Youssef by Sabrina Schongalla

DSC_0048Stepping outside your comfort zone can teach you a lot about yourself, about life, and about how limited your understanding of the world really is.  It was about 110 degrees in Marrakech, Morocco each day I spent wandering the streets near Jemaa el-Fnaa one recent July. The souks were packed with tourists like us dodging the bustling crowds, trying to avoid being hit by the passing horse-drawn carts and the motorcycles zipping through the narrow streets as vendors called to us to step inside their nooks and purchase their wares.  Because Ramadan had fallen in July this year the mosques called out the routine prayers over loudspeakers and no one ate or quenched their desert thirst until after dark.  We understand that the days in July are the longest, but being parched in the desert until sundown emphasizes the length of those days in a way I could never have appreciated before.  After sundown, however, the shopkeepers, still hard at work in their shops, broke their holy fast with aromatic couscous, hearty breads, dates, figs, tajines full of spiced meats, and cups of the sweet mint tea Morocco has made world-famous.  The souks surrounding the main square are busy late into the night, though slow and quiet during the heat of the day, as even the desert dwellers escape the oppressive North African sun; often my comrades and I found ourselves shopping and taking in the sights when the shopkeepers were sitting down to a meal.  At home, whether here in the U.S. or in France (from where my traveling companions hailed), a shopkeeper generally doesn’t eat on the job.  He often closes at night, and certainly never offers free food and drink to his customers.  Life in Morocco is vastly different from life in the western world in many ways, but I was struck by how the life these people led was, in contrast to my own, so simple, so devoid of worldly goods, and at the same time so very rich.  I have always measured a person’s success by the amount they are able to share with others, but in Marrakech I learned that more than personal success, you can measure a person’s grace by how much they are willing to share when they have little extra to offer.  After one week in Morocco I learned more about myself and the world through the opportunity the people of Marrakech gave me to practice gratitude.

The souks are narrow streets lined with outdoor vendors selling spices, teapots, leather goods, wood carvings, hand-dyed linens, and all are up for bartering.  Outside the main square, far from those shops that target tourists, travelers can stumble upon the artisans who craft their wares from the natural elements of the surrounding desert.  Finding ourselves lost down one of the many winding streets, my friends and I were approached by several helpful city-dwellers who offered to lead the way.  This was how we met Youssef.  In Marrakech the colors are bold indigo and vibrant poppy, and deep green.  The pigments burst forth in yellow and orange onto silks, cottons, and hand-woven sheep’s wool to craft a veritable rainbow of scarves.  The artisans begin by introducing themselves, first in French, then in Arabic, and they’ll even try out a little English on you if necessary.  They lead you through the dying vats, explaining how each week is dedicated to a different color, and that this week was “Moroccan Red” made from the poppy flower.  After the tour of the workshop you end in the storefront where you support the local economy by adorning yourself in the handiwork of tradesmen, but not before Youssef shows you how to don our scarf to keep the desert winds from tormenting the most staunch nomads.  Turbans are wound and pants are tied, all from a strip of cloth that is the only one of its kind.

30,000 Durham later, scarf in hand, my friends and I turn to leave the shop and wander about the streets looking a bit more native than when we’d arrived.  Youssef thanked us for our patronage and asked us where we were from, quickly offering to have us over to his place for dinner with his family.  I could feel the tension of my traveling companions as I enthusiastically accepted the invitation without hesitation.  Josselyn and Zoe were afraid of the unknown, but seizing the moment, I was fulfilled by the idea of spending time with family, even if it wasn’t my own.  Youssef had a few more hours of work, so the three of us wandered around the souk for a while, chatting with more of the locals, until he closed his shop and led us through the streets to his neighborhood.  We seemed like we were wandering an endless labyrinth until we finally came to a dark tunnel that led to the front door of the home Youssef shared with his uncle and brothers.  Youssef was the youngest, in his twenties, and brought us into a home constructed of thick concrete with rooms surrounding a small open courtyard.  There was little for furniture save a large cushion, a single bed, a table, and a television on a stand.  We were amazed to watch television in Arabic, French, and English, and even more intrigued by this other life we were glimpsing through wandering the streets for a few more hours waiting for the sun to set.  Youssef took us to the outside of his local mosque, to his parent’s home to meet his mother who would later cook us a fabulous tajine, and then back through his neighborhood to see the intricate architecture of the alleyways before spending a few hours at rest until the prayer was sounded, darkness had fallen, and the feasting began.

I wish I would have understood that the first course of the meal was not the only course; there were cactus fruits I had never seen before, Moroccan pastries bought especially for us, avocado and mango juices, chickpea soup, coffee, tea, and several other wondrous delights.  I was careful to try each item in open anticipation, wanting to show my hosts how much I appreciated their hospitality.  The concrete walls had been painted at one point, but large patches of the paint had long since crumbled away.  Our hosts sat on mats on the concrete floor, smoking cigarettes and passing around mis-matched cups of tea and coffee.  My two friends and I ate our fill as the Moroccans nibbled judiciously; at first I thought they were only trying to ensure that their guests ate their fill before they took their own portions, but finally understood that during the Ramadan fast one must begin to eat slowly in the evening to avoid becoming ill.  We talked and ate and grew tired by the hour.  At one point I asked to use the restroom, which would prove another point of difference between the luxury of disposable paper that I was accustomed to and the reality of hand-washing that the rest of the world relies upon when they don’t have money to flush.  Just as I thought we ought to be leaving, having spent several hours with this family, we were brought the tajine made by Youssef’s mother, complete with Moroccan salad, traditional bread, and Classic Coca-Cola.  I was overwhelmed by the idea of eating any more, only then realizing that the first course I’d gorged myself upon was only the appetizer.  Our hosts turned up the Arabic music, infusing the room with the feeling of a festival, and the three of us Westerners ate until it was too painful to continue.  Before leading us back through the winding streets Youssef returned us to his mother’s home so we could thank her for her generosity.  When we arrived she was still cooking a meal for the rest of the family, working in her kitchen to prepare the couscous while her daughters set the table surrounded by the leather pillows on the floor that they use as chairs.  Though neither home had photos on the walls nor carpeting on the floors, the concrete, which kept the desert sun at bay, was aglow with the happy faces of Youssef’s family at work.  I wondered if all the families worked so closely together, and so well, thinking of my own and what separate lives we each lead.

Irony creeps into our lives at the most unexpected moments to teach us great lessons about how to be better people.  In a land where so many have such little excess, the trend is to openly share what you have, even with strangers.  Although I still believe that those of us lucky enough to have plentiful resources have an obligation to share those riches with the less fortunate, I am humbled by this moment when I was given so much by a family who so effortlessly included me, seeing a friend where I might have seen a stranger, and trusting in my honesty where others might have been on guard.

*Though Sabrina Schongalla was born and raised in the PNW, travel is her addiction. With her handy-dandy secondary teaching degree, she is living in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, teaching English, writing, snapping photos, and enjoying life. Every now and again she gets to write things down about life and share them. She says “After a dozen years of teaching, it feels great to hand in my own assignment for a change.”