A trip through Morocco, from North to South, gave E&M author Andrea Moglianesi a chance to appreciate some cultural differences between areas of the country. Sometimes, however, they were linked to the European dominations of the country during the 20th century.
Parchís is the Spanish variant of Pachisi, a board game in which two to four people move, after throwing one or two dice, four pawns around a cross-shaped path, with the purpose of completing the round as soon as possible.
In Tétouan, one of the biggest cities of northern Morocco, playing Parchís is by far the most popular social activity for adult males. In the city’s main square, you will see people gathering in bars or small clubs, or even on the sidewalk, sitting at a table with the famous cross drawn on it, and playing, with or without gambling. Although these scenes may seem genuinely picturesque, as they did to me when I visited Tétouan in May 2022, they actually conceal the Spanish influence on this part of the country, subjugated through a protectorate for nearly half a century. In fact, Parchís became very popular during the 20th century in Spain because of the country’s license-free policy on the game, which caused its spread in northern Morocco as well.
Leaving behind the bars and the main square and venturing into the narrower streets, one enters a gigantic marketplace that, on festive days, stretches across the entire city, composed of food stalls as well as carpet merchants. After a few hours in the market, in between the hustle and fierce bargaining, a riad-like restaurant re-energized me with an incredible view of the city (which you can admire only when climbing up to a terrace), and with local food…wait, what? Paella de marisco?
Yes, indeed. Parchís, in fact, is just one example of the Spanish influence on this region: if you walk into a sports bar, it is sure to be a Barcelona or Real Madrid fan club; if, on the other hand, you step into a Riad, you will find Pastillas (sweet and sour flan stuffed with pigeon meat, originally from Granada), but also some paella options in the menu.
Nowadays, finding European cultural remnants in African countries is not so surprising in general, but Morocco is an interesting example. During the twentieth century, the country was split between two different spheres of influence, the Spanish in the north and on the Atlantic coast in the south, and the French in its central part. However, if the Spanish protectorate, established after a bloody war against the troops of the Rif led by Abd el-Krim, represents only the last phase of a conflict between the people in north and south of the Strait of Gibraltar that went on for (at least) two millennia, the French protectorate takes on more colonialist contours and dynamics.
In fact, French domination started at the beginning of the 20th century, when the Sultan’s power was extremely weak, as a showdown over the German Empire, which was also targeting Morocco as a possible new colony. The main socio-economic change brought by the establishment of the French protectorate over the Moroccon state consisted of the displacement of the main centres of economic and political power from the country’s most ancient and historically influential cities to the coast. In fact, in the first years after the establishment of the protectorate, the port of Casablanca was considerably enhanced, and at the same time, in 1912, the capital was moved to Rabat from Fez after several independentist movements had taken place there.
Walking through the narrow streets of Fez Medina, you can easily understand why French colonialists were feeling endangered by having it as the capital: it is an open-air labyrinth, bordered by very high buildings and therefore very shady during the day and dark at night. What a century ago could have been a trap for the Europeans, today is a little less so for tourists thanks to Google Maps, which allows you to navigate through it quite easily, and to see the city’s most characteristic spots: obviously, the Chouara Tannery, but also Bab Bojloud, the Blue Gate, as well as the markets scattered throughout the endless streets of the Medina. My whole stay in Fez was characterized by the merchants of these small streets, drawing my attention with their incredible marketing slogans, while the common language was most of the time French.
In fact, the other main consequence of the French protectorate is the large use, even in the present day, of the French language all over the central part of the country. Despite the attempt by the independent reign after the end of the protectorate to realize a complete Arabization of Morocco, a quite large portion of the population is still francophone (33%). Furthermore, the French-speaking part of the population is still the one with the easiest access to key sectors such as culture, technology, and business (as of 2005, trade with France made up over 75% of Morocco’s international trade), and probably the one that has greater access to digital infrastructures (in 2014, 75% of Facebook users in Morocco posted in French).
The penetration of French use varies from region to region and is more largely diffused in the main cities on the coast. However, during my trip, I was surprised to hear quite some French speakers, and even see road signs in French, in the middle of the High Atlas, in a small village named Imlil.
Here, in fact, the lesser use of Arabic (the primary local language is indeed Berber, spoken by over 70% of the population) makes French an appetible alternative to communicate with non-locals. In addition to the language, Imlil surprised me with the incredible contrasts in its valley, where the surrounding mountains’ desert slopes stand out compared to the lush valley floors, fed by the waters that descend directly from Toubkal, the highest peak in the High Atlas.
The High Atlas, in fact, hosts the sources of the major Moroccan rivers. After having travelled the first kilometres to the east, the largest river, the Draa, turns south and finally heads towards the Atlantic, which it finally reaches after 1100 km. If we imagine stopping in any of the endless villages on the left bank of the river, we may discover that the easiest way to communicate with the locals is the Spanish language and that, probably, it would be possible to eat Pastilla in some restaurant. And at that point, if you, like me, started your trip from Tétouan and the marvellous Rif coast, it will feel like you have not simply crossed the country from north to south but that you have made it all the way around, as in a gigantic batch of parchís.
All photos by: Andrea Moglianesi
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