, ate from separate plates, had our own personal things and space. Families were small. I for one had no relatives around me whatsoever.

Such a life was unthinkable here. While the women marveled at how much I had traveled, I’m sure they secretly felt sorry for me for being "alone". (In places like this, I often want to lie about my age, just to make myself look less suspicious for not being married. Each year the eyebrows rise higher and higher. "30 years old and single?" Maybe they think I’m a hermaphrodite.)

After about four hours I told Ahmed that I needed to go back to the hotel. That would be cutting our day short. He insisted that I sleep over at the house. Why would I want to go to a hotel room and be all alone? Did I have something better to do? Did I not like his family? It was one of those moments where each person acted out their own cultural agenda, what they deemed right and appropriate. I had barely eaten, not because there was no food, but because I was not good at eating without using utensils. With all the attention and noise around me, I was starting to feel like a circus animal and needed to be somewhere where I could be calm, by myself. It was not so easy to converse in Arabic with people here. I was exhausted, for reasons no one would understand. Again I stuck to my guns, and he brought me back. I thanked him for the lovely time and told him I’d come again the next day. The look on his face told me that he had no idea if I actually would.

HennaThe next day, I went out for a big breakfast and braced myself for another day at the Sahrawi wedding. I called Ahmed and told him I was ready. This time, I was going to stay late to make up for my abrupt exit the night before. I felt oddly comfortable from the moment I walked in. The women greeted me like an old friend. The little girls kissed and hugged me. I already knew that in this crowded, noisy house, privacy was a foreign concept. Why would anyone want privacy and quiet time alone? Sharing and togetherness was what it was all about. I stopped looking at the time and let time just be. I began to appreciate this state of non-hurried existence, just spending time with women. Lounging on the couch that ran next to all four walls in the big living room, with about thirty melhafa-clad women around me, and a woman lounging next to me playing with my hair, I could almost imagine how it would feel if I were living like this. No problem would be quite so big with all the support around you. Whatever life brought your way, you wouldn’t have to face it alone.

At some point that night, Ahmed appeared at the house. The time had come: I asked him everything I’d been wanting to know all along, and he answered exactly as I’d expected. In this country, if you said you wanted independence, that you wanted Polisario, you went to prison. It was as simple as that.

Ahmed compared Morocco to Israel. The Sahrawis’ resentment towards the occupation was loud, clear and unanimous.

Detentions and torture had touched every family. Ahmed’s father had been blown into pieces by a landmine. His mother and brother had spent time in prison for protesting. There was not one Sahrawi who would vote against independence, if ever given the chance, he said. Without Morocco, this could be a rich country. With its natural resources, and a miniscule population, it might be, perhaps, as prosperous as the Gulf. One thing was for sure: the Sahrawis would never give up. After decades of living in political limbo, they continued the fight for their rights. They had nothing to lose. The pain they had been through was too much to forget.

I remembered the slum in Smara, and showed Ahmed the photos and the little video clip in my camera. Why were the people living like that? "Oh yeah, the government keeps those Moroccans there, and feeds them and clothes them", Ahmed casually answered. My heart began to race. The slum residents were Moroccan? Ahmed explained the whole scenario to me: Just like Moroccans were recruited to work in Sahara, poor people were brought into the desert, in order to outnumber Sahrawis. They had them in every town. They existed in their mud houses, for no other reason than to vote one day for integration with Morocco. If there ever were an election, the government would try to pass them as Sahrawis, or otherwise claim them eligible to vote. I didn’t have to take Ahmed’s word for it; it was self-evident. Despite the shocking living conditions, the slum kids didn’t run around town begging or stealing; they were well-fed and dressed. At the time I went there, I didn’t have a clear idea what Hassani Arabic sounded like, but I did now, and it’s nothing like Moroccan Darija. Which is exactly what the boy had been speaking to me. He had even asked me if I was a journalist; he knew he wasn’t allowed to talk to one. What about the men wearing Sahrawi clothing? They were just playing dress-up. Now the whole ugly picture made sense. It gave me chills.

