Finding Myself in Morocco (Part 2)



Before we left for Morocco, I learned we were going to spend our nights in riads.* I won’t lie, growing up Brooklyn-poor made me distance myself from any hotel less than 4 stars. I have had my fill of vacation-bedbugs and grimy towels. I googled riad to make sure it wasn’t jargon for youth hostel. Up popped luxurious bedroom snaps (a little gaudy for my taste, but luxurious and inviting.)

Wow, they’re right out of Aladdin—then I remembered the tales of sadder and wiser young women who bought their prom dresses or wedding gowns on-line. Their dream clothing looked nothing like the pictures—would my riad room be a crashing disappointment too? Well…yes and no.

Riad Jona in Marrakesh

Ishmael circled four times until he found a place to park outside the medina.** Dirty, crowded and punctuated with whiffs of cat urine, it was clear Curb Appeal wasn’t in the Moroccan lexicon. Our riad in Marrakesh finally appeared after 3 right turns and a left in a nondescript alley. Packs of street cats followed us to our door. While some wore beige stripes and others were calico, they all were half starved and lethargic. Occasionally, dogs would bark their presence, but they also looked too weak to attack, most lay on the dirty cobblestone under shards of sunlight. I thought of Fido, asleep in the big bed; nose facing the air conditioner vents.

Among the four-legged denizens, were scores of beggars: old and sickly, they too sat on the ground, emaciated arms across their legs with hands cupped for alms. I feared this was the health care system in Morocco.   

At a polished wooden door, a smiling young man invited us in. 

Overstuffed velvet couches topped with scores of pillows placed between potted palms amid scattered-jewel tone rugs made the Jona lobby look more like Auntie Mame’s sitting room. But the middle fountain with floating rose petals was homage to the Muslim belief of God rising from water not Mame’s décor. 

We were offered mint tea.

Flavored with both Stevia and 2-inch long sugar logs, Morocco’s favorite beverage is an American’s health hazard. I felt my triglycerides triple in number as I sipped. (HJ didn’t mind the brew and spent the rest of our trip ordering it without sugar—which in Morocco means only one sugar log. I switched to swigging Coke Zero by day 4.)

We sat and sipped for longer than New Yorkers consider acceptable. The young male staff, busy with other duties, would stop, ask if we’d like more tea and make polite conversation. I grew antsy, remembering the beggar filled street just outside and worried for our safety. After a considerable wait and copious glasses of tea, we were taken to our rooms. The blast of a working air conditioner and a less gaudy setting relieved me of my worries. (You can see my room on Expedia. It’s page 7 of the slide show. See the mosaic head board and wall? Nice!)

Our tour kept us in Marrakesh for five nights-3 nights too many for those of you planning your trip. Spend more time in other cities. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to take the Jona staff with you. They are truly the most likeable people I’ve met. Always affable, they worked long into the night and arrived sleepy-eyed but sociable each morning. Later, in Fes, I realized most Moroccans work 12-hour days. Rashid, Mohammed, Yusef and Youssef, who spoke 3-4 languages each, seemed impervious to hard work. They also took classes (I don’t know how they managed with their riad schedule-but somehow, they did.) and were desperate to emigrate. Some to the US, others to Europe. What stopped them had nothing to do with our president and everything to do with their King. Morocco stalls emigration with both under-the-table money and endless paperwork. The system is corrupted by bribery and intended bureaucracy. The kingdom openly curtails the loss of its workforce.

How quickly these multilingual talents would be hired globally, if only they could leave.

Every morning, as we made our way out of our medina to Ismael and our car, the shop keepers and beggars called out to HJ, “Ni Hao!” “Chinois!” Even I had lost my anger at their rudeness. Evidently, it was justifiable to call out differences-even when you have the wrong country of origin. One beggar, who kept his usual place on a stone step, smiled at us, revealing his toothlessness, “Cam sah hab nee dah!” was his daily greeting to HJ. How he knew she was Korean, will remain a mystery—why he called out “Thank you,” instead of hello will stay a mystery too.

One evening, we had our private cooking class with chef Juliana (most of Morocco’s chefs are women). HJ declared our couscous the best in North Africa, our charred eggplant with its subtle spices, “a gastronomic treasure” and our chicken succulent. Our mood was happy and silly as we complemented our bread-baking skills as well. One of Jona’s young men, visited our table. At first, I thought he was practicing a break-dance move-with his arms loosely swinging and his bottom lip pouted. He reached us and began a sort of Eddie Murphy as Donkey in Shrek imitation. HJ and I stared in disbelief—What was he doing?

“This is the way blacks talk…right? In America?” He asked in his real voice.

OK, I admit my answer was snarky. “Not the dentists,” my sarcasm was lost on him, but weighed heavily on me.

“Only in movies.” I offered an explanation, “Americans speak in a lot of ways.”

Embarrassed, he softened his voice, “Enjoy your meal.”

We invited him to join us, but with his best riad-staff smile, he declined.

I was angry at America’s film industry. The same stars who use their video ops to call other Americans- racists have become rich by using every racial, gender and religious stereotypes in their work. The Marrakesh staffer needn’t have been ashamed, but my fellow-Americans on the left coast should be.

The next day, we left for Fes, never to see the Marrakesh boys again.

* riad-old Moroccan townhouses converted into inns

** medina-a walled city with narrow maze-like alleys.
Please note the names of the Jona staff have been changed