I’d been feeling somewhat limited and exhausted this semester when it came to the way I portrayed my time here. It’s been easier to write on a surface level and only talk about what I know others want me to say. Everyone wants to hear that everything is constantly magical and exciting. I end up often restricting myself and feeling inauthentic. I don't want to reduce my experiences to exoticism and superficialities like I’m living some kind of Eat, Pray, Love fairytale. I neither want to reduce it too closely to scrutiny and cynicism as I still struggle to understand a culture so different from my own, and portray and negative image to those back home.
I’m not saying anything I’ve written about isn’t true, it’s just not always the entire story. It’s hard to say that Morocco has been one thing or another. It’s been a lot of things.
I wanted to love Morocco from the very beginning. I fought so hard to. But city, after city I sometimes felt like I couldn’t catch a break. I’d spend 5 minutes arguing with taxi drivers who would try to rip me off 100 dirham. I couldn’t pass a restaurant without being badgered by a worker insisting I eat there no matter if I ignored them or told them I wasn’t interested or already ate. I couldn’t walk to school a single day without at least a handful of men catcalling or following me.
I especially hit my breaking point two weeks ago when a man tried to steal my Moroccan phone out of my backpack in the medina. Even though I cornered him and shouted at him until I got it back, I was still infuriated hours later. It wasn’t the worthless phone that got me so upset, but the invasion and disrespect for my personal space. I was left with such a sour taste in my mouth that I was really ready to board a plane any minute going home.
I had read and heard so many times that Moroccans were so kind and giving, but I was hesitant to fully believe it. Of course not everyone I met was bad, my host family treated me with love and I had met kind, outgoing people my age. I just still failed to see how continuing to expect the best from people was worth it when I was constantly let down. I never wanted to say anything though, because I didn’t want to generalize an entire culture to my experiences as a foreigner. I knew somehow there had to be something deeper I wasn’t getting to.
Today, I finally found it.
My friend Dayra and I were wandering through the most touristy part of the medina this afternoon, frantically trying to get all of our last-minute souvenir shopping done. Shop after shop, we couldn’t seem to find anything we wanted or shopkeepers would ask for ridiculous prices, thinking we were Europeans in town for the weekend. Finally, we stopped by a leather shop to see if they sold bookmarks, a small gift we both wanted for our fathers. We struggled at first to explain our request in Arabic, then French, finally, no, they said. They did not sell bookmarks. We almost gave up and called it a day until they stopped us and said they would make some for us in the back of the shop. We hesitantly followed, wondering what kind of scheme they might try to run or what ridiculous price they’d charge us, as we had learned to assume at this point.
The man told us he’d make us 3 for 60 dirham, about $6, which we thought was a fair price, so we agreed. So then, right in front of us, his father took out raw leather and began hammering, treating, and cutting it, with the most delicate, intricate precision. The man informed us he had been working in this shop for over 30 years, his father for many more. His entire family worked here, and all of the shopkeepers nearby had become extended family to them.
We got to talking in English and he kept apologizing for his poor language ability even though we assured him he was great, in fact, practically fluent. He told us he had never studied a word, but picked it up solely from interacting with tourists, which was frankly astounding. He gave us a tour of his shop and everything he had made while his father continued to work. When we asked him what his best selling product was, he pointed to the poufs and said, “These bring me the most money. But I could sell one hundred of these in a day, make a lot of money, and be unhappy. What truly brings me happiness is the joy of the craft itself and getting to make anything I desire.” We continued to chat away about our lives and watched in fascination as his father finished our customized bookmarks. He even made us an extra one. We couldn’t stop remarking to both of them how beautiful they were, and how kind they were to do us such a favor. Mashee mushkill. They kept saying. No problem.
When it came time to pay and leave, we handed him an extra 20 dirham for being so kind. These bookmarks were certainly worth so much more to us than what they were asking, not even considering the experience they had just given us. Not only did he refuse the 20 dirham, but he even gave them to us for a lower price than we had agreed upon, remarking that he was happy to do such a favor for such friendly people who were willing to get to know him.
It probably sounds like nothing. What’s saving another dollar on something that was already cheap? It’s just a bookmark. It really was the humbling act itself, though, that touched me. This was the first time in four months that a stranger, especially a shopkeeper who was doing a favor for me, treated me with such compassion. I felt like I was finally human to someone and not a source of revenue. Dayra and I couldn’t help tearing up as we left, thanking our new friend over and over and promising to stop back before we left. We couldn’t believe this purest act of kindness had come to us from a strange man in the medina of all places. Not far from where I was nearly robbed or just past were we were harassed by other strange men every day.
It all goes to show that you can spend 4 months living somewhere, and still hardly know the heart of a place. It’s hard to when you’re only a visitor in reality. I’m grateful, though, to be ending my time here on that positive note. Though reality isn’t always pretty, it’s small moments like these, in the back of a leather shop in the middle of the Rabat medina, that remind me how truly generous and loving humanity can be.
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<p>Assalamu Alaikum, Bonjour, Hello! I'm Camille and I'm currently in my second year studying Political Science and International Studies at Loyola University Chicago. I'm thrilled to be spending my semester in Rabat, Morocco and hope you all enjoy hearing about my journey! Expect bad puns and lots of pictures of food.</p>