Wonder how we learned these unspoken rules and customs? Thanks to gracious neighbors and learning from our mistakes…
Do you want to avoid being stereotyped as “that rude annoying tourist?” As a team that brings travelers to Morocco, we want to enable you to be pleasurable guests, so here are some ways that you can consider being polite and socially acceptable while on your trip to Morocco.
You might think: these rules aren’t for me.
I’ll be traveling on a vacation, so why will I need to know Moroccan customs?
Besides the fact that it is helpful to have an understanding of the culture you are visiting, you also never know when you will be invited over into someone’s home. We have been invited over to people’s houses after meeting them one time! All it takes is a quick conversation, and next thing you know, you’ll be invited to come over and share a meal or tea.
We’ll walk you through the different aspects of a visit to a Moroccan home.
Greetings: Do I kiss on the cheek or shake their hand?
Here are some basic guidelines. Women greet women by kissing both cheeks. Most of the time, they won’t actually kiss your cheek but will “kiss the air” and just touch their cheek to yours. Usually, you’ll go left, right, left. There might be two kisses or three, depending on how comfortable you are with the women you are greeting.
Men will usually shake hands, often putting their left hand on their heart as they shake hands. Some men shake hands with women, some don’t. If you are greeting someone of the opposite sex that you don’t know well, just go for the handshake or a respectful nod. Note: unlike in some Western countries, handshakes are gentler rather than firm and hearty.
Be aware that the rules for interaction between men and women are different in Morocco from some Western countries. There aren’t necessarily hard and fast guidelines, just be mindful to be respectful and avoid physical contact. Different interactions can be appropriate in different situations, depending on how conservative the family is.
If there are only women home, a man should not enter. In the same way, if there are only women home, the men should not enter.
Children are taught to be very respectful of their elders. They will call adult men “Ami” (my uncle) and adult women “Khalti” (my Auntie). If an adult reaches out their hand to a child, the child can take it to kiss it, but often the adult pulls away in humility first. If you have children, it isn’t necessary that they follow these customs of greeting, but do encourage them to be very respectful of the elders they meet.
Entering the Home: What are you expected to do?
When you walk into a room with carpets, most people will leave their shoes outside. There might be slippers for you to wear, or you can just walk around in your socks. Don’t walk on the beautiful carpets with your dirty shoes!
When you first come into the home, especially if you are a first-time guest, you will probably be taken to the guest salon. Be willing to sit and talk for a little while before tea/coffee/cookies/popcorn/nuts/sweets are served. The beginnings of most conversation are centered around people’s families, health and business. Ask about their families and well-being before you jump into other topics.
Be aware that you will probably not be given an option between coffee or tea. Your host will bring one out and most of the time they come presweetened. In these days of increasing diabetes, things are changing, but having it be presweetened is still normal. At a more formal visit, your host might serve you several different types of cookies.
You will certainly be urged to take one of each and try them all, but it is perfectly acceptable to take a few and leave them on your plate or tea saucer. Your host doesn’t actually expect you to eat every single one, though they are all delicious!
Question: Should you bring a gift?
It is always nice to bring a gift to your host, especially if it is the first time that you are visiting their house. The old tradition is to bring a cone of sugar over to the house, but it is also fun to bring something that you baked yourself.
You could also bring fruit that is arranged nicely or layered sweets. If you bring a gift, don’t expect your host to necessarily open it in front of you. In the same way, if you are given a gift, you don’t have to open it in front of the giver: it’s up to you.
Meal Time: How do you eat out of a communal dish?
It’s usual for people to sit around a circle table and eat out of one dish in the center with bread. There are a few basic things that you should be aware of as you prepare to enjoy what could be one of the most delicious meals you have ever eaten.
Wait for the host to show you where you are supposed to sit. The deeper you are into the corner on the couches, the more honored the position! Kids are often seated on stools around the outside of the table, not on the couch.
At the beginning of the meal, you might be offered a small pitcher of water to wash your hands with. Hold your hands out and allow the water to be poured over them. Since everyone is eating out of the same dish, it is important to have clean hands before the meal!
Wait until the host says “Bismiallah” (In the name of God) before you start eating. Salads will be placed around the table so that you can reach each type and share with your neighbor. If you are eating couscous, a spoon will most likely be provided to you. Some of the older generation still have the skill of forming the couscous into balls with their fingers, but we have always been given spoons when we come over.
Moroccans don’t eat with their left hands. Left hands are considered the “dirty hand” as they are traditionally used for hygienic duties. When eating tajine, you will be given bread to dip into the middle dish. You can rip your own bread with your left hand, but use your right hand to dip into the communal dish. Note: It does make it easier for everyone to eat without bumping!
