(CNN) When I submitted DNA samples to genetic testing services last year in search of my birth family, I had no idea that I would be embarking on an adventure across three continents.
In 1961, I was adopted at birth in California. Over the years, I’ve searched for my birth family from time to time, but have always been blocked by sealed records and tight-lipped officials. However, in the last decade, at-home DNA testing and easy online access to official records have been a game changer.
I spat into plastic tubes (one for each of the two big players in this industry in the US: 23andMe and Ancestry.com), dropped them in the mail, and eagerly awaited the results. When the email arrived, I was stunned.
After a lifetime of believing that I was a basic white American, I learned that it was only half true. My biological mother was born in Iowa. But it turned out that my father was North African.
I contacted anonymous DNA matches through the 23andMe and Ancestry messaging systems, but no one responded. Then came weeks of research using Ancestry.com and various public record databases until I was able to identify my parents and find contact information for some of their close relatives.
I found out that my biological father had been born in the mid-1930s in Casablanca. Romantic visions of Bogart and Bergman (fictionally) escaping from the Nazis swam through my head.
Records showed that he had immigrated to the US in 1959, ending up in San Francisco. My mother had grown up in San Diego and also moved to San Francisco right after high school. But why had she left Morocco? What brought her to San Francisco? I had to know more.
The author, center, with new family connections at a July 2022 party held in Paris in his honor.
Courtesy Tim Curran
After days of imagining the best and the worst, I wrote scripts about what to tell genetically close family members who probably had no idea I even existed. So I approached apprehensively.
Much to my relief, my mother’s and father’s families welcomed me with open arms, despite their surprise to discover I existed.
I learned quickly that my birth parents had died and was deeply disappointed that I had lost the chance to meet them forever. Would things have been different if he had searched harder earlier?
But she was delighted that all her siblings were still alive.
Of my new family, I pieced together a rough outline of my parents’ stories: On opposite sides of the world, both had faced difficult parents and left home at the first opportunity. They both ended up in one of the most free-thinking places on Earth: San Francisco.
He worked as a floorer in the city’s North Beach neighborhood, where she was a waitress and dancer. I imagined them meeting while he was installing floors in a nightclub where she worked.
By all accounts, it must have been a very brief affair. My father lived with a girlfriend, and my mother’s sister says that she never heard my mother talk about my father in any way. Apart from her sister and her mother, no one else in her family was told that she was pregnant. My father’s family says that she is 100% sure they didn’t tell her either.
There were other big surprises: I was told that my mother never had another child, not even a serious boyfriend, for the rest of her life. On my father’s side, I was surprised to learn that he had a half brother and sister and dozens of cousins in France and Morocco.
They invited me to visit. I booked a trip to meet my father’s huge and welcoming family.
The author’s extended family owns a property on a rocky promontory in Dar Bouazza, a coastal community west of Casablanca.
‘I was warmly hugged’
In Paris, a cousin threw me an exuberant party at her sunny suburban home, where I was warmly embraced by the entire French branch of the family. They gave me insider tips tailored to my interests on where to go and what to see off the beaten path.
Following his recommendation, I spent an afternoon in a huge, beautiful urban park in eastern Paris called the Buttes-Chaumont. I dined in the French equivalent of a working-class restaurant (a broth, named after the broth) named Julien. It was my third time in Paris, but now I saw it with new eyes, imagining myself as some kind of honorary son of the city.
Morocco was a completely different world. I had never traveled to a Muslim country, or anywhere outside of Europe or America. The experience was a strange and magical combination of foreign adventures and comfortable travel, supported by a caring family.
I spent the first six days in the seaside resort of Dar Bouazza, about 45 minutes from Casablanca, where my large Moroccan family owns a set of neighboring summer houses just a few meters from the beach. The houses are built on property my grandfather bought nearly a century ago (back when land was thought to be worthless) as a place to escape the Casablanca summer heat.
A photo of Fez at sunset, taken from the roof of a riad in the Moroccan city.
