Arabic and Berber
In addition to Arabic and Berber, French is widely spoken. Spanish and English are also used.
Most Moroccans are of Berber, Arab or mixed Arab-Berber descent. The Berbers were Morocco’s first occupants and they form the bulk of the population. Generally they are divided into four groups and speak four variants of the Berber language – the Rif, the Middle Atlas group, the Berbers of the High Atlas and nomadic groups of the southern provinces. Sizable minority populations in Morocco include the West African populations of Haratin and Gnawa, which emerged from a legacy of slavery, and the Jewish community, although it has decreased significantly since the 1950s.
Almost all Moroccans follow Islam and a large majority are Sunni Muslims, belonging to the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence. Other minority religions include Christianity, Judaism and Bahaism.
- January 1: New Year's Day.
- January 11: Independence Manifesto.
- May 1: Labour Day. July 30: Throne Day – the most important civil holiday in Morocco.
- August 14: Allegiance of Oued Eddahab.
- August 20: Anniversary of the Revolution of the King and the People.
- August 21: Youth Day.
- November 6: Green March Day.
- November 18: Independence Day.
Dates vary. Al-Hijra is the Islamic New Year. Ramadan and then Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan. Eid al-Adha commemorates the sacrifice of Abraham. Eid al-Mouloud celebrates the birth of the Prophet. Ashura commemorates the assassination of Hussein and the dead in general.
Perched between Europe and Africa, Morocco’s history is defined by its geography. Throughout time it has been a prized location for the empires that ruled across the Mediterranean. After the Roman conquest of Morocco at the beginning of the Christian era, the country suffered many foreign invasions – the Vandals in 429 AD, the Byzantines and then the Arabs who invaded in 705 AD and introduced Islam and Arab culture. With a solid base in Morocco, the Arabs then invaded Spain in 711 AD and conquered most of it. At the end of the eighth century, Idriss, descendant of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, found refuge in Morocco. Recognised as a powerful figure across northern Morocco, he unified the country and moved the capital to Fez. After his death, his son Idriss II extended their influence into Europe. In the 11th century, the Berber Almoravids took power into their hands and founded Marrakech.
A century passed and a movement called the Almohads toppled the Almoravids and founded a new dynasty. By the 13th century however, the Almohads had lost most of the Muslim territory to Spanish Christian forces and only Grenada remained. The Merinids overthrew the Almohads, captured Marrakech and put an end to the dynasty. The cycle repeated and the next to conquer were the Wattasids who began to seize power in 1240 and were ruling Morocco by 1469. The 16th century of Morocco saw new leaders of Arab descent and in 1525, the Saadians took control of Marrakech and took the country in hand, settling border disputes with Portugal.
By the 17th Century however, the Saadian empire dissolved and the Alawites made their mark, creating an army and strengthening the state. In 1912, the Treaty of Fez forced Morocco to become a French protectorate, while a later agreement granted Spain a zone of influence too. Colonial settlement began with road construction, city planning, development of campaigns and some intelligence domination, but the Moroccan people resented their loss of independence.
After World War II the desire for independence increased among Moroccans and between 1956 and 1958 Morocco gained independence back from France and Spain. The Sultan Mohamed V drafted a constitution that brought the country into the modern era and following his death, King Hassan II becomes responsible for delivering it and he reigned until 1991. His son, Mohammed VI became king in 1999 and on his accession promised strong political action and to improve conditions. In 2011, the Arab Spring protests sparked a series of constitutional reforms, which included giving more power to parliament.
Morocco is a constitutional monarchy. Parliament is bicameral – there are 325 members of the House of Representatives, elected every five years by national vote. The House of Councillors is comprised of 120 members, elected indirectly by local authorities, professional organisations and trade unions every six years.
Apart from the country’s king and various historic Sultans, Morocco’s most notable figures include two brilliant writers, Tahar Ben Jelloun (born 1944) and Driss Chraïbi (1926-2007), whose work are a well-known take on the rich cultural life of Morocco. The great athlete Hicham El Guerrouj (born in 1974), a now retired middle-distance runner, is an Olympic and world champion and the current world record holder of the outdoor 1500 meters, mile and 2000 meters events. Nass El Ghiwane, a Moroccan musical group formed in Casablanca in the 70s, were dubbed the Rolling Stones of Africa. The band used traditional instruments to reflect contemporary issues and were widely played throughout the country and internationally.
Morocco is a tolerant, yet traditional culture with strong values and there are one or two etiquette rules to follow to ensure a smooth and respectful trip. As a Muslim country, clothing should be modest as many people are offended by clothes that do not cover legs and shoulders, especially in rural areas. In general, shoes should be removed before entering a room – take cues from any shoes lined up at the doorway. If you’re invited to share a family meal, wait until the host had said ‘bismillah’, which means ‘in the name of God’ before starting.
Ramadan is practiced by almost all Moroccans and during the month of fasting, Muslims are prohibited from drinking, eating and smoking from sunrise to sunset. During this time, travellers should avoid eating and drinking in public.
Tipping is now a staple of African life and Moroccans who provide a service, and do so well, will expect a tip in return. If service from a waiter, taxi, porter or driver is good, then a few dirhams will go a long way in making your thanks known.
In Morocco, access to most mosques and holy places is forbidden to non-Muslims, much to the disappointment to many tourists. There are some exceptions, but the majority of holy buildings should be admired from the exterior.
Morocco is a country filled with marvellous crafts and there are extraordinarily varied treasures to be found in the souks. From shiny silver jewellery and a-class leather to intricate carpets and wooden carvings – haggling for souvenirs is an art form in Morocco. Pick up a chiselled tray of copper and bronze, engraved or hammered to perfection or admire the teetering towers of baskets in all shapes and sizes that adorn every corner of the markets. You’ll come across some of the best potters in Morocco in Fez, Meknes, Safi and Marrakech – true master artists whose dishes, jars and pitchers will dazzle. Take home an abundance of spices to recreate the inevitable taste sensations Morocco will delight you with.
Moroccan cuisine is a rollercoaster ride of spices and surprising flavour combinations – it’s playful, experimental and contains some of the world’s most mouth-watering dishes. The tagine, Morocco’s punchy version of a stew, is the country’s most famous dish and it gets its name from the pot in which it is cooked. Meat (usually lamb or chicken) and a whole host of spices, nuts, fruits and vegetables are slowly cooked together and served with warm crusty bread. It’s a version of Moroccan heaven on a plate and no two tagines are ever the same. Another of the country’s classics, couscous, is eaten salty or sweet and sour and is a fluffy, flavourful pleasure served with vegetables and meat.
Pastilla is a lavish sweet and savoury pastry pie with stuffed pigeon, chicken or fish with onion, lemon, eggs and spices then dusted over with sugar and cinnamon. Harira is a favourite sunset fast-breaker during Ramadan and it’s a comforting soup rich with tomatoes, lentils, chickpeas and lamb. If you’re still hungry after a Moroccan feast, the pastries won’t disappoint and many are sweet almond and honey flavoured.
Mint tea reigns supreme in Morocco and it is the drink of choice everywhere. Consumed at all times of the day, it’s a Moroccan tradition and is usually heavily sweetened with sugar.