I spent my Halloween getting spooked in a different way this year. In Fez’s oldest market, the Medina, a decapitated camel’s head hung precariously close to my own as a strange form of welcome to Morocco.
I averted my eyes, but to no avail, encountering grotesque sights at every turn. The smell was overpowering, heightened by the dampness of the day, muddy rainwater seeping into my shoes as we made our way through the Medina’s endless passageways. The narrow “streets” were lined with everything imaginable: handcrafted goods, argan oil and spices; electronics and toys; toiletries and medications. Raw meat and animal parts sat drying in the air on one side, while sweet pastries and fresh dates displayed temptation on the other. The overstimulation sent my brain into a frenzy as I tried to process this strange assortment of sights (and did I mention smells?) I was experiencing all at once.
With my head down to avoid sight of the butchers’ torture chambers, we weaved through this market of horrors. Inside the shops, it was a completely different story. We were met by jovial Moroccans in every store, welcoming and eager to show off their goods. In the carpet store, we were treated to a spectacule by a natural-born salesman that made his pitch so fun we almost forgot we were being sold to. Here’s a little-known fact: Moroccans have salesman skills running through their veins. I am not usually so easily persuaded, but there I was spending nearly $50 on argan oil and contemplating a $200 rug for my future home, if that tells you anything.
Though I painted the Medina in a harsh (but entirely accurate) light, it wasn’t all a bad experience. As soon as we stepped into the little shops where people display the goods to which they devote their whole lives, my mind was changed. Each carpet that someone labored over for months to get the intricate design just right is a work of art; each hand-painted bowl or piece of silver jewelry became instantly prettier once we knew the work that went into it, and the passion with which they sell their pieces makes up for their pushiness.
Who would have thought that shopping could ever be a cultural experience? But in the Medina, this was a way to understand the ancient traditions, to connect over goods that carried months or years of labor, heart and soul. And though we certainly looked out of place, a giant group of white American tourists with our backpacks and cameras in the middle of this place, somehow in the shops, the differences between us felt smaller, the distance just a little less great.
In the leather store, one of the shop owners asked me, “Why is it you wanted to come to my country?” There was pride but also distinct curiosity in his question.
“Well, I am studying in Spain and this is one of the trips offered…” I started. But as I responded, I knew this wasn’t the real answer. “I wanted to experience another culture that was different from my own. And I’ve heard a lot about Morocco, but I wanted to see it for myself,” I finally answered.
“Well, what you hear is not all true,” he told me sadly, downcast eyes with painful shame for the way Muslims are often portrayed. “Here we welcome you. We are happy you are here. We wish you peace… We want peace.”
His statement was raw, and it broke my heart. For a moment he wasn’t a shopkeeper trying to sell me a leather jacket; we were just two people from worlds apart forging a connection. A Christian and a Muslim, each sharing blessings in our own ways– he taught me “Salam-Aleikum,” a greeting of peace, and smiled as I butchered the pronunciation.
Ultimately, this is why I travel (or reason #4520, honestly). For me, it’s not just about seeing new cities and checking places off my bucket list; it’s about diving into a culture– even one so foreign from my own. I can’t pretend my afternoon in the Medina was, by any means, sufficient to say I now understand the Moroccan culture. But I can say I learned more from walking through those narrow alleyways and talking with shop owners than my touristy Instagram photos ever let on. And in doing so, it felt a little like I was bridging that seemingly unbridgeable gap between us.
We shared smiles and stories and mint tea, and it felt as if we could be long-lost friends. Not Moroccans and Americans or Muslims and Christians–just people. On foreign soil but under the same sun, finding that our similarities spoke louder than our differences.