It’s not every day that you roll out of bed and press snooze on an alarm titled “Africa.” The trip seemed almost too casual – a bus ride, and a boat ride, another bus ride, and then, Africa. I’ve always been drawn to the continent, the people, the stories. It’s presence leaps from the map, an oblong expansion of mystery and culture.
Welcome to Morocco.
مرحبا بكم في المغرب
Wow. Where do I even begin? It’s hard, putting life-changing experiences into words, translating language, thoughts, feelings, smiles, smells, and laughs. I prefer to think in stories.
Culture shock. During my first few weeks in Spain, I used this phrase to describe the transition. New people, customs, and a way of life – classic culture shock, right? Boy, I had another thing comin’. When I first stepped foot onto Moroccan soil, the difference took my breath away – a cultural claustrophobia. Culture choke.
Our small group blindly followed our guide, a twenty-something, self-proclaimed hippie and former Peace Corps volunteer, through the bustling streets of Tangier. As we trailed close behind, I felt hundreds of eyes on my back, tracing my every move. As an American and as a woman, I certainly stood out in casual clothes. Not only did my over-sized “Santa Clara” sweatshirt scream USA, but my exposed arms and face starkly contrasted the fully covered Muslim women who scurried past me. The women, dressed in traditional headscarves (the hijab), minded their business and continued milling about the open-air market. Men stared. Hard stares, stares that exposed, stares that burnt holes through my facade of confidence. I felt intimidated.
Morocco caused my mind to race, an overwhelming mix of new emotions, scenery, and norms. This place was truly unlike any that I’d ever seen. People around me spoke the native dialect, a French-sounding roar of white noise. Are they talking about me? Are they talking to me? Are they talking to each other? Gulp.
One for the books, About the Books
We made our way to Darna, a center that teaches illiterate women skills like sewing and cooking. The bright building felt welcoming – warm, quiet, and happy. The people inside were equally comforting. They opened their arms, hearts, and thoughts to our group of Americans. During lunch, we discussed relationships, politics, dating, and religion – you name it – with four university students, three girls and one boy. One of the women wore a hijab and the other two bared their heads. A beautiful, twenty-four year old Moroccan sat beside me. Her words were powerful, her accent sweet and melodic. She discussed her personal choice not to wear the hijab. A good Muslim, she said, is defined on the inside, not the outside.
The conversation captivated me. I completely zoned in. I’d never truly learned about Islam, yet alone from the perspective of a Moroccan herself. The talk grew heavier. I decided to ask the hard questions. To many, our first glimpse of Islam consisted of the image constructed through mass media. We vividly remember the atrocities of the radical terrorists, the lost lives, and the grief. September 11, 2001 – I was in third grade. It’s hard to shake traumatic events. I’m pretty sure that the first time I saw a Muslim was on the other end of the television screen.
I asked the girl for her opinion on the 9/11 terrorists attacks.
Her response? Disgust. She, too, watched the towers crumble in shock. She recited verse after verse of the Qur’an. Her words were powerful. When she learned that the attacks were supposedly on behalf of her God, she felt angry, betrayed, and completely misunderstood. Her God? Her God? This was not her God. Her God was a good God. Her God would never condone such behavior. Her God brought peace and harmony. The girl’s concluding words resonated with me.
“You know,” she said, “We have a verse for this.”
At whosoever kills a human being, it is as if killing the entire human race; and whosoever saves a life, saves the entire human race.
“You’re going to have the opportunity to try a public hammam,” our energetic program director told us pre-depature. Greaaat, I thought, public nudity. I’ve always considered myself pretty modest. As a little girl, I used to cry a week before visiting the doctor for a sport’s physical. Needless to say, it isn’t my gig.
Before leaving for Morocco, I pictured the public bathhouse as a series of hot tubs, a spa of sorts. Nope. The hammam looks more like a swim team locker room – white tiles, florescent lights, and a whole lot of people. The bathhouse consists of three rooms, each room progressively warmer. You roll out your mat, pick a spot on the floor, and start scrubbing. The girls and I made our way to the “hot room.” Here’s the catch: you only wear bathing suit bottoms, if that. Let’s just say, the local crowd preferred less clothing.
I never thought that I’d make a friend in a public bathhouse. A large, round, fully-naked Moroccan woman laughed at my scrubbing technique from across the room. With pudgy fingers, she motioned me to come nearer. In hand gestures, she showed me the correct form for exfoliating, stroking a rough, sand-paper like glove over her belly. I followed her lead.
She asked my name. “Logan!” was the only English phrase she needed to know. The woman realized that I was having trouble scrubbing my back and decided to take charge. She chuckled, paused, and yanked me beside her. For the next five minutes, she jerked me back and forth, arms flailing. She cracked my back. She “scrubbed” my armpits. She jammed one arm into my lower back for support and used the other to polish my sides.
Laughing hysterically, she suggested that it was time – I needed to drop my drawers. The woman placed her hands over her eyes, signaling that she wouldn’t peek. At this point, I didn’t care. There’s a first for everything, right? She scrubbed my butt.
Sorry guys, there’s no pictures for this story.
Sharing is Caring
We only had four days in Morocco. What better way to throw yourself into a culture than living with a family? I don’t think Expedia offers a deal this sweet.
