God, Country, King
Timebomb Trading in Morocco
Words and photos by Will Jivcoff
There’s a lot of hardline racism being thrown about recently, most notably with Donald Trump’s rise to power and his ban on Muslim people entering the United States. Regardless of your political stance, you’d think that collectively Muslims must have done something gravely wrong and are an exceptionally heinous group of people to be completely banned from a country, right? The media on your TV or cell phone will tell you one thing, sure, but I felt there was no better way to discover Muslim culture than immersing ourselves in this society, which is exactly what Alexis Lacroix, Griffin Kirby, Mitch Barrette, Zach Noftall, Gab Galipeau, Dillon Moore and Tyler Holm did on our trip to Morocco.
Morocco is a Muslim country situated on the continent of Africa that speaks a mix of French and Arabic, with no separation of church and state and a ruling King–a loaded destination for a cross-country skate trip, sure. I’ll be frank; I didn’t have much to go off of other than typical stereotypes of Africa – poor, undeveloped, dirt roads and sparse offerings on the skateboarding front. I forewarned the gang that there was great potential to skate some rugged (non-existent) spots, however the prospect of exploring a country where English language and Western culture have a minimal influence outweighed the cons. Contrary to our preconceived notions, what we found were urban meccas for tiled ground smoother than that of Barcelona’s, with bump to bars that would make skateboarders from Philadelphia envious. While all of that was a pleasant surprise, the most incredible part was discovering the kind nature of the Muslim culture first hand – warm smiles, an eagerness to show you their home, an instantaneous brotherhood with our guides Ali and Jovi and everyone's child-like fascination with skateboarding. Despite the media’s portrayal of Muslim people, we found nothing dangerous or anything to be fearful of.
Salam Alekum, Morocco.
Right off the bat, Morocco’s Casablanca airport kicked our asses into gear. Mitch’s baggage got lost, I received a thorough grilling by airport security about my camera equipment and one of Tyler’s video cameras was seized. As we learned that day, one thing the Royal Kingdom isn’t friendly to is the media and after a good hour of Gab pleading with authorities en francaise, we threw in the towel and jet-lagged-ly started our Moroccan adventure. Looking back, I suppose that a group of Canadians visiting Morocco just to skateboard wasn’t the most believable tale.
Red flags with the green Moroccan pentagram lined parts of the highway, and we wasted no time in picking up basic Arabic and started chatting up the women running the toll booths. Something about a longhaired white dude completely butchering his greeting made the women giggle uncontrollably. Well, that, and the fact that in this part of the world it’s rather unorthodox for a woman to have such direct contact with chatty Caucasian men. We were groggy from our intercontinental travel and it was late by the time we settled into our apartment in Rabat. Almost immediately after walking through the door, Tyler ghosted without a word to the crew. We figured the man missed his wife and had found WiFi, until a couple hours had passed without a sign from him. It became a cause for concern as we were staying in a rough neighbourhood and the guy couldn’t differentiate between the broken French and Spanish he knew how to speak. Even still, we kept it casual and Tyler eventually showed his face. He admitted later that the Moroccan evening had spooked him and fear began to take over, so much so that he took a cab blocks away to call the Canadian Embassy and report that our guides were almost certainly setting us up and about to rob his crew.
What we were told when we finally found him was a slightly different story. “Dude, where you at?”, I asked our MIA team manager after managing to find WiFi. He played it cool, telling us how he ended up on the back of some dude’s dirt bike in the Rabat ghetto with a bag full of camera equipment. Days after this happened when he finally did tell us the real story you can imagine the amount of clowning he took. Laughs aside, there’s nothing wrong with a man who doesn’t wait around for a real adventure, even if it is mentally-induced.
On the first morning, our main dudes Ali and Jovi woke us up to a traditional Moroccan breakfast of fresh bread, soft cheese, the purest olive oil, Moroccan mint tea and about three or four spliffs filled with the finest Moroccan hash. The last bit may not exactly be traditional depending on your tourist group’s demographic, but c’est la vie. With a nice buzz cooking, the crew partook in their typical warm up routine of skating flat in traffic before jumping in the van, which is when the glaring looks started to become apparent.
Locals’ heads were popping out of shops and apartment windows, café patrons turned their chairs to face the street and people in cars honked their horns as they whizzed by, thumbs in the air. I’ll be blunt, white people in Morocco are a visible minority and that brought another level of attention to us. Locals couldn’t help but stare at our gang, confused as to why we’d chosen their neighbourhood as home base. We quickly learned that these looks held no ounce of ill intention – they were purely out of curiosity and excitement that we had come to visit their country, their home.
We began our trip in Rabat and the first days were marked with intensity and a dose of culture shock. The 5am call to prayer resonated from the local mosque’s intercom and shook us out of our slumber while the curious eye of the locals tracked every movement we made at street level. Rabat is home to numerous plazas of buttery smooth ground where we exhausted ourselves before diving into traditional dishes of tajine or couscous. After, we capped our days of skating at a white marble plaza where the young and budding skate scene hung out, playing music and smoking.
