Learning the Joy of Giving in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains

This short letter was posted yesterday by Rick Steves on his Travel Blog. It is a perfect Christmas Season Story.

The writer is George Gorayeb, a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, and now a realtor in Annapolis. George is an Arab-American Christian whose family emigrated from Syria.

_____

Hello Rick, 

In this season of gift-giving, I would like to share a personal story about the humblest yet most-appreciated gift that I have ever given to anyone. 

Back in the spring of 1972, I was blessed to be serving as a Peace Corps volunteer, high school English teacher in Marrakesh, Morocco, in North Africa. One day, a half dozen of us volunteers went hiking in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains. This scenic mountain range separates the city of Marrakesh from the northern edge of the Sahara Desert. For half of the year, these mountain peaks are covered in snow because of their very high elevation. 

After hiking for several hours one morning, we came upon a young Moroccan boy named Mohammed, about ten years old, tending to his flock of sheep on a mountainside. He was shocked that this group of young Americans could speak to him in Moroccan Arabic. 

After we talked for a while, this little kid insisted that we follow him and his sheep home so we could all meet his family in the nearby village. We followed him. His house was a very modest structure made of mud walls. His family was delighted to welcome us into their home. They served us Moroccan mint tea and biscuits. Then they insisted that we stay for a traditional and delicious Moroccan lunch. 

This was a very humble family who lived from the food they raised themselves in this remote mountain village. They told us that they had never met any Americans before, and they were honored to host us. We realized that they had only a few chickens, and the mother was preparing a chicken tajine for us. A tajine is a delicious stew served in a big brown ceramic platter with a big cone top. 

We all felt guilty because we knew this family lived a very spartan life. They only ate chicken on special religious holidays. But we also knew how extremely important it is to show generous hospitality towards your guests in Arab and Muslim culture. So, they insisted that they serve us the most elaborate meal that they could. And we knew that we could not refuse their extraordinary graciousness, no matter how poor they were.

George Gorayeb
Morocco 1971-73

During the lunch, one of the girls in our group asked little Mohammed if his bare feet didn’t get very cold in the winter months as he walked the mountainside in just flip flops. He said yes, but he had no socks. I spontaneously realized that I had to give this kid my socks. I was embarrassed because we had crossed a stream that morning, and my shoes got wet. My socks were still damp, and the one on my right foot had a big hole where my big toe was. 

But as Mohammed watched me take my socks off and hand them to him, his contagious smile just exploded with joy. You would have thought I was handing him the keys to a brand-new convertible. 

I learned a valuable lesson that day. This — a pair of tattered old socks — was the most humble and basic gift that I have ever given anyone. But this little kid appreciated this simple gift so much, it shocked me. He could not thank me enough when he hugged me to say goodbye that day. My bare feet in my wet shoes were really cold for the rest of that day, but it still gave me a great feeling. 

Have a joyous Christmas season! 

George Gorayeb

5 Comments

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  • A very nice story that reminds us how significant our actions may be. Something that we consider a meaningless gesture is sometimes so important to another, not because of the object involved, but because we chose to share something so personal with another. The great gift of Peace Corps service is that it perhaps left us much more sensitive to the symbolic importance of everyday acts.

  • As a former Volunteer in the Dominican Republic, I can share the feeling you describe knowing I have shared your experience, but with different people in a different country, but in a similar way.

  • I was in Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer two years after you, working in Casablanca. I can relate so well to your story. Thank you for sharing it.

  • This lovely story reminded me of Pablo Neruda’s Ode to My Socks.

    Ode to My Socks
    Pablo Neruda – 1904-1973

    Maru Mori brought me
    a pair
    of socks
    which she knitted herself
    with her sheepherder’s hands,
    two socks as soft
    as rabbits.
    I slipped my feet
    into them
    as though into
    two
    cases
    knitted
    with threads of
    twilight
    and goatskin.
    Violent socks,
    my feet were
    two fish made
    of wool,
    two long sharks
    sea-blue, shot
    through
    by one golden thread,
    two immense blackbirds,
    two cannons:
    my feet
    were honored
    in this way
    by
    these
    heavenly
    socks.
    They were
    so handsome
    for the first time
    my feet seemed to me
    unacceptable
    like two decrepit
    firemen, firemen
    unworthy
    of that woven
    fire,
    of those glowing
    socks.

    Nevertheless
    I resisted
    the sharp temptation
    to save them somewhere
    as schoolboys
    keep
    fireflies,
    as learned men
    collect
    sacred texts,
    I resisted
    the mad impulse
    to put them
    into a golden
    cage
    and each day give them
    birdseed
    and pieces of pink melon.
    Like explorers
    in the jungle who hand
    over the very rare
    green deer
    to the spit
    and eat it
    with remorse,
    I stretched out
    my feet
    and pulled on
    the magnificent
    socks
    and then my shoes.

    The moral
    of my ode is this:
    beauty is twice
    beauty
    and what is good is doubly
    good
    when it is a matter of two socks
    made of wool
    in winter.

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