A Good Woman

“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.

Road Stories

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?

Comments

8 comments on “A Good Woman”
  1. Michelle says:

    As always, you’ve struck that cord with me. I am a good woman because I am a good person. Socially aware, empathetic and considerate (imho, ha ha.) Social media plays such a large role in making us feel judged and also providing us with the capability to pass judgement. I’m not a mother, and don’t want to be a mother, but I do feel judged for not having the desire to add a mini-me to the world. At the office I get invited to baby showers simply because I’m a woman. I do not get invited to executive meetings for seemingly the same reason. As I get older, my inner confidence has grown to allow me to be more honest about these things and say “no, thank you but congratulations” to the baby shower and “do I even want to be in the executive meeting??”, to which the answer is, “No.” And that’s okay! It’s okay to be me, be where I am, and want what I want because I only have this time and the only definition of good I need is my own and my husbands. I’m fortunate to live in this culture where I can believe this.

    That being said, that is their culture and having nodded yes to marriage was knowingly giving up studies. So she too was asked a question and made her choice. While I don’t believe she should have to choose or that this makes her “good”, I can completely see how their culture defines their roles.

    1. Malia says:

      Gosh this makes me miss our lunch dates! You raise several good points but especially the one about Ali’s wife choosing marriage. For all we know, she loves being a wife and mom and doesn’t miss her studies one bit. Also, I think you could argue that women in our culture feel pressured to “have it all” – work, family, hobbies – and is THAT fulfilling? Or just exhausting? I’ve always loved how confident and self-assured you are! You and mom are exactly right, living an authentic life is all you can do. Saying “no thanks” to baby showers… you’re a hero!! 🙌🏻 🤣

  2. Janice says:

    Rephrasing ….. what does it mean to be a good human being? Gender aside, how are you striving to live as your most authentic self? And to pay that joy and authenticity forward to inspire others? Love that you and Billy are living a life of adventure and sharing your magical journeys! And if thickness is a measure of goodness …. well, I am one good Mama! HA!

    1. Malia says:

      Agreed! Though I do think women are subjected to a little more heat than men. But men are also beginning to rethink their traditional roles. Hopefully, that’s liberating and results in more satisfying lives for them too!

      So many cultures and religions like the tidy categorization of gender roles – it’s predictable and there’s something safe about it. That seems to be changing, albeit slowly.

  3. Nital says:

    Yes, what Bill said. Being true to yourself, and just being a good person to all (including yourself).I am lucky enough to have a husband that supports anything and everything I set out to do. A lot of women are not that lucky. Hopefully that changes! I am definitely emphasizing independence and strength to my daughter, and teaching my son to respect all women in his life.

    1. Malia says:

      You make an interesting point about your son and husband. We seem to be really focused on encouraging women to expand and excel, but there’s so much to teach young boys too. It’s been great reconnecting with you, Nital! This is always the best part of blogging.

  4. Bill Rosado says:

    In my opinion, a good woman is one who is true to herself and her family, regardless of her aspirations to be a mother, homemaker, CEO, world leader…. or…. for that matter….. all of them.

    I believe, men and women both, can be all these things and more if they are inspired to do so. I believe, no man or woman, should be held back by any cultural rules from pursuing worthy goals and being all that they aspire to be.

    1. Malia says:

      Well said. Bill, as long as you think I’m a good woman, that’s enough for me! ☺️

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