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By Salma Ruth Bratt


The Montréal Review, July 2011





Tourists to Morocco can never get enough of Moroccan hospitality, and they never neglect to mention it in their travel tales. Moroccan hospitality excites people. Everyone loves to be well hosted, to feel as royalty. Yet the guest has certain responsibilities too, and unfortunately for many Moroccans, a prevalence of good and gracious guests from abroad is dismally lacking.

I, for one, am not always a good and gracious guest. It is something I lament and a liability I have determined to improve. It is just that sometimes I prefer to curl up in a cozy little nest with my beloved and a book. I often retreat into silence, but silence is unacceptable when being hosted: Moroccans enjoy lengthy and profound conversation, far into the night.

My faults aren't as obvious in the beginning of the day. In the early hours, I am an enthusiastic student of human nature, anxious to gather information. In a foreign place, I am also learning the language, desperate to soak in all the new words and quickly put them to use, certain that the key to knowledge is just behind that wall of new words before me. By evening, though, my curiosity begins to fade, and the strain of my limited vocabulary enervates rather than energizes me.

In the States, there is nothing wrong with being detached and quiet. I can make brief visits and brief phone calls, and no one takes offense at my brevity. Sometimes I allow years to pass without contacting someone, even a dear friend or cousin I care for deeply and think of often. In Morocco, though, a place of hosting and being hosted, I am expected to adapt. It is not for me to say, "This is just my way." I am required to adjust to the way of the community rather than ask others to accept me as I am.

I have a certain responsibility too. I should participate in the reciprocal agreements of the community, an obligation that is larger than I am. My nation's image abroad, especially in Muslim nations, is somewhat troubled, and I have an opportunity to improve it. I also consider my responsibility to my host nation, to encourage its best traditions. As people abroad, we have a certain responsibility to rectify global misunderstandings, and why not? We can do a world of good as people abroad. We can honor a place of great beauty and lovely traditions, a place where people honor their faith in Islam by their faith in one another.

Among academics, there are the gregarious and active, those who easily fit into any environment, and there are the quiet note-takers who prefer to sit on the sidelines and gather information. My beloved is of the former type, while I am of the latter. In this way, our joint projects are thorough and complete. And this explains why my beloved and I have misunderstandings when it comes to hosting and being hosted: my lethargy about visiting is a problem: not in the states, where he shares my desire to sequester ourselves with our work. When we receive an invitation toward the end of an exhausting day of fieldwork or writing, I say to him, "Let's rest here alone in our cozy hotel," but even I know this is impossible. We agree to go for a short time, but we know this is impossible too. It is only something we say to one another, and not a serious commitment.

In Morocco, hosting is a complex and prolonged process. A host wants to provide a complete experience: a memorable meal, stimulating conversation, and a place of rest and respite. Not just a meal, a feast! Your host wants you to eat until you cannot possibly eat another delicious bite of lamb and chicken and soup and sweets. Not only that: when you think you are finished, your host will offer your satiated bodies a delicious pastry or a pile of fruit - then tea - then more sweets. Your host will go to outrageous expense, you should know this - and will be warm and loving and kind throughout this meal, and will treat you as a monarch, as if your eating is a favor.

You may wonder, when you first sit down to one of these sumptuous feasts, how much to eat at each course. One method is to count the tablecloths and divide your hunger accordingly, but this method is unreliable, as some courses aren't messy enough to warrant a separate cloth. So be aware, as the first course appears before you, there is more to come. Much more. I remember well my first Moroccan meal, when I ate all I could at the first course. It is easy to do, but don't. Imagine the grand banquet still waiting to be served behind the dining room wall, and eat with moderation.

No host will ever warn you to temper your eating; this is why I am warning you here. Your generous host will delight in surprising you with gorgeous platters of food and encourage you to eat heartily at every setting. By all means, eat! Keep chewing, but slowly: people are watching to ensure your happiness and satisfaction, and they want you to enjoy your food. As a newcomer in Morocco, you may be given a plate, even if others eat from a common platter, and your plate will be continually filled by thoughtful others. You may refuse the plates if you prefer to eat from the common dish, but this decision is entirely yours. Your host just wants you to be comfortable.

All of Morocco celebrates Ramadan. During Ramadan, Moroccans operate on a similar schedule: businesses and schools shorten their hours; the flow of traffic becomes predictable. People rise early to eat and pray before sunrise, but after that the mornings are quiet and sleepy. In the early afternoon, the souks and stores become crowded, but as iftar approaches, the streets empty completely. People gather in homes to share the first meal of the long day, and only foreign tourists can be seen outside, lost and wandering, unable to find a taxi or open café. There is a time of silence outside, while the homes are filled with laughter and talking. Then the streets are crowded again, as people gather at cafés for the gossip and at mosques for the evening's recitation.

