I’ve mentioned before how the inhabitants of some countries seem to regard Americans as bottomless pots of gold, just ripe for the plucking. But Moroccans take this attitude to a whole new level. It isn’t just that they hustle and panhandle more than the locals in other places — though that certainly appears to be the case. And it isn’t just that they’re even more extreme in charging gringos higher prices — though that also might be true. The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, for example, (pictured) has a tour admission for foreigners, clearly stated up front, that is exactly double what residents pay.
But what really distinguishes Moroccan hustling from that encountered in other places is the technique. The Moroccans have picked up and refined the con game from the world’s most accomplished grifters — including, one can’t help suspecting, those in American public life. (Bear in mind that these observations may not apply to all or even most Moroccans; it’s best, of course, to avoid sweeping generalizations based on limited exposure. Herewith are impressions from my own experience, corroborated by discussions with several Moroccans I’ve met who know their country much better than I do.)
Here’s a typical scenario. A friendly local approaches you and introduces himself as Mohamed (knowing full well that you’ll cross paths with dozens of Mohameds) and claims to be the cab driver who picked you up at the airport. This happened to me and my wife, even though we did not catch a taxi from our airport — which was a good 300 miles away from the airport near which this incident occurred. Then he’ll ask you where you’re from, claim to have been there or know someone who lives there, then after a few more pleasantries, pressure you, with the charm and familiarity appropriate for an “old friend”, to browse his shop or someone else’s, or go on some kind of tour, especially for you.
In fact, when you walk down the street past shops or vendor stalls, you are constantly besieged with the sounds (sometimes in French first, and then if that doesn’t get a response, in English) of “Good morning. How are you? Where are you from?” Although in many instances, they simply cut straight to the last question. And if you respond, they say, “Ah, I love America”, and then start chatting you up with the ultimate goal of separating you from some of your hard-earned cash. (And if you do buy something, there’s a good chance it will be horrendously overpriced — I know of two women who paid 1000 euros for a rug that was worth perhaps 50.)
Another bubbly congenial fellow, sporting a New York Yankees cap, who saw us admiring a mosque, became buddy-buddy with us and invited us to come to a nearby “Berber center”, which he assured us was open to the public only on this one day out of the year. Curious, we accompanied him down an alley only to find that the “Berber center” was actually a gift shop — which certainly was open more than one day annually.
Then there was the man who approached us in the souq (marketplace) and was most congenial, even inviting us to his house for dinner. The next day, we ran into him again, and he was still as cordial as ever. The third time we saw him, he informed us that his wife was in the hospital, and his ATM card was not working; and wanted to know if we could spot him 100 dirham (about 10 dollars) until the next day. We politely declined. And never saw him again. We sadly realized that he’d been playing the “long con” — a big letdown, since we’d really liked the guy.
The most frustrating thing about all this is that many Moroccans are genuinely friendly people, and are sincere in their efforts to welcome outsiders. They will even call out “welcome to Morocco” as you walk past. They’ve actually been known to invite total strangers for dinner — and really mean it, with no strings attached. But unfortunately, the hustlers are quite willing to exploit this image of goodwill and generosity for their own selfish purposes. It doesn’t seem to bother them at all that their actions reflect poorly on their entire nation, and make tourists suspicious of all Moroccans.
Although they’re half a world away and products of a very different culture, these manipulators inescapably remind one of opportunistic American demagogues in politics and media who con the masses under the mantle of populism. Despite being egocentric (and often delusional) elitists themselves, they manage to convince a large swath of the American public that they care about, and are looking out for, Joe Six-Pack.
This requires not only giving themselves a radical PR makeover, but distracting from their elitism by portraying The Other Guys as the real elitists — for being too educated, for caring about the environment, for using words of more than one syllable, for using correct grammar, or just for putting a slightly gourmet variety of mustard on their burger.
Ronald Reagan was one such notable persona. With his aw-shucks avuncular demeanor, he was able to persuade Heartlanders to brush aside their customary perceptions about Hollywood snobbery (which, for once, were actually merited) and buy into the myth of The Gipper, because they somehow believed it was in their best interests to surrender any skepticism.
George W. Bush pulled off a similar feat, rebranding himself from pampered New England Ivy League brat to Good Ole Boy from the Republic of Teksizz — though in his case, the retooling was certainly not due to any personal appeal on his part, but to the savvy efforts of a crackerjack team of handlers. They changed his nickname from the patrician Junior to the plebeian Dubya. They set up a Thanksgiving photo op for him, ostensibly serving turkey to soldiers stationed in the Middle East; the “turkey” was actually just a prop — the bird consumed by the soldiers was pre-packaged. They made certain he was photographed frequently at his Crawford ranch — sometimes staging a chore like clearing brush with his manly chainsaw, as if that were something he did often. The propane tank would be covered up by a bale of hay to create a more homey atmosphere. At his public appearances, attendees near the stage (i.e., in camera range) would be instructed to remove their jackets and ties, and perhaps roll up their sleeves. Their framing was so effective that during the 2000 presidential run against Al Gore, a not uncommon topic of media discussion was which candidate you’d most want to have a beer with.
From Marrakesh to Washington, and all points in between, the message that hustlers, hucksters and shysters use to reel in fish is essentially the same: “I’m one of you.” But they aren’t. They’re unscrupulous sharks who see you as a means to an end.