Its easy to find adjectives to describe Morocco. She’s colorful, she’s hot, she’s windy. She’s traditional and vibrant, imperial and simple. Morocco is easy to fall in love with. She has a certain air about her–and I don’t mean the pungent odor you find in the souq–I mean she’s regal and comfortable and inviting.
Morocco is also humbling. Its been four weeks since I landed at the airport in Tangier, and upon reflection, a major theme of the first half of this trip is humility. I’ve spend 28 days soaking up sights, sounds, and feels from Tangier, Asilah, Tetuan, Fez, and Meknes. I’ve been to a few beaches, some Roman ruins, and I’ve seen a lot of countryside (a few mountains, too). I’ve been complimented and catcalled on the streets, I’ve been cheated at the market and I’ve been chased down by a shopkeeper because he realized he forgot to give me my change. I’ve seen heartbreaking poverty and watched brand-new Mercedes-Benz cruise through roundabouts in the center of Tangier. I think a fair summary of four weeks in Morocco is this: Humility.
I was humbled when I went to the literacy class at the American Legation Museum a few weeks ago. Every week about 40 women gather in the museum to practice reading and writing in formal spoken Arabic. Most of the women are over the age of 50, and their just beginning to put their letters in order. All of them have families and children and grandchildren. All of them are strong leaders and dedicated members of their family and society. I stepped into the room and realized that I, a woman with most of a college education, was the most ignorant individual in the room.
When I took a seat in the classroom, I made conversation with the young lady in the seat next to me. She was maybe 7 years old and wearing pink and cheetah print from head to toe. She tapped me on the shoulder and said, in perfect English, “You’re American. Do you know Rihanna?” She was disappointed with my answer (“no”) but impressed with my desire to learn Arabic. “See, this isn’t too hard”–pointing to the papers from the day’s lesson–“even you can read it. Just try. And if its not good the first time, I’ll help you. That’s how I learned English, you know. I just tried. And watched movies.” Morocco humbled me when a 7 year-old reminded me how to conjugate verbs.
And then I went to Asilah. And Meknes. And Fez. And there are no public restrooms in these cities. In the US, we are very comfortable with our free public bathrooms. We might criticize them for being dirty, or inconveniently located in department stores, but at the end of the day we’re thankful for their existence because they save us from some pretty uncomfortable alternatives. Like squat toilets. Squat toilets might work for men, who can use them standing up. But they’re not made for women. I can attest to that after several attempts that resulted in near death experiences. I learned its all about the strategy–placement of hands for balance, muscle control, and ability to juggle purse, long skirt, and toilet paper. And in the middle of a five hour road trip between Meknes and Tangier, there are no alternatives to squat toilets–so you march into the stall, pretend it doesn’t smell, and you squat. Somewhere between realizing that the water on the floor wasn’t water and nearly soaking the edge of my maxi skirt in it, I was humbled.
Morocco is noisy–Tangier is home for 700,000 people and I can attest that at 1 or 2 am, all of them are in the streets, celebrating the Iftaar (breaking of the fast of Ramadan). Even during the day, its impossible to find silence when the radio is on, people are chattering, and every restaurant is buzzing with people. Walking through Tangier, even at dusk or dark, I’m pretty confident. I know where I live, where the sweets shop is, and which tomato stand has the best deals at the souq. Its not North Branch, but I’m able to navigate about a 10 block radius. There’s only one thing–I don’t speak enough Arabic to understand the news word-for-word, my Darija isn’t functional enough to understand music on the radio, and I certainly have no idea what the sports announcers are saying when Barca plays Madrid. This sounds normal at first–of course, I study a foreign language and I can’t learn everything at once. Its okay to miss the meaning of love songs or weather reports–and watching a soccer game comes with a live picture of the game–so I know that it was Barca that just scored the goal. But here’s the thing–if it were in English, I’d know exactly what was happening, just like all the other people in the cafe, or on the street, or in the taxi cab. I’d know more than just the headlines of the newspapers I read, or the restaurant menus I peruse, or the snippets I overhear from corner store radios. If all this information were in English, I’d be complacent about it. But its in Arabic, and I’m humbled.
I’m from a long line of good cooks. My mom makes a living as a dietitian, and my Grandma makes a mean apple pie. Before her was Grandma Maymie–and I’m sure before her was a strong woman who knew how to make merangue and homemade bread and every other recipe I find in my mom’s Mennonite cookbooks. I’m confident that someday I’ll live up to the cooking heritage I have–right after I figure out how to avoid mixing up lard and cream cheese. When I stayed with my host family in Tangier, I was shocked most by the kitchen. It was a third of the size of my mom’s kitchen; it had two bunson burners, no oven, no dishwasher, and about three square feet of counter space. But oh, the delicious things that originated from those three square feet. My host mom whipped up fish tagine, hot bread, and omlettes without breaking a sweat. Where does she keep enough plates and dishes to cook? I don’t know. I munched on sweets and fresh fruit and pondered the fact that I can’t even get my sweet potatoes to taste right, and I’ve got four burners and gas stove to do it with. And a machine to wash the dishes afterward. Somewhere between the third and fourth cup of tea she served me, I was humbled.