Do you believe that identity can be fluid? Is who we are limited to where we come from? Do we retain the same identity for life? Our travels through Morocco provided an opportunity for us to reflect on these questions. We share our thoughts on how travel challenges our identity.

 

A typical Marrakech morning

It was a cold December morning in Marrakech. After sleeping off the shock from our uncomfortable experience with a Moroccan hustler the previous night, we were stirred awake by the sonorous voice of the local muezzin reciting the adhan (call to prayer).

Morocco Diaries, Culture, Identity

The words to Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’ filtered through an early morning Marrakech radio show as we headed out of the Medina bleary-eyed, towards the pick-up point for our Sahara Desert trek.

Men dressed in Jedi-like Berber djellabas watered the dusty streets while garbage collectors picked up the city’s trash. Small groups huddled together for warmth around tea sellers on street corners while street dogs and cats loitered hoping for a morsel. Cats! The identity of the typical Moroccan Medina seems incomplete without them.

Morocco Diaries, Culture, Identity

Red clay coloured buildings reminded us of parts of Northern Nigeria; architecturally similar in many ways to Morocco despite being almost 6,000 kilometers apart. Mothers hurried along their young children, while teenagers stayed true to their universal herd-mentality as they all made their way to school.

Morocco Diaries, Culture, Identity

We joined a minibus with a small group of lively Spanish ladies and gawky Japanese boys. To get to the Sahara Desert, we first had to navigate the mighty Atlas Mountains by heading south from Marrakech towards Ouarzazate.

The sun began its daily ascent in the sky, revealing the changing terrain as we left the city limits. Sparse vegetation and bare wilderness were broken up from time to time by dry riverbeds and deep gorges. Up ahead, like a giant face peeking out from beneath a blanket of fog, the layers of the High Atlas Mountains loomed large before us.

 

Challenging identity in the Atlas Mountains

High Atlas Mountains, Morocco

The Atlas Mountains are synonymous with Morocco’s identity.  Scholars have long been interested in the role these mountains play in the identity of Morocco:

“There have been many attempts to divide Morocco into convenient sections for discussion but most of them appear unnecessarily complex; it is easier to consider an inner Morocco and an outer Morocco, the two being divided by the whole mass of the Atlas Mountains running from the south west to the north east of the country, and the Rif Mountains which turn at right angles to these and form the Mediterranean Wall.”

Quote from the book ‘Lords of the Atlas: The Rise and Fall of the House of Glaoua’, 1893-1956, by Gavin Maxwell (1914 – 1969).

Driving through the High Atlas Mountains, we were humbled by their majesty. As our driver carefully navigated the intricate and sometimes unnerving switchbacks leading up to the iconic Tizi n’Tichka Pass, our minds drifted like hot air balloons, travelling slowly and taking in the dry and barren landscape, one peak at a time.

High Atlas Mountains, Morocco

The gigantic mountains provoked reflection, about how our sense of identity (and security) is often tied to our own familiar mental landmarks and patterns.

Daily routines such as doing the same job without much variation over a period of time often define and shape us without us even realising. This may explain why sudden events (such as a job loss) not only disrupt our routine but leave us feeling lost, empty and suddenly lacking confidence in ourselves.

We find that travel challenges these established patterns by taking us away from familiar landmarks and away from our carefully built comfort-zones.

High Atlas Mountains, Morocco

'If we have no identity apart from our jobs, we are truly vulnerable. - Dan Miller'Click To Tweet

Forgoing familiar landmarks and embracing a new multi-cultural identity is why Polish blogger Monika Mizinska moved to Morocco. On her blog Bewildered in Morocco she writes: “I never knew myself until I moved to Morocco”. Our interview with Maroc Mama, an American expat also living in Morocco, bears similar testimony.

High Atlas Mountains, Morocco

When we travel, we sometimes feel a momentary loss of identity due to the lack of familiarity with the local culture, language, weather and cuisine of the places we visit. However as we embrace those new cultures, travel offers us the transformative ability to develop a different, more versatile identity; one that is not based on familiarity, but one that is fluid and which ultimately no longer needs safe landmarks to be self-assured.

HDYTI Tip: There’s more to Morocco than Marrakech. If you’re visiting Marrakech for a few days, consider a day trip into the Atlas Mountains.

 

Identity – Where are you from?

Morocco Diaries, Culture, Identity

We successfully navigated the High Atlas Mountains and began our descent towards Ouarzazate, a historic trading city that proudly wears its badge as the Moroccan film capital (‘Ouallywood’). This region more recently has also become home to the world’s largest solar power plant in the Sahara desert.

Film Studio, Ouarzazate, Morocco

Tired from hours of being on the road, the 11th century UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Kasbah of Ait Ben Haddou provided a welcome break.

Buried in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains and rising out of the red sand like a sphinx, this ancient and ageless fortified city helped us tick off yet another city from our growing Game of Thrones location hunt.

Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco, Desert Trek

A local Berber guide greeted us enthusiastically and declared that he spoke English, French, Arabic, Berber, Spanish, and Italian and was working on his Japanese.

