“Cuba can’t be an island all of the time, we have to have bridges. You have to let people come in with new ideas. You can’t be an enemy or a soldier all of the time. You can’t live with weapons. We don’t have to wait for others to tell us what to do, we need to do it ourselves.”
Jose Acosta, Cuba
“Change isn’t free. That is the big challenge in the Arab countries. Who is this person who will sacrifice his life, and who will he do it for? I don’t know when we will stand up and fight, but education is the answer.” Driss Ouatalba, Morocco
By Lynn Oldshue
Morocco and Cuba are places most Americans have never been, and the words connected to them often stir up fear: Communism. Dictator. Terrorist. Muslim. Misperceptions are easy when you don’t know the people, the ones who are trying to earn a living, raise families in peace and give their children a better life. Change is slow when the government has all the power and people have to find their own ways to survive on the edges, or below the surface.
My family went to Morocco for spring break because our kids wanted to go to a Muslim country, and two weeks later I went to Cuba with the Alabama Contemporary Art Center. I interviewed people from both countries about life, art, religion, family and survival. One answer came several times from both countries: “We don’t have hope for the future because the present is uncertain.”
Hope. The foundation of the American dream and that invisible, untouchable motivator that we often take for granted is hard to hold on to in Cuba and Morocco,
Cuba and Morocco survived colonial occupations and alliances with foreign countries and have endured decades of oppression. A Castro has been dictator of Cuba since 1959 and Mohammed VI took the Moroccan throne from his father in 1999. The leaders get the headlines and the attention, but get to know the people of each country and you have no choice but to care about their stories and dreams.
Morocco and Cuba provide a step into the past that is still the present. Beyond Morocco’s larger cities of Casablanca, Marrakesh and Fez, are kasbahs and oases, date trees and sand dunes. Villages are made with simple tools and red mountain clay. Women still wash clothes in rivers and haul large bundles of alfalfa on their backs to feed livestock in small corrals attached to houses. Crops are planted and harvested by hand and nomad shepherds live in caves where life revolves around goats, grass, seasons and weather.
Morocco is on the northern coast of Africa, less than 10 miles across the Mediterranean from Spain. It is the junction between East and West, Africa and Europe. The people are Berber (the original inhabitants of Morocco) and Arabian, and many people speak three languages: Berber, Arabic and French (Morocco was a protectorate of France and Spain from 1912 until 1956). Islam is a part of the daily life with calls to prayer five times a day and women choosing to wear a hijab.
It is mountains and the Sahara, rocky coastlines and green farmland. City streets are filled with cars, mopeds carrying up to three riders, and wooden carts filled with produce and pulled by donkeys. It is ancient markets with the vibrant colors of spices, yarn, robes, slippers and rugs. Lanterns, leather bags and meat hang in doorways. Women grab hands and paint henna tattoos sprinkled in glitter for good luck saying, “It is worth $40, but I will take $20.”
Snake charmers coax cobras to sway to the music of a clarinet and drum circles beat from sunset until late at night. Morocco is rich in color and Moorish architecture, but poor in industry and natural resources. Oil is imported and the economy is based on agriculture and tourism.
“Morocco is a double country with Berbers and Arabs and I can’t define what it means to be Moroccan,” says Driss Ouatallba, our guide. “Change isn’t free and that is the big challenge in the Arab countries. Who is this person who will sacrifice his life, and who will he do it for? If you aren’t educated, you don’t know how to make the changes.
“I have listened to John Lewis, the Civil Rights leader. Those kind of people make a difference and fight for a reason. I don’t know when we will stand up and fight, but education is the answer. You are lucky that in the U.S. that one person can make a difference. That is a beautiful idea. In reality that is not easy to happen here.”
As we drove to meet nomads isolated in the dry, rocky foothills of the Atlas Mountains, a young girl, Biya, runs up to our car from out of nowhere to talk. Watching the herd is a lonely life for children because there is no school, no place to meet other kids her age. Biya doesn’t even know how old she is.
“I herd sheep. I have one brother and I can run fast.”
Today Moroccans want more, and younger generations move from villages to cities for jobs and better opportunities. They sacrifice to go to the university, but career opportunities are fleeting. Outside of the cities, dining out and travel are luxuries most can’t afford. They find ways to be happy with the little they have and want their children to be peaceful and have a good future.
Aziz is from southern Morocco. He went to the university on a scholarship and had no money to come home and barely enough money to eat. There were few jobs when he came home and today he works at his family’s hotel.