One thing that took some getting used to was the complete lack of alcohol. Boozing simply isn’t a facet of Muslim culture and the hopes of finding a liquor store, bar or even an advertisement for it were always slim. By taking alcohol out of the equation, people were waking up feeling fresh before 9am, which is insane and unheard of for a skate trip. With the short supply of alcohol, came another shortage – women. Women in Morocco are typically covered with a hijab or niqab and as the sun set, slowly they would dissipate until it was night and they had largely all headed indoors. Elderly women were seen with their husbands in the markets buying produce for the next day but if you walked into any café during the evening, it would, without fail, be packed entirely with men. Because we’re such creatures of addiction, we resorted to heavy snacking. In lieu of alcohol we'd start by hitting up the local butcher stand where he offered up fresh grilled pita sandwiches and then wander to the café next door to down pots of peppermint tea and ample hash spliffs.
Our next week was spent neighbouring the Atlantic Ocean, weaving our way down the sunny northwestern coast of Morocco from Rabat to Casablanca, Safi and Essaouira. Much time on the road showed us the type of fearlessness born of driving in Morocco; most notably when one drives a scooter. Traffic lanes are subjective until other vehicles are in close proximity, honking is encouraged (and won’t get you into a fist fight with a fellow driver) and it became an expectation that someone driving a scooter would cut us off as they drove into oncoming traffic, often looking at us like we were the fucked up ones for following the general rules of the road.
The roads and drivers are just two of the things that speak to Morocco’s laissez-fair attitude towards the law. However, this changes quickly under the watchful eye of the many police officers stationed at random checkpoints through the country. The ugly underbelly of this beautiful place is that the police are shady, take bribes and demand fines on the spot for no good reason. The odd things that don’t make sense are the ones that will get you trouble – while going through a checkpoint you damn well better have your seatbelt strapped up, never mind the fact the van is smoked out from two active hash spliffs.
By now, we had acclimated to the workings of the Royal Kingdom and were under a spell of infatuation. Our nightly drives on two lane highways had a level of enchantment to them, even while it poured rain and the roads were washed out below our van. When city bound, we explored the walled-in medinas that’s construction dated back to the 18th century. Lamps lit the walkways of these narrow, ancient market places where sellers pushed fresh fish, olives, and bootleg Nikes, while children ran around our feet playing games. After meandering down the coast, we set up base in the coastal town of Agadir and called it home for the next week.
A small town owing its mellow nature from the local surf culture, this place offers beachside cafes that the squad woke up to on the daily and ragged stray dogs that run the streets at night. Agadir continued with the Moroccan tradition of blessing us with holy spots–rugged rooftop quarter pipes, marble hubbas and all the plazas we wanted. We had been all but rained out before our stay in Agadir wrapped up until Griffin turned one last plaza spot into a circus with our gang as the main attraction. As we were about to hop in the van and drive away, he started casually checking out a stair-grind spot and in the process, garnering attention from the locals. First it was the children playing soccer who stopped and came to look, then their parents, and soon enough cars were stopping in the street. The foot traffic from the market had ceased and circled around Griffin, Mitch and Dillon as they hauled ass at the spot.
Moroccan curiosity was at an all time high as cars honked and locals cheered and did back flips off of ledges. They couldn’t get enough of the crew putting on a show in their plaza, deep in the heart of their city, well away from any major tourist centre. The locals’ energy wasn’t dying down as the rain rolled in, but that was a wrap on Agadir as we once again packed the van, said our good-byes to the coast and hit the road towards Morocco’s interior for Marrakech.
Marrakech’s vibe was turned up a notch on all levels–traffic and pollution was on another level, local sellers approached us tourists with a new intensity and women shed the cultural conservatism by donning regular clothing. The city resembled that of Madrid and our night, albeit short, was spent eating and dancing in the famed Jemaa el-Fnaa souk where Berbers (indigenous Moroccans) played their Arabian instruments next to snakes and monkeys. Literal holes in walls housed sellers’ booths while everything from garbage souvenirs to carpets, leather, spices and oils lined their shelves. Every seller here had a story about their distant cousin living in Canada, immediately followed by, “My friend, special price for you.” After a short stint of getting lost in the souk’s winding narrows, our Moroccan journey was done for.
Traveling to a developing country, you’d expect a group like this to have a target on their backs, yet we went without one sketchy incident. Through and through, the Moroccan-Muslim culture is one about community and love. At any given time, a local is willing to reach out their hand and show you how they live. It is in the little things–the communal dinners, the level of trust locals place in a visitor and greetings like ‘salam alekum’. Now get outside of your bubble and explore the places and cultures that we’ve been taught to be so fearful of.
A quick guide to Arabic:
Salam Alekum – Hello, peace be with you
Al Hamdulillah – Thanks God
Khouya(hoo-ya) – Brother
Chukran(shu-kran) - Thank you
Inshallah – God willing
Ana Asef – Sorry
Zaan Zaan – Crazy
La – No
Safi - Enough
Ahwa – Coffee