Fasting, especially in a place like Morocco where everyone is fasting together, is not difficult, although there are moments when we realize how weak we are, how tired and how hungry, and we push on like sturdy Americans while more sensible people are napping through the afternoon. Ramadan is not only a refraining from food and physical affection, but also from any vices that are prohibited in Islam but considered particularly harmful during Ramadan, such as tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs. For this reason, fights sometimes break out during Ramadan: people who are trying to abstain from their vices might become a bit ornery in the holy month.

Ramadan is a great and pleasant sacrifice: each pang of hunger a reminder of grace and compassion. Ramadan is a time to go each night to the mosque to hear a recitation from the Qur'an, and if you go each night, you will hear the holy book in its entirety. It is a time to be kind and charitable and ask for all you need. It is a time to gather with others at night and share a meal after sunset.

In Islam there is no space for secularism, as God is invoked in every greeting, every hope for the future, every law and decision. Daily life is based on common and simple principles: to seek knowledge and compassion, justice and peace. In a Muslim nation like Morocco, people seek balance: between faith and reason, between judgment and tolerance, between the material and the spiritual, between individual and community. Yet somehow these are not binary dualities: when a true balance is sought, these become unified ideals.

Do non-Muslims feel excluded when they can't walk into a mosque? What a marvel of architecture, what great beauty and tranquility, what a privilege to be inside. They may glimpse through an open door: they may feel drawn toward the space, but the rules are clear. It isn't a question of exclusion but rather of humility. Coming to the mosque for prayer requires more than desire: it requires physical and mental preparation, a thorough washing of the body in accordance with the Qur'an, and the proper covering for both men and women. Even Muslims would not enter the mosque unprepared.

One evening of Ramadan, my beloved and I are invited to break the fast at the home of one marvelous woman, Kawthar, and her lovely family. Kawthar is a sweet, angelic, darling woman who could have cooked nectar for the gods had she been born in ancient Greece. She employs an assistant to help her, but it is Kawthar who reigns in the kitchen. On our way to her house I remind myself to eat slowly, to relish each bite; I know how easily I exaggerate at Kawthar's table.

The breaking of the fast begins with a brief prayer to give thanks for a day of fasting and remembrance - then a date and drink of water. We eat this first morsel slowly, savoring its sweetness. Then it is time for prayers before the meal truly begins. After prayer come cakes, breads, fruits, juices, and nuts, followed by luxurious pastilla - a flaky crust filled with pigeon, seafood, eggs, and spices - that we carefully pull apart with our hands from the common platter. Then a tagine of chicken, another of beef, then more fruits, tea, coffee, and sweets until we are so full we can hardly rise from our seats, satiated and heavy, but no matter. No one will oblige us to move.

From the moment we arrive until the final parting moments, we can't be in need of anything: just as I think of a napkin, I look up to find one held out for me. Someone is placing soft and delicious chicken before me, while another person is filling my glass. A chunk of bread appears at the moment I wish for it. What is remarkable about Moroccan hosting is how natural it all seems. An incredulous guest will observe spectacular displays of kindness - so much as to make one feel an inconsiderate dolt, except that no Moroccan host would allow such a thought. The host will sense each of your emotions and allow for only the happiest to stay.

I wonder at this seemingly intuitive ability to host: even young people anticipate their guests and provide for the subtlest of whims. Is this a natural ability or is it taught? It can't be natural because it would be universal, but if it is taught, then how? Are Moroccan children given explicit lessons on the essentials of good hosting? But when? How can it be possible? I wonder this time and again, how my host knows exactly when I am thirsty or tired or in need of a sympathetic ear? It can't be possible, but yet it is. And I wonder about my own selfish habits and expectations: do I see the needs of others? Can I find a more compassionate way?

Once a young Moroccan girl decorated my arms and hands in henna. It was her gift to me. If you think this gift faded away as the designs disappeared from my skin, it isn't true. I can still look at my hands and remember just where the vines of green and gold swirled around this knuckle or that fingertip. As I write of Morocco I think of this girl, and I think of my reader, too, offering a gift of time to me by reading these pages. As we move on to other adventures, I hope some memories remain with us. Chukran jazeela, a'alaykum salam.


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