Morocco brings to mind large swaths of open desert, beautiful Berber people draped in hand-crafted silver jewelry, hand-stitched leather, and mini mountains of fragrant spices—golden turmeric, deep red cayenne, black cumin. Resplendent color paints the urban cities and bucolic green pastures, where shepherds graze their sheep in a landscape that exists only in dreams or studio films. When I got an opportunity to visit Morocco earlier this year, I jumped at the chance. Four of us—four strong, independent, smart, well-traveled Black women—spent a week touring the medinas in Marrakesh and Fes, and our collective resolve and patience were tested at every turn. This guide is to help other women like us through the Moroccan medinas.
Several of Morocco’s cities have medinas. Locals divide the main city into two parts: “the old city,” and “the new city.” The old city—the medina—is a distinct city that is walled and contains narrow stone streets, mosques, souks, and housing. These cities are several hundred years old and over time they have been built both up and divided into streets and sub-streets.
Essentially, the medina is one large, crowded, busy maze that requires both steely resolve and a willingness to get lost daily. The medinas house heavy copper pots and brightly colored tiles while stray cats wait patiently for the butcher to show love and drop a piece of fresh meat. Oranges and pomegranates picked each morning give themselves to be caressed by hands looking for a perfect piece of fruit. Dates, olives, and walnuts rest in a stall next to fresh, bright green herbs that smell like the best dinner you’ve ever eaten. Carpets hang heavily from ceilings, shoemakers advertise hand-crafted leather shoes, shaped to fit your foot, in two days. Dried spices and teas—cumin, ras el hanout, black cumin, mint, cayenne, turmeric, curry, Berber tea, and lemongrass—fill the air with their scents, basically flirting to be bought.
The medina is an experience. This guide is to help you navigate that experience.
1. Bring a man with you.
This first tip pains me to write. Why? Because as an independent woman who has successfully navigated the streets of New York, San Juan, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Reykjavik, Buenos Aires, Madrid, and London without a male companion, I thought I was fully prepared to navigate the Marrakesh and Fes medinas without a man. I was wrong. I experienced a level and intensity of street sexual harassment in Morocco that made the American “Me Too” movement look like an ABC after-school special. I am convinced that having a man with us would have drastically reduced harassment because on the days we had a male tour guide, the amount of street harassment was lower—not gone, but lower. That brings me to number 2.
2. Wear dark glasses and a djellaba or burqa.
If, like me, you are afflicted with “Judy with the big, juicy booty” syndrome, you are a walking target—to be groped, grabbed, leered at, whistled at, and, in one especially jarring experience, be told “I would like to share my penis with you” by two teenage boys. Every day of our trip, men took rudeness and sexual harassment to brand new heights and incredibly low lows. My attire—black workout pants, gym shoes, and sweatshirts—not what anyone would mistake for “sexy” in the states, became a magnet for men to comment on and grope my behind. In one especially unsettling experience, a boy, who appeared to be about five years old, ran up behind me and smacked my posterior—to the laughing approval from the adult men outside with him. Men on motorbikes and donkeys almost fell off from craning their necks around so hard to stare at Bootylicious. Wearing dark glasses prevents eye contact and a large, shapeless garment hides any hint of a curve you might have. Acquire these items.
3. Get cash from the airport ATM.
Morocco uses the dirham, which is a closed currency; this means you can only acquire it once you’ve arrived in Morocco. The medinas are not credit friendly, and most transactions are cash transactions. In the medina in Fes, two of the three ATMs were out of order and the third one did not recognize my credit union. Luckily, I was with friends who took out cash for me, but it is an unsettling experience to not have access to cash once you’re inside the medina.
4. Barter. Barter. Barter. Then barter some more.
Expect to be hustled. Decide how much you’re willing to be hustled. One local(ish) person told us that the prices tourists get in the market have a 500-600% markup, and that Americans look like “floating dollar signs.” The general rule of thumb is to start negotiations at a third of the first price quoted. For example, if a merchant says the blanket you want is 100 dirhams, offer him 30. Then starts the haggling dance back and forth. The tactic that worked best for me was to be incredibly friendly. I decided very early that there was nothing in the souks that I really wanted, which made it easy to walk away if the merchant wasn’t willing to negotiate to a price, I was willing to pay. Why? Because many of the shops are repeats of each other: that gorgeous indigo blue blanket you saw at the shop with the donkey parked outside is also at the shop around the corner next to the bakery.
