What do you get when you combine a well-travelled story-teller and a savvy entrepreneur? You get MarocMama!

With a very visible online presence, searches for ‘Marrakech’ and ‘food’ on social media may very likely bring up one of her many hilarious and engaging posts on either subject.

Quoted in a wide range of publications including Huffington Post and the Chicago Tribune, she has carved a well-deserved reputation as the ‘go to’ travel blogger for all things Morocco; earning her stripes along the way, this woman is on her way up!

I love proving people wrong. It gives me an incredible high @MarocMama Click To Tweet

We found her while planning our travel itinerary for Morocco and were immediately captured by her very unusual love story. Continuing our Women In Travel (WIT) series, we were given access to her world and are pleased to share our interview with MarocMama where we explore a range of subjects including her growing business, entrepreneurship, politics, love, expat life and family.

Jemaa El Fna Square Marrakech Morocco

The richly ornamented Koutoubia (Khotubia) Mosque stood guard over Marrakech as we meandered our way through the Medina towards the famous Jemaa El Fna Square.

With the sun burning down just after the afternoon call to prayer, the square, which many regard as the heart and soul of the city, was agog with all kinds of activity. By day, it is a bustling marketplace; at night, it transforms into a bedlam of music, fire, dance and heady aromas.

However, the nightly festivities would have to wait. That afternoon, our plan was to explore the rich food culture of Marrakech, one dish at a time with Marrakech Food Tours (MFT), a company run by Amanda (MarocMama) and her amiable husband Youssef who she lovingly calls ‘MarocBaba’ (how cute!).

Although we had already been introduced to Moroccan cuisine during our overland trip through Fez, El Jadidah, Essaouira and Erg Chebbi, with what we had seen on MarocMama, we knew we were in store for a special experience.

Even more appealing was the fact that they had arranged the tour to accommodate our dietary restrictions and had kindly gone out of their way to select gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian options.

HDYTI Marrakech, Morocco

Amanda’s highly informative blog posts on her website, MarocMama, and our correspondence with her greatly influenced our decision to visit Morocco where we ‘slow travelled‘ our way across its southern region, taking in its rich history, geographical and cultural diversity and natural beauty.

Our last stop was Marrakech were we looked forward to meeting Amanda and Youssef.

 

Getting introduced

Through the sea of humans and market stalls that is Jemaa El Fna, we spotted the pair of them and their tour guide friend standing in the shade cast by the post office building.

As we made our introductions, it was immediately clear to see why Amanda, born and raised in small town USA, and Youssef, a humble Moroccan gentleman, would change the predictable course of their lives and dare to be together against all odds.

Jemaa El Fna Square, Marrakech, Morocco

They were a physical manifestation of the cliché that ‘opposites attract’. His tall, strong figure complimented her petite frame and his quiet smile agreed with everything her zestful laughter expressed. He was the perfect Papa Bear to her Mother Hen.

Considering the challenges they had faced as an inter-racial couple, it was clear to us that those experiences had only made their bond stronger.

MarocMama Amanda Mouttaki Marrakech

Over the next three hours, we were treated to carefully curated, delightful, behind-the-scenes insights into Moroccan cuisine. At every stop, Youssef expertly complemented Amanda’s food knowledge with local context gained from growing up in Marrakech.

Although we’d read a lot about them through Amanda’s well-documented blog posts, during the tour, we gained additional insight into their backgrounds, struggles, triumphs and outlook for the future.

 

On learning to cook Moroccan cuisine…

Our first stop was a traditional butcher/smokehouse where we were served what Youssef described as a ‘bachelor’s meal’, made up of the basics of meat and bread.

Marrakech Food Tours, Morocco

Amanda and Youssef have shared many journeys as a couple. Expanding their food horizons (Youssef more so) was one of such journeys. We asked Amanda to walk us through her early cooking experiences following her marriage to a Moroccan man:

MarocMama: I first started learning how to cook Moroccan food when my Moroccan husband moved to the US in 2006. He really didn’t like American food but I had no idea how to prepare the foods he did like.

MarocMama: After a few weeks of him suffering silently and losing weight, I realized I needed to figure this out. So I got a cookbook, and we had several phone calls with his mom and sisters and it began. I began with simple dishes at first and then slowly graduated to the more complex. I knew how everything was supposed to taste so it was just a matter of trial and error – lots of error!

 

Food and wanderlust

Combining her love for food with a healthy dose of wanderlust, Amanda has travelled the world from a young age and continues to do so with her family. It was on one of such trips that she met Youssef for the first time and fell in love. We asked her what spurred her love for food and travel:

Marrakech Food Tours, Morocco

MarocMama: They both have different inspirations. With food, I can remember my grandma letting my sister and I stay with her in the kitchen all the time. From a very young age she would let us help make anything and everything. She was so patient and nothing was off limits, as an adult now I cannot thank her enough for those early days. It is how I fell in love with food!

