cafe coup

I’ve been wrapped. The other day Leila, my host mom, put a headscarf on me. Obviously I was touched by the gesture, a visual sign of welcome. I was so high on that moment. Grandma comes in, and I’m smiling big. “Zweena?” I ask. It means pretty. She shakes her head and the other headscarf in her hand. She comes over to me and removes my headscarf, replacing it with the one in her hand. She thinks it’s prettier.

The other day someone I had just met told me I wasn’t American. I smiled politely and said “No,” expecting them to tell me I am Mexican. Then she said, “You’re Arabic.” I have been welcomed into cultures that weren’t my own, in Brazil especially, and had amazing experiences there. But this statement is just a testament to how much Moroccans have trusted and accepted me. Not only do they welcome me, they see and treat me as their own, an Arab.

I went to a cafe for the first time in my town, which I will be living in for three months during my community-based training. I’m about 45 minutes away from Fes. Women don’t usually go into cafes outside of cities in Morocco. Because I have a bigger training site of about 14,000 people, it is slightly more normal or acceptable for a woman to go into certain cafes. The girls in my training class were bummed to hear that it wasn’t recommended for us to go to cafes alone. So after class one day, the girls in class took a walk with Salah, and he asked if we wanted to go to a cafe. YES. I actually yelled. We made our way to a fire view of the orchards then went to a cafe where there was one woman already sitting.

Not sure if Salah realized it, but going to the cafe meant so much to me, and I think to Pariesa and Kit too. Kit even got to drink real coffee, a rarity in Moroccan homes and a daily routine back home for her. We had real conversation about the outlandish cost of education in the US, and Salah spoke of his plans to apply to an applied linguistics program in Hungary, inshallah.

Literally 99% of the cafes I pass have NO women in them. When I heard people tell me that women didn’t go to cafes, it didn’t strike me. I believed them, but I figured I could still go into a place where there were no women. It’s much more intimidating than I had expected. Actually looking into every cafe and only seeing men is shocking. I never realized when I was seeing both genders represented in almost all environments until I didn’t see it anymore. Over time, Pariesa, Kit, and I have found cafes we feel comfortable in as a group of women, and it has been a great comfort, eating fries and drinking coffee.

From the cafe Salah was going to walk us all home. The girls all live in the same neighborhood. So I suggested walking behind my house, which has a beautiful view of the sunset, orchards, and, on the horizon, Fes. I told Salah he didn’t have to come but was welcome, of course. He joined, and we all had a great time enjoying the view and playing with the bats, throwing rocks up which they would follow, a childhood trick Salah taught us. Someday I’ll take pictures there and share.

I don’t know how to thank Salah. Though our class did already buy him a succulent. But seriously, he’s not just a language teacher, nor does he just teach us about culture. He really does look out for us. He is so respectful and professional. He is open-minded and understanding. He knows we feel out of place in almost all ways here, and I appreciate his efforts to help us feel comfortable.

Another Moroccan milestone, I recently went to the hamaam, a public bathhouse. Inexplicable. My ten year old cousin scrubbed my whole body. She motioned at the skin she was scrubbing off, proud of her contribution to my health and happiness. As a young adult in the US, I take care of my own bodily well being. If I ever let anyone help, it’s usually paid for, like a massage or haircut. Or I have to bribe my sister Simone to play with my hair. But here, friends and family take pride in providing that physical care, strictly platonic, so deep. It was a sacred experience, highly recommended. I don’t have the words to delve further, someday I might.