5. Insist cab drivers turn on the meter. If they don’t, find another cab.
Morocco has some of the lowest cab fares in the world, and sometimes cabbies refuse to turn on the meter for tourists. If the driver does this, you are absolutely being hustled. For example, we had been in the medina long enough to know that a cab ride from the medina gate to the grocery store should have been about 12 dirhams (approximately $3USD), but the first cab driver quoted us 100 dirhams. We literally just laughed and walked away. The second cab driver quoted us 20 dirhams (approximately $5 USD) which we knew was still a hustle. Some cabbies refuse to use the meter, but if you know the approximate cost, you can negotiate a better fare than whatever inflated one he offered you. Which brings me to number 6.
6. Stand your ground—but know when to walk away.
I ended my first night in Fes saying to my best friend “Please don’t let them arrest me. Oh my God, I’m going to get arrested in Morocco.” Why? Because the restaurant our host recommended was another hustle geared toward tourists. How do I know? The prices on the menu were heavily inflated, all the tourists were secluded on the third floor, and the food was, well, bad. Anywho, after sampling the three-day old stale Wonder Bread and lukewarm
traditional Moroccan soup Campbell’s vegetable soup with a can of chickpeas mixed in, I decided “nope.” So, we canceled our order. Easy, right? You would be wrong. Thirty minutes later, I was still arguing with the waiter, the cashier, the other waiter, and the host about the bill. They wanted me to pay for food we had canceled, had not gotten, and had not eaten. By arguing, I mean three grown men screeching and yelling at me and demanding that I eat and pay. I finally bartered with the first waiter that I would pay him directly for half the bill. He agreed.
We went back to our riad, where 20 minutes later the restaurant manager showed up at the door and insisted to the host that I come outside and talk to him—at 11:00 at night. I can’t tell you how many “Nopes” that particular request got. He left, came back 20 minutes later, and insisted to see me again. Every day we had to walk past that restaurant someone grabbed me and insisted I talk to the manager.
7. Don’t fall for the “today is the only day” hustle.
It’s a lie. The market is open every day. So is the tannery. (Side note—speaking of the tannery, there is a 50% chance whatever leather you buy will smell like camel or goat—not leather. You won’t realize this until you get back to your hotel or riad, because the tannery itself smells like a wild animal. The tannery shopkeepers will insist “see, no smell” while they shove fresh mint in your nose. Just know this going in and if you’re going to buy leather, factor in the cost of the pound of baking soda, kitty litter and leather cleaner you’re going to have to buy in the states to salvage the $200 you spent on that purse, jacket, and pouf. Deduct that price from your offer.)
8. Don’t let kids “help” you.
Issa scam, B. The kids are in on it. Because the medinas are living mazes, locals know that tourists can’t navigate them and there is no cellular access, so Google Maps can’t help you. So, boys will run up to you, ask you where you’re going, and then insist on taking you. Sometimes you get taken in a big circle, get worn out, and then they demand
ransom for your freedom payment to get you out. Other times, they’ll run five to seven paces ahead of you and when you get to where you need to be, they’ll demand payment for “helping you.” The best tactic I found was to put on glasses and refuse payment. One cheeky youngster decided he would get his payment by grabbing one of my friend’s left buttcheek. See numbers 1 and 2. That brings me to number 9.
9. Download maps.me while you have internet access.
Let me assure you, 21st century explorer, Google Maps has nothing on the maze that is the medina. Nothing. That combined with twisty, windy streets, dead ends, and shops that begin to look alike after a while, it is all but impossible to get lost in the medina. You can mediate some of that by downloading maps.me, an offline map, that works well enough for you to get where you need to be with a lot of patience.
10. Take lots and lots of pictures.
The medina is an experience. It is colorful and loud and exotic—there is nothing comparable in the states. So, while you’re there, document everything.