The first Arab country I ever visited was Morocco. It was four years ago; I was 20 years old and had just completed my second year of college. I had received a scholarship to study Arabic intensively and live with a host family over the summer.
I was sent to Meknes, a small city about an hour west of Fes. My host family included a grandmother approaching seventy years old, her middle-aged daughter, and a live-in maid. They hosted me along with another student in the program. I felt at home among this group of women. Though we each had our own stories and concerns, we still shared a world within the same four walls.
I did not speak Arabic as well then as I do now. And I spoke almost exclusively in formal, Modern Standard Arabic. Meanwhile, my host family spoke solely in darija, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic. We did our best to meet each other halfway. I began reformulating my sentences into darija as I picked up more of the dialect. They made efforts to use the stiff formal Arabic of the TV news and their school days.
When these linguistic compromises failed, we communicated with gestures and dramatic facial expressions. My favorite gesture was for “I feel sick.” The grandmother of the house would use her thumbs to pull down her lower eye sockets. She would then roll her pupils up toward the ceiling. My roommate and I always laughed hysterically at this, and the grandmother would join us.
Before coming to Morocco, I had never fasted for Ramadan. I decided to join my host family in their observance of the holy month. Some of my fondest memories from that summer are the moments with which we broke the fast together. We took sips of water and warm milk. We followed this with harira soup accompanied by dates, hardboiled eggs, and a sticky sweet called shabakiya. Though we were relieved to finally satisfy our hunger and thirst, these meals were never rushed. We ate slowly and savored each other’s company, passing little bowls around the table.
I also remember the interconnection of my little city to the big cities of Rabat and Casablanca, just hours away by rail. I recall resting my head against the cool window of the buses heading north to Tangier and Chefchaouen. Sometimes I chatted for hours with the person sitting next to me, often a fellow student from my program. Other times I simply took in the view from my window, watching plains of vivid green spotted with cows turn into rolling hills and peaked mountains.
I was transported back to many of these memories last month, when I had the chance to visit Morocco for a Fulbright conference with researchers from across the Middle East and North Africa. I traveled to Morocco a few days before the conference with a couple of my friends. We wanted to spend some time exploring and relaxing on our own before an intense week of presentations and professional gatherings. Our itinerary took us west from Casablanca to Fes for a day, then north to Chefchaouen for a couple nights, and then back south to Rabat for the conference.
Much of our time was spent in transit. Our flight from Amman to Casablanca included a seven-hour layover in Abu Dhabi. We passed the time at the airport sipping karak chai and typing away at our laptops, finishing up our conference preparations. On the second plane to Casablanca, I ended up chatting with the young men next to me after I had woken them up so I could use the bathroom. They were from the north of Morocco, visiting after nearly a year away working in Bahrain. “Leaving makes you understand the value of home. There is no place like it. I understand now what my country is worth – the people, the land, all of it.”
We landed in Casablanca in the morning, and immediately hopped on a train to Fes. I ordered a coffee with milk from the little shop at the train station. I fumbled with my coins, trying to remember the shape of each denomination of dirhams. “Sorry, I’m new to this money.” I explained to the café attendant, a jovial old man. “Are you new to this planet, too?” He jokes as he helps me sort out the right amount of change.
On the train to Fes we shared the compartment with a man from Meknes. He was delighted to hear that I had studied there four years ago. We all chat to pass the time. He asks us about Jordan, and how it compares to Morocco. We ask him where he would like to travel if he had the chance, about his preferences for big cities or small cities. The conversation turns to professions, and he gets shy. “I am an officer in the army,” he says. “I am proud to serve my country, but I have other dreams.” “Like what?” we ask. “Many things. For one thing, I would like to open a farm with my wife.”
He pauses. “There are other things, too. I am a creative person with ambitions.” My heart breaks at the honesty and yearning in his words. He asks us what we do, and what we dream to do. Are we doing it? He gets off at the station before us. “Thank you so much. For this conversation.” He places his palm on his chest as a gesture of gratitude. We tell him that it was a pleasure meeting him, too, and that we hope to try cheese from his farm one day.
