Having returned to the site of her gap year before college, Negina Pirzad sees the country of Morocco through her memories of the past, along with a new, present-day lens. One thing that has remained a constant for Pirzad is her seeing the North African country as a reference point for understanding her family’s homeland of Afghanistan.
Words and Photos by Negina Pirzad
Our faded yellow taxi cab came to a playful stop in the congested roundabout as it gave its identical twin in front a kiss, as two siblings would. Our car’s rear was on the receiving end of another bumper-to-bumper greeting – one taxi piling in after the other at the stop site for Marrakesh’s busiest attraction: Jemaa al Fnaa.
Unlike the tourists who were falling out of their cabs looking traumatized from the ride, I was paying attention to the taximeter and calculating how much it used to cost for a ride from my host family’s house in the Shaar al Hamrah neighborhood to the popular outdoor market where we had just arrived.
The verifying in my head was happening out of habit, since I knew from experience how prone to meter-manipulation Marrakshi taxi drivers could be with foreign customers. Rides would usually end in one of two ways: sourly, with a money debacle, or more lovingly, with a marriage proposal from the driver.
This time around, no one asked for my hand, but the ride price did seem higher than I remembered. With a slight feeling of defeat, I handed over a crisp 20-dirham bill, including a generous tip for the man who had brought me to the place I had dreamt of for the last three-and-a-half years.
I didn’t feel defeated because I thought the Moroccan had overcharged us–it was more of a feeling of disappointment that came over me. The Marrakesh I once knew wasn’t completely the same as I’d left it.
The few-dirham increase made me emotional and nostalgic for the past. I daydreamt of the days I walked this city, from my language school in the Gueliz neighborhood, to the Menara pool close to the airport, heading east towards the Koutoubia mosque, hitting the medina, or old city souks we were at now, and then going back towards the stretch of public schools that signified I was close to home.
All the sounds I heard on these treks through town were coming back to me—from calming prayer calls of the Adhan, to whispers from the many panhandlers lining the streets, to the occasional calls from boys that I quickly learned to not take too seriously.
I let my mind wander through the memories, pretending I needed a shake to wake up and return to reality. Paulina, my travel companion, nudged me back to the present. Our taxi driver was yelling at me for overstaying my welcome, but I wanted to continue romanticizing the moment, as if I were in the sequel to my very own coming-of-age movie.
Marrakesh was my home base for the 2011-12 school year while I was on a governmental scholarship to study the ever-critical language of Arabic. I left Eugene, Oregon, having just graduated from high school, and I was sitting on the cusp of my 18th birthday when I got on the plane that took me from Portland, to Washington D.C., to Madrid, and finally into Casablanca.
Almost three-and-a-half years had passed since this life-changing experience, and there I was in Marrakesh again – back to give endless kisses, from one on the left cheek to as many as seen fit on the right, to my Moroccan family and to the Red City that once hosted me.
Transitioning into the exotic Moroccan life that I heard so much about – that I was cautioned and warned so much about – was a cultural shock for me at first back in 2011, but the overall immersion into this new, North African way of living wasn’t all that difficult for me.
I quickly realized that Marrakesh was the first place that ever made me feel closest to where my parents migrated from in the late-‘70s: Kabul, Afghanistan.
I lived almost my entire life as a minority, coming from an unknown cultural background, in this Caucasian-majority community in Oregon which has always made it difficult to not feel “othered.” In the States, my family tries to uphold our authentic Afghan traditions through the foods we eat, the holidays we celebrate, the music and movies we consume, but I know it never feels exactly the same for my parents and relatives as it did back home, before the Soviet Invasion took the Afghanistan they once knew.
And what Morocco gave me was more than my first international experience – from the moment I stepped off the plane at 17 years old, to when I stood at the mouth of the Jemaa al Fnaa souks at 21 years old this past summer – it made me feel so strongly the presence of my Muslim religion and my Eastern heritage that I don’t completely get back in Eugene.
My Moroccan family even saw this comfort I felt in their country, to the point in which they would say, “You are not an American student we are hosting. You are an Afghan student visiting us who is almost Moroccan.”
Where most American students would be taken aback by the eclectic Moroccan culture, I was at home. Some aspects of life were different, but never strange to me
When our program warned us about things like people eating with their hands and sitting at circular tables, I went into the experience already knowing that justice isn’t given to the most delicious of foods unless you eat communally and sans utensils. My American roommate and I would see foreign ingredients enter our host family’s kitchen, but the smells that wafted from Mama Khadija’s works would instantly remind me of those from my parents’ Afghan cooking back home.
And then, there was modesty. For many Westerners, covering your arms, legs, and chest in a place with desert climate is unfathomable, where societal guidelines for the way one dresses and the way people act apply to both men and women, and where sometimes, a girl would feel more comfortable covering her hair as well as her body. But again, I grew up with this notion of conservativeness already engrained in me, along with the fact that there is a specific time and place for everything, including certain types of self-expression.
But at 17, it is important to note that Moroccan culture was still new to me and not everything felt familiar or relatable. The heavier aspects of life in a developing nation, like poverty, were difficult for me to comprehend at times when I was younger. Morocco isn’t as poor as most other third-world countries with its active tourism, agriculture, and other booming industries, but it does suffer from a number of maladies that were foreign to me.
Take, for example, the type of poverty found in Morocco. It was so different than anything I’d ever seen back in the U.S. Women sit with sleeping children in their laps, men with gruesome, open wounds exposed, panhandling popular Marrakech spots. The way begging worked and was viewed were things I couldn’t quite connect to my parents’ experiences in Afghanistan because these weren’t the types of stories they would reminisce on with my sisters and me growing up.
But this time around, another sign that the Al Maghreb country felt different to me was how I responded to the transparent poverty in public. I wasn’t shocked and confused by it; I was instead put into another one of my trances, drawing connections from the poor populations in Morocco to what present-day Afghanistan must look like. Where my family’s country is at now is foreign to both them and me, making me want to understand and visualize life for the Afghan people today for myself. And again, I was able to use Morocco as a reference point for my South Asian country, but in a different way now.
Returning to my city this past summer, and playing tour-guide for my best friend, the place my ancestors come from felt within grasp once again. And even though Marrakesh changed in ways, the memories and connections I made years ago still filled me up like a bowl of harira soup on a cold winter day.