Romancing the Tourist

Romancing the Tourist

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I stand in a portico hung with gentian-blue ipomeas… and look out on a land of mists and mysteries; a land of trailing silver veils through which domes and minarets, mighty towers and ramparts of flushed stone, hot palm groves and Atlas snows, peer and disappear at the will of the Atlantic cloud drifts.
Edith Wharton

It was almost a hundred years ago that Edith Wharton visited Morocco and yet somehow this vision of a land, savage, enchanting, suspended in time and space, untouched by civilisation, persists today. Though Morocco, in close proximity to Europe, has always been a destination for the more adventurous Western traveller, in the last ten years mass tourism has exploded onto the scene.

Take Essaouira, a small fishing town of 50 000 which is a centre of music, art and a windsurfing hotspot. Ideally situated on the coast within a few hours’ drive from Marrakech, Essaouira has experienced an unprecedented growth of tourism since the mid-90s which has put it firmly on the tourist trail and led many young workers to move from the more traditional industries of fishing and carpentry to seek out work as guides, hotel receptionists, bartenders and souvenir-sellers.

The appeal of a country like Morocco, and of a town like Essaouira, is manifold. Western tourists come in search of the new, they seek thrills, adventure and romance. The idea of romance is already intrinsically tied up in the entire premise of tourism; travel agents and bright brochures sell an escape fantasy and a romanticised landscape whether it be the beach, the mountains or the desert. In falling in love with an exotic country, a tourist can find themself in a romantic encounter with a local from that country. Such love affairs have always been a key element of travel as the holiday experience allows people to free themselves from their day-to-day lives and explore intimacy with a lover in a context totally out of the norm.

When Erin, an Australian in her early 20s, went on a backpacking tour of Europe and Morocco, a holiday romance was something she was expecting as part of her first overseas experience. “I was backpacking… not that I’d gone looking for it… but I was just having a good time.” Free from the inhibitions of her life back home, she admits her three-day affair with Ayoub, a young surfer from Essaouira, was something she would not have embarked on in her own country.

“Morocco seems like the kind of place where you want to fall in love,” says Sharee, an Australian tourist who returned to Essaouira several times to visit her Moroccan boyfriend, describing the place as ‘surreal, dream-like and full of wonder.’ The women I met spoke of their romantic partners in mildly patronising terms, as either ‘exotic’ or ‘cute’.

As a woman being lured by the attraction of the non-Western world, Sharee is following a long history of female adventurers like Freya Stark and Gertrude Bell who through the 19th and 20th centuries crossed rugged lands exploring the Orient. “Everything that the reader of Arabian Nights expects to find is here,” Edith Wharton enthused of the country, suggesting that Morocco conforms to an image long-held of the ‘Orient’.

Professor Hsu-Ming Teo of Macquarie University explains that this romanticisation of ‘the Orient’ has always been a strand of Western culture. “Every film that has not been about Arabs as terrorists has been about the ‘Sheikh’ figure,” she says. The erotic East emanates from 19th century colonial literature which was fascinated with harems and fantasies of the virile Arab man. In comparison with the European colonial figure the Arab was highly sexualised, and in the female-focused yearnings for the East the Western woman came to replace the harem women in this fantasy. This romanticised imagining of the Eastern man waned following the end of colonialism but resurfaced in the 1960s and 1970s.

Not coincidentally, it was then that Essaouira experienced its first boom of tourism. It was the hippies that led the way, fuelled by Beat novels and folk songs. Jimmy Hendrix famously bought a house in a neighbouring village to Essaouira and created an instant tourist destination. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang:
Take the train from Casablanca going south,
blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth.
Colored cottons hang in the air,
charming cobras in the square.

Until Morocco gained its independence in 1956, it was under French control for over forty years. Even though the colonisers left half a decade ago, Moroccan culture – along with that of Algeria and Tunisia – is still deeply affected by the lasting impact of French colonialism. The language they speak is a dialect of Arabic that is not understood in the Middle East, as it is heavily derived from European languages. French is spoken in places of business and the economy relies on trade with France. French is the language of education and all literature, including Arab literature, is sold in French. Classic Arabic is reserved for speaking of religion.

