How to Survive a Moroccan Medina

The guidebooks all speak of the Medina as a place of grand exploration, beautiful sights and smells and inspiring moments. And well they really are all those things, they are also as frustrating a place as there is on this planet. The medina in Fez, I found in particularly difficult. It was closterphobic, dirty, and a white man like myself can hardly walk a foot without being hassled, yelled at, followed, or grabbed. Marrakesh, and the other cities, was much calmer, but this advice will serve you well there also.

The saddest thing about Morocco is the fact that you are hassled so much that anyone that says hi to you starts to feel like a threat trying to exploit you. I have never been to a country where I have felt more like a walking dollar sign, and treated as such.

It would be easy to have a Medina meltdown. To find a corner to cry in, to throw a punch at a local, or to just start yelling like a heathen. However, it doesn’t have to be like this, but there are some things you ought to know before you enter the medina. Below I have included a guide on how to avoid the Medina meltdown.

Medina, Fez, Morocco

Near the entry to the Medina in Fez

1. Be firm

In Morocco, no doesn’t exactly mean no. Quite often it means try harder, sell more forcefully. If a salesperson, a random person “helping you” won’t leave you alone don’t be afraid to forcefully look them in the eyes and say NO! You should try your best to be polite and respectful, but if they aren’t catching the hint you have to be firm.

2. Be confident

Moroccan hustlers can see someone that isn’t confident from a mile away and will take full advantage of you if you aren’t. Those who aren’t confident will likely be seen as targets in the medina because they would much rather pay someone off than struggle or argue. Walk with your head high and a smile on your face.

Medina Walls, Fez, Morocco

Just outside the Medina in Fez, how cool are the walls?

3. Don’t believe that someone is just “showing you around”

I can’t believe how many times I heard people say, “oh this person was so nice, he has just been showing us around for 2 days out of the goodness of his heart.” Come on people, are we that stupid? I’m positive you’re not going to meet anyone on the street that is just so eager to show you around. When you finally say goodbye they are going to ask for money. You are going to give them 10 dirhams and they are going to yell at you and call you an awful person and demand that you pay them 100-200 Euros. If someone offers to show you around just tell them you have a guide already and tell them that you don’t need their help.

Mosque, Medina, Fez, Morocco

It’s easy to look into the Mosques in the Medina and want to escape inside them. They are beautiful, but off limits to non-Muslims.

4. Don’t be afraid to ignore

As a Canadian, the most difficult thing is to ignore someone that says hi. We don’t want to be rude. Even more difficult yet is ignoring someone as they ask you where you are from. I love that I am Canadian, and it’s hard for me not to announce it. In Morocco, however, any bit of conversation can mean an “in” and a handshake means that they are firmly set with you. If you want to say hi do so casually, and then continue without escalating the conversation or you might find yourself spending the rest of your day trying to shake people off. It’s not rude to ignore people calling out at you, it’s safe.

Fez skyline, Morocco

Looking down on the Medina at dusk makes it look so calm and peaceful.

5. Don’t let yourself be abused

One of the greatest foreign sales tactics I have ever seen is the “abuse” technique employed in Morocco. Moroccans know that most foreigners don’t like confrontation and they will take advantage of that. As soon as there is even the slightest discussion they will raise their voice, talk down to you, and try to make you feel as little as possible. They bank on the fact that if they are confrontational enough people will just give in and pay them off rather than deal with the fight. However, you shouldn’t back down. If you find yourself in this situation don’t give in, fight back, or better yet ignore them completely. You don’t need to get upset; they will make you feel like you are ruining their life. It is an act, don’t feel bad.

