I have always loved people watching. Even in my childhood, I have sought a social education by observing others, their mannerisms, their fashions, whether they pick their nose in the car or what they buy in the grocery store.
My parents used to berate me for staring at people in public, so I’ve learned to conceal my curiosity by darting my eyes quickly, or hiding behind a pair of polarized lenses. In this case, it’s a pair of golden aviators i bought in the souk for $4, with dark green lenses and a small white logo in the corner that says, and I kid you not, “Ron Bons.”
Walking through the markets with my Ron Bons, I feel somehow invisible as I dart between donkey carts and salesmen, trying not to step on the beggars selling used toys and their mothers’ salt shakers on placemats by my feet.
I’m careful not to look too long at any one place or person, because allowing my eyes to settle implies my interest in cheap Moroccan souvenirs, as well as cheap Moroccan husbands, God forbid.
I pass by thousands of people every day on these winding streets, noticing behaviors and avoiding stares, but how many of these people have I actually seen? How can I learn from them if I’m not really looking and taking in the senses around me?
It is here that I have learned the difference between noticing someone and paying attention to them.
One morning on the way to school, my roommate and I were hastily walking to up to the street to hail a taxi. The old city in Fez is the largest carless urban area in the world (shout out to UNESCO), so we actually have to walk half a kilometer from our house to the edge of the medina in order to get a cab.
Upon exiting our neighborhood street, we continued to walk with our heads down, partly because it was already 90 degrees at 9 a.m., and partly because we were passing a high school where young men like to propose to us. A small voice from below offered up “Salaamu Alaykum!” We continued to walk as if we hadn’t heard the greeting.
“Salaamu Alaykum!” We heard it again.
I made eye contact with Ashley before we silently agreed to turn around and address the persistent voice. To our surprise, a woman had stood to greet us, but we hadn’t even looked at her face when we walked by.
It was the host-mother of one of our classmates, who had invited us over for dinner the week before.
With only two hours’ notice, she had cooked an incredible spread for Iftar, the evening meal that breaks the daily fast for Ramadan. She fed five students with the utmost kindness and hospitality, and responded to our gratitude with “la shukran a-la wajib,” which translates roughly from the Moroccan dialect to “don’t thank me, it’s my duty.”
This little phrase is almost always the response when I say “thank you.” I hear it from teachers, from taxi drivers, from shop owners, even from my 13-year-old host brother when he helps me hang my wet laundry on the clothesline.
As a mother who only agreed to host one student, it was definitely not her duty to spontaneously feed four extra mouths at dinner, yet she spent the entire meal on her feet, bringing plates of second helpings to the table and asking us about our studies in Fez.
Such a warm personality was lost so quickly in the heat of the morning when I passed by her without paying attention. I definitely noticed that there was a woman on the sidewalk, but my inclination to avoid eye contact must have been demeaning as she tried to send me off to school with well-wishes.
As soon as I smiled in recognition, she clasped my hands and kissed both cheeks – once on the right and twice on the left – as is customary here. We exchanged greetings and she made sure that we knew to come visit her again before we leave. “Don’t thank me,” she said again, “it’s my duty.”
We promised to return and I honestly can’t wait. I’m really looking forward to getting to know her better, as well as drinking the orange juice that her husband makes from scratch.
He owns a juice stand at the medina entrance, and I swear to Allah its the best juice in all of Africa.
Even before I knew him personally, I bought juice from him every day. For almost two months now, I walk up to his stand, ask for one cup, and make casual conversation as he peels three oranges to squeeze into a tall glass.
Now that he recognizes me, we have diverted our topics from “Yes, this is my first time in Fez” to “No, I’m not fasting anymore because I’m really thirsty.”
We’ve graduated from noticing each other to paying attention to each other’s lives. It’s really nice to have familiar faces on my way home, going out of my way to see local friends is the perfect excuse to avoid the proposal-parking lot that awaits me if I take the short cut.
As far as paying attention to people I don’t know, there is a balance between learning from people’s behaviors and mannerisms and maintaining the unmarried status on my passport.
Maybe I should just buy mirrored sunglasses, and watch people without turning my head.
On another night this week, I ran into a friend who works in a restaurant near the souk entrance. After catching up for a few minutes, he offered to take my friends and I up to the terrace of the closed restaurant next door.
He brought us chairs and turned off the terrace lights so we could see down to the vibrant, bustling street below. Ten minutes to midnight, amidst the natural A/C of a rooftop in the desert, I was finally able to people-watch in peace. I could hear the rapid clapping of traditional gnawa music from the hookah bar nearby, as smells of street food and bakeries wafted from down below. I watched children clinging to their mothers in the wake of crowds, teenagers hurrying towards the fair on the next street, French couples ignorantly paying full price for magnets and necklaces.
No one could see me, but I could stare freely at the crowds enjoying the last few hours before beginning the next day’s fast.
We thanked our friend for the chance to relax in the empty space with such an incredible view of the city. “Don’t thank me; it’s my duty,” he replied, as he left us to our privacy on the rooftop.
If karma is real, i thought to myself, I’ve either done a surprising amount of good, or I have a lot of duties to make up in my lifetime.
We sat on the roof for a while, but it wasn’t long before I needed another orange juice.