Feeling Free

At exactly 7:38 pm today, the majority Moroccans will bite into a date.

Ramadan transforms the relaxed concept of time in Morocco into a rare, predictable schedule. Muslim Moroccans anxiously await the dusk (“maghreb”) call to prayer signaling it’s time to break the daily 16-hour fast from food and water.


Ramadan is the ninth and holiest month of the Islamic year. Moon phases control the Islamic calendar, and this year Ramadan is split between May and June. It’s a time of prayer, discipline, reflection, gratitude and charity. A time to step away from one’s privileges and to empathize with those who have less.

Women swap their classic fuzzy pajamas and bathrobes for beautiful dejalabas. Many people, especially men, try to recite the 604-page Quran at least once during the month. Extreme exhaustion creates a spike of people napping in public: in truck beds, public benches, grassy patches, in the shade of olive trees, really anywhere, but life doesn’t halt during Ramadan as I expected. Farmers are still herding sheep, construction workers building houses, teachers wrapping up the school year and students taking the Moroccan equivalent to the SAT and ACT tests. All without food and water.


The communal spirit is extra vibrant this time of year. Women spend at least three hours in the afternoon preparing the feast to break fast. Hums of blenders buzz through windows as they prepare orange, avocado, peach, apple, lemon or carrot juices. There’s a surprising amount of veggie-loaded pizza, lots of breads, 7rira (Moroccan spiced tomato, noodle and chickpea soup) and mountains of sweets. Despite hunger pains and sticky, dry tongues from dehydration, people rarely complain. “Llah y3wnna” (God helps us), they smile.


I’ve adopted my own version of fasting, in which I fast from food for about 12 hours each day, drinking water in secret. I’m trying to embrace the spirit of Ramadan by helping women prepare their feasts, sharing American-style baked goods, taking the time to just be with friends, truly trying to understand people’s relationships with religion and prioritizing spiritual and self reflection.


I feel privileged to have the freedom of living between the lines, between cultures. “Nti maghribya,” (you’re Moroccan) people say when I tell them I’m trying to fast. “Nti jubliya!” (you’re a mountain girl!) they exclaim when I tell them I love bisara (a fava bean or split pea soup famous in my region). I always joke, “ns maghribya, ns mirikaniya” (half Moroccan, half American).

But really, after living here for nearly nine months, I truly don’t know if I’m more my American-self or my Moroccan-self. The lines are blurred. Maybe they’re the same self. Maybe different. Maybe I’m both. Maybe neither. Either way, I’m grateful for my individuality and freedom to be part  American / Moroccan / mountain girl / weird red-faced girl who still can’t speak correctly.


Life revolves around religion here. Ninety-nine percent of Moroccans are Muslim. Five times a day, the call to prayer (“aden”) echoes from the mosque in town and bounces off the mountains from mosques in neighboring villages. Phrases like “llah ykhlif” (may God reward you) and “tbark llah 3lik” (may God grant you grace) are tossed around in every conversation. The Quran and the “hadith” (records from Prophet Mohammed) outline how to live, even down to the nitty-gritty details of life: like eating only odd numbers of dates and figs.


Many of my favorite aspects of Moroccan culture stem from religion–hospitality, community, simplicity, family and mindfulness–just to name a few. But I also believe the widespread rules of Islam in Morocco prompt a cookie-cutter way of living and sometimes discourage creativity and critical thinking.

This hit me a couple of weeks ago when my advanced students were taking a practice writing exam. The prompt asked, “Do you think teenagers today have a sense of responsibility? Why or why not?” They were stumped. I assumed they didn’t understand the question, so I repeated it in Darija. Still stumped. I assumed they didn’t understand me. Repeated it again. Gave them time to think. I told them they could say their answers in Darija first. Nothing. Still stumped. They couldn’t even answer the question in their native language.


Because the majority of Moroccans are raised with a clear, dominating set of rules to follow, youth generally aren’t trained to question and analyze the world around them. Critical thinking skills are lacking. (By the way: these are just my ideas and my observations, so take everything I’m writing with a grain of salt.)

Oftentimes when I ask kids, teenagers or adults their favorite food / color / hobby, they can’t respond. They’ve never thought about it. It’s such a contrast to life in the U.S. where we analyze and challenge everything. If we can’t answer what our favorite food is, it’s usually because we’ve thought too much about it.


