I missed the call the third day I was away from it – the call to pay attention, the call to be grateful, the call to be together, the call that unites us.
I’d never visited a Muslim country before. Like many others of my nation, I held a one-dimensional view of a vast and ancient religion practiced more outside than inside our borders. I associated Islam with conflict. I heard reports of women’s inferior status within Muslim countries. I naively believed there was little to learn from these places.
Still, I’d traveled enough to realize the importance of experiencing somewhere you don’t truly understand, so when the opportunity came to travel to Morocco with a small group of writers, I packed my bags. We’d start in Fez, one of its oldest and holiest cities.
From the second floor window of my riad (an old family mansion converted into a guesthouse) I spot a worker standing in the garden below, away from the central courtyard and behind a row of tall orange trees. He is staring at a rug on the ground with a picture on it of a house? A temple? He is talking to himself. Is he trying to decide whether to buy this rug? It looks almost new. He stares at it for several minutes, and then drops to his knees and puts his head to the ground. Of course, I realize: he is praying, not for the first time feeling foolish at my cultural ignorance.
The call comes again later when we are gathering on a rooftop oasis for dinner. I look around to see what to do. None of the locals seem to behave differently or even notice. The lonely call filters through the trees of the courtyard, and bounces off the tan walls and uneven wooden beams that hold up the ancient infrastructure. It does not disturb anything.
We are invited to dinner at another restored riad in the oldest part of the medina. We navigate through several of the longest passageways where I can reach out and touch both walls on each side for blocks on end. As we pass through the markets, I notice only men are behind the stalls. They sell multi-colored bins of aromatic spices, hand-sewn clothes, freshly-made leather slippers, hammered copper pans, intricate weavings, and an infinite variety of offerings for everyday Moroccan life. They wish me bonjour from under their hoods. Women are not, however, invisible. They stand with their headscarves in doorways greeting their children as they return from school, or are out shopping, often arm-in-arm. They are on their way to the common bathhouse, they are in line to pick up the bread from the baker where they have left their dough to be cooked in a community oven. Most are friendly when asked for directions. Their headscarves and djellabas look comfortable, not “limiting” as I had imagined.
When we at last arrive at the riad, we dine under the stars and a canopy of old orange trees. We listen to readings and tales of living in Morocco’s varied terrain of rolling hillsides, jagged peaks, vast deserts, and inviting beaches. Our hosts are an Australian couple who now raise a family in Fez at an age far past the traditional age when most people become parents.
“We never wanted a family before we came to Fez,” they tell us. “The life of Western families always seems to divide the attention of the parents between working and caring for their kids. In Morocco there is not this division. There is a cohesiveness to family life here that Western cultures seem to be missing.”
We climb a narrow stairway up to the rooftop patio to gaze over the expansive network of walls enclosing its 160,000 residents. Satellite dishes dot every building making for a complicated puzzle of old and new. We then do what unites all Moroccans: we drink mint tea together, a thick blend of deep green mint leaves, sweetened, and poured from a silver pitcher high above to aerate the drink.
The next day, a young Moroccan guide named Zakia leads our group to a courtyard house in Old Fez. She is anything but shy—a modern version of the Muslim woman, navigating her way boldly though the heavily-laden donkeys and pushcarts that deliver all that is needed inside the medina. She seems comfortable with the time-worn traditions, always with a stylish headscarf, never suggesting she desires a different kind of life. She leads us to the house where she was born in the heart of the old medina. Her family now lives outside the walls in “new Fez”, and the three-story home that surrounds an open courtyard where she was raised now houses a business and another family.
“I want to open a cafe here and have beautiful dresses like the ones we wear for special occasions available for tourists and visitors to try on and take pictures, along with tea, storytelling, and readings,” she tell us. We take turns trying on the elaborately embroidered and beaded gowns in intense colors of pink, purple and deep blue, and take turns taking photos. She will find her way here just fine, I think, even if not allowed to sell anything in the stalls. This is for her brothers. She seems to have no worry about where she is unable to go. She only seems to want to expand her world where she can imagine it going.
