Unlike Samantha’s brazen behavior in the United Arab Emirates, I spent the beginning of my vacation in Morocco walking on eggshells.
While this Sex and the City 2‘s character threw caution to the wind to enjoy herself no matter what country she inhabited, I tiptoed through the first day of my trip hawkishly observing every person and interaction gleaning information about cultural norms.
I excelled at picking up on social cues and understanding interpersonal communication. Recognizing the nuances of facial expressions and body language is one of the many benefits of being an introvert.
I mentally filed these lessons away, self-correcting my actions and mimicking the locals to better interact with those around me.
As an American, I felt exotic and sinful. The guidelines of right and wrong, as I knew them, had shifted and suddenly, I had to relearn appropriate behavior.
Wearing a hijab was the norm while my loose hair was unconventional, holding my sister’s hand as we strolled signaled homosexuality instead of innocent affection. I vetted each action through an ever-growing list of acceptability and respectability in this foreign land.
The curious stares poked and prodded me and my travel companions, further boosting my insecurities. To remove some of the attention, I searched my suitcase for the loosest pair of jeans, the baggiest shirt. I didn’t want to appear too sexy and draw undue attention.
Respectful travelers realize the importance of understanding the norms within a country.
While total adherence isn’t expected, respectful observance and practical conformity are valued.
I certainly didn’t want to be that American who pretends “not to know” or thinks that “it’ll be okay.” Although some of my countrymen seem to have a disdain for foreign customs and culture, I understand very well that every land doesn’t exist to cater to our whims.
While my moral compass prompted a desire to remain respectful to local customs (and I often went overboard with my desire to “fit in”), there was another reason for my behavior.
The Negative Result of Media-Induced Bias
I was afraid.
In the years following the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, I’ve felt uncomfortable with Islam and those who practiced it. Islamic countries are shown as cruel places, controlled by brutal, unforgiving people who absolutely despise American culture.
The stories highlighted oppression, destruction, and extremism.
These terrifying depictions played repeatedly during the news, and in movies and television shows that always depict the bearded, turban-wearer as a “bad guy” created biases and stereotypes that fueled an unfounded fear of this culture.
I dreaded offending anyone in Morocco, afraid I would end up in some barren jail, unable to see my family, and costing the United States millions to negotiate my release.
My fear was unnecessary.
Not unnecessary because these types of situations never happen, but unnecessary because there was scare chance of that narrative occurring.
Fear should not have a place in my travels.
Fear was unnecessary because most people are good people who are not their governments. Unnecessary because I had the most spectacular time in this bright, vibrant, and electrifying country.
In all the cities we traveled, there was no apparent aversion to our loud, inquisitive group and the reprimands were few.
Adults looked at us with interest, calling us by the names of famous celebrities. Kids played pranks and teased us. Mostly, we were treated in that congenial manner reserved for tourists.
Slowly and surely, my comfort expanded and I unlearned the worst of what I’d known about Muslims and their culture.
The Positive Result of Personal Experience
After crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, Tangier welcomed us with open arms. We headed to the Cave of Hercules where we looked through an Africa-shaped opening and out onto the Atlantic Ocean. Here, absorbing this spectacular view, I fell in love with travel and vowed to see every corner of the world.
In ChefChaouen, a beautiful blue, maze of a city, I earned the nickname “Mama Africa” and my mom was called “Soul Sister.” We strolled through alleys capturing pictures against stunning azure backdrops and following our noses into shops of soaps, spices, and perfumes.
A belly dancer in Marrakech totally upturned what I thought I knew about the culture. We were escorted through outdoor tanneries where animal skin and fur were soaked, stretched, and dried into colorful pieces of home decor. We bartered and bantered our way through the labyrinths of openings propelled by an invigorating excitement.
And before the trip was over, I realized I had nothing to be afraid of.
I took away from my Moroccan travels an understanding that a country’s people embrace their religion and use it to guide their culture. Visitors aren’t expected to adhere to the religious practices, only respect them. Which is really no more, or no less than I would expect from a foreigner traveling in America.
I also realized the danger of consuming too much of what is portrayed in the media.
An insightful quote says, “Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
The quote is particularly relevant for travelers.
Be wary of whose stories you listen to and whose advice you internalize. Let a country tell you it’s story before forming a firm opinion about it’s land, people, and culture.
Often times the news is skewed by personal opinion, misinterpretations, and sensationalism. Any marketer will admit that negativity sells, and to attract audiences back to screens day after day, the most airtime is given to stories that grip us with fear or enrage us with anger.
It’s an unfortunate truth, and travelers must constantly guard against opinions that taint our views against places we’ve never visited and people we’ve never met.
My time in Morocco was unforgettable.
And although I didn’t wear a hijab, the culture pulled me in and welcomed me to explore everything it had to offer. I accepted the invitation wholeheartedly.
Which country are you afraid to visit? Did the media play a role in this fear?