The Next Page: Morocco: mysteries, magic ... and my roots
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CASABLANCA -- I was lost, deep in the labyrinth of narrow winding passageways, somewhere within the ancient souk of Marrakech. Closing in around me there were stalls heaped with unfamiliar wares -- dazzling crystals and aromatic plants, snake sloughs and lizard skins.
There were falcons fluttering in tight rusty cages, chameleons blinking in the shafts of light, and leeches floating in dark liquid-filled jars. The lane in which I was almost trapped, seemed to narrow further with every twist and turn. I was moving forward along with everyone else, worried how I might ever escape to the outside world again.
All around me there were people and their shadows. Hundreds of them. Old wizened women furled up under heavy hejab veils, men in hooded jellaba robes matted with grime and dust, and children scampering fast through it all.
My map was no more than a scribble of lines on the back of an envelope. It wasn't any good. So I crumbled it up, closed my eyes, and let my senses lead the way. Twisting and turning through the pink telescoping alleyways, I arrived at a spice market where saffron, paprika, cumin and mint bombarded my nostrils and overwhelmed my eyes. There were mountains of green, purple, black olives glistening the sun, and barrels of precious Argan oil -- from the tree found only in Morocco.
Unable to resist, I bought a bottle, rubbed a little on my lips and wiped the sweat off my brow.
There was no time to stop. The current was driving me along with it.
Suddenly, the lane turned sharply to the right. Unable to move freely, I was swept on and on. It was as if I were traveling back through time. I found myself in a slender lane, its walls adorned with exotic ingredients, the air pungent with incense and the distant fragrant of fresh mint.
Beside me, a cluster of women were huddled over a stall. They were oblivious that an outsider was among them. The stall was packed with dried roots and turtle shells, fragments of tree bark and jet-black ointments, jars of sulfur, amber and antimony. I watched discreetly as they mumbled to the vendor. With great care, he measured out the required ingredients -- a few grains of purple powder, a sliver of dried bark, a little dried chameleon, wrapping them in a twist of newspaper.
His assistant caught my sense of confusion. In a whisper, I asked where I was.
He grinned. "You are in the magic market," he said.
Travel to Marrakech, Morocco's most mysterious desert city, and you can't but help be affected by the sense of folklore and tradition. It's all around you, seemingly random, but at the same time an ancient African backdrop to life.
For centuries, Marrakech has been a trading post, a crossroads on the caravan routes, linking the stark Sahara vistas of the south with Cairo, Mecca, Baghdad and Samarkand. It's the kind of place that changes you deep down. And it's true that there are luxury hotels and high-fashion boutiques there now, mixed in with it all, little "Riad" hotels nestled in the medina, favored by the international jet-set. But that's very much the story of Morocco.
It's a crossroads -- but one where nothing is what it seems.
To the south, the unending desert sprawls out like a vast pink sandbox, reaching down toward tropical Africa. And to the north, the colossal snow-capped Atlas Mountains loom down, visible from the searing heat of Jemaa al Fna, the central square. All of this in a kingdom that's just nine miles from Europe, across the Straits from Spain, its Atlantic coast staring westward to our own land.
Setting foot in Morocco for the first time is something charged with almost electric anticipation. Mystique beckons the brave to jump in at the deep end, to ride the swirling cultural currents where East meets West, and where ancestral blood runs thick.
Six weeks ago I arrived in the coastal city of Casablanca. My grandparents live there in one of the white architectural gems that define the former French seat of power.
Their neighborhood is called Bourgogne, named after the French region famous for its wine. It's a mesmerizing mishmash of little shops. There are tailors and cobblers, furniture makers, butchers and bakers, fruit sellers, Turkish-style baths, called Hammams, and almost everything else under the sun.
My adventure started just two months ago at my Lawrenceville apartment on Butler Street. On a whim I wrote to a cousin, asking him to translate the message to my grandparents. Would it be OK if I stayed with them for an extended holiday? They replied immediately, shocked that I would even ask. Their home was my home, they said, I was their daughter, their blood was mine, and mine was theirs.
But from where I was standing the picture wasn't so clear. I was the daughter of their son who disappeared from us when my brothers and I were very young -- leaving our American mom to raise us in Kane, a small town in Western Pennsylvania. He moved on to cultivate the Dream elsewhere and never returned to Morocco.
