We close the windows in the flat after breakfast to prevent the thick smoke from the meat grills filling the building, making its way even into the cupboards and permeating the sheets with the distinctive smell of cigarette smoke, cumin, and barbequed mutton.
By Madeleine Handaji
Rabat – A crashing sound comes from outside the window as the man selling bread overturns his cart for the third time today, to shrieks of chastisement from his elderly mother.
The Thursday delivery of carcasses adds to the chaos as shouts of instructions join the angry mother’s cries. On the side street, a fight breaks out as the man who sells used cardboard boxes knocks over the local drunk’s liter bottle of cheap Spanish wine.
A British woman married to a Moroccan, I spent the last two years living in Casablanca’s Derb Sultan, to be more specific the butcher and grill shop square known as Baladiya.
Kindly taxi drivers often ask me if I’m sure I want to go there, offering alternative destinations and my husband’s Aunt waits in the car when she comes to drop off Mechoui or to take me to the more high-class area of Maarif or the Corniche.
None of my family members or friends visiting Morocco have ever seen my flat above a school in a smoke-filled, noisy, grubby, backstreet but they are missing out.
Since having a baby we have moved closer to my in-laws (this is a good thing), and are enjoying the quiet life in the countryside close to Essaouira.
My friends are already queuing up to visit and I think my mother may have bought a Royal Air Maroc season ticket, if such a thing exists. While I love walking amongst the Argan trees with my son and sitting on our roof terrace in the evenings listening to the silence and the crickets, I find myself missing a key element. I don’t know our neighbors.
When I said my friends coming over to visit are missing out, I mean that they will never have the opportunity to meet Khaled Saaydi, 34, the butcher who runs an illegal grill shop next to our building in Casablanca. A genial giant, he smiles and jokes with everyone, but has a very, very short fuse.
This said, his explosions of rage are strongly bedded in his sense of community and a will to protect those around him. He is often seen sharing a mint tea with the local parking attendant after a good long row over cars parked in front of the school at picking-up time.
Nor will they have the chance to get to know Mohamed Alloui, 80, a tiny, bent over an old man who has lived in the building opposite ours since he was born. Having spent 10 years in prison for dissidence, Mohamed lives a hand to mouth existence, relying largely on the generosity of his neighbors to survive.
Throughout the year, but more particularly during Ramadan, my husband and I take him food and sit with him in his filthy, small salon as he eats. He tells stories of life before prison, his failed attempts to become an undocumented migrant (on one occasion he ended up in Albania having got on the wrong boat), and growing up during the French protectorate.
They miss out, too, on seeing Khadija Oufikir, 67, a fierce local matriarch who once broke into my flat when we were traveling. Her criminal endeavor had one goal; thoroughly cleaning the flat and doing our laundry before we returned from the UK. Khadija becomes poorer and poorer every day as her eldest son, the breadwinner, is in prison for unpaid cheques but this does not dampen her generosity.
Every Friday, she offers to make couscous (knowing that I have only managed once to successfully produce the Moroccan delicacy), every holiday she brings a lavish breakfast of honey dripped cakes and biscuits, and every time I see her she gives her cheeky smile and her dark eyes twinkle.
These are just three of the twenty or more people I could mention. What I miss about Casablanca’s bustling streets is the interactions with my neighbors who, despite the barriers of culture and language, made me feel like a valued member of the community.
Having lived in London, Oxford, Calais, Marbella, Strasbourg, and the English countryside, I can say from experience that the Moroccan sense of community is without peer. Although many interactions with my neighbors were, at best, bizarre, I hope to be able to get to know my community in Essaouira and learn to love them as much as I did those in Casablanca.
While I hope no one brings me half a dead, unplucked chicken at midnight (yes, this did happen), and there will be no need for the local car parking attendant to chase a rat out of my office with a carving knife, I am sure that the generosity and warmth of Moroccans is not limited to the backstreets of Casablanca, and that we will enjoy making memories in our new community.