I was introduced to Momo – short for Mohammed – at the door of our riad. He must be intelligent, because he found it. An affable young man, he shook my hand and smiled at Ilham, a statuesque woman in her late twenties, the manager of our riad. Ilham was one of the few women her age I saw in Marrakech who didn’t cover herself in a jellaba and its accompanying scarf. I never had the opportunity to discuss with her the reason for this exception. We left the riad and Momo apologized that his scooter was not functioning, so we would have to walk to the school while he pushed the ailing vehicle – about fifteen minutes through streets that had only just begun to bustle. Ten a.m. is still pretty early in the commercial life of Marrakech.
When we arrived at the school, we entered the gates to a gravel courtyard about twenty metres by forty metres, a solitary overgrown almond tree at one end. The school was the typical patched pink of buildings in Marrakech, a sort of brownish pink that has earned the name “pink city” for Marrakech. Momo parked his crippled scooter under the tree and we walked toward the principal’s office. I asked if I could take a few pictures, and he said we should wait until we ask the principal. A good guest, I didn’t press the matter.
The principal was a very friendly, stocky man, who at the moment of our arrival was speaking with a girl of about seven seated across from him. On another chair was an elderly man whom I took to be a relation of the girl’s, perhaps her grandfather, but who later turned out to be the school janitor. The principal signed something, gave it to the girl who took the paper with a smile. Thereupon we were introduced, I sat and we began our conversation. A minute later the janitor returned (it was at this point that I learned he was the janitor, and not the girl’s grandfather) with a simple tray of the ubiquitous mint tea that is offered as a gesture of hospitality. Schooling in Morocco is broadly modelled on the French system, the French having governed Morocco until 1957, and having retained constructive relations with the former colony since. In particular, the system is divided into école , which stops after sixth grade, then collège, which has a somewhat amorphous limit, but ending basically at age fifteen or sixteen; and then what my hosts decided to call école secondaire for my benefit, although in our talks it was clear that after collège the route to university became somewhat murky and meandering. Earning one’s baccalauréat – graduation from secondary school – preparatory to entering “Fac” (what we would consider university) is a noteworthy achievement, and uncommon. Nor is there much work for those who have a university degree.
This particular school in the medina – the inner, walled city – of Marrakech, is a pretty traditional one, according to Momo. He himself is involved in education, with the particular portfolio of introducing extra-curricular programmes to schools in Marrakech. This is a new thing, he said, initiated because many students come quite a distance, and therefore are unable to go home for the long lunch hour, which usually goes from about noon till two-thirty in the afternoon – the heat of the day. He was pleased to learn that extra-curricular activities were part of the routine of our school, and felt it entirely justified what he was doing. He was enthralled by the breadth of opportunities, althletic, artistic and service, that students could pursue at our school. He was going to pour over our school’s website for more information afterward, although he was familiar, in principle, with the sort of school ours is.
The principal was fairly pleased with his school, its operation and the quality of its students’ work. Justifiably so, I was to conclude by my observations. In what was becoming one of my measures of liberalization, I observed that a few of the girls wore head scarves, but it seemed to make no difference to their willingness to participate in class. It in no way made them subservient or backward in their efforts. According to Momo, most of the schools in the medina were fairly conservative, struggling schools of a type we in Canada might describe as “inner city”. Indeed, when the principal pointed to the collège next door, it looked a grimmer, more “inner city” kind of place – broken windows, walls with visible damage to the exterior, and a sort of weariness in the boys that hung around the yard. But in the école, all was energy and light. I went into a Mathematics class, taught in Arabic, and then French class, taught in French, of course. The classrooms were spartan and poor, as I expected, with nothing on the walls, and old, worn, double desks constructed of metal and processed wood. The teachers were very pleased to have a visitor, and the French teacher in particular was keen to show off the skills of her pupils. I was to be impressed repeatedly by the level of French in these students. French is widely spoken in Morocco, and one can go just about anywhere except more remote mountain towns and villages on the strength of one’s French. One of the reasons the students’ French sounds so good is that they don’t have the temptations of sounds and a script similar to their native language. The Arabic they have been speaking at home is so different from the French they are now learning that there is nothing to corrupt the sounds they are making, and no similarly spelled words that they are then going to try to force into some corrupted version as our students will do with a French word that looks or sounds English.
There is so much more to tell, but another school awaited.
