Saturday, July 13, 2013

Eurocco: Dinner with Aisha's family

I've been saving this story to tell all at once, and also because I know it will be difficult to write and not reflect very well on us, but it is a key part of time here in Morocco, so it should have its place here.

This is a multi-part story that started one of the very first days we were in Fez, when Cait started up a conversation with a woman on a bus, appreciative that the woman understood her limited Arabic and grateful that she, in turn, understood some of what the woman was saying. The woman invited Cait and her family over to her house the next Sunday, which was four or five days out. We didn't know where the woman's (who's name is Aisha) house was, apart from it being in the old city, but Aisha said she would meet us at Plaz Batha at 6pm. Not having any idea if she would meet us or not, we went to the Plaz on Sunday (which was coincidentally Father's Day in the US) to see if she would actually show up. After ice cream cones for the kids and waiting for 15 minutes or so, she did show up, and we began a long walk into the deep center of the old city. She took us through the market that makes up a large portion of the city and because she was spending so much time showing us the market and seeming to ask us if we knew our way back from where we were (we didn't but we said we did) and talking about having us over next week for dinner, we became less sure that she had invited us to come to her home for dinner or whether she was just showing us the old city and would have us over next week. I'm still not sure what she intended, but unable to pick up on any cues across the language and cultural barrier that would enlighten us either way, we continued to follow her until she first, introduced us to her husband on the street and then took us back into her home. Along the way, we saw plenty of interesting stalls and had to insist to young men on the street a few times that we knew where we were going, because the woman we were with was taking us to her home, which they seemed to find hard to believe.

Her home was down a dark alley that apparently never saw daylight, covered as some alleys are in the old city, presumably by the floors of dwellings that stretch across the road. But after some tricky maneuvering with the baby backpack and stroller, the alley opened up into a beautiful little courtyard that forms the center of a little housing complex that holds Aisha's home as well as those of some of her extended family members. We were first shown into a small bedroom where we left our stuff, and then we walked up a floor into the main living space of Aisha's family.

Still unsure of whether we were to expect dinner, we enjoyed delicious Moroccan sweet tea and bread with butter, jelly or olive oil as toppings, and then lingered for a little longer until it became clear that dinner wasn't coming and that we were expected to come back next week for a couscous meal. The kids had a pretty good time playing, although Atticus and Tallulah had a hard time fitting in with the rough and tumble playing style of Aisha's four kids, along with them being tired from a long day.

The light was low in the apartment, so all photos will be poor. But here's the bread and dip.
One of the girls and her cousin, who were also visiting
While there we watched this music video station for kids, and the kids in the family knew the words to every song, mostly sung by the same young Moroccan girl
Our one shot of the courtyard between the homes
The grandpa. When he saw me taking photos, he said to me in Arabic "And me?"

We started our walk home, with Aisha trying again to show us the key markers of how to get to her home, although everything continued to look hopelessly similar to us. She did point us to a mosque, the Karoween Mosque, or something similar to that, as a landmark where we could easily reach by asking and then call from a pay-phone for her to come pick us up. She led us to a path through the market that was a pretty straight shot back to Batha square, and with a few wrong turns and stops to pick up a few small toys in a shop for our, at that time, nearly toyless kids, we made it out to the square and home in time for our kids to drop to sleep, although, if I remember right, Atticus stayed up really late that night because he fell asleep on the way to Aisha's house.

The next morning, after we got home, we realized that we were missing one of Tallulah's shoes, one of her prized Keen sandals, that were unfortunately just big enough to slide easily off of her feet, even with the straps tight and the shoes being about the right length. Actually, its more complicated than that, but this is key to the story: We knew that Tallulah was missing a shoe almost as soon as we left Kyle and Vareena's apartment to go and skype with our families for Father's Day. Cait walked back and saw no sign of it, so we assumed it fell off back in the apartment when we put Tallulah in the backpack. So we took the other shoe off and put it in the backpack, so it wouldn't get lost too. The next day, as I was cleaning up our space in the apartment, I could only find one shoe, the left one, and I was pretty sure it was the left one that we originally lost. I asked Cait, and she was also pretty sure that was the shoe we lost at the first of the night, so that meant we had lost the OTHER shoe, the right one, at some other time in the evening, perhaps, we thought, when I had gone down to get wipes out of the backpack and to check on our stuff. In summary, we were pretty sure we lost one of Tallulah's shoes at Aisha's apartment, but weren't positive, and we were anxious to return on the next Sunday to see if it was there.

