The official name of our Fulbright program is “Multicultural Morocco: Lessons From Africa.” What an appropriate title. For one, the first part of the name – Multicultural Morocco – not only captures the very essence of the different cultures coexisting in Morocco, but I think also encapsulates the general spirit of the country – a rich and complex “dance” of intertwined, symbiotic histories, languages, peoples, and experiences that make all of these elements somewhat distinct in their singular parts, yet each fully Moroccan. The second part of the title also resonates with me as I really do feel as though I am learning so much from this place. What has struck me the most over the past few weeks is this dance I keep alluding to. I call it a dance because I can find no better way to describe the different intersections and interactions of Morocco’s various elements.
We’re currently on the road on an eight-hour ride from Essaouira to the capital, Rabat (or as I keep calling it, “Robot”). As we drive down the highway I am reminded of the dance – old and new, traditional and modern, African, European, and Middle Eastern, first world and third world. Our coach zips past kids on rusty bicycles, horse drawn carriages, new Renaults, Volkswagens, and Mercedes, and entire families on mules – all sharing the same road. I expected this. After all, Morocco has historically been an important crossroads between different “dances” and “dancers.” Guidebooks and literature on the country will no doubt emphasize this point, but there is nothing like experiencing it firsthand. My first encounter with the dance was during my first day of language instruction (see: Day One: Introduction & First Impressions) observing the university kids walk around school, some dressed traditionally and conservatively, others hip and chic (and still others mixing the two). Some days later, another (more subtle) example of the dance caught my eye. On the narrow side table that doubled as a desk and affixed to the wall in my hotel room was a sticker carefully positioned so that it pointed towards Mecca. Next to the touch-tone phone and under a window overlooking Spaniards in two-piece bikinis rested this sea green on white sticker proudly directing the faithful towards the holiest of Islamic sites (complete with the hotel’s insignia on the bottom – the same company that owns Motel 6). Fascinating.
No moment on this trip has more accurately captured the dance, however, than what happened at lunch yesterday. After a morning walk through Essaouira’s laid-back medina and touring the Skala du Port (the fort at the harbor’s edge) our group stopped for lunch at a small café between the harbor and the medina’s entrance. An inviting spot along a small stretch of picturesque sidewalk cafés, it stood out for the American funk and soul blaring from the speakers and its servers in bright yellow t-shirts with musical notes on them. Ecstatic to find pizza on the menu, we sat down and ordered. Essaouira being on the coast, the temperature was near perfect and the sun happily shined on us as we lounged under the shade of bright parasols.
As we sat in complete relaxation, it was just a matter of time before many of us broke into song. Between a James Brown set of “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World,” our group sang along, instantly becoming the center of attention. How American of us, right? Imagine the scene, 14 Americans of different ages, colors, and ethnicities singing and gyrating in their seats while local Moroccans smile at us curiously and European tourists stare stoically. Food served and feet still tapping, we proceeded to nosh when right in the middle of “Sex Machine,” (Yes! Of all songs, “Sex Machine”!) the music came to an abrupt halt replaced by the daily call to prayer. All along the stretch, it seemed, cafés muted their stereo systems to pay respect to the adhān. Not immediately realizing why the music had stopped, it took our brains a second or two to catch up with the sound trickling in and focus on the muezzin’s voice off in the distance. I was floored.
It’s as if even the heavens purposely planned out the climate and topography in such a way. One minute you’re in one of the driest, most brutal areas on earth and right in the middle of it, quiet and unsuspecting, will lie the most wonderful oasis stretching for what seems forever – lush, verdant, and life-giving. We’ve seen this time and time again: a couple days’ journey can take you through the majestic passes of the Middle and High Atlas mountains, to the doorway of the Sahara, and to the temperate beaches of the Atlantic coast.
Like I’ve said before, Morocco is obviously a land of contrasts and linkages. Bold tajines paired with sweet, caramelized apricots and raisins, a medieval medina a skip away from the ville nouvelle, snowcapped mountains visible from arid lowlands, different generations listening to the same song – one the classic tune, the other a dance version – the organized chaos that is driving on the streets of Morocco. This is a remarkable country characterized by the dance, the complementary nature of its vivid dichotomies. It’s a heck of a dance and one I enjoy participating in every day.
Currently listening to: Major Lazer & La Roux - Lazerproof