On the way to the mountain village of Imlil, Boujeema described the three most important components of Moroccan culture. More surprising than what was on his list was what wasn’t.
During the hour and a half drive south from Marrakech, we had been talking about my spice souk adventure in Jemaa el Fnaa the day before. Boujeema had listened politely before admitting that, yes, I had indeed been taken to the cleaners and that the tea I’d bought was not the kind of tea that Moroccans traditionally drink, which is the famous mint tea mixed with a shocking amount of sugar.
No, what I had in my bag was a special concoction drunk by the Berbers, in the mountains, in the wintertime, and then only when one felt poorly. It was medicinal tea. But perhaps it would come in handy back in my own mountain home in the United States, he said.
In any case, the main thing was to understand that tea is very important to Moroccans. Boujeema held his thumb in the air and began counting off on his fingers as he elaborated. “The three most important things in our culture are marriage, camels, and tea.” Then he paused and looked at me in the rearview mirror to be sure I had absorbed the information.
I’d expected him to count Allah as number one, but I thought better of bringing it up. Like me, he probably didn’t want to discuss religion. Plus, I realized that, for Boujeema, Allah was like air. Just there. All the time. Why would one need to point it out?
As we switchbacked our way into the High Atlas Mountains we passed villages tucked into the hillsides looking over the Asna River. Here in the Imlil Valley, as in the rest of the country, the people had built homes from their most reliable and abundant resource: dirt. And so the clusters of buildings blended into the earth like a scab on brown skin.
I rolled down the window to get relief from the cinnamon and cumin mixed with menthol that wafted from the plastic bag at my feet. The crisp mountain air smelled of walnut and cherry trees, and I leaned out the window like a dog to let their fragrance clear my nose. Down below, in the river, boys swam and splashed and chased and laughed.
“Where are the girls?” I asked.
“They are inside, working with their mothers,” Boujeema said.
The thought of boys horsing around all afternoon while their sisters sat trapped inside with their moms reminded me of a phrase I’d seen spray-painted onto a wall somewhere outside Marrakech near a sugar factory. It said “Just_Cars_No_Girls.” At first I’d laughed. It seemed like the kind of thing an eight-year-old boy would say, one who didn’t yet know how a girl might steal his heart, only that she might well have cooties.
But the more I thought about it, the more the message seemed mean and unfair. And possibly a sentiment shared by grown men.
The deeper we traveled into the leafy green mountains the fewer girls we saw, and I found myself wondering about the women of Marrakech, many of whom were beautiful. So far I’d seen them in many ways, including wrapped from head to toe in traditional garb and decked out in tight jeans and tank tops. I’d been in private homes where they had remained hidden in a separate part of the house, and I’d been served by them in hotels and restaurants.
According to Tahir Shah, author of In Arabian Nights, most Moroccan women are experts on life and in the art of controlling men. And they are always ready to advise, he says. Such a summary of an entire gender sounded sexist to me, even coming from a man who seemed to love both his home country and his wife fervently.
But that was before I met Judge Judy. A member of the staff at our riad, Judge Judy was maybe in her mid-fifties and communicated with a knowing, though not quite evil, eye. She didn’t say much. She just watched you with a look that said I’m watching you for God.
Such was the case when Chris and I decided to escape the din of Marrakech one day by taking lunch in the riad’s inner courtyard. Shaded by small olive trees, it was a peaceful retreat from the loud and smelly bazaars. The atmosphere was relaxed and intimate with just the two of us dining late in the afternoon.
As we settled into our seats and unfolded our linen napkins, Judge Judy stood in her black robe and headscarf, back against the earthen wall, and watched. As we talked in lowered voices and watched the songbirds and butterflies drink from the fountain covered in red rose petals, she watched. And as we gave our order to the cheerful waiter, she shifted her weight from one foot to the other and watched.
As soon as our orange salads powdered with cinnamon arrived, Chris had to leave the table to take a call. It was the moment JJ had been waiting for. As she filled our water glasses, she inquired as to whether Mr. Graff would be having another glass of white wine. When I said I was unsure of his intentions, she weighed in with her own thoughts on the matter. “There is already a bottle of wine in your room, is there not?” Then she gave me the look.
Alcohol isn’t really drunk openly in Morocco outside of hotels, and its consumption by Muslims is certainly frowned upon during the Holy Month; still, I hadn’t expected the staff to monitor its guests. Then again, I was getting the feeling that Her Honor kept tabs on everyone, at work, at home, and otherwise.
Every time I walked past her during our stay, I could feel the recriminations mounting in her mind. And she was right. I mean, who knows how many of God’s commandments I’d flouted since our arrival. My head was uncovered, my thoughts were unclean, and now this, a bottle of wine in our room and a second glass of wine at the lunch table. Technically, it was Chris’s sin (ahem, I was drinking water, God), but I was implicated. I was his wife. I should have been a moral compass for my husband. I should have been sharpening my beak.
“Um, that’s true,” I said. “I guess in that case he won’t have another glass. Thank you.”
Thank you? Wait a minute. What was I saying? What was I doing? I’d let this woman turn me against the desires of my own husband. Of course he wanted a second glass of wine!
And that’s when it hit me how little I understood about the complicated issue of gender equality in Morocco. And why many of the husbands tend to hide out all day in the men-only coffee shops. Over thousands of years these women have learned how to have agency without the help of Betty Friedan or NOW. The system may not be ideal, but I have to admit that such artful cunning works—at least on me.