Rachel in Morocco

This chapter did not make it into the final version of the novel. I wanted to make it available, though, because it provides more context for who Rachel is and why she thinks the way she does. It also highlights important concepts of architectural design and political corruption. Enjoy!

Rachel pucked her mouth, she never did like fruity wine like the kind that her dad and sister would make from the cacophony of plants on the farm. Her sister and father would harvest and ferment to make all sorts of sweet and spicy concoctions. People would rave about their beverages, but Rachel only drank it to be polite. Nowadays anything else was too expensive or hard to find and she appreciated her sister’s gifts since their dad had died. 

Rachel sat on the back porch and listened to the sound of the wind blowing through the tree next door. She raised her glass of yellow dandelion wine and took another sip. “A hot planet has not been kind to fancy wine grapes. That’s for sure.” Rachel had lost touch with Lauren and felt angry and confused. She’d given her fifteen bottles at Christmas before Lauren cut her out of her life. Contact with Lauren had always sporadic, but now Rachel’s calls always went straight to voicemail. Her texts unread. Rachel was worried about her, but kept her distance. She wasn’t sure what she could do to make things right with them because she didn’t understand what was wrong. Their last conversation hadn’t gone well.  

Decades before, gained an appreciation for crisp dry wine while in college. At first she and her friends were playing dress-up and going to wine tastings at bars or liquor stores. They’d feign sophistication, “Can you taste the oakiness? And, “The mouthfeel is exquisite.” They’d lean into each other and shriek. It was after one of these events when they’d had a little too much to drink that Rachel hatched her plan to travel after graduation. She’d almost finished her four-year degree and wanted to see the world beyond the Midwest. Going right on to graduate school would have been the safe choice for her. The Rachel choice. But all night, they’d been trying wines from one far flung place after the other – Italy, South Africa, Argentina. Rachel had never been anywhere. She wanted to see everything, but her budget wouldn’t cooperate. She applied for a number of jobs overseas and was lucky enough to get one with a women’s micro-credit project in Morocco. She flew out a week after her graduation commencement. Her father was excited, her mother beside herself with worry and her sister too little to care.   

Rachel flew into Tangier. She was glad to board a train to leave the harsh city with a trash filled coast line. The train was thrilling and comfortable. The other passengers were friendly and welcoming. They bought her tea and pastries, which was awkward since she wasn’t accustomed to people she didn’t know buying her things. Five hours flew by and the train was pulling up at the station in Fez. Night had fallen and Rachel made her way through the deserted streets to her hotel. 

In the morning, Rachel dressed as she’d read that she should in the guidebook, choosing a long thin blue skirt with a tan blouse, a floral scarf was tied over her straight brown hair. She looked at herself in the mirror and tucked in the wisps of brown that had escaped the scarf. Rachel felt the pangs of loneliness slip in. She was so far from home. Rachel wished that she could show her family a picture of her, but figured it would just stress out her mom. 

Outside the hotel, Rachel took in the ghastly relics of French colonial rule lining the streets. Pale peach and green paint faded on the sides of the buildings. Heat shimmered off the concrete baking in the morning sun. A handful of old cars drove through the streets, and small groups of young men wearing jeans and loose shirts chatted here and there. Stepping inside the small cafe just around the corner, Rachel realized that she was overdressed. 

The only other customers in the restaurant were a pair of young flirty couples, late teens, all tight jeans and tank tops. As Rachel sat down, she imagined that if a picture were to be taken of the scene, they could easily mistake the kids for American and she for a pious Moroccan woman. She jotted the observation down in her journal. When the waiter brought them their breakfast, they prayed. Which again took her aback. “In the name of God and with God’s blessing.” But in Arabic,“Bismillahi wa ‘ala baraka-tillah.” Rachel didn’t understand Arabic. Or pray before her food anymore. But she admired the sentiment. Rachel had let religion slide right along with much of the rest of the identity she’d grown up with. 

