It is my first night in the Medina. I had seen it the previous day but never at night. Mike and I are struggling to keep up with our host father, Abdelali, as he strides confidently through the tangle of souks and alleys that made up that corner of the old city. Our host father uses his broken English to explain the structure of the medina, we quickly realize that “I” is the only pronoun he knows so he personifies himself as the entire city. “I have two routes, I have markets, I have riads, I have cafes.” He leads us out of the medina proper and towards the area where cars are allowed. People still walk in the streets but occasionally they have to step aside and allow the taxis and motorcycles to pass. He has us sit down at a corner café where two dozen men sat at small tables out on the sidewalk. “This café,” he says with his hand on his heart, “is ma amora.”
Abdeali orders us espressos and introduces us to a few of his friends.We shake some hands and say our ssalamu alaikums and then we sit quietly. I suspect it’s an awkward silence due to my dismal Arabic skills but as I look around, I realize that Abdelali and his friends are also silent. They simply sit next to each other and watch the various crowds walk by their café. Every few minutes, they interupt their reverie with a few mumbled Arabic words, quickly returning to speechlessness. As the streets bustle in front of them, as cars honk and groups of veiled teenage walk, giggling, down the sidewalks, these men silently sip their coffee. These men aren’t doing anything in particular.
In America, most people find it impossible to visit a Starbucks without a mission. We visit coffeeshops with a plan: catch up with this friend, write this paper, check these emails, read this book. We love being busy. Looking back, I can’t remember the last time I saw two people sitting at an American coffeeshop content with being idle and silent; silence makes us uncomfortable.
Not in Morocco. Here, men sit and simply enjoy each other’s company. Neighbhors, friends and relatives meet at the café to pass the time in idle companionship. But why are Americans so uncomfortable with unstructured leisure time? Why don’t these Moroccan men do anything at the café besides sit? These questions strike right to the heart of the cultural values that differentiate my American home from my temporary Moroccan home. Only two weeks after that initial culture shock, I won’t pretend to have any answers. I just know I’ll be more aware of how busy I feel the next time I step inside a Caribou Coffee.