Last week I returned from spending 10 days in Morocco. I had had a great desire to go since I heard lots about the country from Julia Flum-Stockwell, a woman who as a high school student 20 some odd years ago had done the Global Routes Zimbabwe program, and now years later had gone on to become a teacher and live in Morocco for four years.
So, I had just spent six days in France with my thirteen-year-old daughter. We boarded a plane and three hours later disembarked in Marrakech. I noted four men, very clearly Orthodox Jews, who were in line in front of us at Passport Control. Being Jewish myself, and having not yet decided to what degree I was going to broadcast that fact, I was very curious to see how these four gentlemen would be received. A bit to my surprise, they were immediately received as mini-celebrities. The chief immigration officer at Passport Control pulled them aside and engaged in a lengthy and jovial conversation with them; handshakes and smiles were exchanged and off they went. How very reassuring, and indeed I would find many times that people were very curious about my Judaism and found many analogies with their own practice of Islam.
Off we went too. A brief taxi ride later, Sarina, my daughter, and I found ourselves standing at the entrance to the medina (old city) through which no car could travel. As we walked down the 6-foot wide cobblestone street, listening to the clickety-clack of the wheels of our mobile suitcases on the stones, passing mules and little shops, I thought to myself, “We’re not in Paris anymore.”
What unfolded over the next ten days was nothing less than miraculous. We made such profound connections with so many people, shared life stories, sang songs, learned some Berber, some Arabic, and yes, perfected our French. We rode camels into the Sahara over mountainous sand dunes, stopping to watch the sunset, and later still dismounting at our destination, a Berber tent in the middle of a sea of sand. Such stillness, quiet and stars as I have never known.
Other images: driving through topography that could easily have been the southwest of the United States, with red striated rock in the foreground and snow-capped peaks far off, only to give way to scenes that could be right out of Switzerland, complete with Alpine landscapes and Swiss-style chalets. Tens of miles of date palm trees giving way to a broad expanse of cedar forest, filled with monkeys. Earthen Kasbahs (desert fortresses) with hundreds of rooms.
As remarkable and remarkably diverse as was the landscape, it was the Moroccan people we encountered that I know we will all remember most. That, and of course the food. We spent one day learning to cook Moroccan food – tagines, couscous, famed Moroccan salads and pastillas. I don’t even like eggplant,and I found myself salivating over aubergine dishes. The day started in the market in Fez. Fez is the largest and oldest medieval city left in the world; it’s actually a World Heritage site. In practice, it is 9400 cobblestone streets, some no wider than your shoulders and none wide enough for a car. It is a labyrinth of winding alleyways and a new surprise around every corner. One of these surprises was a butcher with a camel’s head out front (more for decoration than eating?); stores selling spices with beautifully shaped pyramids of cumin, paprika, and cinnamon; vegetable venders selling so many plants I recognized and quite a few I’d never seen before – how about a vegetable that looks exactly like celery but tastes just like artichoke.
And finally, there were Fatah, Amin, Sharif, Khalifa, Mustafa, Mohammed, Ahmad and others, all of whom shared a piece of their world with us. Now that they’re no longer in our daily lives, what can we say? The meal here at home is quite delicious, but somehow the spice has gone missing.