Erg Chebbi, Sahara Desert, Morocco

MarocMama: As for travel, I grew up in a really small town – I only graduated high school with 35 other kids! I loved to read and spent many, many hours in books dreaming of other people and places. When I first had the opportunity to travel I took it and fell in love.

 

Where did Marrakech Food Tours come from?

As we began to explore the subjects of food and travel, Amanda’s eyes lit up and she flashed one of the many warm, engaging smiles she would share with us that afternoon.

We learned that through Marrakech Food Tours and her famous blog MarocMama, Amanda had found outlets to express her passion for both topics.

Marrakech Food Tours, Morocco

With MarocMama already a success, we wanted to know what led to her decision to start Marrakech Food Tours in 2014:

MarocMama: The first time I came to Morocco we ate terrible food for two weeks. Then I met Youssef and was able to eat the real Moroccan food his family cooked.

When we moved here we wanted to find a way for other tourists to get to know Moroccan cuisine and leave with at least one positive food experience.

When we travel I always book a food tour and wondered if it might work in Morocco too. We really didn’t know but took a chance and I think it has turned out quite well!

 

Starting a small business in Morocco

Amanda is familiar with taking the chances which life presents to her. After all, she took a chance on love and later on, made a big decision to uproot and move her family to a different country…no small feat!

HDYTI Marrakech, Morocco

Starting a new business in an unfamiliar business environment was clearly another one of those chances she was willing to take. She shared her thoughts on her experience of starting a small business in Morocco:

MarocMama: There’s a TON of opportunity in Morocco if you’re willing to be creative and work hard. It also is frustrating. In Morocco you have to “fit in the box” literally. There are only certain categories a business can fall into and you have to make the business fit. This is so frustrating. In the end hiring a good accountant/lawyer was our saving grace and that is how we made it happen.

 

On Moroccan women in business

From our travels through Southern Morocco and through its crowded souks and Medinas, we observed that Morocco, like many Muslim countries is a male dominated society.

Although considered liberal in comparison to many other Muslim nations, Moroccan society remains largely traditional, with women more likely to be running cottage rather than corporate businesses. Moroccan women in high profile positions like Nezha Hayat (first female director of Société Générale, Morocco) and Wafa Zerrouki, (founder, La Femme Artisan) are not common.

MarocMama Amanda Mouttaki Marrakech

Against the backdrop of societal roles for women, did Amanda therefore, as a young and successful entrepreneur, feel a responsibility to mentor or guide other young Moroccan women who would like to follow in her footsteps?

MarocMama: Of course, I welcome any opportunity to help and foster entrepreneurship in young people. One of the things I love the most is showing and helping other women in general realize that they can do things…things which they may have been told their entire lives that they couldn’t.

I love proving people wrong. It gives me an incredible high and I mean that in the best possible way. The difference for me is that I’m not up against a lot of the cultural hurdles that Moroccan girls have to face and so in some ways you could say it is not a level playing field.

 

Would she describe Morocco as a liberal country?

Our question on Moroccan women in business opened up an opportunity for us to explore her views on liberalism in Moroccan society. Her fashion suggested a fusion of two cultures: one liberal and the other conservative with a hint of style.

As a Muslim American woman who has travelled to other Muslim countries, would Amanda describe Morocco as a liberal country?

MarocMama: It is funny because most of the Arab countries I’ve been to are pretty liberal as well; Tunisia, Turkey, and the UAE last year. I’m actually more at ease in Muslim countries because most people dress like me or at least are comfortable with it.

As for Moroccan being liberal, yes it is. Moroccans are open-minded and tolerant. But, that doesn’t mean visitors should put away all common sense. Being considerate to local norms is important and visitors should be respectful in their clothing and behaviour.

Being considerate to local norms is important..#MiddleEast Click To Tweet

 

Still on liberalism…

Morocco was largely spared the turmoil that engulfed much of the Arab world during the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010 and 2011.

However, the political situation in other countries prompted Moroccans to demand constitutional reform and more equal opportunities. This signalled series of radical reforms (some would argue not radical enough) which constitutionally granted men and women equal economic rights.

Fes, city skyline, Morocco

Politics is always a delicate subject but we were curious to know what she thought about the Moroccan political climate and how much had changed since she relocated there:

MarocMama: Not a lot. There has certainly been an increased security presence but politics here is not what I’m used to. You know, in the US it’s a never ending battle. Morocco is a monarchy so you always know who is in charge. The do’s and don’ts are pretty set in stone.

 

Is it safe to visit Morocco?

Prior to our booking our trip, we had been following recent troubling events across much of the Arab world. Not knowing much about Morocco, we were naturally concerned about safety.

We reached out to Amanda after reading her blog post on safety in Morocco and she allayed any lingering doubts we had about making the trip.

HDYTI Essaouira, Morocco

Our trip through Southern Morocco confirmed that our fears were totally unfounded. We felt safe everywhere we went, even 50 miles from the Algerian border in the Sahara Desert. What would Amanda say to people who want to travel but are paralyzed by fear due to recent world events?