By the third night, sometime after midnight, the actual wedding party began in a tent out on the street. A band played Sahrawi music, a female singer with a strong piercing voice performed. Women got up to dance, which was really interesting to watch. The dance was basically sharp shoulder moves, small steps, and twirling hands. These were the first Arabian women I’d encountered who didn’t bellydance; they’d told me that it wasn’t a part of the desert culture. This was the women’s party, but young boys were allowed in, and you saw the occasional guy peeking in. There were male waiters serving non-alcoholic drinks and food. I bet the men were drinking beer wherever they gathered. That night, I finally caught a glimpse of the young groom, but I never saw the bride. They said “maybe” she was making an appearance later that night, but I had to get on my way. I said my goodbyes as the music was playing, and Ahmed took me to the bus that would bring me to my final stop in Western Sahara.

Laayoune is a sizable city. It’s easy to forget you are actually in the middle of Sahara, until you reach the outskirts of the town


Cafe in DakhlaDakhla

As with the two other towns, I did not know what to expect from Dakhla. On the map, it had stared at me, enticing me, challenging me, and I’d wondered if I’d make it that far. Closer to Mauritania than Morocco, it was another eight hours south of Laayoune. I dreaded that night on the bus, but managed to doze off for a few hours.

The wind was the first thing I noticed as I stumbled out onto the empty streets around seven in the morning. I had a cab take me to a hotel that I’d picked beforehand. I checked in but they told me my room wouldn’t be ready for another few hours. I left my bag in the reception and wandered outside. I was hungry, but restaurants were not open. I bought some freshly delivered bread with processed cheese in a shop and took my breakfast to a cafe across the street where I was the only customer.

Click this map for larger easier to read image

I continued my morning walk on the windy streets, with almost no people in sight. I was getting increasingly tired, and started to feel sort of detached from reality. Randomly passing through a residential area, I heard a cry. It sounded like someone very small, definitely a child. I stopped. Who’s crying? I walked towards the sound. Then I saw her crawl from underneath a truck. It was the most pathetic sight I’d seen in my life! Her face was so dirty that one of her eyes was sealed shut. Thick mud covered her paws and her tail which was hanging heavy. She was probably around a month old. Maybe because I was so out of it, I just went with my instinct and picked her right up. I walked a few steps over to a shop and asked for milk. As I held the dirty kitten with one hand and tried to dig out money with the other, the shopkeeper looked at me with a mix of confusion and displeasure. Careful not to touch my hand, he gave me my change.

"Je crois qu’elle est malade", I think she’s sick, he told me, with the kind of tone you use when speaking to a kid or an unintelligent person. I agreed, the cat was most likely sick. She had pus coming out of her eyes, and she was shaking, which was probably not a good sign–but he didn’t get it; that information was of no importance to me. She needed to be fed. Clearly, she didn’t have anyone looking after her, and she couldn’t take care of herself.

I went around the corner looking for shelter from the wind. I put the cat down and poured some milk on a plastic bag. I tried and tried to get her to drink. She wouldn’t. Finally I just picked her back up and held her against my chest. I didn’t know what to do.

dirty kittyA woman appeared to clean her doorstep next to me. She looked at me curiously, and smiled. She went back in, and came out again to take a second look at me. Moments later a young boy appeared with bread, and gave it to the woman. He looked at the strange sight by his door with utter surprise. He said hello, and I explained that I’d found the cat and was trying to give her milk. He went in, and a moment later they both appeared at the door and invited me in. I politely refused. They insisted. (They must have thought I was a pathetic sight. Clearly, I had no one to take care of me, and I needed to be fed.) I felt that the mother sincerely wanted me to come in. What about the cat, which by now I was unable to put down? Bring her, they said. So there I was, sitting in the living room of a Moroccan military family, cradling a muddy street kitten while they served me breakfast. I have to say that was one of the most gracious gestures I’ve seen in my life. This lady simply had a heart of gold. I remembered the plane blanket I had in my bag, and made a little nest for the kitten. She fell right asleep, and I realised she wasn’t shivering anymore, now that she was warm. Maybe there was hope for this little one! I pondered what to do with her now, and my hosts urged me to bring her with me to the hotel. But where would she go to the toilet? "It’s a big hotel!" the boy, Mehdi was his name, proclaimed. He had a point. It wasn’t like I was going to put the sleeping baby cat (who at this point had been named Julie at Mehdi’s suggestion) back on the cold street either. She was coming with me. let’s call him Mehdi

