PERCEPTION and MISPERCEPTION in a Muslim Country

 

A Day in Marrakech (Bryce)

The time is 5a.m. The city of Marrakech, Morocco is breathlessly quiet. Suddenly, chanting begins to resound from a nearby mosque. Within moments it is followed by a chorus of guttural voices, emanating from over 100 minarets. Asleep on a rooftop terrace I am jarred awake by the thunderous Call to Prayer. This is our Moroccan alarm clock. 

From our rooftop terrace we have a sprawling view of the city. The markets form a web of convoluted streets; alleyways thatched in bamboo and hopelessly tangled. From the central plaza, the streets radiate outward in a labyrinth capable of making anyone feel directionally challenged. In the distance loom the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. 

Departing from our rooftop we gravitate towards the plaza. By the time the sun had ascended, monkey-handlers and snake charmers are already welcoming the day. People are everywhere, mummified women in shawls, filthy children, wizened old folks with canes, teenagers swerving erratically on mopeds, and beggars shielded under cardboard, aligning cigarette butts with Mecca.

After breakfast in the plaza we take the plunge into the markets. Everything is rich in color-vibrant scarves, jewelry, teapots and tasselled rugs. Tables are heaped with camel-leather saddles, daggers, spices and fresh produce. Our personal favorites are the stands piled in figs and dates. In the center of the stands are holes where Moroccans pop up to collect our order, reminiscent of prairie dogs emerging from their burrows.

One moment please!” they shout, “Just look, no buy! Like free!” 

Animals are also numerous. Donkeys haul carts containing every product from Coca-Cola bottles to propane tanks. Cats wander the streets, scavenging bits of meat and gnawing at fish bones. Roosters peck at the ground.

We wander between cracked, sunset-colored walls until we detect the stench of the tannery. The tannery is an open area with vats of water made milky with pigeon droppings. Workers slosh in the rank broth in nothing but shorts, laboring to tan sheep leather.  It looks like a vast honeycomb, where men hang skins to dry and mangy cats wander the rims. We are handed sprigs of mint leaf to sniff to dull the stench.

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At the dyers  souk, pieces of cloth are hung from lines and lifted with hooked poles. The colors are striking and vary from crimson to turquoise and cobalt blue. We climb up a spiral staircase to view the scenery from the terrace. Somehow, we find ourselves bargaining with a man who offers 8,000 camels in exchange for my sister.

By nightfall the plaza is a hive of humanity. Like moths to a flame, we are attracted towards its lit center. Men wheel in food carts and cooking tents, banishing the snake charmers and their repetitive song. Soon pungent smoke clouds the air. Small greasy chefs busily fry small greasy sausages. Buckets of snails entice the passerby. Determined tattoo artists pursue us with syringes of henna, while we pursue the aroma of frying food.

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The traffic is chaotic, mopeds swerving around bewildered tourists. The whine of motorbikes pierces the air.

Where you from?” inquires a fruit salesman.

The United States.”

A thousand welcomes,” he exclaims, grinning gleefully. We smile back.

From dawn to dusk the markets have ensnared us. We realize a week would not be fully sufficient to see all its wonders. Returning to our rooftop terrace, we hear the fifth and final Call to Prayer, while below us drummers pound out the heartbeat of Marrakech.

 

All this occurred in just twenty-four hours. The first twenty-four hours of a month-long trip. So much is packed into a single day when you travel to a foreign country such as Morocco, where nearly everything is strange, exotic and new. So much happens in a span of 24 hours, that by the end of a single day, what occurred in the morning, seems like many days ago. The passing of time is perceived as going slow for it feels stretched and packed to the brim with abundant experiences, yet it never drags or is boring. This is the treasure of travel. Your days spent on a trip are of the highest quality.

We traveled to Morocco in 2008 to celebrate the kids’ 16 & 18th birthdays. Our friend, Allen Hoppes, owner of “I, Like You Tours,” was broadening his guide service to include private trips for families. He needed a family to practice on and we happily obliged. Allen believes as we do, that travel can be much more than moving from one place to another but is about learning by experience and immersing yourself in the culture.  Knowledge is one thing; personal experience is another. We travel in order to experience what life has to offer in order that we might live life more fully. This has always been my goal for my children.

When my sister learned that we were splurging on this month-long adventure, she replied, “If that were me, I would be using that money for my children’s education.”

To that I replied, “I am.” This, we were soon to discover, was exactly what we were doing.

