“Coffee or tea?” Abdul asked when I entered the breakfast room. It was November 30th. I had woken up, gotten ready, and gone to breakfast as usual that morning — although it was anything but a usual day.
“Coffee, thank you.” I sat at one of the breakfast tables and unwrapped a few slices of my gluten-free bread on which I generously spread the butter, honey, and jam Mohammed had laid out.
Abdul came later, with the coffee. And I thought, as I sipped, about what the day might bring. Abdul had been helping at breakfast that morning and was also there to ensure everything went smoothly for my excursion.
Not your typical excursion: after breakfast I was scheduled to meet the English-speaking driver Abdul had organized to assist me on my mission. We would depart the Fez Medina and head east to try to find the forty-plus-year-old address of my birth father, who passed away thirty-seven years ago in Germany at the young age of thirty-two.
Half way through breakfast I realized I was feeling fairly tense. I really did not know what to think that morning. It’s only natural that I was full of the feels. After all, I had only been wondering what I might find at that address since I was eight. What would the day bring? I had no idea.
But I was glad that Abdul was there to introduce me to the driver and see me off. Once I finished breakfast and was ready to go, Abdul and I left the Riad Palais Yazid. He guided me along alleys I couldn’t keep track of towards a gate to the outer world.
We hadn’t been walking long when Abdul was approached and stopped by two men who began engaging him in a raucous quarrel — at least that’s how my non-Arabic ears interpreted it. I waited patiently off to the side, wondering if I should be concerned. After some time the altercation ceased, as it seemed they’d come to an understanding. We continued on.
“Is everything okay?” I asked.
“Everything’s okay,” Abdul said.
According to Abdul, the men were local police patrolling their turf. I began to imagine mafia-esque scenes involving extortion, police corruption, high-stake alliances, and high-pressure pay-offs. Of locals battling it out for territorial domination on the streets of the ancient medina.
You could say I have a fertile imagination. It’s best not to jump to conclusions, though, when you have no idea what people are saying. After all, in some languages even a harmless word like butterfly can come across as downright aggressive to non-native speakers.
We arrived at the gate where the driver was waiting. His name was — wait for it, wait for it — Mohammed. Abdul explained the background story to him in Arabic and Mohammed was busy copying down the address. Seeing that I was tense and feeling anxious, Abdul leaned into the window to ask if I was okay.
“Yes. I’m good,” I assured him. And then it was time to head out. We said goodbye to Abdul and were off on our way. Thankfully, Mohammed and I could speak together. A little. He wasn’t completely fluent in English, but he spoke enough for basic communication, and I was grateful for that.
We stopped at Fez’s CTM bus station en route so I could purchase my ticket to Chefchaouen — Morocco’s Blue Pearl — for the following day. And Mohammed lent me some dirhams so I could buy a beverage, as I didn’t have the proper change in the local currency.
After an obligatory ATM-machine stop before heading out of town, I tried to reimburse Mohammed for the beverage. He was quite honest in telling me that I had misunderstood the amount and was attempting to drastically overpay him. Thankful for his integrity, I gave him the correct amount instead.
The gesture was reassuring, knowing that he hadn’t taken advantage of my monetary ignorance when clearly he could have. Plus, from the short time we’d spent together, I sensed that he had a calm, benevolent temperament, which also put me at ease.
The drive out of town was turning into an adventure. Mohammed navigated through traffic that weaved according to some indecipherable plan. People were out living their daily lives: men in cafés, women in head scarves; a salesman braving lanes of moving vehicles on foot, hoping to make a dime off a stopped car. Much was foreign to me.
And yet, there I was, in the country my birth-father had called home. I was hoping to learn more about my roots, and so far the exploration had been illuminating and surreal all at once.
We left the city far behind us. And eventually we stopped at a gas station along the way. Mohammed filled the van’s tank whilst also showing the attendant the address, fishing for any new leads. The attendant replied to Mohammed, saying who knows what. We continued driving.
We continued our journey through sweeping expanses of ruralia. (I just made up that word and like it so I’m keeping it.)
As Mohammed’s van rolled through the countryside, I examined street signs and enjoyed panoramic landscapes of empty fields or fields where crops had been planted, of olive groves, rivers, and occasional Amazigh villages and abodes.
After about thirty minutes of driving, Mohammed slowed and pulled over. He got out and walked briskly to catch up with two men we’d seen walking along the left side of the road. I watched them conversing from the van and decided to get out myself and stretch my legs.
Both at the gas station and again now, Mohammed had asked not only about the address, but also about my father’s surname — checking to see if these strangers to us might know the Ajor name and where a family by that name might live.
This time, the two men Mohammed had asked did know of the Ajor family. They live there, one of the men told Mohammed, pointing along a dirt road leading up a hill. Mohammed came back towards the van to tell me the news.
I could hardly believe it. All these years, and in one morning we had made so much progress in such a short time. And the mind-boggling thing was that those two men along the roadside actually knew of the Ajor family, I thought in disbelief.
