For travellers Morocco can be about haggling for carpets, romantic dreams of sunsets over the Sahara, dodging snake charmers in Marrakesh and chasing urban legends about decadent Tangier. It certainly makes for an exciting picture, but what is it like for Moroccans? Taking some time to explore the major themes in Moroccan society and daily life will enrich anyone's visit to this culturally fruitful country.

Language and Identity

Morocco's original inhabitants were Berber, but the arrival of Arabs with the introduction of Islam has, over the centuries, mixed and remixed the two populations to a point where the line between Arab and Berber is frequently blurred. However, culturally there has frequently been a clear demarcation between speakers of Arabic (in its Moroccan form known as Darija) and Berber languages (known as Amazigh).

Arab speakers, personified in the Alawite dynasty that has ruled Morocco since the 17th century, have traditionally held the upper hand, despite speakers of Berber languages often holding a demographic majority. This position was institutionalised by the French in the 1930s when they passed laws to discriminate against Berbers. For much of the 20th century it was illegal to even register many traditional Berber names at birth, and Berber education was banned.

In 21st-century Morocco, Berber culture is having something of a renaissance. In 2011 the constitution was revised to make Amazigh an official national language. The effects of this are most immediately visible by the new Amazigh signage that adorns government buildings (and, increasingly, road signs) along with Arabic and French. Berber education, now formally encouraged, still lags behind in quality due to poor training and facilities, although it's still early days in a renaissance in national identity for a culture whose roots are so deep in Moroccan culture.

The rise of Berber is reflected in the relative fall from grace of French, the language of Morocco's colonial past. French is no longer listed as an official state language, though it remains a language of much business and the ability to speak it is frequently perceived as a marker of social status. In higher education today, however, many lessons are taught in English; some argue that French should ultimately be done away with altogether, and English tuition encouraged to increase Morocco's competitiveness in a global economy.

Family Values

Family life remains at the heart of much of Moroccan life, and while individuals may have ambitions and ideas of their own, their aspirations are often tied in some way to family – a much-admired trait in Morocco. Success for the individual is seen as success for the family as a whole. Even major status symbols such as cars or satellite TVs may be valued less as prized possessions than as commodities benefiting the entire family. This is beginning to change, as the emerging middle class represents moves out of large family homes and into smaller apartments in the suburbs, where common property is not such a given. But family connections remain paramount. Even as Morocco's economy has grown, remittances from Moroccans living in Spain and France to family back home represent as much as 7% of GDP.

Since family is a focal point for Moroccans, expect related questions to come up in the course of conversation: Where is your family (the idea of holidaying without your family can be anathema)? Are you married, and do you have children? If not, why not? These lines of enquiry can seem a little forward, but are a roundabout way of finding out who you are and what interests you. Questions about where you work or what you do in your spare time are odd ice-breakers, since what you do for a living or a hobby says less about you than what you do for your family.

Education & Economy

One of the most important indicators of social status in Morocco is education. As a whole, the country has an adult literacy rate of 67%, with slightly more men than women being literate. The disparity is heightened in poorer rural areas. Here, three-quarters of women cannot read or write and less than 50% of first-graders complete primary school. Schooling to age 14 is now officially mandated, and local initiatives are slowly improving opportunities for education in the Moroccan countryside.

For vulnerable rural families, just getting the children fed can be difficult, let alone getting them to school. Around a quarter of Moroccans are judged to live in near or absolute poverty, and suffer from food insecurity (living in fear of hunger). Under-employment often means that a steady income is a rarity, and 35% of the average Moroccan income covers basic foodstuffs. Only 10% of Moroccans can afford imported foods at the supermarket, let alone eating at restaurants. Although the Moroccan economy has grown well in the 21st century, and Morocco has a burgeoning middle class, its benefits have not always been spread equally: improvements are needed in education to match the growth of Morocco's service industry, which in recent years has even overtaken agriculture for its contribution to GDP.

Frustratingly for many Moroccans, getting ahead can still be a case of who you know as much as what you know. Morocco rates low on Transparency International's corruption perception index, and most Moroccan families at some time will have butted up against the concept of wasta, the need to have a well-connected middleman to get a job or access a service. This is particularly frustrating for an increasingly educated youth suffering high levels of unemployment, who demand a more meritocratic society.

Shifting Gender Roles

Morocco is a male-dominated society, particularly in the public sphere. Take one look at the people nursing a coffee all afternoon in a pavement cafe and you might even ask, where are all the women? However, significant progress is being made on women's rights, and the push for change has been led from the ground up, with women's groups creating a singular brand of Islamic feminism to affect change.

Two decades ago most of the people you’d see out and about, going to school, socialising and conducting business in Morocco would have been men. Women were occupied with less high-profile work, particularly in rural areas, such as animal husbandry, farming, childcare, and fetching water and firewood. Initiatives to eliminate female illiteracy have given girls a better start in life, and positive social pressure has greatly reduced the once-common practice of hiring girls under 14 years of age as domestic workers. Women now represent nearly a third of Morocco’s formal workforce, forming their own industrial unions, agricultural cooperatives and artisans’ collectives. More than 40% of university graduates today are women.

A major societal change came in 2004, with the overhaul of Morocco's Mudawanna legal code. Revising these laws guaranteed women crucial rights with regard to custody, divorce, property ownership and child support, among other protections. The direction of travel hasn't been universally smooth, however. In 2012, Moroccan society was shocked by the case of a 16-year-old girl who committed suicide after being forced to marry her rapist, drawing attention to a clause in the law that allowed a man to be 'forgiven' his crime by marrying his victim. The law was amended after a public outcry, but although the legal age of marriage remains 18 years, child marriages may still be allowed if a special dispensation is given by an Islamic judge.

