Marhaba Abroad: Meeting Moroccans When We Travel

Spring Break began at GWA when classes finished last Thursday. By 10:30 pm (or 20:30 in the format much of the non-American world uses) we had hopped into our car to drive to Mohamed V Airport in Casablanca to fly to Cyprus so Audrey could attend the annual Directors Meeting of the Mediterranean Association of Independent Schools. Of course, already at the end of a long day, that actually meant a few minutes shy of 24 more hours of travel time to drive to the airport, go through layers of security, fly to Frankfurt in Germany, fly to Vienna in Austria, fly to Larnaca International Airport in Cyprus, and drive to the Hilton Cyprus in the Capital of Nicosia where the meeting takes place.

Our first education about Cyprus was that driving from Larnaca, at a distance of 48 km from Nicosia, fortunately took half the time it would have taken to drive from Ecran International Airport even though Ecran is only two-thirds the physical distance from Nicosia. Our second was that there is some question as to whether people flying into Ecran, lying well into the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (occupied by Turkey since its invasion of the island in 1974 and recognized worldwide only by Turkey), may have difficulty entering either the Republic of Cyprus or Greece because of the TRNC stamps in their passports. So we arrived at our hotel, weary but happy with our ROC stamps to add another country to each of our passports. We checked in, and George the Bellhop pointed out shortcuts and other special hotel clues as he led us and our bags down a grand marble hall, through another magnificent lobby, and up a fancy glass elevator to our room where we could settle into our digs for the next few days.

Knowing how exhausted we would be after traveling so long, we had opted to arrive a day in advance of Audrey’s meetings commencing so that she could catch up on sleep before meeting up with the other MAIS school heads. The bonus for that was that we had an evening on our own to relax and to find the grilled meats for which Cypriot cuisine is famous. We both jumped into Google to find options, and both came up with the same top recommendation: Πιάτσα γουρουνάκι, or Piatsa Gourounaki, or Pork Square. Excited by the combination of top recommendations and the mere $ notation (Audrey usually likes the $$, $$$, or even $$$$ ratings, “but my favorite is $$$$$,” she added), we wrote the address on a piece of paper and called down to the front desk of the hotel to request a cab. Arriving at the front doors minutes later we found the cab already waiting. We got in and asked the driver if he knew where Πιάτσα γουρουνάκι was. “Of course,” he said. We asked if he had ever eaten there. “OF COURSE!” he said more emphatically. “Everybody eats there,” he told us. He usually gets the chicken, but we should get the mixed grill for two in order to try everything. Stopped at a red light, while we kept trying to reprogram our brains for traveling on the left side of the road in this former British colony, he drew us a map to show us how we should walk from the church where he would drop us 50 meters to our gastronomic destination.

Emerging from the cab in the Old City and walking up the pedestrian path we found the spot easily, as much by its sign with the bowtie-wearing pig as by the crowds that filled the outside square at simple wooden tables and chairs with delicious grill-aroma food piled in front of them. We ordered the mixed grill for two, an appetizer of baked goat cheese wrapped in phyllo and covered with honey and sesame seeds, and a carafe of local Cypriot wine. The scene reminded us both of a June evening we spent 15 years ago in the Italian hill town of Frascati, overlooking the lights of Rome about 30 minutes to the northwest, eating slices of roasted pork served on newspaper and Frascati wine in plastic cups procured from a street vender’s cart. Like that night, this slice of Nicosia included a wide swath of people, from young to old, well-dressed to raggedy jeans, singles and groups and families with strollers and older children. Just as our cabbie said, everybody eats there.

So, like everyone else there on the south side of Nicosia, we ate…and ate…and ate. And just when we felt about to burst a waiter we had not seen previously came to our table by mistake to drop off someone else’s order of fries.

What a happy mistake, because – much to our surprise – the waiter was none other than George the Bellhop who recognized us immediately as the couple who had arrived from Casablanca earlier that afternoon at his hotel. We joked with him about how when we got into a taxi after dinner to return to the hotel, we would not be surprised to have the driver turn around and reveal himself to be George once again.

George is a native Cypriot who helped us feel welcome in Nicosia. Often when we travel, though, that welcome feeling we get comes when we meet Moroccans who carry the Moroccan sense of Marhaba (“Welcome”) with them wherever they go. When we happen upon Moroccans outside of Morocco, two things typically happen. First, when they ask us where we live and we tell them “Casablanca,” they are surprised we said Morocco instead of America, and are not sure whether to believe us. Then, when we show them a carte de séjour (residency card, like a Moroccan “Green Card”) or otherwise convince them that we really do live in Casablanca, they fill with national pride and talk to us like we are long-lost family they are so happy to have found. It resembles our experience bonding with other Americans that we encounter overseas, except that now we are American expats living abroad whom Moroccans abroad accept as their own in an international Culture of Marhaba. Some examples…

Last summer as we drove in our Moroccan license-plated vehicle through Marmande in Southwestern France on our way to a month of intensive French study in Sainte-Eulalie-d’Eymet, a car zoomed from behind to run parallel to us while honking wildly. The front seat passenger climbed halfway out his window, displaying a distinctly Moroccan haircut as he waved exuberantly and pointed to our license plates while yelling, “MOROCCO! MOROCCO!” and giving two thumbs up. We did not get to stop and chat to confirm they were Moroccans; but the haircut, along with the revealing behavior, left little doubt.

