We have traveled in Europe and know how easy it is there to go from one country to another. Indeed, one advantage we expected to enjoy about living an expat life was being able to travel easily. But you never know for sure how things will work out until you give it a try. And so we did. Our conclusion? Yup, it IS really easy!
Of course, we are in northwestern Africa and not Europe; but, after living two months in Casablanca, recently we took our first road trip up to Spain for a few days. Why? Simple answer: Because we could.
The more detailed answer comprising Part One of this post is that two weeks ago Morocco, like all the Muslim world, celebrated Eid al Adha – the Festival of the Sacrifice. Known also as Eid al Kabir, or the Greater Eid, this most holy feast of Islam commemorates the faithfulness of Ibrahim (Abraham) demonstrated by his willingness to sacrifice his son to Allah (God). Folks familiar with the story (though Judeo-Christian tradition says it was Isaac that Abraham was prepared to sacrifice, while Islam says it was his half-brother Ishmael) will recall that God stayed Ibraham’s hand from sacrificing his son, and provided a ram that Ibraham then sacrificed instead.
To put it in context westerners might understand, Eid al Adha combines the spiritually-based family holiday celebration element of Christmas with the feast element of Thanksgiving. Except that instead of everyone buying Christmas trees, everyone buys sheep…which they do not decorate with ornaments and candy canes; instead, they slit the animals’ throats, kill them, skin them, burn the heads and horns, roast the rest, and share the feast over a few days with family while giving a portion to the poor.
For this reason, we dubbed it the “Silence of the Lambs” holiday. Also for this reason, we thought we would spare our vegetarian daughter from having to endure the screaming of the sheep and the streets running with blood as they were being slaughtered throughout Casablanca, throughout Morocco, indeed throughout the Muslim world. Shooting across the Straight of Gibraltar to Spain seemed like a good strategy to buffer her from the carnage, however festive it might be.
First, a bit about the cultural impact of Eid for a family that moved to Morocco two months ago. In the weeks leading up to Eid we felt a palpable rise in excitement, not merely among our Moroccan friends and colleagues, but generally in the air — like when Christmas decorations in stores tell stateside folks that the Holiday Season has started. Except, just like with American election seasons that start to barrage the populace with political posturing and negative ads way too soon (as many would say: “…especially this year!”), Christmas commercialism stretches into a Holiday Season that is much longer and more materialistic than the build-up to Eid. That notwithstanding, a couple weeks before Eid begins people start talking about what they will do during the holiday. People make plans to celebrate with family, whether they be across town or across the country, and invite guests to join their family celebrations. (One piece of advice shared with us by several folks: If someone invites you to celebrate Eid with them, try to go on the Day Two, because Day One is when they eat the offal, i.e., the innards and organs and such.
The buildup does not entail walking through the Morocco Mall festooned with Eid decorations and accented by a Moroccan Burl Ives singing Eid carols pumped through mall muzak. Yet, clear signs tell of the impending celebration. Akin to the Christmas tree vendors in America that pop up on street corners and in parking lots of big box stores and supermarkets, nearly everywhere you go here you see hay bales stacking up on open lots and street corners to serve as makeshift sheep pens for the masses to buy their sheep, and vendors setting up temporary stands nearby the sheep pens to sell gigantic burlap sacks of charcoal for roasting the sheep. What was a vacant space next to the souks where we buy our produce suddenly has a dozen sheep standing around with a crowd of people looking them over as they pick the right one (or ones) to bring home. The Hanouts also step up their supply of butcher knives and roasting skewers, like stateside people shoot over to Lowe’s and Home Depot to pick up a fresh string of Christmas lights and a new Christmas tree stand. Indeed, there is a whole Eid-dependent industry, including the butchers that make one house call after another through the day (though people wait until after the King has led the sacrifice before they sacrifice their own sheep).
Without experiencing it, one cannot fathom what it means to have sheep everywhere. Really, there are sheep EVERYWHERE! Driving on the normally crazy Casablanca roads becomes an even more noteworthy experience as sheep are added to vehicles all around. Delivery trucks have layers of sheep stacked on top to bring to sheep pens. Donkeys pull carts crammed with sheep also heading to pens for sale. Once someone buys a sheep, somehow it has to get home (so the family’s children can play with it for a few days before it becomes the guest of honor at the meals of the feast). Stateside, people get their Christmas trees home in very creative ways. Ditto the sheep in Morocco. We saw sheep in the trunks of BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes. Sheep looking back at us through the rear window from their backseat perches of the cars, vans, and SUVs in front of us on the road. Sheep in the back of the ubiquitous three-wheeled motor carts. Sheep riding piggy-back with drivers of equally ubiquitous mopeds and scooters. Seeing two sheep riding in the back of a three-wheeled motor cart with a couple children and an older woman riding in the back with them, Audrey said, “Oh look, those two sheep are snuggling,” to which Charlotte responded flatly, “Mom, they’re tied together.” Walking along the streets and through the markets, you see people leading their sheep home as nonchalantly as if they were out walking their dogs.
Another consequence of Eid is that everything shuts down. EVERYTHING shuts down. Restaurants, businesses, and stores close so that everyone can be home celebrating with family and friends. Construction projects – whether road construction or the new building going up on our campus – come to a halt for two weeks because the work crews head back to their Berber villages far away for one of the two times a year they get to see their families. Medical clinics close, so that a coworker who thought she might have broken her foot had to go to the one hospital that was open on Eid to get medical attention.
And so we packed up our vegetarian daughter and a friend she brought along, and we headed north. This year, Eid started on a Monday. When we left Casablanca the preceding Saturday, and it was already a madhouse on the road, like trying to fly through O’Hare or Atlanta or drive from New York to D.C. on the day before Thanksgiving. It took more than two hours to get out of Casablanca and past Rabat, normally about an hour-long trip. Finally traffic thinned out as we headed toward Tangier, on the northern coast of Morocco across the Mediterranean from Spain. Traveling north, we saw the landscape change from urban Casablanca and Rabat to more agricultural scenery that showcased olive orchards, banana farms, and fields of delicious Moroccan yellow melons.
After more than five hours on the road, we pulled into Tangier, the first stop on our road trip. So that is where we will stop for now. In Part Two of this post, we will share our overnight experience in Tangier, our ferry ride across the Mediterranean to Tarifa, and our couple days exploring a tiny spot on the Andalusian south coast of Spain.
On your mark…get set…here we go!