It had been 8 years since the Twin Towers exploded when we traveled to Morocco and fear had been driven into many American hearts, including an imperceptible fear of Muslims in general. I want to teach my children acceptance, respect and welcome when it comes to all people. The best way to have that happen is to go to an Arab country and live there for a time.

My children knew that many Arab cultures have dress codes for women, some much stricter than others. As free-thinking liberals, who relish our independence and freedom, we had a pre-conceived idea that this practice seems medieval and unnecessary.

 

In the cities of Morocco, we observed that Muslim women rarely go out in public. “The street is a man’s domain,” Allen tells us. When women do go out, they huddle in twos and walk tightly arm in arm as if one being. They do not want to look attractive in any way. We may look at this custom as being repressive when in reality it is viewed as practical and respectful in their culture.
Their homes have open courtyards with rooms radiating around like the spokes of a wheels. Here their children play, away from the streets, protected. The women go up to the rooftops to hang their wash, feel the sun, see the view, even if it is only a scene of more rooftops, but this is where they socialize and share with their women friends, as well as the hamman, the public bath where they scrub one another in long, rough strokes up and down their backs until the dead skin comes off in black spaghetti strings. The women are “safe” on the roof from the rest of the world, the world of men, as they are inside their homes. Over half of Moroccan women have little education and cannot read nor write.

As we walk the streets, dark-haired, handsome young Moroccan men, dressed in all black are everywhere, with clearly nothing to do with their time.

Sierra says, They all make eye contact with me and latch on with a desirous look. They lock their dark eyes shamelessly on mine and coo, “oh, la la.”  I look away bashfully. One stops dead in his tracks and just stares at me. And I was on Mom’s arm wearing a coat and a hat and not having showered in days, I wasn’t feeling attractive. Bryce tries to get me to walk 50 feet ahead of the rest of the group to see the level of harassment that is inflicted on me. I got quite a few marriage offers from shop owners and one offers Bryce 900,000 camels to be his wife.”

The young men behave more like hungry harmless wolves, instead of polite, respectable hosts, perhaps  they are the victims of deprivation. Remaining hidden in your home and hidden behind scarves when you do go out in public is making more sense to my daughter. Sierra is different and so she gets noticed. She has no competition with other young Moroccan women, as they are not on the streets, and we see no American tourists, especially young adults. We’re learning to navigate the streets of Morocco, not just through the maze of the souk, but also amongst their people.

The Moroccan women in the rural areas, we’re discovering, have more freedom than their urban sisters but also more work. They must go out daily to collect greens for cow food and lug huge bundles of sticks on their backs from the forest to fuel their cook fires. The rural men lean against telephone poles or alongside buildings or sit in circles. They look hard at us for not many tourists visit the places Allen is taking us. This uneven division of labor is being noted by my children.

When you travel to countries that are off the normal tourists’ radar, you get noticed, because you stick out. They can tell we are Americans. Our behavior is being noted and used as a reference to understand our people, contrary to what they might hear in the news or on television. Who they perceive us to be and who we really are can be very different.

I was once approached by a foreigner from a developing country and he was puzzled about how we are able to go out of our homes. We might “live in mansions,” he said, “but the street is a very dangerous place.” When I asked him what he was basing his information on, he admitted it was two American TV shows, “The Lives of the Rich and Famous” and “NYPD.” He thought that was how we all lived.

Others are much better informed. We met people from Switzerland while in Morocco and they said, “What a shame that all Americans are viewed in relation to your country’s politics, the behavior of (then) President Bush, and judge you accordingly.” Another asked,  “Why do you Americans think that you’re better than everyone else?”

To that I replied, “I don’t, and I am not my country’s politics nor my country’s government nor my country’s leader.”

It is very beneficial to see how other people in the world view us. Many are confused about our leaders’ motives and actions in the world. Questioning foreigners such as these make my children think and not be too hasty to accept what the American media feeds us as truth. These encounters are opportunities to take the misperceptions in a foreigners’ mind and turn them into more accurate, honest and real opinions about who Americans are. We can choose to behave as good-will ambassadors and set a good example.

 

Our most impacting experiences in Morocco, the ones which taught us the most, were the times spent in the private homes of the rural people, where we could see who they really are.

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A Berber family in the Dades Gorge of the Rif Mountains, ran a small hotel and also offered private group meals. The attractive, exotic-looking young men served us wearing head scarfs, as they poured hot tea high above our cups from silver pots, and we sat on cushions eating goat meat and vegetables out of clay tagines. One young man in particular was watching Sierra from afar and she felt smitten.

The other male family members beat on goat skinned drums, as the fire burned warm and glowing. After dinner, they taught us to dance traditional Berber dances, and entertained us with card games and magic tricks, as Allen interpreted and translated. The night was filled with happy laughter as we learned to communicate and found connection with these new friends.

