Maintaining the Past

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Much of the enjoyment we derive from being here in Morocco comes from arranging for people of different backgrounds and circumstances to have the opportunity to spend time together. This has been true throughout our different incarnations in various locations over more than forty years now, but especially true here in the city of Fes. Of course, we know more people here than in other cities, since more than half the time we have lived overseas has been here.  There are a number of ways to describe what we attempt to do such as “cultural awareness,” “social tolerance within ethnic diversity,” or “informal multilingual interaction.”  None of those pretentious descriptions are very accurate.  Essentially, we just try to have people talk to each other, usually within the context of enjoying a good meal together, and make an effort to learn something meaningful about each other.  We had such an occasion this past weekend.

This past summer Denise went to Seattle to spend some time with Jamey near the end of his spring quarter at the University of Washington. It just “happened” that she would be present to see the Glee Club, for which Jamey is the Graduate Assistant, sing at the Seattle Mariners baseball game.  Among the students who sang was Martin.  He is a junior at UW and grew up in Seattle.

Jamey overheard him one day mention that he would be involved in an exchange program overseas this academic year and would be in Morocco. Jamey asked at what school, and he said Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane.  When Jamey related that his father had taught there in 1997-98, the stage was set for the weekend just past.  Martin corresponded by e-mail with Denise and asked permission to bring another exchange student, Matthew, along with him.  Matthew is a student at Montana State in Bozeman.  He too, plans to stay in Morocco until next summer.
They arrived Friday night, traveling the 60 or so kilometers from Ifrane by bus, and made their way independently to the front door of our apartment building. That alone told us they were fairly independent travelers already.  Our intuition was confirmed when we discovered that Martin arrived in August, and Matthew has been in country since the latter part of June. Additionally, they have both been traveling away from the university most weekends.
Denise had inquired what Moroccan meal they would prefer for dinner on Friday, and they requested cous-cous. Nobody makes cous-cous better than Zoubida, so Denise arranged for us to eat at her house. The meal was exceptional; she adhered to the tradition of at least seven different vegetables, prepared with chicken. The main dish was followed by an assortment of fresh fruit that is always available here. Then we concluded the meal with the traditional mint tea and pastries.

As much as we enjoyed the food, perhaps even better was the conversation and personal engagement. Martin and Matthew have begun studying Arabic, and both speak some French, so even the extended family members who were in attendance were able to communicate. Zoubida’s son, Abdelrahim and his wife Esan, were there, along with their daughter, Kowtar. Soon thereafter, Hassan, their son who accompanied me to Casablanca our first week here, arrived and immediately hit it off with the two members of his generation. Hassan is 25, a bit older than the others, but definitely of the same mindset. I marveled at their ability to make references to popular culture they all recognized both in the U.S. and in other places.

Many of you know that I take a certain amount of pride in being ignorant of most of what passes for “pop culture” and when they got on the subject of magicians, the intensity and decibel level of the conversation increased dramatically; I was completely adrift. When the names David Blaine and Criss Angel were mentioned, there were high fives all around (except for the old folks, of course) and I was quite certain they were aware of each other in a way they had not been when the evening began.

Later on, when the conversation became more subdued and birthdays were mentioned, it happened that Matthew and Abdelrahim shared the same birth date. Random events obviously can occur on the same date and millions of people of necessity must share the same birthday. Bur when it is someone you have just met, and it occurs on a continent far from home, its importance seems more amplified. Denise and I returned home earlier than they, as older folks are wont to do. They announced on Saturday morning that the previous evening had been “awesome.”

Saturday morning I arranged for Tarik, Touria’s 23 year old brother, to guide them through Fes’ main tourist attraction, the “medina kadeema” or old city. It dates back to about the thirteenth century and is recognized as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. It is a warren of serpentine streets, packed full of shops, exhibits, artisans, residences and people. The streets are so narrow that everything must be brought in by small carts, or on the backs of donkeys or mules. For example, it is not unusual to see a mule with a metal frame over its back, hauling in six or eight butagaz bottles. I am reluctant to go there by myself even now for fear of getting lost and thought that someone closer in age would be more enjoyable for them.

I joined them for lunch mid-afternoon at a sidewalk café, and became an observer more than participant in the conversation that ensured. They had had a great time together. I derived even more satisfaction in seeing these American students I had met only the day previous, accept and respect this Moroccan friend whom I had known all his life. They parted about four o’clock and Matthew returned to Ifrane to complete some preparation for his classes on Monday.

Martin stayed over until Sunday, went with us to the International Protestant Church in Fes, and then joined us for Sunday dinner at Zoubida’s, a tradition we began back in late 1986. She served a beef tagine, cooked with almonds, prunes and dried apricots. It’s one of my favorites and again we enlarged the circle of acquaintances. Hassan’s twin brother, Housein, made it to this meal and he too managed to find a topic of conversation that captured the interest of Martin. Somehow an expressed interest in Bob Marley and reggae music bubbled to the top. Housein tried to dredge up another name he was sure we would all know. It took some time, a smart phone, and access to Google but eventually the name surfaced. Another high five!

Being left out of some things which are current is not necessarily too debilitating. Maintaining some of the customs, habits, and practices of the past still provide a lot of relevance to what we still try to accomplish. Building new memories seems only to infuse past events with deeper meaning and significance.

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