A few years ago, a traveler in North Africa reflected on the Muslim holy month.
This morning, the Eid il Fitr, the end of Ramadan, I went out to find some butter, and the streets were cool and wet, smelling of rain, and the people at the mosque were spilling into the street in their prayer, in the still morning. I made French toast with baked apples and pears, pan-fried potatoes, hot chocolate and scones. Keith and Alison came up for brunch.
To give yourself to an unknown is awful. I was terrified to come here. To live in a place for a year, to perhaps loathe it on first sight—entirely possible, arriving jetlagged and exhausted—to sleep there and wake there, to breathe the scent of it and be chased by its noises, to not only observe its shortcomings and annoyances but to belong to them, to say, this is what I have chosen and it is mine. For the lives we live in are no less physical and personal than the bodies we inhabit.
Now, I wish I could tell you the wonder of the souks and marketplaces; the brilliant overflowing of spices, olives, fabrics; the witchcraft stalls; the fishmongers; the piles of mint and thyme scenting the air . . . and even more than this is the wonder of its becoming familiar, the sufficiency and contentment in knowing the names of things, the words to tell the taxi drivers, the sense and reason behind the lives of Moroccans. I’ve realized that that is what I wanted all along, not to visit another country, but to live there, to live in it, to find belonging and familiarity in the strange and exotic. E. M. Forster thought a room with a view was a great thing—but I want more than a view. Let others look out upon me—I will be the one below the window, raising hands bright with saffron and henna. I am lucky to have come here. Moroccans are vivacious, dramatic, family-oriented, and so, so welcoming. I want so much to see into their lives, and I cannot imagine how hard it would be for me if I had come to a country that would not let me in.
We go to the hammam once a week, with plastic stools to sit on and plastic scoops to tip water over ourselves, soap and shampoo, khisses (the black, finely nubbled, abrasive mitts for scrubbing ourselves), and sabon bildi (the soft, dark brown, olive oil soap used in the hammam). Beyond the changing room are three hot, humid rooms rising to vaults, lit by watery skylights. Around the walls are stone cisterns, with a hot and a cold tap from the pipes running around the walls—the hot too hot to touch, the cold frosted and dripping. I wish I could paint for you the beauty of the girl standing beside the faucet. Her skin shone from warm cocoa to milk-brown, and she held herself as easily as though she had never in her life thought of being other than naked. Maybe she feels the gorgeous wholeness of herself every day, under her clothes, and it is like being naked in the hammam, before a careless audience of women. All around us are silk-wet brown bodies, and within minutes we, too, are shining with the heat and the laden air. Sabon bildi is musky and latherless and light on the skin. Having rubbed it in, we must wait for the heat and moisture to do their work, so we sit in our nakedness in the languid heat, under the dim vault, in the soft echo of water and the murmur of women around us. Then we scrub, slowly and thoroughly, every bit of ourselves, and the dead skin and sweat and dust rolls off us visibly. I have never been so clean. We dry ourselves, and walk home radiant with heat through the streets with wet hair.
The vendors walk down our street with their carts, croaking, howling, hiccuping; the children in the half-seen courtyard behind us laugh and scream. The air is fragrant with wood-smoke. September turns into October; the days are bright and warm, with fresh, gusting winds from the sea; the nights are soft black, or tiled with bright stars. Home is made with small pleasures, small comforts and familiarities. This afternoon I climbed the stairs to the roof to hang my laundry. From the west came the tinny whine of the muezzin’s call from the mosque next to our outdoor market, and then, more distinct, another from the south. Suddenly I could hear the words, the notes—a song. I stood among my blowing sheets in the afternoon sun, with the wind and the song of faith around me, and I was struck with the thought that I might really miss this place. I hope so.
Tuesdays and Thursdays I teach in an office that looks out towards the sea. In the foreground is a beautiful church, set among palm trees, with a tiled roof as green as a mermaid’s tail. The Atlantic is salt-clouded and iridescent, and the clouds shifting and luminous. Looking out from there it seems that every letter written from Earth should be a love letter, there is so much beauty in the world, and indeed this letter is one.
Melissa Manlove arrived in Morocco in the early fall of 2001 to begin a year of teaching English. Eleven days later, the attacks of 9/11 happened. Moroccans, ones who knew her and complete strangers, offered their sympathies for her country’s tragedy. Even after the U.S.’s reprisals had begun, and the Muslim world was full of resentment against the U.S. government, Moroccans never once turned that resentment against her. She lives in Northern California and says she loves it dearly, but hopes to travel a great deal more. She feels that visiting another country for a week or two is nothing compared to living in it, and she is hungry for that experience again. In case you’re wondering, she says she is not Muslim.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.