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HUGH MEETS MOHAMMAD


        I met Mohammad long ago, back in the 1970s, if memory serves, when I was traveling in Morocco with my first wife, the late Isla Whelan.
         We had traveled down through France and Spain and had crossed to Africa, to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on the African coast. There, we were emphatically warned by fellow travelers not to trust any Moroccan, not at all, not under any circumstances. This, we were warned, was a dangerous country we were going to be venturing into, and nobody was to be trusted.
         Finally, very apprehensive, carrying the bare minimum of possessions, having put everything else into storage, we got on a bus and headed south by night, eventually arriving in the industrial city of Casablanca at about four in the morning.
         By that time Mohammad, this totally unknown Moroccan guy, a teenager, had introduced himself and had invited us to stay at his home, because it was going to be difficult for us to find anywhere to stay in sunny Casablanca at four in the morning. Thank you very much for the kind offer, Mohammad, and no thanks.
         Walk around and find a hotel, that is the thesis, but that seems to make the police a little unhappy with us, and the police, who have guns, would like to know what we are doing on the streets at this ungodly hour of the morning.
         So I answer, in my schoolboy French, which has proved strong enough for me to order a cup of coffee in Paris,
         "Nous cherchons un hotel, monsieur."
         Okay, well, there's a hotel right down the street, so the police take us to the door, but the hotel is full.
         The police apparently decide that we're okay and that they have nothing to make an issue about, so they go off and we, for want of anywhere else to go, wander back to the bus terminal to wait until dawn. And Mohammad, one of the local inhabitants, one of those people whom we have been emphatically warned that we must not trust, not under any circumstances, is still there, hanging out at the bus terminal, his life moving at its own teenage rhythms, and he makes it clear that his offer is still good. If we want, we can go home with him and stay.
         This is judgment call time ... and, really, if you can't make the judgment call, you shouldn't be traveling. (The tourist I met who got held up at knifepoint in Spain on three separate occasions obviously should never have left the front door.)
         So, okay, my wife and I agree that accepting Islamic hospitality for the night is the smartest way to go, and so we allow Mohammad to lead us to his home, and we spend the night sleeping in the living room, and by the time daylight comes round everything is a lot clearer and it seems that this is going to work out okay.
         The guy, Mohammad, is a high school student, and he lives with his father, who is a high school teacher, and his mother, a housewife who has her own little business selling beadwork in the marketplace ... I have a vivid memory of her showing some of her beadwork to my wife, and when we head back north some of that beadwork goes with us, as presents.
         Our stay in Casablanca is an intensely social time, spent encountering different people in the privacy of their own homes, none of which are standard stops on the tourist itinerary. The toughest part of this social deal is answering the basic question: why do you travel? We don't have a real answer. We are from New Zealand, and your OE, your Overseas Experience, is a standard thing, something you do, getting out there in the big wide world for a year, two years, three years, whatever, something so deep in the culture that it does not really have a kind of motivating why that you can easily explain to a foreigner.
         Mohammad is still at high school, but he hangs out with older kids, university students, and his hobby seems to be collecting foreign visitors, whom he subsequently takes around Casablanca, showing them off to these various older kids ... one of whom turns out to be studying geology, and, specifically, right at the moment, by weird coincidence, to be studying the massive ironsand deposits in New Zealand, my home country.
         His parents are the cheerful laid-back hosts in the background, and there is never at any time any sense that our presence, camped out in the living room, is in any way a stress factor. A basic apartment setup, middle class by the standards of the city, at a guess, but not what we would think of as affluent. No toilet in the apartment itself, but there is a shared facility, a squat toilet, opening off a corridor beyond the apartment door.
         And, just across the road from the apartment, there is a mosque. A kind of shopfront open to the street, nothing special, just a room on the ground floor of one of the city's concrete buildings, and people are down there on their hands and knees at prayer time, and so we get to see the religion built into the pattern of community life, part of the pattern of daily life, ordinary and unremarkable.
         And so we have these days in Casablanca, not so many days, maybe three, but these are really long days, everyone speaking French maybe eighty per cent of the time, so I find myself having these long conversations in which I understand maybe (optimistically) one word in twenty, conversations in which even the main topic is unclear, although someone will generally help out with a little English at strategic moments.
         And then there was one guy, black African, who didn't even speak French, neither English nor French but some other language, maybe Arabic, and who sticks in my mind on account of his cheerfulness, although, if I understand correctly, he's scheduled to head south to some kind of war zone, Morocco being involved at that time in some kind of military conflict in the south, though why or with who I have no idea ...
         ... and then we're ready to go, planning to head south, to Marrakesh, but Mohammad's father makes a point of warning us, very clearly, that if you do get to Marrakesh, then you really had better be careful, because it's not like Casablanca, not at all.
         Marrakesh: don't trust anyone!
         In the end, we chickened out, decided to skip Marrakesh and got on the bus back to Ceuta, back to Spain.
         ... and that's my first encounter with the Islamic world. Being invited home by Mohammad and having to make a judgment call: can I trust this guy or not?
         Later, I got to travel, also, in Turkey and in Indonesia, both parts of the Islamic world. Just scratching at the surface, obviously. A couple of tourist trips don't make you an expert. But at least I had something, a personal starting point, a set of experiences that I could use as a starting point, when Islam came leaping out of the encyclopedia to capture the newspaper headlines and the TV news.


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The materials on this page relating to Islam form part of the literary miscellany
THIS IS A PICTURE OF YOUR GOD.

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