This piece has taken longer than I expected to wrote and is probably deeply flawed as a result. It’s inspired by the wonderful interfaith work of Ray Gaston and Annie Heppenstall and a memorable trip, too many years ago…
The bus rattled along the bumpy road, through miles of brown rock and pink dust. It was not the image of desert I’d had in mind when Lee suggested the trip. I knew it was irrational to feel disappointed when we reached the oasis on the outskirts of the town. But images of palm trees, shimmering water, camels and sand dunes were hard to shake off. Mud, a trickle of water, and scraggy trees were poor substitutes.
We struggled off the bus, sitting at the side of the road to check our Lonely Planet. A couple of hawkers drifted up, hopefully. We were old hands by now and brushed them away. They took their collections of purses and beaded necklaces down to the gate of big hotel, lying in wait for the rich tourists. We were hot, thirsty, and our clothes were full of dust. Not for the first time, I wished we had money. How nice it would be to sink into clean sheets, an air conditioned room, and a swim in the cool pool. Our destination, as always, was the heart of the medina – a narrow terraced hotel, with a small bed, squat toilet, a 50:50 chance of a shower.
I picked Lee up in a bank in Casablanca. We got chatting in the queue and it seemed natural to go for lunch afterwards. When we discovered we were both heading to Marrakech, it was the easiest thing in the world to join forces. A relief, too. I was getting tired of the incessant stream of men following me around. A man at my side was a talisman to ward off their advances. As we journeyed south on the train, watching the green fields leach into stony mountains, it was pleasant to lean my head against his, sharing life stories.The night was clear; the moon, full. The landscape would have been dreary by day, but that evening the rocks and boulders sparkled like jewels as the shafts of light bounced between them. It seemed to me, at that moment, that Lee was the greatest treasure of them all.
Three weeks later, and Marrakech had lost its charm. There are only so many trips to the souk, so many snake charmers, so many bowls of couscous. Even sunset, at the top of the Cafe de France – as the lights of the city came on, one by one to the muezzin’s call, – was passe. I didn’t need much urging to make the Saharan trip, it was a journey I might not have made alone. Even though now we here, Lee had taken charge again, I reminded myself it would still be worth it for the sight of sunrise over the dunes.
The hotel was like all the rest, on a narrow side street off the main square. A plain reception desk with blue and white tiles behind. A morose man on the desk, who spoke only to Lee, as I tried, and failed, not feel excluded. Rooms off a central courtyard, that still retained the heat of the day, even after nightfall. We dragged our rucksacks up to the room and threw ourselves on the bed. It was good to stop moving for a while.
We struck lucky on the shower front. Once we’d washed we were ready to descend and forage for food. As we crossed the courtyard, a woman emerged from a door at the back of the hotel. She was wearing a long purple dress., her head covered in a lilac hijab. She was carrying a bowl of couscous and tajine, which she took to the man on the desk. She spoke to him briefly and then scurried back, not looking at us as she passed.
“What a life.” I said, as we walked down the street, trying not to wrinkle our noses at the smell of rotting rubbish.
“What do you mean?”
“Waiting on a man too lazy to get his own food. Covering yourself up to avoid his censure. In the twenty first century too. So submissive.”
“Seems alright to me.” Lee joked. I nudged him in the ribs, and we continued on our way.
At bedtime we lay naked, on top of the bedclothes. It was too hot to make love. Outside the army trucks rumbled through the town. Occasionally we heard people shouting somewhere in the street. I slept badly.
This was odd. When I wanted to be cool, I wore loose clothing. In the middle of the day, I rested. I couldn’t imagine why she wanted everyone to see her long tanned limbs, the curve of her breasts.
“How can her hair be so yellow?” I asked.
“Hair dye probably,” I pulled a puzzled look, “Like henna. We colour our hands, they colour their hair.”
How strange, I thought. But I was having to get used to strange things since my marriage to Bilal. Since leaving my village and living with his people. In a hotel, you see all sorts. Soldiers on leave from their garrisons. Guides preparing to take the tourists to the desert. Business men on their way to a conference in the resorts. Khadija said we’d have our fair share of Europeans in the summer, but it was spring, and these two caught me unawares. I supposed I’d get used to their peculiarities, but it wouldn’t be easy. I continued to wash the floor.
Later, in bed, I asked Bilal, “Why does she wear such clothes?”
“Who knows? Perhaps, she thinks it brings her strength.”
What strength? I wondered. It seemed to me that she was lost, in need of guidance. But I had no idea how I could offer her that. We didn’t even speak the same language. Presently, Bilal drew me to him, and we forgot the strangers upstairs. It was a hot night, but I slept well.
We woke as usual to the muezzin’s call. We rose, prayed, and went about our daily business – Bilal to the front desk, Khadija and I to the cleaning. I am lucky to live here with my husband, who I love, a family that welcomes me. Bilal’s parents treat me like their daughter; Khadija is my soul-sister; and he is so tender, so kind. Sometimes he suggests I should abandon my hijab, like a modern Moroccan. But that’s because he studied in Casablanca for a while, and was caught by city ways. I am happy to cover up, I say, to submit to Allah’s will. It is fitting not to parade my beauty in public. The avoidance of vanity seems to me the true practice of islam. He tries to argue, and then, seeing my determination, laughs and kisses me instead. Truly, I have all the luck.
I am not so sure of this European woman. Yesterday she and her friend rose late. They asked Bilal about hiring a grand taxis to go to the desert and he directed them to Ibrahim. They packed their bags and departed, we thought for good. But a few hours later, they returned, red-faced and stiff with each other, checking in for another night. Khadija and I heard shouting from their room, but we couldn’t understand the words. Bilal said it seemed to be about money, but that was all the English he knew. They left again this morning. Yusuf told us that he saw them take the bus back to Marrakech, they seemed to be barely speaking. Khadija and I still wonder what they were arguing about.
Later, when I cleared the room, I found a bottle marked “Garnier Nutrisse. Light Ash Blonde.”
The words meant nothing to me. I threw it away.
Copyright c Virginia Moffatt, March 2010