My wife and I have just spent a week in Morocco visiting with our daughter who’s enrolled in a semester-abroad program in Rabat. This was my first trip to an Arab country, and having completed it, I now consider myself an expert on the region. And why not? It took some folks even less to become Russia experts.
After just a couple of days, we began comfortably navigating quietly bustling Rabat streets using the only reliable way of transportation there: Le Petit Taxi, a fleet of small, dilapidated, blue-colored Fiat cars. Helping us was the genius (that is, without too much smiling) hospitality of local people. Incidentally, in their sincere, if somewhat restrained, willingness to help strangers they reminded me of Russians.
(Another parallel with my homeland came from watching the Moroccans' relations with alcohol. Drinking is formally prohibited, but alcohol can be bought in hotels, many cafes and restaurants and even in special sections of supermarkets. At the same time, drunken driving, for example, can't be prosecuted, because legally speaking, no one drinks. That's how in the Soviet Union we dealt with prostitution and drug addiction: both were formally non-existing – according to the Moral Code of the Builder of Communism. )
A trip to the Medina of Fes was a different experience. I was rapidly overwhelmed with a wild combination of unfamiliar sensual signals: visual (a mesh of endless narrow streets looking suspiciously similar to a Hollywood action movie set), audio (the pounding Arabic of street vendors), and olfactory (a smell of spices and exotic food). But the hardest part was the awkward feeling of being in a bubble of a "Western tourist" – closely watched, obviously unloved, and perhaps even despised by Medina denizens. They say there is not much love for Americans in Fes, to say the very least. Stories abound about taxi drivers refusing to drive American tourists. (I wouldn't rush to interpret this as a sign of rampant anti-Americanism. The problem most likely is the language barrier: Fes taxi drivers often speak only Arabic, and the foreign language skills of most American tourists are usually limited, to put it mildly.)
While the ladies I was accompanying were engaged in all-absorbing shopping, I had no other choice as to communicate with street vendors. Getting tired of answering where I was from – and knowing that my rusty French wouldn't support the claim that I was from France - I decided at one point to try something new and told to a young fellow of about 16-17 that I was Russian. He hesitated for a second and then exclaimed: "Vladimir Putin!" Voila!
In the picture below, I'm standing by what I'd call the Propaganda Wall. During the parliamentary elections (last held in 2007), each of about three dozen of political parties taking part in the elections gets a spot on the wall where they can post their campaign leaflets. (The number 13 belongs to Parti Travailliste, The Labor Party). Posting campaign materials in spaces allocated to other parties is prohibited by law. I immediately imagined that if Garry Kasparov campaigned in Morocco, he would be attaching his stuff in every spot - in front of foreign journalists' cameras, of course.
Naturally, I've picked up a few basic Arabic words and expressions: Salaam aleykum (Hello), B'slama (Goodbye), Shukran (Thank you), La shukran (No, thanks). And my favorite: Insha'allah (God willing). You can hear Insha'allah very often, usually at the end of a sentence. Used in the sense of "I hope", "hopefully", the philosophical meaning of Insha'allah yet seems to be broader. It reflects the humble recognition of the fact that all our plans and wishes are subject to approval by a higher authority. "If you guys leave me your larger bag, I might be able to pack all my stuff for the trip home. Insha'allah ", told us our daughter. "Have a safe trip home and please come back to Morocco again. Insha'allah ", told us one of her professors. "We will. Insha'allah. Shukran", we responded.
We were also blessed with meeting a good dozen of our daughter's newly-acquired friends, American college students studying in Rabat. I have to say that I admire these kids. For studying abroad, they could have chosen places closer to their comfort zones. (The U.K. is the number one choice of American college students for study abroad; the more adventurous opt for Australia and France.) But these kids (some of them Jewish) went to Morocco, exposing themselves to a cultural shock of sorts of different climate, food, difficult language and obvious discomfort of living in host families and local dorms – often without "standard" amenities like an everyday shower, TV and a reliable Internet connection. (Girls are also subject to mild-to-moderate harassment by local teenage boys). During their spring break, a few visited Egypt, Jordan, and Syria – to watch, to listen, to master Arabic. To gain knowledge and experience on the region that our country so badly needs.
For as long as these kids represent the future of this country, this country has a future. Insha'allah.