Our initial disbelief evaporated as this Moroccan polyglot proceeded to switch effortlessly between languages as he guided our small group through the fortress. He soon had the Spanish ladies giggling and the Japanese boys gawking. He broke down cultural boundaries with the fluidity of his identity; proudly Moroccan yet easily borderless in his ability to engage.

Berber, Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco, Desert Trek

In addition to his language dexterity, the other striking thing about him was his appearance. His brown, weathered skin was bronzed by the sun. His eyes gave away little and we wondered what lay behind the mask. His turban was a riot colours which gave him a halo-effect as the sun reflected off his blue robes.

Berber, Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco, Desert Trek

As he held us under his spell of brilliance with his knowledge of the history of Ait Ben Haddou, he suddenly turned towards us and asked, “Where are you from?”

Berber, Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco, Desert Trek

This question is always confusing for us. Between us we represent three cultures: American, Nigerian and British (read our interview with The Black Expat).

Bio-technologist and entrepreneur Tan Lee, speaking to TED Radio Hour, sharing her very personal immigration journey from Vietnam to Australia provides us with some answers to this question.

When people meet you, when they ask you where you’re from, what do you say?” the TED narrator asked her.

She replied, “I say I’m from Australia because I know exactly what they’re trying to ask me which is, “Where is that accent from?”” And then they say, “Where are you from originally?” and I say, “I’m from Vietnam“.

She then proceeds to tell a moving story about being stranded for five days in a boat, lost at sea with her family before being rescued by workers on an oil rig.

The TED narrator asked her, “How much of who you are is wrapped up in that journey?”

Tan Lee replied, “I would say a very large part of me…not so much just the journey but it’s the lessons that we’ve learned from that journey”.

Identity Morocco Culture

Tan Lee’s gripping story is a fantastic example of how travel (in her case, necessitated by unfortunate circumstances) challenges our identity. We feel that our identities are much more than the passports we carry.

Our identities are the sum total of the experiences, journeys and influences that have shaped us through the years.Click To Tweet

Although at our core, we are fully aware of ‘who we are’, there are elements of our identity that will always remain fluid.

Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco, Desert Trek

We are aware and accepting of the fact that our identity will be further moulded by our future travels, by becoming parents and the other experiences life blesses us with. More than our passports, our identity is who become.

Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco, Desert Trek

Our thoughts were broken when our Berber guide called out to remind us that it was time to head back to our bus and continue our road trip.

 

Exploring the boundaries of my African identity

I grew up in Africa, at a time when the continent was still struggling to cast off its cloak of confusion caused by colonialism, poor leadership and endless conflicts. That backdrop combined with my Nigerian heritage helped shape my understanding of my African identity.

Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco, Desert Trek

From a political perspective, the Africa of my childhood was cast in the shadow of legendary figures including Obafemi Awolowo, Thomas Sankara, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the great Nelson Mandela.

History books brought these characters to life, creating for me an impression of a predominantly black Africa that was once liberated but now ‘burdened’ by independence.

From a literary perspective, gifted African authors including Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Cyprian Ekwensi and Wole Soyinka further shaped my impressions about Africa, its peoples, its cultures, its pain and its beauty.

However reading their stories, seeing the images projected by mass media and being raised in Nigeria did not necessarily mean I fully understood what being African meant.

Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco, Desert Trek

I was African but my knowledge of Africa was incomplete. The missing ingredient to my understanding of ‘African-ness’ was travel. 

While growing up, the concept of international travel was alien to me. International holidays for an average Nigerian family were prohibitively expensive and those who could afford it tended to head to Europe and the USA.

In Morocco, my African identity was reborn. Travelling through the mountains, valleys and deserts of Morocco helped me appreciate the rich diversity, beauty, colour, character, geography and history of my continent of birth in a way I had never before experienced.

As we drove past village after village of red mud brick buildings built around free standing minarets hidden in the mountains, I began to weave mental threads between Berber culture and the nomads of Northern Nigeria.

On our night in the Sahara Desert, I dressed up in my Nigerian robes and a turban and was immediately embraced as a local.

Although ‘my Africa’ was born on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and rooted in the forests of the ancient Benin Empire, it was now evolving as we travelled through Sahara Desert dunes, through the Low and High Atlas, to discover itself on the Moroccan shores of the Mediterranean Ocean.

Morocco | Sahara Desert | Sand | Footprint

I discovered that my Africa is black but it is also white, brown, Berber, Amazigh and Arab. My Africa was not limited simply to West, East or South Africa.

Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco, Desert Trek

In Morocco I saw the imperfections of my African identity reinforced. However, like two sides of the same coin, I also saw its progressive nature. I saw a people who mirrored the unbowed ‘thrive-in-the-midst-of-difficulty’ spirit that is represented in every country on the African continent.

A Ghanaian blogger once said: “Identity is fickle. Identity isn’t set in stone, it is ever changing, and no one is ever enough of anything...”

…And we are OK with that.

 

What does identity mean to you?

How do you think identity is influenced through travel? We would love to hear your thoughts. Please drop us a note below or follow us on Twitter. Also please do share tweets from this page that inspire you.

Did yo enjoy reading this? Check out our other Morocco articles here. Also, see this list of 15 ‘Must Follow’ Morocco Influencers on social media.