Last October when we went to Portugal for Fall Break, we had the same Moroccan driver take us from the Porto airport to our apartment to start our trip, and from the apartment back to the airport to end it. He had been in Portugal a long time, and opened up to us with lots of suggestions on what to see and do during our stay after asking us where we were from.

In December, when Audrey and Charlotte spent Christmas in Amsterdam while Brian was with family stateside, they also had Moroccan taxi drivers who took extra-good care of them after learning they came from Morocco.

In February, when we went to Brussels for Administrator Training for the International Baccalaureate Programme, we again had Moroccan taxi drivers both from the airport and back to it again. Both drivers were born in Belgium; but, both went to Morocco multiple times each year to spend time with family, and they considered themselves Moroccan more than Belgian. As we rode, we talked and laughed about Moroccan drivers (who do not stay in lanes or lines) having an advantage in Belgium (where other drivers are very orderly), about Moroccan food versus European food, and about their families in different parts of Morocco (from Tangier to the Hay Hassani neighborhood of Casablanca where GWA’s campus is and which we call home). They said when they next go to Morocco they will find us at GWA and invite us to eat couscous with their families.

Which takes us back to our dinner of grilled meat at Πιάτσα γουρουνάκι. Just a minute after George the Bellhop-Waiter left us, another waiter sidled up to our table and asked bluntly, “Where are you from?” “Casablanca,” we replied. He said, “No, really, because you are making my hair stand up,” and he showed Audrey the goosebumps on his arm. Brian took out his carte de séjour and showed it to him. He beamed and said happily, “George told me there was a family here from Morocco but I didn’t believe him,” and then we talked for a few minutes about Morocco, his family in Rabat, and how when he next goes to Morocco he will come to Casablanca to find us and visit about Cyprus in Morocco like we talked about Morocco in Cyprus. He asked for a business card, but we did not have any with us. “That’s OK,” he said, “You can give one to George so he can give it to me.” And so we did the next day. We look forward to Ismail calling us in Casablanca so we can bid him Marhaba there as he did to us in Nicosia at the other end of the Mediterranean.

The world is small when it holds big hearts.

On your mark…get set…here we go!


This weekend we met up with some old friends, at least within the spectrum of our expat lives in Morocco. School has kept us so busy this year that for months we have done our Saturday weekly shopping at the French grocery chain’s Carrefour Gourmet store that opened up about a year ago. It definitely caters to a European-American expat and high-end Moroccan crowd that prioritizes convenience and preference over Moroccan thriftiness (though even there the costs beat American prices by a mile…or by 1.6 km), and allows us to shoot out as our schedule allows with a weekly grocery list and get all we need with more reliable supply and high levels of quality. In addition to the ubiquitous parking guardians, there is a valet service. The guys know us, so when we drive up we just stop in the middle of the road in front of Carrefour Gourmet (because this is Morocco, so anyone might stop anywhere at any time on any road or highway) and one of the valets will walk out to greet us with a hearty, “Bonjour! C’est va?” We pop out; exchange greetings with the valet who surely recognized our car when it was still half a block away; grab our supply of bags from the back of the car (because disposable plastic grocery bags are illegal in Morocco, so reusable sturdy bags are a staple for survival); and shoot inside to shop for produce, fresh bakery items from the Amoud Boulangerie et Pâtisserie inside the store; meat from the butcher section, amazing cheeses cut to order from the cheese section (the best Brie we have ever eaten for a mere $3/kilo, or $1.50/pound), other groceries from the aisles, and wine/spirits from Le Cave (with its special entrance and exit to control access to alcohol in this Muslim country). We pay; load everything into our sturdy bags and baskets; and by the time we get outside the valets have spied our exit and pulled our car around to the front so they can unload everything from the cart into the back before we pay them a whopping 10 dhs (each, if more than one helps unload the cart).

But today, after months away, we reverted back to our normal routine of shopping in the souks, hanouts, and stores of the CIL (pronounced “see-L” as an abbreviation got “wordified” some time ago). Each stop seemed like a homecoming with a grand reception from “our people” who offered us warm greetings upon our arrival at each stop, and it felt very good to shop back in real Morocco instead of in the ritzy Gourmet market. We also felt proud that in three hours of shopping we made ten successful stops – which must be a record for shopping efficiency in Morocco.

