Ksar El Kebir, Morocco – Serving as American volunteers in Morocco, my wife and I were give a priceless gift. That gift was the ability to see and experience another culture without the blinders of someone else’s views distorting our own.
As volunteers, we are routinely required to complete reports on mission progress, future goals and current status. In our last report, we were asked a question about our integration into our current community. What follows is the question posed and my response:
“How integrated do you feel in your community?”
While this question, on the surface, seems relatively simple, nothing could be more removed from the reality of it. To begin to answer this question honestly, I must first decide what integration means, subjectively, to me. After all, it is my question and my answer to give. To determine how to respond, I only have my previous community “integration,” from the United States, upon which to base my answer. I will use comparisons to illustrate my current view of my position and situation in my community of Ksar El Kebir, Morocco.
In the US, I lived a very “normal” and somewhat privileged life. As lawyers, my wife and I worked hard and were well known throughout our city and the legal community. We went once or twice a week to the grocery store for food and sundries and we would socialize with friends on the weekends, provided it was convenient to all parties. We lived routine lives divided between work and the weekends. When it came to our families, who happened to live relatively close by, we would only speak to them once or twice a month and usually on Facebook or through a phone call. Our logistics included driving everywhere in our city, even though the local store was only 3 blocks away. We lived in a house with neighbors that both of us knew by name but with which we spoke rarely, if at all. When my wife and I vacationed, we would always choose to do so abroad and rarely with family or friends. This describes the situation that is my basis for comparison and a life which many in the US strive to achieve.
Many may describe our former situation as the “American Dream” realized. However, as “integrated” into our community as we thought we were, we were, in hindsight, nothing more than cogs in a very large and somewhat dysfunctional machine. I believe my comparisons shall make this point clear.
Upon arriving in Ksar El Kebir, Morocco, we were, for better or for worse, instantly singled out as outsiders and looked upon with suspicion and skepticism.We were “those” people who did not belong and were the scuttlebutt of the town. However, through constant personal interaction with virtually everyone we came into contact with, be he/she a beggar or a city council man, a young man or an old woman, we became a constant and visible presence in Ksar. Daily perseverance, endless kilometers walked and unending smiles later, we have reached a point in our social and community standings that has redefined our personal beliefs as to what it means to be “integrated,” and furthermore, what it means to be happy.
As before, in the US, we are now known in our community but this time it is because people actually know us and for the reasons stated above, love and adore us. We have shelved the titles that come with degrees in exchange for something far greater, the titles of Kareem and Miriam. These people, Kareem and Miriam, are beloved and participating members of the community. Where we once enjoyed the convenience of “food supermarkets” once or twice a week, we now have loving friends, who just happen to own carts or hanuts (small stores) that we visit daily. Even before we make our requests for purchases, we are asked about our health, happiness and even our families back in the US.
These are people who know, more often than not, what we want, what we like and are very happy to share with us what they think we will like or need; whether it is how to properly prepare harira or just a new vegetable we have never tried. And, the true beauty of this type of relationship is that each and every one, with whom we deal, absolutely has our best interests at heart and not just the prospect of selling us “stuff” and making a profit. We see Driss, our dear old butcher that saves the “special” selections of meat for us under the counter.
We have Fatima, our motherly vegetable cart woman who would NEVER let us pick the “iffy” produce and laughs every time my wife holds out a hand full of change so that she may take what is due her, at the same time admonishing Miriam for doing so. There is M’hammed, our sole source of fresh squeezed orange juice, who once left his cart just to walk us across town because we needed a pressure cooker and he wanted to ensure we got the “best” one. (And, no, the money was not such that he would have made enough from a kickback to warrant leaving his prosperous and lucrative business.) And of course, there are the brothers (twins) Atta Allah: Charif and Achraf, who, while apart from being very successful business owners in Ksar having both a farm and very popular restaurant, just happen to be two of the best friends I have personally ever had.
These connections and friendships beg to be compared to those I previously had in the US. Unlike my US friends, there is a level of caring, kindness and concern that comes naturally from Moroccans and it is unlike anything that I have ever shared or experienced before in my adult life. If I am sick, there is a flurry of rapid inquiries from one end of the town to the other. Offers of food, prayers and medical remedies, some of which involve interesting uses of raw garlic, come at a blistering pace. By contrast, in the US, if I don’t see my friends for a week or so, no one thinks anything about that length of time. After all, why should they, it’s only a week or two. Here, if more than a day or two passes with no sight or word from us, the town begins to worry and the phones begin to ring, the door begins to seem more like a drum than a door and Facebook is flooded. While this much attention is a double edged sword, it is quite a comforting feeling to receive such affection from so many people and we consider it a blessing.
Socializing has also been redefined here in Ksar for both my wife and me. We are constantly being invited to this gathering or that but gone are the nights full of wine, cocktails and constant talk of work. What has replaced our former social gatherings is like nothing that we would have ever dreamed. There is no such thing as a “small” get together with a “little” food. Gone are the “strangers” that we don’t know and in their places are friends we just haven’t met yet. And, the term late night has been completely redefined from 11:00pm to “when there is no more party.”
Holidays are another area where our ideas of “normal” integration have been completely turned upside down. In the US, especially at Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving, we will be cordially invited to someone’s gathering or dinner but these invitations, while often genuine, do not always carry near the heart felt attachment to them that those in Morocco do. During Ramadan, Eid Kebir, Ashara and every wedding, birthday and couscous in between, we are bombarded with invitations that, should we refuse, would actually cause someone pain. It is only because the invitations come from such a caring place that we have the power to deeply hurt someone’s feelings. If this close connection is not a sign of considerable social “integration” than I am not sure what else could be.
As for family, I have never seen a community that rallies more honestly and deeply around the family unit as I have witnessed and become a part of here in Ksar and in fact, all of Morocco. It is truly an amazing feeling the day you realize that you are no longer someone who lives in the neighborhood but that you have become part of a large family that just happens to live together in a neighborhood, town and by extension, a country. With that realization comes a very comforting and yet humbling feeling. When that day arrived for us, we knew that we were no longer foreigners living in Hay Andelous (our neighborhood) but part of a loving, caring and EVER watching family that included many, many people and businesses. People in the US often ask us if we ever have fears living in Morocco, a Muslim country, to which we simply reply, “Why would we? We live among some of the most loving, caring and wonderful people in the world.”
The original question was, “How integrated do you feel in your community?” The very simple answer to that not so simple question is that we have not integrated into a “community,” but rather, we have simply become part of a very large family. Hamdullah.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy
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