Inshallah. As we get deeper into Morocco and get increasingly comfortable with our surroundings and increasingly aware of what’s going on around us, I’ve come to realize how often I hear this word, and how ingrained it is in the culture here. It translates as “God willing…”, or even more literally as “If Allah wills it, then it will be…”. While Islam is the predominant religion here, and certainly many Moroccans are devout practitioners, the vibe I get from most Moroccans that we’ve encountered is a sense of deep spirituality without being heavily religious, at least not toward us. I suspect that many folks are deeply religious within their own practice, which is rather personal, and mostly between them and Allah, but not necessary to bring into their dealings with us. In keeping with that, the word Inshallah does not carry much religious weight, but is rather a sort of mantra for life here… a reminder that the flow of life is real and it is here to guide us through our trials and tribulations. What will be, will be. Inshallah.
Fez is an ancient city, which is home to the world’s first University and serves as Morocco’s spiritual capital with it’s many mosques and koranic schools. The medina (old city) is massive. Four square kilometers of high-walled alleys connecting residential neighborhoods with sprawling markets selling everything imaginable along its winding walkways that are closed off to cars. The entire medina is literally a huge labyrinth that is as confusing as it is mesmerizing, and as hectic as it is inviting. This combination earns Fez a reputation among tourists as a tourist trap that can effortlessly lighten one’s wallet in the blink of an eye.
“Welcome”. The single most English-spoken word I’ve heard in Morocco. “Welcome in Morocco!”, “Welcome”, “Welcome my friend”, “Welcome”, “Welcome”, “Welcome”. The immigration officer said it, which was a little shocking, since those guys usually say nothing. The guy at the currency exchange counter said it way more than a couple times. Saad, our Airbnb host, who picked us up at the airport said it multiple times as well, and he definitely meant it. As I write this, we’ve been in Morocco for nearly two weeks, and we still hear the lovely ring of this inviting word several times a day, easily.
Genuine “welcomes”. If they’re being faked, then they’re very well rehearsed, as they almost always come accompanied by giant, deep smiles and gentle hand gestures. Whenever we enter a restaurant, shop or a small street, we are serenaded by a series of “welcomes”. we even get welcomed when we turn people down. A common conversation in the street may go something like this… “Welcome. Something to smoke maybe?” “No, thank you.” “Yes, I have the best hash in town. Power flower.” “No thanks. I’m good.” “We smoke first and if no good, you don’t buy. No problem, welcome.” “No, really. I don’t want hash right now.” “OK welcome! Welcome in Morocco. Welcome my friend.” “Thank you.” “Welcome.” So how do we feel two weeks into Morocco? Welcome. Very welcome indeed.
Our visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of our very favorite stops along this journey so far. The terrain is breathtaking, the people are kind, generous and so very resilient, and the recent history is heartbreaking but also inspirational when you see what these people have been able to overcome. It is a place that I feel like I needed to experience in order to grow my soul a bit, and at times it was undeniably heavy. Montenegro, it’s neighbor to the south was much lighter and fluffier by contrast, which was also very welcome at this stage in our travels.
While Montenegro aligned with Serbia during the Yugoslav wars, their forces did relatively little fighting and there was no real conflict on its home turf during the war. One might even say that Montenegro was rather indifferent during that period, and if you asked for my impression of Montenegrans, the word ‘indifferent’ would probably describe them as well as any. This isn’t to say that they’re unpleasant in any way, because they’re not. They’re fine, polite even. They just didn’t seem to care much whether we were there or not, which suits me just fine, as I never really felt like we were standing out as foreigners or tourists.
I was fifteen years old when I first heard of Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. The city was the host of the 1984 Winter Olympics, and I was at an age where I was getting really interested in world geography, not to mention skiing. Bill Johnson, controversial as he was, was my hero of those olympics, winning the gold in the men’s downhill, but it was this mysterious land halfway across the planet that really captured my attention that winter. I remember tuning in each evening with my family to watch the events, but I also distinctly remember many of the images ABC was bringing to our living room of this exotic city set within these majestic mountains. I remember pouring through our family encyclopedia and atlas to learn more about this spectacular place. I was fascinated with Sarajevo, and I’d venture to guess that I shared that fascination with many, many others all over the globe. Sarajevo had successfully parlayed it’s moment in the Olympic spotlight into becoming a destination for travelers worldwide, and the citizens of this great city had a lot to be proud of.
I was a political science major at the University of Oregon when the Siege of Sarajevo began in 1992. In the year previous to that I had helped to organize a student organization in which our chief role was to protest and bring awareness about the Persian Gulf War. I was heavily involved in grassroots peace politics at that time, and I was acutely aware of what was happening in the crumbling communist state that we knew as Yugoslavia. I took part in numerous benefits and student initiatives to bring awareness to the tragedy that was unfolding in the Balkans, but for the most part it felt like to me that most Americans were turning a blind eye, especially our government. It was a horrifically grueling 1,425 day period for Sarajevo, and it was heartbreaking to see a once triumphant city and it’s people brought to their knees by an enemy bent on hate and ethnic cleansing. It was also a relief when the International community finally stepped up to help facilitate an end to that war in 1995 with the Dayton Agreement, and by early ’96, Serb forces pulled out of Sarajevo completely.
Leaving Split, Croatia, our journey took us inland through beautiful, mountainous landscapes toward Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Just before getting to the border, the remaining passengers on the luxurious Croatian bus were abruptly ushered into an old beat-up minivan to take us the rest of the way to Mostar. Once at the border, all of our passports were collected by our driver and the pile of passports was unceremoniously handed over to a guard in a booth. This was a departure from most border crossings we’ve experienced where you typically never lose sight of your passport during the process. It was one of those moments where you’ve just got to trust, as putting up resistance will help nothing. Eventually we all got our passports back with a new stamp for our efforts, and we only had to wait another 45 minutes while some mystery package in our van got searched by a border guard, only to be left behind in Croatia in the end. The vibe on this side of the border was palpably different… a little edgier, a little more raw.
The region of Dalmatia is a thin strip of arid terrain that stretches along the modern day Croatian coastline of the Adriatic Sea from the island of Rab down to the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. Besides being a place of extreme, stark beauty, it’s natural resources and strategic location have made it a hotly contested region that has seen it’s fair share of wars and conflict over the course of human history. The Roman Empire took it over from the Dalmatae, an Illyrian tribe, and as such, Roman architecture still punctuates the coastline and leaves no doubt of it’s influence on the region. In the Middle Ages, Dalmatia changed hands between the Venetians, the Byzantines, the Avars, the Croats, the Mongols, the Serbians, and the Ottoman Empire of Bosnia. In modern times Dalmatia was controlled by the Austrian Empire for nearly a hundred years before becoming part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia after WWI. The violent and conflict-ridden break-up of Yugoslavia resulted in the region falling into hands of Croatia, with small chunks being occupied by Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.