Laylat al-Qadr and Couch Surfers

Moroccan children dressing up for Laylat al-Qadr, which is considered the holiest night of Ramadan.

During the last week of Ramadan, we had our first couch surfing experience. For those unfamiliar with the service, couch surfing is a website where you make a profile that shows your hobbies, passions, the city you live in and whether you are able to host, your goals, favorite music, travel destination “wish list”, etc. The couch surfing objective is to re-define what it means to travel. Rather than staying at a hotel/hostel, the website creates a network where as a traveler you can experience your destination through the eyes of a local. As a host, you get to connect with individuals from all over the globe who see traveling beyond the confines of “tourism” and the important role that cultural exchange plays in this experience.

Since creating a profile out of curiosity this winter I have received several requests from various travelers from around the world looking for a place to stay in Rabat and intrigued by the idea of meeting American ex-pats living in the city. Unfortunately, due to poor timing and other varied reasons, I had to turn down the majority of requests and this was our first time being able to actually host!

The lucky guinea pigs were a couple named Marko and Sonja hailing from Croatia and Serbia. They were traveling with a larger group of friends, but since they had both had positive experiences couch surfing before, they opted to “surf”, while their friends stayed at a hostel nearby in the old medina. They arrived on a Sunday evening right around the call to prayer marking the breaking of the fast. I gave them walking instructions to our apartment from the train station, since they said they would prefer taking a walk rather than a taxi. I was nervous that they might be underestimating how difficult it would be for them to find our apartment, and therefore was expecting their arrival to be delayed. However, sure enough, around 7:45 the doorbell rang and there they were! They looked excited but also visibly worn out from a long day in the sun and traveling. I expressed my surprise that they arrived on time and asked them whether they had any trouble finding the apartment. They admitted that they were able to find the general vicinity without too much trouble, but when they started to get close they started asking for directions. Apparently, when Marko and Sonja asked locals in our neighborhood to direct them to the address, most had no idea where the building was located. Their luck quickly changed once they explained who they were looking for: the Americans. Once they said that, everyone seemed to know which direction to point them in. Marko and Sonja both added how pleasantly surprised they were at how friendly and helpful everyone was towards them. I was glad that they had positive first impressions, but I didn’t know whether to be nervous or comforted by the fact that everyone in our neighborhood knows where we live, or the fact that they had no problem showing two random strangers the way to our apartment, but my feeling is that it is a good sign that our neighbors know who we are and where we live. It means that they’re looking out for us. I’d like to think that it means that we are considered to be a part of the community.

During their first night in Rabat, we got to learn a little bit about who these “surfers” were and what their home countries were like. Before this year, my radar wasn’t tuned into Eastern Europe. However, after visiting Prague, my curiosity to explore what lies further to the East has been peaked. I was enchanted hearing about their other potential travel plans: train ride to Istanbul, 20-day rail ride to Mongolia…but alas, this time they chose Morocco!

Muslims praying outside the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca on Laylat al-Qadr. The mosques are so full during Ramadan and especially on this night that people spill out into the courtyard, parking lots, and surrounding streets to pray.

Their arrival was perfectly timed with Laylat al-Qadr, the 27th night of Ramadan, which is often translated as “The Night of Virtue”. On this night, Muslims are invited to contemplate, pray, and repent. Laylat al-Qadr is said to be the most holy night of Ramadan where the sky is open and Muslims can feel closer to God. In addition, prayers count exponentially on this night when believers who want to erase their sins spend the night at mosque praying and repenting. For children, Laylat al-Qadr is a night to get dressed up in traditional wedding garments and take elaborate photos on ornate sets outside of photography stores and in tents in the middle of the roads. Just like their devout parents, children stay up the whole night in these beautiful outfits playing, taking pictures, and eating sweets. After taking our couch surfers out to our favorite nearby Syrian restaurant for dinner, we walked back to our apartment by way of the Bab El Had square by the old medina, where all the fountains were lit up, and the plaza was filled with families, children playing with light-up plastic toys, and snack vendors.