Harmonizing Identities

As I step off the plane in Tangier, Morocco, I am struck by the warmth of the sun beaming down on my face and neck, which is something foreign to me in the winter month of January. Lining the runway, that our narrow plane had just landed on moments prior, are lush green palm trees that contrast with the sky, making it a bright blue hue. For the first time in my life, I am now in a country where English, the only language I have fluently mastered, is not predominantly spoken. To be frank, this frightens me to my core. But as I take my first few steps in my new home, I find that this fear has also instilled a sense of curiosity in me, particularly for one of my dearest hobbies: music. As I grab my luggage and walk towards the line of white vans set to take us to campus, I begin thinking that, maybe, if I immerse myself in the Moroccan music scene, this will bridge the cultural divide that lies before me. 

Since a young age, I have always had an obsession with music. In fact, one of my earliest memories of adolescent consciousness began surrounded by it. It was a Sunday, and I know this for a fact because my sister and I were heading to the regularly scheduled Sunday school that our family’s church of choice put on each week. Other than this, the time frame is foggy, but I know I must have been older than four, the age at which my parents split up because my dad was driving his vehicle with an empty passenger seat. I didn’t mind attending the church service that particular day, or any day, because going to church meant the promise of one thing: candy. 

On the drive to church, my dad made it a routine to stop in at Paige’s Variety, a small white convenience store that used to stand on the corner of Harris Street in Presque Isle, Maine but was torn down and turned into a hair salon after it went out of business. The walls of this store, or now the remnants of where it once stood, held some of my purest childhood excitement. Here, I bought and tried my first Reese’s peanut butter cup after outgrowing an alleged anaphylactic allergy, which caused me to be sheltered from the chocolatey peanut butter greatness for eight years. It is also where I discovered that stores can, in fact, be infested with rats after a large gray ball of fur scurried across my sister’s foot.

My sister and I had just made our typical candy run in this particular memory. I am trying to remember what my selection of the day was, but if I know myself well enough, it was a king-size KitKat. This chocolate-covered wafer bar, one of the few treats deemed by my mother “safe from tree nuts,” quickly became my favorite. With a candy bar and bug juice in hand, we opened the doors of my dad’s vehicle and hopped into the backseat, fastening our seatbelts and preparing for the drive ahead.

For the entirety of my life, my dad has been a devoted fan of the rock music genre, and after we fastened our seatbelts for our ride to church, my dad popped in a CD and turned up the volume. The particular CD in question was Disturbed’s debut album, “The Sickness,” where he would skip tracks until he landed on what is now probably the band’s most recognizable song, “Down With the Sickness.” As the car drove down the main road of my small hometown, my sister and I, bug juice and candy bars in hand, would try to mimic the song’s iconic screamo-type chorus, surely eliciting a proud father moment out of my dad. This, I now realize in my older age, is a unique memory when pertaining to a family heading to church. This memory, and many others like it, has morphed together to create the person I am now at nineteen. So when I planned my study abroad experience in Tangier, Morocco, this academic school year, my interest in the country’s music scene peaked.

I knew that, as an avid concert lover myself, the perfect way to explore the Moroccan music scene was through a live music event. However, without familiarity with any live music venues in the area, I decided to visit Douaa, the university’s program manager, for some help.

Douaa let me know I was in luck. There was an event site called Guichet that showed all available tickets for upcoming concerts around Morocco. This was going to be easier than I expected! Douaa gave me a quick rundown of the website and showed me how to filter my search results, so I only saw events taking place in Tangier. The only downside is that the whole website is in French, a language I don’t know. I happily walked back to my dorm and told my roommate Paige about the website, feeling like I just absolutely cracked the code to a successful midterm. We searched the website, found an event set to take place in Tangier on the twenty-fifth of February, and purchased our tickets. If only I had even a little foresight into what we were getting ourselves into. 

All was well in my world until I ran into Douaa once again. Bursting with excitement to tell her we had taken her suggestion and booked tickets off the Guichet site, I showed up at her office to announce the news. She asked me who the artist playing was. I shrugged off the comment, stating, “I don’t know. I couldn’t really read the names. They were all in French.” I pulled out the tickets to show her, holding them up like a newly won trophy. She read the words inscribed on the front of the ticket and started giggling. “That will be interesting. That is a very religious style concert”, she replied. 

