Sleeping Uneasy and Breaking Bread With Berbers

A Berber woman preparing the traditional mint tea at her home.

Source Getty

Why you should care

Because death, or the possibility thereof, is never very far behind.

“The hotel here is dirty with bugs.”

Omar told us this when we get off the bus at Beni Mellal.

“My mother is not at her apartment. All yours. I’ll show you around later.” He speaks perfect English. He’s dressed in khakis and a pressed white shirt. We settle into his mother’s house and then he and some friends drive us on hairpin turns up the Atlas Mountains, past an emerald green lake. We enter a small house and meet his toothless, laughing professor, eat chicken and couscous. It’s getting dark. 

“I’ll take you to a Berber village,” Omar says, “Not too far away.” My eyes widen, a Berber village! 

Jaclyn grabs a razor and I grab a knife. Who can we call for help? No one.

Jaclyn and I are both only 5’3”, but we stoop to enter the arched doorway of the brown mud hut where three Berber women live. We’re two middle-class kids in 1970, traveling after junior year abroad. We want to be with the real people, not on some sanitized tour.

Three women swoop toward us, one older and shorter. Their eyes, heavily painted with kohl, glow like minerals in the earth. They speak little English or French, just “hello,” so we follow their gestures and enter a tiny alcove with a mirror.

Two younger women carefully brush kohl into our bottom eyelids. “Pretty, very pretty, look, pretty.” We both have dark brown eyes and the kohl makes them glisten, too, just like the Berber women’s. We’re all sons and daughters of Abraham, Jaclyn and I both Jewish. 

They drape yellow scarves around our necks and step back, giggling when they look at us, our eyes framed with kohl and long, flowing scarves dripping off our shoulders like waterfalls. They gesture for us to follow them back out to the main room. One woman smokes a cigarette and they wear lipstick. Odd, I think, for women in Morocco, where women are usually escorted by men. The men stand on the periphery, expressionless but watching.

The women motion for us to sit down on the dirt floor around a small fire pit where one woman puts water in a kettle for mint tea. Another woman opens a wooden box and offers us small candies dusted with sugar and then offers the candies to the men. The men still stand on the periphery as the women gather in the center of the room. We’re sitting down now in a circle.

“Sing,” one of the women says, her eyes shining. “Sing!”  

I sing softly at first and Jaclyn joins in. “Michelle Ma Belle these are words that go together well, my Michelle…

I see them move closer to each other… their voices rising way up and falling way down into a grief-like wail

The three women clap their hands. They serve us mint tea, the leaves floating in the hot water. The hut is cold and I warm my hands on the cup. As I look at the leaves, I wonder what my fortune will be. Will it be good? 

“More songs, more songs,” the youngest woman says.

“All you need is love, all you need is love, and all you need is love,” we sing.

I feel close to Jaclyn then, closer than I’ve ever felt on this trip. We’re crossing borders that many never cross. In a mud hut way up in the mountains. The yellow scarf wrapped around my neck makes me feel regal. How generous these women are, sharing their sugary treats that probably cost a lot of money, these women who live in a dirt hut and cook in a pit in the middle of the floor.

Suddenly, I see them move closer to each other, three of them like the points of a star, their voices rising way up and falling way down into a grief-like wail that echoes out of the mud hut, their faces turned upward. Jaclyn and I clap and clap for them and now the men clap too.

I sip the warm tea, still warming my hands and we stand up in our circle, all the women — and hold hands rocking to “Love, love, love” as the hot water still boils in the pit. The men stand behind us, on the periphery, as if this were a place they could never enter, perhaps mesmerized by the strength of so many women singing together. Sisters from two continents, so many light years between us. 

We stop holding hands and all gaze at the fire pit. The fire is now embers. The songs have ended. I feel cold and just want to get back to our apartment, our home for the night. The place with no bugs where we can rest.

I put my head on my hands and yawn, gesturing to Omar that we’re tired. The women take us back into the alcove where we give them back their flowing yellow scarves and hug each of them. Our eyes still glisten with kohl. The men simply raise their hands to say goodbye.

When we leave the small arched doorway and then look back, the three of them are standing outside in the cold, no shoes on, shivering and waving. They look like young, innocent girls then, with yearning on their faces, as if they want to go with us, perhaps go with us to another life. One of the women, the youngest and shortest of the three, looks at me and sings, “Michelle ma belle.” Tears spring to my eyes. 

We slide out the door into another world.

That night though, when we get back to the apartment, someone tries to break in. Loud, terrifying knocks on the door and then the window. Jaclyn grabs a razor and I grab a knife. Who can we call for help? No one. Is it Omar and his friends? We don’t know. We leave at 6 a.m. for Marrakesh.

A few days later I realize that the Berber women were probably prostitutes. They smoked cigarettes and wore lipstick. The “professor” who spoke no English or even French might have found men for his “business.” We were finishing our third year of university, eating their sugar-dusted treats and singing together.

Their families might have abandoned them.

They would probably get very cold at night. 

A week later, Jaclyn and I board an Air France flight from Paris, back to America.

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