Every day on the bus, as I scan through the feeds coming through my RSS reader, I save the best folder for last. I flip first through folders dubbed “anthroblogging” and “arabists,” ones for my Global Voices readings, and ones for work. Once I’ve read, or at least marked all as read, I come to my favorite little folder, “GVers.” There are typically only three or four items on any given day, but I relish each one.
Seven years ago, which seems more like a lifetime, I made my second trip ever across the ocean. The first trip, nearly seven years prior to that (at 14 years old), had been to the UK, where I remember being surprised at the subtle differences between Brits and Americans, not necessarily visible on the surface but clear once a conversation started (I came back saying “petrol,” incidentally). This trip though, as I’m sure I mentioned before, was to a much-farther-away place, a place which occupied nearly no space in my imagination – Senegal. I remember my surprise – as the plane began its descent – at how many lights lit up the city below. I guess in my naive 21-year-old brain the “dark continent” really was, well, dark. (As it turns out, Dakar is still one of the dimmest cities I’ve visited, in terms of actual lighting.)
You see, these friends of mine – from Taiwan and Syria, Lebanon, Bolivia, Bahrain, the UK and the US – they have taught me so much. About how we are the same and about how we are different, about how our lives can intertwine, weave in and out of one another’s, again and again. I’ve always been fascinated by the more subtle differences in cultures – not the obvious ones, like architectural styles or traditional dress, but those that creep up slowly from beneath the surface. The kind that you might face even when the person you’re looking at looks just like you.
In the fall of 2005, I was living in Meknès, Morocco. It feels a bit odd, in retrospect, that one year out of college I would just pick up and move my life to a city in another country where I knew no one, for a job I had never performed, but I guess that’s youth.
I’d been there for just a few months when, on a deadline to finish a writing project, I took a weekend and went alone to Chefchaouen, in the hopes of getting away from everything and being able to just sit down and write. On my first night there, I was too excited by the beauty of the little mountain town, however, and decided to venture out to do some snacking and shopping.
My second stop crafts shop, where I was lured in by the young proprietor. He was impressed that I spoke a little Arabic, and I was impressed at his lack of pressure for me to buy anything. We ended up sitting together for some time, chatting about travel – he’d been to many more countries than I had, and I was riveted by his tales of places far away. At some point in the conversation, he asked if I minded if he smoked, then pulled out a fresh pack. He tapped the pack against his hand a few times, then peeled back the plastic wrapper, popping open the box and tearing the foil. But before he could take one to smoke, he pulled out the middle cigarette, flipping it upside down.
The look on my face set him into a small fit of laughter. “What, you’ve never seen anyone do that before?” he asked in the curious mix of Arabic, French, Spanish, and English we’d already established. “No, no,” I responded, “I have. Many times, actually. I just wasn’t aware that people did that here.”
“People do that everywhere,” he told me, taking a drag from his cigarette. “People everywhere do the same things, we just don’t realize it.”