Morocco, Magnificent Land of Contrasts

To know a land requires one to understand the nuances within it: how natives interact with their locale, how natives interact with one another, and how natives interact with outsiders. These three facets of interaction shape an environment by shaping individual perceptions of their own position within their land.

“Insiders” – those who have lived, learned, and worked within a specific locale for an extended period of time – are naturally privy to the nuances of these interactions. They have the ability to interact in the local dialect and have the obligation to uphold certain social norms and standards within that locale.

However, “outsiders” – those who are either visiting a place and/or merely living in that space for a temporary time period and have a specific raison d’être for being there – are not privy to the full extent of the specificities of an environment. Colloquialisms, common understandings of interactions, and unspoken cultural expectations can only be learned in extended periods of time – which outsiders do not have the benefit of.

Morocco brims with contrasts

Morocco is indeed a land of contrasts, be they social, economic, geographical, architectural, cultural, or ethnic. Morocco, indeed, brims with them. The first and easiest to notice are geographical. Surrounded by the mighty Atlantic Ocean and the mild Mediterranean Sea, the coast of Morocco is gorgeous and yields pleasant weather. Moving inland, the daunting Atlas Mountains are encountered along with the Rif Mountains. Among these lies Jebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in all of North Africa. Beyond these breathtaking mountains is the largest desert in the world, the Sahara. In a country with such a relatively short breadth, the geographical contrasts are phenomenal, not to say heavenly, because of the diversity they offer.

The architectural contrasts are diverse in the country. The old medinas with the walls and the daunting Kasbahs overlooking the ocean are a contrast to the French-European-inspired city of Casablanca and the plush streets in Rabat.

When discussing contrasts within a country, it is essential to address the economic disparity that is readily apparent. On a drive across the country or even across the city of Rabat, there is a huge difference in the living conditions and opportunities available for the rich as opposed to the poor. This observation, however, is one that could easily be made in almost every country.

Morocco’s geography is a contrast in and of itself. Throughout Morocco it is not only people that shape the land; it is, also, the land that shapes the people. Much of the major differences in lifestyle can be attributed not only to culture and religion but to vast differences in topography as well. The Moroccan from Rabat and the Moroccan from the Atlas Mountains each have a completely distinctive life experience, and often a different community structure. However, each is inherently Moroccan and staunchly in love with his country: the strong feeling of Moroccanness known as tamaghrabit.

On the issue of diversity, RootsRated writes in Come to the Sahara:

“With the iconic Sahara Desert, rugged mountains, and both Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, Morocco’s landscape features a wide variety of unforgettable vistas. Adventurous travelers can follow Berber paths to mountain huts, ski Africa’s highest-altitude resort, and harness the Atlantic wind with a kite or windsurfing sail.

And set between the peaks and oasis-like valleys are isolated tribal communities and sophisticated cities with thousands of years of rich history. Narrow streets wind to ancient caravanserais, while locals gather in cafés and steamy hammam baths. The Marrakech marketplace hums with snake charmers’ tunes and fast-talking touts, and inside the bustling Fes medina are colorful tanneries, craftsmen’s shops, and the longest-running university in the world.

That diversity offers you the chance to trace a path from wilderness to traditional culture, from campfires to high cuisine. Morocco’s landscape follows the curve of the coast as sandy beaches transition to a pair of mountain ranges that ripple through the heart of the country, followed by the Sahara Desert at the southeastern edge. Here’s the lay of the land.”

Morocco is a land of contrasts and startling diversity

Morocco is a land of contrasts, not contradictions. This North African nation is home to a startling diversity, making its people and regional cultures very different – but not contradictory. This diversity means that contrasts are inevitable – it is only necessary to walk down the street to see a contrast of cultures and ideas, both religious and temporal. The mere presence of diversity precedes some sort of contrast, which means Morocco cannot escape contrasts and comparisons. The sheer variety in Morocco is a study of the peaceful co-existence of diverse people for centuries.

Morocco’s location on the edge of the continent, bordering the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea and nearly touching Europe has made it a location of strategic importance over the millennia. Its location has led the country to be at the crossroads of the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. Morocco’s culture draws on these influences, being Sub-Saharan, African, North African, Middle Eastern, and European, all at the same time.

The people living in Morocco draw upon European, Arab, Sub-Saharan African, and Amazigh heritage. Moroccan religious culture echoes its Sunni, Shia, and even Christian history, further enriched by its longstanding Jewish minority. With relatively low religious violence (compared to its neighbors and other Muslim countries), Morocco is a safe place to study religion and one need not fear being in the minority. Foreign visitors are traditionally met with nothing but acceptance of their religious views and diverse identities by Moroccans.

On religious tolerance, The Economist writes:

“When Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century, many fled to Morocco. The Jewish population in the kingdom rose to over 250,000 by 1948 when the state of Israel was born. In the ensuing decades, as Arab-Jewish tensions increased, many left. Fewer than 2,500 remain—still more than anywhere else in the Arab world.