Mohammed then pointed at a street sign behind us. Like some of the other signs we had seen, this sign was written in three languages: Arabic script on top, Amazigh — more commonly known as Berber — in the middle, and French on bottom.
The Amazigh alphabet looked intriguing to me: it almost looked like a mix of Greek and Cyrillic alphabets to my completely untrained eye. Or maybe it was more Phoenician looking. I had no idea!
Mohammed confirmed what Abdul had told me the evening before, that this area was Berber country. From my understanding, though, Amazigh is now the preferred name.
“Berber” comes from Arabic barbar, meaning foreign. So the indigenous people who were already living in North Africa when the Arabs arrived ended up receiving that name. It’s etymologically similar to the name Romans once use to refer to those living beyond the realm of the Roman Empire: “barbarian,” which has a somewhat negative connotation.
So, I’ll use the preferred term. We’re in Amazigh — not Berber — country. My father was indigenous North African, I thought. He was Amazigh, and that makes me half Amazigh too.
So I’m of Amazigh descent and don’t even know how to pronounce Amazigh! I’ve sometimes wondered, does being an American of North African descent make me African American? Ah, classifications.
Unbelievably, the sign that Mohammed had pointed out to me — written in the three scripts — actually matched the address my birth mother had left me in the album. We must be on the right track!
Back in the van, we began driving up the dirt road that the gentleman had pointed out to Mohammed.
Up the road a ways, on the left, we saw some children playing. Mohammed motioned them to come closer to the car and asked the girls where the Ajors live. “Next door,” one of them replied in Arabic, pointing to the house on our left. Mohammed relayed the message to me in English.
The girl ran ahead to that house, to notify the owner that someone was looking for them. We drove over, parked, and got out of the van. I could not believe how quickly we had been making progress. An older woman came out of the house. She was perhaps a head shorter than me and her hair was wrapped in a scarf that matched her long maroon-ish dress.
She walked over to us and Mohammed began speaking to her in Arabic. I stood by and watched them converse. My knowledge of Arabic is nonexistent, but somehow I was able to follow the gist of the conversation. Mohammed was explaining something to her; I believe he was asking her about my father, Said, who had moved to Germany over forty years earlier and had had a baby girl.
Answering in Arabic, the woman was nodding in confirmation and added more to the story. One of her words I was able to snatch up, as it sounded like “Ameriky.” Did she known about me? That I had been adopted and had gone to America as a baby?
Naturally, Mohammed’s reply was also in Arabic. But I definitely understood the meaning of his short follow-up sentence. It could have meant only one thing: “this is her,” he said, as he pointed over to me.
She looked at me: disbelief fleeting quickly to amazement and then to — recognition? She looked in my eyes. I looked in hers. She hugged me tight. She squeezed me and held me and we embraced for a time. And when we looked into each other’s eyes again, the reservoirs that had formed there were glistening in the sun.
She is the sister of my father. My eldest auntie. Her name is Aicha.
I showed her the picture I had on my phone of my birth parents: of her brother with my mother.
After our embrace and emotional first meeting, with Mohammed acting as our translator, Aicha ushered us into the house. Into a large room with long cushioned benches fitted alongside most of the length of three walls and covered in decorative geometrical patterns.
A second woman had come and embraced me and kissed me on the cheek again and again. She is another sister of Said — my aunty, Yamena. They motioned me to sit. To make myself comfortable. We were all oscillating between varying degrees of amazement and disbelief. Even Mohammed!
They brought out a couple of old pictures of my father that I had never seen before. She showed me the pictures. This is real, I thought at that moment. This is really the family of my father. And here is a picture of him to prove it.
And then I could not resist — we took pictures together. Of course!
Communication was a bit difficult at times, but I found out that my birth father, Said, had had three sisters and two brothers. I never knew this! I never knew whether he had had any siblings at all.
I found out that Said’s eldest brother, Mohammed, had passed away sometime last year. So one of my uncles had also been named Mohammed. Unfortunately I would not be able to meet him, but they did give me a picture of him to take with me.
They told me that another sister, Helima, lives in the new city of Fez, which is the modern part of Fez near the ancient medina. And Said’s other brother, Achmed, was currently at work. “How long could I stay?” they wondered. Said’s brother would want to see me when he finishes work.
I told them I could stay a while.
Then I met two younger women, who are the wives of two of my cousins. And I got to meet one of my cousins, Yusuf. They took me up on a roof for views of the surrounding countryside.
I went for a walk with Yusuf and Mohammed to see the neighborhood.
When we got back from our walk, they brought out more mint tea and some traditional bread to dip into honey or olive oil. In addition to making their own olive oil, they keep bees, so the honey is fresh from those hives as well.
Before a meal, it’s tradition to pour water over your hands so you can wash them. Then they give you a towel for drying. Yusuf poured the water over my hands first, then I dried them. Mohammed’s turn was next — which I was able to capture in this photo!
Luckily I brought my Arabic coeliac translation card explaining that I get sick if I eat bread, which I had already shown to Mohammed. And he, in turn, was able to explain the situation. I was prepared though, as I brought some of my own bread that I was able to dip into the delicious honey and olive oil.
