Here’s what I love about travel: Strangers get a chance to amaze you. Sometimes a single day can bring a blooming surprise, a simple kindness that opens a chink in the brittle shell of your heart and makes you a different person when you go to sleep — more tender, less jaded — than you were when you woke up.This particular day began when Miguel and I descended from a cramped, cold bus at 7 a.m. and walked the stinking, gray streets of Casablanca with our backpacks looking for food. Six days earlier I had finished a stint on a volunteer project, creating a public park in Kenitra, an ugly industrial city on the Moroccan coast. This was my final day of travel before hopping a plane to sub-Saharan Africa and more volunteer work.
Miguel was one of five non-Moroccans on the work project, a twenty-one-year-old vision of flowing brown curls and buffed golden physique. Although having him as a traveling companion took care of any problems I might have encountered with Moroccan men, he was inordinately devoted to his girlfriend Eva, a wonderfully brassy, wiry, chain-smoking Older Woman of twenty-five with a husky Scotch-drinker’s voice, whom he couldn’t go more than half an hour without mentioning. Unfortunately, Eva had to head back to Barcelona immediately after the three-week work camp ended, and Miguel wanted to explore Morocco. Since I was the only other person on the project who spoke Spanish, and Miguel spoke no French or Arabic, his tight orbit shifted onto me, and we became traveling companions. This involved posing as a married couple at hotels, which made Miguel so uncomfortable that the frequency of his references to Eva went from half-hour to fifteen-minute intervals, and then five as we got closer to bedtime. Finally one night, as we set up in our room in Fès, I took him by the shoulders and said, “Miguel, it’s OK. You’re a handsome man, but I’m over twenty-one. I can handle myself, I swear.”
This morning we were going to visit Abdelati, a sweet, gentle young man we’d worked with on the project in Kenitra. He’d been expecting us to arrive in Casablanca for a few days, and since he had no telephone, he’d written down his address and told us to just show up — his mother and sisters were always at home. Since my plane was leaving from Casablanca the following morning, we wanted to get an early start, so we could spend the whole day with him. Eventually we scored some croissants and overly sugared panaches (a mix of banana, apple, and orange juice) at a roadside café, where the friendly proprietor advised us to take a taxi rather than a bus out to Abdelati’s neighborhood. He said the taxi should cost twenty to twenty-five dirham — under three dollars — and the buses would take all day.
We hopped into a taxi, which took off with a screech of rubber before we’d agreed on a price.
“Forty or forty-five dirham!” the driver shouted over the roar of his engine. He was already careening around corners at top speed.
“Why isn’t the counter on?” I asked.
“Broken!” he said.
Miguel rolled his eyes. “Eva would hate this,” he whispered.
“If I had the counter, it would cost you fifty,” the driver said.
Since the man in the café had told us twenty-five or thirty, I asked the driver to pull over and let us out. At first I put it politely: “We’d like to look at other options,” but he simply said, “OK,” and kept driving. After four such attempts, I said sharply, “Nous voulons descendre” — we want to get out. Reluctantly he pulled over, saying we owed him ten dirham. “Fine,” I said. “Let me just get our bags down first — the money’s in there.” We yanked our backpacks off the overhead rack and took off, while the taxi driver shouted after us.
Miguel shook his head. “Eva would’ve killed that guy,” he said. It was an hour before we caught another taxi. Finally one pulled over, and a poker-faced man quoted us an estimate of eighteen to twenty dirham. “Très bien,” I said with relief, and we jumped in. Apparently the address Abdelati had written down for us was somehow suspect, and when we got into the neighborhood, our driver started asking directions.
First he asked a cop, who scratched his head and asked our nationalities, looking at our grimy faces and scraggly attire with a kind of bemused fondness. After more small talk, he pointed vaguely to a park a few blocks away. There a group of barefoot seven- or eight-year-old boys were kicking a soccer ball. Our driver asked where Abdelati’s house was, and one of the boys said Abdelati had moved, but he could take us to the new house. This seemed a bit odd to me, since Abdelati had just given me the address a week ago, but since a similar thing had happened in Fès, I chalked it up as another Moroccan mystery and didn’t worry about it too much. The little boy came with us in the cab, full of his own importance, squirming and twisting to wave at other children as we inched down the narrow, winding roads. Finally the little boy pointed to a house, and our driver went to the door and inquired. He came back to the cab saying Abdelati’s sister was in this house visiting friends and would come along to show us where they lived.
