RABAT, Morocco — The aroma of Arabic spices hung in the air as we ambled through the winding maze of markets in downtown Rabat.
Speaking Arabic in a neighborhood that dates back to the 12th century, men dressed in long, colorful Moroccan robes called out to tourists from narrow stalls packed with jewelry, leather goods, spices, shoes, luggage and art. Vendors are competitive, but not aggressive. And they do appreciate the art of bargaining.
“Come over here!” said one vendor, speaking in English while waving our group of 14 African American journalists into his booth. Rabat, located on the Atlantic Ocean, is the capital city of Morocco and home to 2 million people. Rabat is where the government is located, as well as the King of Morocco. Rabat has a rich history but is a fairly new capital, the French gave it this status in 1912 and it remained the capital as per the King’s wishes, after independence in 1956.
Rabat was showcased to the world after CNN rated it as one of the “Top Travel Destinations for 2013.”
“Travelers have long overlooked Morocco’s low-key capital, instead being seduced by the heady sights and sounds of Marrakech or beachside charm of Essaouira,” CNN said. “That’ll change in 2013 with the elegant city in the northwest of the country having been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2012. This means word is just starting to get out about what the UNESCO folks call Rabat’s ‘fertile exchange between the Arab-Muslim past and Western modernism.’ ”
It is precisely the Arab-Muslim presence in North Africa that has sparked a range of emotions among some African Americans who have questioned whether Morocco is the “real Africa.”
Many black Americans are conflicted about the Arab culture in Morocco and speak more about an emotional connection with countries in sub-Saharan Africa – countries like Senegal and Ghana – where black Americans identify with the slave houses along the West African coast.
The origin of the African slave trade has deep spiritual ties for black Americans, some of whom have traced their roots to Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast. In addition, some black Americans say privately they relate more to sub-Sahara Africa because people in places along the West Coast of Africa tend to resemble black Americans with darker skin. Some black Americans have expressed outrage that Moroccan police have violently mistreated black Moroccans for years and are boycotting Morocco.
Moroccans steered clear of these allegations and focused more on atrocities they claim are perpetrated against them by Algerians.
Still, even though these issues raise a myriad of complex feelings about color and class, some African Americans continue to visit Morocco to experience the Arab world in Africa. One black professional in Washington, D.C., for example, said she recently traced her ancestry to Morocco. She plans to visit Morocco next year and take some members of her family.