I am standing on one of the busy streets that feed into the human circus that is Jemaa el-Fna, the thrumming heartbeat of the old Medina in Marrakech, Morocco. The square is filled with musicians, beggars, steaming snail soup stalls, stacks of cooked goat heads, women painting henna on the hands and feet of tourists, burning incense thick in the air and hawkers squawking, grabbing.
It’s overwhelming, noisy, smelly, chaotic.
I only notice what happens next because I glance in the direction of the man in the wheelchair. He is developmentally disabled, has minimal use of his arms, his hands bent awkwardly at the wrist, and otherwise still. His head is craning off to the side, his eyes skyward. He is parked on the flank of the pedestrian-only street, a shallow plastic box on his lap to catch coins.
In Morocco, it is culturally unacceptable to eat without offering to share with those next to you, lest someone go hungry. If a person declines, one should offer the food three times. I’d read this in a guide book.
Then, I see it unfold in real life.
A woman crosses the street toward him. She stands before him, gently lifts her sandwich to his lips, her skirts billowing around her, gathering in pools on the dirty concrete as she bends over and presses the food to his open mouth. He takes a bite.
My throat tightens and I turn away.
I come from a country where we mock the homeless and hungry.
Well, not all of us. But the loudest among us believe those who are in need are inherently lazy. That one’s misfortune is one’s own doing. I know a wealthy Silicon Valley guy who chastises beggars, saying, “Get a job.” Entire political parties and acerbic talk show hosts proclaim the poor must pull themselves up by their bootstraps–no matter that some have no boots. How many of us brush past beggars as their palms face heaven?
At times, it’s me avoiding their gaze. Wishing I could scrub their words from my ears. Wishing my periodic unwillingness to share didn’t say more about me than them.
My country is ¾ Christian in faith.
We are more comfortable donating to organized charity than person to person.
I have never seen anyone in my country cross the street to share their lunch with a stranger, much less feed them by hand. And this realization makes me profoundly sad.
Morocco is 99% Muslim. I’m an American woman, a solo traveler, who has been fed a steady diet of anti-Muslim propaganda.
I’ve never been to a predominantly Muslim country.
And it is with this history in my blood that my heart stopped for a moment when I first saw a Muslim woman dressed entirely in black, with only her eyes showing.
It was a strong, physical reaction. In spite of the fact that I am the foreigner, and a villain to many. In that moment, I saw my response for what it was: the manifestation of a lifetime of cultivated hatred and fear. I had no logical reason to be scared. I was in a tourist zone with a police presence and carnival games and soft serve ice cream machines and scales where a local would guess my weight for 1 dirham, the equivalent of a dime. The greatest risk to me in that moment was getting lost in the winding streets of the Medina.
Later, I would consider the minuscule difference in dress between that woman and a habited nun.
“It’s so close,” the waiter at the restaurant where I’d had lunch chides me.
I am lost, yet again. I’d turned around as soon as I knew it and found my way back to the restaurant, where I’d just eaten no fewer than 20 generously-served dishes I could neither name nor describe.
I get lost in every country I visit, but the Medina in Marrakech was particularly confounding.
“I ate too much and got confused,” I confess.
With a smile, he leads the way to my hotel.
It is the third time a local helps me find my way in the Medina by walking me to the doorstep of where I need to go. The third time in two days.
Ali, our tall, slim and graceful guide, leads our tour group at Ait Benhaddou, and ancient village and UNESCO World Heritage site, pointing out ripening dates hanging heavy on the palms in the valley, and pomegranates still white and pea-green on the branches.
It is the valley of life he tells us, damp and verdant, in the midst of a vast, dry land. Where recent rains have made the path thick with mud, he holds our hand to help steady us, one by one.
We climb the steep, dusty steps where eight Berber families still live, then pause to catch our breath. And he speaks of the roots of Islam, how the Muslim people were expected to share 10% with those in need. How they were told to stand on the mountain and spread the seeds of their harvest to the wind, so not even the birds would go hungry.
I think of the man in the wheelchair, mouth open.
Aziz joins me and our driver Mohamed in the front seat of the tourist van returning from the Sahara. He is tall, and his legs are so long they’re crammed awkwardly in, yet he’s taken the middle seat for my comfort. At a rest stop, I have to sneak in before he gets to the vehicle, and he still debates with me whether he’ll take the extra legroom.
As we wind through the Atlas Mountains, there is a traffic stop. A backhoe perched on the mountain high above us tosses boulders down the hillside, which cover the road, a planned rockslide.
“Ten minutes,” says Mohamed.
A tourist from another van gets out, pees into a bush overlooking the valley, and we erupt in applause.
Mohamed turns up the radio, and the vehicle fills with traditional Berber music, a cheerful wailing anthem, and we are all swept up in it although we don’t know the words, clapping and rocking the van. We are from all over the world: Chile, France, Italy, Turkey, the Netherlands, and me from the U.S., and our shared religion is this music and our temple is this mountain construction zone and the walls around us are collapsing.
“Berber music makes me so happy!” says Mohamed, dancing to the beat, arms outstretched. He and Aziz mug for my camera shot.
At the Medina once again, Aziz and I get out of the van, and he guides me through several winding, cobblestone streets. I cannot find the riad where I am staying on my own; Google Maps is useless here. So he leads the way, calling the owner on his cell phone. He is saving me from hours of wandering.
And as we round the corner, there she is, dressed head to toe in lavender. Though I never see her lips, I can tell she is smiling.
How do we unravel hate? It is a persistent cord that weaves through generations, too often unchallenged.
What, but travel, pulls at the loose threads?
On the bus to Rabat from Casablanca, a man in the seat ahead of me places his hands over his face. There is no audible call to prayer on the bus, not like in the city. There, business stops. Prayer rugs are laid out. Baggage goes unhandled. Snack carts are unstaffed. Everyone and everything, it seems, stops for prayer.
Once his prayers are finished, I open a package of cookies and hold it out to him. He politely declines.
I don’t speak Arabic or Berber, and only a little French, so instead I hold the cookies closer, non-verbally motioning with my other hand. Smiling.
His eyes meet mine. And I realize in this instant the difference between clicking the donate button, and sharing directly with a stranger.
One is charity.
The other is community.
He smiles, takes a cookie, and we are both fed.
Charish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning features, food and travel writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog, she applies her worldview to her business, Rollerbag Goddess Global Communications, providing powerful storytelling to her clients.
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