5 AM. The morning call to prayer rings out across the city. From minaret to minaret, across the rooftops of Meknes, various muezzins take up the call, echoing and overlapping each other in haunting yet peaceful melodies that call the faithful to prayer, greeting the new day with Allah in mind.
Usually I am sound asleep when this particular call rings out but tonight I can’t sleep. Hearing the morning call to prayer and feeling the peace it brings makes me glad I’m awake to hear it this time. I don’t have many left.
My last days are full of small tasks, meeting with friends for what could be the last time, last-minute shopping in the medina searching for relatives’ gifts and souvenirs, soaking in the smells of meshwi grilled meats and diesel exhaust on the dusty walk from one side of the city to the other. The sounds of the informal local language are by turns shouted and murmured as stall-holders hawk their wares at bartering patrons, consonants pushed together, gurgling around me from all sides in snippets of understanding and as-yet-unknown syllables until I am immersed in a world at once familiar and only half-understood.
I don’t quite belong but I have made a place for myself in this carnival of characters. The scarf vendor down the first alley will accept my trades in place of currency. The jewelrist knows the school I’m studying at and is sure to teach me a new word or two each time I speak with him. At one shop I have a reputation for “bartering like a Berber woman”, but they always invite me for tea when I pass by. The woman across the narrow alleyway always asks after my family and I tell her her scarves are the prettiest in the whole medina.
Even people I haven’t met yet know who I must be as soon as I open my mouth. There is only one small group of Americans studying at the university here, and no common tourist knows the local language. I am known and I am welcomed. Whatever hassle I may receive on the street for being female, it is that open heart that continually redeems Morocco in my eyes. People’s ability to make you feel like an honored guest in a strange land has undoubtedly won many a haggler profit from tourists, but by digging beneath the surface and making an effort at understanding, it has gained me more than a few friends.
The time has come, however, to move on. My year is up, and while I haven’t learned all that I had hoped (I’m still not fluent in Arabic or French or Darija) I did learn just how important personal relationships can be and what a difference even a small gesture can make.
After one last hot yet mintily refreshing cup of sweet Moroccan “atay” at a local café with friends, I head back to the apartment I share with my host family to gather the last of my things and find a way to zip up my overstuffed suitcases. The house is empty, quiet. The cool, tiled floors keep this place insulated from the cacophony of activity in the streets below but I enter this sanctuary with slight trepidation, too worked up over the day’s schedule to fully relax. I keep the last parting gifts I have for the family to myself, hoping I’ll get the chance to give them in person. They haven’t made it home yet and my bus is leaving earlier than I had hoped. My host sister had stayed behind but I don’t see her anywhere either.
I pile my luggage by the entryway, watching the clock anxiously and listening for the sound of a key at the door. But the lock never turns. I can’t wait much longer so I pile my presents on the dining room table, arranging them carefully with a note of heartfelt thanks.
These people opened their home to me and welcomed me into their family. I lived with them for months. How do I ever express the value and appreciation I have for that experience? How do I convey the depth of my gratitude with a note in a language I’m not fully versed in? How do I say goodbye without actually being able to say goodbye?
I do my best, then sling my pack over my shoulder, dragging my suitcase behind me and turn for one last look before I shut the door. No longer home, I know this place has had an impact I probably won’t be able to fully understand or appreciate until I am long gone, once again immersed in my life in the States. Whatever eventually comes of my time here, though, I know I am eternally grateful for the experience.
With the help of some friends, I haul my bags down the street to where the bus awaits and the crowd of teary-eyed classmates and exchange students continually grows. The goodbyes are bittersweet, but somehow we all manage to board the bus headed for what is to me an almost forgotten home. As we drive off into the setting sun of a Moroccan spring, I am compelled to say the final goodbye to this part of my life, and pull out my phone to call my host family.
The call doesn’t go through.
I try again.
The number doesn’t work.
Suddenly I am overcome by loss, the end of this time in my life feels abrupt, cut short even though I knew it was coming. There is no closure; no final words, no ritual to fall back on no matter how contrived. I am simply gone – cut out of Morocco like a scab picked clean. I am cast adrift – for Morocco has been cut out of me too, or rather I have been cut out of me. The part of me that was Moroccan, that fit here, lived here, ran into people on the street here, shopped for vegetables at the Sunday Souk, asked for hot sauce on street food, traded scarves with friends and vendors, and drank mint tea every day – that part of me no longer has a home. And I didn’t even get to say goodbye to the people that gave it one in the first place.
I blindly turn away from my useless phone, not knowing what to do as my eyes overflow with too many memories, too many regrets, and too much uncertainty. My friends are standing in the aisle telling jokes. I hear the group’s laughter and see their smiles but can’t comprehend what’s been said for the ache in my heart. I don’t make eye contact but as I dazedly turn away, David comes over to sit beside me. One of the few other students who stayed in Morocco for an entire year, David and I had become good friends over our extended stay abroad. He sits quietly at my side and puts his head on my shoulder, his wordless support and clear understanding more than I could ask for and exactly what I need.
The evening call to prayer goes out while we’re on the road, sounding mournful and haunting against the setting sun. Entranced by the sound, my sad heart sends an upswell of gratitude to whatever powers may be for the people that are now a part of my life, whether past, present, or future.