Eight Miles (No, not the Eminem story)

9 Dec

Five times a day families, neighbors and communities in a country with shantytowns the size of suburbs,  kneel down to pray. A mere eight miles away, across a choppy Strait of Gibraltar, an increasingly secular first world country holds record-breaking amounts of television consumption.

Spain and Morocco are two countries that exist as neighbors but act as worlds apart.

To be honest, the procrastination of writing this post has rooted out of my fear of tackling my trip to Morocco into words. One of the most religious trips I have ever experienced came to exist in four days and it will never be forgotten. How cliché, I know, but it’s true. Now, in order to keep your interest, let’s start out with something fun.

Moroccan Food

My mouth is literally watering while thinking about it. If I had to choose one type of food to eat for the rest of my life it would be Moroccan food. You know how, as a kid (not now), you always wished you could have dessert before dinner? If every child in America knew, they would want to move to the third world country of Morocco where delicious little pastries, remarkably similar to biscotti, are eaten before the main meal. Next, the sweetest green tea you’ll have ever tasted is poured feet above the tea cup from elegant, large silver teapots by the strongest man or woman in the room. Two large platters are then placed in front of you, one with a tender, juicy chicken freckled with almond slices and the other with warm, soft, fall-apart-as-soon-as-it-touches-your-lips goat meat dazzled with sweet prunes. As you stare in astonishment, the rest of the table digs in, with their hands! That’s right, everything is finger food! One of my favorite past times is picking the chip with the honorable balance of guacamole, olives, sour cream and salsa topped with shredded cheese but the skill of grabbing the right chunk o’ meat off of the large platter of goat meat in the center of the table is a whole different story. You don’t want to spend too much time fumbling around the center of the table but you do want a suitably sized piece and finding that equilibrium is an art form in itself. All you finger food neigh sayers who think eating with your hands is cave-manesque have it all wrong. Don’t dismiss it ‘til you try it. It is, hands up, the best way to eat.

Moroccan Tea and Pastries

The pouring of the tea

A Moroccan Picnic

(On a side note, if you ever do travel to a Muslim country, only eat with your right hand. Your left hand is believed to be dirty. This applies to handshakes as well.)

The Hammam

“You will never feel cleaner than the moment you step out of the Hammam,” our tour guides told us. Still apprehensive, I didn’t believe them, especially after they handed me a packet of black soap and a bucket.

If you were to have asked me four months ago if I ever thought I would participate in a public bath, there is no way my answer would have been yes. People can see you! And, let’s be honest, it sounds a little unsanitary. Well, I eat my hypothetical words because I did indeed take part in a public bath, it was eye opening and not as hippie as it sounds (well, maybe a little hippie-ish.)

If you’re anything like me, when you hear “public bath” you imagine a small pond with people gathered around in the middle of a small forest on the outskirts of town. Let me put many of your fears to rest right now, Hammams are enclosed, gender specific and underwear is often worn. The people of Morocco use it because the price of water is high within the home. For some, it is still necessary, for others it is optional.

As soon as we entered the dressing (or undressing) room, we were sweating. It seemed necessary to disrobe. After collecting the proper soaps, scrubbers and buckets we stepped into a room that is hotter than any sauna I have ever been in. After the initial awkward, we-are-naked-and-don’t-know-what-to-do-in-this-large-concrete-hellishly-hot-room phase was over, we filled our buckets with water that nearly burned the skin and from there it was pretty straightforward. Moroccan women often scrub each other down, washing each other’s back as though the soap is sunscreen and ensure the other is fully clean. The symbiotic relationship makes for a spiritual cleanse and sheds a bit of light on the tight-knit Moroccan communities.

After a long bath with numerous dumpings of hot water buckets, I cannot say I felt the cleanest I had ever been (the flocks of people sharing one concrete floor to sit and bathe on had me doubting that) but I did feel rejuvenated and a little more worldly. Plus, there is no better way to bond with a few friends than through awkward experiences!

The People

I have not spent a great deal of time with Muslims but the few that I have, both in the States and in Morocco, have taught me that at the root of their religion is kindness, openness and tolerance. They are some of the most warmhearted people I have ever met. Our program placed us in two-night homestays with Moroccan families. I was a little apprehensive at first with the glaring language barrier, religious differences, culture contrasts and the removal of the shoes into one’s home (I always have been and always will be self-conscious and a little weirded out by this.)

