The Berber’s Song

(Morocco, Africa 1989)

One of the best and one of the worst times of my life took place during the same week while walking through a stretch of the Moroccan desert.  The best part was stumbling upon a small village of members of the Berber tribe.  I enjoyed the camels on the beaches of Tangier, the modern sights of Casablanca, and bustling markets with spices and snake charmers in Marrakesh, but I decided to get way off of the beaten path, so I pulled out my worn map and selected a section between tiny roads that was basically a blank area of the map showing nothing at all and which was about 100 kilometers wide.  I decided to see what was or wasn’t there, so packed up my huge canvass backpack with eight loaves of bread, a few cans of meat, fourteen liters of water, and I headed out into the sand.

During the first few miles, I felt like I was getting nowhere, but as I kept up my slow pace forcing myself to stop and rest only about every hour, I began to make some progress.  It was hot, and when I say hot, I mean triple digits hot, and I realized that I definitely should not have left as late in the morning as I had.  I wouldn’t make that mistake again.  From bottom to top, I wore Birkenstock sandals, khaki pants, a loose-fitting white ¾ sleeved shirt that I had gotten in Marrakesh, and a white turban wrapped around my head and face.  Of course I also had the very heavy backpack which pushed my posture to a slightly forward hunch as I walked.

The going wasn’t easy, but I hadn’t expected it to be.  It was near the end of the day, and the temperature was beginning to lower a bit.  It wasn’t time for me to take my normal break, but I wanted to check my compass to make sure I was still heading due east as was my plan.  I wasn’t following any trails.  I didn’t know of any to follow.  The terrain wasn’t totally flat, but it was just sand, gravel, a few rocks and shrubs all around.  After struggling to focus on the compass as salty sweat poured into my eyes, I wiped the stinging sweat with the end of my turban.  I blinked a few times, and then as if by magic, I saw a person standing about twenty feet away.

The person had very dark skin, and he was wearing a grey turban and a long white tunic.  At first, I think we were equally shocked to see each other, and we stared at each other for a moment.  Then, the man smiled broadly and waved at me excitedly, and he walked over and began speaking to me in a language I didn’t understand.  He grabbed my hand and began pumping it up and down in an extremely excited handshake.  He just kept talking, smiling, and shaking my hand.  I smiled in return, and he grabbed my hand with both of his, and he politely began pulling me as he started to walk north.

I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I immediately felt safe with this young man who must have been about sixteen years old.  Eventually he let go of me with one of his hands, but continued to hold my hand as we walked.  After about ten minutes, we came upon a worn footpath, and when we rounded a hill, I was suddenly confronted with an orchard of fig trees.  The path widened, and I could see other plants and trees in the oasis.  A few kids gathering figs saw us and ran over excitedly, and then two other men came over.  All were very excited, and we became a small parade as we walked into a very small village with dark brown adobe houses.  We passed a few donkeys, and the guy who was holding my hand led me right through the village to a small rectangular building.

As we entered, I could see that it was a makeshift schoolroom, and there was another young man erasing the chalkboard.  He turned, and the teenager who brought me there evidently told the teacher that he had found someone in the desert.  I wish I could have understood exactly what he had said, because it must have been comical.

The teacher smiled as widely as all of the others who were crowded around me, and he spoke to me in French.  I could tell that he was asking where I had come from, and I attempted to reply in French, but then he asked if I spoke English.  I said, “Yes,” and the conversation switched to his bad English, which was much better than my bad French.  The first thing he said to me was that Mohammed, the guy who had found me, asked if I would have tea at his family’s home.

“Sure,” I said looking at Mohammed who was still smiling widely.  As a group, we walked over to Mohammed’s house which was one section of a larger adobe structure with two levels and multiple living quarters.  From all corners of the small village veiled women and men in turbans stared.  We stopped at the entrance of the house, and two kids ran in and returned with two adults and an extremely elderly woman who was obviously the grandmother of the home.

I shook hands with the man, and the teacher who was named Abdul introduced us, and then we entered the low dark entrance, circled up cramped adobe stairs, and entered a room with two open doors and two small window openings.  There was a small cooking fire burning in the middle of the room, and I was served very strong hot mint tea and sugar in a small glass.  I could tell Mohammed’s mother, who was wearing a black burka, was trying not to stare at the new stranger in her home.

Almost everyone from outside had come into the room with us, but only the adults were served tea, and with the help of the schoolteacher, we began talking.  They learned about how I simply wanted to walk through a remote part on the map, and I learned that they were a Berber tribe who had lived in the village for generations.  They said many times how lucky they were that I had found their village, but I was the one who felt lucky.  Although only about forty miles from the nearest village, they said they didn’t get any visitors from the outside.

