Country by City | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 15, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, June 15, 2018


Country by City

I spent a lot of time in my twenties travelling through Europe and North Africa. I did the typical weekend tourist one-two step: touched down in one city, did a whirlwind tour of the most Instagrammable spots, indulged in some good meals, and if I wasn't too jet-lagged, checked out the nightlife. In and out, another country on the books. At the rate I was going, I would have made it to my goal of 30 countries, but by then my approach to travelling had changed.

Somewhere along the way, I started wondering, what do we learn about a country by spending our time in just one of its cities? Apply this to Bangladesh: a bideshi visits Dhaka for the weekend, spends half of it in traffic, picks up a coffee from Gloria Jean's, and checks out Ramna Park and Shaheed Minar. Maybe they dip into the National Museum for a quick history lesson and admire the Parliament building's foreboding presence in the middle of the city. Would a Sylheti agree with this tourist's experience of “Bangladesh”? Would a Chittagonian?

What would I gain by spending all my time in one city alone? What would I lose?  What is it about travelling that makes it enjoyable, fulfilling, worthwhile? In my head, it's always a negotiation between the historian and the anthropologist in me. As I planned my upcoming trip to Morocco, the questions ran rampant: do I visit the Roman ruins of Volubilis, the UNESCO Heritage city of El Jadida? Is travelling about getting that famous Trip Advisor shot of the Blue City alleyway? Or is it about getting lost in the alleyways? Is it about understanding the people, and not just the ancient architecture they live amongst? Is it breathing in the nature (and dust) of an environment or spending a night in its streets? What, in your mind, satisfies the definition of travelling? For me, the one thing I could conclude was that expecting all of this from one city just wasn't going to cut it in anymore.

This time, instead of using the 10 days to cover Morocco, Tunisia, and Portugal, my friends and I stuck it out in just one country, getting a taste of six cities along the way. From the university town of Ifrane and its winding alleyways to the neighbouring city of Meknes with its wide and ornate castle doorways, from the village of blue walls, Chefchaoen, to the concert we stumbled upon in Rabat, this country could not be more diverse in its landscape, architecture, people, attitudes, activities, foods—the list goes on. What a shame that in my twenties, having visited the tiny town of Marrakech with a souk at its centre and one lonely mosque, I thought I knew the country of Morocco. Six cities later and I feel I've only tasted the tip of the iceberg.

Our last stop, and probably one of my favourites, was Casablanca. Here's just a peek at the magic of this city—and really any city, if you look hard enough. Old school maps in hand, pen-marked x's for all the places on our list, we set out to understand the city from its sidewalks, cross-sections, and construction sites. Travelling down this road tests your instincts, your language skills (merci beaucoups for my seven years of French), and your ability to connect, human to human.

The first person we connected with was Haji Muhammad. I stopped him on the street to ask him about an imposing building on the opposite side. He explained that it was a school, he asked where we were going (the Old Medina), and then he pointed to the shirt pocket on his chest and said, “Watch your valuables, follow me.” We hesitated for a split second and then, as if all of us were one brain, we shrugged and attempted to keep up with his light-footedness. He dropped us off at the gate of the old town with a stern warning: “You'll get robbed if you're not careful, so be careful.” “Thank you Haji Muhammad”—but he was gone as quickly as he had appeared. We were left in the midst of the hustling, bustling old town souk. Moroccan style jalebis and hundreds of stalls selling leather, souvenirs, Tupperware, and textiles surrounded us from every direction, a completely different world from the metropolitan, sophisticated, smooth city just a few feet on the other side of the gate.

We made it out alive, souvenirs in hand and flitted off to the next stop: the famous Rialto Cinema. The early-1900's décor did not disappoint: rich reds, a bar where I imagined they served root beer floats, and a theatre with dramatic curtains. Nothing too surprising until I realised there was an audience in the theatre, listening to someone from Florida selling timeshares.

The contradictions continued. Muhammad, with his ruddy skin and white hair, looked like a European in his retro store full of knick-knacks from the World War II era, his stall right next to the local, and very ethnic, fish and vegetable market.

On our way to the famous Rick's Café (immortalised in the 1942 film Casablanca), we saw a legion of kids practicing martial arts in the neighbourhood square. Just outside, palm trees and a dusty sunset were visible, making our entrance into the café that much more out of place. A grand piano, a well-stocked bar and the most elegant seating arrangement had me legitimately forgetting what country I thought I was in.

Back home, reflecting on the myriad of experiences, I began to slowly forget my preconceptions of what I thought I knew Morocco to be: a homogenous, sandy landscape peppered with bazaars and beautiful architecture, untouched by modernity, pluralism, and heart-thumping outdoor music festivals.

I may not have crossed off three countries on this visit and I may have gotten equally enriching experiences if I had, but my journey through a single country has forever altered my approach to travelling and brought me just a little bit closer to finding what this restless soul seeks.

Zahra Somani received her Master's in Teaching and Islamic Arts in Education from the University College London. When she isn't teaching, Zahra spends her time travelling, writing, and creating.

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