On a weekend trip we took while staying in Toulouse to a small town called Moissac, we met two Moroccan workers currently living in France. The pair had previously spent 12-13 years living and working in Spain but made their acquaintance in Moissac. Jiovanni was a tall dark man with glasses and his companion, Albidi, was his physical contrast, short and heavyset. We invited them to have a conversation with us in the back of a restaurant-pub where earlier the group had indulged cravings for “American food” with mediocre cheeseburgers. “We” consisted of three of our Spanish speakers, Becca, Catherine, and me, plus our one Arabic speaker, Amber, and professors Borges and Rose. Our table in the back of the dimly-lit pub was occupied for hours as the men slowly gained our trust and started revealing their trials and tribulations of life in Europe as Moroccan immigrants. By the end of our exchange we were invited to tea and crepes the next morning at Albidi’s and Catherine was stumbling on the phone with his wife speaking in Spanish, English, and Arabic all at once.
The next morning, we met Jiovanni on the town square in the frigid early morning and he drove us to Albidi’s complex. Upon entering the three bedroom apartment we were immediately greeted with warm hugs, kisses, and handshakes from the men. I was at the front of the group and cautiously followed the hallway to the living room where a fold-up table covered with a plastic flower table cloth was set up for us. Their four children greeted us shyly, prodded by their parents. Soon, a silver tray with small decorative glasses was brought over and we were served mint tea out of a tall silver tea pot. This was not our first time having mint tea in France, but it is here we learned the importance of pouring your mint tea while holding the pot up high to create white bubbles on the surface. “If it’s not like this, it’s no good,” Jama informed us. As we waited, chatting with Jiovanni and Albidi, Albidi’s wife Jama brought out plates and plates of food. Moroccan crepes, rghaif (pronounced raif), and yet a third type of bread surrounded us. Bowls of olive oil, argan oil, and honey were set out before us. Before we knew it, we were convinced to stay for couscous that had already been cooking on the stove before we even arrived.
After the table was empty and our bellies full, Jama sat at the table with us while the men sat on fold-up chairs on the other side of the room and continued with their own chat. When the men left to go on a walk, Jama opened up to us as if she hadn’t spoken to a friend in years. While her husband’s Spanish was strong, she felt more comfortable in French because her Spanish had faded since being out of the country. So Jama and I spoke together in broken French. Occasionally, she would substitute a word or phrase in Spanish that she did not know in French. Luckily, speaking French and Spanish made it easier to follow the conversation when she would do this. However, listening to Jama required a lot of attention. She stumbled over her words and made long pauses, searching for the right way to express her ideas in whichever language she could. It was a nice form of communication since neither one of us had perfect language yet we could still understand each other. Of course, there were moments when a few things were lost in translation or when I had to ask for a clarification which entirely changed what I thought she said and left me feeling a little ridiculous.
Jama’s story is powerful, full of struggles with her mother-in-law during her time in Morocco, her husband, her first-born child, and her first years in Europe as an immigrant. It would not do her story justice to begin telling it now; the entire experience was so rich that a book could be written about it. The family’s hospitality was incredible and Jama was so grateful to have us visit. As we left, she kept repeating “Come see me, come see me again! I’m alone in the house all day.” She smothered us in kisses, hugs, and wishes for good health at the door.
Since I am writing this post after my experience, and not the day it happened, or even in the same week, I can definitely say it was the most illuminating experience for me on this trip. There are so many things to talk about it is almost impossible to decide on where to begin. I gained so much from my time with the family: learning about Moroccan traditions and culture, seeing their reputed hospitality, how to navigate the situation as a sociologist, etc. It definitely eased my anxiety about our next stop in Morocco…