By Diana Sharkey
Deeper up into the cobbled town we followed and were followed by the little boy in orange. He looked back at Gabe and I with big round eyes supported by even bigger and rounder cheeks, huffing and stomping all the way like a little old man. I couldn’t’ help but think of Spanky from The Little Rascals. We had left the rest of the crew in the van and were on a hunt for Hal.
The whole way up and the whole way down the little boy in orange repeated “One dirham, one dirham” looking at us with almost unbearable adorable puppy eyes. Did he know how cute he was? In any case, it was working on me—though we never requested his help in our journey, I wished I had coins but all I had to offer him were empty pockets, a fist bump, and some shared laughter.
When we finally got back to the van, Gabe had some dirhams to reward him for his noble efforts and companionship. But soon after giving it to him, we realized it might’ve been a mistake—not because of the boy in orange, but because of the gang of kids that had began to accumulate as we came back down. We knew his reward might become easy money for the biggest bully. We watched them give him a hard time and he sat, face in hands, and the tears rolled down. Man, kids are mean everywhere.
Like much of my experience in Morocco, one thing wouldn’t leave me disheartened for long before something else left me in awe. I won’t forget that same day we met he little boy in orange we met another boy who expected nothing but went into the meadow and picked us purple flowers. Already fully aware of my inadequacies in communicating with the people in this country, I was used to communicating through other means. But this time, wholly unintimidated, I tried “Smiti Diana”. To Meghana and I he responded with a gesture towards himself and said “Elias”, and I labeled us friends from that point on. We waited as the other boy ran into the abandoned, overgrown restaurant to locate a member of our crew (shoutout again to Hal). And we didn’t leave that weirdly mystical little outpost of Ourika Valley without a hug from Elias, the flowers he gave us, and his soft toothy smile burned into my memory.
The kids we encountered in the south of Morocco were different than the ones we encountered in Rabat. In all contexts in Marrakech we were tourists and treated as such—like walking dirham-fountains. But in the medinas of Sale, Quartiere Hassan, and Fez, we were pretty much laughingstock for the hoards of schoolchildren that would walk past as they left classes. It was a constant and welcomed reminder not to take ourselves too seriously, because they sure didn’t.
My hand was held out and he grabbed my fingers, and with his own he wrote 1…9 in the palm of my hand, as if it was a chalkboard. Me, and this nineteen-year-old guy, were now communicating through a game of charades like we were kids. I had woken up on the train back from Fez and sat alone in the dark cart, and gazed out the window into the moving evening. I yawned and looked at the time on my phone before he popped into the cart in chains and a red baseball hat, and laid down across from me. By now, we were laughing and carrying on with a mutually understood word here and there in French, Arabic, or English, but mostly through facial expressions and complicated hand gestures and storytelling. I pieced together from him that he and his friends were riding without paying for the train. I thought back to the shifty guys I would see on the train dressed like him, walking back and forth between the carts, and based on the swiftness with which he materialized in my cart, I knew the behavior was probably routine. I learned more and more about him, that he doesn’t speak with his parents and that he and his friends are against something. I mean, what teenager isn’t against something. But when I would say “against” he heard “gangster” and would excitedly affirm, through that universal yeahh!!! that a gangster was what he was. After getting comfortable around me, from under his shirt he pulled out a bag of pills and from his shoe a bag of hashish. This was another part of what he and his friends would do besides skirting train ticket prices.
Once again I was confronted by a weird familiarity in a strange place. To my comfort, kids (and teens) are the same everywhere. I think the only difference in this case was the ease with which we got along and engaged in this conversation, maybe not in spite of, but maybe because of the language barrier. Either way, we both got a kick out of it.
My experiences with kids in Morocco [“Marockids”] made clearer to me two things. That developmental human behavior is universal—kids here fight, smile, joke around, cry, and act like delinquents just like kids at home in the US do. Babies communicate through the same googly eyes and laugh when Daud makes funny faces at them whether in the food stalls of late-night Jemaa el-Fnaa or by the luggage carousel in JFK. The other thing mostly has to do with the basis of communication itself and how it felt to be in a Darija- and French- speaking country and speak neither. I was reminded that actively engaging in communication is mutually achievable with enough effort and understanding, and that verbal language is just one part of it.
Diana is a rising senior. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.