I see how she fits into a larger picture of Muslim life, one that is structured with clear traditions that support a family-based society. It seems gentle, orderly, nourishing. It is not a perception that I could’ve understood from a distance. This feels like true Islam.
A few days later my young guide takes me to the central Taxi Dispatch to recover a treasured camera I had left the night before on the back seat of red taxi. The officials look us over and bring out the only “lost-and-found” items they have: a long wooden drawer filled with hundreds of sets of keys and a cardboard box full of water bottles. “This is it?” she says skeptically.
There is no hope, but my guide forges ahead, explaining to the men how I need a police report for my insurance. We’re sent to a police station back near the medina where we sit for hours on a narrow bench, our backs against the wall facing the courtyard with it’s impossibly high ceilings and etched stone archways. I study the elaborate patterns of blue and white tiles covering the police station as my guide flips through the Tinder feed on her phone. Not so different anymore, these youngsters of the world. I notice one candidate with no shirt on and comment, IMHO, that this is never a good sign. “Really? ” she looks up smiling, “I like it. You can really see them!”
“You Americans are the funny ones!” she tells me. “Always carrying on about how wonderful the food is….every meal…’Fantastic! Amazing!’ I mean it’s just food!” We both laugh. “And then you’re all obsessed with your bodies! Everyone running and working out and eating just so! It’s so funny to me!” We agree she should write a story about traveling with the strange Americans.
The designated official never comes back. Having learned more spending the afternoon with my Muslim friend than I did with my “valuable” camera, I give up and go home.
The next day we visit the local Hammam, a communal bathhouse where women, with their small children, gather to talk and bathe together, sitting on the floor in their underwear on an intricately-patterned tiled room full of steam and surely used for a thousand years.
I lie on the floor as a large woman in sizable panties rolls me over and covers me from bottom to top with cleansing mud. I suppress my giggles but others around me let out peels of laughter as we take turns being scrubbed down like an omelet-encrusted pan. There is no modesty within these walls. We are all more alike than different here and the Muslim women nearby bathing their babies and deep in conversation accept our presence with little notice.
“Ei-yi-yi-eeeeeeee!” A high-pitched scream that seems almost inhuman comes from the next room. A contingent of squealing women enters to surround a young boy bringing him a candle in a small cake. “He’s just been circumcised. It is a celebration,” our guide says as the high-pitched noises form a prayer for the new little man.
We walk back out into the medina where the streets have quieted. Friday is the holy day for Muslims and shops close at noon. There is a rush to lock up as the call to prayer starts, reminding all of their commitment to pray five times each day. The men hurry to the side door of their mosque, slipping off their shoes to kneel together in rows. Women enter though a different door to find their community prayers.
Across the street from a nearby mosque, an affable, grey-haired man is stooped over a loom in his shop finishing a weaving. The sheath of material in front of him is a crisscross of delicate fibers of white cotton with bands of silk made from the agave plant running through it in stripes of bright sea-blue. It is fresh off the loom. I look at it through the light as it draws me in, reflecting the symmetry, the delicate beauty, the calm that exists beneath and alongside the confounding bustle of Fez.
I bring the material home and send it to my go-to seamstress – my 95-year-old mother who still loves to sew. These curtains of woven white and turquoise created by the elders of two nations now hang in my bedroom window. They filter the morning sunlight, bringing with it a distant understanding, calling me to prayer.
Martha Ezell has always been an explorer at heart, full of curiosity and restless by nature. Once she left the almost-great state of Texas where she was born she was on the move. She has worked as a waitress, psychologist, social worker, teacher, mortgage broker, documentary filmmaker and technology instructor. She has been published on Gadling.com and included in the Best Women’s Travel Writing Volume 8. She lives in Petaluma, California.
There are still spots on our upcoming Deep Travel Spain and Deep Travel Morocco trips this coming March! For more information, visit http://www.deeptravelworkshops.com or email: firstname.lastname@example.org