A Practical Guide to the Way of Life in Morocco
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- Jan-Peter van Tijk
What fascinates me about InterNations? I did not only make new friends but found new business partners, too.
Life in Morocco
- The Moroccan population is a mix of Arab and Berber ethnicity. Islam has a major influence on everyday life, especially during Ramadan.
- The country is known for its hot climate, but the Atlas mountains, located inland, experience snowfalls every year and are a “must-see”.
- The kingdom of Morocco is politically stable, but reforms are slow to come.
Morocco has a surface area of 446,550 km2, and about 33.8 million people were living in Morocco as of July 2014. Over half of the population lives in urban areas. Atlantic Morocco, with its rich coastal plains and plateaus, is the most populated region.
The mountainous regions to the south and east of Atlantic Morocco are centers of Amazigh (Berber) culture, representative of an estimated 50% of the population. The eastern provinces beyond the Rif chain, and the pre-Saharan and Saharan region south of the Atlas Mountains, account for a large portion of the country geographically, but they are home to only a tiny part of the population, mostly nomadic Berber tribes.
Nearly all of the population (99%) is of Arab-Berber ethnicity. Islam is the official state religion of Morocco, and Sunni Muslims make up almost 99% of the people living in Morocco. The remaining 1% of the population is Christian, and less than 0.2%, about 6,000 people, follow the Jewish faith.
Morocco has two official languages, Modern Standard Arabic and, since 2011, Tamazight, one of the three main Berber languages. Although the use of the Berber language is declining, as of 2012, at least one third of Moroccans speak a variety of Berber as their native language.
Although not an official language, French is also widely spoken in Morocco, and is the language used in the business world. While living in Morocco, you will hear the local Moroccan dialect, Darija, spoken on the street, although Modern Standard Arabic is taught in schools. Spanish is often spoken in northern Morocco, especially in Tangier. English is gaining in popularity as life in Morocco becomes more international.
The Kingdom of Morocco is located at the northwestern corner of Africa, separated from the European continent by the Strait of Gibraltar. It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the Mediterranean Sea to the north, Algeria to the east and south, and Western Sahara to the south. The two Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla are located on the Mediterranean coast. Most expats living in Morocco will probably be located on the Atlantic coast, which experiences a Mediterranean climate, with mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers. The rainy season usually extends from October to March. On the coast, cool breezes help to keep life in Morocco pleasant in the summer, with temperatures usually ranging from 18 to 28°C.
Farther inland, however, the climate becomes more extreme, with temperatures soaring above 35°C in the summer. In the winter on the coast, average temperatures range from 8 to 17°C, although they sink considerably the farther inland you go.
A Brief History of Morocco
Before the Muslim conquests, Morocco was populated by various nomadic Berber tribes. In the 8th century, Arabs invaded the Moroccan territories and ushered in a series of Muslim dynasties. The current Moroccan royal family belongs to the Alaouite dynasty, which came to power in the 17th century.
Spain occupied northern Morocco in 1860, and a half century of trade rivalry between the European powers resulted in the steady decline of Morocco’s sovereignty. In 1912, with the signing of the Treaty of Fez (or Fès), France established a protectorate over the entire country. The colonial period in Morocco came to an end in 1956 after a long struggle for independence.
Upon independence in 1956, a constitutional monarchy was established in Morocco. Reforms in the 1990s led to the establishment of a bicameral legislature, which first met in 1997. Upon the death of King Hassan in July 1999, his son, Mohammed VI, became the king of Morocco.
Protests also took place in Morocco during the Arab Spring, but they remained mostly peaceful, and resulted in King Mohammed VI responding with a reform program which included a new constitution and early elections. In July 2011, this new constitution passed by popular referendum. Twenty reforms were included in the referendum; however, so far, parliament has only voted two of the reforms into law. More power was given to the prime minister and parliament, but ultimate authority still lies with the monarch.
The Western Sahara is a disputed territory to the south of Morocco. Although the UN does not recognize Western Sahara as a Moroccan possession, Morocco exercises de facto administrative control over much of this area. The Polisario Front, a national liberation movement run by the nomadic Sahrawi people, controls about one-third of the territory. Negotiations led by the UN between Morocco and the Polisario Front have remained at a stalemate since the 1990s. In April 2013, Morocco cancelled its joint military exercises with the US because the US decided to back UN monitoring of human rights in Western Sahara, which Morocco claimed violated its sovereignty.
Morocco is separated into 15 administrative divisions (not including Western Sahara). Each of these is further divided into provinces and urban prefectures, each of which is ruled by a governor appointed by the king. In October 2013, the King appointed 19 new ministers following a four-party coalition deal made by Prime Minister Abdelila Benkirane.
Many different cultures, Berber, Arab, Spanish, and French, have all left their mark on Morocco through the centuries. Islam, however, is the central tenant of Moroccan culture, and permeates all aspects of everyday life in the country, especially during the holy month of Ramadan.
Most of Morocco’s major cities are composed of an old town (medina) and new town (villes nouvelles). During the French colonial period, the new towns were constructed outside of the old city walls, leaving the culturally rich medinas largely untouched. Here you can wind your way through the twisting streets of the souk, where traditional crafts, food, and other items are sold. In the summer, art and music festivals are held in many cities, such as the well-known World Sacred Music Festival in Fès.
