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!

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