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RABAT, Morocco — The aroma of Arabic spices hung in the air as we ambled through the winding maze of markets in downtown Rabat.

Speaking Arabic in a neighborhood that dates back to the 12th century, men dressed in long, colorful Moroccan robes called out to tourists from narrow stalls packed with jewelry, leather goods, spices, shoes, luggage and art. Vendors are competitive, but not aggressive. And they do appreciate the art of bargaining.

“Come over here!” said one vendor, speaking in English while waving our group of 14 African American journalists into his booth. Rabat, located on the Atlantic Ocean, is the capital city of Morocco and home to 2 million people. Rabat is where the government is located, as well as the King of Morocco. Rabat has a rich history but is a fairly new capital, the French gave it this status in 1912 and it remained the capital as per the King’s wishes, after independence in 1956.

Rabat was showcased to the world after CNN rated it as one of the “Top Travel Destinations for 2013.”

“Travelers have long overlooked Morocco’s low-key capital, instead being seduced by the heady sights and sounds of Marrakech or beachside charm of Essaouira,” CNN said. “That’ll change in 2013 with the elegant city in the northwest of the country having been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2012. This means word is just starting to get out about what the UNESCO folks call Rabat’s ‘fertile exchange between the Arab-Muslim past and Western modernism.’ ”

It is precisely the Arab-Muslim presence in North Africa that has sparked a range of emotions among some African Americans who have questioned whether Morocco is the “real Africa.”

Many black Americans are conflicted about the Arab culture in Morocco and speak more about an emotional connection with countries in sub-Saharan Africa – countries like Senegal and Ghana – where black Americans identify with the slave houses along the West African coast.

The origin of the African slave trade has deep spiritual ties for black Americans, some of whom have traced their roots to Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast. In addition, some black Americans say privately they relate more to sub-Sahara Africa because people in places along the West Coast of Africa tend to resemble black Americans with darker skin. Some black Americans have expressed outrage that Moroccan police have violently mistreated black Moroccans for years and are boycotting Morocco.

Moroccans steered clear of these allegations and focused more on atrocities they claim are perpetrated against them by Algerians.

Still, even though these issues raise a myriad of complex feelings about color and class, some African Americans continue to visit Morocco to experience the Arab world in Africa. One black professional in Washington, D.C., for example, said she recently traced her ancestry to Morocco. She plans to visit Morocco next year and take some members of her family.

“I’m excited about it,” she said.

We left Rabat for an overnight trip at 8 a.m. on a weekday morning to visit two cities off the beaten path. Traveling light, we boarded a van and drove to the airport in Rabat where we were scheduled to take a 4-hour flight to Laayoune and Dakhla, in Western Sahara.

Our flight was delayed nearly three hours because of high winds, but once we took off it was a smooth flight aboard a turbo-prop aircraft that holds about 25 people comfortably.

Dakhla, located deep in the Western Sahara, is a remote place where the Sahara Desert meets the Atlantic Ocean. It was founded in 1884 at the mouth of the Rio de Oro by the Spanish and there has been a bitter, long-running conflict between Morocco and Algeria over who owns the Western Sahara.

President Barack Obama, who considers Morocco a steadfast ally to the United States, met with Moroccan King Mohammed V1 at the White House in November and commended the King for “deepening democracy” and “promoting economic progress and human development.” But human rights groups criticized Obama, saying the president missed an opportunity to tell the King to end violence, torture and abuse in the Western Sahara where Morocco is embroiled in a bitter, long-running conflict with Algeria over who owns that part of the region.  Human rights groups want Obama to put pressure on Morocco to allow the people of Western Sahara their right to live where they choose.

Moroccans, however, say they are also suffering abuse by Algerians who are holding Moroccans in prison camps. Morocco says it has a peace plan moving forward. While many are suspect of Morocco’s strategy, White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Obama believes “Morocco’s autonomy plan is serious, realistic, and credible. It represents a potential approach that can satisfy the aspirations of the people in the Western Sahara to run their own affairs in peace and dignity.”

Politics aside, Dakhla bay is home to the world’s largest population of monk seals. Its waters are also frequently visited by skate and hump-backed dolphins. Dakhla is also considered by surfing champions as one of the most beautiful spots in the world for admiring the sea and observing miles of burnt-orange sand dunes.

Standing on the sands of the Sahara Desert at the ocean’s edge in Western Sahara, we looked out to the sea while the waves gently moved ashore. The Sahara Desert is located in the northern portion of Africa and covers over 3,500,000 square miles or roughly 10% of the African continent. It is arguably the largest and hottest desert in the world, bounded in the east by the Red Sea and it stretches west to the Atlantic Ocean. To the north, the Sahara Desert’s northern boundary is the Mediterranean Sea, while in the south it ends at the Sahel, an area where the desert landscape transforms into a semi-arid tropical savanna. The Sahara covers parts of several African nations including Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Sudan and Tunisia.

Voyage to Morocco – Part I
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