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What Happened in Morocco??

What Happened in Morocco??

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Discover the captivating journey of a father visiting his daughter, a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer, in Morocco. Follow his experiences, from initial worries about safety to heartwarming encounters with locals, unveiling cultural nuances, and cherished moments shared with his daughter.

During 50 years of my academic career, I visited many countries to participate at scientific conferences in my field of research. But I went to Morocco in the beginning of July 2006 to visit my middle daughter Sumona, who after completing her BS degree in  Environmental Policy & Natural Resources in 2003 from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor decided to join the U.S. Peace Corps, an organization established by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to promote world peace and friendship through global service. Peace Corps recruits volunteers to serve in six main areas: health, education, environment, agriculture, youth in development and community economic development. They are known to serve in more than 60 countries and as a volunteer they live and work on locally prioritized projects. They also receive a stipend and other support as they are  immersed in new cultures. After talking to Sumona we realized that serving in the U.S. Peace Corps would be a very good experience for her, which turned out to be the case. Indeed, volunteering for a little over 2 years in Morocco and being able to converse in Arabic certainly helped her in getting admission to Georgetown University Law School in Washington DC, one of the top law schools in the U.S.A., then internship in the US Department of Justice and later appointed as a lawyer in the same department.

But when Sumona told us that she was assigned to go to Morocco, I was petrified with the thought of she being all alone in a far-off Arab country when Americans were engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after the September 11 (9/11) attack on New York City by terrorists from Middle Eastern countries. Anti-American sentiments were high in all Muslim countries during that period.  I was extremely worried about her safety and tried my best to dissuade her from going to Morocco. But Sumona made up her mind and no amount of persuasion would deter her from going  to Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer. However, she assured us that the U.S. Peace Corps being a very reputable organization and supported by the US government  takes safety of their volunteers very seriously. Also she would be with several other young volunteers from the US and that she would get a cell phone as soon as she in Morocco and would be in touch with us on a regular basis.

So one fine afternoon in March 2005, we went to Detroit International Airport to see Sumona off, but was pleasantly surprised to see that another young girl of her age from Michigan was also going to Morocco as a Peace Corp volunteer. As promised, Sumona called us soon after her arrival in Rabat, the capital of Morocco, where she along with other volunteers were going to undergo Arabic language course for 2 months or so.. After completion of the language course, Sumona was sent to live with a farmer’s family in Sidi Majbeur, a village few miles from Taza, a small town with a population of about 150,000.00, where the Peace Corp  also had a small office, a part of the Moroccan establishment.

I decided to visit Sumona in July of 2006 after attending the World Congress on Gastrointestinal Cancer in Barcelona, Spain.  I flew on Royal Air Maroc  from Barcelona to Rabat, a  2h flight over the Mediterranean Sea. On arrival, as I was going through the Immigration and Customs I presented my U.S. passport to the Immigration Officer. He looked at me and said with a smile “Oh you are an Indian” and stamped my passport without saying anything else, though I was clearly an American citizen.  I was pleasantly surprised by the welcoming behavior of the immigration officer.

Sumona instructed me to take a train from Rabat Airport to Casablanca, a little over an hour ride, which I did. In Casablanca, Sumona had already reserved a hotel for me near the train station. A little incident happened in the hotel, where I spent the night. In the morning, I was served a very nice breakfast on the veranda with fruits, egg, toast, jam and coffee. As I started to eat my breakfast I looked for salt and pepper shakers, but not finding any on my table I  got up and tried to get them from two tables away from mine.  However, after grabbing the salt and pepper shakers when I turned around, I saw to my utter horror that two little kittens were devouring  my breakfast. What could I do but to let them enjoy my nice breakfast. I should have noticed a numbers of cats lounging in sun on the lawn by the side of the veranda.  I asked the waiter to give me cup of coffee and a toast and jam, which I finished without getting up from my chair and then walked to the station to catch the train to Taza. It was a nice an hour and a half  ride to Taza. People in the compartment were very friendly and managed to get me a window seat.  Although most of them didn’t speak English, a few who did speak some English  assured me that they would inform me when the train would be approaching Taza station. A few of them also asked me where I was from and after learning that I was originally from India asked me whether I had seen movies of renowned Bollywood actors Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan. Later I noticed that many movie theaters in Morocco showed Bollywood movies.