French is the main language of the family, and my aunts and uncles do not speak English. Usually some younger cousin was on hand to translate, but group conversations at the table or on the back terrace were always in French, making it impossible for me to participate. I decided to learn conversational French on my next visit.
Despite the language difference, I got to know them all – the stern uncle, the maternal aunts, the prankster cousin – and recognized many of their personality traits and quirks, how boisterous, curious and cunning they are, in myself.
I spent almost a week devouring delicious, authentic Moroccan foods like the lamb tajine (steam-roasted with vegetables in a ceramic dish of the same name) and tablet (spiced shredded chicken or game bird wrapped in filo pastry) cooked and served on terraces by the sea by the small domestic staff common in middle-class Moroccan homes.
Exploring a new homeland
However, I wanted to see more of my father’s homeland, so I set off on a tour of Fes and Marrakech organized by a cousin and her husband, who happen to own a luxury tour company.
Those two cities were beautiful and impressive, strange yet strangely familiar. I experienced them in a unique and very personal way through my DNA journey: as a son just a generation away from his father’s homeland.
The professional guides created personalized tours based on my interests and my newfound family culture and history, right down to a bonus trip to my family’s ancestral mausoleum in Fez.
I saw the things my father might have seen wandering the colorful medinas (markets) of the cities where the guides introduced me to the merchants by my new last name. I saw magnificent mosques and unexpected sidelights, like the largest Jewish temple in Marrakech, the Lazama Synagogue. I watched the artisans at work, making ceramics, leather goods, and fabrics just as they have been done for centuries.
The Roman ruins at Volubilis are remarkably untouched due to their isolation and the fact that they were unoccupied for nearly a thousand years.
The highlight of the tour was a bonus trip to the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis, between Fez and the Moroccan capital of Rabat. The city was abandoned by Rome around the 3rd century and was not excavated until the early 20th century. Seeing well-preserved walls, foundations, and floor mosaics on site, something you simply cannot see in the Americas, was an excellent experience for a history buff like me.
The tour ended with a hike into the High Atlas Mountains to spend an afternoon with a local family who gave me a Berber-style cooking lesson and taught me how to stew lamb and vegetables in a traditional Moroccan tajine.
The patriarch even lent me one to djellabaa traditional Moroccan outer robe, to wear for a photo, which felt both strange and strangely comforting – a perfect summary of the whole trip.
The author and his host taste the results of their Berber cooking lesson.
Courtesy Tim Curran
DNA traveler, beware
Taking a home DNA test can launch you on your own great adventure, intentionally or not.
Former CNN correspondent Samuel Burke created an entire podcast series in association with CNN Philippines, “Suddenly Family,” around the surprises, pleasant and otherwise, that can come from DNA testing.
“DNA testing can open this Pandora’s box that nobody talks about in the DNA industry,” he said.
Burke said some people just want to know about genetic health conditions they may have. Many more are just looking to learn more about their ethnicity, “how Irish, how Jewish, how Native American they are.” But he said few realize that testing services will connect them with other people, sometimes in unexpected ways.
In Fez, Curran visited various workshops where cloth, leather goods and pottery are made by hand using ancient techniques and tools.
Whether you know nothing about your family’s background or think you know everything, there are bound to be surprises. Among them, Burke lists discovering that a parent was unfaithful or that you are the product of artificial insemination. Or you might discover that you are not biologically related to one of your parents.
Burke said being prepared is key to avoiding some of the pitfalls.
“I hope you discover something unexpected.” And he says that if you suspect something is wrong, you can choose not to share your results. Burke added that the best advice he’s heard when reporting on DNA is to “slow down.” Don’t “hope to solve the mysteries” and share your results as quickly as possible.
Whether or not your DNA test has unexpected results, it can inspire some fascinating trips across the country or, as in my case, around the world.
What I learned on my adventure, however, is that the best part, even more than the places you visit, are the people you bond with, your new family that is just like you, but also very different.
Top Image: Tim Curran visited the Hassan II Mosque on a day trip to Casablanca (Photo courtesy of Tim Curran)