Communication is profoundly common and mundane. Nothing could be more ordinary. Yet connecting with others is sacred.
We give some of ourselves to them. They give something back. We create something new. Or maybe we reinforce something we already have. Or we grow in a new direction. Make some new meaning. Or plant a seed.
Communicating is never just one — or, necessarily all, of these things. Sometimes, for example, conversations are doomed to die and will never be more than routinized exchange. Imagine a car dealership salespitch. Or what it’s like to haggle over the price of something at a market. (This can actually be quite fun.) These are communication, but they’re only going to be how they’re going to be. It’s highly unlikely you’re going to become friends with the car dealer or have tea with the guy you were haggling with. But, you might actually. Tea is far more likely in many places than friends with your car dealer is likely to be…just about anywhere, I’d guess.
In 2011 on my first evening during a trip to Marrakech, Morocco, I headed to the Jemaa el-Fna, a wondrous cultural space of performers, storytellers, hawkers, and various travel con men by day which grows into a delectable food market at night. The night market grows alive and dissolves into the city each and every evening in a feat of production and coordination.
On this first night, I walked up and down the stalls, soaking it in but mostly calculating the best food to eat. I decided on Moroccan sausages with onions and bread. I drank raibi — a common yogurt drink. After eating, I meandered over to the performances, games, and displays to people watch. To flaneur. Men with monkeys and snakes, dancers, performance artists, scammers. I watched people play a game where you could fish for 2-liter bottles of soda. Pay a few dirham, hook a bottle, everyone wins.
As I stood there watching kids play, a man approached me and introduced himself. We talked about the game Where are you from? When did you arrive? How long are you staying?
Despite having my guard up a bit about possibly being scammed, it quickly seemed he didn’t want to sell me anything so the conversation continued. His English was excellent which was great because now I had someone to answer my questions: What do I need to eat? I ate these amazing sausages already. Where should I go see? Local perspective is always invaluable. It’s a way to learn much, very quickly.
After my questions about what to see and eat, he asked if I tried Moroccan Tea yet. I had not. He asked if I was interested in walking to a rooftop cafe terrace 50 meters for tea. You mean I can see all the square action and drink fresh tea with a local?
“Sure. Let’s go.”
So we did. We sat at the rooftop cafe for 45 minutes or so and drank our tea. Chatted. He was born in Marrakech, but had studied and worked in France. Biology, if memory serves and he had worked in healthcare in France for a while, but had returned to Morocco. At that time, he was having a difficult time finding work in his field due to a lack of healthcare jobs in his area in Morocco. We talked about mint tea and the sugar cubes. We talked about what it was like to living there, and living there compared to France.
He asked about me. American professors by way of The Netherlands don’t end up in Marrakech everyday, so I was a relatively interesting character to talk to. Why was I there? What did I teach? What was The Netherlands like (compared to France)? How are Dutch people weird? 75 minutes. “It was really nice to meet you.” Eventually, a handshake and back into the vapors of a memorable night.
Many questions come to mind. Is this a relationship? I like to think so. It was, at least for the brief time it existed. Now, the memory serves me well. It was nice communicating when it happened.
Looking back to that moment, I cannot shake the thought that there is something sacred there. Well, the possibility exists. This just happens to be one of those situations which may or may not be fairly normal. Mint tea with a stranger? Could go either way on the normalness scale. Night in Morocco? Fairly unique. Unless you’re Moroccan.
Sitting around talking and listening and exchanging symbols over tea with one another — that is, when we’re communicating — in all the ways we do, are our relationships. That’s them, being formed. They might not last long. Like uranium, relationships decay, sometimes quickly.
I don’t think a conversation has to be particularly notable for it to be sacred. Every interaction is sacred in some tiny way. Every conversation a chance to recognize and learn and appreciate from another. It’s sharing. It’s learning. It’s changing. It’s all of these things at once. Communication doesn’t always feel this way, but the best communication does. It’s when you can feel the hum, the flow, the groove, and grow the tendrils of connection with another.
There’s a flip side to this sacredness, of course. There’s no guarantee that you’re not being sold a tour of a model Berber home complete with actor family and 2 year old calendar on the wall. Plenty of communication is mundane, routine, and has had its soul directly sucked out. Customer-service calls are 7th level of hell. Chatbots aren’t likely to be much better. Sacredness isn’t about the outcome of communication per se, because the outcomes are often decidedly not sacred.
It’s in the moment. It’s the raw appreciation and respect for the person across from you. A recognition of their humanity. Of what they have to say and think. This is entirely communication. Conversing. Interacting — over some period of time — as much or as little as that might be.
Something about the free and easy conversation on that Marrakech night has stuck with me all these years later. I don’t recall his looks or his features. I didn’t take a photo. I only recall he was a good person to sit and share a small scrap of time and some mint tea with. If a long past night in Morocco can be thought of as this way, how can we recognize and respect the sanctity of the person across from us in the relationships that surround us every day? We can get numbed by communication’s everydayness. This blinds us. The everydayness numbs us. The capacity for recognizing the sacred in the everyday is in us.