Soon a beautiful girl of about sixteen emerged from the house. She was dressed in a Western skirt and blouse, which surprised me, since Abdelati’s strong religious beliefs and upright demeanor had made me think he came from a more traditional family. Another thing that surprised me was her skin color. Whereas Abdelati looked very African, this young woman was an olive-skinned Arab. Still, I’d seen other unusual familial combinations in Morocco’s complex racial mosaic, so I didn’t give it too much thought.
We waited in the yard while the sister went in and returned accompanied by her mother, sisters, and brother-in-law, all of whom greeted us with cautious warmth. Unlike the younger girl, the older sisters were wearing traditional robes, though their faces were not veiled. You see a range of orthodoxy in Moroccan cities, caught as they are between Europe and the Arab world. From the younger sister’s skirt and blouse to the completely veiled women gliding through the streets with only their eyes in view, the women’s outfits seem to embody the entire spectrum.
We paid our taxi driver, and I tipped and thanked him profusely, until he grew embarrassed and drove away.
We were ushered into a pristine, middle-class Moroccan home, with an intricately carved doorway and swirling multicolored tiles lining the walls. The mother told us in broken French that Abdelati was out, but would be home soon. We sat on low cushioned seats in the living room, drinking sweet, pungent mint tea poured at a suitable height from a tiny silver teapot and eating sugar cookies, while the family members took turns sitting with us and making shy, polite conversation that frequently lapsed into uncomfortable silence. Every time anything was said, Miguel would say “What?” with extreme eagerness, and I would translate the mundane fragment into Spanish for him: “Nice weather today. Tomorrow perhaps rain.” At this he’d sink back into fidgety frustration, undoubtedly wishing Eva were there.
An hour passed, and as the guard kept changing, more family members emerged from inner rooms. I was again struck by the fact that they were all light-skinned Arabs. How did Abdelati fit into this picture? Was he adopted? I was very curious to find out.
After two hours had passed with no sign of Abdelati, the family insisted on serving us a meal of couscous and chicken.
“Soon,” was the only response I got when I inquired as to what time he might arrive. “You come to the hammam, the bath,” the young sister said after we’d finished lunch. “When we finish, he is back.”
“The bath?” I asked, looking around the apartment.
The sister laughed. “The women’s bath!” she said. “Haven’t you been yet?” She pointed at Miguel. “He can go to the men’s; it’s right next door.”
“What?” said Miguel anxiously, sitting up.
“She wants to take us to the baths,” I said.
A look of abject horror crossed his face. “The — the bath?” he stammered. “You and me?”
“Yes,” I said, smiling widely. “Is there some problem?”
“Well…well….” I watched his agitation build for a moment, then sighed and put my hand over his.
“Separate baths, Miguel. You with the men, me with the women.”
“Oh.” He almost giggled with relief. “Of course.”
The women’s bath consisted of three large connecting rooms, each one hotter and steamier than the last, until you could barely see two feet in front of you. The floors were filled with naked women of all ages and body types, sitting directly on the slippery tiles, washing each other with mitts made of rough washcloths. Tiny girls and babies sat in plastic buckets filled with soapy water — their own pint-sized tubs. The women carried empty buckets, swinging like elephants’ trunks, to and from the innermost room, where they filled them at a stone basin from a spigot of boiling water, mixing in a little cold from a neighboring spigot to temper it.
In a culture where the body is usually covered, I was surprised by the women’s absolute lack of inhibition. They sat, mostly in pairs, pouring the water over their heads with small plastic pitchers, then scrubbing each other’s backs — and I mean scrubbing. Over and over they attacked the same spot, as though they were trying to get out a particularly stubborn stain, leaving reddened flesh in their wake. They sprawled across each other’s laps. They washed each other’s fronts, backs, arms, legs. Some women washed themselves as though they were masturbating, hypnotically circling the same spot. Two tiny girls, about four-years-old, scrubbed their grandmother, who lay sprawled across the floor face down. A prepubescent girl lay in her mother’s lap, belly up, eyes closed, as relaxed as a cat, while her mother applied a forceful up and down stroke across the entire length of her daughter’s torso. I was struck by one young woman in particular, who reclined alone like a beauty queen in a tanning salon, back arched, head thrown back, right at the steamy heart of the baths, where the air was almost suffocating. When she began to wash, she soaped her breasts in sensual circles, proudly, her stomach held in, long chestnut hair rippling down her back, a goddess in her domain.
