First Taste of Oulad Teima during Ramadan

Sometimes things don’t turn out the way we plan. That’s unavoidable, especially when you travel all the time, no matter how well you plan. But what’s annoying is when things don’t turn out well because somebody else didn’t plan at all. And that’s the scenario we found ourselves in during our first week – or rather first five days — in Oulad Teima, Morocco. We’d come to volunteer for 3 weeks at a school. But during the first week the school was closed; and the director had known this for months, when he arranged for us to visit. So why did he have us come so early? It was inexcusable to waste our time like this.

Spinning our Wheels

Our "duties" the first week included taking a tour of the room where we'd be teaching 
below the nursery school and going over our "schedule" which was not exactly set in stone.

Since we were staying in his house, we suspect that he just expected us to be free babysitters for his two kids. This was never a specific request per se, but implied. The boys, ages 5 and 2, were very bright and fun to play with. The older one spoke better English than his father, that we gathered he’d learned it mostly from just from being around English-speaking guests like us. So we enjoyed cavorting with them in the empty room next to ours that had become a de facto rumpus room. They had a deflated ball, about the size of a soccer ball, that we batted around, and the smaller one had a life-size (for him) toy car that he sat on and pushed himself all around the house at daredevil speeds. But while we loved spending time with these two precocious urchins, we couldn’t spend all of our time with them; but they almost expected us to – and we wonder if their parents didn’t as well. Once or twice, the little one even indicated that he expected Kimberly to change his diaper.

Frankly, their parents didn’t seem to give them much attention at all for the most part. The kids spent most of their day (especially during this first week when the older boy, who attended one of the schools where we’d be volunteering, had plenty of idle time) just sitting in front of the TV watching cartoons – including Sponge Bob, dubbed in Arabic. Which made them even more restive when they finally got up and wanted to be active for a change.

Well the ceilings were nice.

Furthermore, they showed little respect for our privacy – because they hadn’t been taught to. The door to our room had no lock, so they would just barge right in whenever they felt like it. When we reprimanded them and put them back out, they just laughed as if it were a game, and then tried to get right back in. If their mother could be bothered to notice what was going on, she might scold them; but it was clear that in general they received no preemptive lecturing not to do such things.

View from our room

Our room, though not uncomfortable, was rather spartan, with just two settees to serve as our beds (on opposite sides of the room) – there were blankets and pillows, but no sheets. Our window overlooked the loading dock of a produce warehouse, where trucks were loaded up every morning, seven days a week, generally starting at about 5:00 a.m. And the laborers had no knowledge and/or no concern about anyone in the neighborhood having their sleep disturbed by clanging sounds and boisterous chatter and laughter. The bathroom we used (not the same as the family’s) was across the hall, and was one of the traditional Eastern style squat toilets. At least we had access to a shower, assuming one wanted to venture into the family’s bathroom. And there was hot water, provided the water heater was turned on at least half an hour ahead.

The neighborhood

Our rather awkward arrangement at home inspired us to go out for a walk exploring the city once if not twice every day. There wasn’t much to see in Ouled Teima as far as tourist attractions, activities, or points of interest. But we found it fascinating, since this was our first time in Morocco. And Oulad Teima, even more so than Agadir, represented the “real” Morocco – or at least the traditional Morocco – far removed from commercialization, westernization and modernization. The streets were mostly narrow dirt passages designed for (and still largely used by) donkey carts, and the businesses mostly were small, family owned and operated stalls.

Even the concessions to contemporary life, such as auto repair shops, tended to be crammed into compartments the size of a one-car garage. We were amazed to see how the mechanics in these little establishments – of which there were quite a few in our neighborhood – plied their trade in such limited space, most of which was used to store parts and tools. The labor itself mostly was performed in front of the shop, or wherever the mechanic could find or create elbow room.

A taste of Home Life

One locale we enjoyed frequenting was the Souq (bazaar), which wasn’t as big as the one in Agadir, but still was pretty extensive and impressive. And it was a hive of local life and color. Since this town doesn’t get tourists very often, we stood out like a brass nose. People were constantly greeting us and of course, many people in the Souq wanted to lure us in to buy something or other. We especially enjoyed the Berber crafts we saw on display. There was a large population of Berbers in the community, and many signs were posted in both Arabic and Berber (and sometimes in French, the other common language of Morocco). The Berber designs were more colorful and elaborate than most of the others, reminding us somewhat of Scandinavian handiwork.

Berber Shoes at the Souq

Almost nobody we saw in this town wore a COVID mask or used hand sanitizer. Since we were fully vaccinated and boosted, we usually didn’t wear a mask either (we did try to practice safe distancing, wore masks when the situation called for it and we used sanitizer when we could get our hands on it). From what we gather many Moroccans, at least in Ouled Teima, are still unvaccinated. One individual we talked to even asked us whether we “believe in” the virus – echoing the attitude, all too common in the States, that scientific and statistical fact are subject to verification by comparison to personal beliefs.

One person who befriended us (or at least pretended to) was a gregarious and jovial fellow named Ahmed, whose friend ran a spice shop in the Souq. When he found out that we were Americans, he seemed particularly interested in us, and told us that he had a sister living in Alaska. (It’s hard to imagine a bigger culture shock than moving from Morocco to Alaska, or vice versa.) He invited us to dinner with him and his family. He seemed sincerely congenial and very likable; when we told him that we travel all the time, he said, “Ah, you are hippie.”

