When your landlord wants to tile your house

Oftentimes in Morocco a situation will happen to me and I have to take a few steps back…

Am I looking at this situation as an American? As someone who has lived in Morocco for over two and a half years? Is there a cultural component that I need to consider before I react, or are some things just universal?

It’s a tough call.

How much can I trust my first reaction when I’m still learning the nuance of the culture and traditions of a country that is not my own?

Today I’m going to tell you a story.

It’s a true story, and a recent one at that. With each rendition of its telling, the story has elicited a different reaction.

I want to know — what would your reaction have been?

Here’s the story:

It was the beginning of June. My last couscous Friday in Morocco before the start of Ramadan (and thus the start of fasting during daylight hours) and my month-long trip to America.

I spent the day with my family in the village, stuffing my face with couscous, running through the oasis with some of the kids, and getting henna done on my hands with my sisters.

At nine o’clock, as the sun finally went down, I reluctantly told my family that I needed to return to my house in order to prepare for my bus ride out of our town the next morning. I rode my bike slowly in the direction of my house, henna still sticky and caked onto my fingers, my hands perched on the handlebars like claws in order to not smudge the artwork on my palms.

As I approached my house, my Moroccan baba pulled up on his motorcycle beside me.

“I just spoke to your landlord. He says he wants to do zilleej (tiling) in your house while you’re gone. Is that okay?”

I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Why not?” I was excited at the prospect of beautiful tiles adorning the floors of my home, which at this point were plain cement and had been painted a dusty red that always looks dirty no matter how much I mopped.

“Okay,” my baba said, “so that means you need to move all of the furniture in your house into one room. Tonight. Before you leave.”

My enthusiasm waning slightly, I said bye to my father and walked into my house to scratch the henna off of my hands. I couldn’t let it sit any longer if I need to move the furniture.

An hour or so later, with all of my belongings piled neatly in my bedroom, I ate a light dinner and imagined what type of tiles my landlord might choose to use.

what zilleej dreams are made of

I didn’t think about the situation again until a few weeks later, when I was preparing to return to Morocco.

I texted one of my best friends, who is my baba’s son: “Hey can you ask your dad if/when my landlord is going to do the zilleej in my house?”

I knew it was Ramadan. And I know Morocco. I didn’t think that they would have begun the zilleej yet, but I was just looking for a timeline.

“Mom said they didn’t start it yet, sorry :(”, he responded. Later adding, “I just asked my dad and he said they will start sometime next week.”

Alright, I thought, that’s fine. Maybe I would just travel a bit in Morocco before returning back to my town, since I wouldn’t be able to live at my house while they were tiling.

I relayed these thoughts to my friend. “Ya dad said you will live in our house,” he said.

I laughed and thought about my Moroccan family, who still don’t really understand why I have a house of my own and don’t just live with them permanently. I joked that they were doing this on purpose so that I would be obligated to live with them.

The next week I caught three different flights and traveled more than fifteen hours in Morocco to arrive back in my community. I called my baba to pick me up from the bus station in town. He told me the tiling was still unfinished and so I’d be living with them.

I was looking forward to seeing my Moroccan siblings and eating some Moroccan food, both of which I missed a lot while I was traveling in America, so the thought of living with my family for three or four days was actually exciting.

The next day I asked for the key to my house so I could drop off my luggage and pack up some things for the time I’d be staying at my family’s house. When I entered my house I noticed that the tiling had not even begun. There weren’t even loose tiles in a corner somewhere, waiting to be placed. What was even stranger, was that there was a rug in the middle of my entry room, complete with a few other rugs, some shoes, and a tea set. “Maybe they just brought these things in preparation for the job,” I thought, not really thinking much else about it.

everything i own piled into one room

A few days later, I asked for the key to my house again. My sisters and I were planning to swim at the pool in town, and I needed to pick up some clothes to swim in and some sunscreen.

“You don’t need the key,” my baba said. “They’re there, they’re always there.” I cocked my head slightly, pondering what exactly he meant when he said they were “always there,” but didn’t ask questions.

My sisters and I pedaled up to my house and parked our bikes out front. It felt weird to knock on my own front door, but we did anyway. As the door opened, I could not have predicted what happened next.

My landlord and his family had moved into my house.

Carpets adorned each room of the house. They had brought their own dishware and were making tea. My landlord and his wife were sitting in one room atop pillows while their daughter and one of my neighbors played in the living room.

“Abir! Kuli dllaH, chrbi atay! Marhababik 3nda bzzaf!” Abbey! Eat some watermelon, drink some tea! You are so welcome here with us!

I could feel my jaw visibly drop. Was I really being offered tea in my own home?