After eating, Rachel grabbed her stuff from the hotel and hailed a cab to get to the office. The organization’s space was a small room in the ancient walled city that butted against modernity. They call this style of building a medina, and this particular one was built during the Idrisid dynasty over a thousand years before. The city’s history was tangibly present in Rachel’s mind. Studying the past had never been about regurgitating sets of facts and figures. To Rachel it was about understanding the art and science and the engineering and poetry that people still revere. The innumerable societies that have flourished or faded held lessons that Rachel considered important to grasp. A sense of adventure pulsed through her as she sat on the rumpled back seat listening to blaring Egyptian ballads pouring from the taxi’s speakers.

When the car stopped, Rachel handed the ill-tempered driver a few dirhams. “Shukraan,” she said as she climbed out with a bag her bag. A massive blue-tiled mosaic wall with ornate arches towered over her. It was the gateway. At least the French had built one beautiful thing here, she snarked to herself as she stared in awe. 

A short thin guy with dancing eyes strode up as she was taking everything in. “Rachel? You must be Rachel? I recognize you from your picture. Brown eyes, brown hair. Like me!”

Rachel was startled to hear her name. “Hi! I hadn’t expected that you’d meet me. You must be Ali.”

“Yes. That is me! Well, it’s really Mohammed. Mohammed Ali. You know, like the boxer?” He jumped around and threw a few punches in the air. “But you can just call me Ali. Meeting you was no problem at all. The medina can be hard to find your way around. I’ve just been having tea there in my friend’s shop and waiting for you to come. Let’s go somewhere nice. Not this shit.” He gestured to the place he’d just been. Then he flashed a smile and projected out some friendly words in their dialect of Moroccan Arabic to his friends. He winked and said to Rachel, “Gotta keep them happy.” Rachel liked him already. 

He called a kids over who grabbed her bag, and she followed them through the massive passage into the ancient city. A narrow plaza was brimming with energy. Women wearing bright hijab gabbing together with plastic bags of goodies and stacks of round bread in their arms. Children scurried about. A man stood off to the side gesturing wildly while shouting to himself. Everyone ignored him. Another man dressed in flowing white robes was carrying a beautiful brass water jug on his back. He was selling drinks of water to the locals, Ali explained. Tourists sat at the cafes surrounding the square and the Moroccans funneled off through the narrow, convoluted streets branching in every direction. Rachel and Ali sat down at a dented wood table on the outside veranda of one of the shops near the gate. A worn-looking waiter brought two tall clear glasses, each with a sprig of fresh mint. He held up the kettle high and poured a long stream of steaming water into their cups. Rachel felt the sweat pouring off her as she thought of drinking boiling tea. Ali must have observed the incredulity on her face. “It’ll cool you off,” he said. The loud man continued to shout nearby. 

Ali asked lots of questions about her travel, her family, her life. She questioned him the same. After a while, Rachel found that she was feeling more comfortable. She asked, “I’m not so hot anymore. It felt like the new city was going to bake me. Or, is that tea working?” She grinned.  

Ali’s face lit up. “You noticed. Good. Good. Absolutely, the tea is working.” He chortled. “But it is also our brilliant architecture. These winding twisting passages stopped our enemies, but they also create shadows. When the sun can’t seep in everywhere, the space stays cool. Fresh. Our buildings are tall, and our streets are narrow. Our lines are curvilinear. The sun has no chance!” He slapped his knee.   

Ali jumped up and beckoned to Rachel. “The natural brick stays cool, too. Please, come feel it.” They stepped inside the building and she pressed her hand against the worn smooth surface. It was deliciously chill and she wanted to press her whole body against it. She thought of a millennium of people’s lives passing by. She closed her eyes to imagine the scene. Rachel could never imagine building to suit the climate, rather than the other way around. 

Ali chortled, “We like to stay cool. We are smart people. That we are. Did you know that Fez has the oldest library in the world? Right here. It’s in disrepair, of course. They’re supposed to fix it one of these days, or so they say. I will take you there later and we can see the ruins.” 

