March 2018 Taroudant/Marrakech Morocco
In the Sidi Ayoub area of the Medina (the town inside the city walls) of Marrakesch Abderrazzak El Maana unexpectedly addresses me in my own language with a charming southern Dutch swirl. In contrast to the continuously hustling traders in this busy commercial part of town, Abder did not initiate the conversation with me. I just happened to chose his little “shop” of not more than 1 m2 to buy some mini packages shampoo. I have shortened his name to Abder but for Arabic speakers, the full name is no problem. For Dutch Aza or Azi was also common.
Abder is a good-humored man and sees the bright side of everything. As most Moroccans, the chatting around his little shop has no end and jokes are made continuously. “I sell goods but I also sell chats”. Every 5 minutes someone buys something small like the hennah powder Abder makes himself from the leaves. He is the best as he does not spike it with chemicals. Or a piece of elastic is needed for making clothing is collected by a young girl for her mother. The activity in front of the shop reminds a bit of a continuous cinema albeit with the same movie playing every day.
Annoyance about things we often complain about is absent. Even his rejection of the ” medina tour guide” diploma is taken with a shrug. Inshallah, it is the way Allah has foreseen.
Now 52 he left Morocco for Europe when he was aged 20. The future seemed bleak here, he did not like to study and over there it seemed a better and more exciting world. At first, he worked in Lybia in order to earn his fare. Then he made the jump (at that time legally) to (then) visum free Italy. From there he continued on to Switzerland and later to Holland. The journey is deeply engraved into his memory. He tells me numerous anecdotes of hardship but also of very kind people he met on his way. We could continue to talk for many hours. All in all, he spent around 10 years in Northern Europe, mainly in Maastricht in the south of the Netherlands.
Subsequently, 20 years ago, however, Abder decided to return to Morocco in order to again live here permanently. In the nineties of the last century, change seemed imminent in the whole of Northern Africa. A new era of Arabic spring would begin perhaps bringing new chances and more work possibilities. But this was not the main reason for his return.
“I was homesick and longing back to the life I was used to”.
It was difficult to find decent steady work in Holland as a foreigner from an Arabic country (the best he had was a construction job for a year). He was always at the bottom of the social ladder. Also, his partner in the Netherlands did not want to have children and “children are everything in life”.
Abder speaks with fondness of his years in Maastricht. He would do anything to help Dutch or Belgians.
“They have been very nice to me”
He insists on writing down his telephone number so I can call him in case I need something. He is proud to show me he can write Latin letters too and has a Dutch language guide neatly covered to protect it. He wants to keep his knowledge updated.
The expected political changes did not occur but Abder (re)settled, married his neighbor girl some 15 years younger through an arrangement with her parents (“quite cheap really, they were very happy”). Now the couple has three children, two boys of 13 and 16 and a little girl. They all live from the earnings of his mini shop selling convenience goods. Life is different here in Morocco as everything centers around family and community. “We do not have social laws for unemployment or education or health care like you. Everything either costs money or is arranged through family or relations”.
Unemployment is around 50% so opening a small shop is for many the only option to at least earn something. There must be hundreds of thousands of them.
Abder confirms the observations I made on the street: male and female worlds are in practice almost totally separated. This is not purely religion but also tradition, the way it always was. He is against total face-covering clothing for women but a scarf he considers normal. A marriage is more a practical arrangement. His wife looks after the house and the children and she has no time left to work, keeping in mind that household equipment is sparse and not modern.
Abder works from 7 in the morning to 10 in the evening most days, excluding parts of the Friday (the Muslim holy day), Saturday and Sunday. Coming home he is too tired to do anything else. Men are not often at home and women do not leave the house a lot other than for shopping or bringing the children to school. If they do they are generally in groups. A long time French ex-pat remarked to me somewhat bitterly:
“il n’ya pas d’amour ici”
I find that difficult to believe.
Abder’s family normally does not go outside an area of maybe one square kilometer. His shop is around 80 meters from his living quarters in a Dar (a dead-end street). There is no need and also no wish for moving much further away. Everything can be found here: the bakery, that almost operates 24/7, the butcher and poultry shop.
Or any other necessity like the local hammam (public bathhouse) or the pharmacy. About the hamam Abder comments washing every day is considered unhealthy. On might get sick….. The other family lives close by and holidays are unheard of (and well beyond financial reach).
He is well aware of what goes on in the medina as he speaks to everyone daily. Sadly his computer broke down so he does not see the news a lot. He has a television but the state-controlled channels addresses the viewers a bit as a schoolteacher does: it only shows politically correct news.
When I ask him Abder says has no regrets about his decision to return. This is where he belongs he now realizes and he has the goal he missed in the Netherlands: he does everything for his children. They do well on the Lycée Qualifiant located just down the road. His eldest son may well study medicine or become a vet for example, though this is very difficult as admission is reserved for the privileged and the fees high. But if he starts to work in another job it is also ok for him. There is such a rat race going on these days as people want to progress quickly society. This is not needed for him.
Abder’s brother of 60 died recently. People age quicker here than in Europe. While we are talking a customer Abder only met this afternoon (and did not know before) stops by to give him a photo of his brother. This is the way things are done here: they chatted, he told about the demise, the customer happened to know his brother from old days…. Then the customer realized he had a photo and took the trouble to bring it. Abder is moved to tears as it is the only picture of his brother he has.
A new idea for Abder comes up during our (in the meantime quite prolonged) chats. He decides he will put a little Dutch flag on his shop. It would be nice to talk to the Dutch tourists which are actually numerous. Change and innovation go with a moderate pace here and Abder is quite content with it.