Moroccan Berbers were the first known inhabitants of Morocco and their numbers are still fairly significant today, with those claiming Berber identity making up 40 percent of the current population, and with perhaps many more having Berber ancestry. Today they make up the majority of the poorest classes in the country and having spent time in a region that proudly holds on to its Berber traditions and values, the difference between those born and bred there and those living in so called Arabized regions, is often quite pronounced. Many of the Berber people I spoke to held negative views of their Arabized counterparts and believed them to be less amicable and sincere than them. Certainly in my experience, I found the Berbers to be exceptionally friendly and welcoming, but often overwhelmingly so, unaccustomed as I was to such warmth from people I barely knew, and with whom I could hardly communicate with.
Moroccans in general are renowned for their hospitality and their love of entertaining not only their friends and family, but complete and utter strangers too. The sight of me striding through the village in my western clothing and with my dog trotting along beside me wearing her bright blue harness, evoked much interest and apparent amusement in the community and doubtless it was their curiosity that got the better of them when I found myself invited into their homes. I shared mint tea and biscuits with countless different hosts who until that moment, had often never seen me before, and their welcomes were warm and their gestures gracious. Even so, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was being put on display when I was shown into the special room reserved for visitors while various members of their family popped in to exchange pleasantries with me. Although tourists visit Morocco in the droves each year, they rarely visit villages like this one and when I first arrived, and in fact still to this very day after living here for three years, I am subjected to many double takes from passers by and penetrating stares from other local people, who sometimes behave as if I am a visitor from another planet.
I didn’t enjoy sitting in peoples homes and smiling somewhat inanely while they chattered away at me, apparently oblivious to the fact that I couldn’t understand them, but I did come to accept that it would always be like that.
On one occasion I was invited to join in the celebrations at a neighbors house, where a woman called Khalifa had given birth just days ago to a baby girl; I suppose it was the equivalent of a western baby shower, or what us Brits might call ‘wetting the baby’s head’.
Within seconds of my arrival I was whisked away to a room with the new mum and where a number of young girls and various other small children of differing ages, were chatting or playing together. It wasn’t long before the older female guests began trooping in, each one taking a good look around the room before beginning the greeting process, which involved a kiss or two on the cheek of each woman present, ending with the host herself. I had become accustomed to seeing only the eyes of the women that I met, and not only thought that I could recognize those that I knew but that I could also make a reasonably accurate judgement of their emotions as they greeted me. On this occasion though, despite seeing a few familiar pairs of eyes twinkling back at me, I didn’t recognize the majority of the women and had no idea whether they were at all surprised or shocked to see me there. I had attempted to dress conservatively as despite many modern Moroccans having more lenient views towards the attire of foreigners and indeed their counterparts, this was a very traditional Berber village whose residents didn’t always share those views, and several of the little girls that were there had already pointed out to me that my forearms were bare, and suddenly I felt rather exposed.
The new born baby girl lay sound asleep under a light shawl to protect her from the flies, while her mother lay beside her in a full length, leopard print dressing gown, complete with matching leopard print socks, as good a party outfit as any I supposed. She smiled warmly at each guest as they entered the room and took a peek at the dormant tot. Many of the guests discreetly handed money to the new mum, while several of them came bearing fancily wrapped gifts. As I had only been invited to the celebration moments before it began, I hadn’t had an opportunity to buy a gift, but fortunately for me one of the teenage girls present was kind enough to point out that I had come giftless and remarked upon the fact in front of everyone in the room. I laughed nervously, unsure why she had felt the need to try and humiliate me, while some of the other teenage girls who had understood, looked at me in disbelief and anticipation, waiting for me to pull a surprise gift out from behind my back.
Thankfully most of the older women present spoke only the local Berber dialect and so were none the wiser. Feeling embarrassed and awkward I didn’t quite know what to do or say and so I simply found a distraction in the form of a small boy that sat next to me, who had been gently gnawing at my elbow for the last ten minutes. I wasn’t quite sure who he belonged to, but he had attached himself to me with ease and as nobody had appeared to claim him, I scooped him up onto my lap.
