To Morocco – And Back!
Travelling to countries that are hostile to gays is always risky but, with the right knowledge and some street-smarts, you can still have an amazing and safe experience. Make the most of Morocco, for example, with these six enticing tips. (Gracefully riding a camel is not one of them!) Story and images by Riley-McFarlane Photography.
We are physically dragged into a store in the middle of the souk in Marrakech. Our assailant speaks to us with a reassuring yet camp American accent and says, “Why the stress face? Chillax!” This was our first day and up until this point we had no idea our internal apprehension reflected so visibly. Generally we’re not opposed to being man-handled, but our first visit to Morocco was a little confronting.
We are well aware that there are quite a few places around the world where homosexuality is illegal; places where you can be charged with a misdemeanour or be subjected to some truly frightening punishments up to and including the penalty of death. However, some of these countries also happen to be places we have always wanted to travel to. Like Morocco.
So, after some research and intense soul-searching, my partner and I decided to make the journey. From the moment of our arrival to our departure eight days later we were bombarded and, yes, sometimes assaulted by sights, sounds, smells, tastes and even touches that were far removed from our daily life.
#1. Do the Research
Research is always at the top of our list irrespective of the destination, but in this case it was more than valuable and we did quite a bit before departing Australia.
Morocco offers a diverse range of experiences, be they luxury spas on the beach near Casablanca or camel riding through the Sahara. The country offers frontier towns and modern cities and a mix of African and Arab cultures. It was reassuring to know exactly what we wanted to see and where we wanted to go before arrival. We knew how much we should expect to pay for a meal, a “petit taxi” or a “grand taxi”, leather, textiles and tours. It also prepared us for the crotch-grabbing security frisk at Casablanca airport. But that’s a story for another time.
Arabic is the official language of Morocco, but many people speak Amazigh (the Berber language) and French is still widespread. While Morocco was only a French Protectorate for a relatively short time in its long history (1912 to 1956) that influence is still surprisingly evident in both its food and language. Moroccans will speak French before they speak English and children in the street will approach and start a conversation in French.
Yves Saint Laurent built a home in Marrakech and its beautiful gardens, Jardin Majorelle, are open to the public (for a small fee). While a visit to Morocco gives you the opportunity to finally put that schoolboy French lurking in the recesses of your memory to use, English is increasingly spoken in tourist areas, so generally there is no problem being understood.
#2. tone down the gay
In Morocco, Western women are expected to respect the culture by not wearing revealing clothing and ensuring they are covered from shoulders to knees. So, too, gay men need to be mindful of how they behave in public, and act respectfully to the culture. After seeing local men walking hand-in-hand or kissing hello, it’s easy to let down your guard and feel like you are in a modern, secular and accepting culture. But you’re not. Such sights should not be misconstrued as anything other than a cultural norm with no underlying sexual subtext.
Moroccan law prohibits homosexuality with a penalty of six months to three years in prison and a fine of up to 1,000 dirhams [AUD$115]. According to figures from the Ministry Of Justice, in 2011 there were 81 trials involving accusations of homosexuality. Last year, Ray Cole, a retired magazine publisher from Kent in the UK, was arrested and given a four-month prison sentence for “homosexual acts”. All he did was stand on a street corner with another man, a 22-year-old local student. They were stopped by the police and searched and his phone was found to contain a “compromising photograph”. Cole was released after a few weeks, but only after his family started an intense public campaign.
Talking with some locals and ex-pats we found that “homosexuals” fall into three categories: Westerners with Westerners, Westerners with Moroccans, and Moroccans with Moroccans.
Westerner with Westerner is tolerated, provided there are no overt displays. In fact, on one of our overnight tours we were surprised when asked if we wanted two single beds or a double. Our response was “whatever is easiest” and in this instance we were given a double.
A Westerner or a tourist with a Moroccan is less tolerated and will generally come to the attention of the police because a local makes a report. Some Muslims see it as their duty to either “protect” their society from outside influence or weed out those Moroccans who transgress. There is also the idea that an older man could only be with a younger Moroccan if he was paying for their company. It seems this is what happened to Ray Cole. He believes the police were tipped off by one of his young friend’s neighbours. The authorities will make an example in such cases to act as a deterrent.
