I was thrilled and honored last year when an abridged version of “Moroccan and a Half” was published on Hidden Compass, an online travel magazine. There, I got to share space with some amazing and even famous writers and photographers. This past March 1, I was equally honored when the original unedited version won a Solas Award in the Destination Story category from Travelers Tales. Here is that story.
Moroccan And A Half
To understand a people, you must live among them for 40 days. -Arabic proverb
The taxi driver glared at me when I demanded that he use le compteur. “What do you think that is?” he snapped in French, pointing at the already-running meter under his dash. Looking both pained and angry, he glanced into the rear-view mirror at another passenger already in the back, then turned again to face me.
Switching to English, I apologized as I got into the front seat of his bright-red petit taxi, explaining that every other driver in Marrakesh had insisted on an inflated, fixed price for tourists like me. “Are you a tourist?” he asked, his voice still raised, chiding me. “Aren’t you living here?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer.
I was halfway into a two-month stay in Morocco, traveling with my wife as she visited four cities there for her work. During the day I was free to explore on my own, and to occasionally offend taxi drivers. Though my wife spoke French fluently, I had just enough grasp of the language to get myself into trouble and needed English to get out of it.
“Yes, I’m living here,” I answered the taxi driver, but it felt like a lie.
“There’s a saying in Morocco,” he said as he drove. “If you stay in a place for 40 days, you become one of the people.” When I explained that I would be in the country for nearly 60 days, he peeked at the other passenger again, this time with a twinkle in his eye, and laughed. “Then you will be Moroccan and a half!”
Before leaving the U.S., I’d read somewhere that Moroccan men don’t wear shorts because it’s rude to show one’s knees, so I packed three pairs of lightweight slacks along with good leather sandals to walk in. With the right clothes, my trim beard, and my fast-tanning skin, I looked forward to blending in with the populace.
I imagined the wonder of walking in Morocco’s medinas—the walled, medieval cities—and wandering in their ancient markets and alleys, some over a thousand years old. I’d linger in front of some tchotchkes and the shopkeeper would invite me in for mint tea. I would sit with him while he showed me his wares—something leather, something wood—and I’d bargain well, leaving the shop with a beautiful keepsake. As the saying goes, I was going to be a traveler, not a tourist.
But my first morning in Morocco was too warm for slacks. I stepped out of my modern hotel into the streets of Rabat, the capital, wearing a t-shirt and knee-length cargo shorts, heading toward the medina. I soon met a young European man who, before I’d said a word, exclaimed, “You’re American!” The giveaway, it turned out, was not my clothes. Pointing at the steel cylinder in the side pocket of my day pack, he informed me that “only Americans carry water bottles.” I decided that it would have to go, clinging to the hope that I could somehow blend in.
As I passed for the first time through an ancient arch into the medina, my nostrils were bombarded by the aroma of fresh bread mingled with the stench of putrid puddles on the broken pavement, into which I dared not step with my sandals. I was surrounded by men and women wearing traditional djellabas and kaftans as often as sport coats and fashionably-torn jeans. An old man sat behind a water-stained wooden cart laden with a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. My ears were filled with Arabic, in which merchants bargained with customers and young men argued fiercely, seemingly about to break into a fistfight—about the previous night’s Barcelona-Madrid football game, I later learned. And my eyes were filled with cats. Feral, yet friendly and fearless, they were everywhere: in doorways, on countertops, and at my feet. The call to prayer bellowed from the nearest minaret and I watched as a shopkeeper pulled out a prayer rug and vanished, dropping down behind his counter to pray. For the first time in my life, I felt the joy of freely exploring an entirely foreign place.
Within minutes a thin, Moroccan man suddenly appeared beside me, smiling. He was in his forties, with the slightly grayed complexion of a heavy smoker. “English? Français? Español?” he asked brightly. “English,” I replied, suspicious.
“Do you know the name of this street?” he asked in excellent English, and I did; I had read my Morocco guidebook thoroughly. “Rue des Consuls,” I answered.
“Do you know why it’s called that?” Again, I did: Many of the foreign consulates had once been located on this street.
“Would you like to see the remains of the French Consulate?”
Now I was curious, but I declined because I didn’t want to pay him. “You don’t have to pay me,” he said. “I’ll just show it to you and then I’ll go. My name is Aziz.” I didn’t know at the time that “you don’t have to pay me” is taught to every Moroccan hustler on their first day.
