Thinking about serving, serving the Divine, serving others, serving family, serving a meal, being served and encountering a servant. While I was in Morocco this last April, (April of 2014), I met Omar. Omar is my Uncle’s servant. There is no easy way to say that. The word itself is primed and full of meaning. It connotes both positive and negative things for me. My first encounters with servants were in Morocco as a child. My grandparents’ home had three full-time servants; Hassan, Sadia and Fatimah. Sadia and Fatimah did the cooking and the cleaning and my grandfather was tended to by Hassan.
I vividly remember being surrounded by these large warm women, who smelled heavenly, unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before or after. The combination was something like sweat, cinnamon, heat, roses, musk and cumin, vanilla and linden flowers. If I could swim in this scent or be near these women again, I don’t think I would ever emerge. I can’t describe it properly, but their smell, their warm arms wrapping around me and carrying me around or chasing me around the kitchen is something I carry with me and which I long for. It is the smell of work, of service, of excellence, of laughter and care and anger and heat and heart and some mystery too. It is the opposite of contained or relaxed or mellow and so very not of this place here.
My whole trip back to Morocco has really been a trip back inside of myself and into myself. I find I am reluctant to land fully here in this country, because so much of who I am is actually embedded in where I have been and in these memories, but also in the work of service. It’s a very foreign concept in this country. We don’t have servants, or at least most folks don’t, and unless you are active in a religious community or other non-profit organization “serving” is not always viewed as positive. The idea of being an actual servant to someone is frowned upon and rightly so, for many, many reasons in most work situations. I am not trying to justify servitude to a flawed system, servitude to a wealthy unjust boss or factory here. This kind of service though is not the only kind of service. I see no use in hiding from what is true for me and what I know from my life and my experiences that are the positive side of service.
My own service to others is a primal choice on my part in many ways. It is something that gives me tremendous energy and is a kind of tuning or truing. There is a tuning fork in my soul and when I am following the call of the Holy One, the sound inside of me is so pure and so whole and so right that I can’t imagine it being otherwise. That feeling doesn’t always manifest, often if I am asked to be of service or find myself pulled into it, I am not happily singing inside. I can be resentful, tired, frustrated, worried and so many other things, all of which are human and okay for me to be. The difference between those feelings and the feeling of being in tune is an order of magnitude difference.
The proper alignment puts me in a groove and there is the touch of the infinite there. I could lift a car off a person, or have a conversation with a star as it is being born somewhere light years away or back here on earth I might find myself helping someone to cross over the river Jordan singing them to their next destination. It’s just not a common experience or a mundane one. I feel blessed and lucky and grateful whenever I find myself there, amazed and renewed, awed and lost and full of tears. It’s the feeling of being a true servant, of serving the Creator and of wanting to do it again and again and to do it well and joyfully and of being so glad I was asked to do it. There is trembling and awe and a deep shaking and rushing to find the core of the task and to rush to do it well. In the Jewish tradition there is a teaching that one should RUSH to do a Mitzvah, not hesitate or stand back, but rush and hurry to do what is being asked. We don’t do this for people we don’t love or beings we don’t revere. If you are in service to a tyrant, you might rush out of fear, but you would never rush out of joy to serve.
I’m not serving a tyrant, so my movements are ones of speed and force towards the hope of helping or healing or finding the right words or actions or moment to grow some love in the world. I am so not alone in this. And, I am so very far away from serving humbly and with grace. Which, brings me back to Omar.
When we arrived in Oukaimeden, where my Uncle lives, about 9,000 feet high in the Atlas mountains, there was snow on the ground. It is a ski-resort during the winter months and my 86 year old uncle BB still has a ski rental shop there along with his home. This is where Ethan and I came to spend our one night with him. Omar lives downstairs in the small cabin and my uncle lives upstairs. Omar has a wife and two married children in a village about twelve and a half miles away. He rides a large motorcycle and could be anywhere between forty and sixty. I couldn’t tell. He made the fire in the cabin when we first arrived. In Marrakesh we were burning up with heat and the temperature was in the 90s. In Oukaimeden we needed a fire. Omar prepared dinner, he served us dinner and then sat in the kitchen while we ate it, he cleared our plates and did all the cleaning up. He smiled at me, he smiled at Ethan. He speaks no French. I speak only a little Arabic. I said Shukran about fifty times. Shukran is “Thank You.” Omar just smiled.
After dinner we prepared for bed. My uncle gave Ethan and I his bed and he slept on the sofa near the fire, something he insisted he did regularly so he would be warm. Omar prepared the sofa and went downstairs. Ethan and I said goodnight to my uncle and climbed into the large and lumpy and cold bed that was graciously given to us. We read a little bit from The Crucible by Arthur Miller and then we tried to go to sleep. There are no street lights in Oukaimeden, most of the homes don’t have electricity.
It was VERY dark and very cold and just a little spooky. Ethan got up to use the bathroom which was a tiny room full of dusty, grimy, half-used bottles and looked like most bathrooms I’ve seen that belong to older folks or those who are otherwise-abled and who can’t see or get to the dirt. Ethan came running back into the bedroom and he was hyperventilating. He said that while he was peeing a giant spider the size of half his hand started to drop down from the ceiling towards him in his exposed state. He ran back into the bedroom.
