I'm sitting at Khalid's house with Khalid, his wife and mother-in-law. Khalid's two sons are taking naps upstairs. We adults are sitting on couches staring at the food arranged on a low table. Today's fast for Ramadan has not broken yet, and everyone is hungry. I haven't eaten since breakfast. When the call goes out a few minutes before 6:00pm, Khalid sighs with relief. "Hear that? Now we may eat." Inside Khalid's living/dining room, the Muslim call issuing from the mosque isn't nearly as jarring or alarming as it is when you are on the street. There it reminds you of nothing so much as an air raid siren or a city of holy men chanting.
I met Khalid on the train from Tangier to Fes. He was very friendly, sharing his crackers with me when the fast broke that night, and eventually guiding me to a hotel close to the train station. "Avoid the cabs. They are all hustlers." After getting me to my hotel, he promised to set up a guide for me for the next day, and invited me to dinner at his home.
I know (ie have read) that this is both a common courtesy and an honor in Islamic countries and that they believe in treating strangers and visitors kindly. So one day later I am eating with Khalid's family. But it's not like being a guest. I'm just sort of there, eating. No special fuss. I'm not the center of attention in any way. It's as if my presence is common, everyday, instead of a once in a lifetime meeting.
Khalid's wife and mother-in-law do not speak English, beyond his wife's halting attempts to say her name and ask how I am. The three of them converse in Arabic, sometimes French, and there's only occasional translations into English courtesy of Khalid. Khalid's mother-in-law may be fairly old. Her face is wrinkled but her headdress makes it difficult to guage her age. Her bone structure, however, makes it evident that she was probably quite a beauty zhen she was young. There's something Eartha Kitt-esque about her, although she looks nothing like Eartha Kitt. I'm intrigued by the contrast between her face and her daughter's plump childlike face. But there's something else about the mother-in-law. She's wearing a sweatshirt that depicts "Teddybear's Nautical Adventures" ("Good Fishing!" is one of them. The Teddybear is using a pole rather than his paws). The shirt is so...unbelievable...beyond kitschy...that I can't stop looking at it. I just want to ask her what would possess someone to buy it, let alone wear it. But the smile it induces in me isn't just mocking.
Like many families, Khalid's watches television while eating. A few minutes of news, a bit of an interview program, and then an Egyptian show, which I think is a soap opera. The inexpensive sets, the bright video look, the fake beards and soap opera acting all remind me of an SCTV skit. At one point, the main character picks a small boy up by the scruff of the neck to address him face to face.
The food on the table is all room temperature (having been placed there during the fast) and is various shades of brown. There is a soup with corn in it, hummus, large hunks of bread, figs, something similar to an omlete pancake. To wash it down they have a sweet thick milk. It's so sweet that kids would love to have it for breakfast, but I only like milk in coffee and something about this makes my throat close. I eat something that resembles glazed calamari, but is in fact a sweet pastry that tastes of cinnamon. Delicious.
But why am I there? I appreciate the culture that invites guests to share dinner, but I keep wondering why I'm there. Khalid eats then leaves the room. I wonder when it would be proper for me to leave. I don't want to overstay my welcome, but I also don't want to dine and dash. Khalid reappears periodically, sits down, says something to his wife, then leaves again. At one point, he mentions that many European men come to Morocco to find wives. "Here it comes" I thought, expecting a line of Moroccan women to suddenly emerge from the kitchen and Khalid pressuring me to pick one. This is basically how I spent the day in the Medina with my shitty guide, but that's another story.
But no potential wives. As the women clear the table, I offer to help, knowing full well that a. I'm a guest and b. I'm a man. But my offer is not rebuffed. It is misinterpreted. After I repeat what I think is "I help?" in Arabic, comprehension dawns on the face of Khalid's wife. She then begins describing the layout of the house. I nod appreciatively, she goes back to clearing the table, and I return to the Egyptian soap opera.
Finally it is time to go. Khalid is going to the mosque for evening prayers. I say I will leave with him, if he could give me directions to walk back to my hotel. "No, you can't walk. Taxi." I exchange heartfelt thank you's to the women of the house, earning wide smiles. I don't know what else to do. I leave with Khalid.
It is dark out, even though it is only sometime after 7:00pm. On the street, Khalid greets a handsome teenage boy in a Diesel jean jacket, puts his arm around his shoulder, and begins talking rather intimately with the boy. It's a little jarring, but I should point out that physical intimacy between men that would never fly in America (holding hands, walking arm in arm, cheek kissing) is common among male friends in Morocco. The only word I can make out is "English." Despite his many kindnesses, I'm not sure I fully trust Khalid. Part of it is natural travellers' paranoia, part of it is because the "great guide" he found to take me through the Medina was more interested in getting me to buy expensive things in his presence so he could earn his commission. But that's another story.
We reached a small plaza. It was time for Khalid to say goodbye and go to services. He introduced me to the teenager, whose name he said so fast I didn't catch it, then invited me to break the fast again tonight. He explained that the boy would help me catch a cab.
We waited in the plaza for a few minutes, not talking. Eventually a cab came by, the boy negotiated with the driver, then held the door for me. I got in...and the boy got in the back seat. I never felt like I was in any danger. I didn't feel threatened or thqt this was a set up. Despite how "foreign" it is, Morocco feels safe. I just tried to figure out how what sort of tip I should give the boy when the moment inevitably came.
We got to my hotel. A day of translating Moroccan dirham into American dollars (which is easy: 10 dirham to one dollar) left me confused. Thinking it was ten dollars, I tried to pay the cab fare with the equivalent of 20 dollars. No, the cab driver and the boy explained. The fare was only a dollar. I got out of the cab, looking at my change, trying to calculate how much to tip the boy. But he just gave me a little nod of his head as goodbye, a half-smile, then walked away without looking back.
Thank you, Khalid. I called tonight to thank him and explain I would not be able to eat with his family again, but the phone connection was so bad that all he seemed to understand was his name.
Shukran bezzef, Khalid. M'a ssalama.