His absence is something neither I, nor my grandparents, understand. Even though we have grown to accept it, it serves as a common bond, rock solid between us. At the same time, there are oceans separating us, a cultural gap, not to mention an abyss-like language barrier. They speak no English, and I no darija, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic.
The journey from Pittsburgh to Morocco seems blurred now, distorted with emotion and apprehension, mixed in with in-flight meals.
Then, all of a sudden I was at Casablanca airport, overcome with the deluge of unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells. I peered out at the sea of people in arrivals. They all seemed to be rushing up to other passengers.
But, suddenly, a man beckoned to me, a beckon that became a wave and, then as I drew close, it became a hug -- the kind that a first cousin gives another after an eternity of separation.
The weeks which have passed since that moment have been some of the most poignant, valuable and emotional of my life. Being accepted by family I have never really known, embraced by them, is something that almost defies description. We are so different from each other but, as they keep reminding me, we are family: We are one and the same.
As someone who had her own apartment in Pittsburgh, it has been interesting and, at times, daunting, living under my grandparents' roof.
Despite my begging them, they refuse to allow me to pay for anything, and only help in the kitchen in the most menial way. My grandmother spends her time cooking elaborate meals of delicious couscous and tajine, recipes that have been passed down through our family for generations, recipes I am hoping she will pass on to me.
Through her, I have found myself seeing Morocco not as an outsider, but as a Moroccan which, of course, I am. And I have come to see that even though I have never grown up here, there is Moroccan-ness in my bones.
All the same, a day doesn't go by without questions though, and smiles. Outside my own family, everyone seems interested and even a little amazed.
Just the other day I was in the Marrakech medina once again, exploring as I so love to do. A man beckoned a thumb to me, then to a footstool, inviting me to sit. Beside him, a steaming pot of snails was rested on a stand, flamed by a paraffin burner. He asked my name.
"I am Nadia," I said.
"Nadi-ya," he laughed. "You have a Moroccan face and a Moroccan name. But what are you?"
Smiling, I explained for the zillionth time that I am Moroccan -- well, kind of -- but that I am American too. He stared at me in bewilderment, and offered me some snails.
A little further, on a quiet side street, a young woman stood outside of a doorway holding a clutch of pink menus, the same color as her headscarf. She invited me through a Zellige mosaic-tiled corridor. I entered, and found myself in a secluded courtyard, lined with Arabesque detail and fragrant with orange blossom. Hidden courtyards are common in medina, but this one had a gorgeous garden that boasted orange trees, honeysuckle, pink and red roses. Water trickled from a central fountain and there were little birds that seemed to dance about.
The young woman at the doorway came over. She said her name is Hassnaa, and she brought me a glass of fresh jus d'orange. As I sipped it, she admired the chopsticks that keep my hair in place. I inquired if her hair is long and she nodded excitedly. "Do you ever let it show?" I asked.
"No no," laughed Hassnaa quickly, a little shocked that I would ask. "Once you wear the scarf, there's no turning back."
A moment later, the Imam's call to prayer was wafting through the souk, and in through the arched doorway of the courtyard. The muezzin's voice was so loud that I could tell there was a mosque very nearby. You find them all over the ancient medina. I visualized the rows of men a stone's throw away, out on the sidewalk, kneeling on rolled out carpets, bowing down to Allah while facing Mecca.
Often I hear the first of the day, at dawn, and dreamily give thanks to the universe. My grandparents, who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca, once recited the prayers for me and nudged me to repeat after them. My grandfather then took me in the salon so I could watch him pray. Like my grandmother, he assumes I am a Muslim like them.
But I'm not. My mom, raised Catholic, never pushed us to go to church. She told us that a person's spirituality was for him or her to determine.
So I went, and I learned. I was eventually confirmed in the Catholic Church, but decided to stop going and form my own set of beliefs. I find myself talking about this only if someone asks, because otherwise, religion doesn't play a part in my life.
But I do thank the universe for bringing me here, to Morocco, a land that feels like my homeland although I have never quite known it.
It's a part of me and, every day I spend here, it becomes a little more rooted in me, as I learn to unravel its mysteries, and appreciate its extraordinary and ancient rhythm of life.
First Published June 6, 2010 12:00 am