Crossing over the straits of Gibraltar from Spain, a frisson of excitement rippled through me as the outline of northern Africa emerged, draped in a gossamer shroud. Disembarking in Tangier, we were hit by a riot of chaos, noise and color as we were harassed and harangued by baggage carriers and taxi drivers until our nerves were frayed. Coupled with the intense heat of the Moroccan summer, the crush of human and motor traffic, and the travel warnings for likely terrorist attacks in the region, our anxiety levels were high.
Yet, here we were.
Tangier’s dusty minarets greeted us as we headed for our hotel, as did the white riads with open rooftops rolling over the hills. Within minutes of checking in, my husband, Peter and I set off again, making our way to the oldest part of town. With my 11-month-old son, Joaquin, strapped to my front and three-year-old daughter, Sofia, in a light travel stroller, we navigated our way through the undulating terrain, dodging the blaring horns as motorcycles and old-styled taxis weaved through an impregnable flow of cars and donkey carts.
Entering the gate of the medina, the old city, I was transported by the smells of rosewater, orange blossom, garam masala and cardamom. We were swept into the steady stream of the medina, ducking through twisting alleyways, past shops with gold and silver embroidered shoes, pointy-toed leather slippers of every color, yards of bejewelled dresses, brassware, medicinal herbs and spices amongst merchants in the souk.
After our arrival at the port, we wizened up and prepped ourselves for pick pockets, scammers and touts. We were ready for anything. But I needn’t have worried, for as we trekked from Tangier, Chefchaouen, Fez, Casablanca to Marrakech over the next two weeks, we were enveloped by the kindness and affection I’d imagined was reserved for royalty. We were delighted to discover that Moroccans adore children, and by association we were treated with the same affection. Our little ones were kissed by strangers in the middle of the souks, showered with gifts from every store we stopped at; my camera card burgeoned with pictures of Sofia born aloft by beaming stop keepers. It helped to melt away a large chunk of my reserve as we eased into the Moroccan way of life.
It even seemed to grant a sort of immunity from the hustlers and aggressive merchants. In the ancient tanneries of Fez, we visited a leather goods store where several of the shop keepers went into action immediately coaxing us to purchase their wares. But when Joaquin cried out in hunger, their attitudes changed instantly. Their attention now fixated on his needs. I tarried, distracted by the stunning array of leather jackets and the rows of leather handbags called to me. The head shop keeper beseeched me, his hands in his hair, “Madam, please! Feed your son.” I snapped right to and apologized for the commotion Joaquin was causing in his store, full of customers. But he dismissed it saying, “Your child is my child.” We walked out an hour later, with full hearts, the children laden with gifts and kisses.
Within a fortnight our time in Morocco was coming to an end, and I was dreading it. If the travel warnings for Morocco were bad, Turkey was worse. Turkey’s main cities had endured a wave of deadly bomb attacks, a failed political coup, and Istanbul being declared a state of emergency. We tried to quell our blooming anxiety when booking our flights. We hoped that the situation would’ve eased.
We flew into Istanbul with trepidation, it was cold and dark when we arrived. But over breakfast the next morning, Istanbul announced itself as the sun broke over the most beautiful skyline I had ever seen – the elegant Blue Mosque, with its six imposing minarets, the voluptuous domes of the Hagia Sophia to the left of the district. The sparkling Bosphorus river ribboned its way around the city, separating East and West. In the evenings, we sat entranced as we listened to the sound of muezzins duelling from their minarets during evening prayers.
But as we explored Istanbul, the menacing grey skies did little to ease my worries. Tour guides approached us at every turn and we politely declined, but one stuck to us. “This was where the bomb went off earlier this year,” he said quietly. Our eyes raked across the restored site in the historic Sultanahmet district, devoid of many passersby, and noted the presence of armored vehicles and armed personnel patrolling the area. The churning in my stomach increased.
The once bustling Grand Bazaar was also largely empty. We noticed the tightness behind the eyes of the shop keepers, a weariness. They spoke openly about the troubles besetting their country, the uncertain future for themselves and their families. We empathized and the sombreness of their situation shrouded us for the rest of the afternoon. After a while, Joaquin began to grizzle, and not wanting to make a scene, I whisked him away. Overwrought with fatigue, my son erupted into a screaming mess. I harried as a gentleman emerged from his store and began apologizing at once, but a smile broke across his face as he greeted us, ‘Mashallah. Please do not apologize Madam, he is a child.’ He began speaking to Joaquin and the rhythmic clicking of his fingers mesmerized my son into silence. “Do not worry, you see? It is all right. Mashallah, God bless.”
I was flooded with relief. We weren’t treated as an inconvenience or annoyance. There were no disapproving looks;we were met only with genial smiles, keen to engage with our children.
My husband and I both have Asian backgrounds, so we are no strangers to the cultural mores of communal child rearing, in which children are woven into the integral fabric of society. But having lived in Australia for most of our adult lives, we had become accustomed to living in a society where child rearing is confined to the immediate nuclear unit. While children are generally welcomed, tantrums and meltdowns are met with stern glances, rather than a caring smile. It is rare for the community to intervene or assist. The idiom it takes a village to raise a child isn’t embodied in many Western societies. So, in Morocco and in Turkey, it was a relief to be immersed in a culture that thought differently.
On our last night, we returned to a pizza and pasta joint, aptly called Ozzies. Joaquin was starting to fuss as our meals arrived. Without missing a beat, the chef picked him up and disappeared out the door. We were taken aback, first that Joaquin had gone without a whimper, and second, that someone we hardly knew would do such a thing. I looked at Peter, slightly panicked. But he motioned for me to turn around and there they were, marching up and down the street, greeting the world. My son, happy as a clam.
Then, as we paid and thanked the chef, he invited us to his home around the corner, he had two young children himself and offered to assist us with anything we might need for the children, at any time. We only had to ask. We were undone by such kindness. Through our children, we experienced a deeper connection with the local people than on our solo travels. It is an increasingly divisive world where lines are drawn against religion and politics, where differences are played out instead of embracing similarities. But at the heart of it, we all want the same thing for our families: Safety, and a future where our families can prosper and belong. Those connections gave me a deeper understanding of the social fabric of their lives and the importance of family within that framework. And it is the memory of those moments we shared, that we will carry with us for always.