The French colonising mission in West Africa extended far beyond political control; it aimed to assimilate the colonised into a French way of life, and create economic interdependency between France and its territories. French imperialist Jules Harmand declared: ‘There is a hierarchy of races and civilisations… and we belong to the superior race and civilisation.’ The French have since departed but in the mindsets of Moroccans, the hierarchy remains. It was, as Professor Ahluwalia, a specialist in post-colonial studies at the University of South Australia calls it, “a colonisation of the mind, of the imagination.” To be able to speak French in Morocco denotes education, class and cosmopolitanism. To be ‘French’ is to be connected with the Western world.

The people of Essaouira in general have not had access to the education and class privileges like those from a big city such as Casablanca. The gap left by the French is steadily being filled with the creation of a new post-colonial identity: one that is Western but not French and has some resonance for Moroccans in terms of the history of their relations with the West – this is an adoption of American hippy culture. The Essaouris dress like hippies and sport dredlocks or long hair, they idealise the American sixties and seventies era, they play folk music and reggae on the guitar. The tourism boom has coincided with the advent of cheap satellite television and Moroccans now speak English along with French. Their ability to work with tourists depends on it.

Many young men in Essaouira live a seemingly care-free lifestyle which consists of surfing, smoking hash, playing music, chasing Western girls and dreaming of leaving Morocco. As one man told me; “I spent the last seven years doing nothing, just waiting to leave. Why didn’t I study or get a job? It didn’t seem worth it. Why get a job when I was leaving anyway? We are all doing nothing except for waiting and what’s our excuse? Jim Morrison.” Another responded with a smile, when I asked him what the Moroccan dream was, “Europe.” Instead of giving up this dream and building a life in Morocco, the ‘hippy’ image is constructed in order to make their hopelessness appear as a choice. Freedom is a word used often in Essaouira; ‘We are free like the birds in the sky, like fish in the sea.’

The desire to be rescued, to marry and be taken to Europe is obviously one motivating factor in the Moroccan pursuit of Western women. Professor Ahluwalia explains that the Moroccans feel a love-hate relationship towards their former colonisers and the West in general; even as there is an imitation of Western culture, it is also demonised and resented. Essaouris often approach the female tourist aggressively, through verbal comments or touching, and if she does not respond, they may call her racist or shout “Do you think you are princess?” The ‘stupid tourist’ attitude co-exists with a longing for inclusion in the Western world.

A study of tourism in Essaouira has revealed that locals feel a concern for the effects of tourism, blaming Western influence for introducing drugs, alcohol, promiscuity and moral decline. When Sharee describes her boyfriend Jawad, she says he “both glorified and resented the West.” He was constantly comparing himself and his country to Europe, expressing feelings of inferiority. He envied the apparent wealth and opportunity of Westerners and their ability to travel, but scorned what he considered to be their superficiality and “loose morals”, particularly of women.

Essaouiri men gain their understanding of Western women from two sources – television and tourism. Both of these fuel the perception that Western girls are promiscuous and come to their country looking for sex. In an Islamic culture where relationships with a Moroccan woman may lead to an expectation of marriage, Western women are seen as offering easy sex in the short-term and in the long-term, the hope of a visa and an escape.

While Sharee considered her relationship with Jawad to be serious, Erin’s encounter with Ayoub was short-lived and lasted only the length of her holiday. A study of Palestinian men working in the tourist market in Jerusalem has suggested that men in situations of inequality regain power through ‘dominating’ Western women. By sleeping with Western tourists, they achieve status amongst their peers and are able to compare themselves favourable to Western men in terms of their sexual prowess. In Morocco I have heard it said that the men offer the “best sex” whilst paradoxically expressing disgust at Western women for giving themselves so freely to them.

