Reading on the Road in Morocco: Travel Guidebooks

Friday, November 27, 2009 | Morocco

Guidebooks are the necessary evil few travelers can ever really escape. They warp our view of places, both by prejudicing us before the fact and by orienting our visit, once on the ground, toward a certain narrow selection of destinations (often the same ones every other foreigner seems to be visiting).

In no country does this appear more true than Morocco. Something about the place just seems to make every writer want to liberate their inner Orientalist: Welcome to a land of ancient enchantments, of labyrinthine cities perfumed in exotic spices, of secrets yet untold, hidden behind the veil. Welcome... to Morocco.

Wincing, shuddering, and cringing yet, all at the same time? Me, too. Thankfully, not all the guides are created equal. Here are my impressions of those I've used personally:

Lonely Planet Morocco 2009 Lonely Planet Morocco
In yet another country, my love-hate relationship with Lonely Planet has continued. Among the Morocco guides, LP takes the cake for the most misleading inaccuracies (Oued Laou a quaint beach town? How about that campground by the sea in Kala Iris? And the charming and exotic Fez medina? I could go on...) and glosses quickly over the historical context of many of Morocco's sites. But for all its shortcomings, LP is every tourist's favorite for a reason - the best city maps, frequently published new editions, and recommendations that - if not perfect - are consistently better by a nose than the competition's.
Rough Guide Morocco 2008 Rough Guide to Morocco
Always solid, Rough Guides generally also tends to include a little more historical background in their books, and the Morocco guide is no exception. While the city maps aren't as user-friendly as LP's, the recommendations are more varied, and will get you off the beaten track (that is to say, the track beaten by everyone carrying the LP). Note: Rough Guides also produces a Morocco map. I really appreciated its durability (thanks to its waterproof, tear-resistant plastic coating) but in the end the Michelin map is just more accurate—and believe me when I say that Morocco is a country where you will definitely want to know the actual difference between the yellow roads and the white roads.
Fodor's Morocco 2009 Fodor's Morocco
My friend Sam said it best: "If you're trying to reach a certain city in Morocco, the Rough Guide will tell you to take the local bus, and Lonely Planet will say to take the train, but Fodor's... they'll tell you to charter a private helicopter." If your suitcase is lined in $100 bills, this is the guidebook for you. Anyone traveling on a budget of any kind, and anyone seeking a consistently accurate and down-to-earth guide would be better to look elsewhere.
A Practical Guide to Islamic Monuments in Morocco - Ambassador Richard Bordeaux Parker A Practical Guide to Islamic Monuments in Morocco by Richard B. Parker
Though published in 1981, this guide, written by a former US ambassador to the country, remains fairly current in its descriptions of Morocco's (and, curiously, western Algeria's) most artistically exquisite buildings. Prior knowledge of architecture seems necessary to truly appreciate all the guide's insights, but its fascinating 1970s photographs and introductory section on the evolution of Moorish design certainly enhanced my appreciation for these sites. Out of print, hard to find.
Culture Smart Morocco A Quick Guide to Customs and Etiquette Jillian York Culture Smart! Morocco: A Quick Guide to Customs & Etiquette by Jillian York
Inevitably, such a short guide's descriptions are general and can't provide a universally accurate presentation of Moroccan culture. Nonetheless, Jillian York knows her stuff, and the book does a better job than one might expect in providing an introduction to Moroccan cultural values and popular attitudes. A very useful, informative read for any first-time visitor.
Lonely Planet Moroccan Arabic Phrasebook Moroccan Arabic: Lonely Planet Phrasebook
One hundred percent useless. If you don't already know Arabic or Berber, you won't be able to pronounce the words in this book correctly, and you won't be understood. (It's not your fault - almost half the sounds simply can't be written in Latin script.) And if you do know those languages, well, you won't need this book. My advice to any foreigner considering a visit to Morocco: focus on le fran├žais. A brush-up on your high school French will be far more useful than this book.
Trekking in the Moroccan Atlas Richard Knight Trekking in the Moroccan Atlas by Richard Knight
This guide presents a solid outline of the necessary preparations for any hike in the Atlas Mountains, plus extensive information on four of the best routes - Mount Toubkal, the M'goun massif, Mount Sirwa, and Mount Sahro. So far I've done only one of these routes, and found the guide's advice accurate. Though its hand-drawn maps don't exactly inspire much confidence,if paired with some solid terrain maps and one of the mainstream guidebooks (to help you reach your trailhead), this guide can be an invaluable source of intel for adventurous hikers.

Here are a few other guides that might interest travelers to Morocco:

Update: Check out the rest of my "Reading on the Road in Morocco" series here.


Jillian C. York said...

First of all, do you actually own all of those books?! Sweet! I contributed to the Fodor's one too!
I haven't seen the latest LP, but if it's still Paul Clammer, I bet I'll like it. Thank god Paula Hardy's gone. And yes, the LP Phrasebook is useless. I did hear recently, however, that they're coming out with a darija version of Al Kitaab!

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Hi Jillian -
Yes, believe it or not, Jacqueline and I own all the books that I've reviewed in this little series. (Or at least we did at some point throughout the last year - we brought a ton of books with us, but have been leaving a trail of them behind us all year as we've read them. There's still lots around though, so getting home to the US in a few weeks is going to be a challenge!)
Paul Clammer did write the latest LP, and I think in some ways it improves on his last one. But there's still some questionable recommendations in some sections, like I mentioned above.
A darija version of Al Kitaab, huh? Interesting... I wonder if Maha and Khalid will become Fatima-Zohra and SiMo? :)
Thanks for reading!

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