My phones been ringing all morning, it’s the same number. I don’t recognize it, the voice is strange, and the name doesn’t sound familiar. This is no surprise, I’m in a land with different voices and and new names, I almost never remember. I head towards my house to see if I can track down this stranger. Sure enough it’s the first person I met in this new home of mine. I forget his name, I knew I would, I always do.
The questions start quickly. He asks me about Ramadan, about whether or not I had fasted and how often I prayed. I have rehearsed this lie so many times it now comes naturally. There is no such thing as trying to do Ramadan here, in this part of the country it is all or nothing. I say I fasted, I’m sick of the harassment, I feel like it is my only option. I didn’t pray, I never do. I can’t lie about this, I can’t even pretend that I know how to pray as a Muslim does. This is not how our conversations usually go. I feel like I am on a recruitment mission already, he’s asking me about becoming Muslim, about my intentions. I use my usual lines, “If God wills it,” “maybe,” and pretend to misunderstand. None of these seem to work, today he is persistent.
He’s my friend, he’s always treated me well. He stuck up for me when a taxi driver tried to rip me off my first day. But my friendships in this country are different, it always seems like people want something more. I can’t claim to be innocent myself. I’m bored often, I want people to spend time with, I want to feel like I’m part of the towns and villages that I visit. I don’t want to return home talking about the books I’ve read. I want to be able to tell people about the culture, about the friends that I’ve made. To the locals I represent a foreigner that can provide something that others can’t. For some it is my money, they think I can bring friends to their shops or purchase things myself. Many see me as a potential way to get a visa and a person that could provide them with a job where they can make real money in a better place. But the vast majority see me as a potential convert, a way for them to find eternal bliss a little bit easier.
We head into a building, I have a feeling that it may be a mosque, I heard the call to prayer only minutes before. It looks nothing like the ones I’m used to seeing, it’s old, even smaller than others in this remote part of the country. The building is cool, it’s made out of mud like many of the houses around here. There are no women, only men. They are sitting in a room off to the side. We sit in the entrance way. I am happy to be here, it was hot out, I was dehydrated. I’m given two cups of cold water and quickly forget about another awkward situation that I am probably involving myself in.
The building, or house, that we are in was perfectly built for this area of the world. It is amazing, it’s what I imagined a house in a remote part of Africa, on the edge of the Sahara would look like. It was built long ago, not a chance that it would sustain a storm of any type of strength. The stairs seem to be cut out of the ground and the piles of dirt in each corner makes me think that this could be the case. The windows let in a faint light, no electricity seems to exist but I see a few stray wires that tell me that it is a possibility.
I sit on a pad in the entrance way with a few others. More people are coming in the door now. They go down the line shaking everyone’s hand, finishing with me. They are friendlier than I’m used to and smile at me openly. This isn’t surprising, this is a small village and after a month of fasting they are finally being well fed. I want to go into the room on the right, the one with all of the men, but decide not to take the risk. I wander to the left. There looks to be three rooms, the smell emanating from one makes me think that it probably serves as the bathroom. I am standing in a room with a large stone well in the middle. A rubber bucket hangs beside it, waiting to be lowered in order to provide water to cleanse the men before prayer.
I head back to my seat, waiting to see what will happen next. About twenty people are hanging around now and they begin to head towards the back. They ask in Arabic if I will be joining them for prayer, I know what they are saying but fake confusion. I wouldn’t know how, it doesn’t seem appropriate for me to join. Out of nowhere I am asked in broken English if I will be joining. I’m caught off guard, where did this guy come from? I respond with a simple no and everyone heads into the back without me. I’m left alone with just one other man. I want to ask him why he didn’t go, does he also not pray?
We sit in silence for a few minutes, I have nothing to say and we both seem to be enjoying the coolness being offered. He gets up and motions me to follow him, through the room the men had occupied before. We climb over a few piles of dirt and head through another door. The room is amazing, something draws me to this mosque. I’m not a particularly religious person but this place has a feeling of power. Everything about it, the coolness, the feeling that it could have been carved out of the ground, how fragile it appears in this harsh land. I look up above me into the small minaret that was visible from the outside. On the walls I can make out fading lines of script, I can only assume they are passages from the Koran. In the middle, taking up much of the room, is a raised platform covered in dusty sheets. It looks important but I never find out what it is.
The prayer doesn’t last long and I meet the others at the entrance. We head back out into the heat, it’s time for lunch. At my friends house we pause in the hallway, I’m not totally sure what’s going on. We head in to the main room, the women currently quickly stand as we enter. It was as if they had been prepared to leave at a moments notice all along. Many are fully veiled, they look away, it’s clearly that I’m the odd one here. I always feel guilty when this happens but there is little that I can say to alter the situation.
The women leave the room quickly, but one seems to hang around a little longer. She looks at me, as if she wants to say something but isn’t quite sure how. The rest of the women were shy, scared of my gaze. She exudes a type of confidence that isn’t often seen from women in this part of the country. She leaves the room in a different way than the others, I’m fascinated by her. She’s dressed conservatively, with little of her body uncovered, but you can tell that she’s different. She wears these clothes with style, she’s beautiful in her own way. She returns a few minutes later with water, I continue to watch her out of the corner of my. As if she senses my gaze, in near perfect English she asks if I want tea. I’m taken aback, I wasn’t expecting this type of communication.
She sits down with us and translates some questions from a few of the men in the room. She’s clearly intelligent and talks with ease. There is so much that I want to ask her but I’m uncomfortable, the men are dominating the conversation. She’s the kind of woman in this part of the country that could be something, that should be something. In another place, even in one of the cities, it would have been so much easier for her. In this small village, with a name that I don’t even know, it’s just too difficult. Unemployment is high among men, jobs just don’t exist for women here. If she’s lucky she’ll find a good husband, I’m sure she will. She’ll have children, maybe raise them in this very house, it’s certainly one of the nicer ones in the village. I wish I had answers, that I could provide opportunities, but there is only so much that I can offer.
I eat lunch quickly, I’m getting anxious to leave and head back to my own town. It’s getting to be the hottest part of the day, I know that already it will be a long walk home. They’ve turned the TV on to an English channel. The woman has left, she didn’t join us for lunch and it’s clear that I’m the only one that can understand what is being said. It’s a large crowd asking an educator of some sort questions about Islam, it seems like he is trying to convert them. The others in the room may not know exactly what is being said, but they certainly have the general idea. They look at me with wondering eyes and I act interested, probably sending the wrong message. These are good people, peaceful people, they mean well. They want me to feel the same happiness that Islam has brought them. There is no concept here of not being Muslim, it is the religion of all the people in this village. Every day I explore the culture, so much different than the one I am used to in the states. This is Morocco, it is an amazing place.