During my first year and a half as a Peace Corps volunteer in Settat, Morocco, I had an apartment on the southern edge of the city, not far from the highway that wound its way south along the long plateau to Marrakesh, about two hours away. The apartment was far larger than a single woman needed with a spacious entry off of which there were doors to two bedrooms, a large living room, the kitchen and a tiny bath. Sounds luxurious, right? Not. It came without hot water, kitchen appliances, or heat, which meant the place was frigid during the winter. Still, as a Peace Corps volunteer, I wasn’t complaining and over time, I furnished it with a very few pieces of essential furniture.
The apartment was on the third floor of a triplex, so I had magnificent views of the farmlands on nearby hills. A Moroccan businessman lived in the first apartment, above the ground floor garage, I occupied the second apartment, and on the roof lived a drunken, rather crazy, Russian math professor.
Aisha lived across a graveled, pot-holed alley from me in a tin-roofed, spotless, dirt-floored home furnished with cotton filled cushions set on wood frames, seating during the day, beds at night. Outside the door, her enclosed yard was cackling, clucking, keening with diverse forms of life: rabbits, chickens, geese, chattering and gossiping among themselves. Aisha raised them all to eat, to sell, and perhaps to keep her company.
Somehow, in the first months at my site, Aisha and I struck up an acquaintance. Likely, it was when she came across the narrow thoroughfare to use the tap at a neighboring building, fill two large pails with water and lug them back to fill tanks even larger than the pails with the water she needed for a day or several days. “S’bah al khair” I’d say by way of greeting, and she would respond in a far better accent, “Ahlan, k’dair?” She had no trouble or impatience with my limited vocabulary and suspect syntax, and she was truly interested in how an American of middle years managed to land in a small agricultural city like Settat.
Soon, because I had no refrigerator and so couldn’t save leftovers, it became my habit to wrap rice, noodles, bread, and apple cores in one of the myriad plastic bags one accumulated on every shopping trip, tie a loose knot at the top and leave it on the top of her outer mud wall, near the gate. These bits of food were added to others and served to Aisha’s various flocks.
Nothing is wasted in Morocco, at least among the poor, at least at that time. The garbage thrown in vacant lots or left in bags along the street where the infrequent trash pickups occurred consisted of inedible remains. Bones of any kind, chicken, lamb, and the rare beef bone were picked so clean of flesh, cartilage and marrow that even the most ravenous creature would have turned up his nose at the offering. Leftover food was another matter. Settat abounded with livestock of all varieties and they all needed to be fed. If a person had land, animals could feed off the silage left standing after harvest. Those without acreage, like Aisha, scrounged for morsels to keep the chicks, ducks and anything else alive and thriving.
Eid Al Fitr arrived at the beginning of February in 1997, granting me a couple of days off from my job as an EFL instructor at University Hassan Ier, the Faculte des Sciences et Techniques. I was looking forward to sleeping in and waking late, but the door buzzer 36 stairs down had other ideas. Instead of cursing ill-fortune, I looked out the window and saw a form standing in the shadow of the front door awning that looked like Aisha. So I dressed quickly and traversed the staircase to the front door. I was right, it was Aisha. But instead of being a bother, her arrival was a blessing because between her two hands she held a huge tray filled with breakfast delicacies. A short stack of msimin held center stage on a large plate, dripping with honey that oozed temptingly into this Moroccan pancake’s large holes. Little biscuits, several stuffed with almond past filled a tiny bowl. Fresh squeezed orange juice sat in a clear glass and gave off an aroma so succulent that it filled the small entry way. Dates, probably from eastern Morocco, completed the delightful holiday meal.
To say I was surprised at this offering doesn’t cover it. This lovely lady, who hadn’t a dirham to spare, thought, not about the cost or time in preparing the meal, but about the American woman all alone across the alley. It was one of those not-so-unusual Peace Corps moments when someone invites a stranger into their culture.