Taking a trip to Morocco is one thing. A long Morocco tour another. Living there, now that’s a different story! Read how Chris finally became acquainted with a not-so-distant culture and its religious customs in this heart-felt tale about Morocco.
“Into the street the piper stepped, smiling first a little smile as if he knew what magic slept in his quiet pipe the while. And the piper advanced and the children followed.”
It was during the month of Ramadan, under the crescent moonlit sky of Morocco. Well into the 3 o’clock hour, I was reading Coelho’s The Devil and Miss Prym in my oversized Moroccan chair by the window when I felt myself helplessly slipping into hypnosis. I know that some magical things take place during religious festivals, but what happened is high up on the list of things that are hard for someone of my culture to piece together.
As my contract to work as an English teacher had just started three-months before, naiveté best described my relationship with the Arab culture. Absorption in a foreign culture is not a quick process. I felt as though I were being reborn, as every experience became one of learning. Processing everything that happened to me seemed like a series of small shocks that I was forced to learn from and evolve with every hour of every day. I gradually found that placing these incidents into the context of my home culture (that of the United States) helped me to cope with the changes that come with being plunged into a new habitat.
To illuminate this story, I need to explain Ramadan a little. Simply put, it’s an alteration of spirit that transpires once a year. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar (which has 12 months just like our own calendar but is based on the cycles of the moon), during which the Muslim individual fasts from the body’s desires, including sex, and abstains from anything going down the throat during the daylight hours. It’s on par with Catholicism’s Lent in that it requires the individual to abstain from certain bodily cravings. Ramadan, however, seems to be more demanding, as it does not simply remove one or two facets of a person’s lifestyle: it requires total concentration and submission as neither food nor water can be ingested during the day. The question “What are you giving up for Ramadan?” will never be heard. It is supposed to bring out the religious faithfulness in everyone by making us all equal before God.
As I started to pore through the pages of Coelho’s masterpiece, I heard a strange and enchanting musical instrument being played outside on the street below. Barely audible, it danced into my courtyard, the notes melting into my ears. It was almost as though the mysterious Pied Piper of Hamelin himself were haunting the streets of Rabat. Curiosity gripped my mind as I wondered what could possess the crazy fool on the streets to parade around attempting to charm snakes at 3 a.m. Why were the people in neighboring apartments not angered at his early morning opus?
I was already awake, so it didn’t bother me. The enchanting flute music went on for the better part of an hour, and while lights were popping on in a few other apartments, the logical expressions of frustration at his waking them up were absent. No one was yelling at him to keep the music down. People around here seem to lack the calm gene, so I didn’t feel as though the dots were all being connected. If lights were coming on, but no one was telling him to stop the flute, logic dictates that something must have been occurring that was acceptable to the people around me.
As more and more lights lit up my neighbors’ windows, the scene outside was starting to shed some light on this mystery. As I saw some people shuffling out with their prayer mats, the solution came easily to me. This was a man paid to walk around the streets, playing his pipe so everyone would wake up and pray. After all, Islam is a state religion. At first, this struck me as intriguing and even cool. It wasn’t long, however, before I was racing to put it into my own context to see if this piece of the Arab cultural puzzle would fit into our own.
The American equivalent is almost nonsensical. I imagined being in a dead sleep on a clear, starry Christmas morning. At about 3 a.m., without warning, I am awakened to the sound of tuning instruments. Is it the angels in the field telling the shepherds that a savior has been born? What about grandma being run over by a reindeer? Neither one. It’s good ole Pastor Walther and the church band setting up outside the window to belt out a few bars of “How Great Thou Art,” “He Touched Me” or “Silent Night.” Imagine having someone outside your window awaken you every morning like this for the tenure of a thirty-day holiday.
How receptive would most Christian Americans be to this? Wouldn’t we consider this to be odd behavior? How excited would we be to get up and pray because someone is outside our window telling us that we need to? As with language, it seems, when we translate customs from one culture to the next, non-sequiturs have a tendency to appear. Cultural connotation and context are everything.
In Morocco, it’s essential for me to remember that I live in a country with a state religion. The authorities nudge the public to observe it, especially during religious holidays. Back home, there is no equal system in effect. When people say “Hello!” and “How are you?” in Arab culture, God is always mentioned and used to bless the other person and his or her family. God is alive in all facets of conversational speech.
When Moroccans leave a conversation, they might say “l’Aounik” (God be with you). To praise someone, a common expression is “Baraka L’aoufik” (may God give you enough of what you want). The list is very large. This is about the cultural equivalent of saying “God Bless You” or “Merry Christmas” when we give the Salvation Army guy two nickels around Christmas time. Here, however, it is done all year.
The other night, I was walking in the medina (the old area of town in which much of the shopping and bartering is done) at about two in the morning, trying to get back home. I was in a rough part of town – but the factor of fear in Morocco is really just not equivalent to many places in the States; I never find myself really fearing anything here – and I turned to one side to see three or four shim’kel (glue sniffers) emerge from the shadows to greet me. I won’t say I was completely OK with this and that I didn’t feel slightly uncomfortable, but there was no way that I could let them prey on that fact. A few of them started laughing and said in the thickest of Moroccan accents, “Welcome to Morocco.”
As previously stated, I have a penchant for attempting to place things in the only other cultural context that I know. Can you imagine being an Arab in a U.S. inner city at about the same time of the morning, speaking little to no English, when a few drugged-up street urchins pop out of the dark and in Arabic throw out a hearty welcome to the United States: “Marhaba w’alekum a merekia?” Although it is not impossible, I believe it to be highly unlikely.
As the sound of the piper faded out, I was snapped out of my thoughtful reverie by an even more alluring sound: the call of the mueddin, the man who chants the prayer from the minaret towers. During Ramadan, the chants seem to take on a more beautiful resonance. During my stay in Morocco, they inspired me to reflect more deeply about the beauty of all three Abrahamic faiths. Islam is a branch of the monotheistic tree planted many years ago by Abraham. While the gifts given to God through these faiths might be unique to themselves, I take comfort in the fact that we are all giving our praise to the same Father. It’s for this reason that I enjoyed learning about the Islamic traditions of the Qur’an. It’s for this reason that I felt privileged to celebrate this holiday with my Islamic brothers.
If you would like an equally engaging experience, joing Journey Beyond Travel on one of their Morocco tours this year.
Author Bio :
Chris Hamilton was born 28 years ago in Illinois. His love for travel was born in 1999 at EPCOT in Orlando, Florida, where he received a weekly paycheck signed by a famous mouse. Being immersed in an international environment and having coworkers from all parts of the world kindled his desire to discover every part of it, near and far.
© 2005 by Chris Hamilton. All rights reserved.
All photos in this article are property of Chris Hamilton.