Larache is a white-washed, blue-shuttered Moroccan town perched on a windy bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Phoenicians first settled there at the mouth of the Loukkos River, followed variously by Romans, Berbers, Arabs, Portuguese and Spanish, before the town returned to Moroccan rule last century. The Spanish, during their long colonial presence, built an imposing fort overlooking the river and dominating the old town. In the late summer of 1987, when Renata and I arrived in Larache to continue our study of Moroccan Arabic, there was still a small Spanish remnant, with their own cafés, social club, and church. But we had no contact with our fellow Europeans; we had come to concentrate on Arabic.
For the first few weeks we holed up in a typical Moroccan inn, the kind most tourists never see. We ate breakfasts of fresh bread and apricot jam, lunches of fresh bread and cheese, and dinners at the small, two light-bulb restaurants clustered around the bus station. We spent our days swatting flies, reviewing our verbs, listening to the calls to prayer from the mosque, and watching the sun move southward and the days grow shorter and cooler. Each evening we would listen to far distant stations on our short-wave radio until we fell asleep. In the morning we headed out to converse with anyone who would talk to us, always including the sentence: “We are looking for a family who will let us stay with them for a few weeks, so we can learn Arabic.”
One lunchtime I met up with Renata, who that morning had been to sit among the groups of women who gathered at the central town square. Excitedly, she told of someone she spoke with who said we might be able to stay with them. Her husband would meet us the following day at the square to talk about it.
Next day, at the appointed hour, we were approached by a man, perhaps 30, in threadbare clothing. He introduced himself and told us his wife had spoken to Renata. Would we be pleased to come with him to his home? Naturally we agreed, and so we headed off into the medina, the most ancient part of the city tucked up against the old fort.
We followed behind him through narrow alleys and steep stairways, around innumerable corners until we arrived at a dark entryway with a niche carved into the wall next to it. In the niche was a collection of oil lamps, one of which he took and lit with a pocket lighter. “Dgal,” he said, “enter”, motioning us on. I had been more or less keeping track of how far we had walked and in which directions, and realized we must now be entering a subterranean world under the massive bulk of the fort. Except for the dim glow from his lamp, it was very dark. A stream of waste water ran to one side of our path, and we caught glimpses of rats accompanying us down the corridor. Again we pursued a labyrinthian course, and this time there would be no hope of finding our own way back if need be.
In the end we arrived at the man’s “home” to find his wife and child waiting for us. It was nothing more than a cramped room, not tall enough to stand in, up a few steps off the last passage we had taken. Perhaps a room built for storing gunpowder or other munitions? There was no outside light, no fresh air; it was cold and damp; very much like a dungeon. Their meager possessions were stacked in crates against one wall, their kitchen appliances consisting of a box, a bucket of water and a single gas burner; a makeshift bed filled most of the floor space. There was no electricity, just a few oil lamps for light.
We sat with them for a few hours drinking sugary mint tea, practicing our Arabic, hearing their stories of woe, admiring their child and helping to pass the hashish pipe back and forth between them (we declined). We had come to understand that their offer of hospitality was really a desperate attempt to find some way to alleviate their situation. Who could blame them? The pressing burden of poverty is not a lack of possessions; rather, it is a lack of choices. No choice about where one lives, or what one eats, or wears, or buys, or anything else that we, the wealthy, take for granted in our daily lives. With such insignificant resources they knew there was nothing to be lost if they took a chance with the friendly, wealthy Europeans.
When we left, we again followed our host to the now surreal world above ground, filled with light, and people, and the wealth of the market place. Filled with people like us, whose lives are filled with decisions to be made.
But as Renata turned to say goodbye, down in that dark corner, the woman of the house pressed into her hand a tiny gift: two simple, all-plastic, blue earrings. The kind of thing one might find in a cereal box or other cheap give-away promotion. It was a gift which ever so briefly lifted our hostess out of her extreme poverty and set her on an equal footing with her guest, woman to woman. It was an act of supreme generosity, which we have remembered and cherished all these years.