Morocco celebrates 13 official holidays. Islamic holidays in Morocco include Eid al-Fiṭr, which celebrates the end of Ramadan, Eid al-Aḍḥā (the Festival of Sacrifice) and the Prophet’s birthday. Independence Day, Throne Day, and the king’s birthday are among the national holidays.
Social life in Morocco is centered on the home and family. One thing that may take a bit of getting used to for expats (especially for expats from Europe and North America,) is that the group is generally valued over the individual in Morocco.
Although Moroccan society is very conservative and religious, it is one of the more moderate and peaceful countries in the region. Its ongoing program of social, economic and political reforms makes it an attractive choice for many expats. Despite the progress Morocco has made, administrative matters generally take longer to get done in Morocco than you may be used to from your home country, so a good deal of patience is necessary.
Morocco may be more liberal than some other Muslim countries, but there are still several things expats should be aware of. Homosexuality is criminalized in Morocco, as are sexual relations outside of marriage. Women should wear loose-fitting clothing that covers most of the body, although headscarves are generally unnecessary.
Islam and Ramadan
While in Morocco, it is important to respect the local customs and traditions. Please note that unless they are major tourist destinations, most mosques are off-limits to non-Muslims. Devout Muslims must pray five times a day, at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and nightfall. The exact times depend on the movement of the sun and are listed in the local newspaper. On Fridays, the weekly prayer takes place at midday, and shops and businesses close during this time.
Ramadan is the Islamic holy month. It falls at a different time each year, as its dates are based on the lunar calendar. During this time, practicing Muslims must fast during the day, which means they cannot eat, drink, smoke, or chew gum. After the sun sets each evening, a big feast is eaten together as a family, and at the end of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr celebrations last for several days.
During Ramadan, the pace of everyday life slows down. Opening hours will vary, and restaurants often remain closed during the day for lack of customers. Non-Muslim expats are not expected to fast, but it is respectful not to eat and drink in public during Ramadan.
Moroccan Cuisine and Everyday Life
If you don’t like cumin, you most likely won’t fall in love with Moroccan cuisine, as this spice is used in almost every dish. The national dish of Morocco is couscous, a semolina-based pasta served with a meat stew. Preparing a traditional couscous dish is very time-consuming, so it is usually prepared on Friday morning and consumed after the weekly prayer service. Harira, a hearty lamb soup, is another national specialty, traditionally eaten at the end of Ramadan to break the fast.
Meat, including lamb, fish, and fowl, is served in many dishes. One favorite is b’stillah, pigeon baked in pastry, and another is mechoui, slow-roasted lamb. Vegetables that are often used in Moroccan cooking include tomatoes, peppers, onions, and eggplants. Tagine, a rich stew of meat and vegetables, is a traditional Berber dish, named after the earthenware pot in which it is prepared.
If you are invited to a Moroccan home for dinner, be sure to remove your shoes when you enter the house. Make sure that your spouse has also been invited, as conservative Muslims will not host mixed-sex dinner parties. Appropriate gifts to bring your host include flowers, sweet pastries, nuts, dates or figs, but no alcohol, unless you are sure that your host drinks alcoholic beverages.
In a traditional Moroccan home, food is served from a communal bowl or plate. Try to eat only from the portion of the dish in front of you. Eat and drink only with your right hand, as the left hand is considered unclean.
Although Morocco is a Muslim country, it follows the Western-style working week from Monday to Friday. The business day generally starts at 09:00 and ends at 19:00, with time for prayers and a long lunch break built in. On Friday, shops and business close from 11:00 to 15:00 for the main weekly prayers, during which time all Muslims gather together at the local mosque.
Government agencies and post offices are usually open from 08:00 to 12:00 and from 14:00 to 18:30 on Monday to Thursday, and from 08:30 to 11:30 and 14:00 to 18:30 on Fridays. Banks are generally open on Monday to Friday from 08:15 to 15:45. Shops are usually open from 09:00 to 19:00 with a lunch break, and many are closed on Sundays. Supermarkets in the big cities stay open until 22:00.
Opening hours during Ramadan vary from those stated above. Generally speaking, there is no lunch break, and instead shops and offices close earlier.
The currency in Morocco is the dirham (MAD), and 10 MAD equaled 1 USD in March 2016. Morocco is still mainly a cash-based society, although major credit cards are accepted in big cities. ATMs often run out of money on weekends, so it is best to withdraw in advance during the week. Please note that you are not allowed to take more than 1000 MAD into or out of the country. Be sure to keep receipts for all payments as, according to legislation in Morocco, they must be presented when converting any remaining dirhams.
When you open a bank account in Morocco, you need to choose between a convertible dirham account and a normal dirham account. Only foreign currency can be deposited or wired into a convertible account. The only items required in order to open a bank account in Morocco are a passport and some money to make your first deposit. Once you have obtained your residence permit, you can also open a normal dirham account if you wish. You can get a debit card for this account, but you will only be able to use it within Morocco.
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