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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - Tourists Still Welcome

The Telegraph, 13 October 2001

Tourists still welcome

Since September 11 many travellers have come to regard all Islamic countries as dangerous. Last week, we went to see whether their fears are justified. Michael Kerr reports from Morocco plus updates from Egypt, Dubai, Israel, Tunisia and Turkey

WE were sitting in the synagogue, discussing how the Muslims of Morocco would respond to an attack on Afghanistan, when Charles Bittoun's mobile rang. He excused himself, exchanged a few sentences with the caller and then turned back to me. "Now you will get your chance to find out, he said. "The Americans have started bombing."

Bittoun, a man in his forties whose businesses by all accounts have the virility of his moustache, had no doubt that Morocco would stay calm. His family has been in the country for five centuries and in Marrakesh since the start of the 20th. He himself has seen how it has responded to some very dark days: the Middle East war in 1967, Sinai in '73, Lebanon in '82.

During all these upheavals, Muslims took to the streets in support of their brethren elsewhere, but there was never any violence. Not even during the Gulf War in 1990, "which turned Morocco into a tourist desert. And what happened? One or two demos in Casablanca."

His wife was less sure. She is an Israeli, and for the first three weeks after he brought her to Marrakesh from her homeland she wouldn't venture outdoors for fear of being abused or worse. But she has learnt that Morocco is not what she thought it was. "It's different from what I'm used to," she said, "but it's a good life."

She will be reassured, perhaps, that this week Morocco has remained peaceful. So might potential tourists.

Until September 11, this had been a boom year for a country that is said to be like the desert palm: rooted in Africa, watered by Islam and rustled by the winds of Europe. Most hotels were fully booked for October, and looking forward to a bumper Christmas and New Year. Then the "Islamic terrorists" struck. Boom turned to bust. Morocco, with other "Islamic countries" such as Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey, was seen by many as a place to be avoided.

The Americans, almost without exception, have cancelled everything. The French are carrying on as normal, but then as the former colonial power they know how Morocco ticks. And the British? They are not booking, though they are going ahead with holidays they had already paid for. Some of them, the tour operators frankly admit, are doing so only because they stand to lose all their money if they pull out. They are travelling anxiously, worrying that in Morocco they might find themselves caught up in the sort of riots they have seen on television footage of Pakistan and Indonesia. But they are finding, as I did last weekend, that Morocco has a tendency to confound preconceptions. They are discovering, too, that the label "Islamic" is as misleading as the fa´┐Żades of the riads, those old private homes that are now such a big part of the country's tourist trade.

The typical riad has a narrow entrance, smartish for the street, but otherwise unobtrusive, and perhaps jammed between a bathroom-supplies shop and a motorcycle rental firm that spills spanners and parts all over the pavement. But beyond its front door is a different world. Here is a tiled courtyard with orange trees and a tinkling fountain, and Moorish ceilings the intricacy of whose carvings makes you gasp. Off the courtyard are little salons, where you can lounge like a plump pasha on plump cushions. If you must have reminders of the real world, then you can retire to your bedroom, with its even plumper pillows, and watch satellite TV.

It's much like this at the Villa des Orangers, a riad that's a short walk from that better-known Marrakesh institution, the Mamounia Hotel. The waiters glide about in silk pyjamas, the room-maids in mobcaps and smocks. And over these courteous staff, all of them brown-eyed, presides Lynn Perez, a fair-haired Canadian from a small town in Nova Scotia.

She was working in Paris when her employers, holidaying in Marrakesh, bought the riad. They asked her to manage it. At first she said there was no way she would consider a job in an Islamic country. But eventually she agreed to a five-week trial. That was 18 months ago.

"I fell in love with the place," she said. "After I had been here for three months people started saying `You are Marrakshia - you live here'. In France, after 10 years, no one said `You're French'."

She and her husband are planning to build a house in the Ourika Valley, outside the city. Her father will doubtless disapprove. On Sunday, having watched coverage of the bombings, he phoned and asked her to come home. "Don't be silly," she told him. "You haven't been here. You don't know what it's like."

