“Are we there yet?” I joke as we drive through downtown Marrakech.
Our group is piled into a Ford Explorer with Ali at the wheel. A slight, well-dressed guy of about 40, Ali is our tour guide, captive audience, and chaperone for this 3-day Sahara Desert excursion.
The Sahara sits along Morocco’s border with Algeria, making it a days’ drive each way. It’s a significant chunk of our vacation time to spend commuting, but I certainly didn’t come to Morocco only to miss out on the cinnamon sands of the Erg Chebbi dunes.
We’ve got a lot of road to cover and not a lot to see along the way, dear Reader, so buckle up.
We spend the first few moments (or has it been hours?) of our ride getting acquainted with Ali. He lives just outside of Marrakesh with his wife and young son, Ziya, age two. As a professional driver, Ali is often traveling around Morocco for weeks at a time before making it home again.
I remark how difficult that must be and he shrugs, “I work when there is work. Some seasons are busy, some are not.”
He regales us with stories of his travelers. First, Ali tells us of the American woman who hired him to drive her to the Sahara in the height of summer. Once there, she demanded her money back, declaring the experience “entirely too hot and dusty.” Next, he tells us of the genial German man who was all too happy to share his road snacks with Ali. By the end of their trip together, Ali had gained 3 kilos (or about 6 pounds)!
Ali navigates a series of hairpin turns as we make our way up into the Atlas Mountains. We’re in Berber territory now. The Berbers – or Amazigh as they prefer to be called – live scattered across North Africa, their presence in the region pre-dating the Arabs to almost 3000 BC. Though nomadic communities exist, the majority live in villages made up of adobe houses. Ali tells us that most Berbers are subsistence farmers who grow fruit and nuts or raise small flocks of sheep or goats. The women weave carpets or make argan oil to sell along the road for a little extra cash.
“Ali? If I were a Berber woman, what would my life be like?” I ask.
Ali confirms what I already suspect. I’d be married (obviously) and in charge of tending to the children, the cooking, cleaning, sewing, and collecting firewood.
“And the men?”
“Men must go to the market. Or they talk in the café… if there is a café,” Ali says.
“That’s it? Seems a bit unfair,” I remark, marveling at the unequal (though not unsurprising) distribution of work.
“Yes. But… markets can be far away. Maybe the man has to travel for days to get there,” Ali explains.
So, in addition to sticking women with 90% of the chores, men also get to skip town for days at a time? I see Ali sneak a peek at me in the rearview window.
“This is just the way. And it’s also why you don’t want a very skinny, weak woman.”
“Sure,” Billy agrees. “You want your woman a little thick if she’s gonna be hauling firewood.”
Triven, Alexis and I chuckle.
“Thick?” Ali repeats the new word, contemplating its meaning and the feel of it on his tongue.
Finally understanding he giggles and says, “yes! THICK!”
We fall quiet a moment, everyone lost in their own thoughts.
“Hey, Ali?” Billy says, breaking the silence. “I want to get a jebala for the desert – a nice one! Can we stop if we see a shop on the way?”
Ali looks curiously at Billy in the rearview window.
“I believe you want a djellaba (jah-LAH-bah), not a jebala (jah-BAH-lah). Jbel is mountain. A jebala is a mountain man.”
I see Billy process this new knowledge. He lets out a low, “ohhhhhh,” as he realizes he’s been telling people he’s looking to buy a mountain man – a very NICE mountain man! – these past few days. It’s unfortunate.
We all laugh. Cross-cultural exchanges abound!
This reminds of the time I met a Neapolitan girlfriend for lunch and mispronounced penne, accidentally requesting a simple, but delicious, penis for lunch. Language is a tricky thing, dear Reader.
A Good Woman
After a quick stop at a roadside café for lunch, we’re back on the move.
Ali hands his iPhone to us in the backseat, “Our wedding day.”
I peek over Billy’s shoulder at the image. Ali looks handsome (and a bit nervous) in a crisp black suit. His wife beside him is radiant in a bright blue dress with golden ornaments along her headdress.
“She’s beautiful, Ali. Thick!” Billy says, knowing Ali will understand it as a compliment, an acknowledgement of his wife’s health and femininity.
Ali smiles and nods proudly. “Yes, she is a very good woman. She makes delicious food. Better than my mother!”
“How did you meet?” I ask.
Ali pauses. “Our culture is very different from yours…”
“Yes,” I say, letting him know he’s in a safe space.
