A Familiar Face in Morocco

A Reflection by Mike Inganamort

It was the midpoint of our study tour through Morocco and the fast-paced schedule was starting to catch up with us.

Starting the day in Rabat, we had breakfast with a prominent Moroccan journalist on the “red lines” of free expression, then a meeting at the Muhamadden League of Scholars where we deconstructed the extremist narrative, an enlightening conversation with an academic on the concept of Islamic feminism, a briefing with the prime minister’s chief economic advisor on the country’s exports, and a visit to the US Embassy to meet with the Deputy Chief of Mission and supporting staff. We then headed to Casablanca for a conversation with the African business development lead for the state-owned fertilizer giant, a visit to a new shared work space for Moroccan start-ups, a tour of a privately-funded community center that shields children from the influence of terrorist organizations, and a roundtable with the founder and CEO of a major credit card transaction company.

By the time we arrived at our dinner location for our last meeting of the day, our feet were tired, our backs sore, and our brains overwhelmed with new information. And our guest for the evening was late. So we made our way through a burst of colorful appetizers and eagerly awaited our tajines of chicken and lamb. A half hour to sit back and indulge without the table manners of citizen diplomacy.

When our guest arrived, she was positively unassuming. With her curly-haired teenage daughter in tow she stuffed her jangling car keys in her jeans pocket and slipped into the open seat at the center of the table. A dance recital gone long was the reason or the delay. While we spent the day running from one meeting to the next, she was balancing her kids’ extra-curriculars with her own day job. She may as well have been from Indiana.

What followed, between our group of 30-somethings and this woman who could have been our own mother, was among the most engaging conversations of our two weeks in North Africa.

Malika Lahlou was the Morocco Director of Education for Employment, the nonprofit that helps Middle East youth achieve career success and stability. She was previously the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s point person in Morocco, a position in which she steered more than $700 million into the development of her country. And before that she led assignments for the United Nations Population Fund and USAID. To say she is among the most talented development managers in North Africa would be an understatement.

But tonight was deliberately understated. Malika was willing to engage on any topic and without pretense, so we talked about life in Morocco. We asked about raising a family in such a unique place. We asked what kind of a future she envisions for her children. We asked whether she fears terrorism. We asked about religion and modernity. And we asked Malika’s daughter about her hobbies, her favorite music, and the places she wants to visit one day. As we passed the chicken and couscous, we started talking more freely about our own families back home and the aspirations we have for them. Like Malika, we want our kids to grow up in a safer world, with an appreciation for the things they have and a basic respect for different cultures and ideas. There was a common humanity at the table as we reflected on what constitutes good character.

Malika then shared her reflections on the United States. “The US offers so many opportunities to its citizens to choose from,” she said. “When I was studying in the US, I was in classes with students of different ages. It was never too late to go back to school and start over. While failure is a shame in many other places, in the US it is part of the normal learning process.”

She went further.  

“If any one of you or your children make even the smallest difference in America, you will have achieved something that neither of my own children ever will,” she said. “Don’t take that for granted, because to be born in America is an enormous blessing, and countless people around the world yearn for the opportunities you have.”

The table was silent. It was as if Malika dropped an anvil on our tajines. We took a moment to think about her words and, one by one, came to the same realization: when politics in America ever seems small, people like Malika Lahlou are a reminder that the hard work of democracy is not only worth it, but also a privilege.

When the next Planning Board meeting erupts over a zoning change or the Shade Tree Commission is deadlocked over which tree species to plant in downtown, it’s important take a breath and consider the privilege of sitting at a table in America that makes such decisions. Our delegation didn’t expect to travel halfway around the world to better understand patience and gratitude, but we’re better for it. And we are deeply grateful to the people with whom we met across Tunisia and Morocco who taught us all about their countries and a little about our own.

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