MarocMama: I’m one of those people who think that if something is meant to happen it will; no matter what we do. Therefore, stopping my life and plans just isn’t an option. I do however understand that it can be scary for other people. That being said my best advice is to look at the big picture.

I have had lots of people say to me, “Oh you know something just happened in Turkey so I’m not going to Morocco” or something similar. This just makes no sense. These are two completely different countries that are thousands of miles apart. Most global monitoring agencies have said Morocco is safer than many Western European countries but the stigma is still there.

I really think if you’re scared of some place then you owe it to yourself to go there and challenge that fear!

 

Wife, mother, entrepreneur…how does she combine them all?

We steered the conversation into more light-hearted terrain. From reading her blog posts, we knew that of all the topics of interest, none was dearer to Amanda than her family. She threw her head back and let out a belting laugh as she recounted family holidays and stories about their children.

Riad in Marrakech, Morocco

She had spent most of the afternoon with us and we were curious to know how she balanced her multiple roles as mother, wife and entrepreneur (she also runs online store ‘Lost in Marrakech‘ on Etsy!). With the typical honesty we had enjoyed from her all afternoon, she told us:

MarocMama: I don’t! Well, I don’t always feel like I do. I’ve read several articles lately with titles such as: ‘Why Women Can’t Have It All’. I think that to some degree this is true. I can’t be THAT mom who bakes cookies, has her hair and make-up done, volunteers for field trips and so on, while still running a business full time and more. I can’t. So I have completely let go of the notion that it is possible. Sometimes I have to give more to work, and sometimes I give more to my kids or husband. I am grateful to have a partner who is able to pick up the slack when I need it as well as an extended family who help too.

 

Living the expat life

She glances lovingly at Youssef. He is a pillar of stability and a calming influence in what has been a busy and sometimes turbulent few years for their young family. In 2013, they decided to move from the US to Morocco so that their two boys could learn Arabic and French and so that they could spend more time with his family. She describes it as the next step in their family relationship.

HDYTI Marrakech, Morocco

She admitted that the biggest challenge with the move for her was overcoming the huge language barrier (in Morocco, the Arabic dialect spoken is called Darija). After the initial challenges of settling into life as an expat, we asked what advice she had for young families who have a love for travel, but may be apprehensive about moving to another country:

MarocMama: Start small…but just start. Moving overseas is a HUGE deal to be sure. I wouldn’t recommend making your first international trip a move overseas. Instead take small trips and get your feet wet. Learn what you do and don’t like. Learn what you can live without and what you must have. This will help tremendously. Also don’t wait for the “right age” for your kids. There is no right age! Just go!

 

If not Marrakech, where else?

The sun had begun to make its final arc for the day. With the day getting cooler, we sat outside a local café, our last stop on the food tour, sharing traditional Moroccan pastries with our new friends Phil Gray and KirBanu, watching life happen around us. Fewer places capture the essence of everyday Moroccan life like its Medina quarters.

Essaouira, Coastline, Morocco

The hustle and bustle around us formed a background for our thoughts. Amanda and Youssef had called Marrakech home for almost three years. We asked Amanda, if she had to choose to live anywhere else in Morocco, where would it be, and why?

MarocMama: That’s a tough one! I really do like Marrakech because it has a great mix of everything. But, if we had to choose somewhere else it would be on the Atlantic coast, maybe between Agadir and Essaouira in a small village. [We took a wild guess and concluded it must be Moroccan surf haven, Taghazout]

 

What’s next for MarocMama?

A mark of successful entrepreneurs is their ability to replicate their ideas. After spending three hours with Amanda and Youssef, we could feel their enthusiasm and passion to keep pushing boundaries and to create a truly iconic brand. Will we see their success in Marrakech replicated elsewhere?

MarocMama Amanda Mouttaki Marrakech

MarocMama: “We shall see”, Amanda said, flashing another smile with the now familiar twinkle in her eyes.

Look out world! With her MBA in Project Management, this small town USA girl who is unafraid of jumping into freezing lakes in Finland (true story) certainly has world domination in her sights!

As we parted ways with this inspiring couple, we were grateful for the privilege of sharing their laughter, wisdom, strength and grace.

 

The “Go To” blogger for all you need to know about visiting Morocco

Marrakech Food Tours have kindly offered HDYTI readers a discount code (HDYTIFOOD) for bookings. This will give you 10% off an afternoon or evening food tour booking. The code is valid until 5 June 2016 when they close for Ramadan and the summer holidays.

MarocMama Amanda Mouttaki Marrakech

MarocMama has loads of very well researched guidance for first time travellers to Morocco. Some of our favourites include:

Co-Founders & Curators at HDYTI

Eulanda & Omo Osagiede are London-based freelance writers and award-winning social influencers who run the popular travel, food, and lifestyle blog HDYTI (Hey! Dip your toes in).