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Mystified in Marrakech

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Africa has been the setting of so many of my happiest memories, from laughing with my cousins at Victoria Falls and chasing leopards in Botswana, to watching the sunrise from a hilltop mosque with my best friends in northern Morocco. I think of Africa and I smile.

My memories of Marrakech are different. They are blurry and incomprehensible; colorful and chaotic.

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As soon as I left the airport, I knew the southern city was going to be different from the white and blue villages of the north that had welcomed me two years before. The city was at once more modern and ancient than anywhere I stopped in the north. Wide, paved roads were jammed with traffic and hastily constructed horse-drawn cabs. The old medina’s walls closed off the souks and tiny alleyways from centuries before and our cab zoomed past it as we headed into the new part of the city.

Everything was so much more commercialized. Billboards, big storefronts and racks and racks of clothing contrasted with the hooded men carrying live chickens by the dozen and veiled women wrangling hordes of playing children. My brother elbowed me and pointed out the family of four, newborn included, balancing precariously on the moto ahead of us. The chaos of the city overwhelmed our senses before we even stepped out of the car.

While the tranquility of the northern cities and the openness of its people helped me to look inside and reflect, Marrakech started off as an out-of body experience. I had never seen, or felt, anything like this before.

When we got to the Palmeraie area where we were staying, my heart started to calm. Out in the desert, surrounded by palm trees and open sky I breathed in the fresh air and relished the silence. The sky sparkled with stars and I felt a familiar feeling wash over me. I have always said that staring at the African sky makes me believe in God, be it at sunrise in the Kalahari or sunset over the Atlantic in Asilah. For something that beautiful to exist, there must be a divine creator out there watching over us. I went to bed with renewed hope and energy for the city.

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We wandered the souks under the hot late-morning sun, and I felt the anxiety from the evening before return to my body. I had been in markets like this dozens of times before, why was this so different? I didn’t understand. People were blatantly trying to rip us off, even as we bargained. They made fun of us and cat-calls awaited at every turn. I enjoy haggling, and have become very used to cat-calls from the streets of the Bronx to Madrid. I can always ignore it.

In Marrakech it bothered me deeply. I never felt comfortable and welcome like I did in Rabat or Chefchaouen. I was so grateful to return to our little oasis in the desert that afternoon.

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I spoke with an old friend from Granada whose family has Moroccan origins. He explained to me that in Marrakech people tend to be much colder than in the north, as they know tourism is always a sure thing. People become hardened by the groups of privileged travelers and learn to take advantage. Hostility is palpable.

I was disappointed. My mom and brother were disappointed. We had all heard so many positive things about the city, and wanted to be able to see that part of it too. We vowed to try again, this time in the new part of town. We wandered and shopped and dined with the locals, but simply never connected. People continued to treat us coolly, and the city never seemed to calm.

I know that so much of what we saw is cultural, while most is not a representation of the people of the country. We stayed in the desert and drove in daily, so we never had the chance to really immerse ourselves.

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I still found the colors, the food and the rhythm of the city fascinating. I still think that Islam is an incredibly beautiful religion. I am still in love with Morocco. And I would love to go back.

If I could do it again, I would stay in the old medina. I would wander the streets on foot and be more prepared. I would try to chat with more locals, as that made all the difference in the north. I would try to learn more helpful phrases in Arabic.

I absolutely enjoyed my time with my family in Marrakech, though it was not what I expected. It was stimulating and thought-provoking, and at times scary. There was something mystifying about Marrakech, and I’m determined to go back and solve that mystery.

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life lessons from morocco

This time last year I was traveling around northern Morocco, hopping from Tangier to Rabat to a tiny village in the Rif Mountains and finally up to Chefchaouen.

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photo credit: {my talented travel companion} Ashley Portal

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My days in Morocco included some of the most uncomfortable and alienating moments I’ve ever experienced. The social norms I’d accepted for years were deeply challenged, my beliefs were shaken, and my eyes were opened. By interacting closely and observing a people whose culture is like oil to the water of a New Yorker, I learned powerful lessons in a very short time. I can truly say I am a different person for having experienced what I did there.

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by Ashley Portal

I learned that my problems are trivial.

In Rabat and Tangier the children played with sticks in the streets, if they were able to play at all. In nearly all the markets little children were working to help their parents make a living.

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In the mountains we were invited to dine with a family in their home, where the man in the picture below recounted the story of his life to us. He explained that the woman at his side was his second wife.

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by Ashley Portal


His first wife had been pregnant with their second child together and went into early labor. There was no road connecting their hilltop home to the highway 5 km away, so he and his wife had to hike the distance as she was contracting. By the time they got to the highway, they had to try  hitch-hike to the hospital 20 km away. She died of complications before they made it there.

Their house high up in the mountains

 Anytime I start to get overwhelmed by something, I reflect on the things I saw and the stories I heard in northern Africa. I’ve found that me and my problems are so small in the grand scheme of things. It’s reminds me to be thankful for all I have and all of the opportunities available to me, instead of getting wrapped up in trivial frustrations and worries.

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I learned to let go of my need to control everything.

Or at least to try.