In Rabat, Sarah, Jaclyn and I followed our temporary “host dad” through the winding, narrow city streets. Once inside his home, I immediately felt struck by difference. Everything seemed completely new – the house structure, the living quarters, the bedrooms – everything. For example, bedrooms aren’t really bedrooms. They are “salons,” and every person sleeps on their own couch. The dining room, an interesting half-inside, half-outside area of the house, was furnished with a knee-high wooden table surrounded by fluffy sofas.
The sweet, gentle nineteen year old daughter, a fluent English and French speaker, facilitated most of the table talk. She spoke passionately and openly about her religion and beliefs. Later, we discovered that our family, know as the “most traditional,” held stricter, more conservative beliefs than the other hosts. When attempted to make small talk.
What do you like to do for fun? I like to look up YouTube videos on my religion and listen to the experts. I like informational television shows about my religion.
When do you wear your hijab? Does everyone wear a hijab? It’s a personal choice. If you don’t cover your head, I believe that you will go to the hell. I’ve since I’ve worn the hijab, I feel more respected. I wear it around men, in the presence of anyone that I could marry. Even cousins!
People marry their cousins? Yes! (Giggles) My parents are cousins! First cousins.
When were your parents married? My mom was like, um, I think 15? And my dad, around 35.
The Bottomless Stomach
Couscous. A food so nice, they named it twice. On Fridays, Moroccan families prepare couscous for lunch. Meal time in Africa? Forget table manners! Forget everything your parents taught you – don’t eat with your hands, don’t lick your fingers, don’t eat from the serving dish…don’t burp at the table…In Morocco, anything goes.
Our host mother served a heaping pile of couscous, complete with delicious spices and steaming fall vegetables like pumpkin, carrots, and squash. Saffron turned the dish into a melody of fall colors, a masterpiece that looked as yummy as it tasted.
The mother broke flat bread with her hands and passed halves around the table. I’m not going to lie, I felt like I was feasting during Biblical times. Eating in Moroccan is basic geometry; your section, a triangular portion of the communal dish, is like piece of pie. Each person rakes food towards their mouths, with fingers or bread, careful to remain within the invisible lines.
We ate, and ate, and ate some more. By the end of the meal, the family’s side sat empty, yet our side remained full. Couscous had multiplied before my eyes. Judging by my kicking food baby, I felt certain that I’d eaten more than my section, still heaped with food, reflected.
And I had. Later, I learned that, as a sign of welcoming and hospitality, the Moroccan people secretly push food toward guests. They save the “choice pieces” for company, flicking the good stuff toward the foreigners. Magic! I want to learn this trick. Food appearing before your eyes? Guay.
The Simple Life
On day three, we drove deep into the Rif Mountains. On our trek from the city, we passed slums and vast fields. Cars turned to donkey-pulled wagons. Dust transformed to trees. Our altitude grew as we climbed higher through the countryside.
The driver parked our van atop a mountain. Before entering the village, the group stopped in a market to purchase picnic essentials – fresh veggies, bread, cheese, and of course, chocolate covered Oreos. Due to the rocky terrain, we made our way to our destination, a small farm, by foot. A bright, smiling couple greeted us upon arrival. The duo welcomed the group into their quaint home and patio. Instantly, I felt warmth. I felt cozy, safe, and comfortable.
Over lunch, the couple answered questions about their lives in rural Morocco. Our translator, a trendy university student, helped eliminate the language barrier. The man of the house, a farmer, only had two years of formal schooling. Out of seven brothers, he was the only man to remain in the country, committed to the land. In an arranged meeting, he and his wife were introduced. After fifteen minutes, he felt love. He knew it could work. “Marriage,” he said, “is like a seed. You plant the seed and let it grow.”
The wife sipped her steaming mint tea while their precious daughter, a four-year old with captivating, deep-brown eyes, sat nestled in her mother’s arms. Often, a young boy interpreted the conversation, whispering in his father’s ear. The teenager sat perched in his makeshift office on Facebook, fixated on his computer that sat supported by a rickety wooden nightstand.
Despite the simplicity of their life, everyone seemed genuinely happy. The couple, content. The children, healthy, smiling. The man’s greatest dream for his children? Education. I don’t want my children to make the same mistake I did. I want them to have opportunity.
That day at the farm, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace. Its warmth covered me, cozily encasing me like a blanket. I sat on my pillow and watching the family from across the room. Calm. Still. Patient. Beautiful natural light illuminated the room. Hues of yellow danced on the stuccoed walls. The wind whistled softly, delicately chiming bells in the distance. The crisp fall air felt refreshing. Conversation, human interaction. Some food, some laughs, and some hours passed. Simplicity.
Happiness, like most magnificent things, is simple.
Thank you, Morocco.
Thank you for opening my eyes. Thank you for taking me by the hand and exposing me to a new world. Thank you for molding my wandering mind, for shaping my preconceived notions into a beautiful, positive outlook on Islam. Thank you for showing me the power of generosity, and that communication is simple. Smiles are the same in every language. At the end of the day, we’re all just people. We think about life, and contemplate our decisions, and try to be good. We want to fall in love and have children and create a future, for ourselves and our families. At the end of the day, we’re a lot more similar than different.
Before you judge, experience. Before you speak, go off into the world, and see.