Before I left for Morocco, my mom tasked herself with researching the ins and outs of traveling there. She came up with plenty of useful information, but she placed emphasis on the fact that there would be stray cats in most cities and that I should be careful because some of them could be sick. I listened, but, being a self-proclaimed “crazy cat lady,” I secretly looked forward to seeing cats everywhere I went. Then, however, I didn’t realize that my small furry friends had the power to transcend language, ethnicity, race, religion, age, gender, and other forces that have long been sources of division, even in my own mind.
My first encounter with a cat in Morocco took place on my way to class in Meknes. I could tell this cat was tame, so I gave him a little pat on the head. This soon became part of my walking-to-class routine. Meanwhile, I became friends with the doorman whose chair was the cat’s favorite napping place. Every morning on the way to class I came to not only look for my feline friend, but for the doorman as well. I only speak a bit of Arabic, so our greeting consisted of a mere few words but our shared appreciation of the cat’s company was enough to bring us together. In retrospect, I realize that the doorman and his cat helped me assimilate to the city I was staying in; I always had a friend there, next to the napping cat on the chair.
When we were in Tangier I made another kitten friend, thanks to their young owners that were eager to share. Our group had just finished a lunch of salad, pastilla, couscous, watermelon and tea, and we were walking around the medina when we saw two little girls with curly, dark hair sitting beside a cardboard box with a door haphazardly cut in it. When they saw us, their eyes lit up and they scooped up their kittens from the house-box and offered them to us. I remembered being their age and creating a cardboard home for my cats and feeling just as thrilled to show them off. A crowded, Moroccan medina is so different from the rural fields of mid-Michigan, so the medina was the last place I expected to find young girls that reminded me of myself. Yet again, as a pair of tiny hands put a kitten (and their trust) in mine, I realized that the things I thought would be “different” about these girls were trivial; in fact, we have more in common than my “globally-minded,” “culturally-aware self” could ever imagine.
Another heartwarming interaction involving a cat took place in Fes’s famous leather tannery. Our group was in the midst of a tour of Fes’s historic medina and the tannery was probably my favorite stop because watching the leather tanning process was so interesting. When our group was standing on the balcony overlooking the tanning pools, I saw a little orange kitten out of the corner of my eye. After I had taken several pictures of the tannery, I tried to coax the kitten out from under the shelf where he was hiding. One of the workers (an older man) saw me, so he scooped the kitten up and handed him to me. The worker said something in Darija that I didn’t understand so we just ended up laughing and sharing a moment because we were obviously both cat people. In that moment, language was trivial. Instances like this are what I will remember most about Morocco. Maybe I won’t be able to recall how old the underground prison in Meknes is or the altitude I reached on my hike in Ifrane, but I know I’ll never forget the way that man’s face cracked into a smile and how the crow’s feet by his smiling eyes deepened as he passed me my new little friend.
The title of this post may imply that cats have special diplomatic powers, but my message itself isn’t really about our furry friends. Rather, the lesson I learned from these interactions is that people all have the ability to feel the same things, even when we are (or think we are) different. I went to Morocco expecting to gain an idea of what Moroccans are like, but I returned feeling like a Moroccan myself. And while I will always fondly remember the ancient palaces, picturesque landscapes and delicious food of Morocco, my favorite memories will be of the people I met and the feelings we shared.
“There is no ‘them’ and ‘us.’ There is only us.”
The world awaits…discover it.