Five of us walk in the mountains outside Al Haouz, Morocco. Only one of us, Mohammed, knows the way. Mohammed is also the only one of us who is Moroccan. He wears dark pants, a blue and white checked shirt, baseball cap, and one of the most boyish, infectious smiles I’ve ever encountered.
Moroccan mountain trails do not seem to be marked in any way; in fact, I’m not sure you can even really call them trails. There is a huge expanse of dirt, small sturdy shrubs, and an occasional tree growing at a crazy angle. We come upon a deep crack in the earth as the ground starts a downward slope. Mohammed turns back to us with his eyes sparkling. “Do you know how to walk down this gorge?” he asks. He doesn’t’t wait for an answer but takes off running and jumping from side to side, like a mountain goat, his feet barely touching the side before they take off again. We look at each other, shrug, and follow, one by one.
Dominic goes first, which isn’t surprising. He is the type of guy who tends to be first in everything. He is tall, handsome, muscular, cocky, and Canadian. His shoulder length hair is pulled back in a ponytail and he moves with the ease and grace of a giant cat. He successfully traverses the gorge without any mishap. Aurelein, who is French, goes next. He is a quiet, thoughtful, meticulous man and manages the descent with only a few slips. I go next because I want to get it over with—and I figure one of the guys will be able to catch me if I start tumbling down the mountain. My foot slips once deep into the crevice but I am able to extract it myself and continue on.
Kit is the last to come down. He doesn’t really hop or run; instead, he carefully jumps from side to side, pausing each time long enough that I feel for sure he is going to lose his balance and fall. But he doesn’t. Kit, in his sixties, is the oldest. He is kind, soft spoken, and knowledgeable about a lot. His wife insists that he go off on his own for a few weeks every year because she knows he loves and needs it. He is as tall as Dominic, has salt and pepper hair and a beard.
We are on our way to a remote Berber village in the mountains for lunch. I am beyond excited with our lunch spot choice. Ever since arriving in Morocco four days ago, I have been continuously fascinated and just a little uncomfortable. Not uncomfortable in an overwhelming way, though, just uncomfortable in the way that maybe there is a small pebble in my shoe or sock that I can feel with each step but it isn’t bothersome enough to take off my shoe and extract it. The uncomfortable feeling is subsiding with time and I as meet more people.
“Look,” Mohammed says, pointing to the new sparkling electrical lines snaking up the mountainside, striking since they are the tallest things sprouting from the mountain. They are so shiny that they sparkle in the sun.
“Our King is bringing electricity to every part of Morocco,” Mohammed says proudly, “every village on every mountain. It’s quite extraordinary.”
All I can think is how rapidly everything was about to change for all of these villages. Television and Internet couldn’t be far behind the electricity, and once that happens whole new worlds were suddenly going to come crashing into the lives of the Berber.
“Our King is really good,” Mohammed, continues, “Everyone loves him. And he loves us. He is trying to make Morocco better.”
Everywhere you look, there are brand new wide roads being built. In Marrakech, outside the Medina, you can’t turn a corner without running into a construction crew working on a piece of crumbling sidewalk or boulevard. The new roads being built between the villages and cities have only one dividing line, right through the center. To each side of the centerline, a fascinating chaos ensues as jeeps, cars, donkeys, motorcycles, and bicycles all jockey for position. There are no ‘lanes’ and drivers seem intent on going as fast as possible, running right up to the back bumper of a vehicle before suddenly screeching around it. Miraculously, few accidents seem to happen.
We pick our way around the shrubs. "Were you born around here?” Kit asks Mohammed. Kit has picked up a walking stick along the way and falls in beside Mohammed and right in front of me. I am happy to listen to their conversation. Kit speaks with a soft, measured thoughtfulness that reminds me of my grandfather. Mohammed has an open, unguarded, matter of fact way of talking about Morocco and himself and his family that makes me feel as if I can ask him anything.
“Yes, near here,” answers Mohammed. “Over that way.” He gestures to his left toward another sweeping mountain range. “In Imi-n-Tenoute. It is a small village. We didn’t have electricity for a long time but now we do. I made sure my children went to school. My son is going to be a doctor and is leaving soon for Europe to study. I am very proud.”
“How old are your children?” Kit asks.
“My son is twenty. And my daughter is eighteen. She is getting married soon. We are very happy. I work very hard for my children. And they work hard. My son always wanted to go to Europe, that’s all he ever wanted, and now he gets to go and be a doctor. It is kind of a miracle.”
“What kind of doctor does he want to be?”
“A surgeon. He wants to be a trauma surgeon. He wants to save people, stop their pain, pull them back from the brink of death.” Mohammed answers with pride.
