TRAVELOGUE: MOROCCO PART 2: Berber Eyes
– Part 2 –
While in a foreign country, an ear for language and bartering abilities are only part of the picture when it comes to making connections. The truth is when traveling (or not), little verbal language is really necessary since most communication is nonverbal anyhow, and if you carry with you an open heart, you have the only key you really need.
“You have Berber eyes,” I would hear often on this trip in French or English in a trill all it’s own. “Kind eyes.” I am not the only one who seeks connections. I have travelled to enough places at this point to recognize that my brown eyes and hair seem to help make me familiar, as if I might have roots in the places I am visiting. I have been to many places along the Mediterranean, in Central and South America, to India several times on buying trips for Nectar, and now Morocco. In each vastly different place I am asked in one way or another if I am one of them. When I admit I am not, I witness my interviewer grasping at places they can relate to, going down the list as I shake my head: “Persian?” “Greek?” “Italian?” “Spanish?” I have been accused of being from many places but not what I actually am: a mutt. In other words, a combination of French, Italian, Belgian, Russian and Polish. Somehow the ideal combination to render me a woman who feels at home the world over, and is welcomed home pretty much everywhere I’ve ever been, even when I am the stranger. To others, therefore, my familiarity is more than superficial. What people sense when they meet me is my openness to the unfamiliar, my ability to find where we are all fundamentally and most importantly connected, my flagrant LOVE OF THE FOREIGN (which I am happy to scream out to the mountain tops), the way I thrive when I am experiencing the new and different. And yet I absolutely love my country too, as much, more, less, differently, depending on what aspect, and I think that discernment is perfectly healthy.
I am always on a quest to share (as equally here as abroad), understand, and find at the core what unifies all of us. In turn, the world over has welcomed me whether words are exchanged or not, in spite of how much separation so many people feel and are made to feel. In Marrakech, in restaurants and with vendors and artisans, my friend Dominique and I had moving- sometimes emotional, sometimes comic- interactions with many. Still, in the streets there, my extremist Moroccan Muslim sisters brush past in a cloak of protection from the world. I see these women as I approach with my confidence, my head and extremities uncovered, my freedom to dress how I want, explore and purchase what I want, live where and how, married or husbandless or openly gay, laughing riotously with my traveling companion. My gorgeous dark skinned friend Dominique has also travelled the world and steered her career as a doctor, volunteering on every continent, giving, learning, and living fearlessly, never impeded by the fact that she is a woman of humble roots or a woman of color.
Within their burkas, through the tiny slits that are their windows in, and out, I can read their misunderstanding, and their judgment. We live in a world steeped in boundaries, in mine and yours and his, too often his. It is legal, still, for a man in Morocco to have four wives, as long as he can afford them. And though the newest King, Mohammed VI, made a nod towards progress in mandating that the first wife sign an agreement to say she accepts the presence of women in “her” household, the reality is she could easily be muscled emotionally, physically, and because of social and cultural norms to acquiesce. And though she may be granted the legal right to divorce, her choice could easily leave her penniless and forced to hand over her children to her husband and other wives to raise. To leave would render her powerless, unprotected, and often alone as the divorce is considered a shame to her biological family. All this, in spite of a more progressive king and the implementation of new laws that attempt to protect the rights of women.
Changing laws is a quick process, compared to the lag it takes to radically alter perceptions and cultural patterns that have been in place for many centuries. I asked taxi drivers and shop owners about the subject of women and their rights. The consensus seemed to be that whether she may have been abused or not by her husband, whether there are new laws to protect them or not, the reality is that many families still choose not to provide for or shelter divorcees. “It will take at least 100 years to change ideas about women here, 100 years at least,” one Berber man in his early 20’s told me in French. “Mothers here are like angels, real angels. My own mother was truly. She sacrificed everything for us.” Moroccan mothers will martyr themselves to keep the peace and spare their families any undo shame.
Powerlessness compounded by fear is what I see as the women covered in black glare at me as I pass. I smile, try to meet them with love, wrap them in it. Their judgment says to me that they are afraid to let me in, because if my open heart meets that place in them that is still open, even worse hopeful, it will only cause problems. Better to shut me out. But I get it, I judge too. We all do. That judgment comes from my own discontent with myself, with the problems in my world, or the bigger ones I feel I cannot change.
I can read all this through that tiny slit, often behind a screen. And I wonder, how can they breathe in that heat? Air is always filtered, smells and sights dimmer, obscured. If the reason for the burka is to protect women from their own power– that their beauty and ability to entice and attract others is that potent– then women should be honored and revered. They simply aren’t, the whole thing is a farce. Violence against women in such cultures is escalating and their access to education, positions of respect in the workplace, and freedom to simply travel to the store unaccompanied are being taken away. It breaks my heart. Though not the norm, I saw several women in the square with their noses mutilated, slashes on their cheeks, hardened faces and eyes, so much judgment towards me and my freedom. Women are nurturers by nature. It is how we can carry life and sustain it. We are here to help make connections, share recipes for life and the things that feed us on all levels.