Offers from young men are possible as they try to make quick money, and it also appears that the Moroccan government is starting to crack down on what it sees as sex tourism by foreigners. Another frightening possible scenario is when a tourist has consensual sex with a local. If friends or acquaintances catch the two together or later see compromising photos of them online, the local may cry rape in order not to be outed. This appears to have occurred to a 35-year-old Canadian man who was arrested in Agadir this April. At the time of writing both were still in custody.
Finally, a Moroccan with another Moroccan is going to suffer the full brunt of the law and occasionally the local population. In 2007, one local man was attacked by a crowd after he was rumoured to be in a gay marriage. He was later arrested and imprisoned.
While Ray Cole has said he will never travel to Morocco again, he doesn’t suggest that others should not. We know of gay men who have travelled to this country for years and will continue to do so. The best advice is to be streetwise: remember that you are in a Muslim country where homosexuality is illegal.
#3. stay in a riad, not a hotel chain
Over 1,000 years old and with a population of about one million, Marrakech is considered one of the most tolerant and liberal cities in Morocco, which is why we chose it as our starting point. The locals are charming, hospitable and intensely proud of their city.
Like any big metropolis it has its high-end luxury hotels, shopping malls and places to be primped and pampered. It also has, as with most big cities in the region, an Old Town – the Medina. Behind the walls that once protected it but can no longer contain its population you will find the exotic, the beautiful, and the heartbeat of this city. To truly experience what Morocco has to offer, stay in a riad (a traditional house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard) in the Medina to start your explorations. There are no dedicated gay riads for obvious reasons but a few identify as “gay-friendly” and will generally have a mixed clientele. It requires some clever key word searches to find them.
We pre-booked our stay with one such establishment, communicating directly with the owner, Peter, who arranged for a driver to meet us at the airport. We were driven to a small local square where the riad’s manager, Hassan, met us. We were then guided through a dark maze of passageways and laneways punctuated by light streaming from open doorways through which we glimpsed children playing games, women folding the washing or serving dinner and groups of men and boys huddled around a small television watching a football game. We reassured one another with “It’s an adventure” and nervously laughed as we followed Hassan to the entrance to Riad Dar Zaman. Walking inside, all our apprehension immediately melted away.
Dar Zaman is a cosy, renovated 18th Century riad in the centre of the Medina and close to the souk. The staff, who speak six languages between them, were knowledgeable, friendly, helpful and made us feel very welcome and comfortable. We received a detailed orientation of the area and thankfully many recommendations for eating, drinking and places to visit that would otherwise have been bypassed because they are hidden gems. With just four rooms it is easy to quickly develop camaraderie with fellow guests and the staff, eagerly talking about previous or the following days’ adventures over breakfast, dinner or while cooling down in the plunge pool.
The Old Town of Marrakech is a labyrinth of streets and shops, the leather souk, spice souk, snake charmers and henna tattooists. It is an assault on the senses as you play dodgem with bicycles, motorbikes and even the occasional car in the narrow, winding covered streets. At the same time you will discover bargains, foods, surprising retreats and friendly people, while more than once losing your way, but again – that is all part of the adventure.
The shopkeepers, like the one who told us to “chillax”, definitely want you to spend in their shops and one even pleaded, “Come on, I want to feel your money in my hand.” That was certainly a different selling technique! Don’t be afraid to bargain but know your exchange rate and remember to quibble over dollars and not cents.
Learn a little Arabic: “hello”, “goodbye” and “thank you” go a long way. Also, learn the polite word for “no”, and the more emphatic, phrase meaning, “I said no!” This will help you move on when trying to get through a crowded marketplace. Never say “later” to these shopkeepers as that means “yes” when you walk past again, even if it’s days later. In the spice souk when the sellers insist that you buy something, try, “We can’t, we’re from Australia.” Surprisingly, they know of our strict quarantine laws, nod their heads and leave you alone.