A dual power relationship is played out between the tourist and the local. On the one hand, it would seem that the Western tourist has the ultimate power, with her freedom to come and go, her ability to leave the country, her privileged economic status and her independence. On the other, the woman is dependent on the Moroccan men as he has access to the culture and language that mean even simple actions can not be achieved on her own without great difficult. Sharee says, “I was reliant on him to help me get the bus or buy food.” As a tourist, she felt a barrier to understanding the customs of the local culture and needed her boyfriend to advise her as to the appropriate behaviour in different situations.

She also found herself confronted by his very different idea of how women should act. Like the colonial women who found themselves empowered by occupying a male role in Eastern societies, Sharee was the one in the couple who had freedom and money and as such, played what in Moroccan culture would be considered the role of the male. However, her behaviour as a Western woman conflicted with Jawad’s expectations of her gender role; “He didn’t like me drinking alcohol, smoking, swearing or being seen in bars… he preferred it when I was quiet and shy.” While enjoying Sharee’s freedom to travel and have sexual relationships, Jawad often sought to impose a Moroccan idea of traditional femininity and dictated her behaviour. Compared to Western men, Sharee describes him as “chivalrous” but also over-protective and intensely jealous.

Having these relationships allows women to experience the local culture differently and provides them with a point of entry to areas normally located outside of the context of tourism. Both Sharee and Erin were allowed to meet their partner’s families and were taken to places in the countryside outside of Essaouira that they described as ‘authentic’. Professor Ming describes this longing as “the desire to find authenticity, to have that special travel experience.” The women take home a great travel story and gain status over regular tourists who have not viewed Moroccan culture with the same depth and insight that they have.

So who is exploiting whom? Some have described Western women’s involvement with local men, now a widespread phenomenon across the globe, as no different from conventional sex tourism. What distinguishes it is the notion of romance that somehow elevates the relationship above a mere business transaction. The men do not perceive themselves as gigolos or hustlers as they never receive money directly for sex; all payment comes in the form of gifts, accommodation, paid travel or meals. It would degrade their Moroccan masculinity to see themselves as being supported by a woman, even if they reaping financial benefits of these relationships. In a culture where men are the traditional breadwinner of the family, the men of Essaouira seem very aware of how they might be viewed negatively within their society. Both Sharee and Erin reported their partner’s request to be seen holding money and paying in shops and restaurants even though it was the woman’s money they were using.

The men tend to idealise the relationship and speak of it in terms of love, even if it lasts just a few days. However, this relates to the idea present in local culture that a relationship should lead to marriage anyway. The women are either seduced by this talk of love, or else view it as nothing but having a good time. While Sharee felt “a genuine connection”, Erin summed up her encounter as, “I knew exactly what was going on and it was just two days later and I was going to be gone. For me, he was good company and experience. It was just fun, exciting and different.”

Theorist Edward Said, who coined the term ‘Orientalism’, said that Eastern men could not escape the Oriental gaze. The men of Essaouira seem very aware that there are two stereotypes of Arab men that date all the way back from colonial literature. Essaouiris play up to the role of being ‘Eastern’ tourists see it, and present themselves as different enough from Westerners to be exotic and attractive. But on the flip side, and particularly present in recent times, is the perception of Arabs as dangerous. In order to counter this, the Moroccan must be ‘Western’ enough to not be threatening to the tourist. He creates this by citing Western literature and pop culture, singing Bob Marley and Bob Dylan, quoting T S Eliot and Albert Camus, and being well-versed in topics that are familiar to the Westerner. Yet he maintains the allure of the exotic by being overly romantic, introducing the tourist woman to his ‘traditional’ family, singing Arabic songs and speaking a
foreign language.

The young men of Essaouira must strike a careful balance between these two things if they are to be successful in attracting Western women. The Essaouiris have learnt to be chameleons, altering their form and their language to whatever appeals most to the woman they are trying to seduce.

This is the Art of Romancing the Tourist.

Claire Harris holds a master's degree in writing. Her short stories and articles have appeared in publications in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. In 2010, she won the Australian Red Cross Essay Contest. She has been traveling the world since 2003, visiting the Middle East, West Africa and South America.