We did go back the next Sunday (this was after we checked into the too expensive hotel, if you'll remember), we did get lost, as a lot of the shops and landmarks were closed this Sunday for whatever reason, but the mosque was a good landmark, and after walking around a little ways to find a pay-phone, and some confusion about explaining that the pay-phone was near the famous library of the mosque and not the entrance of the mosque itself, Aisha was able to find us, half-an-hour or so after we were supposed to have arrived at her home. We didn't ask about the shoe until we she had led us back to her home, and that's when things got a little weird. Usually, Aisha has a fairly hard time understanding Cait, or me for that matter, even though she understands us better than most, but as soon as Cait began to even attempt to explain about losing the shoe, by simply pointing at Tallulah's foot and saying something about "last time" Aisha was very quick to respond that the shoe wasn't there, but that it was small and could have easily gotten lost in the street. We were disappointed, but didn't want to press it and upset dinner. Dinner was really good, although the kids were too tired again to really let us enjoy it, and we once again packed up to head home.

Waiting in the little market by the library for Aisha to pick us up.
Dinner was a very traditional couscous platter, with steamed vegetables and chicken. It was really good. Tallulah especially loved it.
I like this one because it looks like Tallulah is making some funny remark joining in the conversation.
That's the father of the home there on the left.
The drink there on the left, that we thought was going to be a sugar cane juice, was in fact some kind of really fermented milk drink. It was the worst thing I have ever tried to drink. I was so thirsty that I tried to drink it several times, but we eventually had to break down and ask for water.
Our one picture of Aisha, the mom.

There were some strained moments, when Aisha, and particularly her husband, became very inquisitive about our financial situation, how much Cait was getting paid while we were here, how much our apartment was going to cost, how much we were spending on our hotel, and even though we lied and said lower numbers, they still seemed astounded by how much we were making and how much we were overpaying for places to stay. It is a lot of money by anything other than US standards, it is a nice apartment and we are paying more than a Moroccan would, even though we are paying only 2/3 of what we pay in Wisconsin for what is unlikely to be considered luxury housing. I've had similar experiences before in Egypt with people enquiring fairly deep into my financial situation, enough to suggest to me that talking money isn't as much as a social no-no as it is in America. But I hadn't ever met someone so insistently inquisitive.

Also, pretty early on in the dinner, Aisha and her husband insisted that we have them over for dinner. I think we would have brought this up ourselves at some point, even though we were still living in a hostel with no guarantee of an apartment in the near future, but because they were insistent, we put in some good effort at crossing the language barrier to establish a time, which was difficult because they were leaving for a long Ramadan trip to a family member's house and we were leaving the country before Ramadan ended. We ended up settling on next Friday, earlier in the evening, when, hopefully, we would have a new apartment where we could host people, which was also the day before they left.

Another strained moment came when Aisha pretty bluntly suggested that we should leave Atticus's scooter, which we had brought along from the hotel, with her family when we left, along with our stroller. The scooter we would probably give them, but the stroller, we will still need in Germany. We didn't want to offend, so we didn't say bluntly no, even though, since they were leaving there is no way we could get them the scooter and it wasn't likely that we were giving them our stroller either way.

In addition, on the way home (in which we got fairly lost, because I thought I knew the way, but didn't) I brought up the weird moment where Aisha dismissed the missing shoe so quickly. Cait said that at the moment it didn't seem that odd, but looking back, it did seem strange. If you know Cait at all, you know that she hates wasting money, especially in losing something she spent a lot of time in considering buying, like she did with the sandals, which she put in some good eBay time to get at a good price. So, when what we came to as the most likely solution, that the shoe had fallen out of the backpack when I was getting stuff out of it at their house and they decided to keep one shoe and lie about it, did not sit well with us and particularly Cait . We weren't and aren't convinced that this was the case, or that we were even right about what shoe went missing when, but it left us with a sour filling, as did all the incidents mentioned above.

I talk about all these incidents to try to justify what we did next, which was stand them up for dinner. Or pretty much stand them up. We had set a very non-firm time to meet them at the McDonald's near their house, with the expectation, I think, that we call them to confirm either day of or day before or something. We went to McDonald's at the appointed time, and we did have a largish dinner ready should they show up, but we never made the call. Part of it is that both of us hate making phone calls in Arabic, and that we still don't have our own working phones (another boring story) and we would have had to use the dreaded pay phone again but a larger part of it is that we just didn't want to have dinner with them. If we had just stood them up out of laziness, that would be one thing, but what I think reflects really poorly on us is that we stood them up because we thought they were expecting too much of us, were going to take advantage of us, or had already stolen from us and might do so again even though the evidence for any of that is embarrassingly scant.

