Watching the redistribution of nonexistent wealth did nothing for my idealism.
Walking home from the bus stop was my favorite part of my day. It was Ramadan, and I usually arrived home with less than an hour left before iftar, the breaking of the fast. The sun was setting over the Atlantic, and from my neighborhood in the hills on the northeastern boundary of Rabat, the whole city was enveloped in a golden haze.
Somehow, after a fifteen hours of abstaining from food and drink and smoking and sex and cursing and all of life’s other basic pleasures, that golden hour was a lively one. Every afternoon, without fail, I had to navigate my way through a soccer game that sprung up on my block, as the men in my neighborhood somehow found the devotion to defy the lethargy of the setting sun and battle it out in the dusty streets. And after I made my way inside, I would lie there on my bed with the window open to the street and just listen as the clarion call of the metal sheets that served as goals rang out.
And then sometimes there would be another sound, one similar in tone but much less victorious. The original intent of the Ramadan was to expose Muslims to the plight of the poor; it is expected that people will give extensively to charity during the month. So as an extension of that, it is traditional in Morocco for the poor to walk through neighborhoods banging on drums and doors until homeowners open the gates to them. Methods vary–one elderly woman banged insistently at our front gate so that my host mother opened the door expecting to see a family member. And once the door was open, mom was obligated to take the woman’s bucket and fill it with the harira soup she had set to boiling on the stove in anticipation of sundown.
There was another man who regularly made the rounds in our neighborhood with his young son, and his was a very different technique. This man owned a rather large drum, and he tended to bang on this drum until the nearest homeowner got so annoyed with him that he would open his gate and hand him money to please take his ruckus somewhere else. I had the misfortune to once arrive in my neighborhood at the same time as this man, so as I knocked with futility to be let into the courtyard, he was banging away two doors down. It took almost half an hour for Mom to realize that the knocking at the gate was me, and that opening it wouldn’t require any almsgiving.
Almost every day on my morning bus, an elderly woman would board, clear her voice, and proceed to explain her life’s predicament at the front of the bus. It was always a very persuasive speech, full of exhortations to God and emotional fervor. And after she had made her case, she would walk up and down the aisles collecting spare dirhams. She never received much, but she always received something, and what always amazed me was the percentage of people who participated in this impromptu collection. It’s the same story in the souks, where the sick sit on blankets in the shade–sometimes in such a dire state that you’re relieved to return and see them alive the next day–and hope that the transparency of their need will induce people to give. And it does.
There is abject poverty everywhere in Morocco, but there is also generosity. In a country where nobody has much to spare, people were always digging in their pockets for the twin girls who recite Qur’an and the woman with three children and only a pack of Kleenex to sell. And I won’t be cheesy about this. I will not lie and say that seeing this kind of charity at work gave me hope. Because it didn’t. There were people who died every day that I was in Morocco because they had no food or access to healthcare. And watching people who are one meal away from the same predicament try to prevent that from happening was actually rather hopeless. Watching the redistribution of nonexistent wealth did nothing for my idealism.
But seeing the way that community functioned, the way they dug in around each other, the way they did what was right even when they had been tricked into opening the door in the first place–that says something. That says something more about the place I come from than the place I was, because desperate times call for desperate measures. And times were certainly desperate and hopeless and my host sister couldn’t marry the man she loved because there wasn’t enough money, but the real question here isn’t about how Morocco as a country can function when those with little are responsible for caring for those with none. The question here is about the functionality of a community that refuses to take responsibility for either of those two classes of people.
This one’s for you, America.
(Note: Originally published at http://pinkpangea.com/2012/10/the-golden-hour-and-the-gilded-age-in-morocco/)