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My Appropriate Gift

We knew how extremely important it is to show generous hospitality towards your guests in Arab and Muslim culture. . . . And we knew that we could not refuse their extraordinary graciousness.
George Gorayeb
Morocco 1971-1973

In 1971, I was blessed to be serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer, in Marrakesh, a thrilling, pink city in the desert, a magnet for hippies and world travelers. 

I was a teacher of English as a foreign language at a high school in this magical desert metropolis. My students typically already spoke their local Berber language, Moroccan Arabic, classical standard Arabic and French fluently. English was often their fifth language and they enthusiastically soaked it up like sponges because of their fondness for American and British Rock music and the chance for a better career in tourism.

( I actually got a chance to meet and chat with Paul McCartney there when he was visiting Morocco with his new band, “Wings” and his first wife, Linda Eastman, when we heard they were staying at the famous Mamounia Hotel.)

In the spring of 1972, a half dozen of my fellow volunteers and I went hiking in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains. This gorgeous mountain range separates the city of Marrakesh from the northern edge of the Sahara Desert. In the winter months, these mountain peaks are covered in snow because of their very high elevation.

After hiking for several hours one morning, we came upon a young Moroccan boy named Mohammed who was tending to his flock of sheep on a mountainside. He was a scrawny little kid with large bright eyes and an infectious smile. He was shocked that this group of young Americans could speak to him in Moroccan dialectical Arabic.

We chatted for a while, and then little Mohammed insisted that we follow him and his sheep home so we could meet his family. He brought us to  a very modest structure made of mud walls. His family was delighted to welcome us into their home and served us Moroccan mint tea and cookies. Then they insisted that we stay for lunch. Moroccan cuisine is really fantastically delicious.

This was a very humble family who lived on the food they raised themselves in this remote, mountain village. They told us that they had never met any Americans before and they were honored to host us. We realized that they owned only a few chickens but the mother was preparing a chicken tajine for us.  A Moroccan tajine is a delicious stew served in a big brown, ceramic platter with a heavy conical top.

We all felt very guilty because we knew this family lived a very Spartan life. They only ate chicken on special religious holidays, just a few times a year. But we also knew how extremely important it is to show generous hospitality towards your guests in Arab and Muslim culture. So they insisted on serving us the most elaborate meal that they could as a matter of honor. And we knew that we could not refuse their extraordinary graciousness no matter how little they had.

During lunch, one of the girls in our group asked little Mohammed if his bare feet didn’t get very cold in the winter months as he walked the mountainside in just flip flops. He said yes, but he had no socks. I spontaneously realized that I had to give this kid my socks. I was very embarrassed however because we had crossed a stream that morning and my shoes were wet. My socks were still damp, and the one on my right foot had a large hole at the big toe. But as Mohammed watched me take my tattered socks off and hand them to him, his contagious smile exploded with joy. You would have thought I was handing him the keys to a brand new convertible.

I learned a very valuable lesson that day. This was the most humble and basic gift that I have ever given anyone. But this little kid appreciated this simple gift so much it shocked me. He could not thank me enough when he hugged me to say goodbye. My bare feet in my wet shoes were really cold for the rest of that day, but I still felt a great warm feeling because my discomfort made me think about little Mohammed.

Those tattered, damp socks were the most appreciated gift that I have ever given anyone in my life.

Peace Corps Morocco H.S. students with George (center) in Marrakesh (1973)
George Gorayeb Morocco (1972)