Many people last weekend asked me about Morocco – you may know that a small group from our parish traveled there from June 24 through July 3, as part of a trip organized by our Franciscan Mission office in Boston. What was it like? What did we see? We arrived in Morocco on Monday, June 25, in the magical-sounding city of Casablanca, after a long layover in London. In our time in Morocco, we traveled to Meknes, to Fez, to Midelt which is in the Atlas Mountains in the interior of the country, to Marrakech, and finally back to Casablanca. In some ways it was a blur – lots of places, sounds, sights, different
languages, whole different culture. As I said to someone, you could drop me in Rome and I could find my way, but drop me in Fez and, in the midst of its maze-like 9,500 twisting alleyways, I wouldn’t be able to find my way much of any place. Morocco is a country that is 99% Muslim. We visited the third-largest mosque in the world, in Casablanca. We heard, throughout our time there, the 5-times-a day call to prayer, and in the evening, sitting on the roof deck of one of our riads (like a bed and breakfast), sipping mint tea, that call to prayer has a haunting, beautiful sound. Francis of Assisi, when he visited Egypt in the 1200s during the Crusades, heard that call to prayer and saw that this foreign religion and his own faith shared a sense of reverence toward the Creator God. Francis was always looking to reconcile people, faith, anything.
We found the people of Morocco to be welcoming, kind, and friendly. Morocco is a moderate country with a king who is open to reforms, especially in light of the uprisings of the Arab Spring from a few years back. We traveled a lot. We met Franciscan friars in Meknes. They work at a school there, and they also work with refugees, migrants, and prisoners. I asked them what it was like to be Franciscan, or Christian even, in a predominantly Muslim country, and they said they were called to live a minority lifestyle without power. There are only 16 Franciscan friars in the country. The ones we met were from Italy, France, and Madagascar. In Midelt, in the mountains, we visited Our Lady of the Atlas (Mountains) Trappist monastery. There is a movie called “Of Gods and Men” which tells the story of Trappists in Algeria in the 1990’s who worked simply among the people there, and who were caught in the midst of a civil war, and how 9 of them were kidnapped and eventually killed. The movie is a powerful depiction of the love of these Trappists for the people they lived among, who were Muslim, and how, when given the option to leave, they decided to stay among the people. One of those Trappists who survived now lives at this monastery in the mountains; he is 93 years old.
It’s a whole different understanding of the word “mission.” The classical meaning many of us grew up with was, you go to a foreign country and convert the natives. The new understanding is, you go to someplace and, by your witness, by the way you live your life, you reflect something of God’s grace and goodness. “A minority lifestyle without power” as the friars in Meknes told us. We visited Fez and Marrakech which are dizzying, maze-like cities, filled with
women wearing headscarves, or not, winding alleys and streets, mosques, vast markets, or “souks” where you can buy just about anything, including live
chickens, fish, multi-colored and flavored spices, and, in some places, beautiful pottery, leather goods, or carpets made by the Berber tribes in the interior mountains. We saw the Roman ruins of Volubilis outside of Meknes. We had lunch with a family that our guide knew, and the family welcomed us into their home and served us vast plates of chicken and lamb kabobs, homemade couscous, fresh salad (one had to be careful of any uncooked vegetables), and we even tried some Moroccan beer (“Casablanca”). We were offered mint tea just about everywhere.
On our last day, Tuesday July 3, we got on a bus outside our hotel in Casablanca at 8:30 in the morning (3:30 in the morning here), rode to the airport (passing a cinema which listed “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” with a giant dinosaur lunging forward), and were on our way out of Morocco, out of Africa. We flew to Madrid, then to JFK in New York, and finally back to Raleigh. What to make of it all? A dazzling experience, an exhausting experience, a blur in some ways, something very foreign, even exotic, and in the end, so beautiful to meet people on the streets, in the souks, in the restaurants and riads, and to look out the windows of our bus and see shepherds with their sheep in the vast open landscape of the interior, hearing how they move from place to place, how they stay in tents and go where they need to go, and it all seems timeless and eternal. Our guides were patient and kind and happy to show us their country. We took in the flavors of Moroccan cuisine. And we had a sense of travel at its best – as something that takes us out of our own world for a time, shows us something new and even a little strange, and expands our sense of the beauty and goodness of God’s world. And of course, it’s always great to come home again – nothing like walking through JFK and seeing stacks of the New York Post and the New York Daily News at the newsstands and being back in your own culture. It was a great trip –
Blessings on your week!