By Shreeya Singh
Burning orange in the Moroccan sun, the streets of the Salè medina are a mirage made of sharp turns, hollering men pushing uneven carts, and hooded faces appearing suddenly from within perfumed smoke. Being thrown out of the taxi with Arabic pleasantries, my bag splashing into the water dripping off a cart proudly laden with staring fish heads, the first thing that struck me was the narrowness of the maze that was the medina: not a large cart, let alone a car, could safely pass through. Strangers walked pressed against each other, tourists clutched their purses as they dragged along the worn 17th century walls, and locals embraced each other; a kiss on the right cheek and two on the left.
Regardless of the Moroccan city our sweltering train rides took us to, the division of space remained consistent in its marriage of people and close proximity. The Riads, or hotels, centered small rooms around large lusty courtyards crowded with sofas of bright geometric patterns, where every morning the guests commiserated over homemade bread. Even the room I stayed in divided the already small space with heavy maroon curtains that shielded the bed from a seating area, ostensibly to entertain company. And then of course, there was the chaotic medina, with razor thin streets that forced interaction even out of the unwilling.
The unique community created between strangers within the microcosms of Morocco’s medinas, and the kindness proffered to visitors, made itself known rapidly. Immediately after stepping out of the train station of our initial arrival and waving around maps of our hotel, our group was turned down by taxi driver after taxi driver. My initial irritation with my inability to speak neither French nor Arabic had quickly ballooned into a panic. Throughout the ordeal, a man in a smart black suit, most of his front teeth missing and his white mustache quivering, kept yelling in rapid French at both us and every single taxi that stopped, while frantically gesturing at us to approach him. True to my inner cynic, I promptly declared that he was a conman, and set off resolutely to cross the street away from him.
Still, we were similarly rejected by every driver on the other side of the street, until the reappearance of the toothless man compelled us to give in to his request to see the map of where we wanted to go. Shockingly, from just the expressions on the faces of the French speakers in our group, I could tell we were making progress. We learned that we had gotten off at the wrong train station, and our destination was too far for a taxi to take us to. But the toothless man had pleaded our case in Arabic, and even set fair rates for the taxi fare to our hotel. I was abashed then, and equally abashed two days later, when he seemed to materialize out of thin air, with the sole purpose of giving me directions while we all searched aimlessly for the residence of a Moroccan diplomat. He was the self-appointed keeper of the streets outside the Rabat train station, and had already disappeared into the crowd when I looked over my shoulder again.
The same night of our first arrival in Rabat, the young female manager of our Riad personally drove our group into the city for dinner. Despite all our insistences, and my personal aversion to walking long distances, the manager insisted on walking us to the best restaurants in the city after we had eaten, just so that we would not eat unsatisfactory Moroccan cuisine at any point during our stay. It was only after she bade us farewell with many clasped hands and sincere smiles did I realize that I was caught off guard by her response to our observation that Morocco was beautiful. In an almost offhand, natural reaction, she had said “thank you.”
Later, we would find ourselves in the midst of the chanting, fireworks, and synchronized bouncing that characterizes the Moroccan fan section of a soccer game. Togo was losing quite spectacularly, and Moroccan men were already lined up against the fences with flags up in victory, their Arabic chants blossoming in volume. Unable to resist the filthy American tourist hidden within each one of us, a member of our group approached the fence to memorialize the moment on a Canon. The closest fan, a man directly in front of us, had the red and white of the flag draped proudly across his shoulders and his wingspan open in a distant embrace of the victory that lay ahead. Without being asked, upon spotting us, he was even prouder to hand the flag over, and take multiple pictures of the American tourists balanced on the edge of the fence where he had just relinquished his spot. Suddenly, there we were, invited to celebrate Moroccan victory like one of Moroccan’s own, by one of Moroccan’s own.
The incidents of random kindness from strangers have blurred into a stream, distorting the lifelong learned experience of American stoicism, cynicism, and hostility to the unknown. I cannot forget the unnamed man from the Marrakesh train station who saw me struggling to carry a suitcase double my weight up a flight of stairs, and took it from me not only up the first flight, but doubled back to carry it up the second set of stairs down the hallway. I had neither the Arabic nor the words themselves to thank him with. Neither will I forget the multiple women who have gently tapped me on the shoulder in the streets of the medina, often whispering through nikabs, and gesturing to my phone or bag to remind me to hold them close. Or those women who have become my friends after opening up their lives and stories to me in interviews through which they gain nothing.
It is still easy for me to rationalize this unexpected kindness by searching for an ulterior motive; perhaps the toothless man is paid by the station to give tourists directions, maybe our manager wanted a good review on TripAdvisor, or what if the women in the medina just wanted my valuables in an easier to reach spot? But the more telling answers are in the way the ‘keeper of the streets’ prided himself on knowing every nook and cranny of Rabat, how our manager felt ownership over the beauty of Morocco, and the way soccer fans wanted visitors to join them in their celebration of their victory.
Moroccans are very proud of their country, but contrary to American hostility, their nationalism manifests in a desire to welcome foreigners instead of branding them aliens. The usual explanation for this kindness to strangers is that Morocco is a developing country, and that they depend on welcoming tourism in a way that the United States does not. I reject this explanation. Not only does tourism still comprises a significant portion of American GDP, characterizations of Americans as wealthy contributors to foreign economies while visitors to America are economic drains are archaic stereotypes. I reject the idea that when determining whether to be kind to a stranger, every Morocco calculates the possibility of the abstract economic gain created through future tourism, especially when all of these gestures went without financial compensation.
The frequent cooperation and interaction between complete strangers, both constructed and natural, is a far more likely root of the willingness to help without being asked to. Moroccan nationality manifests through the incorporation, regardless of however brief, of visitors into one big Moroccan community. Even in the wide roads and small communal spaces of American life, I hope that I will remember this example and continue to stop for those around me and reach out to those who seem to need me. Hopefully, I can emulate some of the kindness to the unknown even when I have left these chaotic and colorful streets. Hopefully, American nationalism can momentarily relinquish its pedestal, learn something from a developing country, and become a little kinder.
Shreeya is a rising sophomore in TD. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.