I stood there in shock. What the hell did I spend my money on? Would it be disrespectful for me even to attend this event? I quickly spouted all these concerns to Douaa. 

“No”, she replied. “I don’t think it will be seen as disrespectful. But you’re going to get a lot of looks.”

With the concert two days away and no clear refund policy on my tickets, my anxiety was raging. Douaa said that our appearance at this event wouldn’t be considered disrespectful, but did I want to subject myself to that brewing pot of social panic? I confided in Paige and told her about my cold feet while attending the concert. “Why?” she said. “I think it will be fun! And if it gets too awkward, we can just leave.” Not wanting to be the one who chickened out, I hunkered down on our decision to go.

The night quickly arrived, and the end of our Indrive ride to our destination was coming nervously close. My mind was on autopilot at that moment, probably in defense mode to prevent me from thinking about the hundreds of eyes that would be staring at me. The InDrive pulled up outside of the Conference Palace Ahmed Boukmakh and I stepped onto the sidewalk. Okay, I got myself to go; the most challenging part was over. We shared glances, pulled out our electronic tickets, and walked toward the red carpet-lined entryway. 

We got to the entrance and had our tickets scanned. A security man kindly pointed us in the direction of our seats. We walked into the concert room. Hundreds of red seats lined the auditorium. We chose ones closer to the back in case we needed to make a run for it. I glanced around, expecting my looks to be returned, but to my surprise, there was nothing. People continued to file in as normal, and nobody seemed to notice our appearance. I let out a massive sigh of relief. 

Just as the tense feeling left my body, one of the venue employees approached us at our seats. Oh damn, here we go. He began speaking to us in Arabic, and we quickly panicked, stating, “Aribia chwiya”, trying to tell him we spoke very little Arabic. Still, he persisted. I could feel my face getting hot. We sat there like two deer in headlights until, out of nowhere, the man stated, “Oh, do you speak English?” We violently nod our heads. Then, to our surprise, the man started speaking to us with perfect English pronunciation. He asked us if this was our first time listening to traditional music, and we shared that it was. We tell him we are students studying abroad, and our home country is America. “Well, we are happy to have you here,” the man says. “You are welcome in Morocco.”

After about thirty more minutes of waiting, we suddenly heard the low sound of drums rattling, but I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. Surely, it was not from behind the curtain on the stage because the sound shook the ground so violently that it sounded like it was coming from the walls. This was when we realized that the musicians were marching in from behind us and approaching the door we so conveniently decided to sit at. Their first look at the crowd they came to perform for will be our faces. 

The musicians march in, beating on bendirs and shaking some musical shaker that sounded like a maraca. It felt like, at that moment, I made eye contact with all of the musicians. I could not even begin to imagine their thoughts upon seeing us there, eagerly waiting for them to play. They made their way to the stage, sitting in a semi-circular pattern with the lead singer in the middle. They began the concert.

A fog machine wafted a thick gray smoke into the air, which was the last thing I thought I’d see at a religious event. Bright green and purple lights cast off the stage. The men played their instruments and sang. Their magnificent voices carried some of the most incredible pitch I had ever heard. The beat jumped from slow to fast tempos. People ran up towards the stage, creating a sea of bodies that morphed into one. When the music tempo would get particularly fast, the long-haired women in the crowd would start headbanging, swaying their long locks of hair in violent circles. The Moroccan flag was waved around the stage. People clapped, sang, and laughed. Paige and I rose from our seats and danced. Nobody cared about our differences. 

As the final stretch of the semester approaches, I can’t help but reflect on the transfigurative journey I have undergone just in my first two months of being in Morocco. Through my newfound appreciation for Moroccan music, I have found a way of connection that transcends any language barrier. Although my journey began with a deep-rooted fear of the unknown, those fears have disappeared into nothingness. Above all, my semester abroad in Morocco has made me more appreciative than ever of the power of music to unify differences.

Jayden Lovely is a Medical Biology (Pre-Physician Assistant Track) major at the University of New England.

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