Dispatch From Morocco

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.

4 comments

  1. I had to look up the George Bush plastic turkey thing. It looks like the turkey was real but just for display. The servicemen and servicewomen ate prepackaged turkey from the steam trays.

    • It appears that you (and Snopes) are correct. I’m realizing now that at the time it happened, journalists reported that the turkey was a “prop”; and many people, including myself, interpreted that to mean plastic. But the official word is that while it was indeed a prop, it was nonetheless an actual bird. I must say that on the latter point, I am still a bit skeptical; nonetheless, in order to avoid the risk of transmitting inaccurate details, I have amended the article. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

  2. This is an interesting topic to bring up so close the the mid-terns in America. Most of us have been raised to believe that during elections the best man for the job usually wins, when in fact winners in our political system are often con-men who convince the public that they alone know what ordinary people are going through. And ln regards to Trump, his campaign is built on virtually record lies and untruths, yet but when he campaigns he makes sure that voters believe that many verifiable facts about him are only fabrications deployed by foolish and weak-minded people who want him to fail? There is no rhyme nor reason to his fabrications since he and many of his political crony’s know that the best and/or most honest candidate is at a distinct disadvantage whithout a skilled team of propaganda and misinforming campaign (PhDs), who are very much able to tilt the odds in favor of their own dishonest ploys.

    What worries me the most is that the future of American politics is now hopelessly scarred by the lies of ruthless conmen who truly care nothing for the common man, and who commit criminal acts that only hone their abilities to create and use Fake News to their advantage. The same is true of about 70% of all the phone calls I receive are from conmen, who frequently tell me, for at least the 18th time, that I have won a vacation to the Bahamas, or that they can help me get free of the non-existing debts I owe, restore my credit card rating, or repair my old used car for a pittance, if I would only share personal data with them, like my SS number, or my personal Drivers license information. I am getting to be an old and angry man since I come form a time and place that was not nearly so rife with blatant fraud and dishonest scams, which in many ways are far worse than the thinly veiled attempt to steal my money and misuse my credit. And in the past, when there were such attempts to cheat and misinform the pubic, the guilty party would usually admit his or her lies, when confronted with undeniable facts!

    In 2022 and 2024, (if the elections are won by the true enemies of democracy), I expect to see our long held democratic principles being torn apart and thrown at the feet of an Autocratic leader and accomplished political snake oil salesmen who will transform America into an unrecognizable and corrupt place. And the sad thing is, that the penny ante yet skilled players who make a living stealing the money of we (wealthy Americans) will never stoop so low as Today’s Republican party (which has engineered a time of record stock market gains) via the use of brazen political weapons like (Market Consolidation) and ruthless (price gouging)–all the while making us believe that unscrupulous leaders like number 45 are completely justified in throwing away our electoral college and passing voter suppression laws that may end any notion of America being a truly fair and cherished place or a politically benevolent country. Because compared to the many con men in Morocco, who may honestly need to hustle for a living, our con men already have enough money and power to live like kings, but only hunger for more and more wealth and power!

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