As soon as the first tea was finished, I was asked to have tea at another household, and then another.  I had only been in the village for about two hours when I’d had been given tea in four homes.  As it was getting late, the teacher translated for Mohammed who asked if I would stay the night at his family’s home, and I enthusiastically welcomed the idea of not having to set up my tent.

The entire family of six people slept on the floor in the same large room, and I slept very well drifting to sleep in awe of the amazing situation I had found myself in.  As I relaxed into sleep, I was aware of the light smell of smoke from the cooking fire, the large colorful rugs that carpeted the dirt floor, the multiple glasses of mint tea, and the many warm smiles from all of the lovely people in the village.

The next day, I explored the garden and the orchard with Mohammed and all of the other youth in the village, I was asked to teach the kids some English words in the schoolroom, and I was asked to drink tea with pretty much every adult we passed.  The first many glasses of the sugary tea were welcomed, but trying to be polite by not refusing the offers caught up with me as I felt like I was getting an overdose on sugar.  Finally, I had to start refusing, because my skin was getting a rash from the sugar OD, so they began offering me warm sheep’s milk instead.

The evening on the first full day with the Berber was to be kind of a feast in my honor.  We stepped into the “chicken coop” which was basically a large roofless open area on the second floor of the adobe compound.  Mohammed’s family only had two chickens, and they wanted to give one to me.  We all went out together to get the chicken, and as a sign of respect, Mohammed’s dad caught it and handed it to me.  I stood there holding the chicken wondering why everyone was staring at me, and Mohammed, who was now speaking a bit of the French he had learned in school, told me that I should kill it.

“Oh,” I said, and I asked him to help show me how they did it.  We laid the chicken on the ground with a small wooden board below the chicken’s neck.  Mohammed showed me that we had to grab and pull the chicken’s tongue out a bit, face a certain direction, extend the neck long, and slice quickly the chicken’s neck.  I did all of these things, and everyone looked proud of me until I let go of the chicken too soon and although totally dead, it began to run around wildly creating a frantic ruckus of feathers and dust.  I chased it for a moment, but it was one of the kids who tossed a wicker basket over it to stop the flapping bird.  The meal was splendid though.

What wasn’t splendid is what happened when I had to go to the bathroom the next day.  Since we were in the desert miles from the nearest store, toilet paper wasn’t an option.  Going number one was easy, but for number two, I’d have to tell someone that I needed to go, and they would tell Mohammed’s mom who would warm up a cup of water over the fire.  The toilet was in the center of the chicken coop, and all it was made up of was a flat board over a small slit in the ground, which led to the pile of manure in the room below.

I had done this a few times, but on this day, things went horribly wrong.  First, I mentioned that I had to go, and Mohammed’s mom warmed up the water and handed the cup to me.  I went into the chicken coop, squatted down, and did my business.  All good so far, but oops…I missed the small opening in the dirt floor.  No problem, I thought.  I’m going to wipe with my hand anyway, so I could just push the pile into the hole, and clean up with the water.  As I spun around to do the deed, I had just moved the mess with my fingers, and my foot accidently bumped into and tipped over my precious cup of water.

“Oh no,” I said to myself as my stomach sank.  “Oh, no,” I said again as I began to panic.  I couldn’t walk back into the room with crap all over my hand.  In desperation, I just rubbed my hand and fingers in the small pool of mud as best as I could, but it really didn’t help.  Horribly embarrassed, I walked back into the room with Mohammed’s family.  No one said anything, but the smell was undeniable.  I waited as long as I could, which was about ninety seconds, and I said I needed to go again.  As if relieved, Mohammed’s mom started warming up the water, and in desperation, I said that it was fine.  No need to warm up the water for this one, and I got out and washed much better.  One thing I can tell you is that I didn’t expect that to happen when I set out to walk across the desert.

The meals were also culturally very different from what I was accustomed.  Basically, all of the adult men in the village, which was about eight, and I would sit in a circle on a large rug usually outside, and one of the women would bring bread and another would bring a very large dish full of food which was always couscous or rice.  She would set it in the middle, and we’d eat from the common dish with our hands carefully avoiding the ‘dirty’ left hand.

Every evening as we ate through the meal, there would be one special piece, usually a single chicken leg or the like, and at the end of the meal, as the dish was getting near empty, the piece would be left in the dish, and the men would look up proudly that it was for me.  About half way through one of the meals, I realized that the day’s piece looked a bit odd.  We were eating small strips of sheep, and I realized that it was a sheep’s testicle.  Of course at the end of the meal there was only one thing left, and as always, the men proudly looked up and smiled that this prize was for me.

