An expatriate writer shares her account of the first week of Morocco’s state of emergency and how times have swiftly changed in her normally busy and colorful home away from home.
Tangier – When the government announced almost two weeks ago that the borders to Morocco would close, I knew that things were about to change across the entire country.
The swiftness in which this sensible decision was made was exemplary. We were all aware of the ways in which our European neighbors were suffering at the hands of COVID-19, and that decisions needed to be made quickly.
First, it was the borders, with all sea and air travel suspended; and within 72 hours, schools, cafes, restaurants, places of worship, gyms, cinemas, and all “non-essential services” had also closed their doors. We were in lockdown.
Moroccans are innately kind and incredibly hospitable. When I first arrived in Tangier almost two years ago, I was struck by the generosity shown by my neighbors and everyone I encountered.
Taxi drivers’ eyes lit up when I announced that I was Australian. “Kangaroo,” they would shout with glee, hitting the steering wheel and almost running off the road, “you have the Kangaroo!” They were generous in their smatterings of Darija (Moroccan Arabic), helping me grasp the basics of their language, which enabled me to pass on thanks and directions to the next driver.
The sense of community here is incredibly strong. My neighbors welcomed me with deliveries of Friday couscous, and the men in my local baqal (grocery store) soon became trusted friends. They knew what I liked within the first few visits, and they eagerly waved as I passed by each morning on my morning walk.
Two years on I have learned so much about not just myself, but Moroccan culture. Time spent with friends is always a joy and cafe life is a place where I learn who is who, and what is what. There have been some hilarious moments with language, and some insightful times too.
Plenty of insightful times.
Will I go home?
The decision to stay in Morocco during the lockdown, rather than return to my native Australia, was an easy one to make. As an avid reader, I felt well informed through exceptional reporting from local news outlets, and confident that the Moroccan government was taking every measure to shield the country from a dramatic spread of the virus.
As measures were taken to contain the virus and protect the community, people began to wear latex gloves in taxis and out in the streets. Hand sanitizer became the norm in cafe toilets, and protective masks were beginning to appear on faces around the streets. Talk of cafes and restaurants closing was littered through conversations, and within days, they too were closed.
There was no “what if” and “maybe we’ll do this.” The government was firm and concise from the beginning of our lockdown.
I am an exceptionally social person. I have a lovely big flat in the center of Tangier and I relish in entertaining friends; a drink here a dinner there. If I am invited for lunch, I find it incredibly hard to say no. Could I join a group for dinner in a restaurant? I would have to be bedridden to decline.
The past week has seen all of this change. We are now in a state of emergency and to leave the house needs to be for good reason.
A state of emergency
The day in which the state of emergency was announced, I went to visit the men in the baqal to stock up on household supplies. Not panic buying, rather, just things I may need for the days ahead. A stack of papers sat on the counter and I realized that these were the papers we’d all been talking about.
Ever helpful, I was given two (just in case) and the men helped me translate the Arabic text into English. Out of the five options, I qualified for four needs, with the fifth being specific to people who must still travel for work.
The rest of us could benefit from technology and work from home for the foreseeable future.
As I left the baqal, the owner informed me that I would need to speak to the local authorities and have my papers stamped before I ventured out again.
With a wave and plenty of thanks, I made my way home filled with warmth and happiness. Trips to the shops now have an entirely different meaning—these are our only interactions with others and they have become treasured times.
How times quickly changed: Adapting to our new normal
Before the onset of COVID-19, we were rushed. Life was a series of days where we jammed a thousand tasks into every woken hour. Even here in Morocco, where people are likely to spend hours talking over a coffee, we still bustle at a pace that sees one day quite simply turn into another.
Each morning pre-lockdown, I would step out into my street and shake many a hand, greet many a person and say plentiful rounds of “alhamdulillah” as I made my way out for the day. The street guardian would help with my shopping and the men in the dry cleaners would ask after my family.
In these times of COVID-19, we have had to step away from the handshake and the personal touch. Greeting friends with a hug and a kiss on each cheek is something of the past and gatherings are something we can only dream of. The mosque, a place of not only worship but social interaction, is closed for the time being, and taxis are but few in circulation.
We are adapting to life inside. If one lives alone, this is a very quiet time. For families, so used to time outside, it is I’m sure, probably a frustrating time and inevitably noisy and often uncomfortable.
The days we once knew, full of freedom but often bemoaned, will return. We’re just not sure when.
For now, I feel confident that our authorities and collective community are doing all that is needed to be done to keep us safe here in Morocco.