Book Review of the Week: Frommer's Morocco
As a Special Bonus, Frommer's has graciously donated a copy of Morocco, 1st Edition, to be awarded to a randomly drawn commenter on this article. Post your comments - you might win!
Acrobats, Jemaa el Fna square, Marrakech medina
When I was in graduate school, one of my fellow students was from Morocco. He was so courtly in his manners, so intelligent, and had such good food at his gatherings that I was very impressed with his cultural background. However, I haven't been to North Africa yet.
All this was brought to mind this fall, when I received a review copy of Frommer's Morocco, 1st Edition. Written by Darren Humphrys, this guidebook is an enticing glimpse into a country with which many readers are unfamiliar.
From the moment I cracked open the book, I was entranced with Darren's writing and expertise. Now, I can't WAIT to go. From the colors to the people to every day life, I am impressed with this culture and country.
Luckily for us, Darren agreed to sit down and share his experiences writing the book, and guiding and living in Morocco, with us - as well as some incredible photos. Here's what he had to say...
Dyer's souk, Marrakech
WE: Please tell us about your book, Frommer's Morocco...
DH: As you may be aware, Frommer’s is North America’s leading guidebook publisher and last year their editorial team was tasked with expanding the Frommer’s range of guidebooks to Africa and the Middle East.
Looking back in history, Morocco was a natural choice as one of these new guidebooks. The relationship between the United States and Morocco goes back to 1786 - just three years after the United States gained its independence from the British – when Thomas Jefferson and Sultan Mohammad III signed the Morocco-US Treaty of Friendship. This was the first recognition of the United States by any nation, and is the longest unbroken treaty in United States history.
Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca
Frommer’s guidebooks have a very definitive style that is big on ‘nuts and bolts’ and low on ‘frills’ – there are no pictures within the book’s 436 pages – and this gave me lots of scope to give extended and personal reviews of the accommodations, eateries, sights and attractions. Unlike most other guidebooks of Morocco, I haven’t covered the entire country but have rather concentrated on those regions that are accessible and offer most interest to travelers.
Old woman, Asilah Medina
WE: What is your background in Morocco?
DH: I’ve been a guide for the past 11 years, specializing in taking groups through various parts of Africa and the Middle East. I first ventured to Morocco in 2001 for a season of guiding there, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience and made some great friends.
I didn’t venture there for another season of guiding until 2005 however, but have returned each year since. My first taste of guidebook writing was updating an existing guidebook to Morocco, and this whet my appetite to apply for the contract to author the inaugural Frommer’s guide to Morocco.
I reside with my partner and baby boy in South Africa, and I love the contrasts that these two countries – South Africa and Morocco – afford me. As a family, we have a more than passing connection with Morocco…Henry, our baby boy was born 9 months after my partner Kate had accompanied me for some of my Frommer’s research within Morocco. Having guided so considerably within Morocco, I felt that I had a fair idea of traveler’s expectations when coming to Morocco, and if/how those expectations are met once they travel in the country. Thankfully, my fantastic Frommer’s editor, Ms. Anuja Madar agreed and entrusted me with putting the book together. I’m proud to say that I inspired Anuja so much with my writings that as I write this, she is actually on holiday in Morocco for the first time.
Souk souvenier stall
WE: Morocco is such an ancient and complex country. Are there ways for travelers to scratch beyond the surface?
DH: If there’s one thing that I can guarantee about Morocco, it’s that it almost never fails to meet the traveler’s expectations. Be it maze-like medinas, mud-walled kasbahs, palm-fringed desert oases, delicious cuisine, great shopping, overwhelmingly hospitable people…whatever a traveler’s perception is of Morocco, more often than not this perception can be accommodated.
Because of this, I find it very easy for travelers to get ‘into’ Morocco and really know the country and her people. This often doesn’t require any great exploration off the beaten track; on the contrary the savvy traveler can have a memorable, authentic experience right in the heart of the tourist hotspots such as Marrakech, Fes, or out in the Saharan-fringed desert dunes. Every traveler to Morocco will at some stage be offered to share a mint tea or meal with a Moroccan’s family. It is considered almost an honor for this person or family to have the company of an international visitor. Many travelers however, feel unsure about taking up this offer, as sometimes it can inevitably lead to also being ‘motivated’ to buy a souvenir or two.
I always encourage travelers to Morocco to slow down, get into the rhythm of the country, embrace the Moroccans’ hospitable nature and accept an offer or two to share a mint tea. More often than not, the traveler will walk away better and richer for the experience.
Berber woman Berber man
As I mention in the book (“Ecological & Cultural Travel”), there are also some more ‘official’ avenues that take away the initial concern of communication and safety. These include language and volunteering projects, along with some tour companies that offer environmental- and/or community-based itineraries.
WE: How can visitors best prepare for intercultural experiences there?
DH: Morocco IS different to the West, and presumably that’s what attracted each traveler to the country in the first place. As I mentioned above, the best thing to bring along to Morocco is a willingness to accept, rather than feel challenged by, the sometimes overbearing friendliness and hospitality offered by Moroccans. I suppose another way to say this is to be prepared to “go with the flow”.