No Arab country has gone to the lengths of Morocco to revive its Jewish heritage. The kingdom has restored 110 synagogues, such as Slat Lkahal […]. A center for Judeo-Islamic studies is set to open in the old kasbah later this year. The kingdom also boasts the Arab world’s only Jewish museum. ‘We used to have a six-pointed star on our flag and coins, like Israel,’ says Zhor Rehihil, the curator (who is Muslim). ‘It was changed under French rule to five.’”

Contrasts are omnipresent in Morocco. Ethnic contrasts are also very evident in society. The European descendants near the northern coast, the high rates of blond hair in the Rif, the Arab population reminiscent of the invasion in the eighth century, to the darker-skinned people in the southern part of Morocco. It is very possible to see people of various ethnic backgrounds in everyday life here. Moroccans are in general very open-minded about diverse ethnic backgrounds and foreigners, one and all, are very welcome in this country. It is, no doubt, due in part to the diverse ethnic groups found in Morocco and the history of outside influence that made the people open-minded to other people, beliefs, cultures, and ideas.

One very negative contrast is undoubtedly the economic one. At one end, you see the very rich who seem to drive in their wonderful cars and live in their big homes oblivious to the plight of their neighbors who live in absolute poverty unable to cope with their basic needs. This is a contrast that shows the inequitable distribution of wealth in society.

There are also contrasts in modernity. At one end, you see men and women who are extremely religious, women who wear the veil, and men who grow beards and wear a prayer hat. On the other end, there is the modern youth who have embraced Western ideas.

Dress code

For a newcomer to Morocco, it is often easiest to take note of contrasts that are immediately and visually identifiable. In fact, one need only spend some time in Rabat’s well-to-do Agdal quarter and saunter over to the medina on the same day in order to see stark contrasts in both modes of dress and general demeanor. One can see women walking comfortably wearing a short skirt and a tank top. Conversely, in the countryside, the sighting of a local woman even in daylight is a relatively rare occurrence, and if she is seen, she wears a hijab and is conservatively dressed. Admittedly, this may seem like a natural progression; it is not uncommon in many countries to see more conservative clothing in rural areas as opposed to more relaxed dress in metropolitan cities. However, it is clear that what is considered societally and culturally acceptable differs greatly not only from city to city but from citizen to citizen.

Morocco’s unique situation can be attributed to its diverse population whose wide-ranging ancestry, religious affiliation, and languages lead to a particularly distinctive and individual-based worldview. Even as an officially Islamic country, interpretations of Islam vary immensely between populations and even households, a result of both Amazigh and Arab presence. From speaking with different people and observing Moroccans, relationships between men and women, gender roles in society, and feminist ideals differ based on family, education, and personal experience.

Diverse heritage

Even though native Moroccans share these diverse heritages, Morocco is further enriched by a growing immigrant culture. Morocco is home to thousands of immigrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, but also expatriates from the West, the Middle East, and even Asia. While this has created some cultural and political tension, the relative harmony (compared to other countries with rising tensions over immigrant issues) would be fodder for an interesting study on preventing mass violence in response to immigrant and refugee crises.

For Oxford Business Group, Morocco has been able to transform its cultural legacy into tolerance:

“Owing its ancient name to its geographic location, Morocco, also known as Al Maghreb, meaning ‘the West’ in Arabic, boasts a mix of indigenous Berber, Arab, African and European influences. Situated on the western tip of North Africa and the region’s only monarchy, the kingdom has been able to fashion its rich cultural heritage into a tolerant state. A comparatively pragmatic and inclusive approach to social and economic development has allowed it to sidestep the instability that has shaken other neighbours in the region in recent years. A spate of modest political and governmental reforms, alongside a rapidly improving business environment, has allowed the country to expand its influence both in the Mediterranean basin and more broadly on the African continent.”

The diversity in the country is not simply drawn by racial or religious lines, however. One will find a startling contrast between the Sunni Arabs living in the Agdal area of downtown Rabat and the Sunni Arabs living in the vast rural stretches of the country. Even in Agdal, Rabat, one can find Moroccan women wearing blue jeans and tank tops walking next to women in black abayas, complete with a niqab and black gloves. Even within racial and religious subgroups, one will find diversity and contrasting ideas, not just among those of Arab heritage and culture in Morocco, but also among the Amazigh, who are a people of varied languages, customs, and experiences. Their incremental inclusion into Moroccan society is a progressive step to embracing all the diversity of Morocco.

These differences do not hold to be contradictions. They are evidence of a country with diverse and rich heritage and a constant flow of differing ideas and narratives. They are not contradictions because the existence of one very different segment in Moroccan society does not exclude the existence of another – they contrast, highlighting their differences but also making the relative harmony in which people, so different, live in an absolutely stunning togetherness and cohesion almost proverbial.

While Moroccan’s tolerance for things different is not perfect, Morocco can be an example of what diversity can look like in a Muslim country. This does not make it contradictory. Contradictory means that the harmony does not make sense, that there should not be this much diversity. To suggest this means one is incredulous about the possibility of harmony in a diverse society and can impede the peace process. Diversity does not mean contradiction: it means contrast and can possibly mean problems, but it should be viewed as complementary instead.