Aziz spent an hour showing me places and people I never would have found on my own as we ducked through alleys or down stairs, entering secret courtyards filled with craftspeople hammering or weaving or working leather. He brought me into the anteroom of a 14th-century mosque and later into a bakery, to see how those ubiquitous round Moroccan breads are made. Along the way, he pointed out details and answered my questions. After about 15 minutes, it occurred to me that he was probably going to expect payment despite what he’d promised.
We eventually wound our way to the wreck of the French Consulate, a three-story open space with half of its roof missing, the floor strewn with broken glass and rotten lumber.The bill came due as I feared it would, andI nervously managed to bargain him down from his $40 request, settling on $15. Afterward, I wondered: Was Aziz a hustler if I had received something of value? I was grateful for the glimpse of the real Morocco he had shown me, a place that most tourists miss as they rush through the country.
But after two weeks, I had been accosted by so many street hustlers and shopkeepers that sometimes I felt like a walking wallet, afraid to even look around me. On the more-touristed streets I was bombarded with “English? Français? Español? Come have a look!” And in the quiet back alleys, where children played and old men greeted me with a smile and salaam alaykum, tween boys would assume I was lost and insist on guiding me back to the main road, following me around and then demanding money for their “help.” Over and over, I thought, Why can’t these people just leave me alone to experience the real Morocco in peace?
By the time we got to Tangier, I needed a haircut. After a lot of broken French on my part and incomprehensible answers, I was finally directed to a neighborhood in the ville nouvelle—the modern part of the city—called Mozart, which featured an entire symphony of men’s hair salons: every third shop window was decorated with faded-blue posters of handsome, coiffed young men. I picked one and showed the stylist a photo of myself with shorter hair, telling him comme le photo, s’il vous plait—”like the photo, please.” When he put a huge electric shaver to my head, my heart sank; this wasn’t going to turn out well.
The stylist washed and cut my hair, massaged my face, and trimmed my eyebrows and beard. He massaged my scalp and put gel in my hair; I had never used hair gel in my life. When I looked in the mirror, I discovered that my hair had been trimmed down to near-nubbiness everywhere but on top. It didn’t look remotely like my photo. I had been given a typical Moroccan haircut—typical for a man half my age. But the truth was, I liked it. I had been molded into something less foreign.
After my haircut, I walked to the Avenue Mohamed VI to hail a taxi to the medina as the muezzin called the faithful to midday prayer. A few feet away from me, on the narrow strip of grass sandwiched between the busy boulevard and the paved sidewalk, a man in threadbare pants and shirt stood shoeless on a tattered piece of cloth. He was muttering to himself, I thought—but no, he was praying. Facing northeast toward Mecca and oncoming traffic, he prostrated himself several times. As my taxi drove off, he was lost in devotion as trucks belched noxious exhaust and motor scooters roared by.
I wandered Tangier’s historic areas until I got tired, then took a seat outside a café in the famous Petit Socco (Little Market) at the heart of the medina and ordered a café au lait. I sat there savoring one of the best coffees I’d ever had, creamy and fragrant, and relaxed into the moment.
An enormous group of Spanish tourists gathered, led by a guide in a light-blue djellaba and yellow leather slippers. Men carrying pendants, scarves, plates, jewelry, and handbags seemed to simultaneously materialize around the group, enthusiastically offering their wares. An older American couple, clearly exhausted, sat down next to me. A hawker offered them leather belts that I knew were barely worth three euros; they paid ten. More vendors appeared like vultures, and he kept buying.
For a long time I was ignored, as if I were audience to a play acted by everyone else. Eventually a vendor showed me some bejeweled necklaces and small wooden carvings. Earlier, I would have felt defensive and shooed him away; now I simply admired his wares and kindly said, “They are beautiful, but I’m not shopping today. Maybe I’ll see you again later, inshallah.” God willing. He replied, “inshallah,” and moved on.
Another man offered me a small, solid brass camel. I picked it up, admired its heft, and politely declined. The American husband, who was now complaining loudly that he had no more money, gave me a tired smile. Pointing at the camel, he said, “You may as well buy it, you won’t be able to tomorrow.”
“Actually, I can buy it tomorrow,” I replied.
The camel hawker’s attitude toward me immediately changed. Perhaps he thought I was an expat; it must have been my stylish haircut. “I’m sorry if I’m bothering you,” he apologized. “I’m just trying to make a living.” I smiled, told him it was fine, don’t worry about it.
