There is an Arabic saying that Moroccans use quite frequently, “Insha’allah.” Literally, it means, “may God grant…” Figuratively, it is a nice way to say, “I hope.” This is a word that one of my students, Zainab Senhaji, taught me. The word is just the beginning of my lesson, one that I hope to share with my readers for the next few paragraphs.
Last May, I was ready to embark on a three-week journey to Madrid for research. I had been to Madrid the previous three summers, and it now felt like home to me. Upon hearing of my pending trip, Zainab remarked, “You should come visit me in Morocco.” My first reaction was a mixture of happiness and excitement, followed by hesitation, as I considered my grant obligations and economic limitations. Soon, a plethora of questions rained down upon me. As a woman, would I be safe? Would my French be sufficient for use in the marketplace? What would Zainab’s family think of a 34-year-old woman coming to stay at their home? After a few weeks of considering the pros and cons, not to mention Zainab’s insistence, I started some serious investigating. I looked at train and airfares from Madrid. After quite a bit of planning, I decided to take Zainab up on her offer.
As a professor of early modern Spanish literature, I have long been fascinated by Muslim culture and its influence in the Iberian Peninsula. Now I was going to be able to experience firsthand what living in northern Africa is like from a Western perspective. The night before my trip, I was more excited than a child on Christmas morning!
I remember flying over the Strait of Gibraltar and thinking, “I’m flying over Africa!” As the plane landed and I looked around, I had a feeling of déjà vu. Casablanca, the airport where my plane landed, reminded me so much of Mexico with the layout of the land, the colors, the hustle and bustle of the people. Zainab was waiting at the terminal to take me to the train depot. From there, we had an hour and a half ride north to Rabat, the capital and home of her parents. Within minutes of my arrival, I was welcomed warmly by her family and a table of food. I have to say this was the aspect of Moroccan culture that I enjoyed the most. Though the food was delicious, I looked forward more to the social aspect of meeting at a huge, round table than actually eating!
My second day was one of the most memorable of my three-day stay. Zainab had relatives in town (including brothers, sisters and nieces) and the house was brimming with activity. That evening at dinner, we were approximately 15 people speaking five languages (English, Spanish, French, Arabic, and yes, even Berber!) We laughed, “Do I have to drink that beet juice?”; we feasted, eating with our hands and even sharing glasses of water; and we debated, George Bush’s name came up more than once. Although some meaning was lost along the way in multiple translations, it didn’t matter because the experience itself was priceless.
Since Rabat does not have a deep tourist infrastructure, Zainab was by my side constantly to make me feel less apprehensive. She was my barterer, translator and guide. Le marché, the sprawling town market, was another experience I will never forget. I remember seeing so many beautiful objects, from leather goods to furniture, all at a fraction of what they would cost here. In my mind, I was slowly redecorating my entire condominium! In the end, I brought back only a few plates, glasses, a leather hat and a T-shirt. Next time, I’ll take a bigger suitcase!
In the midst of all this cultural immersion, I became aware of my increasing gratitude toward a family who took me in for a weekend without judgment or questions. They accepted me for who I was. In their eyes, I became one of the family.
On my last day, just minutes before catching the train back to Casablanca and my subsequent flight, Zainab’s mother gave me a robe from a closet upstairs. Many times when I am at home working in the evenings, I put on the robe and my orange sequined Moroccan slippers and make Moroccan mint tea. Although it’s not the same as being in Morocco—there is no call for prayer at 3 a.m., no smell of jasmine in the air and no woman putting a henna tattoo on my arm—it does take me back to a certain place in time, and I smile.
No words can express how fortunate I feel to have been able to have such a wonderful and eye-opening experience with the Senhaji family. Without a doubt, my trip would have been completely different had they not been a part of it. Did I enjoy myself? Absolutely. Will I return to Morocco? Insha’allah!