If you spend any time with a Moroccan, or anyone of the Muslim faith, you will hear them say “inshallah” throughout conversation. This roughly translates to “God willing.” The people I met in northern Africa taught me to do what I can with my own hands and understand  and accept that there are outside factors in which I have no say. We are only human, we don’t have the ability to change the things we do not control. By accepting this, I found myself at peace after years of trying to micromanage every aspect of my life and those around me in order to get what I want.
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I learned that beauty has nothing to do with looks.
I was the kind of girl that wore make up every day; I even wore mascara to the gym. If I wasn’t looking my best when I went out, I didn’t feel confident. In Morocco, I wore no make up and bathing was a luxury every few days. I wore dirty, loose-fitting clothes that hid my body. The first day or two, I was horrified. I refused to be in pictures. A vain city girl at her worst.
Our second afternoon in Rabat though, I found myself in a rousing discussion with a couple of university students about dating, sex, politics and religion. For the first time in maybe my whole life, I was completely unaware of what I looked like. I was unable to control my appearance with make up and fashion, so I just kind of let it go. I was letting my soul show, sharing my beliefs and opening myself up to others’ without insecurity. I wasn’t dolled up, wasn’t trying to impress anyone; I was letting my true self show. I realized I’d never felt more confident than I did in that moment.
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In a culture where women cover themselves from head to toe in loose clothing, their value is placed on who they are inside as opposed to how perfect their figure and features are. I realized that I had spent years being hard on myself for not being thin enough, not having perfect skin, and ignoring everyone who told me “beauty is only skin deep.” It wasn’t until I was immersed in a culture that truly embraces that idea that I finally got it: there are few things more beautiful than cultivating your soul, being confident in who you are and what you believe in, and being open and kind to others.
Friends reflecting at sunrise.Chefchaouen.

Friends reflecting at sunrise.
Chefchaouen.

I went to Morocco a 20 year old girl, full of insecurities and largely shaped by the materialism and vanity that surrounded me at home. There is no better education than seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, and that’s what I did during my time there. I came out a more confident, humble, and empowered woman.
I left with a new outlook on life.

la mezquita mayor {granada}

During my time in Granada, Spain in the spring of 2012, I spent a good amount of time studying religion. In my university studies, my theology classes were by far the most interesting to me. I love learning about different faiths and doctrines, and the Jesuits at my university encouraged questioning and critical thinking. I have become quite curious when it comes to faith and religion.

Granada, as you may know, was the last city in Spain conquered by the Catholic rulers (Los Reyes Católicos)  in 1492. It was the final moorish stronghold to fall, expelling Muslim rule from the country forever. Although the country is very Catholic, there is still a strong Muslim presence in this city, due in part to its proximity to northern Africa. Arabic can often be heard in the streets, and the Albaicin (the old moorish quarter of Granada) is full of Moroccan tea shops and vendors.

The mix of cultures is enchanting.

I made many Moroccan friends during my semester there and even got to spend time Morocco staying with a local family. I quickly became fascinated by the foreign and mysterious Muslim faith.

Asilah, Morocco

Asilah, Morocco

A dear friend of mine was kind enough to take me to his mosque, discuss the teachings and traditions of his faith with me, and introduce me to women at the mosque. I spent a few Friday’s there observing prayer from the partitioned women’s area of the mosque, something very new to me, listening to the Imam give his homily in arabic and then in spanish.

I can honestly say I’ve never felt more at peace or tranquil than I felt during those afternoons. After 20 years of listening to Catholic priests rattle off an endless list of saints and teaching the same lessons over and over again, it was refreshing and fascinating to listen to someone profess the lessons of God in a totally new way.

After the actual service, I often spent time chatting with some of the women at a café near the mosque. They were so patient with me, answering all of my questions and helping me to understand their faith. Coming from the USA, specifically New York, I had been privy to many of the stereotypes surrounding Islam, and my new friends were happy to explain the truth to me. Their truths.

Keep in mind that Spain and northern Morocco are particularly progressive areas for Muslims, so the lessons I learned in these countries are certainly different than what is experienced in more radical areas.

I asked them why some women cover themselves. My male friends explained to me that many women wear hijabs to cover their hair and loose, conservative clothing in respect for both their bodies and their husbands, if they are married.

One friend told me “If I see a woman wearing a hijab, I look away. In covering herself, she is asking for respect and so I give it to her.” The women told me that they cover themselves because God made their bodies for its functions, not for the pleasure of any man on the street. My friend Fatima added that she chooses not to wear a hijab because she works in a store with many Spaniards and tourists, and does not want to distract from business in a place where her religion is still stigmatized. She told me that although she does not cover her hair, she prefers to wear loose-fitting clothing and to keep her pants long and necklines high, as she does not want to attract attention for her appearance. I was surprised that a practice I had previously seen as oppressive was, in many ways, feminist.

Another stereotype that was broken for me was the idea that Muslim women are oppressed by their husbands. The women laughed when I brought the topic up, suggesting that their husbands are the obedient ones. I got the feeling that these ladies run sh•t in their houses. They also indulged me on the topic of polygamy. They explained that it may seem odd to a Westerner, in poor Arab countries, a woman is very lucky to find a man who is able to support them and start a family. Polygamy only happens when a man can afford to support many wives, and a woman is often considered lucky to be one of many wives. This is not common practice in Spain, however.

The most important lesson I learned during my conversations with my new friends was the importance of peace and reserving judgement in Islam. During every interaction I had in and around the mosque, I observed and heard words of kindness, greetings of peace, while gossip and the passing of judgement were refreshingly absent. To this day, I wear the Hand of Fatima on my wrist to remind me of those lessons, and to remember some of the happiest days of my life.

If you make it to Granada, I cannot recommend a visit to the mosque enough. It is located right behind the Mirador de San Nicolas, the most famous viewpoint in the city. The gardens are open to the public. They are so beautiful and tranquil. The center also offers lessons to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, so if you’d like to study a new religion or take arabic lessons during your time in Al-Andaluz, be sure to check it out.