Morocco: Stepping On New Grounds
I've a love-hate relationship with new experiences. Throwing myself into unfamiliar situations gives me so much anxiety, it's not funny. I've a habit of thinking of all the things that could go horribly wrong and it prevents me from experiencing some potentially amazing things.
In 2013, I made a resolution to have more new experiences and because of that, 2013 was one of the best years of my life. But then, I started working long hours in the office and when my cousin was diagnosed with cancer, I transformed into a zombie void of feelings.
One can only stay a zombie for so long before they decide enough is enough. I was ready to revive my numb heart even though I wasn't sure how. When I was still considering on going to Morocco, my biggest fears were haggling (don't laugh) and not being able to speak their locally spoken languages fluently.
Communication is VITAL when you're travelling; when you're lost or in trouble, you can't afford to be shy, you HAVE to ask someone. As for haggling, I just have zero patience to be negotiating prices with someone for more than 5 minutes or be convinced I need to buy something when I don't.
In the end, it was a stunning picture of Riad Yasmine's white and emerald green centre courtyard that drove me to make a booking. I only consulted my girlfriends after the booking was made but luckily, they didn't need much convincing! For many weeks, especially when work piled on until late night, I would create an escape within the depths of my mind and in the realms of my imagination, those emerald pool tiles would be glistening right before my eyes. Came October, that vision became a reality. Alhamdullilah.
So, how was Morocco in a nutshell you ask?
Awakening my senses
I don't think I've ever been to a place where my senses were so awake. As much as I would have loved to digitally document every magical moment, I also frequently reminded myself to put away my gadgets so that all my senses got to bask in the wonders of Marrakech.
I stayed in the old medina (the Arabic word for city) and everything about it was unlike anything I've ever experienced. I was aware of every sound, smell and colour. Every few minutes, if it wasn't a motorcycle that would zoom pass you, it would be a braying donkey pulling a carriage. There was so much movement in the medina; life was never dull or stagnant. Days were busy and the nights were even busier.
Walking through the medina was like walking through a maze; every bend led you to another bend. The surrounding walls were a reddish brown which sometimes faded into a flamingo pink. As you walked pass the souks (market), the aroma of freshly baked bread and spices filled the air, the voices of people chatting and haggling would never escape you, wherever you went. I'm not sure if it were the high walls or the fact that it was autumn, but even at midday, the weather was lovely and even breezy at times.
When was the last time you did something for the first time?
Morocco was a trip of many firsts for me and I think that's one of the reasons it was so memorable. I tried hendiya (aka cactus fruit or prickly pear) for the first time. Its flesh was filled with seeds much like a passionfruit and I couldn't help but get excited over the fact that I ate the same fruit that was mentioned in the Jungle Book! Remember?
I also tried tagine for the first time and loved it. My friends and I had it everyday when we were there and to my surprise, I never got sick of it. You've to know this is groundbreaking for someone who cannot live long without rice and sambal belacan.
Diversity in Allah's creations
I had to speak in 3 different languages almost every time I spoke to a local. Whenever I failed to form a full sentence in Arabic, I would speak the little French I know and if they happen to know Spanish, which some of them do, I would converse in that, too. Many of them do speak English but when I was there, most of the people I interacted with were more confident speaking French or Arabic.
وَمِنْ آيَاتِهِ خَلْقُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلَافُ أَلْسِنَتِكُمْ وَأَلْوَانِكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَآيَاتٍ لِّلْعَالِمِينَ - 30:22
And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colours. Indeed, in that are signs for those of knowledge. [30:22]
I was fascinated by how multilingual Moroccans were and honestly, I could spend all day listening to the locals switch back and forth from the multitude of languages they converse in. It made me feel ashamed that I can't hold a short conversation in Cantonese/Mandarin or Tamil because those are, in fact, widely spoken languages in Malaysia.
However, I had fun teaching the hotel staff English while they taught me French and some Moroccan Arabic in return. The concept of language is so remarkable and when you study a language; you also learn about its people. Moroccans are as diverse as the languages they speak.
I thought I knew diversity coming from a multiethnic and multireligious country such as Malaysia but Morocco is on a whole new level. I've never seen people like Moroccans; my brain found it difficult to register what I was seeing. I kid you not. The shopkeepers must have thought I was weird because I was carefully inspecting their faces whenever they spoke.
I expected Moroccans to look typically Arab but they don't. Their skin colours ranged from the colour of pale milk tea to coffee; their eyes were commonly a gorgeous brown or greenish hazel. I also noticed that many [but not all] of them had afro-textured hair.
It's bizarre that a Malaysian like me could be so transfixed over how people look given that all the ethnic groups within Malaysia look different from each other. I suppose I was just stunned as I had imagined a very specific image in mind of Moroccans but my preconceptions were smashed right upon arrival. In a good way.
Solace In 'Assalamualaikum' (peace be upon you)
Nothing. And I mean, nothing is as comforting as hearing those words when you're a Muslim in a foreign land. You hear that and you immediately feel home because you know you're talking to another brother/sister of the same faith. Whether you're the one greeting or being greeted, assalamu'alaikum and wa'alaikum musalaam, are two phrases that place ease in your hearts.
And your heart feels even warmer when they cheerfully ask: 'Muslim? Which country?' I proudly declared I was a Malaysian Muslim whenever they asked. I really felt that bond between Muslim and Muslim when I was in Marrakech and I think it was due to the realisation that although we look, speak and dress differently, we were all on the same path: the path to Allah.
When parallel worlds meet
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا ۚ إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ - 49:13
O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.
I thought it was strange many of them didn't believe I was Muslim at first. When I asked if it was because I wasn't wearing the headscarf (I wasn't observing the hijab then), they said no as not all Moroccan women wear the hijab either. They explained it was because they've never associated Muslims with facial features like mine. Although Islam is a religion and not a race, people do racially categorise Muslims, even Muslims themselves!
I've always had the upper hand of being racially ambiguous. Believe it or not, most of them thought I was either Chinese or Thai (not far off, I do have both mixes in my blood)! When I asked why, they pointed to my eyes which are narrow on the outer corners plus my skin which is considered fair.
The exchanges I had with the locals on Malaysian culture was as much of a learning opportunity for them as it was for me, as we both helped educate each other on how our societies were like. It's interesting to learn how you are perceived by others who have hardly come across people 'like you'. I'm grateful for those conversations: face-to-face with undivided attention. Sometimes you get warped into the digital world, you forget how rich genuine human interaction can be.