Confessions on a Train

Name: Mohammed
Age: 34 years
Profession: Schoolteacher
Interests: to learn about other people and cultures
Date of encounter: February 8th 2001
Time of encounter:
11:08 A.M.
Place of encounter:
on a train to Tangier

This is an extract of a curiously odd e-mail I received after a similarly strange conversation on a train. While I don't usually dialogue with Moroccan men (this can be a dangerous game in a country where most Male-Female interactions take place within the home, a private realm whose rules and regulations are enforced by the family), I do make exceptions for conversations started in trains or other transportation, as they prove quite rewarding.

In every train, in every bus, in every desert truck, there lies a curious Moroccan mind, eager to test his hesitant French, English or Spanish on your traveling self, to scan your thoughts for opinions on his country, his people. While most conversations never make it beyond "El Maghreb Zouin" ("Morocco is beautiful", which by the way, it is)- either because your discussant's mastery of foreign languages does not permit much more, or because his eagerness at repeating "Zouin" doesn't really encourage deeper thoughts on the odd way they treat tourists here!- some interactions reveal pleasant surprises. Mohammed was one of these.

Hovering over our conversation like a Hawk, Mohammed seemed to be gathering strength to break into the hesitant English that so teased his tongue. Taking advantage of a short pause between sentences, a time when both Rachel and I caught our breathes to delve into more catching up type stories (she has just arrived from San Francisco, finding me eager to learn about the lives I had left behind), he landed on our silence with the awkwardness of misspoken words:

 "If I say you a sentence, can you give me exact meaning in English"

Struggling with the meaning of his words, Rachel nodded. I smiled with anticipation, wondering at what lay ahead.

"A man devoted to learning. A man who renounced the world".

Trying our best not to look entirely puzzled, we explained that the exact meaning would surely depend on the context, but that generally these phrases alluded to someone who had removed himself from daily or mundane activities.

"There is much religion in these sentences". Ah, ha! Now I know where we are going. The meaning of the glorious Koran. What do you expect, in a country where 97% of inhabitants are devout Muslims, you are bound to run across one or two of the proselytizing type. How many times have I heard sincere encouragements from shopkeepers, artists, street dwellers to keep up the Arabic, the language of God. For God speaks to men in Arabic- perhaps that is why I have not heard him speak to me yet!

So I looked at Rachel apologetically- I did not mean for this to happen on her first day in Morocco. I usually leave the 'Islam experience' for a more seasoned day! But conversion was not Mohammed's order of the day, and he surprised me by steering the conversation onto to other grounds. From the Koran ( which he was laboriously translating into English), we drifted to him, his occupation, his desire to learn new languages. Mohammed is a school teacher, "a tough job, mind you. School teachers don't get much respect in Morocco. His boss incessantly yells at him. Granted he takes time off, every once in a while, but so do the others, and he never sees the boss yelling at them. Bad luck, I tell you."

He has been teaching himself English; to learn more about the world outside Morocco, and even about Morocco. "They never tell you the truth in the Press you know; they write things, but that is not the way it really happens. When he can read English, he will be able to tap into original, untainted information. No more censorship or biased interpretations."

He wonders about the United States, about the way people live there. "Nothing like Morocco, for sure. Here people are unhappy, there is very little to look forward to. He hopes to stay in touch, just friends. He has an e-mail address, what about mine."

What do you tell a man whose thoughts are so drenched in dream and deception? Do you tell him that everywhere people wonder about the world around them? Do you tell him that the American press runs often inaccurate stories about the Arab world, stories whose censorship emanates from prejudice and not from some obscure bureaucrat in some obscure office? Do you tell him that professional unreliability is sanctioned everywhere, even in the United States? What can you say about a world which he only imagines, trying to tap into it with a broken English that only makes sense when you know enough Arabic to decipher his Arabicized English...?

I just nodded, trying to listen to words which sounded so familiar. Tens of other conversations, with tens of other men, all a little disappointed with their lives, all dazzled with the opportunities they thought I embodied. Do you think I can find work in Canada? Bring me back to the United States with you? Do you have any contacts in Solar Energy companies in France? They need watchmakers there , don't they?". The eternal Eldorado, land of endless opportunity. If only they knew I left the United States for Morocco, with many of the same dreams (well, maybe not the money, but surely the quality of life).

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence- sadly.