When we asked to visit a local silversmith, in the hopes of buying some jewelry, the young man who was attracted to Sierra, ushered us to the village artist. After Sierra selected a particular Berber ring, he took it upon himself to pull it from the case and slide it onto her finger himself. Bryce teased his sister about a future Berber wedding until morning came and our mountain boy appeared without his head scarf. That quickly, all the allure and mystery connected to him dissipated with his exposed, close-cropped haircut, making him look like every other Moroccan young man.

 

Towards the end of our month-long stay, Allen arranged a homestay experience for us where we walked from one family’s rural farm to their relatives. This experience becomes our family’s most favorite out of  a month of spectacular memories and it is here where we connect the deepest to our new Muslim friends.

First-borns are often named Mohammad and in this particular blended family of two second marriages, there were two sons named Mohamed as well as their father, making three Mohammeds under the same roof. Back in America, many teens put tremendous energy into finding out “who they are” and creating a separate identity from their parents so my kids found this very different.

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We ate with the family around one massive tray of community food, consuming what was right in front of you, with your one hand (right)- your left is considered “unclean” (some use to clean their butts). No one gets fat here if you just stick to your little triangle of food in front of you. My kids feared they were straying too far to the left or right and stuck to mopping up meat juice with hunks of bread to play it safe.

Afterwards, they asked us questions, with the aid of Allen interpreting.

“I’ve heard that in some countries like America you eat from your own plate, but I have never seen this.”

The adults watched me. They asked if I drive, if I cook, how old I am. When they heard how old I was (51) they could believe I am able to hike the way I do. Fifty is very old in Morocco. When they learned that I am five years older than Todd, they replied that in Morocco, a woman is never allowed to marry a man who is younger than she. A woman must go to live with her husband’s family and her new mother-in-law is her now constant companion, not her husband. They will not even sleep together but the men and boys will sleep in a separate room. They then dressed Sierra and I up in their style of clothing, wrapped blankets tightly around our waists, applied black coal eye liner, wrap a head scarf around our heads, and tuck my hair in “to protect me.”

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The kids bonded very quickly. The young boys hung on my kids affectionately with their arms draped around their shoulders. They tried on Bryce’s aviator sunglasses and wanted their picture together trying to look “gangster.’ They got my kids to teach them American lyrics and sang together, giggling. They wanted to play simple card games as that is a way to overcome the language barrier.

At the end of the evening, when they directed our family to split up for the night, as was their custom, Allen told them that our family would remain together. Although we were sleeping on narrow sofas that lined the walls, not in double beds, our hosts still made a point to direct Sierra and I to the far opposite side of the room from my husband and her brother. They tried to get Allen to sleep with the men but he too said that he would be staying with “the family.” He was our guide and friend.

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When we said good-bye the next morning, there were warm hugs all around and many photos taken to preserve the memory. The Islamic people have a beautiful saying, “Guests are gifts from God,” and this Moroccan family represented this sentiment beautifully…nothing “scary” about this Islamic family! We hoped to see one another again and to that they replied with the equally beautiful Islamic saying, “inshallah” (Insha’Allah),” God willing, or if Allah wills.

My children claimed that out of the fifteen countries they experienced before they went to college, Morocco was at the top of the list. It was partially because these people were Muslim and extraordinarily welcoming hosts, a monumental lesson to learn by my children about accepting and understanding other cultures and religions. They’ve learned to look for similarities, try to understand differences and not be fooled by inaccurate perceptions.

As we wrapped up our trip to Morocco, Allen shared these thoughts with my children.

Many cultural norms (what we eat, when we eat, who we marry, which God we worship, how we dress, what is important to us) are simply arbitrary. They carry the weight of habit, history and peer pressure. When we travel, we begin to see that other people do things differently, think differently, etc. and they also may think their ways are the best, right, natural and true ways of doing things/being. They might even think they are sacred and come directly from God. With enough travel and enough exposure, an intelligent mind recognizes that much human activity/ways of doing things, is arbitrary. Somebody made the rules up and we follow them. Travel can open a traveler’s mind that there are other ways of thinking/doing/being, that life can be a smorgasbord from which we choose what we like best. You don’t have to eat only what is put on the plate in front of you. 

You don’t have to listen to Fox or CNN to find out what Muslims think or what dog tastes like–you can go find out personally. You can educate ourselves and decide. You don’t have to accept the ideas of the media. You can go to Philadelphia and eat an Ethiopian meal, or you can eat with an Ethiopian family somewhere in Ethiopia and see where they live, what they do, hear what they think and create a connection which the Ethiopian meal in Philadelphia will not provide, no matter how good the meal is. 