One of the first questions I am asked by many of the Moroccan people that I meet, both male and female, is whether I have children, and most are unable to conceal their surprise and doubtless even shock, when I answer that I am in fact childless. After asking me if I was single or a newlywed, one man did not even attempt to conceal a look of utter incredulity when I replied that I was neither, as presumably in his eyes they were the only possible explanations for my bleak circumstances.
Eventually the little boy tired of grinding his gums on my elbow, and as he wriggled away from me there came the moment I had been dreading since my arrival, meal time. I could smell the food, and as with much of Moroccan cuisine, it smelt delicious, but I had already eaten and wasn’t in the slightest bit hungry; if anything, I felt quite nauseous. This definitely wasn’t the time to be tucking into chicken with cous cous and vegetables, especially not when it involved eating with only one hand and squatting around the tiniest table possible, elbow to elbow with a bewildering number of heavily perspiring women. I had already been force fed handfuls of sugary and tasteless biscuits, but wasn’t it thoughtful of that same teenage girl to point out to me, in a voice just loud enough so that those in the room could hear, that it was obligatory to eat at these occasions. Once again, I was left feeling rather awkward, and although I knew only too well that it was considered rude not to accept the food offered to you at such an occasion, at the same time I didn’t want to make myself ill for the sake of not offending anyone present and so with an array of energetic hand gestures, combined with some ridiculous sound effects, I endeavored to explain my situation. Fortunately it was met with polite smiles from my host and her family, whose only insistence was that I take some food home for my husband, turning the hasty departure I had been banking on, into a not so hasty one.
I was led up onto the roof area where there was a small kitchen and my nostrils were met with the drool-inducing aroma of barbequed chicken. Not chicken slathered in an American style sauce I hasten to add, but a chicken cooked on a spit over charcoal.
I was introduced to a lady crouched over a big cooking pot, and who positively beamed at me when our eyes met. She held me in a warm embrace and kissed my cheeks rather wetly, and rather too many times for my liking. I had no idea who she was; the wild hand gestures and raucous exclaiming from the other women really hadn’t helped me to determine her identity, but she was certainly very pleased to make my acquaintance. However, the ladies were a little better at explaining that she was unmarried and looking for a man, and did my husband have a brother perhaps? As I laughed politely and shook my head, my ribs were poked excitedly by a little lady who stood at my side. She handed me a scrap of paper and nodded towards the still crouching lady, who had covered her face with her hands in mock embarrassment, but peeked through her fingers at me and winked, somewhat suggestively it seemed to me.
The little lady spoke in broken french.
“She want you have, uh, her number of telephone, ok?”
“Oh, um, yeah, okay,” I smiled weakly and took the scrap of paper, stuffing it into my pocket, not knowing quite what else I was supposed to say or do. Then the little lady spoke again :
“Now, uh……she want, uh, she want your number of telephone, yes?” the crouching lady gazed imploringly at me and held out another scrap of paper and a pen. Now neither of us could communicate verbally and our hand gestures weren’t exactly up to much, not that they would be of any use over the phone anyway, so why on earth did she want us to exchange numbers?
I’ve lost count of the number of men that I’ve come across while out walking my dog, who have asked me for my telephone number, and I’m not sure that I will ever understand why. It’s clear to them when we attempt to exchange mere pleasantries, that I am not fluent in French and that I don’t speak a word of their local dialect, so how would we converse?
Anyway, after writing down a fictional number on the paper (even if I had wanted to give her my genuine number, I had no idea what it actually was) and handing it to the lady who remained in her primal position next to the cooking pot, she grasped my hand firmly before taking it from me and giving me a big, toothless smile. I really did try my hardest to give her a warm and sincere smile in return, but my mouth and cheek muscles simply wouldn’t allow it. I had been smiling politely and fake laughing for almost an hour by this point, and if you have ever spent time in the company of people that you simply cannot communicate with in any intelligent manner, or that you don’t perhaps like, then you will know how physically tiring and mentally draining it can be.
Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, a selection of meat was plated up for me to take home, and I and my weary face, made our way towards the stairs and our escape route. Part of me had enjoyed meeting the women and I did feel somewhat privileged to have been given an exclusive insight into the private life of my neighbors, but an even bigger part of me was glad to go home where I didn’t have to mime and I didn’t have to force myself to smile.