The next day, we were again at the Souq, and we ran into him again. He repeated the invitation to come to his house, and we told him that we were pondering it. And we were, though we had our reservations. For one thing, he lived several miles out in the country, and we were wary of getting out there and facing some uncomfortable conditions that we couldn’t easily get back from.

The third time we saw him, it was not in the Souq, or anywhere close to the heart of town. And this time, instead of inviting us to his home, he told us that he was going to see his wife in the hospital, and that he couldn’t get his ATM cards to work – he even pulled out two ATM cards to show us, as if we’d be able to tell by looking at them that there was a problem. And he asked us if he could borrow 100 dirhams (10 dollars) until the next day, when he’d be certain to pay us back.

We politely declined, and he said hey no problem, and went on his way. But it really irked us to think that maybe his entire reason for “befriending” us in the first place was just to hit us up for funds, maybe more than once, by setting up a story. As we’d already observed in other countries we’d visited, many people all over the world have an image of Americans as being prosperous, and they often assume that any American is loaded. While we didn’t want to jump to conclusions, and we really liked Ahmed, we couldn’t shake off the nagging suspicion that he’d been trying to play the “long con” with us. Perhaps that would be clarified, we thought, the next time we ran into him. But we never saw him again.

One day we were walking down the street when a group of 5 boys, age 10 or so, greeted us, as children often did in the streets. Nothing unusual about that; they often say “hello” (perhaps the only English word they know), then snicker, and seem to think this encounter has given them a very memorable day. But these boys, after their salutations, began following us and saying the other English word they definitely knew: “money, money, money.” We made it clear that they were not going to get anything from us, and encouraged them to move along, but they kept following us, for 5 blocks or so, until finally we pretended to call the police (a word they recognized because it’s similar in French if not Arabic) and they hightailed it away. As annoying as such episodes are, it’s just as annoying to think that there are visitors who actually do give them money, thereby perpetuating such behavior.

But to be clear, most of the Moroccans we encountered were genuinely friendly, and just wanted to talk to us. From what we hear, it really is common for them to invite strangers home to dinner, and expect nothing in return. Which makes it all the more irritating that a few hucksters take advantage of that good will for their own selfish ends, as Ahmed may have been doing. (In the weeks ahead, we’d encounter at least two more such individuals in Morocco – which isn’t a bad percentage considering how many natives we interacted with over a 2-month period.) In fact, it’s amazing how friendly the locals were toward us when they were so snappy with each other. Supposedly, this was due to everyone having frazzled nerves because they’d been fasting. (Wait, isn’t Ramadan supposed to improve how people treat each other?)

One day, we nearly witnessed a street brawl that may or may not have been precipitated by fasting fury. A “big rig” truck turned a corner a bit too sharply, and almost crushed the donkey cart in the lane next to it. Fortunately, neither man nor beast was injured, but the driver of the cart became angry and began shouting at the truck driver; and in short order, a dozen or so bystanders also had rushed over to back him up. Soon there was a small mob surrounding the truck, climbing up onto it, and trying to get inside. One fellow even carried a club. Fortunately, someone seems to have alerted the police, because three squad cars arrived and the cops broke it up.

Perhaps in part because of Ramadan, our meals were unpredictable and inconvenient. Our arrangement in staying with Mohamed and family included food. (No, it wasn’t hospitality. They charged us for it.) But because they were fasting and keeping odd hours, they didn’t think so much about food for themselves, and therefore were not especially mindful of preparing grub for us. Normally, being early risers, we have breakfast at 7:00 or 8:00, depending on morning workouts and so on. But here, it might be served anywhere from 9:30 to 11:30; and there was just no way to predict where in that range it would be. Lunch was also sketchy, though once we started volunteering at the school, it was usually within the time frame of two hours or so that we had off in the afternoon. This made it very difficult for us to plan any kind of extended outing without possibly missing a meal, for which we’d already paid.

Only dinner was fairly regular, and it was the one meal that we all ate together. As soon as the mosques gave the signal that eating was permitted – right around 7:00 p.m. – they’d bring out the dinner they’d already prepared. There’d be a light first course to break the fast – usually soup – and then about half an hour later the main course would be served, followed by dessert. Additionally, the family would have a big feast (to which we were not invited) every night just before midnight, so they could fast the next day on a full stomach. Even the boys, who were too young to fast, maintained this timetable.

Sometimes in the evening Mohamed would go to the mosque for a while to pray (though he generally preferred to stay at home and watch soccer). And sometimes the entire family would go out at about 9:00 or 10:00 and stay for an hour or more, leaving the place in peace and quiet. Evidently, there was a park they liked to go to that featured fun activities for children. At one point they invited us to come along one night, but then neglected to mention it again, which suggests they’d had second thoughts about having the likes of us tag along. Could also be because they had the habit of going out to play when we were getting ready to go to bed.

This routine began to get old rather quickly, and we were relieved when the week came to an end and it was time to do the job we had come to do.

April 6-10, 2022

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