We had been warned about Morocco, and Marrakesh in particular: watch your purse, pay attention to where you are going, everyone is going to want to trick you - and whatever you do, never ever look as though you are lost nor ask a stranger for directions.
When we first arrived, our host Jan took us the main square, Djemaa El Fna, and carefully explained to us how to make our way back home. Pretty soon we had the path memorized and if we indeed paid close attention to a few landmarks, we could do it quite easily.
Within a couple of hours, I actually felt very comfortable and not the least bit in danger.
Walking around the old citadel was enchanting, disorienting and mesmerizing. The blend of exotic sounds (including the call to prayer), spicy smells and eye popping sights had us at the edge of overwhelm within an hour of exploring, and on this one particular day, we decided to find our way back home before dark.
Just a few minutes before making that left turn into our tiny street, I spotted a makeshift stall, nested inside a wall. Upon closer inspection, I saw an older gentleman sitting on a stool inside the dusty alcove, lowering balls of dough into what looked like a vat of very hot oil.
The part of my brain which is reserved exclusively for all things donut immediately lit up bright crimson. Donuts. In Marrakesh.
What could be better?
The thought of gluten did not dare make a peep, nor did anything potentially related to food safety. There was a man dressed in a djellaba hand making donuts. This was all I needed to know.
Raising a couple of fingers, I placed my order. My salivary gland were clapping their little hands in glee.
Once out of the hot oil, two donuts were artfully tied together with a simple reed and almost handed out to me, along with a request for two dirhams. I handed the man a one hundred dirham bill, which earned me a puzzled look and a shake of the head. No change.
One hundred dirhams was all I had on me.
What were we going to do?
It’s funny how even when we think that all is fine and we are handling what us French call dépaysement* so very well, it actually does not take all that much to get us off kilter pretty quickly. In this case, I was both concerned about keeping my fresh donuts and manoeuvering a smooth-ish transaction, one that would not make the older man angry nor get me into a Moroccan jail.
My one hundred dirham bill (about ten dollars) was suddenly swept away and brought over to another booth, either to never return, or as an attempt for change. It did return. And we still had a change issue.
That’s when a young man appeared by right shoulder, and in a strongly accented French offered to pay for my donuts.
Something about the oppressive heat, the financial negotiation in fast paced Arabic and the small crowd that was gathering around the donut stall now had me feeling on my guard. Mostly, I was hearing voices in my head, voices that weren’t mine: we had been warned about being careful. We had been warned about being robbed, we had been warned about being tricked. What did this young man want?
I declined with a smile and a shake of my head.
The one hundred dirham bill went for another round around the neighborhood, in the other direction this time. My donuts were getting cold. The kid to my right was insisting. The voices in my head were snickering.
The bill came back. No change.
At that point, I was ready to leave with no change. One hundred dirhams for two Moroccan donuts? So be it. I had made worse transactions before.
But there was that kid, again. He wasn’t letting go. “M’am, please let me pay for your donuts. Please?”
Ok, fine. Whatever trickery his was, I was ready to see it. I was hot. I wanted my fried dough. How bad could it be?
I thanked him and said that that would be really nice of him. Then I waited.
This is the part where things got weirder than I thought they would.
The young man handed the old man two dirhams.
The old man nodded, took the two dirhams and handed me my donuts.
Then the young man turned to me and with a hand on his heart, said: “thank you, M’am. Thank you for letting me buy these for you. I hope you enjoy them very much.”
End of story.
No trickery, no running through hot labyrinth streets chasing anyone, no terrible prison.
Just ... kindness.
I nodded and I thanked him again.
My eyes stung. My throat was tight. My cheeks were flushed with shame. So much shame.
I had lost myself and my belief in people’s goodness. Why? Because I did not have the right change, because it was hotter than I am used to, because I did not speak the local language and because I had bought into stories.
How strong is my conviction, then, really?
Thinking about this day five months ago, still makes me feel ashamed. I think it always will. I hope it does.
Today, I want to invite you to stay strong - stronger than I was that day - in your convictions. I want to invite you to listen to your own voice, in the midst of everyone else’s. And I want to invite you to be nice to you whenever you sway a little bit off track.
Oh, to try Moroccan donuts whenever you get a chance.
*Dépaysement is a very specific French word which is sometimes ill translated as homesickness. It’s not homesickness at all. It is more a feeling of disorientation that specifically arises when you are not in your home country.
PS: If you are near Anacortes, WA and would like to hear more stories about this journey, I invite you to join me on Saturday night at 6 pm in the Ballroom for a potluck followed by some photo / stories / conversation.
SCARED OF THE SACRED