A train led to a bus led to a camel, and at long last I set out on my first trek through the dunes of the Sahara Desert. We rocked back and forth on the backs of our camels, moving with their strange but steady gait in a motion our sore legs would feel the results of the following day. We set out in the late afternoon and rode for a couple hours led by our guide, who we trusted completely to show us the way given how difficult it was for our untrained eyes find any landmarks in the desert landscape.
The sunset in the Sahara that night was one of the most dramatic I’ve ever seen. We watched from atop our camels as the sky turned brilliant and sharp shades of pink, orange, and red, and lit the sand dunes around us with a soft reddish glow.
When we arrived at our tent camp just after sundown, our guide “parked” the camels, tying their knees so they wouldn’t stand up and leave us before morning. We settled in and were left with hours with nothing to do but sled down sand dunes, drink tea, converse over a leisurely Tajine dinner, and enjoy the Amazigh music our guide played for us on the drums.
When the stars came out in bright, twinkling clusters, we lay atop a dune near camp and peered out into the enormous desert sky for hours before bed.
It was easy to lose track of time in the Sahara, but the concept of time is something that I’ve come to think about frequently while in Morocco, not only when I’m left with hours of free time in the peaceful quiet of the desert. While Americans tend to view time as linear and monochronic, Moroccans usually see time as circular and polychronic. Put broadly, while Americans bend to time, Moroccans usually see time as bending to them.
On a day-to-day basis, some of the most apparent cultural differences I’m presented with in Morocco stem from a different perception of time. Some of the differences I still find frustrating, while others are a refreshing break from what I might be used to. When I go to mail a letter at the post office in Rabat, the man at the counter might ask how he can help me, then take a phone call while I’m in the middle of explaining my request, then continue helping two other people at the counter, then come back to me. This type of interaction is not at all rude in the eyes of most Moroccans, but is simply illustrative of a polychronic culture in which employees might tend to try to help seven people at once, instead of asking six of them to wait in line to address them one by one.
The perception that “time bends to us” can also be observed in the way that Moroccans value their relationships and often place time with loved ones over the completion of an activity or task. In America, when a host invites friends or family over for dinner, the evening usually centers on the task of preparing, eating, and enjoying a dinner together. But when my Moroccan host family has relatives over for dinner, the guests will usually sit and enjoy tea in the living room, talk for several hours, and sometimes eat dinner as late as midnight. After dinner, guests will stay at the table to talk or watch TV for at least another hour and are almost without fail invited to either stay for a nap, or to spend a night on the couches. In Morocco, an invitation to “dinner,” could more accurately be described as an invitation to be included in the home-life of the host for 6-24 hours.
I’m most frequently reminded of cultural differences with regards to time in Morocco when I’m frustrated with a lack of efficiency, or when a 15-minute errand becomes a 2-hour adventure. But when I think about Moroccan concepts of time in a broad sense, I’m also constantly in awe of the remarkable prioritization — made evident in so many ways each day here — that Moroccans give to their personal relationships and the people who are important to them.