During my first two weeks in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, I sat on my rooftop terrace and wrote stories about Guinea-Bissau.
Afterwards, I needed to find a job.
I wouldn't be staying in Rabat for long. Thus, I was sure the city's language institutes wouldn't employ me as an English teacher. I preferred teaching in high schools, anyway. I was sure that public schools would have neither the money nor the authority to hire me, though.
Hmmm. Where was I to find a private school?
One day, two boys - tall Badr and short Nizar - gave me directions to the post office in Rabat's modern city. We began talking, and they told me about the private school they attended. I followed their directions to the school, submitted my resume, and ... was given a temporary job!
The first thing I noticed about this school was that I wasn't dressed well enough to work here. The mostly male teachers and administration wore long black coats, polished shoes, ties, and vests. Meanwhile, I'd be teaching in old sneakers, jeans, and a blue collared shirt that had two blue buttons and three white ones. My best outfit.
A man named Mustafa, who wore short buzzed hair and who met his teaching objectives with determination, was the eldest students' English teacher. Rounder and smilier Mohamed taught the school's second oldest students. Their proud and handsome bellies filled maroon or navy sweaters. I'd be working with these two.
Before work, the teachers suggested I join them in the local mens' custom of going to a cafe. Drinking avocado juice, I observed that my schools' teachers were great conversationalists. Mustafa asked me: What did you think of Morocco before coming here? Speaking of literature, he told me Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" was a wonderful book. "It's about a man who wanted to make something perfect. But, he makes a monster. It tells us we shouldn't try to play God."
An Arabic language teacher took this opportunity to tell me about Arabic literature. Morocco's best authors included Ibrahim Burlout, Zefzef, and Mohammed Azeddine Tazi. A Moroccan named Ibn Battuta had traveled during the Middle Ages, as far as China, and had left the world his travelogues.
Following this trip to the cafe, I met my schools' students. I first noticed they spoke English so well they probably could've taught me something, and I was impressed by how hard they'd worked on the projects they presented. The level of education was not so high in the public schools, apparently.
My male students had light sandy skin, a bit darker than the white lab-coats which all students wore over Western clothes. Or they had dark grayish skin. Some looked intelligent in glasses; others had sympathetic eyes without them.
Girls also wore conservative Western clothes. Some had brown Brazilian skin, and free hair that fell down their backs like the waterfalls of the Oum er Rbia. Moroccan women had the most beautiful hair - a blend of shiny brown and black.
Other female students wrapped their hair up in shawls. These girls also seemed more likely to wear glasses, and have pale skin. They were as talkative and confident as the other girls, though they seemed more serious.
No students were fat, but there were some short, chubby ones.
I prepared questions to ask these students in my lessons. But, they had even more questions for me.
My mom would give me advice: "Remember, you don't have to have the answers for all their questions. And even if you do have an answer, you don't always have to say it." I tried to be open and honest, and not upset anyone. As a result, we had some very good discussions.
Here were some excerpts ...
Students: Is traveling the world difficult or easy? Would you wish the same life on your child?
S: You say you write about philosophy and religion. Isn't religion a sensitive subject?
S: What are some bad things about your country?
S: America always sides with Israel. Palestinian kids are dying. Why ... ?
S: We hear that Arabs are continually being mistreated in the U.S. As a representative of your country ... ?
S: What about the movie, "The Innocence of the Arabs"?
S: What do you think of Muslims and Islam?
Justin: Well, I ... (Ring!!!) Whew. Saved by the bell.
S: What are your favorite countries you've visited.
J: I'm in love with Colombia and Laos.
S: What did you know about Morocco before coming here?
J: I'd heard that Moroccans are hospitable, I knew about the Atlas Mountains, and I thought you ate couscous every day.
S: We only eat couscous on Fridays. You can't eat couscous every day!
J: Why not?
S: Because you can't eat the same food every day. And besides, it takes to long to make.
J: But, you eat tagine every other day of the week.
S: Ha ha, that's true!
S: How did you come to be able to travel the world?
J: In the U.S.A., when we're young, we're told we can do anything we want.
S (a girl, impressed): You're lucky.
S: In Morocco, girls aren't allowed to travel and do what they want. It's a patriarchy.
S (another girl): I disagree.
J: Is it a patriarchy?
S (mostly boys): No!
S (mostly girls): Yes.
S (in agreement): It "was" a patriarchy. Things are changing now.
S: What do you think of Islam?
J: I read the Koran, translated into English. It seemed ... strict.
J: It seemed ... scary.
J: It seemed like, if I did something wrong, God was going to punish me.
S (agreeing with me): Yeah ...
S (a serious boy with glasses): I invite you to read the Koran once you've learned Arabic.
J: I'm sure it'd be different. I'd also like to read the book in which (the prophet) Muhammad's deeds and sayings are recorded: the Sunnah.
S: Which stereotypes do you find Moroccans have of Americans?
J: Moroccans are generally very open and accepting. But, I can see, from some of your questions, that there are some antagonistic feelings between the two cultures.
(Nevertheless, I believed it was possible for the two cultures to accept and befriend each other.)
J: What's it like to be a youth in Morocco? Is it good?
S: It depends. If the parents are traditional, it's not so good.
S (a girl): Parents are too protective during their childrens' teenage years.
S (a pretty girl): That's because our teenage years are the most difficult, and important.
J: How is school? Difficult? Fun?
S: Difficult. Hard. It's only fun because we're with our friends. There's stress and a lot of work.
S (a girl with dreams of becoming a doctor): The situation isn't the same for girls and boys. In the home, boys are given electronic devices and trucks to show they're going to work; girls are given dolls and cooking supplies, to show they're going to stay at home. In the past, parents didn't even send their daughters to school. Girls are always told, "There's danger."
Teacher (Mustafa): There's equal opportunity at school. Right?
S: Yeah, at school. But, not in the home.
S (a girl with dreams of becoming a writer): I want to be able to move my readers, to make them feel emotions. Other writers have done that to me. I'm so inspired by your will to follow your dreams. Why have you chosen to travel and write?
J: I guess ... I want to make something beautiful. And leave it for the world.
S (in unison): It was very nice to meet you. Thanks for your time.
J: Nice to meet you, too. Thank you.
- The Modern Oddyseus