This is article two in the Mindful in Morocco series by Lexi Reich.
I was sipping steaming mint tea in Amin’s home, a traditional Moroccan riad. The sun gently streamed through the sunroof, which was nearly the size of the entire ceiling. I was resting on a cushion composed of dozens of different colored fabrics. Admiring all the artwork adorning the walls, I realized something: textbooks and city tours can never fully translate the value of Moroccan hospitality.
It’s often a good rule of thumb to interact with locals when traveling to a new country. The longer you spend in a place, the more opportunity there is to authentically experience the culture. To see a country as an outsider is a role in itself, but having the guidance and company of someone who lives the life you’re temporarily entering can offer an enriching look inside. I believe this to be the ultimate essence of traveling — to better understand the world outside of yourself.
I believe this to be the ultimate essence of traveling — to better understand the world outside of yourself.
Before I continue, I want to disclaim that it is important to travel smart and to travel safe. I was traveling with a group of friends — men and women — and we judged our situation and took actions we felt secure and confident in.
As mentioned in the first article of this series, I am spending four months in Morocco studying journalism at a learning center in Rabat, the country’s capital. While on a weekend getaway to the north of Morocco, I took a day trip to Asilah, otherwise known as Morocco’s art capital, located 25 miles down the Atlantic coast from Tangier.
With a walled medina painted in bright white and vibrant blue hues, the streets themselves are a photographer’s paradise. But what makes this compact town even more picturesque are the art murals and expositions sprinkled throughout. Often overlooked by mainstream tourism, Asilah is a secret gem of culture.
Most Moroccan artists either live in Asilah year round or flock here for the annual Asilah Arts Festival during July and August. The festival fosters a community of cultural dialogue by inviting international artists to display their art. When we typically think of art, it is something that is preserved and cherished for a long time. In Asilah, you will never have the same visit twice: Murals are glossed over with white each year so new art can take over the space and be enjoyed. It’s a unique experience for locals and tourists alike.
Due to historic French colonialism, French is the traditional second or third language spoken by many Moroccans. However, Asilah has Portuguese and Spanish influences, leading to a more prevalent Spanish dialogue in the city. Because of this, most restaurants have a flavorful Spanish flare.
Visiting during the off-season at the end of February was a smart move, but visiting on a Friday was not. A holy holiday for Muslims, most art spaces were closed.
However, I was still able to meet an artist and get a taste of Asilah’s art culture. Sitting under a cafe awning, Amin, a Moroccan maybe 30 years in age, was smoking a cigarette and a friend in my group decided to strike up a random conversation with him.
Before I knew it we were all sitting in his house a few steps away sipping tea brewed by his elderly mother.
A day in Amin’s life might look something like this: wake up, smoke a cigarette, gulp a cup of dangerously hot mint tea, walk around the medina finding tourists to talk with and serve as a guide to — and paint. Amin is one of the many artists who live in Asilah and is very connected with the inner-workings of the art-hub. His work appears in a few exhibitions, but on the off-season, many of his paintings can’t find a home other than his own.
His house was decorated with traditional moroccan sofas lining its walls. My homestay in Rabat has a similar layout, where the spaces have enough seating for all your extended family and then some. The floor was an intricate pattern of tiles colored with orange, white and green. In the center of the main living space, Amin lifted up a rug and behold was a well, filled with clean spring water he and his mother use when they run out of tap.
Egyptian music served as a gentle backdrop to the impromptu art show we were presented, as Amin brought out one painting after another — some abstract, others detailed canvases of the medina streets. We sat and sipped our tea for well over an hour, talking in a blend of Spanish, French, English and Arabic (standard and colloquial).
Morocco in general has a slower pace of life that I’ve forcefully come to admire. The café culture and relaxed schedules are a stark contrast to my American experience. It’s not uncommon to find men sitting outside coffee shops for hours on end, simply drinking espresso and watching the streets. When we found Amin, he was resting after his morning meandering around town, but he was eager to strike up a conversation with us. Our time in Asilah was a harmonious balance of relaxing and exploring, not trying to articulately hit every spot like we had originally scheduled into our itinerary.
We leisurely saw stands selling fresh orange juice, merchants selling coral necklaces, restaurants advertising fresh fish, and donkeys and chickens and horses and cows roaming the fields on the outskirts of the town center. Without Amin, I’m not sure that we would’ve seen all that we did.
When it came time to say goodbye, Amin insisted that we didn’t need to pay him for an entire day of guiding us around Asilah. However, one of my friends gave him money to buy paints as a way for us to show our gratitude. We all hoped Amin found another group to show around town the next day — it’s out of the kindness of his heart, yes, but can also become a way to help finance his paintings.
If you want to taste a space outside of the tourists confines, participate. Talk to locals, visit the eateries they recommended, and try to live a day in their life even if it’s uncomfortable and not what you expected. The greatest days are often those without itineraries.