A typical Moroccan living room, where guests are received.
So much of life in Morocco is about visiting. Although it’s true that cell phones are prevalent here, they are rarely used for those long, haven’t-heard-from-you-in-a-while talks people have in the United States. That is still just too expensive an option for the average Moroccan to even consider.
Instead, people here visit. The culture of visiting penetrates the rituals and day-to-day life of Moroccans. Most houses have decorated guest rooms that go unused until there is a knock on the door. Then the house goes into “guest mode.” Sweets and nuts are pulled out of cabinets and placed on the best china. Water is immediately put on the stove to boil for tea. If ever it seems your visit has caught your hosts off guard, perhaps they are simply out of mint leaves. Don’t worry, they will quickly send someone out to one of the neighborhood grocers to bring back what is needed.
Make sure NOT to call before you come by
If you should unexpectedly stop by a friend or neighbor’s house in Morocco, don’t feel as though you have inconvenienced anyone; visits here are rarely planned. They are impromptu social calls that say “I was thinking about you” or “I was in the neighborhood.” Moroccans actually feel honored by the idea that you feel close enough to them to just stop by unannounced.
I have had more than one person here stress to me that I need not call before I come over.
“Even if it was at meal time, you would just eat whatever we have that day. You’d just be like one of the household,” one friend said.
When I told another acquaintance that I still hesitate before knocking unexpectedly on someone’s door because of my American conditioning to call first and ask permission, she burst into laughter. It was probably the funniest thing she had heard all day.
A few weeks ago, I spontaneously visited a friend and her mother who live in the old city of Fes. As we were sitting around, drinking coffee with milk and eating homemade pastry, my friend’s mother told me how she was about to get on her way to visit her brother just before I came, but changed her plans because she’d had the strong premonition that some guest was headed her way.
“And it was you,” she marveled. I tried to share in her astonishment, but in a country where everybody visits, the odds were good that somebody would stop by.
In some situations, visiting becomes an obligation. You run into someone on the street or call to say “salaam” to an acquaintance, and they say, “You’ve become a stranger! You don’t come by.”
This scenario played out a few days ago with a family in my neighborhood. They had told me to stop by weeks earlier, but I had not gotten around to it. When I finally showed up, the first thing they said to me was that they had just been talking about how I hadn’t called or come by.
On an obligatory visit, make sure to go at an appropriate time, meaning not after 11:30-ish, because you will be “taken” for lunch. The midday meal is the big one in Morocco, and if you show up too close to it’s time, it is as if you are inviting yourself to be taken in for lunch. Moroccans use the expression “I was taken” to describe being kept at someone’s house unexpectedly or talked into joining someone for a meal after having run into him or her on the street.
Bread sets the tone at a Moroccan wedding.
Hold your water
It is inconceivable that anyone should visit a Moroccan house and leave without having eaten or drunk something. And if you dare try, you will be shamed into either staying until the food is prepared, or eating something from what is immediately available.
Sometimes I have fit a visit into my day when I really didn’t have the time or when I had prior commitments. I have always managed to untangle myself from an extended layover with what I call the “water and a promise” strategy: I ask for a cup of water, then drink it in such a way as to show how refreshed I feel. This means holding the glass as if it contains a precious life-saving liquid, then taking slow, serious gulps while maintaining eye contact with my host. This is followed by the kind of “ahhh” you see in cola commercials, quickly followed by a deep, sincere “praise God” as I put the glass down definitively on the tray, making sure to make a noise. Then I promise to return later for tea or couscous.
If you are actually invited for lunch, it is likely that after the meal you will be offered the chance to take a nap on one of the lovely couches in the guest room. Just last week, after a hearty lunch of couscous with chicken and seven vegetables, followed by a dessert of bananas, apples, and tangerines, my host handed me a warm blanket and a pillow, and showed me a couch upon which I could recline. Even if it feels a bit strange, don’t fight it. Just about everybody in the house will probably conk out for an hour or so, and then wake up and have some tea.
The most common time to visit, which happens to be the time I prefer, is right after the late afternoon prayer, which is generally around three o’clock in the afternoon. During your visit, you will be served a light snack, such as some sort of pastry or homemade bread with an accompaniment of cheese, jam, or olives, and either mint tea or coffee with milk.
The great thing about the late afternoon prayer visit is that the sundown prayer is close enough to give you an excuse if you should need one to end your visit. In most parts of Morocco, sunset generally marks the end of the day in terms of outside life; people go home when night comes.
The only danger you might face if sunset finds you in a Moroccan home is being roped into spending the night. No, this is not the third grade — people here actually want you to spend the night at their place! And not having brought your toothbrush is no excuse. If your host is of a persistent nature, there is actually no excuse good enough to get you out of spending the night, except for having a major medical operation scheduled early the next morning.
You would be surprised how easily a lunch invitation turns into a sleepover request. And should you end up spending the night, don’t think you’re getting out of the house as soon as the sun rises. Eat breakfast, relax, and pray you’ll be able to escape before lunch. Pray hard.
A Moroccan dinner table after Iftar, the breakfast meal during Ramadan.
Don’t go empty handed
What to take as a gift when you go visiting is another issue. It varies depending on the length of time since you last saw the person, on the occasion, and on the financial situations of you and your host.
If you are a foreigner — especially one from Europe or the United States — your resources are assumed to be great. And they just well might be, but there’s no need to blow everyone else out of the water! Simple food items will do as a gift. The idea is to augment what you are about to consume.
Typical things Moroccans bring each other on casual visits include cartons of milk, sugar (sometimes in the shape of huge bells), a few kilos of whatever fruit is in season, or mint leaves. The more special the visit, the more special the foodstuff: pure raw honey, for instance; pastries; fresh buttermilk (very much appreciated by Moroccans, as it goes well with couscous); or a live chicken — yes a <i>live</i> chicken — which your hosts themselves will have the honor of killing.
Of course, it is a part of the culture of visiting that your hosts should say, “Oh you shouldn’t have,” and perhaps even refuse your gift initially. They might pretend offense, saying that the gift is making the relationship too formal, and that they thought you were like sisters, brothers, or cousins. Just insist, push the gift into their arms, and say you refuse to enter their house with your hands empty. I find this is usually enough for them to accept the gift and allow the visit to proceed.
An assortment of sweets at the market.
I don’t know why you say good-bye, when I say ...
Visiting in Morocco does follow a rigorous protocol, and sometimes it is hard to distinguish true hospitality from custom. But when you’ve finally sunk down into the Moroccan cushions, and you’re sipping your hot beverage and laughing with friends, you will be so glad you stopped by.
When at last you finally make it to the front door (which will not happen on your first try — three is usually the charm), someone is bound to leave you with the parting phrase, “Don’t become a stranger.”
At this point, you respond, as it is custom to do in Morocco, by saying, “May good things not become a stranger to you.”