Rachel had not anticipated having so much fun right out of the chute. It was unlike any first day on the job she’d had before. They talked and drank tea all morning. Ali called a boy over to bring them soup and bread from a nearby stall for lunch and introduced her to friends. He seemed to know everyone. Eventually the conversation wandered to what had brought her to Morocco in the first place. 

Ali explained, “In this microfinance project, the women have banded together and pooled their money. When someone wants to invest in their business or hits hard times, they can take out a loan. We have nearly a hundred-perfect repayment rate. The money then goes back to the pool for more loans. You might wonder what difference this makes. Well, it’s huge!” He splayed his fingers like twin fireworks going off. “With these projects they have a back-up plan when things go wrong. Plus, the women have a lot more freedom and control over their lives. When the women are in charge of money, they make choices that benefit everyone in the family. Not just themselves the way we men do. The women don’t need much from us. Just helping keep the books, mostly.”

Ali made Rachel’s heart flutter; he was effervescent. She felt herself falling for him.

The next day they set out to the villages where the program was operating. A Swiss non-governmental organization was funding them to work at seven sites. The subtle beauty of the sand-colored hillsides stretched out into the horizon as they whirred by. Farmers with buckets of water balanced on sticks slung over their backs, were painstakingly watering their thirsty crops. Small boys herded big flocks of fluffy sheep. She thought about how different these farms were from her own family’s. They had an hour’s drive to the first village, and she and Ali never had a lull in the conversation. He told her the story of Morocco and how proud he was of his country. He spoke of the Berbers and the Arabs and the colonial forces that had shaped the nation. Ali told of how they got a King, and that one of them had refused to hand over Jews during the second World War. He talked of how his country had mourned when so many left for Israel, anyway. Though he understood why. He obviously adored his country, but he also spoke honestly of Morocco’s problems as he saw them. He hated to see his people suffer. He blamed the government. Ali was faithful to his King. But he loved his country more. He reminded Rachel of her dad.

Ali said, “So much of what’s ruining this country is corruption. From the King on down, everyone expects their little piece of the action. When a job needs done, the government doesn’t figure out who can do it the best. The cheapest. No, it’s whose cousin or friend owns a company. Or who’ll give them the biggest wad of cash. Al’alma!” He blushed, “That’s a swear word. I’m sorry. But it means blindness. And it is true that they are blind to what they do to us. Or don’t care.”

“I think they don’t really care. It’s more important that they get theirs.” 

“It’s not just the big powerful guys. They’re the worst. But it’s all the little guys, too. The whole government. You can’t get a license or good job unless you pay first. Some of these problems are with how close we stick with our families, for sure. Family is everything to us. And that’s good. But this corruption, it’s not about family. If your cousin messes up, you fire him and hire your other cousin. You don’t just keep letting it go on, year after year, until everything gets worse.” 

“When it comes from the top, how do you even stop it?”

“That’s the problem. Without freedom, you can’t. We just work around it. I pay bribes all the time. I have to. You can’t live here and not deal with corruption almost every day. You’re so lucky to be from a country where you have liberty.” His expression was grave, “You know that you can’t talk about this to anyone else. Right? It could cause an arrest.” 

“No. Sorry. No, I wouldn’t.” 

Over the months, the grift became routine. She’d see it in the streets and hear the stories of the women. One was saving to replace her roof, but instead had to get her son out of jail for working as an unlicensed tour guide in the city. But really, it was because he didn’t have the cash to pay a bribe to either get a license or pay the cop on the street. She loved Morocco and the work, but was being worn down by how hard life was for ordinary people. She questioned whether or not she was making a difference because the whole system seemed to be stacked against them ever getting ahead.    

