LETTER HOME: HOW DO I FIND MY STORY?
Dear Family and Friends,
I write you today from my dingy little hotel room, a shouting distance away from the glorious gong show of Jemaa el-Fna. At various points throughout the day, I can hear the screech of a Berber’s horn and the echo of the muezzin’s holy voice as he calls the people to prayer. Now it’s hot and sticky, and the air is a mix of incense and sewer. But I take comfort in having my own space. And like the proximity to the chaos.
The historic center of Marrakech, the medina, has been a mélange of the marvelous and the impenetrable. It is a flirtatious mess of delicious sounds and people wishing to line their pockets with dirhams that they assume I might have. I walk the alleys in a soup of tourists, thieves, storytellers and beggars, everybody seems to be looking for something, but in the maze of the souks and alleys, they don’t know where to find it. And I am no exception.
I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
Last week I told you that, for my volunteer work, I was giving English classes, but that there had been a conflict between the students and the community center. After I had returned from my tourist-rite-of-passage two-day camel safari, I learned that the classes would be permanently canceled. I was not shocked. But still there was some disappointment. I had hoped that this month’s volunteerism would be well structured and reliable. As I drift across the world in a state of constant foreign-ness, a month of clear work parameters is most welcomed. I had achieved this in Peru, and I was hoping for the same thing here in Morocco. I don’t think it is meant to be.
So as my coordinator, Abdel, from YACD (my host organization) struggled to find new ways to incorporate me into a meaningful volunteer project, I had much of the week to read in cafes, visit gardens and get myself sufficiently hammam’ed. I suppose I cannot complain too much. But it’s all been a very self-contained week. Daniel has been spending time with Daniel. And although I do appreciate my own company, it does lack the cross-cultural transcension, of which I aspire in my travels.
All this extra time, however, has me plowing through my latest novel.
For each of my destinations, I’ve been choosing a literary accompaniment to complement my locations, with the hope of provoking new learning about culture and history. This month is no exception, and my book for Morocco, In Arabian Nights, has become my porthole into Moroccan society and mysticism. The author, Tahir Shah, tells stories of his searching across Morocco for the narratives of the nation, but also for his own story. In Berber culture it is said that each person has a legend in his or her heart, and it is the responsibility of the individual to seek out what that story might be. Shah shares his personal process to find the tale that exists within.
There are many passages in Shah’s memoir that I have appreciated. But this summary struck me as an accurate representation of my own personal experience of Jemma el Fna and Marrakech.
“Jemaa el Fna is the heart of Marrakech. By day it’s a turbulent circus of life – teeming with astrologers, healers, storytellers and acrobats. And when the curtain of dusk shrouds the city from the desert all around, the food stalls flare up, creating a banquet for the senses. A quick glance and you might think it’s all been laid on for the sightseers. But the longer you spend there, the more you come to see the truth. The tourists take photographs but they don’t connect.”
Throughout my travels, my volunteer work has been my chosen method of connection with local people and culture. Benevolence is simply a valid tool to break out of the often-vapid tourist machine, and into the kitchens of the people. Any subsequent goodness of my volunteer action is a byproduct of my own itching desire to have authentic conversations while dismantling the divide between resident and foreigner. I am neither saint nor manipulator. I am simply on a search for connections.
Yet Marrakech is proving to be difficult. This city has walls, literal and figurative, and I’m finding it difficult to penetrate. And I’m not sure what I could be doing to move beyond the white, western odor that wafts into the senses of the average Marrakchi when I am in their presence. I know that to really connect with Moroccan culture it would take longer than the time I have allotted myself. I could take a lifetime. I have 29 days.
In search of connection, each day I install myself in the lower terrace of Café Glaciers. The clientele is a mixture of guidebook toting tourists, Moroccan men reading Arabic newspapers and ambivalent serving staff. I read my book. I look around. I wait – hoping that a conversation with might be ignited, hoping that someone might provide insight or validation or a story. I don’t expect anything to be served to me on a golden platter, instead I am attempting to practice the art of openness.
And as I’ve been sitting, I have wondered about what the Berbers say, that we all have a story in our hearts. Is it just a bunch of archaic mystic drivel? Or is there a greater lesson for which I ought to be searching? And if so, how do I get past the layers of twenty-first century noise and cynicism and cultural divides and personal ego?
How do I find my story?