FOUR WEEKS AND COUNTING
In the process of gazing deeply into the blank yellow stare of a sacrificial sheep, something clicked for me. This is my life. It had been almost four weeks since I had left America, and I sat in the back of a sardine-esque grand taxi in Morocco on my way to Meknes to celebrate the Eid Al Adha holiday with some friends. The sheep was in the back of a tuk-tuk, secured partial to the railing while two Moroccan men balanced precariously on either side of the little wagon, rocking backwards slightly as the rambunctious vehicle lurched forward with the turning of the traffic light. My friends and I watched – amused, envious – as it disappeared down a different street. One of my friends waved and said, “C’est la vie!” The taxi driver said, “Eid Mubarak!” I sat there, musing at all of the possibilities that might entail if I somehow managed to convince a tuk-tuk driver to give me a ride sometime.
It is a goal for the very near future.
Eid Al Adha, or the “Sacrifice Feast”, is an important Muslim holiday. It is a festival that commemorates the willingness of Abraham (or Ibrahim) to follow God’s command to sacrifice his son. It is a four-day event and is one of two Islamic festivals that are celebrated worldwide (this one considered the holier of the two). There is a special morning prayer that the men go to before the sacrificing of an animal, usually a goat or sheep, that represents the animal Abraham sacrificed in the place of his son. People get dressed up in new clothes (some traditional, some not), visit family members, and after the slaughter (usually done at home), the animal is divided up and half of it is given to the poor. Since the festival is about thanksgiving and God providing, this is an incredibly important aspect.
(Funny enough, after the holiday was all said and done, I heard that there used to be a guy who had the job of going around to the different Moroccan houses and slaughtering the sheep for the families. He could be seen with a red-smeared apron and a bloody butchers knife, casually walking through neighborhoods. This is not very common anymore, and I am somewhat sad. What a sight that could have been!)
During that first orientation week, I along with some other international students were in the school cafe and were invited to sit at a table by a freshman. We’ll call her Salsa. After talking for a while, we eventually strayed over to the subject of the upcoming holiday, the first “break” of the semester, and immediately, Salsa invited us to experience the holiday with her and her family in Meknes. Naturally, we accepted! Fast-forward a few weeks and we found ourselves in a grand taxi heading to the imperial city (only a convenient forty-five[ish] minutes away)!
There are four imperial cities in Morocco – Fez, Meknes, Marrekesh, and Rabat. Meknes is the sixth largest city in the kingdom, but compared to the other imperial cities, many people (Moroccans and other international students) agree that it is somewhat boring. During the weekend, we took another trip to Fez (making it twice that I have visited that one city) and I must say that I enjoyed Meknes more. Fez is an interesting place rich in history and culture, but the time I spent with my Moroccan family in Meknes – eating and laughing and running errands and relaxing – beats the hustle-and-bustle touristy air of the Red City any day.
And that, naturally, brings me to them – my Moroccan family.
First though, a little bit on Salsa. Under her hijab, she has gleaming dark hair shaped by slightly unruly curls, a small face with a smile that glows against her tan skin, and incredibly luminous brown eyes. She is friendly and brave – the freshman who chose to introduce herself to the international students and invite them to be her friends. Now, imagine a house full of bright brown eyes and bright smiles, of laughter – you have came into contact with her family. You have came into contact with Moroccan hospitality in the flesh.
Arriving in Meknes, we exited our taxi at the edge of the street and followed the father’s assistant to the father. He was dressed in traditional dark brown djellaba (a long, loose hooded robe), white pants, and yellow slippers. So stylish! He shook our hands, gave us hugs, and of course, the faire la bise, or kisses on each cheek. (I like to think that, after this holiday, I am very good at giving and receiving them.) During the taxi ride, he and Salsa’s mother kept calling her to tell her how excited they were for us all to be coming and seeing him in person and being welcomed so warmly, I could already tell that this holiday was going to be amazing.
We loaded our bags into the back of his vehicle and headed towards the house, all the while conversing in elementary French with our new Moroccan father. When we arrived at the house, it was the mother’s turn, and she greeted us just as warmly – only she may have out-shined the father because she had cooked us couscous and had hot mint tea waiting to be poured. She also came with the most adorable human being I have ever met, Salsa’s seven year old brother. He didn’t say anything to us, but reached up on his tiptoes and gave everyone a customary cheek kiss. He was small, with glasses attached to his neck and the biggest eyelashes I have ever seen. When he saw his sister, he ran up and they hugged for a very long time and the sight made me miss my own siblings back in the States.
While we sat down to eat food in the backyard, Salsa’s older sister and grandfather eventually appeared. The older sister was my age, twenty-one, and she went to school in the north by the coast. The grandfather was the polar opposite. He was ninety-four and lived with a caretaker about fifteen minutes away. While the rest of the family was fluent in French (not including the little brother, who has barely started primary school), the grandfather knew Darija and a few helpful French phrases like “Bonjour” and “Bonjour”. Salsa was very helpful in communicating with him, and through her translation, he told us that he was overjoyed that we were in the country and that we were all brothers and sisters. He repeated that multiple times throughout our stay.
