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Today I am sharing a guest post from Farrah Ritter of the blog The Three Under and an American expat living in the Netherlands. Farrah and I met online and had the chance to meet in person last fall in Athens. She got in touch with me when she started planning a girl’s getaway to Morocco. Her visit and reflections encouraged me to start sharing the stories of people who have visited Islamic countries for the first time, and how that experience challenged what they had previously thought. Enjoy!
Like many Americans, I grew up with opinions of Arabic cultures based upon what I saw from the news and the influence of my family. I grew up in a bedroom community of Detroit- which is near Dearborn and at the time held the largest muslim or Arab population outside of the middle east. I grew up listening to my father’s prejudices over the Arabic people he worked with at the steel mill in Detroit. He didn’t have many good things to say.
After my family and I moved to Europe a couple of years ago- we traveled. We explored new cultures and I went on mini jaunts by myself. I always felt comfortable- and if I might be a bit so bold- felt rather confident in myself and where I was going. After speaking with three American expat friends on this side of the world- we planed a trip to Morocco since it’s easy to fly into from here and affordable, and really, how different could it be?
Truth is, very different. I got a little nervous just before the trip. I didn’t know what to expect or how we would be received. We weren’t going amongst the throngs of high tourist season- which might offer us some blanket of security. We were going in February while for the most part Fes wouldn’t be overrun with people (ie women) who looked and dressed like I did.
I read up as much as I could, and tried to feel out how we might be received- if people would treat us kindly or with scorn. We planned our suitcases with much care, taking clothing that was practical and respectful. I learned about haggling, how to negotiate, what to order for food and braced myself for less-than-friendly people. I had no idea what to expect. I pushed the stories and prejudices of my father out of my mind and focused on this exotic opportunity at hand.
Arriving in Fes, we were met by our contact Hicham who took us to our riad. He seemed nice enough, and made it clear that anything we needed, he was there to help. We made small talk as we meandered around corners and alleys and I began to realize just HOW different this place really was. I put all of my faith in Hicham to get us where we needed to go and be our lifeline as we didn’t have anyone else.
From our first meeting, he quickly became our friend. He was a young father and husband. He told us stories about growing up in Morocco, his siblings, and what he thought of his country. He made us laugh. When we peppered him with questions regarding his travels, he shocked us all saying that because of his nationality he hadn’t seen any of Europe or the US. It was too difficult to travel. He saw countries instead through the stories the visitors to the riad told him instead.
We didn’t discuss politics or religion which truly was the biggest difference between us. We didn’t need to- but we did feel a profound sadness at the realization that there were obviously many Hicham’s out there who were in his same position in the eyes of the world. He treated us with respect and kindness, he liked us back. He took us shopping to the market, told us what was fair to pay. He was at our riad daily to chat and sort out the dinner menu with the ladies that cooked and cleaned our place. We felt more like visiting friends than paying guests. He was our host- but we also enjoyed his company very much.
So imagine my surprise when the day before we left I practically ruined the entire trip for all of us. I was rushing down the steps in the riad when I slipped and tumbled down two flights of marble stairs. It was a very bad fall, hitting my head and back, and I was terrified that something might really be wrong with me. Hicham came RUNNING into the riad when one of my friends contacted him. I remember his grim and panicked face, his concern and fear. The cooking ladies hovered around me, and although we couldn’t understand them they were asking me about my foot (which alarmingly was was increasing in size) and they clucked with worry.
I know that their concern was about me personally and not the fact that I fell on the property of the riad. I KNOW this. For the remainder of our stay they helped me as best they could to limp around- to the bed, the bathroom, the shower. For what could have been an absolutely terrifying incident (and kind of was), it could have been a hundred times worse had I felt a foreigner, a stranger, an enemy. I was none of those things at all. Basically everything I grew up thinking or hearing was turned on its head. How could an entire muslim country hate me with people like this? They might be a very different people and culture- but at the heart of it all they’re still human beings just like me.
I heard from Hicham the other day. He asked how I was doing and if my foot was better. Then he told me that he was in an accident and was now trying to recover. He sent me a photo of what he looked like right after the accident and my stomach flipped. Like a worried mother I pumped him for the details, how he was doing, if he could work, how was his family, and so on. My concern for him surprised me enormously. I was no longer afraid of being disliked or scorned, and instead consumed with concern for this man I hardly knew.
Everything I thought I knew about Morocco turned out to be misinformed and misguided. The country and its people should be given a chance by us all- and maybe then we won’t keep repeating the cycle of our forefathers. Not everyone is the same, as the way Hicham and the ladies of the riad treated me I wonder if I would have been met with such care and concern ‘back home’, or if they would be treated the same if THEY were in the US. Hopefully I never have to put that theory to the test.
Thank you so much Farrah for sharing your story! I plan to share many more stories in the coming weeks of people’s first impressions and experiences visiting an Islamic country. If you would like to contribute you can fill out this form and I will follow up with more information and submission guidelines.
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