Needless to say, I wasn’t too excited when it was time for me to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. There was one tiny light and everything looked creepy. I didn’t want to wake up my uncle so I was trying to be quiet but also doing the Nicole is tapping on the floorboards in a funny way dance. This was my “Spider if you are here, please do not come out, there’s a large person here and it’s better if you stay away” dance shuffle. I’m sure all spiders understand that this particular combination of footwork, shuffling, tapping, scooting, and slight jumping that I was doing is universal code for “do not disturb or emerge.” I tried to use the toilet, but was so terrified of the spider and unsure if my message had been properly translated or received. I made it through the event and quickly rushed back to the bedroom. I didn’t get much sleep, but at least I didn’t need to go into the bathroom until morning again and clearly, along with French and Spanish, I can now add Spider Language to my repertoire.
We had a lovely morning walking the area and then got ready to head back to Marrakesh, which was a three hour drive on twisty roads in the old blue 1976 Chevrolet with no air-conditioning being driven by my 86-year-old uncle who told me he needed a new glasses prescription, ummmm, that’s a whole other story. I wanted to buy some ceramics, small things, to bring home and my uncle said Omar would help us negotiate better prices and would accompany us part way down the mountains on our way back to Marrakesh. I was very happy to have the help. We had to drop something off at the only hotel in Oukaimeden and so I was sitting in the car with Ethan waiting. Several men came up to the car with their arms covered in necklaces and jewelery of every kind. I didn’t want to buy anything, so I tried to ignore them, but to no avail. All of a sudden Omar was there, he took off all the jewelry on one man’s arm and he picked through it and handed me ten necklaces. I tried to shake my head no, but Omar would have none of it.
No money was exchanged and I couldn’t communicate with any of these men. My uncle came back and I explained what had happened. He told me that this man owed Omar for something and now that debt was partially forgiven. I said, but I didn’t pay Omar and what is Omar getting from this? I asked my uncle if I could give Omar some money, but he said absolutely not and it would insult Omar. I arranged to give my uncle some money and asked him to do something extra for Omar or his family and then we went down the mountain looking for ceramics.
Omar stopped us at a roadside hill that had thousands of ceramic tagines and bowls and tiles in piles making up columns and columns and rows and rows of red clay, unpainted bowls stacked on top of each other which were entirely covering the hill leading into the factory. There was a tiny path with small steps through these columns into a large dark building. To my right, once my eyes adjusted, I saw a man who was kneading a large bunch of red brown clay with his feet; stepping in and out of the clay in a large square tub. As my eyes got more comfortable, I saw thousands of bowls and dishes leaning every which way in stacks of tens and twenties and more. It was a jumble of sizes, shapes and colors. I walked through trying to find something small I could safely pack in my bag and bring home. I found some beautiful white and blue bowls with a thin strip of silver lining on the bottoms and around the lip of each bowl. I asked the merchant the price and he said they were the most expensive ones and quoted me a price I didn’t want to pay. At that point I noticed some others that I also liked and they were smaller and didn’t have the silver. He told me those were made in this factory here, unlike the others I had previously selected. He quoted me a price and Omar nodded and I paid him.
On our way back to the car, Omar handed me the two other bowls, the expensive ones. He had bought them for me without my noticing. I couldn’t understand. I asked my uncle why and he told me Omar said I was family and he wanted me to have them and to have joy and that it made him happy to think of me with them. This man, who I only just met, was rushing to do something for me. He owns no home, he has worked for over twenty years or perhaps thirty for my Uncle, and he couldn’t stop trying to serve me, to offer to me. I didn’t and don’t know how to properly thank him. His gift was coming straight from his heart. He had the largest grin on his face, so happy with himself. This generosity and desire to please was radiating off of him. I told my uncle to thank him and tell him that I was so happy with the gift and that I would treasure these bowls and think of Omar always when I used them in my home in California.
I gave my uncle some more dirhams and asked him to pass them on however and whenever he could as he saw fit for Omar or his family. Even if I hadn’t had a penny to give, Omar would have been and done exactly as he did. He wanted to make me happy, he wanted me to smile, he wanted me to be served and he wanted to do the serving. He served me. He is serving me still, because I can’t get him out of my mind or heart. His simple kindness, his generosity, his humility, his smile, his strength. All these qualities and more dance around in me and beg me to pay attention.
Serving with joy, serving with kindness and with no thought of reward, serving out of a sense that the person before us is family or Holy or just deserving, this is the service I want to embody. How am I family to Omar? I am family to him because we are all family. My Omar bowls have a special place in my home and every time I see them or use them, Omar is with me. The jewels he gave me also connect me to the Moroccan soil, they come from the red earth and the mountain caves of the African continent, the birthplace of humanity. When I wear them, I feel myself connecting back to the Atlas mountains and to an ancient reality, to a warmth and strength and beauty and even to the large, prehistorically large spiders that come down in the night.
Nicole serves herself by writing to you from her home in Bayside, where she has a lot more to say about serving. Originally this piece was published here and elsewhere in March of 2014