I was born in Rabat, Morocco in 1965 into a big family. There were nine of us, my twin brother and I were somewhere in the middle. My father, may he rest in peace, used to own a shop just like this one, which he had owned for as long as I can remember. It’s a family business. It’s in our blood. I spent the first 20 years of my life in Morocco. I began my education in Rabat but it was never my strongsuit, so after I completed my first three years of elementary school my father put me to work in the shop. School and I were just not compatible so my father thought it would be more practical for me to help him. My friends and I spent our free time playing soccer – it was always the first thing we did. Then we’d go find a cafeteria and get something to eat. There was always something to keep us busy. My brothers and sisters studied though, and they own shops back in Morocco. My twin brother now lives here in Virginia, he works for a limousine service.
I remember while growing up, we were expected to only speak Arabic inside our home. It was kind of an unspoken tradition: we are Arabs and within the comfort of our own homes we speak our Arabic language. French as an academic subject was allowed to be studied and spoken in school of course. But communication amongst family members, especially elders, was strictly in Arabic. It would be unthinkable to communicate within our home in French, even amongst ourselves our generation always spoke Arabic – to friends, family, strangers. Now, my nieces and nephews are speaking mostly in French.
I first came to the U.S. for a trade show. It was my first time ever leaving Morocco. I had planned to come with a few friends but I was the only one who had obtained the visa to attend. They ended up in London and other European cities. They’re all grown up now and have families there. Even though they had bailed on me, I was determined to come, I wanted to see America. I flew to Ohio directly because I had a friend there at the time. I knew when I left that I wasn’t coming back any time soon. Of course, I’d miss my family, friends and my whole life there; but the opportunities here were far more plentiful and my family understood and supported that decision. From Ohio, I went straight to Washington, D.C. After that I travelled to New York, Chicago, but I ended back in D.C. to settle down.
My first job here was as a dish-washer in a Lebanese restaurant called Rabi’. I got a second job working night shifts at a club here on Columbia Rd. I also worked a lot in construction whenever I could. Finally, I saved up enough money to open up this shop. I have a family here now. I have five children and am proudly married to a Moroccan woman that cooks just like my mother. My eldest daughter, Farah, is 15. She understands and speaks Arabic perfectly Mashallah. I’m lucky because even through I’m so busy at the shop and don’t get to see them often, my wife holds the house down. I see them once a week: Sundays. Other days they’re asleep by the time I get home. Sometimes they come to the store to visit and play around; they never want to leave when they come over. The kids keep her busy these days and she’s happy with the life we’ve built. She has her own community here as well. The parent community in our kids’ school is very diverse. She’s made friends with Somalis, Egyptians, Sudanis, Iraqis. The community feels like an Arab home. My son Hamza’s two best friends are Egyptian and Somali. Of course I miss my kids, but this work is how I provide for them and sustain out life. I work long hours every day of the week but I’ve built a life for myself here.
Despite all of this, my head and my heart are back in Morocco. It would be a dream to go back of course. I remember every time would go back to Morocco, the first thing I do once I land is go see my mother and eat with her. Afterwards I’d go for a walk in the tight alleys of our village. I love walking down and chasing the smell of home cooked food from people’s windows, then go to the seaside or the market. But schooling here is much better for my kids. To give them a better quality of life and education we have to stay here. When they grow up they can decide for themselves. I try my best to keep them in touch with their heritage. I speak to them in Arabic even though they speak amongst themselves in English. They go visit their family in Morocco as well; in fact, they just got back from a trip to visit their grandparents there. I’m happy they have this community but I don’t believe in the concept of being more comfortable around Arabs. Friendship and community is just that, it doesn’t matter if he’s Arab of Christian or Muslim. This is my shop and it’s open to everyone. A kind soul is a kind soul regardless of his or her heritage.
Zakaria Owns Bazaar Atlas in Washington, D.C.