Ali and his family made her time there as magical as could be, though. By and by, Rachel and Ali became lovers. Halfway into her eight month contract, they started talking of marriage. His cousin offered to build them a house in the little village of Sefrou nearby. Rachel felt absorbed by their clan. Ali’s little sister Hannan would hold her hand and say in flawless English, “Stay, please. You’re part of our family now.” But Rachel knew that she wasn’t. Though goodness, was she tempted to marry him and melt in with them all. They were generous with her in every way. Once she’d accidentally broken Ali’s family’s prized vase when she turned around too sharply. Rachel was mortified. She had cried and apologized, but they seemed to not give a second thought to the object. They didn’t want her to be sad. If they still wanted her after that, Rachel figured that they were the real deal. And Ali was far better than nearly anyone she’d dated up to that point in her life. Both in bed and out. He was thoughtful and kind. But Rachel had come to Morocco to find something that had been missing in her life, and she had. It was absolutely not what she had expected, though.

As the time to decide on signing another contract drew near, Rachel began longing for the States. She’d come of age in a generation when cynicism was fashionable. When the Constitution seemed like an old piece of paper that enshrined the Three Fifths Compromise and failed to enfranchise women, among countless other issues big and small. The United States of America was an imperfect model of democracy, but among the most functional in the world. Rachel’s father, Dale, was patriotic like Ali. Not nationalistic and fervent, but solid and passionate. Rachel and her friends couldn’t see anything past America’s failures, particularly with the Bush era foreign policy disasters. Rachel went to Morocco with jarring cynicism. When Ali spoke of his country, he’d almost tear up with devotion. It wasn’t so much love of the spot on the map that was Morocco. It was his love of the people. His pride in his history and what they’d achieved. Rachel realized that patriotism wasn’t draping yourself in the flag and performing a pledge of allegiance; it was having the back of those who made up your country. 

Rachel had also absorbed enough of her dad’s politics to know what Ali was talking about with the way Morocco was run. She wanted to live somewhere with a functional government that would take care of its people better. At least a lot of the people much of the time. America had dirty politicians getting busted and crime syndicates challenged. It was as much self-governance as our nation could muster. While so many were working hard for impartial justice. There was the opportunity to speak out and participate in democracy to make things better, mostly without worry of arrest. Particularly for a white lady like Rachel. America wasn’t ruled based on the whims of a king. Or the insidious dysfunction that follows unveiled kleptocracy. Or rule by those who take power to line their own pockets. Ali provided an emotional roadmap of sorts for Rachel to be both proud and real about her homeland.  

Rachel came to adore the Moroccan people and to her surprise, her own country’s people. Whenever she’d see another American or Canadian, there’d be this magical swirl of cultural dust that surrounded the encounter. She’d spent most of her time there with Moroccans. And she’d had cultural exchange friends in high school and known international students at the university. She’d never felt like what it was like to be on the other side of that equation, and what it must feels like to be far from home. When embedded with unfamiliar language and ways of living, the fit with someone from your land is soothing. 

Ali’s family brought an intense feeling of belonging. Acceptance. After being with them all so much she came to know in her bones that people are just people no matter who they are. We all eat, love, sleep, dream, want security and a better life for the children we know. We want success and happiness, however that’s defined to us. These are universal. Our ways of moving in the world as individuals are primarily driven by these motivations. But our cultures and our natures as individuals form a delicious layer of interest on top. Moroccans were vibrant. Particularly Ali’s tribe, the Bedouins. They were loud at times, somber and serious at others. They held those they adored close and knew how to have fun. Nearly everyone she encountered knew lived up to the African tradition of generosity. But as a person, Rachel couldn’t see a way to make all the pieces fit in order to stay. She considered bringing Ali back to the States, but he’d made clear that his family and his country needed him and that’s where he wanted to be.  

*****

The last night that Ali and Rachel spent together, they slept on the roof of Ali’s building. Rachel came to realize years later how scandalous it was that she’d spent so many sultry evenings there with him. Rumors had spread through his conservative old-city neighborhood. But Ali’s family owned the building, and he was in charge after his father had passed some years before. He did as he liked, within reason. Rachel soaked in the shadowy winding city for the last time. Ali had paid his brother to arrange the area with thick wool rugs and blankets. Big embroidered pillows were framed by squat lanterns. The night was hot and dry, but a cool breeze feathered over them. They laid together, passing joints back and forth, and listening to music play low on her little compact CD player and portable speakers. Bob Marley crooned – Redemption songs…Redemption songs…Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but our self can free our minds. They had already processed her leaving and there was an ease of acceptance between them. 