We could all use someone to pull us back from the brink of death, I think. I have come to Morocco to save myself from something resembling the brink of death, from a stagnant life in New York City where I feel trapped and suffocated. I love the city and even sometimes my life there but have been unable to shake the feeling that I am simply going through the motions of living.
“I am getting really hungry!” Dominic says.
“We’re close,” says Mohammed, “very close to the village." We now follow an actual path that is obviously leading somewhere. As we round a bend, we come upon a woman resting on a large boulder. At first I think she is part shrub. She greets us with a smile and some words.
“What did she say?” I ask. I know Dominic speaks some Arabic, and of course, Mohammed does but they both shrug.
“We don’t speak Berber, “ Dominic says, “It’s only a spoken language so its very hard to learn. I have no idea. Maybe Mohammed…”
But Mohammed is shaking his head. “I know a very little Berber but I’m not sure what she said.”
As we near the village, we pass more people and Mohammed greets them all. The village is made up of buildings and steps the color of clay. We walk along a trench that is muddy in the middle. Mohammed tells us that when it rains it fills with water that flows down the mountainside. There are mounds of plastic bottles and bags every few feet along the trench. Morocco (like many countries) is still working out a way to deal with their staggering amount of plastic waste.
We follow steps around and behind a group of buildings. Mohammed suddenly opens a non-descript door and enters. He motions for us to follow, and we go into a long narrow room with benches built into the sides. There is a big table in the middle set with glasses, plates, forks, and bread. We slide in behind the table, settling into the cushions that adorn the benches.
Mohammed talks with two women who had appeared at the doorway when we arrived. They are smiling and laughing. I am seated next to Kit and across from Dominic and Aurelein. The table could accommodate a much larger number of people but I like our intimate group. We all grab a piece of bread and wait for the rest of the food. One of the women arrives with a pitcher of water and pours us each some. Mohammed comes back with tea and serves each of us a cup.
“So,” He says as he pours, “An old friend of mine, Malak, is here, and she’s going to come talk with us while we eat. She is involved in the government in Morocco and is an advocate for women’s rights in the countryside. She is part of the movement that is implementing schools in all the villages and encouraging families to send their girls as well as their boys. You can ask her anything you want. She’ll be here soon.”
I am very interested to hear what Malak will have to say. Gender equality and women’s rights are issues in every country. Here, in Morocco, women want to go to school and be able to own property. I home in again, suddenly, on the fact that I am the only female in our group and that Malak will be addressing a roomful, albeit a relatively small one, of men…and me. I wonder if any of the women who are cooking will join us.
The two women who had been chatting with Mohammed bring in heaping pans of meat and vegetables and set them before us. I am struck by the amount of food and say as much to Mohammed. “Oh, don’t worry,” he says, “When we are done, they will feed the rest of the village with our leftovers.” He goes back to busily dishing out large helpings of meat and joking with Aurelein about the French.
“They will feed the rest of the village with our leftovers.” I turn it over and over in my head until it becomes a chant. There are a myriad of things about it that make me uncomfortable, that seem wrong somehow, but though I suspect had I been at ‘home’ they would be clear, here they are cloudy. Cloudy because, from what I had experienced so far in Morocco, I know that the sentiment of serving visitors, especially those deemed 'important,' first is partially born in the inherent generosity and hospitality of the people here. Guests tended to be treated well in Morocco, especially guests that were invited into your home or remote mountain village.
I can’t shake the feeling of being served first because I am part of some ‘elite’ class. And the villagers eating our leftovers reminds me of how the servants in royal or wealthy households eat the unfinished food of the people they work for. I wish we could all eat together; the whole village, men, women, and children.
A woman wearing pants, a purple and red tunic, and hijab enters the room as we are all reaching for seconds. Kit is asking Mohammed about his daughter and the man she is to marry.
“Is it for love?’ he asks, “Or did you arrange it?”
“No, no, love.” answers Mohammed, “My family marries for love. We find it to be much better.”
I watch a smile spread across the face of the woman in the doorway. “Hello,” she says, ‘I’m…”
“Malak!” Mohammed exclaims as he rises quickly from his seat, “Come, have a seat. Eat. Are you thirsty?”
Malak moves gracefully to the table and arranges herself on the bench next to Dominic and across from me. Her eyes are deep pools of blue the color of the Adriatic Sea. Her hair is completely hidden by the hijab but her eyebrows are dark as midnight and I imagine her hair to be the same color. She wears many rings and bracelets that create a soft shimmering sound every time her hands move. She starts talking about how there are more and more women in professional positions in Morocco and how important education is. Aurelein asks if the younger generations are becoming less religious and more rebellious toward the typical Moroccan traditions.
