Amanda was born and raised in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and converted to Islam when she was 20 after meeting and falling in love with Youssef (read the amazing story of how MarocMama met MarocBaba here) in Morocco.
Now she lives in Marrakech with him and their two sons, runs a highly successful food business, and travels the world as a travel blogger. She is also president of the PTBA (Professional Travel Bloggers Association), a complete powerhouse if I ever met one, and a friend who doesn’t mind to let me borrow her husband for a fake engagement shoot (long story…). With all that said, I am proud and very excited to introduce you to Amanda Ponzio-Mouttaki, our Travelette of the month.
Amanda, you have become my go-to person for all things female-travel in Morocco. What are your top tips for women in Morocco?
Morocco is a big, diverse country. What you’ll experience in the rural mountains of Morocco will be quite different than what you may experience in Rabat or another big city. So there’s not a one-size-fits-all but in general, my best advice is to come with a bit of a thicker skin and do a little research on where you’ll be and what the cultural norms are. You don’t need to dress like the locals or act like a local but you should be aware.
So, what do you see tourists do that make you roll your eyes?
A few things. First, remember this isn’t a circus or a zoo. People live here, work here, and go about their lives. While you are on holiday remember the locals are not. Be aware of taking pictures of people (most dislike this). Also for women, please don’t wrap a scarf around your head while wearing short shorts or other revealing clothing. It’s much more insulting than not covering your head.
You are obviously a foodie. What do you love about Moroccan food and what do you miss from home? What and where should a Morocco first timer eat and what better avoid? Without giving away your company’s secrets spots of course…
I’ve really learned to appreciate and love the fresh seasonality of Moroccan food. While some may think it’s limiting having available only what’s in season I think it’s great, plus everything is fresh and delicious. One thing I miss from home is cheese! We have European cheeses here but they’re quite expensive.
If you’re coming for the first time I think the biggest faux pas you’ll make regarding food is asking (or expecting) couscous with your tajine. These are two different dishes! I also think that you should avoid touristy restaurants as much as possible. Go to the places where you see Moroccans, even if they don’t look like a “restaurant”. A lot of little street shops sell a few special things only but they do it well. Don’t be afraid of street food!
Can we talk about the elephant in the room, your religion? You converted to Islam before you married Youssef. So it was obviously a voluntary decision of an independent woman and not a decision made by a father or husband, something the media often likes to portray about Islam. What attracted you to Islam and made you convert?
Yes, it was a voluntary decision. I did know Youssef and at the time I felt it was important to learn as much as possible about Islam before we got more serious or married. I didn’t have an intention of converting at the time but the more I learned the more sense it made. So when I did decide to convert it was because it made sense to me. There was so much misinformation that I had known up until that point that when I really took the time to learn the truth I saw things differently. But, it was also never an expectation or requirement before we got married.
If you have to describe yourself with three words or titles, what would they be? Does your religion feature or is it just another attribute for you like saying you have brown hair?
Foodie, nerd, and global citizen – I don’t use my religion as an attribute.
I think you are the first Muslim travel blogger I know. That sounds a bit silly to me, but you are really the only one I know who practices her religion, wears a hijab, observes Ramadan, and doesn’t drink. Do you sometimes feel like a unicorn amongst other travel bloggers?
I’m identifiable Muslim and there are many times I hate that. For example, when I’m at an event with other bloggers the conversation (that is if someone approaches me) ends up being about religion. I really, really would love to simply be seen as any other person. It’s also interesting to me how many travel bloggers, people who are “comfortable” traveling the world and sharing are visibly uncomfortable around me. It also can be difficult because a lot of times events revolve around drinking and parties (in bars or clubs) which can be even more uncomfortable.
Obviously who we are and where we are from impacts our travels and how we are perceived in the rest of the world. How does you being a Muslim impact on your travels? Do you have to take certain precautions, are there places you wouldn’t go or are there areas where you are welcomed more than maybe your average American?
I think this is an issue today. I find that there are some people/sponsors/brands that might partner with someone who is not Muslim but has similar statistics etc. because they don’t want to be seen as working with a Muslim. For me, I’m pretty flexible. I might change how I wear my hijab depending on where I’m going and in some cases, I don’t wear it at all when it could be a safety concern. So far there hasn’t been anywhere I’ve chosen not go but there certainly are places I’m more comfortable than others. I think at this point my identity is somewhat porous. I’m American, I am also an expat, and I’ve traveled broadly so a lot of the American stereotypes or even Muslim stereotypes just don’t fit me.
What attracts you to traveling? What do you tell your boys why they should go and see the world?
When I was growing up I always wanted to leave. I love to see the world and experience different cultures. I think that having that experience changes your world view and makes people better. I want my kids to see how beautiful the world is but I also want them to see how similar we all are. I hope that they grow up to be open-minded adults who are global citizens.
Do you see it part of your mission to change Islamic perception in the world? Do you feel like you have to behave better in order not to get called out?
This is a losing battle because you can’t win it so I choose not to enter it. I simply just want to be myself. I am not the ideal Muslim (then who is?) nor is it my only identity. What I do works for me and my family but I would never want to project that. I know I’ll never be “good enough” for the pious Muslims, nor liberal enough for the mainstream. Instead, I just live my life and share what I can. Maybe just being visible will help people think twice about their preconceptions.
On your profile, it says you came to Morocco to find your American dream there. That was written long before Trump became a reality but do you think it holds even truer today? How is going home for you these days?
It’s funny, when we left the US it was with the idea we’d do this for a short time, just a year or two. We then started our tour business and life took a turn for us. This is when we decided to stay. Before the election in the US, we were torn on when or if we’d go back but afterward we decided we didn’t want to leave here. I’ve only been to the US once since November and we have a month stay planned this summer. To be honest it’s very scary for us. We’re never sure what’s going to happen and it’s not even about the president but the people who are now emboldened to act differently. I am hopeful that enough of the good people can drown out the others but for now, I’m very glad we are where we are.
When reading the news these days – what makes you hopeful?
Tough question! Honestly, I try to avoid the news as much as I can because so much of it is just frightening. I like to read good food writing or travel literature. When I do find the stories from time to time of people simply being kind and “seeing” their neighbors or community members it brings me hope.
A lot of times people think they need to DO something big to make a difference. I can tell you that simply a stranger smiling at me on a bus or saying hello is big enough to make my entire day. Being kind takes very little effort but it makes a very big difference.