The modern Moroccan woman’s outlook extends far beyond her front door, and female visitors will meet Moroccan women eager to chat, compare life experiences and share perspectives on world events. Male-female interactions are still sometimes stilted by social convention (though you’ll surely notice couples meeting in parks, at cafes and via webcam), but conversations about hijab that obsess the media in some parts of the world seem less relevant here, where you'll see a devout young woman covering her hair walking with a friend with free-flowing hair and another wrapped up in a headscarf worn purely as a fashion statement. These are young Moroccan women on the move, commuting to work on motor scooters, taking over sidewalks on arm-in-arm evening strolls and running for key government positions.

Social Behaviour

At times it can feel as if there is one rule for behaviour in public and another for private. The key word is discretion. A decade ago, Morocco's gay community was beginning to seek tentative public approbation, but a conservative shift has seen a number of high-profile prosecutions (some including foreigners) and a shutting of the closet door. Morocco's relationship with alcohol can feel similarly complicated: despite the popularity of bars and a booming brewing industry aimed almost entirely at a domestic market, a traveller who accidentally clinks his bottles together while getting in a petit taxi to go to a medina is liable to be asked to get out, as medinas are seen as more socially and religiously conservative. Yet with proper discretion, there is plenty of latitude when it comes to socially acceptable behaviour.

Moroccan Social Graces

Many visitors are surprised at how quickly friendships can be formed in Morocco, and are often a little suspicious. True, carpet-sellers aren’t after your friendship when they offer you tea, but notice how Moroccans behave with one another, and you’ll see that friendly overtures are more than a mere contrivance. People you meet in passing are likely to remember you and greet you warmly the next day, and it’s considered polite to stop and ask how they’re doing. Greetings among friends can last 10 minutes, as each person enquires after the other’s happiness, well-being and family.

Moroccans are generous with their time, and extend courtesies that might seem to you like impositions, from walking you to your next destination to inviting you home for lunch. To show your appreciation, stop by the next day to say hello, and be sure to compliment the cook.

Religion

Morocco is 99% Muslim. Christian and Jewish communities have existed here for centuries, although in recent years their numbers have dwindled.

The Five Pillars of Islam

Soaring minarets, shimmering mosaics, intricate calligraphy, the muezzin’s call to prayer: much of what thrills visitors in Morocco today is inspired by a deep faith in Islam. Islam is built on five pillars: shahada, the affirmation of faith in God and God’s word entrusted to the Prophet Muhammad; salat (prayer), ideally performed five times a day; zakat (charity), a moral obligation to give to those in need; sawm, the daytime fasting practised during the month of Ramadan; and hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that is the culmination of lifelong faith for Muslims.

Moroccan Islam

While all Muslims agree on these basic tenets received by the Prophet Muhammad, doctrinal disagreements ensued after his death. The Umayyads challenged his son-in-law Ali’s claim to the title of caliph, or leader of the faithful. Some Muslims continued to recognise only successors of Ali; today they are known as Shiites. But in numerical terms, the Umayyad caliphate’s Sunni Muslim practice is more common today.

It was the Umayyads who brought Islam to Morocco at the end of the 7th century, and hence Morocco today is almost entirely Sunni. Morocco's ruling Alawite dynasty claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad, and King Mohammed VI holds the unusual position of Amir Al Mumineen, (Commander of the Faithful), making him the spiritual leader of the country as well as head of state.

Morocco follows the Maliki school of Sunni thought. Historically this school has been less strict, with Maliki qaids (chiefs) applying Sharia law according to local custom instead of absolutist rule of law. This applies mainly in the case of family law (mudawanna) such as marriage and inheritance.

Marabouts & Zawiyas

An important Moroccan tradition is the custom of venerating marabouts (saints). Marabouts are devout Muslims whose acts of devotion and professions of faith are so profound, their very presence is considered to confer baraka, or grace, even after their death. Moroccans go out of their way to visit marabout mausoleums and zawiyas (shrines).

This practice of honouring marabouts is more in line with ancient Berber beliefs and Sufi mysticism than orthodox Islam, which generally discourages anything resembling idol worship. Visits to zawiyas are side trips for the many devout Moroccans who spend a lifetime preparing and planning for the hajj.

Sufism in Morocco

It's often commented that Morocco follows one of the most moderate forms of Islam. One reason for this is the strong roots that Sufism has in the country. Sufism is the mystical strand of Islam, where adherents seek perfection of worship in their quest to encounter the divine. This often involves the use of music and repetitive prayer (dhikr) to help gain spiritual enlightenment.

Sufism revolves around orders or brotherhoods known as tariqas, founded by a spiritual leader. The most famous worldwide are the Mevlevis, followers of the Sufi poet Rumi, also known as the whirling dervishes of Turkey. In Morocco, two of the most important tariqas are the Tijaniyya and the Boutchichiyya. The Tijanniyya was founded in the late 18th century by Al Tijani, who died and is buried in Fez. The Boutchichiyya was founded around the same time, and today many in the order hold high-ranking positions in the Moroccan government.

Many observers cite the continued influence of Sufism in Morocco as an important bulwark against the rise of more religiously conservative and politically radical forms of Islam such as Salafism.