Naps and melons: defining features of summer in rural Morocco.
The blazing July sun means a very chill lifestyle. Most people have fled to coastal towns to escape the heat, and those remaining are indulging in hardcore napping and lounging until about 6 p.m. when it’s finally cool enough to move. Many volunteers lack work, including myself, so I spent the past few weeks attending Peace Corps trainings and leaving the country for the first time.
I traveled to Belgium and France and appreciated things that now seem foreign: cheese platters, running shorts, bagels, coffee table books, a variety of soap scents, spinach, art, silence, diversity in ideas, mushrooms, tank tops, interior design, salmon, anonymity, IPAs, laughing loudly in public and utensils. I lived like a true queen thanks to my dear old friend Camille and her fam.
However, the reminder of comfort and nice dairy products left me nervous about returning. Maybe Morocco, a land of poor-cheese-selections and miscommunications, would no longer feel like home.
And that fear—that fear of homesickness—made me reflect on my sense of belonging in this world and my connection to its spaces and faces.
Ten months ago I didn’t know how to use a Moroccan squat toilet. I didn’t know how to effectively scoop lentils with bread. How to work a pressure cooker. Not even how to say hello. And today I had an hour-long phone conversation with my Moroccan cousin about body image and eating disorders. But then again, yesterday I told someone that my host grandma is a great “mouse artist” when I meant to say “pottery artist.”
Far from graceful, but I’ve become grounded in my life here.
There’s a physical sense of belonging. Knowing which “7anut” (corner store) has the best toothpaste. Exactly which crack in the road marks a 4-mile run. Which field belongs to which shepard and who will shout “bisa7a” (to your health) as I jog by. I know the names of local plants in Darija that I have no idea in English. Which roots are edible and which herbs are the best tea additions. I know which streets to hit up when I’m feeling lonely and need a herd of kids to hug me. And I could find my neighbor’s doorbell blindfolded. I’ve rung it at least daily since being here. At least 234 times.
It’s all those times to thank for really convincing me that I belong. All the time passed with four people, my Moroccan family, who’ve embraced me into their worlds and transformed my own.
My 12-year-old brother Abdelberi and I are a team. He flicks his carrots into my triangle of the communal plate during mealtimes, and I reimburse him with potatoes. During English classes, he translates my Darija to correctly-pronounced-Darija, and yells at his friends if they make fun of me. He’s also fascinated by my mom’s dog Windsor in the States and asks about him weekly.
My 16-year-old brother Yaakoub varies between being ~too cool~ for me and heartwarmingly proud to be my bro. “Jaaaaaaaaklin Baaaaaanaaaaana,” I’ll hear him call out from down the street on his proud-days. When we get in trouble (for having a frosting fight or playing soccer too loudly on the roof), we always take the other down with us in true sibling fashion. We have a long-term game of truth-or-dare going, but we only ever choose truths. Every couple of days, we ask a new question. They started shallow. “How many times have you skipped school?” But have gradually become more profound. “What’s your biggest fear?”
My Moroccan dad is the ultimate eager beaver. He joins me on my runs from time to time, and our routine is to play his favorite song “I Like to Move It” during the last half mile, which always prompts him to explode with back handsprings in the middle of the street. He’s a stickler though. One time a gnat flew into my mouth during one of our Ramadan runs, and he was upset at me for “breaking fast.” Despite all the time I spend with him, I didn’t know he spoke English (except for a few words here and there) until friends from the States visited and his vast vocabulary erupted. Now, in English, he always encourages me, “Jacklin, you’re a horse!!” I don’t quite know what he means, but I accept it as a compliment.
And then there’s Radia: my Moroccan mama, best friend, sister, tutor or as I like to call her “batata dyali” (my potato). In reality, she’s more of a fireball than a potato. When other women in town call me “bnti” (their daughters), Radia immediately declares that I am her daughter. “Bnti” (my daughter), she asserts, “u gr3a dyali” (and my squash) she jokes. Squash: my favorite term of endearment. Most people, except for Radia, treat me like a doll because they find me oddly fascinating. She is the only person who consistently respects me as a 22-year-old woman with big ambitions and thoughts that are more advanced than I can express in Darija. Radia, my potato, assures me I am home day after day.
She reminds me that her family is mine, and my family is hers. That we’re all just humans with different roots. And she lives out these values too. Casey, a close college friend, and her boyfriend Kevin visited last month. Radia invited them to live permanently on her first floor, which is saying a lot since Islam considers significant others before marraige “7shuma” (shameful). We all laughed, but she wasn’t joking. We said they’d come back next year “inshallah” (God willing), and she still asks when they’re moving in.
My friends Maggie and Elise also made the trek to Ourtzagh. Within hours of arriving, Elise was tossing couscous balls with her hands (she was immediately deemed Moroccan), Radia’s sister kissed Maggie on the lips, and the extended family stripped them both down and dressed them up in traditional Moroccan robes. A dance party ensued, complete with a jingly hip scarf.
Every night when I leave my family’s house, I yell “layla saieda” (goodnight, or literally happy night) as I run down the stairs. “Saieda” (happy) is a common female name here, so my Moroccan family and I switch it out with other names for a more “personalized” goodnight. “Layla Ikram, layla Radia,” I add on. And Radia shouts back: “layla Cindi, layla Amy, layla Michael, layla Darlene, layla Stephanie, layla Sean,” (Quite the mouthful, and it’s still not over), “layla Elise, layla Maggie, layla Casey, layla Kevin.” Oof. She recites the names of everyone in my American family and all my friends that have come to visit. She really is a fireball.
And that’s how I know I truly belong here. Despite miscommunications, conflicting values and my confusion about pressure cookers, these random humans in Ourtzagh, Morocco have accepted me as one of their own. And not only me, but also my entire gang across the pond. Radia even offered to host Amy’s wedding at her house.
This family, as well as others who’ve opened their hearts to me here in Ourtzagh, have taught me about humanity. They’ve proved that plain old human connection is intimate and powerful. Not in the dramatic, helpless sort of way that popular media portrays it—but in a way that’s simple and humbling. It happens even without language, without complete understanding.
One evening I stopped by a student’s house after her 24-year-old brother died in a car accident. I had never met her family before, but it’s culturally respectful to make a visit and say “llah yrahmou khuk” (may God’s peace be with your brother). The family immediately welcomed me into their circle and handed me a pair of their late brother’s socks to hold on to. We all sat in intimate silence, grasping old socks and crying together. No words.
We are who we are because of the people around us and even those thousands of miles away cheering us on. Sometimes we don’t realize it. Like Radia, for example, memorizing my family, asking about them daily, and using their names to wish me goodnight. We’re all just humans, like she says. And once I look past the squat toilets and apathy for cheese, we’re the same. Human connection cultivates so much good in this world. I’m challenging myself to stop tolerating or simply accepting people, but instead wholeheartedly embracing them. Just like Radia, Mounier, Yaakoub, Abdelberi and other Moroccan families have done for me.
They’ve expanded my world and created a new home. Now, home is where the back-handsprings-in-the-street are. Home is where I’m called a horse, banana and squash as expressions of love. Home is where the couscous balls are.
And I know this won’t always be home, which happens to be my biggest fear of all. Bigger than my fear of homesickness for the comforts and familiarity of the Western world. It scares me to think about the last night Raida will yell “layla Cindi” as I run down her stairwell.
I guess that’s the one flaw with human connection and finding home in far away places. Love is risky. It multiplies your joys, opens your mind and gives you goofy nicknames… but it might also break your heart.
P.S. — I’m trying to remember my time here, both the monotonous and the marvelous, by recording one second everyday. Here are snippets of my summer thus far.