For nearly a decade I’d worked overseas in a collision of cultures on two continents, and I was ready for my self proclaimed sabbatical. A bit grizzled by the three hour train ride from Casablanca, weighted by my overly enthusiastic backpack, I’d arrived in Marrakech. Instinctively, I scan my surroundings. A labyrinth of snake charmers, push cart street vendors, billowing smoke and henna artists surround me. It’s late May, a few months before the 30 day fast of the August Ramadan, when the city would be swept by hot sirocco winds migrating from the Sahara. And unknown to me now my future self would be celebrating the holidays last Fatoor and all the localities I’d fallen in love with.
This was a place I’d long imagined myself sipping espresso, shrouded in souks pondering the history, mysticism and my own self exploration. A more obligation free life than the one I’d left, if only temporarily. The plan was to study Arabic, volunteer, and soak in the local Hammams until my fingertips permanently pruned.
I wait for my new roommate to emerge from the shadowed edges of Djemma Al Fna square. The sun falls low in the sky behind the chalky salmon colored walls of the Red City and I feel the world fall away as the afternoon salat – prayer – echoes through the medina. My memories already being coated in the scents of the city. Dozens of spices and sizzling meats and grains make up cobblestone rows. My Portuguese host arrives, and she was all too ready to show me the best of her adopted city. Pleasant, excited, and cultured. Plus it didn’t hurt she spoke the local dialect of Darija. I liked her immediately.
We head deep into the winding streets with the occasional head nod and quiet “Salaam” of passersby. We are to meet friends for Maghrebi mint tea. Something in the blood of all Moroccans. We join locals and expats behind a colorful swath of tapestry in the back of a tour shop. We swap stories and make plans, reveling in each of our differences, laughing hysterically at my attempts to pour the perfect cup of traditional tea. Done correctly its from a silver Aladdin’s teapot a meter above delicately ornate, and very small glasses thirsting for the mintiness of the golden amber liquid.
The ritual is patient and ceremonious, and practice finally provides a layer of foam from the “pure” pour releasing a fragrant mint that tingles the senses. I was already completely possessed by the hospitality and unexplored opportunities to be had.
The next few months I live in the bustle of bubbling culture and tourism. August has arrived. Its scorching, as predicted and Holy month is upon us. The secret of Ramadan is to retreat to the coolness of familiar places, waiting for the burst of energy at nightfall. The city awakes with the setting sun.
Eid al-Fitr is the final meal of Ramadan, and we are invited to join our local neighbors in the Festival of Fast breaking. We sit on pillows, shoulder to shoulder, with a feast of dates, meats, lentils, dumplings, breads, and spices. The subtle lull of the evening prayer signals it’s time to eat. Grins break out, head scarfs come off, and foreigners become locals.
I had more than accomplished my plan to explore solo. I’d become conversational in Arabic, including reading the mesmerizing characters, had travel from the desert to the sea and back, pushed my boundaries, gave back locally, and had glowing skin from many an afternoon in the Hammam.
There was no use looking back to yesterday, because we were different then. And so was I. I was now part of Marrakech.