Navigating Social Faux Pas and Manners in Morocco
By Ann Banks
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
Wander around a Moroccan city or village for a while and chances are you’ll be invited into somebody’s home. For us, the moment came just after our arrival in Chefchaouen, an impossibly picturesque town in Morocco’s north.
By coincidence, we ran into Ahmed, who was to be our driver starting the next day and was the only person we knew in town. He was with his brother Abdi, a local fireman. After we joined the two men for a coffee, Abdi invited us to visit his family’s apartment.
Before leaving for Morocco, I browsed a few websites professing expertise on local customs, hoping to learn a few basic rules of polite behavior so we would not be entirely unprepared for this kind of encounter.
Do or Don’t Bring Tea
But the websites’ advice was so contradictory as to be useless. Said one: You should never bring food to someone’s house, as that could be taken as an insult. Another suggested that pastries and items made with sugar are always welcome, or, even better, a live chicken. And: Don’t bring tea, as it is easily obtained there. On the other hand: Tea is always an appropriate gift.
One website advised visitors to use only the right hand in public (lefties like myself should practice ahead of time by duct-taping their left hand to their side), and to avoid sensitive subjects of conversation (the royal family, the role of women) in favor of such topics as sports and history.
The website Protocol Professionals also offered a helpful hint on how to recognize when your attire was insufficiently modest: “If you receive lewd stares or children pelt your posterior with small pebbles, you’ll know you are too revealing.”
The dress code was one thing I was confident we had gotten right: nothing sleeveless; nothing tight.
Yet in other respects, we were unprepared for Moroccan etiquette as we climbed the stone steps to Abdi’s apartment, located in a small building in one of Chefchaouen’s beautiful back streets.
Following our hosts’ example, we removed our shoes and were shown into an airy whitewashed living room, where we were introduced to Abdi’s wife, Aisha and his four daughters, ages 13-25. They were incredibly warm and welcoming.
Kisses Reserved for Close Friends
Even though I had read that kisses of greeting are reserved for close friends, we were nevertheless kissed three times on the cheek by each of the women of the family: left, right, right.
It was a day of celebration, Abdi told us proudly, because his 18-year-old daughter had just learned of her excellent results on the baccalaureate exam. We offered our congratulations and took our place on the cushioned banquettes that line the room, as Abdi explained the pictures on the wall: the King, of course, as well as a portrait of Abdi and Ahmed’s father, who had died decades earlier in the struggles for independence.
We asked about a framed certificate, which turned out to be an award presented to Abdi, for defusing a bomb in the course of his work with the fire department.
Manners at the Table
Aisha served us sweet bread and the mint tea that accompanies every social occasion in Morocco, and after only one lapse, I managed to remember to use my right hand.
Everyone in the family spoke French, except for Aisha, who spoke only Darija, the Moroccan form of Arabic. But she had such a warm and expressive way about her that no one felt a communication barrier.
The younger girls hung back shyly at first but when the oldest attempted to give us a basic lesson in Darija, they joined in, giggling and correcting our hopeless pronunciation.
We were all basking in good feeling when Aisha crossed the room and returned with a beautiful blue glass candlestick inlaid with silver -– probably an heirloom, I thought. Aisha handed the candlestick to Cait, and when she admired it, the whole family pressed her to take it as a gift.
Refusals and Good Manners in Morocco
Yes, yes, they all agreed. You must. We want you to have it. It is our pleasure to give it to you. Thank you so much, said Cait in her remembered college French, I am very touched, but, no, I couldn’t. The chorus continued, as they joined in urging someone they have met only an hour before to leave their house with a family treasure.
Finally –- after three refusals, if I counted right -– they desisted and the candlestick went back on its place of honor on the shelf.
Just as we were breathing a sigh of relief, the oldest daughter, the one who is the same age as Cait, left the room and returned with a pair of her own slippers. These Cait really MUST accept. Saying no this time did not seem like an option, and soon Cait’s footgear wardrobe was expanded by one pair of silver bedroom slippers.
Since we were not expecting the invitation, we had nothing to offer in return -– no sweets or chickens or even a tin of tea.
Later in our trip, we encountered another etiquette dilemma. We were invited to a Berber home, where, after we had been served a full meal, we were presented with tall glasses of cream, straight from the family cow.
Thank you is Enough
It would have been useful to know how to say, “Thank you, but that is enough.” The term is “safi,” Darija for sufficient, according to Suzanna Clarke in her book A House in Fez.
Then again, an American blogger living in Rabat translates safi as, “Okay, that’s it,” which doesn’t sound so polite.
Still, based on our experiences, I can offer a list of at least two tips for those visiting Morocco:
1. You never know when you might receive an invitation, so don’t venture forth without carrying something that can be given as an emergency gift.
2. Do not express admiration for readily portable objects. Instead, focus your compliments on houses and children and such as can’t be easily bestowed.
Despite our lapses, we were warmly received everywhere we went. We may not have understood all the customs, but we did our best and that seemed good enough.
As we were to observe many times during our trip, the generosity that Moroccans are famous for is no myth and it extends beyond mere possessions.
Read more GoNOMAD stories by Ann Banks: