Touria El Jaoual, my mom, grew up in Rabat, one of Morocco’s four imperial cities. As a descendent of Moulay Idrissi, a late king of Morocco, she spent the early years of her life living in the palace in Dar al-Makhzen. Her blood is royal, and you’d know it based on a first impression. She can balance books atop her head while she rushes in heels, and her diction demands the attention of everyone in the room.
She sounds intimidating, but my mom’s enthusiasm for life is infectious. She never fails to find joy, even in the most trivial parts of life. She hums while she does the dishes, speaks sweetly to house pets and savors every sip of her coffee. She laughs easily and smiles even more easily. Her hair glows a deep purple in the sun and her feet are quick to find the rhythm of a song.
Hearing about my mother’s life growing up, I realized how strongly her personality is rooted in her community. Moroccans live by the saying “it takes a village to raise a child” — it seems everyone is deeply involved in each other’s lives, and the simple, polite conversation Americans engage in is something she’s never understood.
“No matter how hard life is, it’s still going to be a good life,” she said. “You develop a relationship with so many people, and for better or worse you always have a community of people behind you.”
From the baker and his rolling hills of fresh baked bread to the busy yet talkative merchants that filled the market like a pack of sardines, you rely on your neighborhood. Their advice means something to you.
When my grandfather went to collect his marriage certificate, the civil officer who knew of him proposed that he change his last name from Ben mokhtar, “chosen,” to El Jaoual, “the traveler.” His children, my mom and her 5 siblings, still wear this name today.
“I remember when I was very little, people would call me little Ahmed after my father; I looked just like him,” she said.
My mom recalls my grandfather’s beautiful deep complexion, high cheekbones and big bright eyes, but elaborates that his most beautiful quality was his curiosity— he was a man driven by wonder and the excitement of new experiences. Before starting a family, he rarely stayed in one spot for long. He traveled to every corner of Morocco and even fought in the resistance against the French. When he returned home from his galivants, the community would gather around him as he told his outlandish stories until the sun set.
At the age of four, my mom lost her father to cancer. “My mom was amazing, she raised six kids on her own. It was extremely hard for her, she was only in her thirties when she lost her husband,” she said. “She had many opportunities to remarry but she dedicated her life to her children. Her entire life was dedicated to taking care of us. I feel guilty sometimes.”
My grandma’s face was framed by thick eyebrows, complimented by a deep green diamond tattoo in the center of her forehead. She had deep curly brown hair that reached her thighs and hands that crafted lentils so delicious they once drew the nose of the princess into their home.
“It was common for us to work and work, only coming up for air when we noticed the sunrise creeping through the window. But we always had fun. People there don’t get stressed out easily, they prefer to enjoy their journey.”
After the death of my mother’s father, her family moved to El Youssoufia, Rabat. She lived in a white ryad with a small courtyard. The courtyard’s interior reminds me of an oasis. The floor was covered in black and white abstract tiles and the border was camouflaged in luscious ferns and vines that crept up the pink clay walls.
“We had a peach tree hidden in the corner, and every summer my sister would make the most wonderful peach cobbler,” my mom said “I remember going around and handing peaches out to everyone in the neighborhood.”
Across the street from her house was her elementary school. Since Morocco does not have the resources to provide the entire country with free education, they instead provide only the best performing students with a completely free education through college. This results in an extremely competitive learning environment.
“Education in Morocco is brutal,” she said. “It’s like the military, it becomes your entire life or none at all.”
At the end of each school year, every student takes a pass or fail exam that ultimately decides whether or not they move on with education. If students fail the exam they are given one more chance to repeat the grade. If they fail again, that’s it for them, no more school.
“It was common for us to work and work, only coming up for air when we noticed the sunrise creeping through the window,” she said. “But we always had fun. People there don’t get stressed out easily, they prefer to enjoy their journey.”
My mom passed the baccalaureate with flying colors and graduated top of her class. She was even featured in the local newspaper. “My mom was so proud of me, I was the first of my siblings to pass.” She continued at Mohammed V University, where she earned a bachelor in plant science.
“My neighborhood threw me a giant party, by the time I got home there were people spilling out from the courtyard and into the street,” she said. “I could barely get back in the house.”
She chose to keep studying in the U.S., coming on a scholarship. My mom recalls how intimidated she was by American education.
“I told myself, ‘how am I going to keep up with Americans?’ America has a great reputation in the world in terms of science. Americans sent people to the moon!’”
These thoughts consumed her the morning of her first class, but she soon learned she had nothing to be worried about. Her classes became conversations between her and the professors, the work ethic and love for the little things in life she developed in Morocco had become her saving grace.
One thing my mom misses about Morocco is the closeness and warmth of the community.
“I don’t think therapists in Morocco are doing well. There is always somebody in your family, extended family, neighbors, or friends that is available to listen to your worries and problems and be genuinely interested and concerned about you,” she said. “In America, I like freedom. Nobody cares! But also nobody cares about you! People live kind of alone. I find that sad.”
She moved on to earn her masters and doctorate in plant and soil sciences, and currently works as a university professor teaching her passion. “What I like about my job is what all academics like, freedom.” After all, her name does mean “the traveler.”