#4. Dine adventurously
While you can easily find Western dishes in the big hotels, upmarket areas of Ville Nouvelle and tourist hotspots why would you want to? Forget burgers and fries and sit down on some soft cushions on a rooftop in the souk. Have a cocktail or a mint tea, watch the sunset and try some of the local delicacies. A lot of dishes are braised in tagines, and are fragrant melt-in-your-mouth sensations. A local must-try is the pigeon pastille, a peculiar flaky pastry with an unusual mix of sweet and savoury, or, for the less adventurous, try the chicken tagine. The prolific use of fruit in meat dishes can be a little challenging at first. The cuisine is designed to be shared so the more people dining together, the greater opportunity to try something new.
#5. Ride A Camel In The Desert
A drive across the Atlas mountains to the southeastern corner of Morocco will take you to the western edge of the Sahara. A camel ride into the desert with an overnight in a Berber tent is an incredible experience. We booked a 3-day tour and, with just two other couples, this afforded us better opportunities than one of the large group bus tours. As we set off, the steep winding switchbacks up the Atlas mountains provided amazing vistas as we climbed to the 2,260-metre [7,414 feet] Tizi n’Tichka Pass.
Morocco is a popular destination for foreign filmmakers. We saw the Atlas Film Studio in Ouarzazate before continuing on to Aït Benhaddou, a fortified city on a former caravan route. Featured in dozens of films, including Lawrence Of Arabia, Gladiator and The Prince Of Persia, this traditional mud brick city, on the UNESCO World Heritage list, is another must.
The highlight of the trip was the sight of the great sand dunes of Erg Chebbi where we took a camel ride (about an hour-and-a-half) into the beautiful desert. We joined other groups for a large communal dinner before sitting around a campfire, entertained by singing and drumming before retiring to traditional nomadic Berber tents resplendent with carpets and… sand. We awoke in the morning with sand in all sorts of places: hair, eyes and other body parts you would think would be sufficiently isolated from such ingress. The sand, it just goes on and on and on! And while our camel rides in and out of the desert dunes felt isolated and like they took forever, we’re sure we were not actually that far from civilization.
This was our first experience riding a camel and we can categorically say we never, ever, ever, ever (we could throw in a few more evers but you get the sentiment) want to do that again. Camels are fascinating animals, but they are smelly, noisy, cantankerous and extremely uncomfortable to ride. “Hold on and lean back” was the advice of our camel driver. They have a strange gait and we never quite felt totally secure perched atop them. The worst part was the day after, when the muscles we used to maintain our balance and a modicum of decorum astride these animals told us just how much they haven’t been used before!
#6. Sample Hidden Gems In Marrakech
• Orange cake at Dar Cherifa. The second oldest riad in Marrakech has been converted into a literary café/restaurant.
• Visit a hammam – a combination steam/sauna/massage. From inexpensive, basic and local to luxurious and expensive retreats.
*Jemaa El Fna. The market square in the middle of Medina is filled with all sorts of peddlers. These people can be quite aggressive in demanding money if you take a photo – especially if they have put a monkey or snake on your shoulder! In the evening, find a terrace bar overlooking the square and watch all the action as the sun sets.
• Namazake bar. Another spot to enjoy the view is here on the roof of the Pearl Hotel.
• Palais El Bahia. A palace and gardens built in the 19th Century.
• Palais El Badi. The ruins of a palace built in the late 1500s.
Yes, there may be well-founded concerns for gay men travelling to Morocco, but as long as you are respectful and discreet and travel to experience the fascination, history and culture that form the rich tapestry of this country, then, like us, you will have the experience of a lifetime. Around so many corners there’s an OMG moment or, as the shopkeeper we came to know as Stress Face told us, “It’s not OMG… it’s OMA – Oh My Allah!”
more: Marrakech has a dry climate with hot summers and cool winters. The best times to visit are between March and June and September to December. For a variety of tours, visit www.marrakechactivities.com. For gay-friendly accommodation, Riad Dar Zaman: www.darzaman.com
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