My Moroccan family makes fun of me for overthinking. Sometimes when I’m overwhelmed, I lay on the ground at their house, half-laughing, half-groaning and repeating “mafhtmch hayat” (I don’t understand life) over and over. They think I’m nuts and always advise me that it’s not good to have too many thoughts inside my brain.

In the U.S., we’re so caught up in searching for the best answer, the best decision, best school, best deal, best career, best partner, best life. We constantly weigh pros and cons, make predictions, plan, analyze, research, question and argue (with both ourselves and others) in pursuit of the truth or the best. And from all of it, I usually wind up groaning on the floor about insignificant matters.


Here in Morocco, everything is in the hands of God. Truly everything. When I ask if a store will be open in the afternoon, the response is often “inshallah” (God willing). Back in December I threw a New Year’s Eve party for my neighbors and suggested we all share a couple of goals for the year, kind of like new year’s resolutions. Everyone just stared at me, wide-eyed. “3lash?” (why?), they finally asked. God decides our destinies, they explained, there’s no point in trying to control the future.


The future is a distant, abstract vision in Morocco. Life is all about the present. So much that last month when I told Radia I wanted to get my ears double pierced, she stood up, went into the kitchen and returned with a needle and a lemon, poked the needle into the lemon and then straight into my ear. Fastest piercing ever. Another time while I was washing dishes, she told me my shirt didn’t fit correctly and started sewing it despite the fact it was still on my body and I was still busy rinsing.

One evening when I was particularly homesick and talking to my Moroccan family about my older sister, I got teary eyed and suddenly the entire family started crying with me. All seven of them. Even my Moroccan dad. They didn’t try to think of the right thing to say or how to react, they simply seized the moment.


“Hadi hiya hayat,” (that’s life) I always hear. People accept the way life is without trying to control it. They appreciate the moment without questioning how it could be better. Without thinking of what they have to do tomorrow or next week. They just live, guided by religion and support of one’s family.

And here I am, just living in Morocco, guided by adventure and inspiration to learn as much as I possibly can from the people around me. My anal-goal-setting-future-controlling-overthinking self is trying to navigate cultural differences and who the heck I am as a person these days.


One idea that keeps spinning in my mind is my privileged freedom: the freedom of my future and the freedom to dream big. The freedom to move about in society as I please. People often tell me that I walk like a man because of my determined pace, which is not acceptable for local women. I climbed Morocco’s second tallest mountain last week. I can play tag with my 5-year-old friend in the street, jog on trails by myself, go to the coffee shop with my host dad and spend intimate afternoons with women in their kitchens. I get to bypass the strict gender norms. I’m granted the freedom of thought: being able to critically analyze American culture, Moroccan culture and all the subcultures I’ve experienced. There is no strict cookie-cutter lifestyle set out for me. I have the freedom to design my own.


One of my closest friends here recently told me that she met someone on WhatsApp whom she’s been chatting with and is now planning on marrying in the fall. She says she’s happy despite never meeting him before. But who knows… she doesn’t have the freedom to think otherwise, to dream of other life trajectories.

Everyday after I run, I meditate in the forest near my house. I often reflect on freedom. How I feel so free sitting in that green little forest with the sheep chomping on plants around me. But the paradox is no one else in my town has the freedom to just sit in that forest. It’s not socially acceptable for females or males. It doesn’t match the cookie-cutter they’ve been given.


I don’t know how to grant freedom or to create more free spaces of thought and existence. Life isn’t fair, and I wish I could change the “hadi hiya hayat” (that’s life) mentality around this. It’s not fair, but it should be. It can be, but I can’t say it will be.

Unfortunately, it won’t ever be fair without some thought about the future, some challenging, critical thinking and arguing. I’m brainstorming about how to teach these skills, but for now I’m investing in loving people in a way that helps them realize their potential, their opportunity, their strengths, their setbacks and their goals.

Despite me groaning on their living room floors, they’ve loved me in a way that has set me free without even knowing it. The least I can do is recycle that love back, in hopes of reminding them of their worthiness to also be free.


Add yours →

  1. Naomi Schneider June 10, 2018 — 6:27 pm

    Jackie you are an amazing/gifted writer. Thank you for placing me there in Morocco, if only for a while. Naomi Schneider

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A lovely reading sounds like you are learning lessons we should all live by to just enjoy today no matter what it brings because it’s the only moment that matters love you honey

    Liked by 1 person

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