How Should We Travel?
When cultures clash and how to think about it
I was in Morocco with some friends, and we were looking for a drink. In a country where alcohol is, on the whole, prohibited, it’s not such an easy thing to do.
Finally, in a restaurant, we found a refrigerator with cans of beer in it. I call it a restaurant, but it wasn’t really; it was more of a shabby oasis, the only place in the whole city that served alcohol.
Then we heard a crash. I doubt that the rock that came through the window was not aimed at me or my friends directly. It was more a case of the entire establishment being targeted, this honey-pot for other types of iniquity, an unwholesome meeting place of purple-nosed drinkers, malnourished prostitutes and pockmarked drug dealers.
So when the rock, half a brick, came through the glass, it wasn’t entirely surprising. Over a small wooden table, plying ourselves with golden beer served in glasses designed for mint tea, the rock brought us to our feet and our senses. Shouts and screams erupted. Morocco was but a few miles from the tip of Iberia, yet it felt to me — nearly twenty years ago now — like a world away.
Over the years since, I’ve often thought about the meaning of this small episode of violence. It was a lesson in the blending or jutting up of one culture with another, and the problems that can cause.
I was in my early twenties at the time. I was eager to taste the food, hear the muezzin call, to take part in the clamor and spirit of North Africa.
We hadn’t given much thought to drinking, but now we were on holiday – me and my three friends – we began to feel differently. We spent four consecutive evenings looking for a bar to buy a beer or a glass of wine: this should have told me how out-of-step our intentions were. The rock through the window was confirmation.
We had arrived in Casablanca five days earlier. It was evening when our plane landed and the city was beginning to twinkle with electric lights along the waterside. Our mood was open and inquisitive. We took a stroll along wide, French-like boulevards, where car horns echoed in the glow of glass-fronted cafés, where palm trees swayed above dusk-dark squares.
In the cafés men in long trousers and ironed shirts smoked and debated, stood and sat, or with one foot propped up on a chair for effect. There were no women. Entering into one of these bars, thinking we could find a drink, we had the pressing sense that we were being watched from every angle, as if the entire café had stopped to inspect us, noiseless but for the creak of wicker-seated chairs as people shifted to see us better. We enquired after alcohol: the waiter shook his head, and we promptly left.
The next day we took a train to Marrakesh and arrived there in the high-heat of the afternoon. Entering the pink-walled city, the deep flame of the city’s aroma was at its peak, a half piquant and half revolting blend of petrol fumes, cooking spices, tobacco smoke, fresh and rotten fruit, roadside rubbish, and the urgent tocsin of uncooked animal meat. During the course of the day we moved between the market passages and out into the famous Jamaa el Fna square, where at dusk we watched a boxing match between two teenage boys in hugely oversized gloves, and ate grilled meet from the steaming pans of street vendors lit by electric lamps plugged into generators.
We were startled by the chaos of the place, the roar of motorbikes, the restless wings of tethered birds of prey, tamtam drums merging with the sound of horses hooves, the hiss of meat frying, hawkers hailing us and then pestering us for ten or twenty minutes after, following us down the street. And during all this, we confused ourselves even more by keeping constant vigil for a place that had wine bottles in the window or a Budweiser sign above the door. We saw endless Coca Cola neon lights, but precious little hint of anything stronger on the premises.
As we spent more time in Marrakesh, the unwary optimism we had arrived with was beginning to sour. Twice within twenty-four hours was I swindled out of money by men with keener wits than me: firstly on purchasing a set of international telephone cards (mobiles were yet to be popularised) which turned out to be spent; secondly when accepting a half-day walking tour of the city only to be deposited on the edge of a dusty cemetery after only fifteen minutes, my wallet significantly dis-burdened. The city was making me feel on edge.
Travel tends to exaggerate uncertainties, and for this reason it encourages people to stick together in groups.
My experiences in Morocco often come back to me whenever I hear some public debate around “foreigners” or “integration”. I wonder: should we have done better as visitors? Should we have accustomed to the ways of our host nation, done more research before we arrived and settled in more willingly when we were there?
