We ate fusilli with tomato sauce for dinner last night, on a rooftop patio, in an incredibly vertical house in the old medina of Rabat, Morocco. I am in a homestay for the next ten days. Our host sister, Amina, picked us up from CCCL, where our classes are held. She had on all black Nikes, carried an LV purse, wears a hijab, has a phone case with bejeweled Minnie mouse ears, and speaks great English. She is studying criminal law here in Rabat and I can’t tell if she likes me and Tana (my roommate) or not. Then again, I can’t tell if she likes anyone; she has an air about her that I can’t decipher.
We landed in Casablanca two days ago, and took a bus to Rabat yesterday morning. After a day of various orientation lectures and presentations and a delicious lunch served on the top floor of our academic base, the most beautiful of riads (well out of the one I have been in), we met our host families. Enter effortlessly clad host sister, Amina.
We made it to our homestay, a few Medina “blocks” from the school, lugging in my case too much stuff (note to self: can I figure out a way to send half my stuff home?). The front door opened to a steep staircase. We made our way up–and I am proud that I did not tip backward under the weight of my pack–and were told to turn right. Down a short hallway, with an open wall looking into the sitting/prayer room to the left, we found our room. There are two twin-ish beds along the opposite walls and armoire-like furniture in the corner. A sheer-curtained window overlooks the sitting room and a casual chandelier hangs from the remarkably tall ceilings; take that House Hunters International.
We dropped our stuff and followed Amina back down the hallway, at the end of which hangs the mirror of the house, and turned left past the stairs we already walked up, into a small room with built-in benches. We were introduced to family friends, a mom and daughter, and then we sat. The silence was thick. Amina and the guests, whose names I cannot remember, chatted some, and I intently examined the entire room in an effort to distract my mind from the profound awkwardness. This went on for what felt like hours, but in reality was probably 30 minutes. Amina mentioned that we were waiting for her friend Dana, an American student they had hosted before who was back in Morocco, and we made our move to go rest before she arrived. Tana and I headed back to our room and immediately burst into laughter. It felt like a decompression and response to so much, not least of which the awkwardness of the initial interaction, but also a processing mechanism to the overwhelming nature of it all. Just two days ago we were in Viet Nam in the huge metropolitan bustling city that is Ho Chi Minh and now here, in utter silence in the carless medina of Rabat.
We were called back out for tea, atay na’na, which I think I am half soluble to now, and chocolate croissants. I actively remembered how shitty colonialism is with every delicious bite. I quickly was taught the word for delicious, which I plan to use readily. I am trying my best to pick up Darija (Moroccan Arabic) where I can. I find it easier than Vietnamese, for now. The whole tonal thing really screwed me over. I have got the basic Salaam Alaikum down pat, which often prompts Arabic in return, to which I can neither understand or respond to, but nonetheless, I feel a sense of pride in my racial ambiguity and accent. Once Dana arrived, and we putz around for an hour (Moroccan time is definitely a thing), the four of us head out to wander.
The Medina is a labyrinth of closely aligned multi-story buildings with smooth stucco facades. Bright colors punctuate the alleyways and intricate doorways are framed by potted plants. Small stores are tucked into the corridors and people sit on stoops as they chat. Every now and then I am drawn into a corner store by the smell of freshly baked bread, khobz, to watch the bakers rotate disk-shaped loaves in and out of the sunken ovens. Street cats dominate the streets, perched in every corner and crevasse. Young boys play soccer down one alley and old, traditionally-dressed men sit and talk nearby. A dad chases his teetering toddler in a tiny Barca jersey, and a pair of women walk by with arms interlocked. The occasional motorbike rumbles through, its roar and exhaust getting caught in the maze of it all.
We finally made our way outside the walls, and walked toward the river. It meets the sea here in Rabat and a large castle-like structure, the Kasbah of the Udayas, overlooks it all. We walked up the river towards what Amina refers to as the marina. We passed all kinds of people out and about. Couples strolled side by side, kids ran in front of parents, an old man jogged and groups of young men and women meandered. We continued to walk upstream, lured by the sound of live music to a small food stand. They sell all the good stuff there; French fries, ice cream, crepes, pizza, quite the snack smorgasbord. A small group of musicians connected their amp and seem to alternate between playing and serving customers. There were two guitarists, a drummer who beats the box upon which he sits, and singers who rotate around. We spent the evening sitting here, listening, swaying, and clapping along. The group moved closer at one point and we were allowed into an intimate jam session as the harvest moon rises clear in the dark night sky.
It feels like the most perfect place in the world.
An aforementioned doorway
My new BFF. When I asked to take the photo he nodded obligingly, as if, perhaps he knew the beauty of his shop already, or more likely he had dealt with camera-toting foreigners before.