The family we stayed with could not have been any more welcoming. After a fabulous dinner with traditional Moroccan soup, Fattimah, the one girl who spoke broken English, asked us if we wanted to see some of the traditional robes. Without a doubt the answer was yes but, what we did not realize is that we would have to look into a mirror to see them. The women quickly brought us each a dress and as Fattimah pulled the dress over my head she told me that this particular dress was her Aunt’s wedding dress. Wedding dress?! I was astonished that they would trust a perfect stranger with such a sentimental gem, then suddenly very worried that I would ruin it. We shuffled into the living room for some pictures and then, the music began. The two young girls in the room began to dance and invited us to join them, this usually wouldn’t be a problem but we had just ingested large amounts of Moroccan food in an eighty-degree room and then put on extremely valuable dresses but we did the best a few white girls could while being shown up by an 8-year-old Shakira. Here I am thinking that the Moroccan culture is sexually suppressed yet these women could move in ways I did not know possible and I am pretty sure we met the Moroccan version of Willow Smith.

Dancing with our Moroccan homestay family

Willow?

The rest of our stay was comfortable but one obvious observation was that, while in the home, not once did we see a man, always were we in a room full of women. Now, I know men lived in the house as the women spoke of their male relatives and I saw one peaking through the door when we first arrived but we never actually met one. Our tour guide said some families still eat in gender specific tables but it is unusual. I can only guess that it may have been due to our presence that they were not eating together for the weekend.

We also experienced Turkish toilets, which I would rather not explain, so if you’re curious you can click here. (Only ours did not come equipped with a flusher or toilet paper.)

Islam

The call to prayer, although alarming to my American ears at first, is beautiful. The chant-like siren was unlike anything I had heard before and I was relieved that what was playing over the loud speakers was not an alarm for bombings but rather a call for meditation and reflection, a call for peace.

Growing up in a Christian family, school and community, I have been surrounded by the warmth of faith in church, youth group and prayer circles but never have I seen religion bring people together in such a manner. The majority of the country comes together for prayer at the exact same time five times a day, every day. Now don’t get me wrong, I still believe church and state should be separate but the growing movement away from any sort of religion in America is depressing to say the least. I am not attempting to step on anyone’s toes, I do not judge for any religious beliefs one may have or lack thereof, but the amount of lawsuit cases within the American judicial system that exist due to the fact that someone was offended by the mention of God or the wishing of a holiday that they may not celebrate is appalling to say the least. If there is one thing I would like to take away from my trip to Morocco and share with you it is tolerance and acceptance.

Left over by, the town, Chefchaouen's former Jewish population, blue represents religion and community within Islam.

Historically, those who identify with the Muslim religion have been known for being welcoming and open-minded. During the time of Moorish rule in Southern Spain, Cordoba was the center of academic progression, language, diversity and religious tolerance. Little known fact, the theory of nothing, of zero, was born in Cordoba during this time.

As I sat talking to a 28-year-old Muslim girl wearing a hijab, a scarf to cover one’s hair, I became self conscious of my long hair draped across my shoulders and asked if it offended her. She simply stated no and told me that the Koran had taught her to be completely welcoming of everyone and that she had only began to wear the headdress a few years previously. The hijab is a choice (being forced to wear a burqa under Taliban rule is a completely different story) made by a woman to prevent tempting a man into sin while symbolizing their commitment to Allah. Agree or disagree, there is not much of a difference in the symbolism that exists with wearing a cross necklace.

After the attack of 9/11 many stereotypes have developed rooting in fear of Muslims and understandably so after a nation is shaken in such a way, but what one has to look at is the individual. One group of people cannot represent the entirety of a religious belief. There are Christians, Catholics, Mormons, Jews and Buddhists, to name a few, who have committed great crimes, observe the Christian crusades for example. I guess all I am trying to say is, from now on I will strive to be as welcoming of people of all religions and beliefs as the Muslims that I have been lucky enough to encounter are.

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”
-Aldous Huxley

A Moroccan Sunset

Oh yeah, also, we rode camels on the beach overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The end.

I'm on a camel!

The Atlantic

Rabat

Two boys play soccer in Rabat

The Roman Ruins of Chellah

The Roman Ruins of Chellah

Chellah

Kittens in the Chellah

Chellah

The Moroccan Bazaar in Rabat

Writing our names in Arabic

Farmland

A Moroccan family's small garden

View from a small village in the Rif Mountains

Chefchaouen

Mosque overlooking The Rif Mountains

Chefchaouen at night

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2 Responses to “Eight Miles (No, not the Eminem story)”

  1. Stacy Crow December 9, 2011 at 7:59 am #

    Love it! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Camilo Moreno-Salamanca December 11, 2011 at 7:38 pm #

    Don’t forget the little guys when you start writing for National Geographic!

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