Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Weekend in Ouarzazate

This weekend, I found myself on a tour of the Moroccan film studios in Ouarzazate.* Leading us around the replica of ancient Jerusalem that was built to film Kingdom of Heaven, our tour guide animatedly informed us that everything we saw and touched around us is pure façade. “Come, come here,” he said, guiding us toward a wall as though he was about to reveal a deep, dark secret. “Knock,” he added, nodding in encouragement. Upon the hollow sound our fists produced, he broke into a sly smile. “See,” he then revealed, “all of this is made of plaster.” To add to the sensation – to this wonder of disillusionment – he led us to a boulder that lay abandoned next to a giant slingshot, and gestured toward Farid to try and pick it up. The latter, good sport as he is, put on a pained face as real as the stone itself was heavy, and lifted the thing triumphantly over his head.

We walked around the set for about an hour, never ceasing to wonder at the wooden and metal constructions we discovered behind every seemingly ancient wall. All this thick stone, this ancient wood, all this air of history – nothing more than some very clever plaster!

This wonder of disillusionment colored most of my holiday weekend in Ouarzazate: the fantastic magic of plaster extends beyond the walls of these film studios. Most of Ouarzazate and the surrounding regions are, themselves, little more than a façade of Moroccan desert-exoticism created by and for a foreign audience looking for an escape from the drudge of reality.

When I say that, I do not mean that this region lay bare and abandoned before the advent of tourists from Europe. It has a long and honorable history as the dwelling grounds of Amazigh nomads, and boasts a few ancient hubs of trans-Saharan trade. But the infrastructure one sees these days – the overwhelming wealth of auberges, maison d’hôtes, hotels, restaurants, 4-wheel drive rental agencies – has been created especially for tourists. Ouarzazate itself is situated at a location that – as the point of confluence for the Atlas, Draâ, and Dades valleys – has always been strategically important, but as a town it was nearly non-existent until the French made it into a southern headquarters. These days it is a string of hotels, restaurants and rental car agencies held together by a few streets that lead directly out into the surrounding regions. One sees more tourists than locals, and the only place I’ve seen more foreign license plates is at the port of Tangier.

It is for two main genres of tourists that this façade has been built, as we learned over the course of observation and through conversations with the lifters we picked up in our rental car on our scenic drives through the region. There is, first of all, the kind that emerges from the many tour buses one will see in and around Ouarzazate. This is the package tour traveler: the often elderly individual who has booked an entirely arranged vacation, including plane ticket, in-country bus travel, hotels, meals, and a tour guide. All of these items are European in origin. That is, the tour guide is not a local but an experienced European traveler, and the hotels and restaurants where they spend their leisure time are owned by foreign investors. These tourists do not interact with the local population. They are not interested in Moroccan reality. No: what they are looking for are the images of exoticism found in many a travel guide, or those Picador books about Moroccan gardens, architecture, and interiors. They seek an escape, not an encounter. We saw these tourists briefly, as they hopped in and out of their buses, and as they were herded quickly into fancy-looking eateries along the road. They were completely absent from the streets we wandered, the market squares where we struck up conversations with the locals, and the casual restaurants where we looked (in vain…) for a bowl of harira.**

Where these tourists are absent, the other kind is too omnipresent. These are the modern hippies: the often young and often dreadlocked wanderers seeking an escape from the establishment of their native society. We saw these individuals everywhere, wandering the roads in their hiking shoes, burdened with a big trekking backpack. We experienced this genre of traveler in person when we picked up two Polish hitch hikers. As dusk fell and we drove them back from Skoura to Ouarzazate, I asked them how they were enjoying their trip so far. In competent English, Pawel shared with me how taken they were with Morocco. He had fallen in love with what he called its “inshallah-culture.” Such a relaxed society, he told me, and so friendly. He saw Morocco as a place where anything goes and nothing is expected; as a place where plans might at any minute be broken, because one never knows when one may be invited to the house of a random Moroccan one meets along the way, for a meal or a warm bed for the night. I smiled, expressed my contentment at his taken-ness with this country, and debated with myself to what extent I should burst his bubble.

This type of traveler cannot be accused of avoiding encounters. But what is true of the package tour tourist is ultimately true of these hippies as well. They encounter and dive in head first, but they nevertheless avoid Moroccan reality. They are not interested in discovering the ‘real’ Morocco; they, too, pursue a dream of exoticism. They do not see the social rules of propriety that lie behind this seeming laissez-faire attitude that Moroccans portray toward their tourists. They do not think about the fact that the very hospitable people who offer them meals and beds often have very little to spare, and they do not think to offer these people a little something in return – reveling only in the inviting nature of Moroccans and the economy of traveling in this part of the world.

Both kinds of tourists seek an escape, a dream of exoticism. All of this makes the infrastructure a plaster façade without history: it’s all of recent creation, and caters to a public that doesn’t want a reality. They revel in the façade, and neither think nor desire to turn the corner to examine the woodwork and iron scaffolding that holds it all up.

It is also a plaster façade without roots. That is, none of this infrastructure has any roots in Morocco itself. These rental car agencies, restaurants, and hotels are run not only for, but also by Europeans – clever Frenchmen, Brits, or Belgians who saw the opportunity to make some money in this Orientalist yearning for the Arab exotic.

There is, then, no financial exchange between tourists and locals. The encountering tourists don’t think to pay their gracious hosts, and the package tour people deal only with other foreigners. This means that locals do not profit from tourism. The beautiful oases are run by foreigners, while the locals are left with nothing but desert. We encountered men in qsars and Kasbahs, hoping to make a few Dirhams by moonlighting as a tour guide for the occasional tourist who does open him or herself up to the local reality, and who spoke to us of the dim prospects for an uneducated individual from this region. And what of the nomad whom we picked up on the road, who had nothing but the tent we saw lying just 100 meters away from his tent, and flock of sheep to sustain him. The reality of the region – its history and roots, its people and its resources for survival – have been pushed back into the arid nothingness, the abject spaces that surround the gorges, oases, and auberges where tourists spend their Euro, pound, or dollar.

It is a beautiful region, Ouarzazate, but it is a sad region – a region that sets out the inequalities that plague this country in stark colors. And it bothers me that it is precisely this kind of area where one will find these flocks of tourists who render themselves oblivious – whether deliberately or not – to these realities.

This post was written after a long series of discussions with Farid, my travel partner. He is thus due at least half of the credit for these observations and interpretations.

*Ouarzazate (pronounced "war-za-zaht") is basically an unexciting garrison town about two hours southeast of Marrakech, but boasts a film studio popular among epic movie makers, and is thus lovingly called the “Hollywood of Morocco” by many a western guidebook.
** harira is a delicious Moroccan soup with tomatoes, chick peas, and many many other ingredients.