I can’t help but think of the recent news story cited in the CBC about the Pakistani couple who proudly killed their daughter for looking at a boy who drove past them on a motorcycle:
A Pakistani couple accused of killing their 15-year-old daughter by pouring acid on her carried out the attack because she sullied the family’s honor by looking at a boy, the couple said in an interview broadcast Monday by the BBC.
The girl’s death underlines the problem of so-called “honour killings” in Pakistan where women are often killed for marrying or having relationships not approved by their families or because they are perceived to have somehow dishonoured their family. The girl’s parents, Mohammad Zafar and his wife Zaheen, recounted the Oct. 29 incident from jail. The father said the girl had turned to look at a boy who drove by on a motorcycle, and he told her it was wrong.
“She said ‘I didn’t do it on purpose. I won’t look again.’ By then I had already thrown the acid. It was her destiny to die this way,” the girl’s mother told the British broadcaster.
There was a less overt story tucked deep in the belly of the International New York Times. It reveals a kind of painful despair as the interviewer traces the return of one of Afghanistan’s most celebrated novelists to his home in Kabul after years of living abroad. Rahnaward Zaryab’s heart is still there in that fallen city of his youth, though what he returned to has become almost unrecognizable, thanks to war and the hypocrisy of religious extremism:
He fondly remembers walking alone along the Kabul River. “It had beautiful, clear water at the time,” he said. “Fishermen would fish with nets, not hooks. I would spend all day along this river.” Not only has the river changed, he lamented, but also the city’s people. In a shrine on the same river, a mob recently accused a young woman of blasphemy and beat her to death in daylight. They dragged her body to the riverbed, now filled with trash, and set her on fire.
“In old Kabul’s Rika Khana, one shopkeeper had said something rude to a little girl once,” [the writer said, referring to the Kabul of his childhood.] “Without a collective decision, the residents stopped buying from that shop and he was forced to move,” he continued. “Do we have such people anymore? Today, they kill a girl and then burn her. How could I not be attached to the past?”
In Marrakech, and on our day journey up to the Atlas Mountains, it was in fact the Moroccan men I was able to connect with in a deeper and more sincere way. This was probably because it was almost exclusively men with whom I had a chance to talk. I hardly had any opportunity to communicate with women. Since most men there interact daily with an international crowd, they get an inkling that the boundaries of culture and religion may be more perceived than real. And where they are real, sometimes they simply need to change. Still, social mores don’t die easily.
Out of all the shop owners we encountered, only one was female, and progressive enough to own her business and even work alone. She was approachable, smiled deeply, and spoke with sincerity and not a trace of judgment. There was also a woman who worked in a creperie shop, shy and focused. Outside of the Souk, a group of more modern retail stores stood in a cluster of anomalous modernity across from the famed Majorelle Gardens. European designers with a flair for exoticism showcased their wares in those expensive, beautiful shops, while professional female shopkeepers in Western dress tidied shelves and processed sales. It felt like we had stepped into a strange anesthetized other world, though it was a mere taxi ride away. And though I frankly loved the aesthetic of the items there, the curt women behind the counters didn’t invite a deeper conversation or inspire my curiosity to ask some bigger questions. I couldn’t wait to return to the banter, showmanship, color, and chaos of the Souk.
There may have been more examples of women minding shops, we just didn’t see them. The ones we crossed paths with were either tourists, the women who worked in our quaint hotel, or the hardened henna tattooists working in groups in the square not up for deeper conversation either. Then there were the sad faced women working like props in the tourist shops to encourage visitors to support their Argon oil women’s “cooperative,” or those passing us brusquely covered tip to tip, abiding by the veil. Everywhere I went, I searched for proof that religious zealotry might actually provide a kind of support system that we are often lacking and yearn for as women and mothers in the States. Maybe it does, but I didn’t see evidence of it personally. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist.
I am certain there is beauty everywhere, meaning, and love. That’s just the lens I choose to look through, and will continue to. I look forward to another trip to Morocco some day soon, for a deeper and longer plunge so that I may to come to know it all even better and tell a fuller, ever more accurate story. I will close with another quote from Bahá’u’lláh, offered up during his ‘Paris Talks’ of October 16th and 17th, 1922:
“If you desire with all your heart, friendship with every race on earth, your thought, spiritual and positive, will spread; it will become the desire of others, growing stronger and stronger, until it reaches the minds of all men.”
Stay tuned for the last installment of this travelogue series soon!
photos & writing by Jenny Wonderling
edits & graphic design by Bea Rue