My dad, in a Facebook message sent from 5,530 miles away: “How do you feel?”
Me, typing from my bed in the corner of a crowded room in Morocco, window open to hear the call to prayer that would wake me up to see the sun rise: “I have never met a more devoted, kind, welcoming, loving group of people.”
I was writing about the people of Morocco, who I would continue to learn more about throughout my month in the African country. I began my journey with six other female college students, staying with a host family in Rabat, the coastal capital city. We were there for four days, sleeping in the beds covered in colorful weavings that lined the walls and eating the fresh breads and jams made for us each morning.
We spent time taking art classes and walking through the maze of streets in the city but always made it home in time for dinner with our host mother and her two adult sons before retreating back to our room to do homework or write in our journals.
Our host family was there, feeding us and giving us beds to sleep in, but we didn’t interact with them often. We tried talking to our host mother when we could, but we knew very little Arabic, and she knew very little English. We found it difficult to move beyond quiet greetings and polite thanks.
One day, I decided to ask my host mom how to properly wear the hijab. I had gone to the nearby souk that morning, exploring the packed Moroccan street market for a scarf to cover my hair for my upcoming trip to the mosque in Casablanca. After searching through baskets of bundled fabric and walls made thick from layer upon layer of bright materials, I chose out two scarves and held the pale blue one before my host mother that evening after dinner.
Filling in the rest of my request with hand gestures and stuttering Arabic words, I asked her to show me how to wrap it around my head. Immediately, tears filled her eyes.
“شكرا شكرا شكرا”
Shukraan, shukraan, shukraan.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
She grabbed my hands, then my elbows, then my waist, hugging me and thanking me as she cried.
It wasn’t until much later that her son told me that no other host student had asked her this before.
She took the fabric in experienced hands and firmly secured my hair beneath its folds. When she had finished, those same hands grabbed my face and lips smelling of tagine kissed both cheeks, twice.
Then suddenly she was rushing to her bedroom and rummaging through chests resting on carpeted floors. She came back with her arms full of colors—blue, gold, green, and maroon kaftans for each student to wear. We slipped the traditional Moroccan dresses over our heads, and she beamed at us.
When her college-aged son came home about an hour later, we were still wrapped in our kaftans and hijabs, eating Moroccan desserts with our host mom and pointing to items around the house for Arabic translations.
Later that night, after the brightly colored robes were boxed away once more, the son knocked on our door.
“My mom wants to know if you girls would like to go to the baths with her tomorrow.”
Suddenly, we were no longer strangers. Suddenly, we were much more than the students she was asked to feed and provide beds for. Suddenly, we were watching soccer games with her sons and painting gifts for the family. Suddenly, we were in the hammam, getting hugged by women we’d never seen before with our host mom wrapping us in towels after we had been scrubbed down in the steaming water.
Suddenly, we felt a part of Morocco.
With the request to learn just a fraction more about Islam, about her culture and beliefs and the values she cherishes, we had been welcomed into the heart of our host mom.
I grew to learn more about Islam. I met Muslim restaurant owners and Muslim businesswomen and Muslim pottery artists. I was invited to try new food and visit old castles. I heard the words “We love Americans!” more than I could ever count.
“I have never met a more devoted, kind, welcoming, loving group of people.”
Photos by Sophia Harper