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Britt LubySeptember 12, 2023
A man stands next to a damaged hotel after the earthquake in Moulay Brahim village, near the epicentre of the earthquake, outside Marrakech, Morocco, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)

Here is how you greet people in Morocco. I learned this because I lived there as a Peace Corps volunteer with my husband several years ago.

Traditionally, one person says, “Salam Walikum.” This translates to “Peace be upon you.” In response, the other person says, “Walikum Salaam,” which means “And also on you.” It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? As a practicing Catholic, this is very close to what I say at Mass when I greet those around me after reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

In Morocco, close friends of the same gender often exchange kisses on the cheek during these greetings. Mama Habiba and I, for example, could kiss each other 10 times before settling in for mint tea. Children may also kiss the hands of their older relatives as a sign of respect. The handshake, though, is my favorite part.

As I watch the news unfold about the recent earthquake in Morocco, I’ve seen it through the eyes of my friends, not strangers.

In Morocco, handshakes are followed by lightly touching your heart with your right hand. This is a sign of respect and shows the sincerity of the greeting. I have been back in the United States for a decade, yet you can still see me touching my own heart after shaking someone’s hand. To me, the gesture is tender and thoughtful: a simple way of conveying love for the other, a stranger.

As I watch the news unfold about the recent earthquake in Morocco, I’ve seen it through the eyes of my friends, not strangers. The epicenter of this 6.8 magnitude disaster was in the High Atlas Mountains, not far from Amizmiz, the small town my husband and I lived in and worked as English teachers.

Fatima says, “My house is gone, but I’m glad that we are safe.” Fatima helped me practice Moroccan Arabic on her rooftop, and I helped her practice English. I watched her sister make butter by shaking a plastic jug full of milk for hours. We smeared it on homemade bread together on a cool Moroccan morning.

Sana says: “Our house has been destroyed. We can’t sleep, but we are so tired. But we are fine, we eat, we see each other, hamdulillah (‘praise be to God’). Keep praying for us.” Sana helps run soccer programs for girls in her village. Every year for 10 years, she has sent me photos of the boujloud festival in Amizmiz on Eid al-Fitr. She knows how much that particular custom—“Moroccan Halloween”—makes me grin.

Neighbor before house, the house is gone. Neighbor before house, we are sleeping together outside. Neighbor before house, here is some food we managed to find. Neighbor before house, at least we have each other.

Ramzi sends a photo of his home, buildings crumbling all around it, and writes: “I grew up in this neighborhood, and our home has witnessed the most beautiful memories. Here I grew up with my mother, here my father died 8 years ago, here I was married and had my beautiful son. Goodbye, beautiful house, hamdulillah we are safe.” My husband and I lived in that same house with Ramzi and his mother, Mama Habiba, when they served as our host family. I learned how to make msemen and tagine in that kitchen. The butcher came to slaughter a lamb on the roof for Eid al-Adha, and we danced in the kitchen while we roasted kebabs. I gazed out our bedroom window on days when I felt so overwhelmed by life in a new country that I would weep. I can still hear the noisy neighborhood below: motorcycles zipping by, roosters shouting from nearby rooftops, warm greetings in a language that was so unfamiliar to me by people who were becoming more and more familiar to me each day.

Sunday’s second reading was a reminder that all commandments can be summed up by saying “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom 13:8-10). And this jogged a memory of mine, an Arabic saying I picked up while looking for an apartment in Amizmiz: الجَار قَبْل الدَّار or “jar kbl dar” (as pronounced in Darija, Moroccan Arabic). This Arabic proverb means “neighbor before house.” Our community shared it with us as my husband and I looked for an apartment to move into after spending three months with Mama Habiba and Ramzi. They reminded us that neighbors are much more important than the state of a home, so we should prioritize people over, say, a shower (most people in the town bathed in a public bath called a hammam).

And now, this proverb resonates even more. Neighbor before house, the house is gone. Neighbor before house, we are sleeping together outside. Neighbor before house, here is some food we managed to find. Neighbor before house, at least we have each other.

If you would like to help care for your Moroccan neighbors, here are a few options. My fellow Peace Corps volunteer Elizabeth lived with Mama Habiba after we did, and she has set up a GoFundMe for Amizmiz. The High Atlas Foundation has focused on community-led development in the region since 2000. There are many other incredible agencies on the ground that you can explore. In addition, continue to pray for Moroccans as they navigate their new reality. Say hello, touch your hand to your heart, and offer peace.

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