“Please, you can trust me!”
The line, uttered in broken English, seemed the perfect opener for Taken 4.
I looked at Abdullah—the short, middle-aged man beckoning me to follow him down the alleyway—and paused. A small group of young men chuckled and muttered something, while Abdullah shut them down with a torrent of angry Arabic.
If this trip were a dream, this moment was like marrying a stranger, or being thrust on a stage without knowing my lines. What was I doing?
[On Jan. 18, I came across an amazing opportunity to pilot a Portuguese immersion program in the Cape Verde islands for a very low cost. The trip started Jan. 21. After crazy last minute prep, I jetted off for Africa. This is the story of my 15 hour layover in Morocco.]
Touring Casablanca alone didn’t daunt me. I’m naïve and a risk-taker—a dangerous cocktail—but as of yet, my escapades have been delightfully rewarding.
So then and there, I was tempted to follow my new acquaintance, until an inner voice stopped me. If for no other reason, have some sanity for your mother’s sake, it whispered. Good point, I thought.
I had met Abdullah only ten minutes before, while walking through Old Medina market – a vibrant labyrinth of sights, sounds and smells. He had dropped in step beside me, asked me where I was from and struck up conversation, pointing out notable buildings within the twisting streets. At first, I was annoyed at the unwanted company. And then the whole alleyway situation made me question my lucidity.
Although I balked at that, I did allow my guide to continue chattering away as we walked down the main thoroughfare of the market. While the sky grew overcast, I listened halfheartedly as I plotted my method of escape.
Soon, however, I discovered that Abdullah was quite knowledgeable, dropping pearls of insight about Casablanca’s Jewish heritage and political system. He raved with national pride of the city’s grand mosque, of its exports and its economic dominance in North Africa.
When it began to rain, we hurried down a dingy street, sidestepping puddles and dodging poppy red taxis. The skies then poured forth in all their glory, so we ducked into a café for shelter.
As Abdullah ordered a pot of Morocco’s famous mint tea, I sat, soaked and smiling. This was nothing like expected. Africa—or what I had seen of it—was cold and wet. My current view of French-inspired Casablanca was a dingy carpentry shop. And here I was about to sip tea with a middle-aged Arab man.
Let’s just say I have come to delight in God’s little twists in my plans.
After learning to pour the Moroccan way (put distance between the pot and the cup to aerate the tea and create a layer of foam) and warming up on the sweet and spicy brew, the rain stopped and Abudullah and I headed on our way. The gorgeous Hassan II Mosque was far larger than I had realized, and its variegated surface shone ever brighter from the sheen of rain. I was mesmerized by the intricate patterns of cobalt blue, emerald green and mustard yellow that zigged and zagged across its walls. While there, we talked a bit of faith and politics (and yes, of Donald Trump.)
After the mosque, I really began to enjoy myself. I discovered that Abdullah knew nearly everyone in the marketplace. When he learned that I wished to buy fruit, he helped me haggle for the most succulent dates and the freshest oranges. (I learned to chuckle at the line “For you, I give the best price!”)
Passing one building, he explained the process of Turkish ritual bathing (Hammam) and pulled me through a little door to see how wood was burned to produce the steam. Inside, stoking the fire, were two of his friends eating a meal from a traditional clay pot. They shared a bite and a smile, and my heart just burst with delight.
A desire to get my hair cut had slowly been welling within me (yes, I was channeling Audrey Hepburn). Kind Abdullah asked his policeman friend to recommend a salon, and we eventually arrived in a little one-room shop manned by a sweet elderly French-African woman. Although we couldn’t communicate, our mutual smiles surmounted the language barrier and my tresses were successfully trimmed.
In the next hour, Abdullah and I toured the French quarter. We kept passing his friends! One grinned and spoke in Arabic. “He says you are beautiful,” Abdullah explained. Another smiled and nodded toward me. “She invites you for tea this afternoon, if you wish.”
Then he dropped another pearl of wisdom. “Remember when you were afraid to follow me earlier? I would and could never do anything to you, because everyone here knows me.” It was a fascinating thought. Tight-knit community lessens the chance of crime. And these people were so wonderfully hospitable!
As I mulled over implicit biases, risk-taking and friendship, the skies absolutely opened. People stared as we hilariously raced through the streets for cover. Soaked to the bone, I giggled as Abdullah kept repeating: “A sporty woman! Such a sporty woman!” (I’ll take that title any day.)
Finally, we arrived at a tea shop – again, owned by another of Abdullah’s friends. My solicitous guide quite literally took the shirt off his back to ensure my comfort. Seeing I was shivering, he gave me his jacket and took my sweater to his friend next door, bringing it back folded and somewhat dry. Then we told stories, looked at pictures and sipped tea and coffee while waiting for the rain to abate. The policeman even came in and smilingly asked to see my new haircut!
By the end of the day, I wondered why this man had spent so many hours with me. Surely it was not solely from the kindness of his heart?
Although Abdullah did ask for a tip in the end, our relationship was not a business one. I left Morocco with a friend.
Had I let fear assail me, I would not have visited Casablanca by myself. I also would not have traveled alongside Abdullah. As a result, I would have missed one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life.
It made me think. And in light of recent political events, I hope it makes you think too.