“Multiculturalism in Morocco”

Wajida, from Brandeis University, participated in the Spring 2011 semester program in Rabat Morocco.  During the last weeks of her program, Wajida wrote the following article entitled “Worldview: Multiculturalism in Morocco: Students enjoy a unique Passover experience abroad in Rabat”  for her university’s newspaper.  Please enjoy her wonderful article which relates the cross-cultural exposure and understanding stimulated by AMIDEAST programs.

© Wajida Syed

It was Monday, April 18, the time was 6:30 p.m., and the busy downtown of Rabat, Morocco was proving to be even more difficult to navigate than usual. As I sidestepped businessmen in suits, mothers with large shopping bags and a jarring number of cats, I wondered why the city always has an uncanny knack of being impossible to navigate on the most important of days. Hurdling over cars in a traffic jam that would put New York City to shame, I weaved through the swishy, colorful jellabas (traditional robes) on Avenue de la Resistance in order to arrive at Label Vie, the Moroccan equivalent of the Hannaford supermarket. Once inside, I cornered the first worker I saw and asked in Darija, the Moroccan Arabic dialect, “Do you guys have matzo?”

“Ici,” he replied, pointing to an aisle of crackers and other cookies. To my disappointment, the rqeeqa, as matzo is called in Darija, was nowhere to be found, and to my further disappointment, it wasn’t available at the Acima supermarket either.

It was Passover. The matzo hunt was part of the mission to help Hila Landau ’12, who is also studying abroad in Morocco, prepare a Passover meal which we would attend. Assisting with the seder preparations were Nathaniel Chase, a fellow student in our program, and Olivia Batker-Pritzker ’12, a Paris study abroad student who had come to visit for the week.

Hila had wanted to make a seder as she usually did back in the United States, and we were all on a mission to make it happen. In our last-minute planning, we were unable to find or cook everything necessary for the meal.

© Wajida Syed

It was nearly sunset and we had no candles, matzo, horseradish, charoset (a fruit-and-nut mixture) or main course-only an odd, orange soup slowly cooking on the stove that consisted of a scarce 5 percent of the vegetables needed for its recipe.

Olivia and I returned to Nate’s house with an unspoken sense of defeat because we were unable to find any of the items we were supposed to. This outcome was odd and unexpected, since all of the items we needed could usually be found in Rabat, but luck and timing were not on our side that day. We sat down for the meal on the rooftop, the table set with the weird soup; a Moroccan-style chicken; potato chips substituted for matzo; apricots for charoset; a watery grape juice for wine; spicy Moroccan mustard as horseradish; and a single, symbolic vanilla-scented candle.

And then, the adhan (call) for the last prayer of the day sounded over the old medina. As we looked out over the balcony at the beautiful, twinkling city, every minaret for miles around joined forces to harmonize a call to prayer unlike any other.

It was then, in the echoes of the adhan, in the light nighttime breeze, in the company of three close friends, that Hila had a moment of epiphany. Having a Passover seder for which we had run around an entire foreign city, speaking a language we had little command of, attempting to cook without ingredients on a questionable gas stove and ultimately having to resort to creative strategies is infinitely better than being able to buy everything at a grocery store. This, she said, is what it’s all about.

There is a place in the human soul that we enter when we are entirely soaked in the experience of the present. And at that moment, reeling from the whole-hearted effort to make a Jewish seder happen, I realized-as a Muslim-that this is what it’s all about.

© Wajida Syed

I’ve had quite the experience in Morocco. I went around a lagoon in a boat in the town Moulay Bousselham to watch flamingos. I sat for hours in the gorgeous al-Qarawiyyin mosque in Fez, a city that boasts the oldest university in the world. I trekked on a dromedary for 2 1/2 days in the endless dunes of the Sahara desert, where the nighttime sky revealed every single star in the sky.

I played in the snow near a lonely little restaurant in a random valley of the Middle Atlas mountains. I made mashed potatoes and steak in a 450-year-old house in the holiest city in Morocco, Moulay Idriss, right before going to the roof to watch the sun set over the Roman ruins of Volubilis.

After stuffing myself with delicious almond cookies and mint tea, I’ve danced with the bridesmaids at an incredible wedding in Fez. And I’ve certainly gotten my fair share of stomach infections, parasites and intestinal rebellions.

Experiences like these and the smaller moments within them have filled me with a strange sense of Understanding, with a capital U, that can’t be proved, explained or artificially contrived.

After scouring the entire roof for the afikoman, the little piece of matzo that is customarily hidden for children to find, we finally found it and were rewarded by Hila with little toy zoo animals. Sitting on that rooftop that night, playing with plastic rhinoceroses, we all had a moment of Understanding. We weren’t theologians, we weren’t historians and being juniors in college, we certainly weren’t experts on anything.

There were 1,001 incomplete ways to describe us, the attendees of a Jewish Passover seder on a rooftop in the old medina of Rabat, Morocco. A Protestant, a Muslim and two Jews. Three women and a man. Four Americans. An Israeli, two European medleys and an Indian.

Between us we spoke six languages: French, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hebrew and Malayalam.

But in reality, we were just four friends, four human beings who, for the night, had scraped off the insecurities of life, ignored our perfectionist proclivities and simply learned to appreciate a raw, authentic night that celebrated Understanding.

Our understanding didn’t come from knowledge; it came from a vulnerable, trying and ultimately beautiful experience. Sometimes we forget that: that to find is really to rediscover, that to learn is really to reflect on that which you already know. And to travel abroad is to return with an ounce more of the familiarity of the human experience.

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Filed under Adventure, Food, Morocco, Rabat, Spring 2011, Wajida Syed

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