You sit in the cab of a dump truck heading through a pass in the Anti-Atlas Mountains. An American of Irish-German descent, you are 100 miles from the northern edge of the Sahara Desert, and 4,000 miles from the Connecticut suburbs where you grew up.
Your boyfriend Lahçen is next to you and an annoying schoolteacher next to him. Like us, this schoolteacher paid extra to avoid sitting on the boxes of staple foods and everyday necessities being transported in the truck bed. A Moroccan of Arab descent from Casablanca, this stranger takes pains to tell you over and over in not quite perfect French how he wants nothing to do with the Amazight people of this Souss region.
You stare out at the taupe and brown landscape crying out for winter rains. Saturday is washing day, and bright Berber skirts of yellow and red dry on the brambles along the rundown road.
The narrow road is not marked on your folded map. The driver tells you it hasn’t been maintained since the French left in 1956, a not-so-oblique critique of the independent monarchy. You press your left leg against Lahçen’s right one and lean into him as he speaks with the driver in his native Tashilhit.
In Ait Abdellah, Lahçen asks you to sit at a café and walks off to hire a taxi driver who can take you and him to Tiznit in a standard-issue, beat-up old white Mercedes. Lahçen wants to avoid extra charges just because he travels with an American. Alone for the first time in days, you sip qawha nus nus—half milk and half coffee—at a plastic white table on the patio.
A dirt path veers off the road, and you scan it until the crest of a distant hill. Gazing far in the distance, beyond the furthest site you can see, you feel safe. You spent thirty years vigilant, protecting yourself from childhood neglect and later your lying, no-good husband. But today, in a foreign land where you speak only intermediate Arabic and enough Tashilhit to buy bread or say hello, a sense of security surrounds you.
Feeling as strong as the Moroccan sun, you relinquish your obsessive vigilance. You let down your guard. You allow Lahçen to guide you to a place God had always meant you to be.
Arriving in Tiznit, you pass women draped in mellafas, gauzy robes dyed in bright pinks, greens, reds and blues. The distinct penchant for bright colors vivifies this drab concrete city, making it as colorful as an English country garden.
You tour the medina, a walled quarter with alleys and cul-de-sacs. A city constructed by Sultan Hassan I in 1881, Tiznit is a first stop in a tour that will bring you to Iligh, where Lahçen researches the Jewish merchants who once brought ostrich feathers across the Sahara in exchange for cloth and grains.
A man on a beat-up bicycle stops. He assesses you and Lahçen, strangers in a neighborhood where everyone knows each other.
“Do you need help,” he asks in French.
“Oh ho,” says Lahçen, who breaks into Tashilhit again. He tells this local of his research, and the man points to a date palm standing awkwardly in a three-way intersection. You smile and snap a photo when he identifies it as Tiznit’s landmark.
You see a mosque of brick and mud plaster. You examine the short beams jutting out of the minaret, a reminder of Tiznit’s trans-Saharan links. It calls to mind a mosque you saw in Mali. Workers climbed high to recoat the Great Mosque of Djenne, an annual restoration that rejuvenated Mali’s spiritual epicenter.
Tiznit has long functioned as a liminal space between disparate worlds.
You stop at a jewelry store, one of many in Tiznit. You peer at a tidy display through the storefront window. Marcasite rings and bracelets of precious metals invite passers-by to remain.
Below these shiny trinkets, the vendor has tossed old Berber brooches of refashioned coins once used to fasten the ceremonial robes of women. You enter the shop with Lahçen and sift through the pile, discussing events of the years stamped on each rial.
You buy a flawless museum piece, an antique of aesthetic and historical significance. The vendor sells it only for the price of its silver, as if its long past and detailed workmanship is worth nothing. Minted before French colonization, the coin circulated in 1903, the reign of Abdelaziz. You look closely at the brooch, expressing curiosity about who wore it, and why her descendants would sell their great-grandmother’s jewelry.
In that moment, you anticipate more backroad travel with Lahçen.
But you do not know that you will never get to the camel market of Guelmim. Nor eat cactus fruit sold by street vendors in Sidi Ifni. Nor buy a t-shirt at some dingy surf shop in Tahgazout.
And you surely do not know that you will one day, some twenty odd years in the future, come across that silver brooch you just bought, remembering how you once had a picture perfect day.
BIO: Stacy E. Holden (stacyeholden.com) is an Associate Professor of History at Purdue University. She is presently assessing midlife nostalgia by tracing Edith Wharton’s 1917 trip to Morocco.
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Terrific piece…can’t wait to read mor!
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