The kindness of the Moroccan people

We had been alternating cheap and luxurious hotels, $60 one night and $6 the next, during our September ’02 trip to Morocco, and now we were looking for a cheap place to stay between the Moroccan desert and the city of Fez. We had been told that Midelt was a nice town, and our guidebook reported that there was a family-run hotel in the middle of it, Hotel Atlas. As two women traveling alone, we were drawn to the idea of a family-run place. Also, the price was right: $6.

After the usual missteps when there is no common language, we settled into the Hotel Atlas. The family appeared to consist of a set of parents, their two grown daughters, who ran the place, and a young boy. Perhaps because they did not have many customers, they went out of their way to make us feel at home.

Micky Ryan, Rhonda Cooper and the owners of the Hotel Atlas in Midelt, Morocco.

We were not very hungry but decided to eat at the family café that evening. The café was a small room with one long table running down the middle. There was only one item on the menu, vegetable tagine, so that is what we ate. We were the only customers.

During the meal, a man came into the café. He was apparently the town drunk, which surprised us only because it had been very difficult to find alcohol except in tourist areas. (And we had looked!) He mumbled something that seemed to be an invitation to go out on the town after dinner, and we laughed it off.

We were not at all disturbed by this, but the family became outraged. They chased him out of the café, securing the doors, and the father yelled at this man for the next 15 minutes. We felt very protected.

We had figured out what day it was and read that there was a large weekly souk (market) in town the next day. By repeating “Sunday souk” to the family, we confirmed by their nods that the next day was indeed market day.

As we were getting ready for bed that evening there was a knock on the door. It was the mother of the house and one of the daughters carrying two wrapped packages. The women presented them to us, saying, “Cadeux” (French for “gift”) and “Sunday souk.” We opened the packages to find two bright orange djellabas; these are the lightweight, hooded overgarments that many men and women wear in Morocco.

We put the djellabas on and, to the delight of our benefactors, they fit beautifully. After profuse exclamations of “Thank you,” “Shukran” and “Merci,” the women left and Rhonda and I exploded in laughter. We began to examine our new clothing and speculate as to what was going on. The dry-cleaning tags were on the clothing, so obviously they were used. Our only guess was that the family was worried we might attract too much attention, despite our Western conservative dress, and thought these garments would better protect us at the market the next day.

The next morning we made our way downstairs in our orange djellabas. The whole family gathered to admire them. Again with confusion, we figured out that the market was four kilometers away and that the family would love to have a ride with us if we were going. We all piled in the car, Rhonda and I in the front and mother, father and older daughter in the back.

Once we reached the market, the family communicated to us that we did not need to wait for them before going home, then they signaled us to go in one direction while they would go in another. I don’t think this was so they would not be seen with us, only that they were headed to the food area and figured we would want to go for more durable goods. We waved good-bye and headed our separate ways.

This was a real market — live animals, grains, furniture, used electronics — nothing to cater to tourists. There were neither foreign nor Moroccan tourists anywhere to be seen.

In the crowded, busy market, there was no one else in an orange djellaba. We may not have blended with the locals, orange djellabas or not, but we felt we were doing the best we could under the circumstances.

As always, we enjoyed ourselves, amazed that we were in such an exotic environment and buying tea, bananas and the baskets that are used to display grain for sale.

Later, back at the hotel, we had our photo taken with the family and headed on our way.

Portland, OR