Morocco has an ‘expat’ population of over 84,000. Should we be integrating and adapting to Moroccan life, or developing and changing our host country?
Rabat – This morning I woke up to an English person’s nightmare – I put the kettle on, popped a Yorkshire tea bag in a mug, only to discover that there was no milk in the fridge. Fortunately, I live a stone’s throw from our local hanout or corner shop. I quickly got dressed, picked up the baby, and, closely followed by our little dog, pottered down the dirt track leading from our house, and round the corner to the hanout.
I should explain that I live in a hamlet outside Essaouira, so small that it has no official name. It is populated by a few local families who have owned and lived on the land for generations, along with a growing community of expats who rent palatial villas down much longer dirt tracks than mine.
As I approached the hanout, a car swerved in front of me, causing dust to rise into the air temporarily blinding me. The 4×4 approached so fast that it almost mowed down the puppy, who had run on ahead. Protective Mamma-bear fury rising within me, I strode towards the car door ready for a fight but was somewhat deflated when the driver didn’t even notice I was there. Out of the large car stepped an elderly European man, who walked off, oblivious of the effect he was having on me. I set off in hot pursuit.
The European man arrived at the hanout just before me, and, without so much as a bonjour, barked his orders at the man behind the counter. The proprietor was already serving a Moroccan man who was first in the queue, and behind him were at least two women waiting to buy their morning bread. The assembled crowd looked at the new arrival askance. The proprietor diplomatically responded with a nod but continued to serve the customers already waiting. When his turn finally came, the elderly Frenchman, visibly irritated, complained about how long he had waited.
At last, it was my turn to place my order. After the necessary greetings, the proprietor apologized to me for the wait. I had only waited for three or four minutes. As I walked home, I wondered what had prompted him to apologize. Did he think that I, like the Frenchman, minded having to wait my turn behind Moroccans?
Later, in an idle moment, I found myself skim reading my Facebook feed and saw a post on a page for expats in Essaouira. The ‘conversation starter’ post in French read “Good morning, subject for discussion, the role of foreigners in the development of our town.” The post had piqued my interest so I clicked on the comments. One ‘expat’ wrote, “changing mentalities and lifestyles.” Another suggested “initiatives about lifestyle, like cleanliness and respect for the environment.” However, one French Essaouira resident commented, “it is not our town to develop.”
As an ‘expat,’ or immigrant, in Morocco, I have always tried to integrate, to adapt to the society I live in. I am still struggling to learn Darija, and insist on drinking English tea in my own home, but I hope that, to some extent at least, my efforts have paid off.
This said, used to living in European countries, I have to admit to finding some aspects of life in Morocco frustrating – recycling, waste management, time management, the education system, strangers giving unsolicited advice on how to dress or bring up my child, and couscous, to name but a few – but, as someone who has chosen to live in this country, I would not want to impose my own cultural sensibilities on Moroccans. Except possibly on my husband…
Both the early morning incident with the grumpy Frenchman and the online discussion, led me to wonder, what is the role of foreigners living in Morocco? And, perhaps more importantly, what do Moroccans think of us?
I started by asking the two Moroccans closest to me; my 5-month-old son giggled, but my husband had some more relevant input.
He explained to me that the land we live on has been changed immeasurably by the influx of French residents. Little by little, since the 1970s more and more expats have moved to the countryside outside Essaouira. Before they came, the land was worth next to nothing and the people who owned it were very poor. Now, with the popularisation of Essaouira as a destination for expats, the land is worth much, much more. The landowners are now in a position to sell, build, and rent.
Some close neighbors, for example, rent out their villa to an expat and live on the profits so their lifestyle has been immeasurably changed by the influx of European expats. The two hanouts and the butcher’s shop that serve the area would not remain open without the custom of the European residents. So from an economic point of view, the expats have a positive impact on the region.
According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2016 a two-bedroom villa in our village costs, on average, MAD 4000 a month to rent. Over the past two years, prices have further increased. The rent from a villa near Essaouira, therefore, would make a significant difference to a Moroccan family, who own their own home and have a private water source.
However, a 2002 research report on ‘the windy city’ found that land and real estate prices in the region continue to rise. “For instance, eight years ago, it was still possible to buy a nice spacious house for €10,000. Nowadays, a small house, which is in need of repair, costs approx. €30,000 or more, and there seems to be no end in sight for the upward spiral of prices.” Since the report was published, prices have risen even higher, prohibitively so for local Moroccan families.
Later, sitting in a little cafe in the medina, I asked some coffee-drinkers what they thought of the expats living in their community.
Mohammed, 42, who works as an events planner, said that the economic value of European residents is a two-edged sword. “European tourists avoid our hotels now so the hotels are firing their workers as they can’t afford to stay open. Foreign tourists prefer to go to stay in European – owned riads or Airbnbs owned by French or English expats,” he explained.
“Yes, of course they bring money, but they are taking it away from Moroccan owners too.” He explained to me that this is becoming an issue across Morocco, with the payments usually going directly from one European bank account to another, and not, in fact, contributing to Morocco’s economy.
I must admit that even my parents when they have come to Essaouira have rented a riad from British expats, and I had never before considered the impact this choice had on the local economy, only thinking of the elegance and comfort of the lovely riad.
Zahra, 27, the cafe’s waitress brought over a pistachio milkshake. I asked her what she thought. “The tourists and the French people who live here, they want Essaouira to be like Europe, they want to eat European food, and tell us how to live.” I felt a certain amount of guilt as I sipped my Italian drink and looked with distaste at the cigarettes of the two Moroccan men smoking in close proximity to me.
However, I was cheered up by the response I got from Samir, a 52-year-old spice vendor. “Most of the expats in Essaouira are so nice. They live here like us, it’s their town too. They do Moroccan stuff, and they do European stuff. It’s normal.”
“Sure, some people are rude, but some Moroccans are rude,” he added. Talking to Samir definitely made me feel less worried about my ‘expat’ status. Perhaps thinking about ourselves as all members of the same community rather than ‘us and them,’ is what makes the difference.
Finally, I asked Hussein, 38, who sells fish in the port. “I love how diverse our city is” he said. “There are French, English, German, Moroccan, Spanish all living here. I love to chat with them and to hear their experiences and ideas. Diversity is good. We can learn a lot from them.”
The mixed responses didn’t entirely resolve my internal debate, and I am still feeling more than a little embarrassed about being classed in the same category as the angry man from the hanout. I must now decide how, as an immigrant in a diverse, tourist town, I can both retain my own culture and respectfully integrate into the society in which I have chosen to live. I suspect it will never be straightforward to get the balance right, but I am sure it’s healthy to have the debate.