A more creative style of writing for me, let me know what you think in comments below!
The train pulled into the station at 10:15pm. The journey had taken me through the arid Moroccan hills from the ancient ninth century medina walls of Fes to the big city lights of Casablanca. My cabin was already crowded with life when two young Moroccans arrived carrying with them a small puppy who defiantly poked her head out of their backpack. She brought an innocence to the cabin; the mood became light and smiles abounded. We began chatting, in French, and by the time we had reached Casablanca, we were ‘frères’. They insisted on walking me to my youth hostel and offered food, accommodation and company if I ever returned to Morocco. The authenticity of their offer surprised me – in the “West”, such displays of generosity were to be met with suspicion – but here it was customary.
It was 11pm now, I found my dormitory and set down my pack. Exhausted and famished. I needed food but unfortunately not any food, vegan food. Restaurants had closed for the night but the equivalent of corner shops remained open, their offering limited to cookies, dairy snacks and bread. Late-night sandwich and deep-fry shops appeared but were only serving animal flesh. A cubby-hole shack wafted smells of something sizzling but my plea of “Végétarien?” was quickly dismissed. This was not hopeful.
I continued to wander, preparing myself for a fruit-cart dinner if nothing else appeared. Fortunately, my perseverance paid off and at last, I passed by an old woman with a large pot of soup. I had seen this soup before in the medina of Fez, a vegan delight “olive oil, garlic and fava beans”. On inspection, this was not the same soup, but it would suffice. On a plastic table, bowls were laid out in a welcoming manner to all. I approached, she smiled and served.
The soup was sumptuous, and I ate like a wolf with prey, hunched over the bowl and scanning the street. The street housed hostels-named-hotels – the Hotel Medina, Hotel Des Amis and Hotel Granada but as the night came, the tourists receded to their rooms. For the locals, finished from work, a normal Monday evening had just begun. It was dark but for the glow from the lights of food-stalls and the flashing lights of boy racers on scooters. The streets were narrow and littered with stray cats which scrounged, survived and multiplied. It seemed like chaos but this was by design. In such tight quarters of a Medina, people lived on top of each other and in so doing, relied on contributing to the benefit of the whole.
The stall next to us was one such example. It featured a fruit-sellers family sat in the ambience, begrudgingly rising from their chairs to sell a slice of watermelon from their cart. One family member was permanently confined to a wheelchair where she sat contorted. She seemed to shrink away, only to remind us of her presence with piercing groans. I was not at ease but for others, this was the norm. Where the West might have shipped her off to a special ‘home away from home’, she was a responsibility they all carried. Each groan was met with the acknowledgement it sought and the night continued like always.
As the nourishment sank in, I sat and observed (after having two more servings). Casablanca was rough but real. People continued to filter through the alley with nods and shouts of recognition, few seemed to be in a hurry. Those that were, needed to be. One young man came in a hurry, his luggage in tow, and exchanged pleasantries and a plea for food. She duly served him with a smile. He ate and walked off, nothing more was expected. Later came a stumbling man. He was hungry with a mercurial smile and the smell of a nomad. She ushered him in and he grabbed a few spoonfuls of soup, jumped up with a grin and sauntered off. She was perturbed by this but shrugged it off. This was a community; the books may not have balanced but all mouths would be fed.
It was these small acts of generosity to a stranger like myself, to a family member and to the hungry that defined this community. It was how people survived. To me, such generosity seemed foreign. In our Western commodified world, for each thing given, there is an expectation of return. Every exchange is an impersonal transaction painted over with banal pleasantries. To make our lives richer, we have anonymized ourselves to the value we hold in our pockets. We have replaced the generosity of communities with the debt of an individual. I walked away with the feeling that something had been lost.