September 11, 2010 and the festival of Eid ul-Fitr, the celebration at the end of Ramadan. Nine years ago, who would have thought that I would be sitting in the home of a traditional Islamic family in the middle of the Moroccan desert? Yet while I sat there drinking delicious mint tea that Habiba—the woman my friends and I met on one of Morocco’s dusty, overcrowded trains—had poured from cup to cup to cool it for sensitive American tongues, I felt relaxed, welcomed, and extraordinarily comfortable.
Habiba and her family were wonderful people by anyone’s standards. I am astounded and humbled by the degree of courage and open-heartedness that it took for Habiba to invite five Americans whom she had just barely met into her father’s home for their family celebration of one of the most sacred days of the year. She was the picture of warmth and kindness, a perfect hostess.
Her father, Hriouch, was patriarchal to a tee, relaxing on the floor in his flowing white djellaba (traditional Moroccan robe) and casually ordering his sons, daughters, and grandchildren about with a nod or a few words. While we were there, he couldn’t find his reading glasses, so he had his family running around the house looking for them. After two or three minutes of that, he looked down and discovered that they had been in his pocket the entire time. His little smile and the twinkle in his eye when he put them on reminded me so much of my Grandpa that I nearly cried.
Only one of my friends spoke any French, and she hadn’t practiced it in nearly six years, while the members of the Hriouch family spoke only a smattering of English. Yet despite not sharing a common language, we spent an enormously enjoyable five hours together, learning each other’s names, ages, and places of origin, drinking mint tea, and getting non-verbal lectures on Moroccan table manners from an extremely precocious 13-year-old girl (when eating tajine, one should use small pieces of bread dip in the tajine, not large ones, and one’s glass should always be set off to the side).
After dinner, one of Habiba’s brothers, Hamid, called a taxi for us to our original destination of Marrakech, nearly 70 kilometers from their home, and bid us farewell. There was much hugging and kissing on both cheeks, and then we were off. Hamid rode with us in the taxi down to Marrakech, walked us to our hostel, and then–hug, kiss, kiss–he was gone.
Nine years ago, a small group of radical Islamic terrorists changed the American perception of Arabic nations around the world: we learned that “here be dragons,” and westerners should fear to visit. I realize now how strongly I felt that prejudice before I came to Morocco, and how dramatically it colored my perception of the first night I spent there. After experiencing the kindness of Habiba and her family, I have developed a very different impression: that Morocco may look rough and intimidating from outside, but once entered reveals itself to be a warm and beautiful place, full of people who are not so very different from friends at home.
—Lander Ver Hoef

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