Ali tells us he is walking through the market one day when he’s struck by the sight of a beautiful young woman. Seeing she is with her mother, he asks the mother for the girl’s hand in marriage. (I know, this story is moving fast for me too, dear Reader!).
The mother says her daughter is only 14, far too young to be married. But there’s something about Ali she likes and she’s willing to introduce him to her older daughter. Ali agrees but the mother tells him not to get his hopes up, the eldest daughter has rejected several proposals already.
“She prefers her studies,” the mother says.
Ali meets the eldest daughter who is so timid, she refuses to speak in his presence. He asks her to nod if she would like to marry him and she nods in approval. The rest is history.
“Did she continue her studies?” I ask, somewhat foolishly.
I hear Triven, Alexis and Billy chuckling inwardly.
Ali becomes suddenly serious. “No. No, she did not keep studying. She’s not that kind of woman. She’s a good woman.”
Oh. I feel immediately indicted.
Billy Gets His Djellaba
“We can stop here if you like,” Ali offers, waking us all from our naps.
As far as the eye can see, we’re surrounded by dry, crumbling earth. The vast landscape is interrupted by a small roadside shop with djellabas hanging outside. We clamber out of the car.
“Salam,” Billy says, greeting the shop owner. “Djellaba?”
The shop owner opens his arms in a gesture of welcome. Billy begins to look the djellabas over carefully while Alexis and Triven investigate the argan oil.
“Which one do you think? Can you get Ali too?” Billy asks, weighing his options.
Ali is outside enjoying a cigarette and I wave him in.
Billy models a few for us before, collectively, we decide on a djellaba with blue stripes. Ali shows Billy how to fold the hood back, making it slightly more en vogue. We step outside, leaving Billy and the shopkeeper to the customarily lengthy negotiation process.
We’re milling about when Ali shows me his phone. “My wife sends me this photo. Ziya.”
I lean over and smile. Ali’s son is surprisingly fair with beautiful brown curls and light green eyes.
“They must miss you very much,” I say. I think how hard it would be to take care of a child that young on your own. Lonely, maybe.
“Do you think your wife will go back to her studies when Ziya is older? Or maybe to work?” I ask.
Ali’s face scrunches up in distaste. “No, no! Like I told you, she is a good woman. She’s not like that.”
“Right, sure. Of course,” I nod, wondering what Ali thinks of me, a childless professional who doesn’t enjoy cooking. The opposite of a good woman.
But Ali isn’t judging me – I exist too far outside of his cultural norms to warrant judgment. No, I’m doing this to myself.
Sensing a shift in my demeanor, Ali softens. “It’s like this… the world is a hard place for a woman. If someone says something mean to my wife, she cries. The world… it’s hard for women.”
I nod. True enough, I suppose.
He’s smoking again and gestures to me with his cigarette. “You. You don’t cry when someone is mean to you, I think.”
I laugh. “No, I don’t.”
He thinks for a moment, “And you don’t sit in cafés with men and smoke. You’re not that kind of woman.”
“Is that… haram? Sitting in cafés with men?” I ask, using the Arabic word for “forbidden.”
Ali bobs his head side to side and scrunches his face again. Maybe not haram, but certainly not desirable, no place for a good woman.
“Okay. So what kind of woman am I?” Admittedly, it was a lot to ask a stranger.
Ali squints his eyes slightly and takes another drag of his cigarette.
He laughs, “How can I know this?!”
I laugh too. Women are mysterious and unknowable. Especially to men.
Though we didn’t see any major landmarks today, getting to know Ali was one of the highlights of my trip. Not only was he good fun, our chats also prompted me to ask myself interesting questions.
- Ali’s proposal story illuminates the blurry line between cultural differences (marrying a stranger) and unassailable beliefs (14-year-olds are too young to marry). Which aspects of a culture can we negotiate, and which are irreconcilable?
To be clear, I’m not putting Ali on blast. I’m not sure how old he was that day at the market and we might assume the young girl looked older than her 14 years.
- What does it mean to be a good woman? Though our society claims to be woke, don’t we still struggle with these polarized perceptions of femininity? Whether you’re a working mom or a stay at home mom or not a mom at all, isn’t there this sense that, somehow, you should be doing something differently? Do any of us hit the mark of a “good woman”? And to what degree do these judgments come from men, from other women, from ourselves?
Let’s hear it. What are your thoughts?