My other piece of advice would be to have some awareness of the connection between the Moroccans’ religious and cultural characteristics. Morocco is an Islamic kingdom and almost all Moroccans follow the Islamic faith, and this faith intertwines with their everyday lives. I believe each traveler to Morocco should have at least some awareness of the Islamic faith and how each Muslim follows that faith. I’ve written a short piece on Islam in Appendix A of the guidebook and I’ve tried to write it in a way that is current and understandable for the non-Muslim. I’ve also tried to mention cultural considerations where possible throughout the book, such as where/when it would be prudent to wear conservative clothing, or what is considered to be offensive behavior.
Gnaoua musician, Jemaa el Fna square, Marrakech Medina
WE: Your book is packed with great information - was it fun to research? Are there places you return to, again and again?
DH: Fun and research? Do these two words go together??!! Seriously, I loved writing this book. Through my years as guide in Morocco, I was always coming up against travelers wielding guidebooks with information and suggestions that I felt weren’t true to the country, or at times were almost mis-leading. Throughout the research and actual writing of the book, I was always acutely aware of being honest, yet positive.
I can also honestly say that I personally visited every accommodation, eatery, sight, and attraction reviewed in the book – something which you would think would happen for every guidebook but doesn’t, I am told.
My field research wasn’t always easy, as most Moroccans have never heard of Frommer’s and were at times a little suspicious of my requests for information. Being my first solo writing effort, I was also a little bit stressed about whether I could produce the goods, so to speak, and at times I found the research quite challenging and overwhelming. Once I saw the book in print however, I felt very honored and proud to have written about ‘my’ Morocco and to have had the chance to inspire and inform would-be visitors to the country.
I based myself in Marrakech for a couple of weeks before venturing out into the rest of the country, and I thoroughly enjoyed being able to get to know Marrakech even better than I already did. I love waking up and knowing I’m somewhere different, and I always feel this way when in Marrakech. I also enjoyed my time researching Fes and getting to (almost) know my way around the ancient medina of Fes el Bali. Although I’d meandered along many of its 9,500 alleys and laneways, I’d never felt like I’d really explored the medina, so I was grateful to have the time and impetus to do this while researching for the book.
Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakech
WE: You offer tours - can you tell us more about that?
DH: As well as photojournalism and environmental consulting, we operate a small home-based tour company called Compass Odyssey. We began with 2-3 escorted tours each year through parts of South Africa, and have since added 2 annual escorted tours of Morocco…it’s a good excuse to get back up to Morocco and visit our friends!
My style of guiding is very informal and concentrates on each traveler’s expectations and desires of what they want to get out of their visit. I try to achieve this by not being too structured or overbearing but at the same time doing my best to open each traveler’s minds and eyes to the country they are in, and not just taking them from attraction to restaurant to hotel, etc. I also avail the services of as many local guides as possible, because I feel it’s important for our travelers to also experience Morocco through a Moroccan’s eyes, and not just through mine.
We have specifically timed our tours to Morocco to coincide with spring, as this is a magical time in Morocco when the cold winter has headed south but the energy-sapping summer heat is still to arrive. Thanks to the Frommer’s Morocco book, I have already started to receive emails from prospective travelers to Morocco. Although I feel flattered that these people are confiding in me and requesting my advice, I don’t always have the time to assist them and often refer them to one of the Moroccan-based tour operators that I have recommended in the book. However, should anyone – be they individual travelers or couples and small groups - wish to be escorted by myself around Morocco separate to our scheduled escorted tours, then I would definitely look into this and try to accommodate them. As I said, any excuse to get back to Morocco is always seriously considered!
Dye pits, Fes Medina
WE: Are there ways for visitors to give back?
DH: I truly believe that going ‘local’ is the easiest and most direct way for Moroccans to benefit from each traveler’s visit. What I mean by this is where possible, use the locals. There is a plethora of Moroccan-owned accommodations, eateries, tour operators, and guide services to choose from, and that’s not taking into account the shopkeepers and curio (souvenir) salesmen.
With a population that generally isn’t that well-off financially, buying that small souvenir from the guy tapping on your window or giving a little extra for that cup of mint tea is often met with a broad smile and an enthusiastic “shukrran bezzef!” (thank you very much!). Besides this very direct but sometimes small avenue to ‘give back’, I again refer you to the “Ecological & Cultural Travel” section (Chapter 4), where I have mentioned tour companies that operate along the principles of Responsible and Fair Trade tourism, along with highlighting some specific projects and institutions.
WE: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?
DH: Nothing else but one word…Go! There’s not too many countries that I’ve visited where I would give a 99.99% satisfaction guarantee to prospective travelers, but I truly believe that Morocco will not disappoint. That’s not to say that Morocco is all plain sailing…it’s not. In one day she can be enlightening and exasperating, inspirational and downright tiring, but that should be the attraction.
L’Orient means “the East” and conjures up exotic images and thoughts. I say that Morocco totally encapsulates the mystique of l’Orient and is ready, waiting - and easily accessible – for any western traveler to discover.
WE: Thanks so much, Darren. Your words - both in the book, and here in this interview, are very inspiring. Your photography is magnificentWe've definitely put Morocco on our priority travel list!
All photos courtesy and copyright of Darren Humphrys.
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