If so, then to what extent? Who did we actually offend? Who did the hand belong to that threw the rock from the anonymity of that night time street?
These questions bring out a twofold thought: first, I think how easy it is for an outsider to run up against the behavioral mores of a foreign country. I was young and, too a point, stupid. I think that is forgivable.
Second, I reflect on how the embarrassment still stings, thinking — in that mode of liberal concern in which so many of us are prone to dwell — that I should have done my homework better. The thought of other backpackers triumphantly hoarding through the streets of an overseas country, searching for late bars and easy booze, behaving ignorantly and selfishly, makes me feel slightly sick now. How many other tourists have touted their own grizzly tastes ahead of the sensitivities of the society they are merely passing through?
Looking back now I see that I experienced Morocco almost entirely as a subjective event. That is to say, I underwent the dynamics of the people and places as if the only thing that mattered was how the experience made me feel. I saw very little of the people, only — I am ashamed to admit — something like the “undifferentiated brown stuff”, to use George Orwell’s deeply unpleasant phrase.
Physical appearance has always been an insufficient marker of a person’s inner life. Yet inasmuch as society and culture inform the structure of an individual’s personality — that is, by generating possibilities of identity, choices about whether to engage with aspects of a society or to reject them — a person’s background still counts for a great deal. We all come from somewhere.
Yet I have always believed in the potential for personal change. Confinement within a single pattern of thought is never an absolute captivity. I believe in that. We can continue to learn, and thereby adapt our behaviour, throughout out lives.
Soured by the heat and demands of Marrakesh, and parched of alcohol – the lynchpin of our idea of fun – our small group of friends began to fall out with each other. We argued over where to eat, what to eat, where to stay. Since my money was running short, one night in the city of Fez, I successfully persuaded the group to switch hotels to one across the square that charged only five dollars a night. I slept soundly, happy to have saved a few pence; meanwhile my friends in adjacent rooms were awake all night killing the cockroaches that emerged incessantly from beneath their bed frames.
For relief we went to the capital of Morocco, Rabat, which is an altogether more spacious and cosmopolitan city, and gratefully stationed ourselves in a hotel directly above the first working bar we’d seen in the country. By day, the sun shone on a bright and clean precinct; by night the bar was overflowing with a motley pack of undesirables, ourselves included. That was the night of the brick through the window, which pierced the glass wall with a shrill clash and pierced too our pretensions of aloof, entitled tourists. In a sense, the brick came as a relief, since it divided the trip into two halves, one of naïveté and the other of experience. From then on we felt able to relax.
I loved being in Morocco and I hated too. It was beautiful, yet I was intolerant of the place.
Reflection gives us the power to put ourselves in the shoes of other people — if not entirely, not perfectly, than enough to act as an extension of ourselves beyond ourselves. It is in this effort that our subjective selves can adopt a form of impartiality.
This seems a decent enough starting point, but it is when the discourse begins that the difficulties come to show themselves. It is in the discussion, when arguments are made and when the lines are drawn, that you find motive and meaning growing more and more foggy.
Principles of tolerance are often laced with hypocrisies that are difficult to admit. Is right to look at immigrant communities and appreciate the “multi-cultural” diversity they bring, as if the only way of accepting other people is through the benefits they bestow? Is it also right to bemoan the poor integration of westerners abroad? Can we celebrate the attributes of a culture only so long as we agree with them, and seek to transform the aspects that we don’t agree with?
Now in my early forties, I extend my thoughts back not only to that group of young friends traveling through Morocco, but also to the purveyor of the rock through the window. And in doing so I come to accept the legitimacy of his or her actions. I hope the word I have chosen here makes sense. The bearer of the rock, undoubtedly offended by the presence and popularity of the seedy bar, had a legitimate grievance.
If we dislike the actions of another person, then it is because we’ve failed to understand their root. That doesn’t mean we have to tolerate everybody and everything we come across, it means that to iron out our hypocrisies we should be as honest as we can be about how much we have tried to see things from the other’s point of view. After all, we all sit on one side of the story or the other, looking inwards to a world we all share. I believe that it is when we forget this that arguments become polarized, and the prospect of reconciliation is lost.