We are used to being productive people. We have run schools and parented children and played active roles in the communities where we have lived. We are skilled, capable, professional people used to accomplishing things. So it took some getting-used-to during our adjustment to Moroccan life for us to say with any sense of accomplishment and pride that we made five shopping stops in under five hours on a Saturday. But every Saturday, that is indeed how we felt.

Why five places? Because that was often how many stops it took to complete our list of weekly errands. Adding more to the list – like dropping off dry cleaning or hunting for disposable closet dehumidifiers to keep clothes from molding – meant adding to our stops. Following our mid-July arrival, we developed a routine of buying produce at the souks (though it took visits to different stalls before finding all the fruits and veggies on any weekly shopping list – potatoes and onions from one, fruit from another, vegetables from still another, and herbs from one more); staples (canned goods, flour, sugar, rice, milk, water) and snack stuff at Carrefour’s Walmart-like Hypermarche; meat and specialty items (like Heinz Ketchup, when they have it) at the independent “French grocery” O’Self; bread at the boulangerie et pâtisserie Amoud. Of course, to hit all these spots meant traveling across a fair piece of Casablanca territory in Casablanca’s crazy traffic. Geographically, it was really three general stops – Souks Dallas in the Hay Hassani neighborhood, Carrefour past the Californie and Technopark areas, and the CIL. It took us six weeks to try out different vendors and find our preferred guys. It took longer for us to figure out we could accomplish more in less time if we consolidated further. We decreased our staples shopping at the Carrefour Hypermarche to once a month, saving us from battling traffic all the way past Californie. Then, when the Carrefour Gourmet opened in the Racine neighborhood closer to our home, we stopped going to the Hypermarche altogether. We also switched from shopping at the Dalles Souks to the souks in the CIL. We pay a little more than at the Dalles Souks, but doing most of our shopping in the CIL saved us lots of time so that Saturday shopping no longer took all day.

Yesterday took us three hours, but three hours for ten stops surely beats five for five. We started with a quick stop at the dry cleaners to drop off clothes, then headed to the CIL for bread and msemen at Amoud. The parking guardian at Amoud in the CIL always greets us with a bright smile and good cheer. Not having seen us for a few months, he ran over to Brian when he saw us and asked as he shook his hand warmly, “Avez-vous voyagé? Êtes-vous allé en Amérique? C’est va?” (Have you been traveling? Did you go to America?). “Labas, hamdullah!” Brian responded (No harm, praise God!) before telling him of travels to America, Spain, and Portugal. After scoring a batch of fresh msemen for Charlotte’s breakfast this week and some baguettes from the boulangerie (bakery), we splurged with some treats from the pâtisserie (pastry) section. Pulling out from the curb and handing the parking guardian 10 dhs out the window while he blocked traffic for us, he blessed us and wished us “Bon journee.” (Have a good day!)

Part of the beauty of the CIL is that we accomplished our remaining eight shopping stops with just one more parking job. While gentrification in the U.S. has built high-priced condos into shopping malls so that people need not venture beyond the mall environs once they return from their busy jobs, the CIL is a classic neighborhood with all that one needs readily accessible but without the sanitized and manicured setting. GWA, which rents apartments around the city and Dar Bouazza 15 minutes to the south to make it easier for faculty to find reliable housing, has a number of expat teachers who live in the CIL and love it. The road into the heart of the CIL is divided by a median, with cars parked on both sides of the road in each direction. An army of parking guardians mans the road, offering “Lavage?” to hand wash your car if you want, as well as guard it. Parking along either side of the center median is actually illegal, a condition generally disregarded…except for the occasional times when tow trucks show up and begin towing cars, with people running in a flurry to save their vehicles from the dreaded tow yard. We prefer to park on a parallel access road where another guardian who knows our car finds spots for us to park. Yesterday the CIL was packed. As we started down the access road and our guy held us up as he looked around to see where we might park in spot or along the curb halfway up the sidewalk. Seeing nothing, he whirled his finger around, instructing us to loop around and come back a second time. By the time we headed down the block, did a U-turn, went down the block in the other direction, did another U-turn, and started into the access road again, he had a spot open up and protected it for us until we came through again. Before Audrey had opened her door and emerged from the passenger side, the Berry Guy appeared. We may not have done our Saturday grocery shopping in the CIL for a few months, but the Berry Guy knows our car and knows that Audrey is the biggest sucker. “I can’t look at him with his bad teeth and not buy his berries,” she says. She did not even try to refuse him, telling him she would buy one container of raspberries. Brian stood silently, hand in pocket around loose change, hitting the “I Accept” button that he would soon pay Berry Guy for more berries than Audrey thought she would buy. He watched as one container of raspberries became one each of raspberries and blueberries, and then two raspberries and one blueberry. Brian has no problem telling Berry Guy no, but Brian also does not get bent out of shape when Audrey buys three pints of fresh and delicious berries for 50 dhs ($5).