Out in the schoolyard, after our farewells, Momo managed to get his scooter running. This vehicle was ten or fifteen years old, and I speculated that it was probably a machine that he had picked up when he first started driving scooters, around the age of fourteen. If you let your imagination furnish the details of its scratches and dents and faded paint, you will have a fairly accurate picture. Behind the driver’s bicycle-type seat was a narrow metal carrier which served as the passenger seat. Momo looked at me with a glance of good-natured expectation, which I rose to. I gamely straddled this strip of metal, gripped Momo firmly by the hips, placed my feet on the little wings (perhaps two inches square) that flipped down from the rear wheel axle, and off we went. By now, the passages of the inner medina were busy, but that was not a deterrent to our progress. In this melee, it became clear, bicycles and scooters really had the right of way. The continual beeping of the scooter horn or ringing of the bicycle bell is not a gesture of rudeness aimed at pedestrians to get them out of the way, therefore, but rather a sort of courteous warning to them that we are coming, and they should move one way or the other if they don’t want to get hurt. Likewise, footcarts and donkey carts, of which there were many, had a similar right of way.
The school where we were headed was outside the medina, in the Nouvelle Ville, the part of Marrakech built up outside the walls designed to be the new hub of the modern Marrakech. The current king is largely responsible for the spirit of growth and relative openness that exists in Morocco. Although there is an elected constituent assembly that governs the country, the King has considerable influence on the tone and course of events. So Marrakech has grown considerably, along with the Moroccan economy, in recent decades. This particular corner of the city has been transformed reasonably successfully, even in the eyes of the locals, with many modern stores and cafes and hotels and business enterprises. This is where the upwardly mobile and successful Marakchis live, and the school we were headed to was one of the best, a public école.
But first we had to stop near Momo’s home, right in the heart of the medina. He dropped me and his scooter off in a little back alley of the souk, the covered market, leaving me in the hands of an wizened artisan he knows. This fellow, somewhat bent with age but still reasonably spry, offered me mint tea in a cup he had cleaned by pouring some tea into it and then discarding this cleansing liquid onto the dirt. I invoked Allah and any other gods who might protect me and not offend others and sipped the tea. Then he showed me some of his wares. Essentially, it was a collection of scraps he had salvaged from sellers who had come from the desert and further south in Africa, from Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Niger. He added some pieces of metal or glass to these items and then traded them back into the flow of commerce in the souq, the endless maze of markets that make up most of the medina. Finally Momo returned, and we got onto his scooter.
As we got closer to the outer walls of the medina, our speed picked up, till finally we were on the larger roads of the outer city. Here, the traffic of scooters, bicycles, donkeys and carts was thickened with cars, trucks and the occasional tractor or forklift. The lines on the road were interpreted as loose guidelines; if four cars were coming in one direction, it only made sense for the oncoming single car to squeeze over to the edge to allow these four abreast to use what were not really their rightful lanes. Finally we arrived at the school.
We had arrived about twenty minutes before lunch, and some of the mothers, dressed in their jellabas, were waiting for their children. Momo was well known here, and after a few greetings we visited the class of one of the teachers, again a French teacher, whose students were keen to show off their achievements. Here, the female teachers did not sport head scarves, and wore a sort of official smock over their jeans and shirts – a doubtful but adequate excuse for a jellaba, the neck to ankle robe that most women wore in the more conservative parts of town.
This was an excellent class, with an excellent teacher. As happens in any exciting classroom, the energy of the students is palpable, irrepressible. I was quickly engaged in the conversation, in the activity of the class, and for the first of hundreds of times here in Morocco I thanked the sort of tolerable French that has become part of my equipment over the years. I explained where I was from and what I was doing. Before long I was the witness of presentations the students had prepared, and participated in exchanges with the teacher that were excited and cheerful. The girls and boys offered their answers with equal enthusiasm and energy. None of the girls wore head scarves, which I came to observe was really the norm for girls below a certain age – it was generally exceptional here in Marrakech for girls under, say, fourteen, to wear headscarves. The teacher was clearly beloved, and returned the affection of her students. Lunch time arrived and the students started to get their books together. Then a couple of them asked if they could do one more presentation, a dialogue they had been working on. The teacher agreed. Two girls came to the front of the class and spoke their lines. Then a couple of boys volunteered. Then a few more questions of me and from me. Finally, the students absolutely had to go. I spoke briefly with the teacher afterward, and then some more with Momo. Some of the students – whom he had been working with in the extra-curricular program – came up to him to say hello, to squeeze his hand and give him two or three or four kisses on the cheek: both boys and girls, an open and frank affection that was touching to observe.
Then back on the scooter, back through the hordes to my riad in the centre of the medina, to change for the lunch that my wife, Joan, had prepared at a class in Moroccan cooking, and where I would regale her with the account of the morning I had spent, a morning as spicy and rich as the delicious tagine she had prepared.