I wrote this for a travel writing contest, but never heard back…I guess I didn’t win :) But, I think it’s still worth sharing…Enjoy ~Vago
Stepping carefully to miss the streams of sewer water and partially holding my breath, I pulled shallow draughts of air through my mouth so as to avoid the stench. I passed by the dozen or so young guys in rip-off Dolce and Gabbana jeans and fake Armani t-shirts . They hunkered down in an unlit doorway with a deck of Moroccan barraja cards and played an excited game of what appeared to be a cross between slap-jack and Texas Hold-em. Filthy Moroccan dirham notes lay on the ground between them. One or two of them glanced at me with suspicious eyes, after all, what the hell was a gaurie-an obvious foreigner with light skin and blue eyes- doing in the heart of the casbah at 11:00 pm. Just then my neighbor Mohammad glanced up from the cards and greeted me “A salaama leycum Yassine. La bas?”
“Wa leycum a salaam Mohammad. La Bas. La bas aleek.” I answered his query about my general state of being and with the same words wished him goodness in return. Since he was in the midst of gambling and I was on the way home, we bypassed the oft required but painfully drawn out process of greeting each other with a thousand and one questions about friends and family followed by numerous wishes of blessings that would be bestowed by the creator.
Five steps more and I was at the lime green metal door which led into my thousand year old apartment. Inside I bypassed the narrow mud-brick steps leading ladder-like to my neighbor’s flat and put the key to the ancient wooden door which led to my very humble abode. The door was ‘Sefroui Blue’ but had been buried in at least twenty layers of colorful paint over it’s lifetime which made it sometimes difficult to close all the way. Scraping it open, I stepped down into what lives in my memory as one of the most fascinating places I have ever lived.
My apartment in the casbah didn’t come with a stove, light-fixtures, a flush toilet, or a shower. The one thing it did have was indoor running water, a luxury in the medina of Sefrou. Every surface inside had been painted a brilliant sky blue including the window frames, the doors, and the cabinets. Within a month of moving in, the moisture on the wall had caused the new paint to bubble and blister and had revealed the nebulous layers of ancient enamel beneath which neither time nor brush could make disappear.
Opening the windows, I reveled in the sounds of the Oued Aggai as it flowed merrily past my windows in the chasm below. My apartment not only had running water indoors, but running water delightfully nearby that would lull me to sleep each evening. Looking up towards the grand mosque of Sefrou, I could see men in djellabas crossing the narrow stone bridge separating the Mellah from Beni Mdrek. In the late hours, they moved even slower than usual. That meant their movement was almost imperceptible since nothing ever moves quickly in Morocco.
Schweeya b Schweeya is what you will inevitably hear in what the Arabs referred to as al-Maghreb, the Kingdom of the West. Schweeya b schweeya translates to little by little and if there is a modus operendi that nearly every Moroccan plays the game of life by, this is certainly it. It’s a philosophy of patience but also of cunning and ultimately, it is what drives many time conscious Westerners who think of living in Morocco to change their minds and go somewhere else.
If you sit for an afternoon in Morocco’s ex-pat and traveler hangout, Cafe Clock, you will without a doubt hear at least one conversation which involves someone’s expectations not being met in any sort of a timely manner. It might be someone restoring a house, someone trying to get married, someone trying to start a business, or someone waiting for transport – but the certainty is you will hear it. You will also hear that reply, sweeeya b schweeya.
To understand and experience Morocco, you must internalize this philosophy. Those who rush from one tourist destination to another will find and see amazing things, but they will also miss the soul of al-Maghreb. I know this from experience, I did it. In less than a fortnight I saw the great imperial cities of Marrakesh, Fes, Meknes, and Rabat and then I visited the bustling port of Casablanca with it’s massive Hassan II mosque, which somehow feels like it’s missing something. Perhaps it is because of the speed with which it was built, no schweeya b schweeya was included. And like the mosque, my fast paced journey was beautiful and exotic, but somehow it completely missed the soul of Morocco.
It was only later, when I decided to stay for a longer time that I started to understand just how embedded into the very fiber of this place this concept truly is. With a history that stretches back thousands of years and a culture born from the intersections of Berber, Arab, French, Portuguese, Spanish, African, Hebrew, Turkish, British and American – this civilization is a fantastically complex human construction which has been built over time idea by idea, piece by piece, and little by little. To try to see it in a day, a week, or a month is an exercise in complete futility. In fact, you will leave with more misconceptions than you arrived with since you will have essentially looked at the couscous without seeing the chicken that lies under it.
Each time I came in or went out that door from my apartment I would meet my neighbors. Not just when they were playing cards in the alleyways, but also when they were getting water from the communal fountain. Mischievous kids with dirty knees and faces would always run by me and once in a great while I would surprise them with a piece of candy, but never money. If you give money once then you are marked for all your time as a charity for the needy to turn to. Scweeya b schweeya. I preferred the charity of carrying water for the old woman who was called ‘Radio’ by the young boys. The name came because her nearly bent in half spine caused her to resemble a radio antenna. Bringing the water inside, I found she and her husband living in a single room heated by a charcoal brazier which was used not only for heating the room, but also for heating food and water . It’s not fast, but then, there really wasn’t any need for it to be. Mr. and Mrs. Radio had nowhere to go and nothing to do. My running water and propane tank stove suddenly seemed outrageous luxuries.
Radio’s invitation to tea was a process that took nearly two hours as the water was heated to a boil, the tea was added, the water was reheated, and finally the tea was poured. My extremely limited command of Moroccan Arabic meant that I could only nod in agreement without actually understanding what she was saying. In time, her son the cobbler arrived and explained that they were happy to have me visiting. I was honored and thankful that their son took the time to visit and bring them groceries.
On Fridays I watched as my neighbors brought couscous to the men working in the vegetable souks. The men motioned me to join them as they slowly gathered around the steaming plate covered with seven vegetables. Under it all, delectable pieces of chicken were hidden under the mound of couscous. I was on my way to an appointment, however, and I had an irrational fear of being late. “Shukran bzzaf. Ana mettl.“ “Lai-owwn.” Thank you much. God help you, they replied, no doubt pitying my rush.
I paused just long enough to buy a kilo of oranges. Even after a year, it felt strange to call them ‘lemons’, but like the donkeys and fire heated water, I was becoming used to it. I walked more quickly than anyone else, a vestige of my Western upbringing and uptightness. Finally, I arrived at my destination.
They had asked me to come for lunch at 2:00 pm, but Mama Khadija hadn’t gotten started until a little bit later because she was visited by her sisters unexpectedly. After that, she had to go to the souk to find the right vegetables and since she was a little late, it was harder to find cabbage that suited her needs. Her husband and sons hadn’t arrived yet and her daughters were relaxing in the petite salon watching Turkish soap operas dubbed in Darija. The time had only been for the strange foreigner and only because I asked. I’ve heard an apt phrase about expats. “They never have the time but they always know it.”
Mama Khadija accepted my gift of oranges and offered me a cup of sweet mint tea. It would be at least an hour before the Friday couscous would be ready, but I was in no hurry. Schweeya b Schweeya. Al hamdillilah.