As the night wore on, they kissed and stroked. They undressed without hurry. Rachel said, “I hope you know that do I love you.” 

“I do. I love you, Rachel. I think I always will. I will miss you.” 

Grief and intimacy entwined as he slid into her and they ground their hips and savored the energy of each other’s flesh. They made love and talked for hours, but knew it was time to sleep. The haunting echoes of the late night call to prayer rolled out from the ornate minarets. The next morning, she drug herself down the narrow stairs to clean-up and say goodbye to Ali’s family. They gave her pottery and baskets, that she still cherishes. Ali accompanied her to the train station where he finally had to say goodbye. His hug was warm and enveloping. They didn’t kiss in public as it was considered ill mannered. Rachel could see the pain in his eyes, but in her heart she was already gone.   

It was nearly impossible for Rachel to imagine what her life would be like, had she married Ali. The irony of course is that now America that had fallen to bits and Morocco was looking like a beacon. Their King had seen the nearly unstoppable populist winds blowing as climate emergencies made the food, water and housing stocks abruptly and radically more unstable. Their Queen had been studying the modern Kurdish philosopher, Öcalan, and urged her country toward reforms. They instituted a universal basic income, invested heavily in climate adaptation and ocean water desalination. The royal family brought forth gender equity as a centerpiece of their experiment. Öcalan believed that the domination of women was central to humanity’s demise. He was a lonely prisoner on a Turkish island until Qatar secured his release. Before then he’d smuggled out his writings disguised as court papers, which laid out his system of thought and governance. A number of smaller countries had followed the lead of the country of Rojava that Öcalan led before his arrest.     

Many years after leaving Morocco, Rachel was moving home to Rochester from Des Moines. She was leaving a job she loved because of her dad’s illness. She wanted to be near him. She pulled out a dusty bin from a closet she never used. At the bottom was that CD player that she’d listened to that night on the roof. She thought of Ali and how much she still loved him. Her face flushed with considering her biggest regret, though and that was how foolish and selfish she’d been when she was young. She’d tried her best, but had bumbled her way through his culture and felt the shame that follows such truths. They’d been so generous and the music would have meant so much. She’d bought them gifts that she bought locally, but what she should have given them was harmony. Music is a word that’s recognizable in both Arabic and English. Rachel pronounced, “Musiqaa,” and giggled. She’d lost touch with Ali long ago. She hoped he’d married a kind woman. Rachel had a string of short and long-term relationships, but none that evolved into marriage. Now the only gentleman in her life is her boy, Ben. Who she wouldn’t have met had she stayed overseas. She also wouldn’t have met him if America hadn’t gone to pot. 

On the deck that night, Rachel gulped the last of her dandelion wine and said a final goodbye to her time alone before crawling in bed with Ben. She was plotting a way out for them both. 

Published by Pernell Plath Meier

Pernell Plath Meier grew up on the Iowa side of the Mississippi in the Quad Cities. She left behind a life of traumatic chaos to move out on her own at fifteen. She earned undergraduate science degrees with honors in biology, anthropology, and environmental studies, followed by graduate degrees in sustainable agriculture and anthropology at Iowa State University. She’s worked and traveled in ten countries, including a long-ago trip to see the Grateful Dead in Canada. After college, she moved to Kentucky to help farmers transition from tobacco production to local foods. She found her way to Southeast Minnesota and spent nearly twenty years raising gardens, chickens, dogs and cats, while homeschooling her five adopted children. Today Pernell juggles day to day life as a single mom with three kids still at home, a smaller flock of chickens and a new puppy, Buddy. Prior writings have centered on adoption and gardening.

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