Abdelati’s sister, whose name was Samara, went at my back with her mitt, which felt like steel wool.
“Ow!” I cried out. “Careful!”
This sent her into gales of laughter that drew the attention of the surrounding women, who saw what was happening and joined her in appreciative giggles as she continued to sandblast my skin.
“You must wash more often,” she said, pointing to the refuse of her work — little gray scrolls of dead skin that clung to my arms like lint on a sweater.
When it came time to switch roles, I tried to return the favor, but after a few moments Samara became impatient with my wimpiness and grabbed the washcloth herself, still laughing. After washing the front of her body she called over a friend to wash her back, while she giggled and sang.
“What was it like in there?” asked Miguel when we met again outside. He looked pink and damp as a newborn after his visit to the men’s baths, and I wondered whether his experience was anything like mine.
“I’d like to tell you all about it,” I said eagerly, “but…” I paused for emphasis, then leaned in and whispered, “I don’t think Eva would approve.”
When we got back to the house, the mother, older sister, and uncle greeted us at the door.
“Please,” said the mother. “Abdelati is here.”
“Oh, good,” I said, and for a moment, before I walked into the living room, his face danced in my mind — the warm brown eyes, the smile so shy and gentle and filled with radiant life.
We entered the lovely tiled room we’d sat in before, and a handsome young Arab man in nicely pressed Western pants and shirt came forward to shake our hands with an uncertain expression on his face.
“Bonjour, mes amis,” he said cautiously.
“Bonjour,” I smiled, slightly confused. “Abdelati — est-ce qu´il est ici?” Is Abdelati here?
“Je suis Abdelati.”
“But…but…” I looked from him to the family and then began to giggle tremulously. “I — I’m sorry. I’m afraid we’ve made a bit of a mistake. I — I’m so embarrassed.”
“What? What?” Miguel asked urgently. “I don’t understand. Where is he?”
“We’ve got the wrong Abdelati,” I told him, then looked around at the assembled family who’d spent the better part of a day entertaining us. “I’m afraid we don’t actually know your son.”
For a split second no one said anything, and I wondered whether I might implode right then and there and blow away like a pile of ash. Then the uncle exclaimed heartily, “Ce n´est pas grave!”
“Yes,” the mother joined in. “It doesn’t matter at all. Won’t you stay for dinner, please?”
I was so overwhelmed by their kindness that tears rushed to my eyes. For all they knew we were con artists, thieves, anything. Would such a thing ever happen in the U.S.?
Still, with my plane leaving the next morning, I felt the moments I could share with the first Abdelati and his family slipping farther and farther away.
“Thank you so much,” I said fervently. “It’s been a beautiful, beautiful day, but please — could you help me find this address?”
I took out the piece of paper Abdelati had given me back in Kenitra, and the new Abdelati, his uncle, and his brother-in-law came forward to decipher it. “This is Baalal Abdelati!” said the second Abdelati with surprise. “We went to school together! He lives less than a kilometer from here. I will bring you to his house.”
And that is how it happened, after taking photos and exchanging addresses and hugs and promises to write, Miguel and I left our newfound family and arrived at the home of our friend Abdelati as the last orange streak of the sunset was fading into the indigo night. There I threw myself into the arms of that dear and lovely young man, exclaiming, “I thought we’d never find you!” After greetings had been offered all around, and the two Abdelatis had shared stories and laughter, we waved good-bye to our new friend Abdelati and entered a low, narrow hallway, lit by kerosene lamps.
“This is my mother,” said Abdelati. And suddenly I found myself caught up in a crush of fabric and spice, gripped in the tight embrace of a completely veiled woman, who held me and cried over me and wouldn’t let me go, just as though I were her own daughter, and not a stranger she’d never before laid eyes on in her life.