Morocco is a unique blend of cultures that can co-exist but contrast, in particular in the area of religion and gender.

In terms of religion, there is no questioning whether Morocco is a religious country, as the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, serves as both temporal ruler and amîr al- mu’minîn, Commander of the Faithful, for the Moroccan people. There are many laws in place that reflect shari’a, Islamic law or give freedom to still practice Islamic law. For example, in the family law, families still have the freedom to practice polygamy, but the man must have permission from his wife before he marries again. This effectively stops a lot of appropriate dress, but still allows the tradition if the husband and wife together wish to continue this practice.  There are even laws and spaces saved in place to promote women as Islamic scholars and teachers, while not against Islamic religiously is a welcome contrast to Islamic traditions. The Commander of the Faithful puts these laws and changes in currents in place, a practice that has allowed to balance of the desires and wishes of citizens, but in a way that upholds Islamic culture.

While many people in Morocco are considered Muslim, they may not be religious Muslim practitioners, even though the ruler is both a religious and political figure.  Devout faith is not a mandate to live in this religious country but a choice that can be practiced. There is a strong undercurrent of Arab/Muslim culture in the daily life of citizens, but this does not necessarily mean that every citizen is religiously Muslim but more culturally Muslim.


Another example of contrast is the conception of gender and appropriate dress.  Men dominate the public sphere, talking in cafés and hanging out in the streets in groups, while women dominate the private sphere meeting in the home and hanging out in the living room.  While this is maintained for the majority of the time, many women work as much as the men. One can see many women working in pharmacies, as police officers, in the military, as political spokeswomen, and as teachers in religious and non-religious schools. While it is the norm for women to work inside the home, it is not unusual to see a woman working out in the public sphere as well.

On gender issues, Aida Alami writes in The New York Times:

“A decade ago, Morocco adopted a family code hailed by women’s rights groups as a big step forward. Three years ago, the country passed a new constitution guaranteeing gender equality. Even so, Moroccan women say that equality is still a long way off, and much of the old order remains untouched, including the inheritance law section of the family code. That law, laid down in the Quran, states that male relatives receive double the inheritance of women.

But the pressure for change is building. ‘Islam allows for reinterpretation, and it is time for radical decisions to protect women,’ said Saida Kouzzi, a founding partner at Mobilizing for Rights Associates, a nongovernmental organization based in Morocco. ‘This law of inheritance was based on the fact that men were the head of the households, which is not the case anymore as many women are the ones who provide for the family or at least contribute in a significant manner.’”

Along those lines, the acceptable dress for women changes often. The general rule is to wear long pants/skirts and a shirt that at least covers the shoulders. A good portion of women in Morocco wears a Morocco, however, just as many women choose not to wear a hijab, as well. Along those lines, not every woman covers herself head to toe but chooses to wear more Western clothing. There are realms and spaces where women can wear shorts and tanks, such as at the beach and in clubs, but outside those spaces, if seen wearing those clothes it attracts a lot of unwanted male gaze, stares, and cat calls.  While the men are allowed to wear shorts, and can and even are sometimes encouraged to have sex before marriage, women are expected to cover up and stay virgins before marriage. In the cities, men and women can be more equal, but outside of cities, women tend to have less command of the public spaces. There is a contrast in Moroccan gender roles, one just has to compare two different places in the country.

In fine

Morocco is no doubt a marvelous land of contrasts, a magnificent meeting point of western and eastern influences, and a land of co-existence and tolerance, unique in its kind. There are so many influences from cultures like America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, that have encouraged native people to create their own practical and open culture that picks and chooses what works best for them.

The King is both a religious and political figure, but the people choose freely to practice Islam or not. Women can choose to be conservative in dress and participate in normal female roles but also can have the independence of working and going to school, as well. That is a lot of freedom of choice to pick a way of life for Moroccan citizens but there is always an undercurrent of Islamic heritage running through the country alongside millennial Amazigh substratum reflected in history and traditions and so much cultural and religious tolerance.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu

About the Author
Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of “MENA region area studies” at Université Internationale de Rabat -UIR- and of “Education” at Université Mohammed V in Rabat, as well. Besides, he is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, American, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islamism and religious terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism. During 2015 he worked as Program Director with the USAID/CHEMONICS educational project entitled: “Reading for Success: A Small Scale Experimentation” in cooperation with the Moroccan Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training (MENFP). He recently taught cultural studies to Semester abroad students with AMIDEAST, IES and CIEE study abroad programs in Morocco insuring such courses as: “Introduction to Moroccan Culture,” “Contemporary North African History,” “Arab Spring,” “Amazigh Culture,” “Moroccan Jewish Legacy,” “Community-Based Learning” (internship with civil society organizations). He is, also, currently teaching “Communication Skills” and “Translation and Interpreting” to master students at The Institute for Leadership and Communication Studies –ILCS- in Rabat, Morocco and supervising several Fulbright students in areas of religion and culture in Morocco. He has taught in the past some courses in universities in the USA, Spain, France, Italy, England and Greece.
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