Graffiti in my neighborhood.
One time at my guesthouse in Marrakech, there were some kids outside misbehaving. Concerned they’d do some harm to each other or to others, I opened the door and reprimanded them in English, a language they don’t speak, but with a tone they recognized and understood. They stopped in their tracks and stared, probably horrified by my demeanor. All, except one little boy who boldly, from around the corner, swore at me. “Hey,” I shouted. And he swore at me again. I couldn’t see him but I knew who he was: the boy who lived next door with his grandparents because his parents had virtually abandoned him, for whatever reason. I let it slide. What could I really do about it?
There once was an opening to a building (no door) at the end of my little street. When I, or my guests, walked out the door of Dar Basyma, they were met with this ugly site. Worried that it would start to become a problem area for kids, vagabonds, or whomever, we complained, or I should say, my business partner Mokhtar, complained on my behalf, to the mayor of our neighborhood. Mokhtar explained my concerns time and time again. “The owner of that building needs to put a door on it,” I kept complaining. “It’s not safe for any of us.” After 9 months of complaining, I received a text from Mokhtar one afternoon. It was a beautiful photo of red metal doors typical to Morocco. “These are your doors,” the text read! After enough complaining, the mayor got the owners to put doors on the opening! A sense of acceptance into the neighborhood and a feeling of accomplishment!
One night the entire Dar Basyma team was huddled around the computer looking at security footage. Wondering what they were looking for, I joined them. “Someone broke our palm tree out front,” Abd Rahim said. “We pinpointed that it happened between 3 and 4 this morning.”
So we went through the security files second-by-second until we saw the culprit and the act itself! Who was it? The little boy who swore at me when I yelled at the kids on the street in the first story. “Why does he hate us,” I asked aloud. We were all livid and pacing inside the house. What to do, what to do. “I want to go yell at him,” Mokhtar, said. “Do it!” I replied, “and I’ll go, too.”
Blood pressure bursting through our veins, out the door all of us went: Ghizlane, the housekeeper, Abd Rahim, the house man, Mokhtar, and me. Around the corner at the barber shop was the kid scrunched in a ball on the floor amongst 4 or 5 adult men. Mokhtar was already yelling at him, I joined in. The apparent grandfather was there (he was the one who wouldn’t make eye contact with me) watching while we both yelled. Finally, realizing we were making no impact whatsoever (and were only stirring ourselves up more!), we turned to leave. It was then that I noticed a small burning hash cigarette between the fingers of the little boy. This little 10-12 year old boy was smoking hash.
Returning to the house, I slumped down on the sofa and declared that this boy has bigger problems than we do with our broken palm tree. And it hit my like a hammer over my head that this boy needs more than us yelling at him. Out loud I said, “This boy needs a hug, that’s what he needs.” It was then that Mokhtar slumped down on the chair and admitted I was right and said, “Now I have to go talk to him again and tell him I’m sorry.” We kind of laughed, but we knew it was true. After looking at this situation differently, we had a change of heart – – like within 1 minute, we took on an entirely different attitude!
What harm can one little boy do? He can continue to break our palms outside, we’ll replace them. He can spray paint our wall (he hasn’t, but he or anyone could), we’ll repaint. There’s virtually no harm he can do to us, so who cares except that we show love to him!?
Abd Rahim and Mokhtar were out the door and around the corner before I even realized. I waited until Ghizlane motioned for me to come. She and I made it to the end of the little street and were met by the boy and two men. “I’m sorry, Madame,” the boy said, looking me in the eye and extending a hand to me. “I’m sorry, Madame,” he said over and over.
I took his hand and instinctively dropped down and engulfed him in my arms, holding him with both hands. I felt him relax and smelled his hash-breath on my face as I held him. I told him quietly, in English (that he doesn’t understand), that no matter what he’s going through, no matter what he’s done, that we will be there for him and we will care for him and love him however we can. I don’t even know what all else I said to him, I just know I spoke from the heart and felt love overflowing. (And the thing is, none of them understood what I was saying as no one in that little group speaks English!) I finally let go, stood up, straightened myself out, shook his hand, and turned to leave, all while the two men stood, mouths open, staring. Not knowing what I said, but sensing kindness, they just repeated “Thank you, Madame,” over and over. Arms around each other, Ghizlane and I walked back to Dar Basyma and collapsed onto the sofa. Wow. What just happened. With my audio Arabic app on my phone, I explained to Ghizlane what I had said, the best I could.
Later that night, we heard a commotion in the neighborhood. We heard rumblings of a neighborhood meeting amongst the families on the street, but we at Dar Basyma were not invited. From our security cameras, we could see people, including the boy, walking in front of the house.
The next day was my last day in Marrakech. Walking through the neighborhood, the shop men were more talkative than usual, with one coming out into the street and shaking my hand, all the while with his hand over his heart, he repeated, “Hamdoullah, hamdoullah.” Thanks be to Allah, Thanks be to Allah. “Hamdoullah, hamdoullah,” I repeated and smiled, also with my hand over my heart. Wow, he’s friendly today, I thought, but it is a beautiful day!
After returning home to the states, Mokhtar filled me in on the rest of the story.
The night of the “incident”, the neighbors did indeed get together, all of the families met with the boy. Turns out the boy said that he had never been hugged before. No one had ever hugged him. And the families said that if he can do harm to our property and we still show him kindness and love, that they can do the same. They told him they would help him as they could and that the neighborhood will work together to take care of him. The men in the neighborhood on my last day were offering their thanks to me for the incident the night before!
The next day, I’m told, the boy went to hammam, a public bath, where the workers there gave him new clothes so that he would feel clean enough to go to mosque* and he went to mosque for the first time either ever, or in a long time.
He went to mosque! Because of a broken palm tree and a hug.
*In Islam, the way I understand it, it is important to be clean before presenting yourself to Allah. Before each time of prayer (5 times each day), there is a certain protocol for bathing. There are sinks in the middle of every restaurant and public place, fountains in every neighborhood, so people can cleanse themselves appropriately before eating or prayer.