In the end, we just didn't really want them to know where we live or be inside our house, with no real justification beyond vague suspicions and unease. That's not entirely true, because I think, for both of us, there was a desire to extend kindness and curtesy where kindness and curtesy had been extended to us, but it got overruled by a combination of laziness and suspicion.

I'm still not sure what would have happened if we had them over, probably absolutely nothing besides a pleasant, if somewhat strained dinner (there's no getting around the fact that our apartment is much nicer and more expensive than theirs and we have a lot more nice stuff than they do and the food they cooked still would have been better than what we offered them). I'm also still not sure that they stole the shoe, although it still seems somewhat likely (we've heard that there are places where you can sell one shoe and still make money), not that its at all a big deal, because when we called Keen and commented that they could make their children's shoes a little tighter fitting for narrow baby feet, they sent us a coupon for a free pair. It's also not a big deal because they were $14 to begin with.

What I am sure of is that we could have handled the situation better. We could have made a call and told them we weren't ready to have guests over. That, of course, would still not have been the full truth, although, just moving in a few days before, we didn't really feel like having anyone over. Or we could have just sucked it up and had them over, and on the off chance that they did steal something from us, or take advantage of us in some way, then we could have gotten over it and realized they could never steal enough from us to ever make their lives anywhere near as extravagant as ours. The worst that could have happened was what happened in Egypt a few times to us and others, is that they would learn where we live and continue to come over and solicit us/make us uncomfortable on a regular basis. I don't know if we ever told the story of the guy in Egypt who would wait for our roommates to leave and then come around asking for them, asking if he could wait for them, even though they swore they had only talked to him in passing and never invited him over, who eventually ended up verbally sexually harassing Cait through a momentarily opened door. The next time he showed up, I said firmly that neither us nor our roommates ever wanted to see him or talk to him again and that if he came back, we would get the police. He never showed up again. But it was a very upsetting experience not to feel safe in your own home.

So, a fairly bad outcome was a possibility, I suppose, although they were leaving in a few days anyway (or at least we have no reason to believe they weren't), so any troubles would have been short-lived. Plus, it's not like Morocco is a lawless place where foreigners can get consistently harassed and have no recourse (going to the police in Egypt would have been a real possibility should things have gotten worse).

Basically, I'm afraid that for all our talk of standing with the poor and being liberals or whatever, we let our classism and racism get in the way of doing the right thing. Probably, by itself, this isn't a huge deal, just one lostnrelationship, but what it revealed to me about my own inherent biases makes me uncomfortable. I think we both feel pretty bad about how it turned out, and would like another chance, although, to be honest, we've come away from the whole situation less eager to make Moroccan friends than we were when we first came to the country. I'm sure, in the end, that will prove to be almost exclusively our loss.



  1. FASCINATING. Oh man, that is rough. Jeremy and I have had similar experiences, and also experiences that have turned out much better (so don't give up hope!). Some of the things you describe are obviously easily chalked up to cultural differences or language barriers, but as you said, there is more going on than just that.

    I had to laugh at the part where a denial about a missing object came a little too quickly...did we ever tell you about all the stuff we had stolen from our stairwell in Egypt? It was so incredibly bizarre. The first thing to go missing was our stroller. We asked the boab if he had seen it and his answer of "no, I haven't seen a stroller" came just a liiiiiiitle too easily, if you know what I mean. But then again, who knows? Anyway. Great post today. I will be quiet now.

  2. We had a similar experience in China. We met an older lady on a bus and she said she wanted to help us find an apartment so she took Patrick's phone number. A few months later she called and invited us to dinner. She bought so much food that we were getting uncomfortable as we mentally figured out the price. Eventually she came to her real point: she had health problems, so she wanted us to fund raise for her at our church back in the US. She also wanted us to import honey to the US and sell it for her friend. (?!) We were SO uncomfortable. We managed to get out of there without making any promises (feeling horrible that she wouldn't let us pay after basically just telling us she had no money), and she kept calling Patrick's phone. We didn't know what to do so we didn't take the calls. I still feel horrible about the whole thing. We still have some things to learn about the Chinese guanxi system, I guess.