With berries secured, we headed out to stop number three, the office supply and bookstore hanout, a sort of Moroccan Staples that took the pen, pad, and books sections out of an American Staples and crammed them into 1/10 the space with aisles too narrow to turn around, let alone accommodate two-way foot traffic. Picking up pens and a thank you card for Charlotte to give to a staff member who send her flowers after her knee surgery last week (stay tuned for a post on Moroccan health care), we moved around the corner into the souks of the CIL’s shopping square.

While Audrey went into a nut souk (stop four) to buy sesame seeds, cashews, and some other seedy-nutty things, Brian stepped toward the center of the square to begin gathering fruits and vegetables from Zwil, our produce guy, and his son Khalid (stop five). Zwil looks like he has run his souk for at least 40 years, and Khalid looks like he has spent that same time growing up in dad’s souk and learning the family business. The freshest, tastiest, most vibrant produce gets delivered around 10:30 on Saturday morning. It is best not to arrive before then; likewise, arriving too late in the day means not only that Zwil might be napping on a cot inside his ramshackle “office” but also that the best produce might be sold. As Brian walked up, Khalid saw him from 10 meters away and called out a greeting. Before starting to shop, Brian put down his bags and baskets and went to exchange hellos with Khalid and then with Zwil, who greeted him warmly and offered his trademark handshake where he yanks your hand hard and laughs that he was able to get away with his trick again. Again came questions about where we have been, and how Charlotte is doing. Shopping in the CIL is not just shopping. Like so much that is Moroccan, it is about relationships first and shopping second. Filling up our baskets with veggies and fruit, we asked Khalid if he had basil, parsley, and chives. What he did not have he got at another souk and gave to us. Then everything went into the office for Khalid to put on a scale and call out the weight of each item as Zwil tallied the cost by pencil in a worn notebook. He added everything in his head and gave a total: 270 dhs, or less than $30 for two huge baskets that will feed us for a week…plus throwing in the herbs gratuit (free).

On to stop six: the Berber butchers. They gave us a rousing duet of hellos, in English at first because of their professorial manner of speaking in whatever language their customers need, then giving butcher shop vocabulary lessons in French, Darija, and Berber. Audrey bought one of their free range chickens (“It walked from Marrakech”), kefta (ground beef, which they grind to order on the spot), and other meat for the week. As a treat, they had a tray of freshly made kibi, small deep-fried pods of spiced ground beef and onions, which is not Moroccan but is well worth the splurge. Of course, while we were there they tossed chunks of meat over the counter to feed the stray cats that panhandle for food from them.

Taking our bags and baskets to the car, stop seven was the hardware hanout to see what they might have in stock worth buying. (Remember the Moroccan shopping rule that if you see something you might want at some point, buy it now because you won’t find it later when you want it.). Then next door at stop eight we popped into what we call the Israeli hanout, a liquor store owned by an Israeli instead of a Moroccan. With Ramadan starting in a few weeks, all sales of alcohol will stop from a couple days (or, in some stores, a couple weeks) before Ramadan begins, and not open again until a couple days (or, again, a couple weeks for some stores) after Ramadan ends. So we got enough wine to last us through Ramadan, and the guy helping us boxed it up and delivered it out to our car.

Stops nine and ten took us across the street-median-street to the imported produce souk to get asparagus we could not find with Zwil because asparagus season has finished; and finally to O’Self. No sooner did we enter O’Self’s narrow aisles than Mohamed, one of the employees, found us. Mohamed adopted us last year when we were clueless newbies who knew where to find nothing in the store. He spoke no English and we spoke no French, but he helped us find everything we wanted and grabbed a few big jugs of water to hold for us at check-out instead of our lugging then around the store in the tiny cart. Despite our absence of several months, he fell right into our routine of asking how many water bottles we wanted, then swooping in now and then to see if we needed any help finding anything. We might have been gone for a while, but we have come to know the store well – including where to find Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Grape Jello on an shelf of American superfluous splurge items – and found all we wanted and more. The coup de grace was Audrey spying Häagen-Daz chocolate-almond ice cream bars in a freezer past the checkout, and asking Brian to snag one for her. Not the most Moroccan moment, but one for which she relished every bite. After Brian payed for the groceries, Mohamed piled everything into a cart that he wheeled outside, across one direction of traffic, across the median, across the other direction of traffic, across the sidewalk, and onto the access road over to our car where he loaded everything into the back before wishing us a good day and accepting the 10 dhs Brian gave him for his help.

Pulling out of the parking space, the parking guardian directed us across the sidewalk and onto the main road while he held traffic, and we headed home with a car full of supplies and hearts more full from seeing some of the people who make living here special for us.

On your mark…get set…here we go!