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The Train to Tangier

The train station in Meknes reminded me a bit of the station in Cefalu, Sicily: a clean and modern structure rife with architectural touches peculiar to the local culture, set alongside two pairs of rails that went sweeping around the bend to adventure in each direction. Even the trains are similar: compartmentalized cabins with side corridors, official vendors pushing wheeled snack carts, and outside the window, endless olive fields and hedge rows. Traveling by train in Morocco is pleasant and easy, and provided you can get a seat in one of the overfull 2nd class compartments, quite comfortable.

We were fortunate to squeeze into a compartment then, because the train had begun in Fes, and was already nearly full when it pulled up to Meknes with a screech. We found seats in an 8 person compartment with 6 others traveling north from Fes, and settled in for the long ride to Tangier along the coast.

To my right was a taciturn gentleman hunched into the corner, to my left a young man clutching a folded paper sack, and then a dark haired woman leaning against the window on a hand with a large silver ring. Across from me were an older woman dressed in an elegant, tiger-print djellaba whose hands were so hennaed they looked like lace gloves, a younger woman in jeans and a head scarf, as well as a woman with silver-framed glasses and her hair loose. Already, this was quite an example of the diversity we experienced throughout Morocco.

After a couple of silent kilometers and polite nods the young man opened the sack, revealing roasted cashews and pistachios, and offered them around. And then suddenly everyone was sharing. The young woman across the way had a bag of sweet tangerines, the older woman passed around some shortbread cookies I thought she had probably made herself, and Ericka and I shared the bag of dried apricots and fresh dates we had bought in Morocco. Then when the gentleman - Kisra was his name - noticed the book from which I was learning Arabic, he immediately took interest and patiently coached me through the lessons (I had been working on Arabic since before the trip began and was glad we didn't have to start at the bare beginning of the lessons). He turned out to be a natural and effective teacher. The women giggled at my inability to differentiate between some of the less intuitive sounds.

Before long, music was playing through a cellphone with an external speaker and we were sharing flat bread and boiled eggs and the rest of the food we had all brought, never suspecting we would share it with strangers. Ericka and I both speak fluent French, but the young woman knew quite a bit of English, and they all spoke a little Spanish (we had noticed in Marrakesh that Moroccans speak a number of languages rather effortlessly, particularly in the market place). Before long, we were exchanging addresses and becoming friends.

Employees of governments everywhere are coached endlessly about the value of public diplomacy and the importance of representing the best their nation has to offer. But diplomacy, which is to say the act of representing your own culture while learning about another, is much more the responsibility of ordinary, traveling citizens than the official duties of government employees (in fact, official functions lead inevitably and universally to bureaucracy, which is not the best of what any culture has to offer but is sadly, inevitable). Rather, the interface between cultures and the growth of shared understanding among them happens in a crowded 2nd class compartment over a bag of tangerines, as a Moroccan learns Americans do want to learn Arabic and an American learns Muslims are far more varied than the extremists that make the evening news, and everyone learns about a place called Nicaragua, which doesn't ever make the news in North Africa but perhaps should, because at least one Nicaraguan and one Moroccan found out they had lots to talk about. And as for official diplomacy, perhaps we had a first glimpse of Morocco at the consulate, where we were treated very well by the warm and generous Consul and his wife. But their ordinary compatriots back home were diplomats in the true sense of the word.


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