I picked the testicle up, and as I was bringing it to my mouth, I didn’t know whether I should bite into it, or if I was supposed to put the whole thing in my mouth at once.  In my haste I chose the latter, and this was definitely the wrong decision.  The ball of meat in my mouth was so large and slippery that I was having a hard time getting my teeth around it, and it was starting to gag me partially because of the thought of what I was eating, but mostly because it was so large and round.  I began to panic as to where I’d vomit if it came to that.  Would I turn and hope to miss the rug?  Should I aim for the dish we had just eaten from?  As I struggled, all of the men’s eyes were on me, and I got the feeling that they didn’t know what to do either.  I could tell they wanted to help somehow, but what could they do?  It was a horrible moment, and I think I even began to sweat, but in the end I didn’t puke and finally, I got it down.  The awkwardness of the men watching me struggle with the prize finally came to end when I swallowed the last bit and smiled, and they all started cracking up.  The proper and polite tune of our dinner time together finally went out the window, and we laughed together until tears rolled down our faces.

At the end of every day we would all agree that I would be leaving early the following morning, and every morning, it was decided by the villagers that it was too late and too hot for me to leave, so I’d have to stay another day.  Then the day I actually did get up very early, they said that it was to be the prophet Mohammed’s birthday the following day, so I had to stay for the celebration.

The festivities surrounding Mohammed’s birthday mainly revolved around sitting and eating and drinking tea all day, and it was great to spend the last day with the whole village together.  The following morning, I woke up just as it was getting light, and I packed up my sleeping bag and backpack as Mohammed’s mom and grandmother were preparing the day’s breakfast.

Before Mohammed began to walk me to the edge of the village, the school teacher came out as well.  During the four days I was in the Berber village, there was certainly a respectful shyness, and the closest that I had come to touching any of the women was accepting a cup of tea or a snack of corn or figs from one of them, but Mohammed gestured that I should hug his grandmother goodbye.  She had done so much for me, and he obviously mentioned it to her as well.  Laughing and feigning bashfulness at the start, the elderly woman finally embraced me and pressed her veiled face against my cheek, and the village erupted in applause.  It was as if I was an excuse to break the rules a little bit in a very innocent way with the lovely old matriarch of the village.

After the emotional hug, Mohammed’s grandmother waved to me as I began to walk away, and everyone began walking with Mohammed and me.  It was about a quarter mile or so to the remote cement whitewashed gate that marked the edge of the village. There was no fence, just an enormous gate with sand surrounding it on all sides.  The gate was on a small hill, and when we got there, I shook hands with all of the women, and I hugged all of the men.  Mohammed and I had spent almost every minute of four days together, and it was very sad to say goodbye to him, but it was time to move on.

As I began walking down the small slope along a path that would lead me to Alnif about forty miles away, my pack felt heavy, but I trudged forward, and then a few of the women began singing a beautiful song.  It was a lovely and peaceful song, and it filled me with love for the villagers.  As I kept walking, the children joined in the singing, and many, many minutes away, I could tell that the entire village was singing in my direction.

I looked back, and I could see the image of the villagers standing at the crest of the hill, I waved widely, and I smiled knowing that they could no longer see my face.  I looked down at the bright white tunic I was wearing which they had given me to wear for Mohammed’s birthday celebration.  I wanted to run back and hug everyone again, but I was much too far away for that.  I turned and plodded on, and the singing continued, but became more and more faint as I walked.  At one point I didn’t know if I could hear them or not, and I turned to see the dotted specs still at the top of the distant hill, and I knew that they were still there singing.  Eventually the singing faded and then returned and then faded again finally yielding to the still silence of the desert, until it happened.

Hours after I had left the village and was just getting into the extreme fatigue from the exertion from walking and exposure in the sun, I heard the Berber singing right behind me.  I dropped my pack and spun around, but there was nothing.  I could still hear the music though.  It wasn’t faint or abstract but as clear as a bell.  It was like a mirage for my ears.  I could even hear the individual voices of the singers whom I had spent the prior four days with.  I could picture their individual faces.  They were with me.  Immediately I felt emotional because of that special gift of song they had given to me, and I was convinced that the Berber tribe knew that their song would return to my ears as I pushed forward fatigued under the sun.  They knew that it would encourage me, and they knew that I would be affected by their care, their hospitality, their friendship, and their love toward the random twenty-year-old from across the world who stumbled into their tiny village in the middle of the Moroccan desert.  They knew that, with their song, I would never feel alone in the desert.