It was Wednesday, a half-day of classes sandwiched between the packed schedule of Tuesdays and Thursdays, with classes till six in the evening. In Wednesdays past I have enjoyed the opportunity to take time and explore Rabat. Yet on this particular day, all my energies were sapped. Two months into my time in Morocco, and I began to feel that it was all too much. Too much of the lifestyle I am used to leading back in the States is missing. I wanted America. I needed America.
Just imagine, the sidewalks – if you are able to get around the cars parked on them – are all cracked and crooked. Crossing the streets requires a keen eye for oncoming traffic, often with a pause in the middle of the road to wait for a vehicle barreling down the street. At home, even though the food is delicious, I have little control of when or what I eat, and it would be insulting to the family if I failed to finish my portion. Though rarely do I truly not want to eat the meal, there is always a certain amount of pressure inherently tied in it. Outside the home, when ordering in a restaurant, when buying chocolate, when adding minutes to my phone, I am constantly translating, thinking, struggling to speak. It seems that here, in many ways, I always have to be ‘on’.
Nonetheless, on that Wednesday a friend and I decided to head to Rabat’s ancient medina. There was an almost bitter taste in my mouth as we stepped out the taxi at Bab el-Had. I have been here so many times already, I’ve walked the souks and alleys, and I’ve tasted the street food and drank the sweet fruit juice. We wandered in, resigned to the thought that nothing new is left to be discovered, that we have have figured out this Moroccan jig. We strolled through the main thoroughfare of the medina, ignoring the carts heaped with oranges, the little shops frying ghifa flatbread, and the colorful scarves mischievously swaying in front of the few tourists’ eyes. We ended up on the beach, walking past our surf shack, contemplating for a moment surfing in the late afternoon sun, but failing to muster the energy for it, continued on. As the evening drew nearer and the late began to fade, we headed back to the medina.
The walls loomed large and gray, and an occasional car plied the darkness with bright headlights. Sounds of metal against metal floated through the evening gloom, coming together in a fast rhythm. The music grew louder as we approached a small opening in the wall, and a cheerful old man sent out a greeting. ‘What is going on here?’ we asked timidly. ‘Gnawa,’ the man replied, ‘would you like to see?’
Following the man we stepped into a beautiful riyad, where several men sat on the floor playing traditional gnawa music. Around them, devoted listeners – mostly women – sat intently, their faces straining inwardly to gather the music. We joined the listeners on the floor, and the clapping of the krakebs, or iron castanets, quickly carried us away. Suddenly, a woman rose from the crowd and began stepping and swaying to the low, mournful voice of the musicians. She moved, completely taken by the sounds, moving in and out of the beat, pure calm emanating from her covered body. Soon a man joined, and then several more women, all entranced by the pace and progression of the music and voices.
These were women and men who came here seeking to relax and let go, if only for a few hours. They must have been tired of the broken sidewalks, of the housework, of their jobs. And here, in the plucking of stringed instruments and the soothing chanting, they, and I, could find a moment of restorative bliss to carry through till the next week.