I politely greeted everyone and my landlord’s wife informed me, “We’re using your fridge, I hope that’s okay,” as I kissed her on each cheek. I turned down offers of tea, and walked into my bedroom to retrieve my belongings. My little sister followed me and whispered, “Abbey, why are these people living in your house?”

We left for the pool, excited at the prospect of swimming albeit very confused about the scene that had just transpired.

Another week passed and I was still living at my family’s house and the zilleej had not yet been started.

Frustration mounting, I decided I needed to get out of this hot, dusty little town and travel to cooler destinations in Morocco. My baba assured me that by the time I came home again I could actually, you know, go home.

I bopped around Morocco with one of my friends, traveling from coastal beach towns to waterfalls to the capital to attend to some Peace Corps business. And my baba was right, when I returned back I was finally able to return to my home.

But there was no zilleej in sight.

still no zilleej


Now, a little more backstory before you make your decisions. My landlord and his family live in Laayoune, a city far south of me in the Western Sahara, and usually travel to my town in the summer. I assume that this house is usually vacant in the summer, so they’ve been able to use the house at their leisure during their travels. My landlord also told me I only had to pay half-rent in July since… you know… they were living there instead.

But how would you have reacted?

Would you have pushed back? Was commandeering my house under the guise of doing zilleej just an example of Moroccans being indirect (as they often are)? Or was that just straight up lying?

I’m intrigued to hear what you would have done in my place.

But honestly, I’m just happy to have my house back.

8 thoughts on “When your landlord wants to tile your house

    1. Hi Nonnie… it’s all over! I’m back in my house! It was frustrating but I didn’t want to get confrontational about it and then cause drama that would ripple through my village. In the end, no harm done! :)

  1. Ok so I gave this some thought . . . admittedly this would be an extraordinarily unusual event in the States . . . but I have no earthly idea if that is also true in Morocco or at least the part of Morocco where you’re hanging out . . . so I have to fall back on your friends and your Moroccan family . . . if this were a common event, then I’d like to think they’d have let you in on th joke and you’d have played right along . . . but that didn’t happen . . . so either they didn’t trust you well enough to let you in on this local custom or they aren’t aware of it . . . I’d like to believe it’s the latter (and I really do) . . . when all is said and done, it sounds like you handled it really well . . . I’m not so sure I would have been so gracious . . . you can be darn sure I wouldn’t have paid the half month’s rent ☺

    Love ‘ya,


    1. Hey Dad… I think in the end it’s an example of how indirect Moroccans can be. Even though people did know what was going on, it was like a face-saving exercise to say that they were going to tile the house. I think they couldn’t say that they wanted the house outright because Moroccan culture is so welcoming and they didn’t want me to feel unwelcome at their house that I am renting. I don’t think it was a case of deliberately trying to take advantage of me… but I am going to deduct some funds the next time I pay rent for the utilities that they used ;)

  2. I’m not familiar with Moroccan culture, but I have lived in two culture that are also indirect and had a kind of similar experience. My landlady in Thailand told me that I could only live in the house for two months, after signing a two year agreement, because her daughter who lived in Norway with her husband was coming back to get married. I moved out and the daughter never showed up. My landlady just didn’t want me living there.

    I’ve come to view these kinds of things for what they are. Yes, they are massively frustrating, especially when you can’t go home in your case or have to repack, find another place to live and move in my case, but ultimately is anyone hurt? Will it hurt things more to hold a grudge and be angry about it or have a confrontation about it?

    I know I was a guest in Thailand, and more specifically in that woman’s house and while my social customs say it’s better for her to tell me no up front, her social customs say that she needs to be hospitable. I suspect it’s similar in Morocco, that if they said they normally use the house at that time in the first place, it would have been considered unwelcoming, and telling a cover story was just more culturally acceptable. It’s definitely hard to navigate when those two norms collide in an unexpected and frustrating way.

    1. YES Christine you are so right. Sorry you had to move when I’m sure you *finally* felt like you were settled down in Thailand, but I’m glad to hear that you didn’t hold a grudge about your situation either. I think a lot more harm could have been done in both of our situations if we did make a fuss and point to the agreements we made and call them liars because that could have rippled around our communities and backfired in terms of our own reputations (rather than just accepting it and moving on, as we did). In the end, no harm done and we both have some pretty wild stories to add to the arsenal of stories we’ve accumulated throughout our years in PC.

  3. I laughed so hard when I read this. I have worked with Arab cultures, and with Moroccans for quite some time. While reading I kept saying to myself “mmmmhmmmm” because it is so them. haha. The way I looked at it was your family knew what was up, and did not want you to be negatively effected so they tried to protect you from it until the “visiting time” was over. So I think your family had your best interest at heart. As for the family that came in they wanted a vacation. :D

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