At around 11 in the morning, the train came to Taza and I was so happy to see the smiling face of Sumona and hugged her. She took me to a hotel and later we went for a lunch at a restaurant, where we had bread, Kebab and vegetables. I stayed with Sumona in a hotel in Taza for a couple of days and toured the town. There I met Sumona’s supervisor Aziz, who told me the ways they keep in touch with the Peace Corps volunteers and also warned them if and when there were anti-American activities in the country. I liked the way Aziz assured me about their ways to keep in touch with their volunteers.

When we were in Taza I thought of buying a pair of shoes. But when I went to a shoe store with Sumona and browsed around I couldn’t see a price posted on any pairs of  shoes. When I asked the salesperson about the price he, with a big smile, told me not to worry about the price and that he would give a very good price and also offered me a cup of tea. He assured me that the price would be to my liking. I found this sales practice to be very strange and decided not to bother about buying shoes in Taza. But I wasn’t that successful in buying a carpet in Rabat, a city I visited with Sumona on my way back to the U.S. As we were roaming around the city I saw many stores selling nice looking hand-woven carpets. I got quite tempted to buy one for our home in the U.S. But, again no price was posted on any of the carpets displayed on the store forefront. Sumona told me “Baba only way you  know the price was when you go inside and ask“. Alas, I summoned  the courage to go inside the store. As soon as we stepped in the owner came to us grinning, offered us chairs to sit and immediately asked one of his  helpers to give us tea. He didn’t gave me any opportunity to talk about carpets, instead asked us in Arabic and in broken English where we were from and how long we were going to stay here etc. Sumona answered in Arabic. Once tea came, he began to show carpets, one by one. Again he wouldn’t disclose the price but  told me not to worry about it and that he would give me a very good price once I selected a carpet of my choice. I selected a peach colored one with a nice pattern, which Sumona also liked. It was about 5 x 7 ft, big enough to place under the coffee table in our family room. At last he disclosed the price, which was little over one hundred US dollars. I thought the price was a bit high since Indian “dhuri” of a similar size, which I bought earlier in Kolkata cost around fifty dollars or so. I  tried to bargain, but Sumona whispered me not to.. The owner seeing my hesitation told me that we being such a nice customer he would give us the carpet for only one hundred dollars. I didn’t have the stomach to bargain and gave him a hundred dollar note. He packed it nicely. We then went to a bazaar/market nearby and bought a plastic bag to carry the carpet. That’s how I shopped in Morocco.

Let me get to my time with Sumona in Taza, from where we went to her village Sidi Majbeur, which was located on the foot hills of the Atlas mountains. However, before we left, I told Sumona that I would like to cook a chicken curry for her and the family she was staying with. Sumona agreed and we went to the market to buy a chicken and the essential spices like turmeric, jeera, garam masala, onions and garlic etc and also plain yogurt to tenderize the meat. The chicken seller had a number of chickens in a cage and asked us to select one, which we did. He then killed the chicken by snapping the neck, then plucked the feathers and cleaned, cut and prepared it for cooking a curry.