Until last weekend I was similarly ill-informed. I had been to Morocco once before, 20 years ago, and stayed near the port of Asilah. My girlfriend and I had our first taste of couscous, our first rides on camels and our first encounter with the Third World. The Third World called himself Charlie Brown. He wheedled us into his shop, poured us glass after glass of sickly mint tea, and sold us a hairy cream-and-brown blanket. He assured us it would cover a family of five and last for years.

When we got the blanket home it wasn't as big as it had looked in Charlie Brown's shop; it wouldn't cover a double bed. But it has lasted. For 20 years it has served as a base for picnics.

As for Charlie Brown and his countrymen, until last weekend I had rarely given them a thought. Morocco was a place I associated with grubbiness and hustlers, with men who stared at my girlfriend's blonde hair while swathing their wives from head to foot in black cloth. I was quite prepared to believe that they might be dancing in the street at the news that America was in mourning . . .

The cuts, instant recourse of the ignorant reporter, yielded a few surprises. Morocco was a country where unemployment was running at about 20 per cent and half the population was illiterate. But it had a king, Mohammed VI, still only 38 and not yet married, building a reputation as a reformer. He was a direct descendant of the Prophet, and called Commander of the Faithful, but he also enjoyed a spin on a jet-ski. He was trying to reform a bloated civil service; he was selling off palace cars and even palaces. To his people he was M6 or Le Roi des Pauvres - King of the Poor.

More pertinently, he had been the first leader in the region to send a message of sympathy and solidarity to President Bush after the attacks in the US. His prime minister had attended a memorial service in the Catholic cathedral in the capital, Rabat, at which Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders all declared that the attacks were contrary to religious teaching.

Even the country's most radical Islamic movement had fallen into line. Its spokesman issued a statement saying that "violence and terrorism targeting innocent people are horrible and to be condemned".

None of this, unfortunately, can be ascertained by a quick check on the Foreign Office website. There you will be told - as you will be of several countries with a sizeable Muslim population - that "The situation . . . remains calm following the terrorist attacks in the US. But all British nationals . . . are advised to keep a low profile."

Ring the FO in the capital, Rabat, and you might get a more encouraging endorsement. Staff there will pass on the view of the ambadassor, Anthony Layden, that "Morocco has in most respects been one of the safest countries in the world" and that "this is one of the best times of year to visit" (as one member of the Royal Family has discovered, on a private trip, since September 11).

He's right. It was hot in Marrakesh last weekend, but not too hot for me to make a noonday circuit on foot of the old city. With me was Mustapha Karroum, vice-president of the city's official tour guides.

We dawdled a while at the Jemaa el Fna, the great square of the medina. There were half-a-dozen coaches on its edge, and a fleet of petit-taxis bearing fruit boxes where a roof-rack should be. As yet the square was a giant car-park, but there were hints of the spectacle it would become when I returned later - and signs that Morocco is the sort of place where tradition and innovation can rub along without any problem.

A snake charmer was tempting a viper to strike at a drum. A junior acrobat was doing a tumble for the sheer hell of it. Over there was a woman who followed meekly in her husband's wake and let the world see nothing more than her eyes. But behind her, in the Argana restaurant, there were girls with bare arms and legs, smoking over their coffees and babbling into mobile phones.

Mustapha took me into the souk, where we dodged donkeys laden with wool and tripped over boys of primary school age banging metal in a blacksmith's. He showed me round the Medersa, a 14th-century theological college, and explained why, while it was open to tourists, the mosques were not: because the French, when they were the colonial authority, had decreed that that was how it should be.

I was beginning to learn, he said, why Morocco was not a potential hotbed of violent fundamentalism, but to really understand it I had to take a good look at the precincts of the Koutoubia Mosque. He led me round the edge of the building and on to the main road. "Look," he said, "over here we have the 800-year-old Koutoubia Mosque, and over there we have the 21-year-old Club Med. You can pray, or" - and here he did a little shimmy - "you can dance in a discotheque until six in the morning. That is Morocco. We are free."