Speaking of ripping bread, only use a piece of bread that you can fit into your mouth. It is a telltale sign of a tourist when someone dips a massive piece of bread into the middle and then eats it like a sandwich. Even worse is when you dip it in, take a bite and then dip it in again! No double dipping! Stick to bite sized pieces.
Don’t lick your fingers once you are finished eating. Most of your fingers shouldn’t be dirty if you are eating correctly, but if they are, you can wipe them on your napkin. Do try to avoid wiping your mouth and hands on the beautifully embroidered napkins. Their purpose is mainly to catch food that might fall on your lap.
You will get better at eating with bread as your utensil as you practice. At first you might find it to be difficult and clumsy, but soon you will be able to dip just using your first three fingers. My siblings who were completely raised in Morocco have gotten so fast at eating with bread that others find it hard to keep up with them. They have to be reminded to eat at the same pace as the others at the table.
Another thing to be aware of is that everyone sticks to their own section of the center dish. You shouldn’t reach across the dish to grab that particularly juicy piece of meat you were eyeing. Try to imagine the dish cut in pie sections and then eat from your “section of the pie.”
It’s very likely that your host will be encouraging you to eat more. They will probably also select the best pieces of meat and place them in front of you to eat. Don’t worry, you don’t need to finish everything. Be aware that Moroccans often do have multiple courses. If it is a special meal, there might be two or three courses as well as salads and dessert. Just try a little bit of everything…don’t stuff yourself on the first course. Save some room for the delicious desserts! As long as you smile and insist that you are full, your host will be pleased, even if they do ask you to eat more.
When you sit back, it gives a signal that you are finished eating. I can’t help but smile as I think how confusing it must have been for our hosts to watch us lean back and then continue eating and then lean back again over and over. When you are really finished, sit back and relax. If you are eating couscous or salad, you can turn your spoon or fork upside-down.
Cultural Understanding of Conversation: The Danger of Compliments
You need to be careful with these compliments. I learned this lesson very quickly as a little girl. I complimented my Moroccan friend’s hair clips and she immediately gave them to me.
My mother commented on the beauty of a specific tea set and was offered it to take home. She tried to explain that she just thought it was pretty and wasn’t asking for it, but at the next visit there was another tea set for her to take home. Before I learned this lesson, I kept complimenting everything I saw, thinking I was being polite and appreciative. This isn’t to say don’t be appreciative and sincere in your praise. A good alternative is to direct the praise to God, which is how Moroccans tend to give compliments.
You could also comment on how much you are enjoying the food! Asking for recipes or detailed instructions on how to make the food is always appropriate and acceptable. You might get an impromptu cooking lesson which is a great way to build friendships and learn about hosting! The deeper the friendship goes, the more likely you are to be taken into the family room or the kitchen, which is fun.
If you are complimented or someone says “to your health” to you, a good answer is “Allah y-barak fik.” This means God give you blessing and is a form of thanksgiving that gives blessing and gives credit to God. The more time you spend in the Moroccan culture, the more you will learn what the specific responses are to each compliment or greeting, but this is a safe one to stick to at the beginning.
Note: You don’t have to be a Muslim to say this blessing. Some travelers worry that they will offend by using this blessing when they aren’t Muslims, but this phrase is more a part of the culture than it is a religious claim.
Other Cultural Tips
If you are able to, avoid eating and drinking in public during Ramadan. Moroccans are aware that non-Muslims will not be fasting and certainly don’t expect tourists to fast, but it is considerate to try to eat in private as much as possible.
Don’t take pictures of people without asking! Be careful not to photograph police or government buildings as well. For more tips on photography etiquette see our blog on Photo Etiquette While Traveling.
Be respectful when you are visiting mosques. Many mosques will not allow non-Muslims to enter. Don’t fight this rule–enjoy the ones that you are able to see. Recognize that this is a holy space for many people, and treat it accordingly.
Your Turn: When You Are Hosting
If you are welcoming people into your home, put the teapot on as soon as you hear the knock on the door. In the summer, you can also serve juice if it is too hot for tea. Always keep some nuts or cookies on hand or in your freezer for hosting!
If a family comes to your door, then women would put on more modest clothing (3/4 length sleeves and tie her hair back). However, if it is another women coming to visit, you can relax in your short sleeves and casual clothes. There are different definitions of modesty in the home versus modesty in public. We also have a longer post on clothing in Morocco. Check it out to maximize your cultural sensitivity in the way you dress!
Thanks to Our Instructors!
These tips are mainly for your benefit: to help you have smooth interactions with people you meet in Morocco and avoid offending people accidentally. We are deeply thankful for our Moroccan friends that taught us these things when we first moved to Morocco.
Moroccans have been very gracious with us and other visitors as we continue to make mistakes and learn more about Moroccan culture. Though it’s awkward to realize all the things you have been doing that have been against Moroccan etiquette, it’s helpful to learn and share what you have learned with others to better respect the beautiful culture of Morocco.