To Si Mohammed, in Fez
When we met, I was sure that coming to Morocco had been a mistake.
It was my first time in a country where I was so obviously an outsider. I didn’t speak the language, didn’t understand the culture. I’m pale, blond, blue-eyed, and left-handed. I’m not religious. I prefer direct discussion about controversial subjects over polite conversation. I love dogs.
All of which might suggest that a Muslim country and I would be a poor fit. But I’d wanted to go anyway. I wanted to experience the otherness of it all.
For a more immersive experience, I’d chosen to stay inside Fez’s ancient medina and sleep in a dar (the local version of a B&B). I intended to boldly strike up conversations with strangers and find connections, despite the differences. But by the time my flight touched down in Fez, such lofty goals for my Morocco discovery trip felt unobtainable. I was certain I’d say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, cause offense.
My taxi from the airport stopped in a dusty, makeshift parking lot just outside of the towering, sand-colored wall of the medina. A cluster of men stood on dirty pavement, leaning on cars parked in no discernible order, smoking and chatting with easy familiarity. Dark, unreadable eyes noted me and looked away. Not friendly. No women to be seen. My taxi driver rolled down his window, said, “Dar,” pointed at you, and motioned that I should get out.
I’m not sure what you saw—just another tourist, overdressed for the warm weather? I’d chosen dull, nondescript clothing, unrealistically hoping to fade into the background. I wore a wrinkled, oversized shirt over loose blue jeans and old sneakers. I was exhausted and disheveled.
You were my opposite on that day—clean, poised, polished. You wore a royal blue sweater over a crisp oxford shirt and professionally pressed pants. Impeccable shoes. Kind eyes. Friendly smile.
I can’t imagine what you felt upon meeting me—bemusement or amusement? Pity or annoyance? Nothing at all?
“Welcome to Fez!” you’d said. “Come with me.”
I was leery of you. I do not trust strangers, and you definitely were a stranger. My life at home revolves around facts and accuracy and proof, and I had no way of proving to myself that I could trust you. Before leaving home, I’d made the mistake of looking up “Fez tourist dangers” on the internet. The horror stories all began with a stranger posing as a guide in the medina.
Making matters worse, in the weeks before my trip, Islamic extremists had beheaded two young tourists (who happened to look a bit like me) a few hundred miles from Fez. Never mind that the actual risk created by this incident was statistically insignificant. I was on high alert.
It all seems so ridiculous now.
I wasn’t sure what to do. Ask you for identification? Tell the taxi driver to head straight back to the airport and catch the next flight home, away from this “adventure”? Better to cut and run now than die or make a fool of myself, I thought.
In the time it took to dither, the taxi was gone. You had my bag.
“This way,” you said, as you headed toward a gap in the wall, an entrance to the labyrinthian medina. My blue suitcase matched your sweater, as perfectly as if we’d planned the color coordination. I told myself that the coincidence was a sign from the universe that you were neither a terrorist nor a scam artist. It didn’t help. Barely breathing, I followed you into the medina.
Inside the city walls, people were everywhere. Men dressed in Western clothes with a French accent to them walked arm in arm with men in dingy brown djellabas and knitted Berber caps. Here were the women, a swirling rainbow in every combination of traditional and modern clothing imaginable. Tourists meandered down narrow alleys in spaghetti-strap sundresses and sandals better suited for the beach. Nobody else seemed worried about being abducted or scammed. I tried to relax and concentrated on staying close behind you, focusing on the beacon of your blue sweater.
The smell of grilling meat hung in the dusty air. Distracted by a stall selling fresh kebabs, my pace slowed. In an instant, three large women filled the space between us, their djellabas creating a solid black and green wall. For a moment, I lost sight of your sweater.
But you hadn’t lost me. You waited patiently. I caught up and we continued.
“I’m a little nervous,” I finally said, hoping to sound lighthearted. “It’s my first time in Morocco, and I, um…I don’t want to offend anyone. We Americans have pretty bad manners, you know, so, uh… just let me know if I do anything wrong.”
You paused, looked into my eyes, and saw my fear. You could have chosen to ignore it and hurry along, leaving me to the demons of my imagination. You could have made light of it, laughing at my ignorance, which would have shamed me. Instead, you spoke warmly:
“You don’t have to worry. Just be yourself. Moroccans understand. You are going to love Fez.”
In your eyes, I saw understanding. Still, I wasn’t ready to trust you.
We arrived at a covered section of the medina, in a place where the narrow alley widened to a small square. There, next to a stall selling traditional Moroccan leather goods, was a clean and modern pharmacy, a garish Mexican restaurant painted Pepto-Bismol pink, and on the opposite corner of the square, an incongruous plastic sign hanging near the rafters—an illuminated square the size of a serving platter, advertising the lotto. It was this sign you pointed out.
“Here,” you said. “When you come to this sign, you’re almost home. Just left, then right, and you’re there.”
Spider plants in terracotta pots dangled from the ceiling. My grandmother had given me a spider plant cutting from her garden twenty years ago. Another sign from the universe, perhaps?
Left from the square, a little turn to the right, and we were there. Just as you’d said.
Your job was to manage the dar, make breakfast, give guests directions. But we are all so much more than our jobs, aren’t we? Over the course of my stay, you were my Fez city guide, and so much more. You became my interpreter and cultural guide, retail advocate, healthcare advisor, morning DJ, and argan oil connection. I bumped into you more than once out in the medina, my arms laden with souvenirs, yours with fresh oranges for breakfast, or empty, as you headed home in the evenings. You’d always stop to say hello, answer more questions, ask if I needed anything. I started to notice that people in the shops and on the street recognized you and smiled, said hello. I watched you feed a small, very pregnant stray cat.
I was always up early. You were always there, making breakfast, offering coffee. As you cooked, I peppered you with so many questions. I wasn’t sure of their appropriateness, but my time in Morocco was limited, so I asked every question, premeditated and random, I could think of:
What’s the name of this bread again?
What was it like to go to school here as a child?
Why don’t the women on the street make eye contact with me?
What do Moroccans really think of Americans?
How do I get to the honey souk?
Is it safe for me to walk alone to the university library?
How do I know who to trust in the medina?
You patiently answered every question, encouraged more. I forgot to thank you for this act of diplomacy.
At the end of the week, when it was time to leave, you walked with me from the dar to the taxi—a reversal of our first walk together, only eight days before. By then, I had wandered through the medina alone, gotten lost and found my way, smiled at strangers, and been welcomed into shops, cafes, and homes. I could have made it on my own (by then, I knew the way), but it was nice to have you there. Not as a guide, but as a friend.
On that final walk, a cluster of women in a doorway waved to you. They laughed as you bantered back and forth, poetic sounds of Darija bouncing around the narrow alleys. There were children there, too, a boy and a girl – their small voices called out to you, demanding their share of attention. You hugged one, tousled the other’s hair as we walked by. You were so obviously part of this community. I couldn’t see that on our first walk together. I only noticed my fear.
It embarrasses me to admit all of this and to confess that I was afraid of you. But you should know that those eight days in Morocco changed me. I was a different person in the end. You were the same all along.
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