Morocco History, Language and Culture
History of Morocco
Whether you’re exploring the ruins of Volubilis, strolling through the streets of an ancient medina, shopping for spices in a centuries-old souk, or following a chain of pack mules up to a remote Berber village, you can’t escape the power of Moroccan history. In the valleys of the High Atlas, the descendants of the country’s original nomadic inhabitants still live in a remarkably similar style to their ancient ancestors. Architecture in urban areas often carries traces of the Roman and Islamic occupations that helped shape modern Morocco.
The country’s history is tied up with the story of the Berber tribes, who repelled the Ancient Roman colonialists with a campaign of harassment, and later survived through a cycle of rising and falling Islamic dynasties. The largely Berber Istiqlal (independence) party aggressively contested the brief French occupation of Morocco during the early 20th century and control was eventually ceded to a line of Moroccan kings. Throughout the latter part of the century borrowing, corruption, poverty, and civil discontent took their toll.
Since King Mohammed VI was enthroned in 1999, however, Morocco has instituted sweeping political and economic changes. Poverty is still widespread and unemployment high, but initiatives to attract foreign investment and tourism are bringing new opportunities.
The human rights record is markedly improved and today ranks among the cleanest across Africa and the Middle East. Women have benefitted from education initiatives, a new legal code that protects their rights to both divorce and custody, and new protections for Berber (Amazigh) culture including the introduction of Tamazight (written Berber) in schools.
The country’s first municipal elections in 2002 were hailed as a step towards democratisation, but Islamist and other political factions are closely monitored, as are news media. Further progress was made during the Arab Spring, which saw thousands of protestors take to the streets of Rabat, Casablanca, Tangier, and Marrakech to demand a new constitution and a change in government. Their peaceful tactics paid off and in spring 2011, the King announced his intention to stamp out corruption and reform the constitution. Immediate changes included handing more executive authority to the prime minister and parliament and making Berber an official national language alongside Arabic.
Did you know?
• Morocco’s cinema history stretches back to 1897 when Louis Lumière, one of the first ever film makers in history, made Le Chevrier Marocain.
• UNESCO considers the al-Qarawiyin University, founded in Fez in AD 859, to be the oldest in the world.
• Astapor, an ancient city in Game of Thrones, was filmed in Essaouira.
Religion in Morocco
Morocco is predominantly Muslim with Jewish, Christian, and Hindu minorities.
Social Conventions in Morocco
Morocco's culture is a blend of religious and ethnic traditions, encompassing Berber, Arab, African, Mediterranean, and Jewish influences. Greetings involve a handshake and friendly inquiries after health, happiness and family – no business is discussed until after these pleasantries. Friends may tack on the cheek an air-kiss or two. Moroccan chattiness makes everyday interactions more pleasant, if longer; patience and extroversion are assets. In the souks, vendors to call out to customers, joking and striking up conversations before bargaining begins. When offered tea, it's polite to at least take a sip.
Although casual gear is widely acceptable, wearing any clothing that reveals arms or legs is disrespectful. Swimsuits, shorts, sleeveless tops, and clingy clothing should be confined to the beach or poolside for both men and women. Women travelling alone can expect help and friendship, but will avoid undue attention if they cover up, ideally in local garb. Sexual relations outside marriage (including homosexual conduct) are theoretically punishable by law, but this is rarely enforced. Smoking is widespread, though prohibited in enclosed public spaces. Drinking alcohol in view of a mosque is highly disrespectful and alcohol licences are expensive, but alcohol is often served discreetly indoors or on terraces.
Language in Morocco
The official languages are Arabic and Berber. Berber is the language of the country's first inhabitants and the majority of its current citizens. French is widely spoken throughout the country, except in the northern regions where Spanish is more predominant. English is also understood, particularly in the north and major tourist destinations like Marrakech.