Traveling in Morocco: This is a story from my research trip in a region outside Marrakesh where I had the pleasure of meeting a remarkable group of women. Out of all the places to visit in Morocco, this was one of my favorite memories. Thank you to my research partner and hostess, who I have left unnamed for the sake of anonymity. Thank you to the women who made this visit so unforgettable and especially to the grandmother who showed me such genuine warmth and hospitality.
It seems the word around town is that a foreigner has arrived. Twenty women are waiting for me to emerge awkwardly from the back of the motorcycle wagon which had transported me to their tiny desert village on the outskirts of Marrakesh. They are pressed up against the towering mud and straw walls of their compounds, making room for our vehicle in the cramped street. I can’t help but feel like a chicken in a flock of birds of paradise, their brightly-colored dresses and scarves fluttering around them like feathers in the hot sand-specked wind.
Only an hour ago, I had stepped out of a taxi in a road town and region more conservative than other parts of Morocco. In this town where the men from the villages work, I shielded my eyes against the glaring desert light. In every direction, male eyes stared back. I noticed quickly that there was not a single other woman on the street except for me. That town was a windblown place like the village I was now in, but instead of deserted streets of sand between tall compounds walls, there were small shops and tents full of produce. I self-consciously tugged my already long skirt further down my legs and tried to assume a look of indifference. Chunks of animal swung on chains outside the butcher shop where I sat waiting for my research partner and hostess to escort me to the village where she worked.
Stepping out among them, I suddenly realize where all the women are. The sandy walls of the compounds give the impression that they had risen straight from the sands in the desert where the village was built. A goat skids around a corner, clattering deeper into the maze of red-walled alleys and iron gates.
I don’t want to keep them waiting, so I submit myself to the unpredictable method of the Moroccan greeting process. Kisses are flying from all directions, and when I finally greet the host sister of the home where I will be staying, I turn my head the wrong way, misreading the kissing pattern and kiss her smack on the lips. The other women break into a fit of giggles and I turn a deep red that matches the hue of the desert.
An older woman steps forward and the others dip their heads respectfully to her and move back. Although she is dressed almost identically to the other women, she is different. Her grandmotherly figure is shrouded in swathes of fabric and a headscarf is neatly tucked to set off her face. She is sombre, though I can see the marks of laughter around her eyes and mouth. After grabbing me and kissing me on each cheek, she holds me at arm’s length and looks at me with clear bright eyes that seem to look straight into my soul. There is something I instantly like about her. “I’d like to invite you for tea at my house later this afternoon,” she says in Tamazight. My research partner translates. I nod gravely, and tell her thank you for the invitation.
Later that afternoon, we arrive for “tea” which consists of steaming freshly baked caramel cake, several different kinds of pancakes, bowls of olives, as well as fresh butter and honey still in the combs to smear on the pancakes. Women arrive in a steady stream throughout the meal, and like magic, I watch headscarves slip to their shoulders, and carefully wrapped swaths of fabric loosen and shift, revealing more defined human shapes. As I pass around babies and kiss everyone with Moroccan abandon, I realize I am in a world that half of the population will never even have a chance to see.
I came to the understanding that in this world of separated genders, I was now in the one where I not only belonged, but that I had special access to. Before on the streets of the road town, I had crossed an invisible line to a world that didn’t accept me. Here, in the warm light streaming through the adobe windows, propped up on maroon pillows, with a stomach full of caramel pancakes I was within a secret society, one that no man would ever experience, especially not a foreign one.
When we finish eating, we go into the grandmother’s room. She opens an oak wardrobe and lovingly unfolds velvet dresses embroidered with pearls and silver thread. My hostess whispers to me that these are traditional Amazzir wedding outfits. Two of the women pull an emerald-colored dress over my head. I think for my sake, my hostess pulls a cobalt blue one over her own head and gives me a rueful smile. Over this dress they tie a translucent, shimmering skirt and around the waist of the skirt, they cinch a broad velvet belt that matches the dress. Next, the grandmother unwinds colorful beaded jewelry from a trunk at the foot of her bed. She explains how she handmade these when she was a young girl. Some of them go over my shoulders and around my back and others around my neck. The final touch is a bright yellow headscarf with a yellow fringe that makes me look like I have doll bangs. I turn for them and the women clap.
“If you come back to us, I will teach you to make this jewellery and weave carpets,” the grandmother tells me, clasping my hand.
“Inshallah,” I tell her. God Willing.
There are times when it is very frustrating to be a woman traveling alone. Solo women travel in Morocco can make it harder to make connections and harder to gain respect. On this trip I came to realize that there is a comradery that forms between women that no man will ever experience, no matter how hard he tries. They will not be let into these secret circles, where women congregate and laugh and speak as they please when they are not in a room with their husbands, brothers, and sons. It is in these spaces, that the women are so palpably strong and courageous it takes your breath away.