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Sumona took me to a Taxi stand with a cafe nearby, where people wait and drink coffee until the taxi driver got a number of passengers going in the same direction. We got into one such Taxi and rode for 35- 45 min to the outskirts of the village. From there we had to walk for another 20-25 min on a dirt path full of pot holes. I couldn’t roll my carry-on. Finally we came to Sumona’s quarters, which was a one-room concrete structure built by the family, who lived across and rented it to Peace Corps volunteers. Later on a kitchenette was added, which was paid for by the Peace Corps.  Sumona shared the bathroom with the farmer’s family. She also shared the toilet, which had nothing but a hole in the ground.  Neither the bathroom nor the toilet had running water.  I will describe the farmer’s house a little later. Sumona’s one-room structure had electricity and furnished with two beds, a writing table and a couple of chairs. She also had a Pressure Cooker. We cut a few potatoes and mixed them with cut-up chicken, spices, salt and yogurt. After marinating for an hour or so, I poured the entire content in the pressure cooker and let it cook.  Sumona  boiled the rice. We took both rice and chicken curry to the farmer’ house, who lived with his wife, his young son of about 25 years of age and his daughter-in-law. I thought the farmer was about 70 years old, his wife was a bit younger, may be around 60 years.  I found the house they lived in was rather strange. It  was supported by a number of tree trunks. I was very surprised to see a big trunk of a tree in the middle of their big room, where they normally assembled, ate and entertained guests. The floor was made of hard dirt. Sumona gave our chicken curry and rice to the farmer’s wife. She put both items on a big plate with rice in the middle. They all including Sumona sat around the big plate and asked me to sit with them. Then all of them started eating from the same plate, mixing a bit of rice and chicken curry  with fingers that did not look very clean and hygienic. Sumona did not have problem with that but it spoiled my appetite. On the bright side, my simple chicken curry turned out to be a roaring success with our host. The farmer’s wife praised the combination of chicken and potato something she had never eaten before.

After dinner, Sumona and I returned to Sumona’s one-room house, had a beer and  watched a movie on the computer. After the movie, we both went to bed. But in the middle of the night I woke up to go to the toilet, which I knew was across the courtyard. It was very dark. Sumona gave me a flash light. But as soon as I stepped onto the courtyard  I heard a mix of sounds, coming from different directions. I got frightened and switched the flash light on and to my utter surprise I saw a number of different animals that included goats, chickens, cows and donkeys, who were sleeping but woke up by my flash light and began to stand on their feet. The courtyard was filled with animals. It was impossible for me to go through them. I decided to relieve myself on the side of the house. I don’t remember how I the passed the next day, but I didn’t take shower and asked Sumona whether we could go to a hotel and she said okay.  However, before we left Sumona  told me that I should meet the village elders, who lived in the middle of the village, which was located well below Sumona’s house at the bottom of steeply sloping path. I had sandals on my feet and had great difficulty in going downhill. When we reached the place, Sumona introduced me to the elderly ladies, who were very friendly to me. None of them spoke any English. So Sumona interpreted what they said. They offered me coffee and Cous Cous and told me repeatedly that they all loved Sumona very much. In fact they gave her an Arabic name “Shaimaa” and addressed Sumona only with that name.  One of the elders also told me that they do not want “Shaimaa” to leave their village. They found a good looking young man in the village, who owns a piece of land and several goats and they thought Sumona and that young man would make a lovely couple. As Sumona was interpreting what they were saying I began to have heart palpitations. I was really got very nervous and later asked Sumona what those ladies were talking about? Sumona calmed me down and told me that it was their pipe dream and nothing like that was going to happen. I still remember that day with elders of Sumona’s village. In fact I told this story when Sumona got married to Jerome in Piedmont, California.

Next day, Sumona and I left for Fez, which is a very old town with a medina. In Fez, we stayed at a very good hotel with a swimming pool and a restaurant. As Sumona and I were sitting on the side of the swimming pool she met Melanie, one of her Peace Corps volunteers, who was also staying at the same hotel with her mother. All of us explored Fez together, including walking through the Medina, where streets were so narrow that no vehicle except for horses and donkeys can go through. We enjoyed exploring Fez where I also noticed “Eyes of Fatima” displayed on many storefronts. In the evening we all had a lovely dinner at our hotel restaurant.  After Fez, Sumona and I went to Rabat from where I took the Royal Air Maroc to Barcelona and then the Delta flight to Detroit. While my short visit to Morocco was a memorable one, I was very sad to leave my daughter Sumona behind.

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