“I had to study hard and it was like someone held a knife to my head. Thanks to God I finished my studies, but when you come back home, there are no jobs. We can’t eat in restaurants because we can’t afford it and food is much cheaper with vegetables and meat from sheep, cows and goats that we grow on our own. My wife can’t read or write, but she is like a doctor, she cooks well and keeps us healthy and feeling good.
“I want my children to have a good future and to have peace in their blood,” he said. “Life is to exchange and to make others happy and to feel what they are feeling. Your freedom stops where the freedom of the other person starts. Be happy each day because the day passes and you won’t see it again. We may have a different language or religion, but we are the same and we receive you with a big heart. We are here to help each other in life. In the U.S., you have all of the things. In Morocco, we don’t, but we still are happy. If you have one dollar, that one dollar can make you happy and still help others.”
Some families move to the cities to give their children a better life and education, and a chance to be a part of the world that has changed. TaTa grew up selling dates by the road. He has one boy and four girls and moved them to the city so they could learn languages and have a better education. There was no internet in the village.
“I am a self-made man and didn’t have these opportunities when I was a boy. My daughters like sports and they are very educated. I won’t push my kids to be what I was because the world has changed and my kids have to be a part of that world.”
Cubans also long to be a part of the world that left it behind. A student named Alberto stopped us on the street in Havana and asked how our countries can be so close but so far apart.
Only 90 miles from the U.S,. Cuba is a poor country that is rich in color, art and the ruins of once-elegant architecture built by Americans before the Cuban revolution in 1958-1959. The mansions, villas and hotels built in the early 1900s are cracked and crumbling, and there has been little renovation or new construction since Castro’s overthrow of the government. The Bel Airs, Impalas, Plymouths and Model-T Fords have been the main sources of transportation for more than 70 years.
Cubans are so human and they are not rushed. It is the young and the old living together. All colors and ages are integrated in society. They live life outside because there are so many people living in one space. It is also very hot. They are connected and like brothers and sisters. It is very different.
Cris Cris, a designer who moved to Havana from Berlin
Small changes have come to Cuba. They can buy and sell houses, get bank loans and legally work for themselves in some small businesses. But income continues to be a huge issue.
The average salary is about $20 a month in Cuba and many have to find ways to earn money on the side. Tourism helps and some Cubans have turned their homes into Airbnbs or restaurants. They sell bread in clear plastic bags, homemade ice cream from coolers strapped on the backs of bicycles and invite tourists to take a picture of grandma smoking a cigar. Pay a few more pesos to take pictures of their tiny houses in old Havana. Even professionals take extra jobs or turn to the black market to make money. Many family members live together in one house and a car is a dream that most can’t afford.
Maria says the economy is the hardest part of living in Cuba. She and her husband are psychologists and she makes $12 a month even though she went to five years of college and has 25 years of experience. Her husband makes $30 and they had to find other ways to make money. They have two children and live in one house with nine family members.
“Most people don’t know the real situation in Cuba,” she says. “The state has many hard rules and we don’t have the freedom to do the things we need to do to make money. The government doesn’t think people need freedom because it is not convenient for them. The embargo needs to be lifted and the government needs to open its mind to the professionals. Many doctors and lawyers leave Cuba.”
“The future is unsettling so we have to choose to live in the moment without thinking about the future. If we don’t have the present, how can we think about the future? We don’t know tomorrow if we will have food or water. Right now there is a drought and little water in Havana. Some places have gone 21 days without water. Can you imagine living without water? Food, transportation and water. Life is very hard. For supper I cook a piece of chicken and a pico de gallo. That is all. Transportation is expensive. Owning a car is only a dream and the dream costs very much. I have learned to be happy like this because the other option is stress and suffering. Some people have the option of getting out of the country, but this is the only life we have.”
The people of Cuba and Morocco are trying to define themselves after decades under the rule of dictators who controlled them with ignorance. Who are they now and what will they become? What do they want and what do they need? The answers are harder than the questions, but the solutions need to come from the people who care about their country.
“I don’t see the future because the present is uncertain,” says translator Jose Acosta.“This country has many advantages and we aren’t working right. There are problems with production and there are problems with people stealing things from their jobs because they aren’t making enough money. It’s a way of living.”
In spite of obstacles and problems, Jose says Cuba is changing.
“I have hope, maybe I am too old for this hope, but maybe in 10 years, it will change,” says Acosta. “Maybe I won’t be here, but my ghost will be happy about it. We don’t have to wait for others to tell us what to do, we need to do it ourselves. Every year that passes, it gets a bit better. There are things that are hard to change and sometimes you have to find a way around something, but we will get it.”