In a Time of Sadness, Moroccans Lend a Hand
by SUSAN KOSTRZEWA
It was a quiet afternoon in Essaouira, Morocco. My husband Cris and I were sipping mint tea in a café on the square, watching children play and looking forward to a stroll through the market after dark. Gulls called overhead. A warm sea breeze enveloped us. It was the most relaxed we had been on the entire trip. The date was September 11.
An ocean away, an American Airlines plane was crashing into Tower 1 of the World Trade Center.
Our realization of the tragedy came slowly. Later that afternoon, the desk clerk at our small hotel gestured wildly to a television in the kitchen. Attempting to understand his French, all we could make out was “Two planes crashing.” We saw gutted buildings. We saw flames. We thought two planes had collided--an air traffic control communication gone terribly wrong. At first, we did not recognize the mangled skyline--we believed it was Los Angeles.
“Horrible,” I replied in my own simple French, not grasping his panic, nor the enormity of what had really happened. Though sad about what I had imagined was an awful air crash--Cris and I would be flying home to California ourselves in four days--I was immersed in exploration, feeling pleasantly detached from home.
Later, as we walked through the market, reveling in the sunny, resort atmosphere of the town, merchants emerged from stalls and stores, calling after us in broken English. “So sorry,” they said, “America--terrible thing.” Their eyes were full of pity, sadness.
After a few of these encounters, an eerie realization began to dawn on us. Though friendly, Moroccans are reserved, and this show of emotion was unusual. Why were they seeking us out? For a moment, a cloud seemed to pass over everything, and my stomach dropped. We needed to find out what was going on, and fast.
After being turned away from one jam-packed Internet cafe after another (another sign that things weren’t right), we finally found an empty computer. When the news flashed across the monitor, I let out a gasp. We stared at the screen, and I am sure my mouth actually hung agape for minutes. I was frozen in fear, in disbelief. We had never, ever, dreamed of this.
I immediately looked around at other tourists checking mail, looking for commiseration, for reaction, for anything that would make us feel closer to home at that very moment. No longer feeling the worldly vagabond, I yearned for familiar things... for American things. Though most of the other tourists were French, a noticeable silence hung in the air.
For the last three days of our trip, Moroccans shared their sorrow with us. In the markets of Marrakech, merchants famous for their hard sell tactics stopped, sucked in air, and sighed. “This is terrible for the whole world, not just America,” one man said, shaking his head. His focus lost, he found difficulty wheeling and dealing with us, and left us alone to browse.
Another merchant valiantly attempted to describe his fear of anti-Muslim backlash in the little English he knew. “We like America,” he said, a hint of desperation in his voice. He backed away from us, holding his hands out as if in defense, “We want America to like us. If they not like us, “ he laughed nervously, “That’s not good. That’s not good.”
We never felt afraid of being in a Muslim country during these days of uncertainty. If anything, we felt uncomfortable to be the focus of attention of so many, whose compassionate expressions and kind words followed us wherever we went. In most cases, it was the somber silence, the locking of eyes, that spoke of the fear and sorrow we all felt, Moroccans and Americans alike.
I found it impossible to equate the devout, charitable ideology of Islam to the terrorist attacks. Throughout our stay in Morocco, we were impressed with the serenity, patience and kindness of the Moroccan people. Beggars in the street were gently handed alms, acknowledged with kind words. Children and the elderly were looked out for by strangers, even in the bustling souks of Fes and Marrakech.
In Casablanca, we were held over for two extra days, waiting for U.S. airspace to reopen for overseas flights. Though we were told there were other Americans in the hotel, we saw none. Like us, they were likely glued to the television, pouring over CNN with an almost obsessive defiance, or making phone calls to frantic family members with misinformed information about “Muslim countries.” We calmed our own relatives, telling them we probably felt safer here than they did at home. As we were to discover after returning to the States, we were right.
One man on our flight home told us that he had been stranded for eight days in Casablanca, waiting to go home. After days brooding in his hotel room, he went for a day tour of the city, just desperate to get out and relax a little. On his tour, he met a Moroccan family, who invited him for dinner that night, no doubt sensing his loneliness and isolation.
After that night, he was amazed to be invited back every night, and every day, until his flight. The family took him under their wing, and he proudly showed us photos in which sisters, sons, grandparents all encircled him, smiling broadly. “I wouldn’t have been able to cope without them,” he admitted.
When we needed them the most, Moroccans reached out to us. As our guide had said at our parting, friends are “two bodies, but one heart and one mind.” At a time when the world was so unstable, I found neither cultural, nor religious, nor political boundaries in Morocco, just compassion from one person to another.
As the merchants in Marrakech had said, we are all humans. And that should be enough to unite us.
Susan Kostrzewa traveled to Morocco with Heritage Tours: Tel:800-378-4555; Fax: 212-206-9101; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www.heritagetoursonline.com.