Bab Jdid, Fez, Morocco

One of entrances into the Medina in Fez

6. Don’t give in, you’re ruining it for all of us

I thought to myself at one point in Fez, there must be a majority of people that just give in to these tactics for them to continue to play out. At one point, near the tanneries, a boy asked me to come up to his terrace for a view. I asked him the price and he said, whatever you think is right. I made the mistake of going in without him setting a price. I climbed to the top, took 4 or 5 pictures and left. When I popped 10 dirhams (about a dollar) in his hand he yelled at me that I should be giving him 50 and that 10 is nothing. He pushed the 10 back in my hand and kept saying this is nothing. I said, fine, if you don’t want the 10 you’re not getting anything. 5 minutes worth of his time to let me onto his terrace was not worth 5 dollars. I walked away and despite him grabbing me constantly I didn’t give in. Finally, I told him I was going to go to the police if he kept following me, he gave in and finally said “ok give me the 10 dirhams.” I refused and told him that he needed to be respectful and to learn a lesson. I gave him 5, to which he told me to gently f#@k myself. As I left, I realized that for this tactic to work, a good percentage of people must actually give in and pay 5 dollars. Don’t be silly, if you give in they’ll think they can rip everyone off. Be firm, and if a price seems unfair to you, it is. Above all else, agree to a price before hand.

Tanneries, Fez, Morocco

Looking down on the tanneries in Fez

7. If all else fails, mention the police

The police have been told, over the past few years, to protect tourists. It makes sense, if tourists have a bad experience it gets out, and the income from tourism slowly dries up. As such, the police in Morocco are on your side. They might only speak French and Arabic, or only Arabic, but they’ll always find someone to translate. If you’re ever having a hard time shaking someone, rather than making a fuss and fighting, just call for the police, or mention that you’re going to call them. This tends to cure things instantly.

Medina, Fez

If you get out of the streets with the shops, and get a little bit lost, you find some peace and quiet.

8. Don’t worry if you get lost

You’re going to get lost in the Medina, if you don’t you’re not diving far enough in. Don’t worry about getting lost, you’re not going end up going down a dangerous road or anything like that. You’re just likely to explore more of it than you expected. If you find yourself lost, don’t freak out and start to worry. Find a boy and tell them that you’ll give them 5 or 10 dirhams if they walk you back to where you need to be. Be sure to agree to a price before hand.


Author: Brendan van Son

Author: Brendan van Son is a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. He has visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than he has the desire to count. Check out his profile on . for a little bit more about him.

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11 Comments

  1. I had all of these same issues in Morocco, especially in Fes. At one point, on the lone day I was there by myself before my travel partners arrived, I had a line of guys following me, trying to sell me something, propositioning me in marriage and wanting sex. The worst part about Fes was that they would grab, not just follow and harass you. It was definitely hard traveling as a blonde white girl there! It was quite the experience though and despite all the hassling, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything!

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  2. This is exactly how I felt while I was in Morocco. As a woman I also think it’s worse. I was propositioned for sex so many times that by the end of my stay I almost didin’t even register approaches by local men because I would just blank them and walk on. Such a beautiful country spoiled by its own people. Never have I said this about any other country I have visited, and it makes me sad to say this about Morocco.

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  3. I especially loved the guys who would just follow you for a bit and once it seemed you had arrived where you were going, they’d pop up and demand money for guiding you there. It was hilarious. They got pretty aggressive too, so I imagine they actually get quite a few people to pay them.

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    • Hahah, Daniel – Totally. You’ll be obviously turning right and they’ll be like “yup, just go right here” haha. It would totally be easy to throw a fist in that country randomly haha.

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  4. Yeah, I can see you’ve really been there, mate … I mean … the Fes el Bali :) … horrible and amazing at the same time … just came from Morocco a few days ago with my girlfriend and got all the hassle you mentioned as we spent most of our days in medinas (Marrakesh, Casablanca, Rabat, Sale and Fes) … Fes and Sale were the worst. I made more than 3000 photos and mostly I didn’t give in (for two weeks of medina exploring we spent only around 150 dirhams for fake guides or people who really wouldn’t leave us alone) … the more time we spent in medinas the more we knew what to do in order to avoid trouble (wish I read some of the things you wrote before my holiday to Maghreb).
    All in all, a great experience but it’s better if you know a thing or two in advance … definitely want to go to Fes el Bali again, but with male friends instead this time :)