There are so many other stories to recount from my time in Morocco. I could talk about all the things I saw: the buzzing energy of the souq, the immensely beautiful tilework of mosques and madrasas, the magically green forest that led to a waterfall in the Atlas mountains. But what strike me most are these little conversations I had along the way. These are the moments I want to share most. The people I met in the places I visited.
In between telling us the history of various buildings in Fes, our guide told us more about himself. He studied English literature in college and he wrote his thesis on The Glass Menagerie. He teaches English at the local university these days, but he enjoys showing people around his hometown on the weekends. “It’s nice to be out in the fresh air, to learn about different cultures. I get to meet people from all over the world.”
He takes us to an open-air fabric factory wedged between the narrow city streets. An older man works a hand machine, weaving cactus fibers into stunning swaths of silk. A younger man tells us about the manufacturing process, how they continue to do everything by hand despite the labor it requires. We ask him why. “It is part of our family tradition. The man at the spinning wheel? That is my father. His father, my grandfather, taught him to make fabric this way. And god willing, one day I will pass this practice on to my own son.”
The night we arrived in this lovely city of blue along the northern coast of Morocco, we took a taxi to our bed-and-breakfast hotel. The driver was curious about us, how we spoke Arabic, as many of the tourists that come to his town exclusively speak either Spanish, French, or English. We told him that one in our group speaks French, and that I speak Spanish. He switched from Arabic to a sleepy-sounding Spanish. “My grandfather, he spoke to us in Spanish. We are descended from the Moors in the south of Spain.” I ask if he has ever been to Spain. “Never.” “Why not? It is so close, you could swim there! And you should connect with your roots!” I respond naively. “I wish. But the documents are the problem. It is hard to get a visa. And expensive.” I am reminded once again of my privilege to move about this world relatively freely, and I am humbled.
The next day, we took a hike in Aqshour. We ran into a woman who appeared to be slowing down after a few hours along the trail. “Would you like a sip of water?” My friend Nina offers. The woman happily obliges, taking big sips from the bottle. “Don’t worry, keep it!” Nina says. I walk slowly with the woman until she catches her breath again. “I hurt my foot earlier, and I lost track of my friends.” She says. “That’s alright, you can walk with us.” I respond. She picks up on my Arabic accent and asks if I am Lebanese. “Well, yes, of Lebanese descent.” She switches from speaking in darija to a nearly perfect Lebanese dialect. “How did you learn to speak like that?” I ask her. “I love Lebanese TV shows, music, films, everything!” She exclaims. Kteer kteer, she throws in, for good measure. Like the taxi driver, she too has never left the country, but hopes to see more of the world someday.
On the evening train into the capital, we are assigned into an already crowded compartment. I move someone’s bag over to the right in order to fit my suitcase in the overhead compartment. The woman next to me starts making concerned noises in French. “I am sorry, I don’t understand.” I try this statement in English, then in Spanish. The woman’s eyes light up. She finishes adjusting her bag, and exclaims, “Spanish!” in Spanish. We start talking about our connections to this language. I am of Lebanese heritage, but my mom was born and raised in Venezuela. She responds to me and prefaces her own story at once: “Las cosas bonitas vienen de la mezcla.” Beautiful things come from the mix. She is from Tangier, of a Moroccan father and Spanish mother. She learned French and Italian in school, and spoke Spanish and darija at home.
And of course, there are the stories we shared throughout the week of the Fulbright conference. It was a joy to hear about the work that my peers have been up to, and in the evenings, to have winding conversations about things we feel too busy to discuss in our normal lives. I came away from the conference with an even deeper respect for the strength and intelligence of the individuals (and especially the women!) in my cohort.
I am immensely grateful that my studies and work brought me back to Morocco, for just one week, four years later. In some ways, it was a time of re-acquaintance with once-familiar memories. In other ways, it was a time for discovery: a time to apply years of language study into deeper, more meaningful conversations with the people around me.
To the travelers out there, I offer my humble advice: Stay curious, ask questions, and try to have at least one conversation with a kind stranger on your next trip. You never know which stories you might be lucky enough to hear, and how much those stories might come to mean to you one day.
[Originally posted on Andrea in Amman blog, April 2017]