The woman sat next to me, pressed my body against the public bus window.
-Salaam, I offered while adjusting my bags and my position. She ignored me. My traveling companion was a big woman wearing a sage veil, and I’d watched her board with a younger woman and two children. She had lots of wrinkles around her eyes, which I imagined she’d acquired from hawkishly watching the other three. Every few minutes she twisted her neck to scope the back of the bus where the others sat. Unquestionably, this woman was the matriarch of her family.
There are many differences between men and women in Morocco, but one of these is the palpable sense of ownership, of control, of fearlessness, of sagaciousness, that an older woman often embodies. I suppose I could use some of the same words to describe both my grandmothers, women who presided over their households in America. But it’s different. I don’t want to use cliché phrases like “a lifetime of hard-work” to describe the women here. Because while that’s true, both my grandmothers’ faced their own struggles and worked very hard. Maybe what I’m looking for is a sense of connectedness to the land, of using hands and feet and backs to make a life. I’m not sure. Think of that famous Dorothea Lange Dust Bowl photo of the woman with her children, and you’ll see a face that expresses what my words fail to do.
Ten minutes into our trip, my seatmate eyed me skeptically. -Labas, I tried.
-Shnu? she asked, almost aggressively. As if I’d rudely asked her to move over.
-Labas? Bexair? Hi, are you well? I smiled.
Then, the woman started to chortle – one of the loudest, heartiest laughs I’ve ever heard. The entire bus turned around to look at us.
-Bexair, Hamdoullilah. You speak Arabic?
-Chwiya, I explained. Only a little. She laughed again and slapped my knee. I giggled. And then she announced to everyone that the American spoke Arabic. She told me a little about where she was going, about her family and wanted to know what my exactly my travel mug was. I tried to explain that it kept my coffee warm for hours, that I usually ordered two café nus-nus to fill it up before a journey. She didn’t believe me, so I unscrewed the lid and together we watched the steam rise.
When she got off the bus half-an-hour later, the skinny woman with a pointy nose across the aisle slid in beside me. It was obvious she wanted to talk, so I asked her for her story: Where was she from? Where she was going? Who was she meeting there? She wanted to see my mug, too, and when I pulled out my red aluminium water bottle, she was equally amused. Neither of the women spoke French or English. My Arabic is so limited that conversations always stay on the surface. Still, I’m always grateful for the practice. And every person I meet teaches me something new about Morocco.
The second woman exited at Sidi Bennour, a town that’s home to many of my students. She invited me to visit her there or in El Jadida. When she left, two small children appeared in the still-warm seat. They were shy at first, but soon, like children from any country, we were playing and laughing and talking freely. I often find children a great relief because our language skills are a closer match, and because the world is so filled with magic for them – just as Morocco is for me.
The bus stopped mid-way between El Jadida and Marrakech for a break. I didn’t brave the stretch I badly wanted, because I couldn’t figure out how long our halt would last. I’d watched four men help an old woman hop onto the already departing bus back in El Jadida, and I knew I wasn’t ready to perform such a trick in the event it was necessary. Men boarded proffering bags of clementines and bananas bunches for 5 dirhams. A hunched back woman climbed aboard, asked for change. Another man lectured the crowd for about 10 minutes. He was selling something – a product, a political notion, I’m not sure. I tried to talk the fruit vendors into selling me one piece of fruit for a dirham, but none of them would bite. I gave the old woman my dirham instead. Baraka, indeed, because soon after I gave away my coin, the mother of the children flanking me offered me a banana and a clementine.
The children spent the rest of the journey teaching me Arabic prepositions, which we demonstrated with one of the tiny oranges. Fuq: above. Thht: below, Mura: behind, qddam: in front. I taught them to count in English to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Soon, we were deep into the desert and the number of degrees inside the bus escalated. The kids taught me the word for hill, and for cow, and by the time we entered the outskirts of Marrakech, I had learned so many words that I was starting to forget everything. The kids took turns sitting on my lap.
At the bus station in Marrakech, the children shouted “Au Revoir, Erin!” until I couldn’t see them anymore. I hopped into a petite taxi, and headed to Djma El Fnna to meet my friends for a weekend of food and shopping and laughter.
Since this entry is already long and you can read about the awesome, but very touristy city of Marrakech everywhere else on the web, I’ll leave you with my photos and their captions and an offer to give you more details upon request. My new friend Kate, posted a great bargaining guide on her blog, so if you’re visiting Morocco and want to shop, make sure to read her tips first.Vodpod videos no longer available.