One expatriate in Rabat explores how Moroccans buy food and essential goods amid evolving cultural circumstances.
Sarajevo – As I walk around Rabat’s old walled city, or medina, I notice an array of small vendors. Some shops offer all kinds of goods, and some are specialized stores that exclusively sell toilet paper, soap, or cat food. My host sister Halima usually does the shopping for the entire family. A Rabat native and a university student, she casually chats with the vendors while strolling the ancient city’s narrow streets.
“Our neighbors and family members are some of the vendors, so we prefer to spend our money there,” says Halima. From fresh baked goods to fast food, the city’s oldest residential neighborhood certainly has a lot to offer.
Upon my arrival as a foreigner whose luggage was misplaced somewhere between Paris and Belgrade, speaking neither Arabic nor French, I was trying to buy a few basic necessities in order to make it through my first couple of days. Searching for a sense of comfort and familiarity, I set out to find a local supermarket where I could do my shopping.
I soon found out that the maze-like streets of the medina strictly operate on a small business model. By the time dinner rolls around, its winding streets are bustling with locals waiting in long lines in order to grab some bread or khobz, or a delicious Moroccan pastry such as the chebakia, a dessert coated in honey.
“People in the medina like to shop in the medina. A lot of the families don’t have cars here, so it is just more convenient.” Halima also mentions that her family likes to prepare meals using fresh ingredients, a tradition that was passed down from her mother’s side of the family: “We try to make most things and rarely buy premade goods.”
Halima also explains that if the family does end up buying prepared items like pastries and bread, they prefer to do so within their community, and from people that they know.
As she sees me checking out the local fast food joints, looking for a quick bite to eat before we have to return home, my host sister says that the trend of eating out is relatively new amongst Moroccans: “In my family we were taught to eat at home.” However, she also adds that cultural eating habits are changing, particularly amongst people her age.
From ‘ancient city’ shopping to modern supermarkets
As I step outside of the medina, I begin to notice the “Carrefour” supermarkets. The French-owned grocery giant seems to be everywhere, with more than a few stores in the city’s wealthier neighborhoods, such as Agdal, which also boasts a fancy semi-outdoor mall. The chain also features a “gourmet” version of the regular store, with higher prices and a more luxurious layout.
In many ways, Carrefour resembles any other supermarket. Medium-sized and easy to navigate, the store itself feels familiar. Still, there is something interesting about the selection of items on sale, particularly when thinking about Morocco’s history and Europe’s influence on the North African nation.
“We don’t go to the supermarket that often. We might go every couple of weeks or so,” Halima tells me as we try to decide on a dry shampoo that both of us can use. While supporting local businesses in the medina is something her family prioritizes, this store is always quite busy, with long lines at the register.
Offering an array of goods from Europe, Morocco and the wider region, this seemingly generic grocery store could be seen as a microcosm of the nation’s political influences and history. Traditional Moroccan breads are sold next to the pain au chocolat and croissants, while packaged Moroccan mint teas can be purchased alongside European coffee.
With Moroccan music playing in the background while consumers shop, and a self-serve bulk section with spices commonly used in Moroccan cuisine, the space feels specifically curated to fit the needs of its local consumers. The French grocery giant probably sees Marjane, the Moroccan chain equivalent, as its primary competitor.
However, with no large businesses in sight in the medina, local vendors seem to have the upper hand in Rabat’s ancient city.
“For many of the people here, buying things is also a form of socializing.” Halima explains. Through the constant activity in the medina and over the counter chatter, there does seem to be an incredible sense of community in the old neighborhood, one well preserved through the support of its smallest businesses.