 

It was seven more years until Bryce and I returned to a Muslim country, this time to Turkey. Bryce created an illustrated travel guide to Istanbul for his Illustration class in art school and I thought Turkey would be a fitting destination for a graduation trip. We could visit the attractions he spent a semester researching and then painting. Here was another opportunity to hammer home this whole notion of preconceived opinions and fear and how they can be very inaccurate and ill-founded.

But eleven months after I purchased the airline tickets, ISIS had begun to wrack havoc in the Middle East and the Syrian/Turkey border was a dangerous hot spot. Our friends and family questioned the wisdom of this destination.

I sought the advice of my diplomat nephew and he told me that as long as we stayed away from the border, and diligently watched the news, he certainly advised going. In fact, we bought a ticket himself and joined us. And we understood that Turkey, like Morocco and Turkey are two of the “safest” Muslim countries in the world.  Having free rein to walk in the marketplaces and out in the rural countryside might not have been so easily achieved in other Arab countries.

It was in a Cappadocian bus shelter that we were once again reminded of how often our misperceptions come into play and how we can reach out, connect and see what is real.

The old woman’s scarf wrapped around her neck and head and covered all visible signs of hair or what color it was or how little was left. I couldn’t be accurate in judging her age. On her robust body, she wore a long gathered skirt, a blouse and a long knitted button down vest…sneakers. She held a cloth bag by its handles. She sat in the bus shelter waiting for a bus to take her to Avenos and watched me, smiling. She was trying to figure us out.

In broken English with a strong Turkish accent she attempted a conversation. “Are you from America?”

“Yes.”

“Is that your husband?”

“No, it’s my son.”

“More children?”

“Aa daughter.”

“Is THAT your daughter?”  (a Korean girl standing next to me whom I exchanged small talk with.

“No!”  We all laughed. She blushed and laughed too.

“I said, “She could be my daughter if I had two different husbands.”

When the bus pulled up, my new friend got in first. Bryce and I carefully picked our way down the narrow aisle trying not to whack anyone. All the seats were filled. When I passed my new friend, whom had scored a seat, she patted her knee and offered her lap for me to sit in. I was floored.

I thought about our friends back home who were fearful of this trip, these people. If they could see my old lady fiend now, they too would feel foolish. We may have to travel to their homes to see for ourselves, sit in their laps, so we can accurately decide  who these people truly are and have them understand who we truly are. Had it not been a short bus ride, I may have taken her up on her offer.

 

 

4 thoughts on “PERCEPTION and MISPERCEPTION in a Muslim Country

  1. Thank you for the post! I enjoyed reading it! It reminded me of my travels and time in Morocco. It is such a wonderful country with wonderful people. We need more like this. Travel makes one take away the fears. I wish more Americans would travel abroad maybe there would be a greater understanding among everyone. Too many Americans don’t take the time to travel and understand and appreciate other cultures and other people’s beliefs. We need to step away from the our own media propaganda and see the world for what it truly is, full of wonderful people and sights and sounds and tastes! Thanks so much for this post.

    Keep traveling and exploring!

    • thank you Earl- and that’s coming from an adult- all the gift of traveling abroad- can you imagine if more young people began their adult life with a broad open mind, how much more peace and positive feelings there would be? I do not see it as a luxury but a necessity- for those families who would take their kids to Disneyland half a dozen times, go to a developing country and open their eyes.

      • A necessity indeed! More parents should take their children to other countries. Fostering an appreciation for other cultures and people while children are young would surely make this this world a better place for everyone! And it’ll last a lifetime! Keep on traveling!

      • “I beg young people to travel. If you don’t have a passport, get one. Take a summer, get a backpack and go to Delhi, go to Saigon, go to Bangkok, go to Kenya. Have your mind blown. Eat interesting food. Dig some interesting people. Have an adventure. Be careful. Come back and you’re going to see your country differently, you’re going to see your president differently, no matter who it is. Music, culture, food, water. Your showers will become shorter. You’re going to get a sense of what globalization looks like. It’s not what Tom Friedman writes about; I’m sorry. You’re going to see that global climate change is very real. And that for some people, their day consists of walking 12 miles for four buckets of water. And so there are lessons that you can’t get out of a book that are waiting for you at the other end of that flight. A lot of people—Americans and Europeans—come back and go, ohhhhh. And the light bulb goes on.” – Henry Rollins

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