We enjoyed our tea and were trying to communicate, which was a bit tricky at times because Mohammed wasn’t completely fluent in English, and he didn’t always understand what I was trying to ask or say. But I was so grateful for this beautiful time we had together.
Then Achmed arrived, Said’s brother and my uncle. He also gave me a very warm and meaningful embrace and kissed my cheek over and over.
Then, another surprise! Aunt Helima and her family had heard the news that I had come, so they drove over from the new city of Fez to see me. More and more family had come to see me, and I felt overwhelmed with love, kindness, and welcoming. “One thousand welcomes!” my cousin Kawtar had told me.
Kawtar is the daughter of Aunt Helima, and she is the only one of the family who speaks English. Kawtar’s English is quite good, so I was very happy to meet her, to be able to chat with her, and to learn more about my family. “Kawtar” means “river in heaven,” she told me. She speaks Arabic, Amazigh, French, English, and she is also learning German.
Everyone in the family speaks Amazigh and Arabic, but some family members also speak French as well. I tried to remember everyone’s names, but it was difficult. I’m not particularly good at remembering names as it is, and most of these names were unfamiliar to me — plus there were so many to keep track of! I wrote down as many as I could, in hopes that I could remember the names later.
They also showed me the house where my father grew up and in which he was born. In the meantime the roof has collapsed and it’s no longer used, but I was able to go inside.
Then they had prepared a special dinner for me. I was the guest of honor.
They cooked a chicken for me, and served a yummy traditional salad, boiled eggs, and olives. Although I don’t normally eat meat, of course I made an exception and ate the chicken that they had prepared especially for me. It was delicious.
I wasn’t sure and didn’t ask, but I had to wonder whether the chicken I was eating had been running around the property with all of the other chickens earlier that same day. Well, if I were a chicken, I’d certainly rather be living in this Moroccan countryside than in a tiny cage in a chicken factory somewhere, pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics, with no room to run free.
I also met two other cousins: Mohammed and Mustafa. Mohammed actually works in Belgium! I found out that Mohammed had been in Germany in the 1990s and had tried to find me then! He hadn’t been able to gain any leads as to where I had gone.
My name had changed when I was adopted. Plus, I had moved more than ten times growing up, so it would have been quite impossible to track me down. But, they had known about me and had tried to find me! And I never knew. I had no idea. And I think they thought they would never be able to find me at this point. They kept thanking me for coming.
I asked if I could take a group photo!
My aunts told me that I look like my father. They said they could see the resemblance and that he had been a very handsome man.
I had been laughing and crying and smiling so much that my mouth was sore from smiling too much. It had been a very emotional day. Some time after dinner and after the picture taking, Mohammed (the driver) looked at me and pointed at his watch. It was time to get going soon.
We had arrived around 11am and had spent the whole day. It was around 6pm when we started to say our goodbyes. They asked how long I was staying in Fez, and I told them that unfortunately I was leaving in the morning. I honestly had had no idea if I would find anything when I planned to visit Fez, so I had already booked the rest of my stay to include time in Chefchaouen and in Tangier as well.
They told me I am welcome any time, and that I can stay with them when I visit, and that my family is welcome as well. I told them that I hope very much to come back soon and to spend more time with them.
We said our goodbyes, and they all came over to the van to see me off. They even gave a live chicken to my driver, Mohammed, as a thank you. The chicken rode with us in the back of the van all the way back to the Fez Medina, squawking occasionally.
The day had been amazing and unforgettable. I needed time to process it all. I really hope to return soon. And I’m thinking it would be good to try to learn some Arabic if I can. I didn’t know what would happen on this trip, but I’ve found a whole big family that I didn’t know I had.
Mohammed dropped me off at the gate to the medina, and Abdul was waiting to pick me up. I said goodbye to Mohammed, thanking him for all of his help on such a special day.
We road on Abdul’s motorcycle back to the riad. I felt emotionally exhausted, but in a good way. Once we were back at the riad, I decided to go up to the terrace to have some quiet time to process all that had happened. Mohammed offered to make some mint tea for me. He would bring it up to the terrace when it was ready. I was thankful.
I sat on the terrace on my final evening in Fez, sipping my tea and thinking about the day that had just passed. The call to prayer came on and was reverberating across the medina. It was a magical moment.
While traveling in Morocco, I found out that the name “Said,” pronounced Sa‘īd, means happy. I definitely was happy that I got to meet Said’s family. My family. My family that I never knew.
And I remembered what Abdul had told me the evening before: “If you find them, they will want you to stay. They won’t let you leave right away. You will see.” I also remembered what my dad used to jokingly say about me visiting Morocco one day, “don’t go by yourself, they’re going to want to keep you!”
Dad was right. They did want to keep me.
Thanks for following along with me on my personal pilgrimage to Fez. Feel free to leave any thoughts or comments in the comment section! I’d love to hear about your own personal quests and stories!