The guidebooks all speak of the medina as a place of grand exploration, beautiful sights and smells and inspiring moments. And well it really is all those things, the medinas of Morocco are also as frustrating a place as there is on this planet.
The medina in Fez, I found in particularly difficult. It was claustrophobic, dirty, and a foreign tourist like myself can hardly walk a foot without being hassled, yelled at, followed, or grabbed. Marrakesh, and the other cities, was much calmer, but this advice will serve you well there also.
The saddest thing about Morocco is the fact that you are hassled so much that anyone that says hi to you starts to feel like a threat trying to exploit you. I have never been to a country where I have felt more like a walking dollar sign, and treated as such.
It would be easy to have a Medina meltdown. To find a corner to cry in, to throw a punch at a local, or to just start yelling like a heathen. However, it doesn’t have to be like this, but there are some things you ought to know before you enter the medina. Below I have included a guide on how to avoid the Medina meltdown.
1. Be firm
In Morocco, no doesn’t exactly mean no. In fact, passivity can hint at possible interested. Quite often it means try harder; sell more forcefully. If a salesperson, a random person “helping you” won’t leave you alone don’t be afraid to forcefully look them in the eyes and say NO! You should try your best to be polite and respectful, but if they aren’t catching the hint you have to be firm.
2. Be confident
Moroccan hustlers can see someone that isn’t confident from a mile away and will take full advantage of you if you aren’t. Those who aren’t confident will likely be seen as targets in the medina because they would much rather pay someone off than struggle or argue. Walk with your head high and a smile on your face.
I was told by a local guide that the hustlers of the medina know how much confrontation scares most foreigners. So, they lay on a bit of aggression to make foreigners uncomfortable in hopes of a payoff. Be confident, avoid the confrontation by being firm.
3. Don’t believe that someone is just “showing you around”
I can’t believe how many times I heard people say, “oh this person was so nice, he has just been showing us around for 2 days out of the goodness of his heart.”
Come on people, are we that stupid?
I’m positive you’re not going to meet anyone on the street that is just so eager to show you around for free. When you finally say goodbye they are going to ask for money. You are going to give them 10 dirhams and they are going to yell at you and call you an awful person and demand that you pay them 100-200 Euros.
If someone offers to show you around just tell them you have a guide already and tell them that you don’t need their help.
4. Don’t be afraid to ignore
As a Canadian, the most difficult thing is to ignore someone that says “hi”.
We don’t want to be rude. Even more difficult yet is ignoring someone as they ask you where you are from. I love that I am Canadian, and it’s hard for me not to announce it.
In Morocco, however, any bit of conversation can mean an “in” and a handshake means that they are firmly set with you. If you want to say hi do it casually, and then continue without escalating the conversation. Otherwise, you might find yourself spending the rest of your day trying to shake people off. It’s not rude to ignore people calling out at you, it’s safe.
5. Don’t let yourself be abused
One of the greatest foreign sales tactics I have ever seen is the “abuse” technique employed in Morocco.
Moroccans know that most foreigners don’t like confrontation and they will take advantage of that. As soon as there is even the slightest discussion they will raise their voice, talk down to you, and try to make you feel as little as possible. They bank on the fact that if they are confrontational enough people will just give in and pay them off rather than deal with the fight.
However, you shouldn’t back down. If you find yourself in this situation don’t give in, fight back, or better yet ignore them completely. You don’t need to get upset; they will make you feel like you are ruining their life.
It is an act, don’t feel bad.
And, if they really don’t let it go, tell them you’re going to the police. They might act like they don’t care at first, but they do. There are tourist police in the medina, and their main goal is to protect tourists. The locals will definitely leave you alone if you indicate that you want the police involved.
6. Don’t give in, you’re ruining it for all of us
I thought to myself at one point in Fez, there must be a majority of people that just give in to these tactics for them to continue to play out.
At one point, near the tanneries, a boy asked me to come up to his terrace for a view. I asked him the price and he said, whatever you think is right. I made the mistake of going in without him setting a price.
I climbed to the top, took 4 or 5 pictures and left. When I popped 10 dirhams (about a dollar) in his hand he yelled at me that I should be giving him 50 and that 10 is nothing. He pushed the 10 back in my hand and kept saying this is nothing.
I said, fine, if you don’t want the 10 you’re not getting anything. 5 minutes worth of his time to let me onto his terrace was not worth 5 dollars. I walked away and despite him grabbing me constantly.
I didn’t give in.
Finally, I told him I was going to go to the police if he kept following me, he gave in and finally said “ok give me the 10 dirhams.” I refused and told him that he needed to be respectful and I didn’t feel like I owed him anything after feeling attacked. He told me to gently f#@k myself.
As I left, I realized that for this tactic to work, a good percentage of people must actually give in and pay the big amount. Don’t be silly, if you give in they’ll think they can rip everyone off. Be firm, and if a price seems unfair to you, it is.
Above all else, agree to a price before hand.
7. If all else fails, mention the police
The police have been told, over the past few years, to protect tourists.
It makes sense, if tourists have a bad experience it gets out, and the income from tourism slowly dries up. As such, the police in Morocco are on your side. They might only speak French and Arabic, or only Arabic, but they’ll always find someone to translate. If you’re ever having a hard time shaking someone, rather than making a fuss and fighting, just call for the police, or mention that you’re going to call them. This tends to cure things instantly.
If you get out of the streets with the shops, and get a little bit lost, you find some peace and quiet.
8. Don’t worry if you get lost
You’re going to get lost in the Medina, if you don’t you’re not diving far enough in. Don’t worry about getting lost, you’re not going end up going down a dangerous road or anything like that. You’re just likely to explore more of it than you expected. If you find yourself lost, don’t freak out and start to worry. Find a boy and tell them that you’ll give them 5 or 10 dirhams if they walk you back to where you need to be.