Before we took the little day trip to Fez (on Sunday), we actually spent time in Meknes’ medina (on Saturday). It was that first outing that Salsa learned what it was like to be an international student in Morocco. It was a somewhat funny experience for us, and a slightly irking one for her. While roaming your home city’s medina, you might find it somewhat troubling when people think you are from Pakistan or India. We roamed the souks looking for good bathing suits to no avail, and eventually stopped by a rooftop terrace to overlook the medina’s main square and drink peach juice and mint tea. After that, we did the most touristy thing we could think of – take a carriage ride around the whole medina by a slightly dilapidated-looking horse. The horse was brown and tired, and though I enjoyed seeing the outside of the medina, the gates to a royal palace, the biggest water canal in Morocco that an old Moroccan king used to unsuccessfully seduce a foreign princess, and a strange statue in a park, I was happy when we were done.
The last thing we tried to do was find a tuk-tuk willing to give us a ride back home. It didn’t happen.
By the time Monday rolled around, the first day of Eid, I was enthusiastic about my upcoming cultural experience. I woke up that morning and found two rams in the courtyard, tied to a pillar and waiting for their time. Breakfast was eaten with the family (parents, siblings, uncle, aunt, cousins, grandfather), everyone was dressed in traditional clothing after doing a little bit of last-minute shopping and errand running the night before, and before I knew it, I was sitting in a chair watching the uncles wrangle the sheep in preparation for the slaughter. The act in itself is as quick as humanely possible, and the men learn the techniques from their fathers and uncles when they are younger. I had dissected animals in my A&P and zoology classes, and have killed my fair share of house mice, but I won’t lie and say that I didn’t get a little light-headed when the blood started to seep across the tile that first time. I excused myself to the kitchen for a few moments and went back outside to take a selfie with the grandfather and M, like a good sport. When lunch was served, I tried not to think about the dead sheep and focused more on the fact that the freshly killed and cooked liver tasted way better than the liver I accidentally ordered during lunch a few days before.
The rest of the day consisted of lounging around, eating, and sleeping – a true parallel to American Thanksgiving in some ways. We even went swimming in the pool for a little bit and witnessed the father race all of the kids and cousins around the yard. For a guy around fifty, he is pretty quick.
Tuesday was the day we left, and I was surprised that a few tears formed when I hugged people goodbye. I had only been in Meknes for four days, but those days made me feel welcome and warm. I am truly blessed to have had the opportunity to spend Eid with such an amazing family (a family who insists on calling me their daughter) and I can never thank Salsa enough for becoming my Moroccan sister.
I have been in the country for twenty-five days, and I will tell you another thing: I cried yesterday. I finally got a hold of my mother after the holiday break and I was just telling her about my time with Salsa’s family and I cried. They were strange tears, things I couldn’t understand or control. My mother, my father, my sisters, my friends, my dog, my home in the valley – I miss them so much. I am so happy in Morocco though, I really am, but I suppose homesickness finally decided to make its presence known. I just didn’t realize how odd it would feel when it hit – to be incredibly happy and nostalgic and sad all at the same time. This just comes with the experience, I suppose.
On the way back to Ifrane, the windows were down and at some point, the afternoon call to prayer could be heard from the various mosques we passed, slender marionettes even dappling the skylines of the more rural towns. Away from the mountains, the air felt dry and warm. The distinctive musky scent of sheep perfumed everywhere we went throughout the weekend and I still imagined it, and although the Islamic prayers contained a certain beauty and mystique to one’s ears, even they could not match the poignant bleat of a sheep as it raced towards its ancient holiday fate. And this – riding in an overcrowded taxi with no seat belt on (out of commission); seeing little trucks, tuk-tuks, and even a car with a sheep peering out of the half-open trunk; trying to speak Arabic (Modern Standard and Darija) and French and failing most of the time; getting diarrhea for two days after having my first in-country milkshake; successfully telling a taxi driver in Modern Arabic that I liked the traditional Moroccan music playing on the radio; bargaining with amiable shopkeepers and then getting ripped off by their ‘tour-guide’ friends (they’ll just show you the best places in the medina, super cheap!); making a cold compress out of a wet sock in a zip-lock baggy for a friend with a fever (Mika); eating liver kebabs (a healthy delicacy); searching desperately for the new Texmex restaurant that has opened and town and never finding it; feeling like the Texmex restaurant is a figment of my imagination; getting catcalled and followed by unsocialized, and sometimes plain rude, men; keeping my patience in questionable situations (see previously listed item); making new friends; getting kissed on both cheeks by a ninety-four year old grandfather who had three wives and twenty kids, and returning the gesture; being invited and made part of a Moroccan family; having weird dreams in weird languages; missing home – this is life.