“Yes,” Malak says. “Sometimes I don’t even understand them, the youngsters. I will tell you something, sometimes I feel like a fossil. I can’t keep up with them. There are so many changes. I think the younger generations are becoming less religious but I hope that they are still taught to respect all peoples. I had a religious education and that was what I was taught: always to respect others. Sometimes you talk to people about religion and they are…how do you say? Fanatics, they only see one way. And I always say ‘Look, see, listen. Look. A bag has two handles. You can’t carry a bag with one handle.’”
“Are there more professional women now?” Dominic asks.
“Professional? Depends on what you mean by professional. My mother worked. Always outside the home. And my Grandmother, she was a chef. But, yes, more and more girls are getting educated. The government pays the families to send their girls to school, to encourage it. Sometimes, though, people are afraid to send their girls to school because they are so far away. They are afraid of sexual harassment for their girls. They want to keep them home and safe. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
We nod. Yes, we understand, we do. We are all silent for a few minutes, chewing our food and drinking our tea. Mohammed pours Malak a cup of tea. She takes a sip,
“You know, here, if you wear something that is a generous color, or a generous sleeve, or if you don’t wear the hijab, people say it is your fault, you are the instigator. You are never considered the victim. I didn’t used to wear the hijab but then I found that when I did wear it, I got more respect from the men. And so I do because it’s easier. More people listen to me.”
Her words are so matter of fact that she doesn’t seem upset at all that wearing a hijab would warrant more respect. I suppose it isn’t in any way surprising and not dissimilar from how dressing in a conservative suit causes people in a work environment to pay more attention to you. This all makes me a little sad and I stare a little too intently at my cup of tea. Malak and Kit are involved now in a conversation about the importance of family and the taking care of the elderly. Malak does not understand nursing homes at all. She says that people, especially older people, need the love of family. “If there is an old person who doesn’t have any family, then it is up to their neighbor to take care of them. In Morocco, community is very important. Do you understand what I’m saying? We are taught to help the needy. It is part of our religion, giving alms on a daily basis. Our society is like a big family. We Moroccans pride ourselves on our plurality. Morocco is a place where you can come and be yourself. The Arab countries, they would ask, ‘Who are you for? Are you with us?’ What? Morocco is for everybody. We are like a rainbow. Do you know what I mean?”
I love this description of Morocco. I love the way Malak’s eyes sparkle when she talks. I think I may be a little bit in love with her and her optimism, her hope, her belief in her country. I wish I still had hope and belief like that, if I ever did.
Dominic has started up a tangent about Islam and terrorism and asks Malak if there is terrorism here, in Morocco.
“What?” she says, “Terrorism has no national identity. Terrorism can be from anywhere. Anywhere. We cannot live in a cocoon.”
I think about her words. So many people do live in a cocoon that they are afraid to venture from. They close themselves up out of fear and misunderstanding. They stop listening to the dreams their souls are dreaming. They become numb. That is my biggest fear: to become numb and stay that way, to submit to a life of a nameless cog in a corporate wheel.
“The king. What about the king?” asks Kit, “Can you criticize him?”
“No. Not at all. Never.” Malak says.
“Is it true he has many wives?” Aurelein asks.
Malak laughs, “No, no. He has only one legal wife. Believe me when I say that but…and I will tell you something honestly…who knows how many mistresses he has. He is a very rich man and I will tell you something else. A mistress costs more than a legal wife.”
We all laugh. I realize what a privilege it is to be sitting here at this table in the mountains of Morocco talking about kings and family and community with this diverse group of people. Dominic tells some joke about women and money and everyone laughs again. The laughter is the best music I’ve heard in a long time. My eyes move from face to face and I feel a camaraderie I haven’t felt in ages. I notice that I am happy and engaged and full of all sorts of feelings and decidedly not numb.
Kit puts a fatherly hand on my shoulder and asks if I want some more of the bread. I do want some more. Despite our best efforts, there is still a great deal of food left. One of the women who served us earlier pokes her head in through the door to see if we need anything. We don’t. We have everything we need. I motion for her to come and sit beside me. She hesitates for a few seconds, then comes to the table, a small trail of children behind her. Everyone automatically scoots down on the benches to make room. Dominic passes the meat to his right.
“Yes, yes,” I say, “I would most definitely like some more bread.”
Vanessa Nirode is a solo traveler, cyclist, runner, writer, and pattern maker based in New York City. Like Anne Frank, she thinks that most people are good at heart. She believes that the cure for anything is salt water: tears, sweat, or the sea. She loves all the mountains.
Q: What inspired this essay?
A: The events described in the essay happened to me on my trip to Morocco last year.
Q: What writers or books do you consider influences?
A: Dr. Suess. And Murakami
Q: What’s the most important writing advice you’ve received? Is it reflected in this essay?
A: Write what you know.
Q: Where do you write?
A: I write pretty much anywhere…kitchen table, on the subway, in hotels, on the beach, wherever.