On the way round, at every stop, we heard condemnations of the attacks on the US, but a plea, too, that Islam in general and Morocco in particular should not be unjustly held accountable. Raja, emerging from her secretarial job at an antiques business, put it most succinctly. She sat down beside me, smoothing the pleats in the trouser suit of a typical office girl, and bent her scarfed head over my notebook to see what I was writing.

Politely but firmly, in the impeccable English she had studied for her degree, she said: "People should make a distinction between what is a Muslim and what is a terrorist. A very real Muslim is totally against terrorism."

A friend of hers, she said, had gone to the US just before the attacks in New York, intending to study ethno-musicology. "She came back because she was terrified. People were staring at her. They consider all Arabs to be terrorists."

I hadn't been hustled once on our circuit of the city, and assumed that this was because I was with a local. But the same was true when I went out alone. The reason: tourism is now central to Morocco's development plans and the authorities are anxious that its image be a good one. Any unlicensed guide who is caught soliciting faces instant jail, without trial, for a month. Good news for those who are irritated by Charlie Brown; not such good news for those who would be the next Mustapha Harroum.

Although he studied his trade at college in Brussels, Mustapha was practising it long before as an eight-year-old in the souk. His two sons, Hamsa and Soufian, will not be following him. Soufian, who is 12, is already talking of the States, where his father has many friends who will be keen to help him. He wants to be a pilot.

Max Lawrence, I suspect, would chide me for milking the black humour in that. Eight years ago he skipped university in Britain and came out to Marrakesh to set up a local office for his father's long-established business, Best of Morocco. He is still only 26, and with his chiselled features, T-shirt and combat trousers he has the appearance of a children's television presenter. He is a fixer of fashion and advertising shoots, a property developer. But you need spend only five minutes with him to see that he has invested more than money in Morocco.

For him, he said, the country and its people have been better teachers than any university, adding, entirely unselfconsciously, that there is more wisdom to be heard from a few old men round a fire here than can be found in any pub in London.

He drove me 15 miles from the city to the village of Tagadert. Here, on the summit of a hill offering 360-degree views, he is building a house that will be a holiday home for people who want to see something of village life. It will have electricity and running water, the provision of which will benefit the homes around it, and like them it is being built entirely of earth.

As Max snapped pictures with his digital camera, one of the workmen employed technology that had been around a few thousand years longer. He shovelled earth into a mould and then, having rocked it back and forth to compact it, pushed out a brick. Another ready to be crisped in the sun.

In all, some 250 villagers have found work at various times on the house. They and their families, he said, were typical of the people who would suffer most if visitors stopped coming to Morocco, if tourism went the way it had during the Gulf War. "This is going to lose a lot of not very wealthy people what little they have."

Moha Fedal would agree. At his restaurant, Dar Moha, he has been serving the best of Moroccan nouvelle cuisine for almost two years. On the terrace as he chats to diners, a smiling African face above immaculate chef's whites, he cuts a confident figure. But he is worried.

Since September 11 he has had to lay off two waiters. They have lost the chance he had: to wait on tables, save, and then, with a little help, get to Switzerland, where he qualifed at catering school.

Then he brightened a little. "We had 15 people from Chicago last night who said, `We didn't know what Morocco was like; we'll go home and tell people.' " He's hoping they don't forget.

At Marrakesh airport last Monday, there were holidaymakers returning to Britain who had no idea that Afghanistan had been attacked the night before, and therefore no urgent reason to add to the complex of worries we travellers all carry in our backpacks. Among them were a group in their twenties, who had driven across the desert from Marrakesh to a villa in Essaouira that they had booked on the internet. Among them, too, were Jenny and Guy Bagnall, grandparents from Dorchester, who had been trekking with a tour group in the High Atlas.

The Bagnalls had been hassled a bit by local people who, at many of the places they stopped, made loud and unfathomable demands for "Disprin, Disprin". As for the other perils of Morocco, Guy Bagnall was in no doubt which had been the worst. "I still think the camel ride, by a factor of a thousand, was the most dangerous experience."