Hello And Yes I Would Love Some Moroccan Mint Tea!Posted: October 23, 2014
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
~ Marcel Proust
The value of the dwelling is in the dweller.
~ Moroccan Proverb
Nostalgia is funny isn’t it? Sometimes you know exactly why you are feeling it but other times, like right now for me, you simply cannot point to its cause. I am feeling nostalgic for Morocco and because of that feeling I have been looking back at old photographs and even went journal diving. Perhaps I am feeling this way because Kristin and I were discussing the ways in which living in Morocco changed our lives. We know that it changed things for us but we are having difficulty pinpointing exactly what and how. The changes have been both subtle (hence the difficulty defining them) and profound (life changing so to speak). My nostalgia led me to re-reading journal entries from this time seven years ago and to re-assessing some of the impacts of our service as Peace Corps volunteers. I am not prone to thoughts of grandeur, particularly about our time in Morocco. I have generally felt that our biggest impact was through the friendships that we made (which is absolutely true) and that we made minimal impact through our work (not necessarily true as you will see through this story). The mission of the Peace Corps is, after all, to spread world peace and friendship. This is best accomplished by sharing in other people’s lives, their marriages, births, deaths and celebrations and by sharing yours. We were overwhelmingly successful in doing this in Morocco and it all begins by saying hello (salam u walekum in Arabic) and yes to invitations to tea. This transformative story begins with hello and invitation to tea.
I wrote the journal entry below seven years ago, almost to the date. Diving into this journal, I did not know what I would find and it ended up being perfect. Not only do I want to take you there (back for some of you who followed our adventures when we were there) but I also want to introduce you to an incredible Moroccan woman. Her name is Rabha Akkaoui and she is a remarkable person, all the more so because she lives in a country and within a culture that oppresses women (although certainly not to the degree that other countries like Saudi Arabia do). This journal entry describes the day when we first met her and her family, who were to become good friends of ours. Her story is one of kindness, courage, and determination. Our story is interconnected with hers, one that is still unfolding today. I will begin with an entry straight out of my journal and then tell you more about Rabha and what she is doing today. It’s quite extraordinary.
Moonrise over Jbel Maasker. The entrance to the cave can be seen in the middle right as a small dark spot.
October 22, 2007 – With our friend and translator Aziz, we went hiking up to the cave at the base of the mountain named Jbel (mtn) Maasker (10,800 ft). We spent most of the afternoon up there. The weather was beautiful – sunny and clear. Jbel Ayachi (12,000+ ft) lay snow-capped and brilliant to the northeast of us, Maasker loomed silent and gigantic (due to its close proximity) to our south, and mountains upon mountains lay in all other directions.
We ate a snack of apples, pomegranates, walnuts and chocolate in the cave. The grotto is large enough to hold a shepherd and his flocks of sheep, which apparently happens often enough for the floor to be littered with little sheep pellets. Kristin and Aziz then climbed up through the arch formed from a fallen in roof of an adjacent cave roof, while I hiked up a valley to the south and around the backside of the fallen in cave. Clambering up some rock outcrops afforded me a view in all directions. Two huge mountains loomed nearby while other smaller mountains, upon and beyond other mountains were intertwined with pastoral valleys, where the villages lie. Wow, we are so lucky to be here!
On our way back down, we stopped in at a house upon the insistent invitation of one of the inhabitants. We had been invited in during previous hikes in this area and so today we felt compelled to say yes, despite the late hour. I am so glad that we did because it was a truly delicious and sustaining snack of mint tea, scrambled eggs (from their chickens) and a tasty concoction of honey, oil and udi (butter made from sour milk). The company was equally delicious. There were two older parents, Rabha (a thirty-something woman who is unmarried and incredibly friendly and warm), and her younger brother Abdullah, who has Down’s syndrome. They built the beautifully simple, one-room mud house two years ago, when they moved out of town and up from Tounfite. They have ten hectares (approximately 25 acres), which I think they rent out for farming (we saw wooden plows being pulled across the rocky ground by a team of two mules). On the downhill side they are building another one-room mud house that will be embedded in the ground in order to increase thermal insulation. Great idea at 7,000 feet! Feeling refreshed and invigorated by the wonderful food, we followed Rabha to a nearby stream where we were delighted to see a small gorge and no less than three waterfalls. Wonderful!
As the sun was beginning to set, we bid our farewells to our new friends and thanked them profusely for their hospitality, which we were beginning to realize is typical of the Amazigh (Berber) people. With the moon rising above Maasker, we began our couple hour trek back down to the hidden valley in which lies our new home, Tounfite. The light was spectacular on both Maasker and Ayachi and all the beautiful ground in between. As it grew darker and darker, we passed by several people who had been in town all day and were heading home. Two of the passersby stopped us to inquire into whether we had seen their lost cow or not. We replied that we had not and wished them luck in their search. Moments like this remind me of the very different world in which I am now living. We are not in Kansas anymore as the expression goes. No, no, in fact we are very much in Morocco and happy to be so. And days like this delight my soul, make my spirit soar, and remind me of how grateful I am to be alive, here and now.
The cave outside of Tounfite, Morocco. Aziz and I (left) taking a break in the cave with the mouth of the arched, fallen-in cave seen in the background. Aziz (right), after climbing up through the arch, is thankful either for being in such a beautiful place or not dying after a harrowing climb.
Let us continue with Rabha’s story. We continued to hike in that area and became friends with Rabha and her family. They also had a house in town, which allowed the kids to attend high school without having to walk for hours to reach town, so Rabha and her family would visit us as well. We quickly learned that she was a skilled weaver of traditional Amazigh rugs and that she was getting paid very little to do so. This didn’t seem right to us as we thought that she ought to get compensated fully for her skill and her effort. A seed was planted within us. Being volunteers in the Environment Program with the Peace Corps, we did not feel qualified to help develop small businesses for people like Rabha and others who were yearning to develop themselves and their community. The seed that was planted within us we replanted by requesting that Peace Corps place a Small-business Development volunteer in Tounfite. This seed and the subsequent hard-work and success of several Small-business Development volunteers has resulted in amazing things for Rabha and other artisans from the greater Tounfite area (and across Morocco). Another former Peace Corps Volunteer, Dan Driscoll, started a website called Anou – Beyond Fair Trade (www.theanou.com) where you can be directly linked to artisans like Rabha. She is now not only a weaver but is also a trainer for Anou and has started a non-profit organization in Tounfite as well. She helps other women develop themselves by improving their understanding of small business development and management. Rabha believes “….experience as an Anou trainer has taught me how to better sell and make my own products in order to help the women in my village. I now understand the problems artisans face across Morocco and I believe I can help.” It is precisely this approach of Moroccans helping Moroccans that ensures the sustainability and lasting change. Seven years later as I reread this journal entry and think of our lasting impact in Morocco, I am so thankful that we hiked up to that cave and that we said yes to an invitation to tea. And in Morocco anyway, all development, personal or organizational, begins with a round of sweet, syrupy, glorious, mint tea poured from a hand held high so that you get the right turban of bubbles on top. You never know, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.