Julie feels better!Sneaking a sleeping cat inside my purse into the hotel was easy. Sleep was all she seemed to want to do. I spoon fed her milk because she still wasn’t drinking on her own. I wiped her face with a wet cotton ball. That opened up her eye. Now she could see, but it wasn’t until I gave her tuna that she really responded. This baby was hungry! Maybe she was too young to eat it  but I felt that milk was not gonna cut it; she was that weak. The tuna worked wonders. After eating that, she got up and began to explore her surroundings. The mud had mostly dried up and turned into dust. The wide-eyed kitten that emerged from the blanket looked nothing like the sad little creature I’d picked up from the street. Later at night, she began to play. I wiped her eyes once more, and after that they were clear. It turned out that Julie wasn’t sick after all! She was just too little to take care of herself. As soon as she was warm, clean and fed, she was fine.

Dakhla was nothing like the other two towns in Western Sahara. It was difficult to believe that I was in the same country. You got the feeling that hashish was available on every street corner. Sahrawi culture was nearly invisible. Yes, coming into Dakhla it was the same checkpoint routine: I’d been pulled out of the bus, asleep, to tell someone what I did for a living, but once inside, no one seemed to notice me. The police presence was less obtrusive than elsewhere. It turned out this town (located on a peninsula, hence the constant, mad wind) actually received some real tourism.

Dakhla was an excellent site for kitesurfing. This brought in some Europeans, as well as an unpleasant side product, Moroccan hustlers.

Kite SurfingTheir only employment was trying to make a buck out of tourists any way they could, mostly by selling them other people’s services and taking commissions, and as a girl by myself, I was a major target for all idiots-at-large. I had guys holler at me on the streets as if I were in Tangier. One especially obnoxious dreadlocked creep followed me around, to the point that I threatened to get the police. (No need to call 911, just go on the street and shout, "I want Polisario!")

Actually, I hadn’t been to the desert yet–aside from traveling between towns. Most of Western Sahara is not made of the pretty sand dunes seen in postcards; it’s rocky, bare ground. But I didn’t discriminate. It was still beautiful. I found myself a Sahrawi guide to take me into the desert. Ahmed had told me "You’re not going with the Moroccans", and I wouldn’t have anyhow. Once in the car, I began talking politics – you can’t do that in public; you don’t know who’s listening – and my guide repeated the same story of detentions and torture that Ahmed had told me. We stopped at the kitesurfing site. Many of the tourists go there directly from the airport, stay at the hotel on the beach, and never venture into town. I’m sure the government likes it exactly that way. A Moroccan flag was flying on the beach, as if the one hour flight from Casablanca hadn’t crossed any border whatsoever. Any Moroccan map actually has no border between Morocco and Western Sahara. This makes Morocco appear twice its actual size. I love how history can be re-written, and maps reimagined.

I also saw the occasional house in the desert, far off the main road, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. It was the traditional way to live, plus water and electricity. I could understand completely how some people preferred to live old-school, far away from Moroccan military compounds. I petted some camels as they returned home to drink water after a day out and about.

Ferris WheelIn the evenings, I got together with Mehdi and his cousin. To my huge relief, the cousin said he would take Julie when I left. He’d had a cat before, and liked animals. He would keep her inside the house, and he knew how to make a toilet for her and what to feed her and everything. I thanked my lucky stars. The two boys showed me around town. Morocco imports a lot of fish from Dakhla into European Union countries, and here was a big fish market and even an amusement park with a few kids’ rides and a ferris wheel. It was a great view from the top, and the suspicious sounds the rusty old wheel was making just added to the excitement. The boys told me that despite the tensions between Moroccans and Sahrawis, there was a peaceful coexistence as well. Many people had integrated friendships, and spoke one another’s languages. That was comforting to hear. The situation was not all black and white. (According to them, the slum people had moved into the desert all on their own, an idea that I disputed as laughable. At least they weren’t denying their Moroccan-ness.)

