Saturday morning in Chefchaouen, a city in the northern mountains of Morocco, is not the right time to go searching for breakfast. The blue buildings of the medina give off a peaceful and serene feeling, but unfortunately this serenity means a lack of open hanouts from which to buy bread. Two friends and I have woken up early to climb one of the mountains near the city, and we are now beginning to worry that our attempts to hike will be thwarted by a lack of food.
After making our way down several winding streets, climbing the stone steps that allow the city to rest so securely on the mountainside, we reach a store selling jewelry and rugs. The shopkeeper responds kindly when we ask about buying food. He explains that most places are closed this early in the morning, so we will have to walk a ways to find anywhere selling bread or fruit. Then he pauses for a moment and offers to get us breakfast himself. We laugh good-naturedly, thinking he’s joking or just being generically polite. He is not joking. “Wait here” he tells us in Darija and ushers us to a small table in his shop before vanishing down the cobbled street.
I am much bolder about asking for directions in Morocco than I ever would be in the United States. I think it comes in part from being frequently lost, wanting to practice speaking in Darija, and also from the overwhelmingly positive responses I have gotten in the past. People are usually extremely helpful and patient when explaining how to get places, and they will often talk further with me once they realize that I can understand their Arabic. As a language student, I very much appreciate this effort, especially because I am picking up so much useful vocabulary as a result of it. However, nobody has gone this far above and beyond before.
The shopkeeper returns after about five minutes, carrying a plastic bag with four loaves of the characteristic flat bread prevalent in every city I have visited so far in Morocco (a side note: my name unfortunately happens to mean plastic bag in Darija… I kid you not. This has resulted in a lot of giggles when I introduce myself to people, not only from my little host cousin but also from fully grown adults). He then disappears behind a curtain, returning moments later with a plate of olive oil and glasses of mint tea for all of us. The breakfast is delicious and made all the more so by the circumstances.
As we eat, we strike up a conversation with our newfound friend in Darija. He tells us how he moved from Fes to Chefchaouen a few years before. His family sells leather and rugs back in Fes, but his uncle lives in Chefchaouen and he wanted the opportunity to explore somewhere new. He now lives in this smaller city, selling jewelry that he crafts himself from real silver. He explained that while he loved Fes, he also enjoys the slower pace of Chefchaouen and the beauty of its location.
I have met many fascinating people throughout my time in Morocco; everyone has an interesting history to share. Yet this shopkeeper’s story will always stand out to me, since it will be accompanied by the memory of his sweet tea and sitting on the rickety chairs in his shop. Even though we only spoke with him for an hour, by the time we left to begin our hike it felt like we were old friends. His generosity is emblematic of how I have found Morocco overall; taking the time to speak directly to people almost always turns into an unexpectedly fulfilling encounter.