I sat quietly. Nearby, women bought meat from a butcher. A pair of old, bearded men greeted each other and embraced. Meanwhile, wave after wave of tour groups washed up Rue de la Marine from the Mediterranean, appearing hopelessly foreign. It was as if the Petit Socco were suddenly bathed in a new light.
I understood that the hawkers and aggressive shopkeepers were just human beings trying to provide for their families. I was filled with respect for them, and an inexplicable feeling of joy. My face flushed as warmth and affection swelled in my chest, radiating into my extremities and out toward the denizens of that square.
Eventually I got up and paid for my coffee. As I walked down the hill toward Tangier’s port, a man’s voice called out, “Where is your wife today?” I vaguely recognized him; he reminded me of our visit to his jewelry shop almost a week earlier when we’d “had a look.” How did he remember me out of thousands of tourists? I wondered. This time, he didn’t ask me to go inside. We talked for about 10 minutes and then parted warmly, hands on hearts in the Moroccan way.
The next afternoon I went back to the same cafe. The camel-hawker happily recognized me, and we exchanged pleasantries; buying something was never mentioned. In the evening, my wife and I had dinner at my favorite local restaurant, where Abdul, the owner, sat down with us and we talked for hours about life, love, and children.
I no longer felt like a tourist. I felt like I was home.
My wife and I traveled through Morocco for three weeks after her work was done. Several times, always unexpectedly, I heard the muezzin singing the Quran from his minaret. It wasn’t the usual call to prayer, firm and commanding, which after a while became background noise to me. This would go on for forty-five minutes, always sung by an old man with a quavering voice: the haunting, devotional love-offering of someone who had dedicated his entire life to God. I would just sit and listen, transfixed as something deep and ancient in me was touched.
During those weeks of leisure travel, Ramadan began. From the first light of dawn until sundown almost no one eats or drinks; even in the mid-June Sahara Desert, not a sip of water is permitted. At sunset, people celebrate with a traditional meal, which in Moroccan Arabic is called ftour. The women—and it’s nearly always women—spend all day cooking, but not tasting. Soup, sweets, bread, tagine, dates, milk and fruit are laid out in an enormous spread.
On our last full day in Morocco, in the artsy fishing town of Essaouira, we were invited by a man we met at a local gallery to share ftour at his home. That evening we felt like extended family, enjoying relaxed conversation with our host and his teen-aged children while his wife cooked non-stop in the kitchen, coming out once in a while to bring more food, eat, or interject a comment. His daughter had spent a year abroad in the U.S. and excitedly telephoned her “American mother” to introduce us.
Afterward as the father drove us back to our hotel, I thanked him for honoring us with his invitation. He replied, “No, the honor is mine! The Quran says that inviting someone to your home for ftour is better than going to the mosque to pray.” He added that if we ever come back to Essaouira, we should let him know in advance—he’d throw us a big party.
By the end of our trip, I had walked hundreds of miles in my leather sandals and experienced so much of the country, from cosmopolitan Casablanca to destitute, mud-brick villages in the Atlas Mountains. My French had improved, I felt confident, my skin was tanned and once, a shopkeeper even mistook me for a local. Perhaps, I thought, the taxi driver in Marrakesh had been right about becoming one of the people.
Or, perhaps not. On the same day as the ftour invitation, I passed the store of a nomadic trader who dressed the part in a brown robe and black turban. Tables were covered with cheap jewelry and assorted junk. He showed me a silver pendant I didn’t want, offering it to me for “only” 300 dirham, about $30. I should have said, “I’m not shopping today,” but I felt inspired. And cocky. Certain that he would never accept less than fifty dirham, I said, “It’s beautiful but I only have 10 dirham. I know it’s worth much more than that, I’m sorry.” I said goodbye and left.
A moment later he came bursting out of his shop, shouting, “OK, OK, ten dirham!” Aww, crap. My wife hissed at me: I told you, don’t make an offer if you’re not serious! Then, rather than pay a dollar to keep the peace with him, I admitted that I didn’t actually want the pendant at all and he yelled at me for retracting my offer.
No, I wasn’t going to be Moroccan any time soon.
A year later, I went back to Morocco for two weeks. When I visited Abdul’s restaurant in Tangier, he remembered me on sight and invited me to his son’s upcoming wedding. On a wooded mountain outside Tetouan, I met an old goatherd who spoke only Arabic. For over an hour, we walked together. He showed me wild mint and other herbs, explaining with gestures how they were used. He eventually insisted that we take a selfie together, though digital life was a world away from his own.
I didn’t have to become one of the people. I would always be welcome as their guest, and that was enough.