Here’s the question: If one is born in a place occupied by their parents, do they then automatically become occupiers as well? Don’t we all have a right to live in the place where we’re born, regardless of how that happened? Or am I just imposing American ideas on others here? This sort of resembles the post-colonial white African situation that many countries had. There must be a way to return the power to whom it belongs, without kicking out those who have no ill intentions, and begin living together under new rules, but as one family, since we’re all children of God. I’m just sayin’.

On the day that I was flying to Casablanca, I went back to Mehdi’s house for lunch. Getting Julie out of the hotel quietly was not easy. Instead of the weak, pathetic thing I’d brought in, she was now a feisty little kitten who did not understand why she had to be stuffed inside a bag. She kept trying to stick her head out and made lots of noise. I passed by the reception as fast as I could. Being in a new house was scary for her, and I was already choking back tears at the thought of leaving her. It’s amazing how hard you can fall in love in four days–although, I think it already happened the moment I first picked her up. Arabs are not big on pets, and it was endearing to see the whole family play with Julie. Even the mother, who first just looked at her from a distance, began cuddling with her. The father, a navy officer, did the same. He stated the obvious: if I hadn’t taken her that day, she would have died.

Man and his camels who are drinking waterAs soon as I had landed in Casa, my agent told me I would have a contract in Tunis in two weeks. My original plan had been to get out of the country rather immediately. There had been some back and forth about the Tunis gig, and had I known it would come through, I may have made different choices. I now had two more weeks to kill in Morocco. Casablanca was the last place I wanted to be, but what bothered me most of all was that I’d left Julie for no reason. I could have stayed with her longer. I missed her so bad. I cried in bed for days. I was just so brokenhearted. Mostly about the baby cat, but also about the country.

I tried walking around in Casa the first day, and it was almost enough to give me a panic attack. After that, I mainly stayed inside the unpleasant hotel room and just went out to get food. The highlight of my week was a trip to Morocco Mall, and I couldn’t even get there without a fight with a taxi driver. It didn’t help that I’d heard so many warnings of the thieves and the muggers. I have never loathed a city as much as I loathed Casablanca; I wanted none of it. The flags and pictures of the king made me want to vomit. The medina was completely uninteresting compared to some of the real gems I’d seen elsewhere in the country. I didn’t even go to see the famous Hassan II mosque, the only real monument in town; I just didn’t care. I’d never felt that way, anywhere. I had to escape. At this point, the only place that really made sense was Marrakech. Fine! I booked myself a four star hotel there for a week to soothe my nerves. The atmosphere would be much more relaxing for me than Casablanca. (Granted: the one year anniversary of the Djamaa el Fena bomb attack happened to be that week.)

I tried to get excited about Marrakech, but mostly failed. I had good moments, and managed to see some sights, but for me, Morocco was over. I finally found a name for the disgusting feeling that had become my constant companion. I was disillusioned. Having seen the flipside of Morocco in Western Sahara, and knowing that pretty much the entire population supported the occupation, just killed it for me. None of the pretty things that Morocco showed me could distract me from the ugly face of oppression.

I kept counting the days until finally, I flew out. The next day I uploaded a video on Youtube, featuring a certain slum I’d happened upon in Smara. By doing so, I almost certainly blacklisted myself from entering Morocco again, and I won’t be trying my luck. There was no sacrifice there. I had seen a lot of the country. I’m glad I had the opportunity to dance there, and I’m glad to scratch it off my to do list for good.


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  1. Richard

    Mar 13, 2014 - 09:03:38

    I was in Morocco(Fez) for a few months studying Arabic. Thought about but never made it to the Western Sahara. Thanks the insight.

  2. Ernesto

    Jul 27, 2017 - 05:07:21

    Thanks for the accurate picture of the situation in Western Sahara. I just saw a blog where an American woman called the concentration camp over the East side the “Polisario controlled area” (unbelievable). I did not hate Casablanca as much as you did, after all ordinary Moroccans are not to blame, it’s their government. As for referendums, that battle is already lost. As you saw, WS is packed with Moroccans, and the second generation is ethnically Moroccan and has been raised in a Moroccan culture. Maybe one day the international community will wake up and force Morocco to go away. Oh well, I can dream, can’t I?

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