Saturday, 28 March 2009

Morocco - Looks Like An Asian, Speaks Like An Australian, So Must Be Japanese!

Morocco is a country of dualities and contradictions. Lush, green fields contrast with dry, barren deserts. Deep, earthen gorges compete with towering, snowcapped mountain ranges. Hectic, bustling cities clash with the calm of isolated, Berber villages. Friendly, honest Moroccans co-exist with racist, sexist, rude, ignorant, money-grabbing bastards. I will now discuss the latter.
When travelling in Europe, my encounters with racial prejudice were generally scarce. There were only the odd few occasions: the museum staff in Colmar who warned me there was no Japanese audioguide available; the taxi driver in Milan who tried to speak to me in “Chinese” (see previous post) etc.
Morocco on the other hand is different. It would be easier for me to count the number of times I wasn’t the victim of some racist slur. Let’s look at some examples.
Example One
It was my third night in Marrakech. I had just finished a lovely meal at one of the stalls in Place Jma El Fna. The food was delectable, the company agreeable and I was so pleased I left a generous tip. But then this random waiter had to come and spoil it all. As I was finishing my conversation with my dinner companions (an American couple) and about to leave, the random waiter says to me, “Japon”.
I smile at him and say, “No, I’m Australian.”
Then out of nowhere he says, “No, you’re not Australian. You’re mother is Australian and your father is Japanese and that’s why you’re like this.” He then proceeded to put his two index fingers against the edges of his eyes, pulling them up so that they became slanty. I was shocked. So were the Americans. WTH did he just say? WTH did he just do? My heart was racing and blood was rushing to my cheeks with rage. But I couldn’t do anything. There was no point in arguing at all – not with some ignorant Moroccan. These people had no concept of racial tolerance or sensitivity. They would offend the hell out of you then ask you for a tip. Here’s a tip – stop being a racist bastard.
Example Two
I was in Rabat and sightseeing with a couple of Moroccan students. We had arrived at the entrance of Chellah – a set of Roman ruins on the outskirts of the city. The girls had informed me that there was free entry to Chellah on Fridays. Today was Friday so the timing was excellent for us. We walked through the main entrance and were about to pass through the turnstiles when the bloke at the ticket office stopped us. He spoke to the girls in Arabic. Sisi (one of the students) explained to me that as a foreigner, I would have to pay to enter the site – it was only free entry for Moroccans.
Ok, WTH? So basically because I don’t look Moroccan, I have to cough up ten dirham. If an Australian or British or American person of Arabic or middle eastern appearance rocked up, they would have easily have been allowed through. It’s not like the guy at the ticket booth checked anybody’s passports or anything. It was basically, if you didn’t look like an Arab, you had to pay.
But the whole concept of making foreigners pay over locals is in itself a blatantly unjust system. I’m glad that in countries like Australia and the UK everyone gets ripped off equally when it comes to visiting our museums, zoos and other places of cultural importance. C’mon - $23.60 to get into Healesville Sanctuary? 25 pounds to get into Madame Tussauds?? I guess I shouldn’t complain about paying 10 dirham ($1.72 AUD) to get into the roman ruins, but it’s the principle.
Example Three
I’ve decided for my final example to be a funny one. It was cute and happened to me a couple of times whilst I was in Morocco.

Chefchaouen is a lovely place. Set in the Rif Mountains, this peaceful town is known for its blue-rinsed houses, fresh mountain air and relaxed atmosphere. And racist children.
It was my final morning in Chaouen. I spent it wandering the pale, blue medina, stopping now and again to peer into a shop, snap a photo or talk to a djellaba clad local. As I was calmly minding my own business, I turned a corner and came across a group of young boys. As I walked past them, one of them shouted “Ni hao!” I smiled and replied, “Bonjour.” Then the kid said, “Ni hao!” again and I again replied with a “Bonjour!”
Then the fun began.
The kid kept shouting, “Ni hao!” repeatedly then another kid joined in. Then another. Another one started saying, “Konichiwa!” Another boy started speaking in Korean. Other boys from nowhere seemed to appear. Soon I was getting bombarded by a cacophony of Asian greetings. Then a few boys started performing kung fu moves on each other whilst shouting, “Jackie Chan!” and “Bruce Lee!” The funny thing was that they pronounced “Chan” as “Shan” because the “ch” is “sh” in French. Too cute.
But man, it got really crazy – they were shouting really loudly and performing martial arts on one another. I felt like some substitute primary school teacher trying to control a rowdy class of seven year olds hyped up on sugar and mischief. I can’t even remember how I escaped them – either someone came along and told them off or I just ran away and never looked back.
I contemplated writing to the Chefchaouen school board to suggest they educate their children on racial tolerance and respecting their elders – or at least cut down the amount of sugar they put in their mint tea.
These have been but a few examples of the race-related moments I have experienced whilst travelling in Morocco. But to say I was actually offended by these is not true. Well, at least not at the end of the trip. You see, as the trip progressed and every single person I met called out, “Japon!”, “Jet Li!” or something similar, I kind of got used to it and didn’t take it seriously. In fact, it got really, really boring after awhile. It took me some time, but I learnt from the other travellers around me to just laugh it off. There was Seon the British Nigerian who was called “Mama Africa” and “Obama’s sister”; Anju the British Indian who endured numerous “Namaste’s”; and Sophie the Australian who was called “Indiana Jones”, “Crocodile Dundee” and “Kangaroo”. All these fellow foreigners just smiled and laughed along.

So by the end of the trip I learnt to smile when another waiter at another restaurant in Marrakech made his eyes slanty. Sure my smile was tired, forced and barely concealed my disdain for the profuse racist mentality in Morocco – but it was a smile nonetheless.

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