We're All Family, Strangers and All

One of my favorite things about Moroccan culture is the tendency to call people your family, even if they are complete strangers. If you go to any market or souq and ask for a price, they’ll tell you “180 khoya” (my brother). Jump on the train and an older lady will ask her wldi (my son) to help her lift her luggage into the upper storage compartment.

It is incredibly comforting and never fails to give me a sense of belonging. It reminds me that we are all human and we are all connected in one way or another. It reminds me that I am always surrounded by people who will treat me with the care and respect they show their family members.

What follows are three short stories of times when I was endearingly called someone’s brother, son, or uncle.

nta khuna

I eat too much msmen. It is easily one of my favorite Moroccan foods and I eat it just about every other day. It is a flatbread that is made by flattening out the dough with lots of oil until it is see-through thin, folding it up to create layers, then frying on a hot griddle. The women that make it regularly make it look way easier than it is. Then, it is a blank slate to put whatever you like on it (I prefer them with cheese and olive oil).

When I arrived to my final site, one of my first priorities was to find a reliable msmen dealer to satisfy my cravings. I found some women near my house that open their doors and turn on their griddles at around 6 o’clock every night. They are very kind (and will get their own dedicated blog post one of these days) and I go there a few times a week to chat with them and, of course, get my msmen to take home with me.

On this particular occasion, I showed up late. The woman making the msmen was getting the last of some delicious filling out of a container and plopping it inside some spread out dough. It is a mixture of meat, onions, and spices that get folded into the msmen and it is my absolute favorite. They were all gone and so I asked for the usual; two plain ones, please.

wesh baqi shi msmen 3mmr? (Is there any filled msmen left?)
La, mabqash (No, there’s none left)
Safi, aray juj khawin 3fak (Ok, give me two plain ones then please)

Another woman, Farah, heard the exchange and came out from the back to say hello and add some other sweets to the front display. She pulled out two hidden pieces of filled msmen, one for her and one for the woman actually cooking them. She ripped hers in half and handed it to me. I, of course, didn’t want to impose and declined. They, of course, kindly insisted that I just eat the damn thing if I wanted some. I said no again and they started wrapping up the half msmen to take with me anyways.

Can’t argue with that. I took it and it tasted incredible. It was spicy and savory, perfect for how cold it was that night. As Farah finished setting up the front display, she turned to go back to the back room. Just before she disappeared, she yelled over her shoulder, “kul, nta khuna” (eat, you’re our brother).

I stood there eating my filled msmen until the others were done and I went home with a (half) full belly and a full feeling of connectedness with my community.

bsaha u raha wldi

Friday is a special day in Islamic culture. It is the day of the week when people congregate and pray together. It is even apparent in the language where the word for “Friday” and the word for “mosque” and the word for “gather” all share the same root1. A common greeting for the day is jm3a mubarka meaning blessed or happy Friday.

It is also, importantly, when couscous gets served. The men get home from the mosque about 30 minutes after the dhuhr call to prayer, around 1:30 in the afternoon. Families come together and eat from the same pile of couscous, vegetables, and meat until everyone is full and ready to take a nap. I go to my host family’s home every Friday to take part.

Last week, I went over unannounced (as is customary) and sat down to watch the news and draw something with my host sister’s toddler, Khadija. The women were in the kitchen preparing the couscous, dumping it into the serving platter and topping it with all the fixings. After my host father came home from the mosque, we got to work. As we ate, we talked and made jokes. We talked about the ongoing wars in the world, we talked about my host sister Maryem’s studies, and we laughed at how big of a mess Khadija made by flinging couscous everywhere.

The table was cleared and one-by-one, my host family members went to either take a nap or go about their day. The last ones were me and my host mother. I got up to leave and said thank you and that I’d see them later. My host mother said, “bsaha u raha wldi” (to your health and comfort, my son) and I gave her “Lah y3tik saha” (Allah give you health) in response and went home to take my well-deserved afternoon nap.

3fak khali, shi dirham?

At the end of the holy month of Ramadan, there is a holiday to mark the ending of a whole lunar cycle of fasting, giving, and worshipping Allah. Families travel from all over to eat and see family that they don’t normally get to see throughout the year. It is also a time for generosity. Before you can break your fast the morning after Ramadan, you have to give a donation to someone in need or a charitable organization (this donation/almsgiving is called zakat). Little kids are also given small gifts and money. The kids accept it as a cultural tradition and they are not shy to ask.

I was leaving my home to go for a walk, a bit later at night than normal. Because of the fasting, everyone’s schedules are off-kilter and people are up later than normal anyways. The group of neighborhood kids were outside kicking a football around and having fun. I didn’t get far before I heard one of them running up behind me yelling “khali, khali!” (my uncle and, more specifically, my maternal uncle)

I turned to see what he wanted. “3fak khali, shi dirham?” (please, my uncle, do you have a dirham?) I counted how many kids there were in the group and gave the kid one dirham for each, making sure to remind him to distribute it among his friends. They got excited and immediately ran to the little store to spend their hard-earned money.

In my last post, I mentioned how “I often feel like Morocco is just one big family.” That rings true in the face of adversity and just in everyday life here. I’m reminded that I belong nearly every day, even on the days when I don’t necessarily feel like it.

You might have also noticed that in all of these cases, people always add a possessive “my” to the title. It adds some authenticity, like they are proud of the fact that you are their family member. They don’t shy away from it. Sometimes in the US, men call each other “my brotha” but the intended meaning is “my friend.” I’m not usually convinced that these people will actually treat me like their brother and my best friends who do actually treat me like their brother would never call me their “brotha.”

Religious texts in Islam make the point clear that all people are equal, coming from the same creator and descending from the same parents. The Prophet was reported as saying, “I bear witness that all human beings are brothers and sisters to each other.” The Qur’an2 also supports this by reminding mankind that all people are one, independent of linguistic, national, or racial identity. The only dividing line is moral excellence.

O humanity! Indeed, We created you from a male and a female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may get to know one another. Surely the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous among you. (49.13)

And while Moroccans call nearly everyone their brother or aunt or child, it doesn’t ever lose its genuineness or power. I still feel valued and connected to those that call me their family. It fills me with a sense of belonging, like I’m actually part of their family. I feel thankful and honored to be considered a brother in a place so far from home.

  1. To the dismay of Arabic learners everywhere, these words and others like university, association, commune, etc. all sound similar to the untrained ear, differing by just a vowel or two:
    mosque = jam3 (جامع)
    Friday = jm3a (جمعة)
    association = jm3iya (جمعية)
    univerisity = jami3a (جامعة)
    commune = jma3a (جماعة) ↩︎

  2. I am using the translation by Dr. Mustafa Khattab in the Clear Quran ↩︎

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