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Soaps, potions, and a map.

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

The desk clerk handed us a map and asked, "Do you want Instagram Street?"


We weren't sure what he meant by that. He motioned for us to give the map back to him, and he started to draw out a route. There was one street in Chefchaouen that had become the obsession of social media. The houses were dyed indigo, the walls lined with brightly colored flowerpots.


If the clerk seemed surprised at our Insta-ignorance, he was nothing short of astonished by what came next: "Can you draw directions to the nearest masjid?"


His response was much like the one our daughter gave when she ate her first Oreo. First, there was bewilderment. Then, after really tasting it, only sheer delight. The friendly clerk's whole body filled with it. "Come," he said. He walked outside with us trailing behind. We played catch-up to him almost to the corner, where he explained in exact detail how to find the mosque.


After prayer time, we wove our way through the streets, the ever-present shopkeepers greeting us with their equally ever-present hawking. "Come, come, friend. Have a look." We also got a lot of "Where are you from?" It was all part of the game.


Mainly, we took time to experience the place, making sure to be there, really there.



As the day waned, we passed by a tiny, nondescript storefront, not too far from the Bab el Onsar. The shopkeeper approached with a much gentler, "Hello, friend." Memory fails as to how he finagled it exactly, but he managed to elicit the promise we would visit the next day, "insha'Allah."


Insha'Allah is an all-encompassing phrase. The simple translation means something like, God willing. When Muhammad (ﷺ) was beginning to receive revelation, some skeptics came and challenged him to a theological puzzle. Muhammad (ﷺ) said he would have an answer for them shortly.


Revelation didn't come as promised. He waited. They waited. He waited. They ridiculed. It would be two weeks before the answer would finally be revealed, an answer that also included a reminder. We are not in charge of our futures.


Insha'Allah is also a comfort to everybody involved, at least to the extent they believe it. It is especially so for someone who doesn't like conflict or confrontation. Or to lie or disappoint. To be able to make truthful statements without hurting feelings is a merciful balm, plus it leaves open the door to surprise. In other words, it reminds all participants in the exchange that we bend to God's will. So, we were able to agree, with full sincerity, even if there were no plans either way at the moment of promising.


Next morning, a van arrived at the hotel well before sunrise. The friendly clerk had arranged for a visit to the sacred hill where the great 13th century saint Sidi Shadhili had met Sidi ibn-Mashīsh al-ʻAlamī. The story goes that Sidi Shadhili had traveled all the way to Baghdad, the center of Islamic learning at the time, to find a teacher. He arrived in the city of knowledge after months of journeying, only to be told he would find his teacher not too far from his home in Morocco. Sidi Shadhili could have stayed and become a great scholar, but he chose to turn around and make his way back. (Interestingly enough, on last check, if one wants to travel from Sidi Shadhili's home in Ceuta to Sidi ibn-Mashīsh's outside Tetouan, one still has to traverse countries to get there. Ceuta is technically Spain.)


He would eventually find his teacher atop a hill that overlooks the whole valley. When Sidi Shadhili arrived at the foot, he performed his ablutions and, out of manners, put on new clothes. He began the ascent. The great saint Sidi ibn-Mashīsh greeted him at the summit but told him something wasn't right. Sidi Shadhili needed to cleanse himself before teaching could begin.


As with the trip to Baghdad, he would have to start over. That meant traipsing back down the hill and back up again. This happened three times in all, as is often the case with spiritual lessons. On the third attempt, it dawned on him that maybe the water wasn't enough. Maybe the problem was inside. He exchanged his new clothes for those of a beggar, realizing that, to be a saint meant he first had to convince his ego he was a nobody. The rich don't need alms; it's the empty who need to be filled. According to the story, it was on this ascent when Sidi ibn-Mashīsh at last accepted him as his student.


Summiting the hill nowadays still isn't easy. The way isn't as scrubby as the climb, and there are paved roads. That said, the way is narrow and steep. Fog can slow a van to a crawl. Monkeys sit aside the rode to watch the people go by.


The view and barakah from the hilltop are breathtaking. The ground is covered with cork such that it's one big prayer carpet. A giant tree grows from the place where Sidi ibn-Mashīsh is laid to rest. Sheep stroll back and forth. Friends come and go. It's a place to sit for hours, maybe even days, and let time stop.


Time doesn't stop, though, if one has promised to return to the hotel in time for a mid-morning breakfast. One gets an hour or so, tops, and then must head back.


Connections between events aren't always seen when they happen. Sometimes it's only long afterwards when one realizes there was a thread there, a thread expertly sewn between two otherwise random-seeming fabrics. Some people will label the retrospective entwinement rationalizing. Others will call it manufacturing. Still others will say, perhaps more generously, it makes for a nice coincidence when telling a story. Admittedly, during this heart's more cynical days, any one of those options would have been preferred over the one accepted now.


As some of the old iciness begins to thaw, well, there's a willingness to see things a bit differently.


The gentle shopkeeper kept coming to mind that morning. It was his eyes. Not that they were remarkable in any physical sense. It's hard to say at this point what color they were. Even so, by the time breakfast rolled around and the planning of the day had begun, I asked, "We don't have to make a special trip or anything, but if we do find some time, maybe we could stop back into that guy's shop?"


We did have time. Late afternoon.


We missed spotting the storefront the first and second time. That's not entirely true. We knew we were in the right vicinity and even thought we had found it. But after passing once and again by where we thought it was, we didn't see the shopkeeper and decided we must have been in the wrong place.


Strangely, when we resigned to the notion that maybe it wasn't meant to happen after all, there he was. He hadn't been in his shop. He had been out for a walk and was just on his way back. His neighbor had been watching his shop for him.


He saw us before we saw him. And he remembered.


Resignation--the inner confession, "I give up"--carries inestimable weight. It's not the "I give up" of quitting. It's the "I give up" of the "I." It's surrendering to what is larger. And on the few occasions where there has been a semblance of ceding the thought of control, it has been like someone opened an otherwise impenetrable lock, merely at the wave of a hand. (Some of these stories, but not all, will continue to be told in these psalms over time...insha'Allah...)


He ushered us into his shop. It was small, stacked with soaps and potions. His name was Yusuf, same as mine. There were a couple of other tourists moseying around, sniffing this and that. We offered to let him talk with them first and come back to us. He did have a business to run.


He shook his head. "If they buy, they buy," he explained. "Allah knows best. I am here with you, Yusuf."


He inched closer. He had reached the space that typically makes a Texa-tuckian a little twitchy, the space that causes an almost instinctive couple of steps back. But he had those eyes. Those eyes were friendly and soothing, a lot like those of a gentle mother. So there was no step back.


We didn't talk long, just a few minutes, really. It was easy to know when it was time to say good-bye. It was like music stopped playing. He hugged me, gave salaams, and sent us on our way.


Words don't matter much in such situations. What matters more is proximity. It is about a transmission that occurs. It's like the love that comes from the womb, a love that brings us to "Bismillahir rahmanir raheem." ﷽ .


Ar-Rahman is one of the most beautiful names of God: God the All-Loving-Merciful, or more literally, the Womb that provides sustenance and the gift of life, not because of anything we ourselves have done, but because of the mother's love.


This was Yusuf the shopkeeper's way. This is the Muhammadan (ﷺ) way. And when one experiences it, one knows it.

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