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  5. I absolutely agree with you guys and same time feel sorry for all the uneasy things you have experienced (especially ladies)…even myself as a Moroccan visiting my homeland every now and then i have encountered similar things, which i absoultely hate…i understand when Jane said “Such a beautiful country spoiled by its own people” it is sad for me as well, particulalry to say that about my own country where i was born and spent a great deal of my life and the land of my parents and many other lovely people i know of…i strongly wish a majority of Moroccans would wake up and realize how they are jeopardizing the image of the country from inside and outside. In three weeks time i’ll be heading to Marrakech with a friend of mine who’s aspiring to visit the country for the first time and i am doing my best that his trip will be as enjoyable as it can be.

    Cheers,

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    • I’m a New Yorker and have been coming to Marrakech many times in the past few years. I disagree with the tone that most of you is using. The rule here, not the exception, is that locals try to make our stay as pleasant as possible. They also expect you to be generous and fair. The bargaining for everything is just a local custom that you need to play. I find it disturbing that someone will abuse his economic superiority to try to teach a lesson to a kid. That’s just sick and bad civilized manners. If you think the fair price is 10, give him that and teach a lesson of generosity and not a lesson of unbalanced power.

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      • I don’t know that stuff all sounded pretty accurate to me. It’s all a game, they depend on the western guilt to make money. After being schemed so much in a country it just turns into a game, even with the kids. The lesson of generosity might sound great in theory but I’m not quite so sure it works that way. I don’t pay anything to take pictures from the balconies anyways. I’ve met some great people in Morocco but not many of them were in the tourist industry, they are all trying to get your money.

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        • Exactly. They use the fact that Westerners don’t like confrontation to just pay up. It’s not a matter of us being generous, it’s a matter of them playing hardball at business. It might work for them in the short term, but in the long run it will only hurt Morocco’s reputation. I have lots of Moroccan friends, and they’re all disgusted about how people operate in the travel zones. Marrakesh was much better, but you wont ever find me in Fez because of the people.

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  6. Wow, you are all sounding like complete wankers. Maybe just stay in whitebread Canada and you will be safe. And i have met my fair share of Canadians who are anything but nice. The reason people are pushy is because they are living on the poverty line. They might appear well dressed but it is a facade. My husband is from fes. I love the medina, the banter, one of the only places that you feel alive and not coated in a layer of safety. The people are beautiful and generous and will give you everything but they can sense a privelidged tosser a mile away. Men all proposition the women, they do the same to Moroccan girls and they expect and want to be noticed. They tell you you are beautiful and your husband is lucky which is much less harmful than rude sexual slurs from western men. I have never heard worse. Remember you are in their country not disneyland put there for your entertainment, not a quaint Tuscan market, it’s a living working city for Moroccans. Maybe Africa is a bit too far out of your comfort zones.

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    • Haha. You’re justifying people being rude and aggressive because they are living at the poverty line. I’ve travelled 30-something African countries, and met people far more poor. None of them were pushy or aggressive like this. That’s a bullshit excuse. Why are you excusing that people behave like this? That men treat girls (regardless of their nationality) like shit? That doesn’t make sense to me. Well, unless you were biased because your husband is from Fes, and you feel it necessary to defend him? Maybe. Honestly, I’m not the only one to have this issue. The hostel was full of stories of people being ripped off, followed, scammed, etc. Moreover, I have friends from Morocco, they are more ashamed of how certain people in that area behave than anyone. The medina is amazing. Absolutely fascinating, but it’s not an enjoyable experience (or, it wasn’t for me anyways) as I was constantly followed, pushed, grabbed, and essentially physically abused.
      I’ve travelled to Haiti, Guinea-Bissau, Democratic Republic of the Congo, etc. etc. and was never treated anywhere near as poorly as in Fes.
      Also, I’m sick of the “if you don’t like being treated this way, don’t leave Canada line”, it’s tired. Sure, people in different places behave differently than others. Does it make it right? Absolutely not.
      Also, have you not looked at this website? I’ve never spent time in “disneyland, tuscany, or tame destinations”. Seriously.

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