So my last night in the village, Yusuf and I are sitting in the living room enjoying some dates and cold tea. Idris appears at the doorway and says to me,
“This is the last night for you to visit Lallia, if you want.”
I’m feeling pretty spineless, woozy from excess of sugar and thinking about sleep.
“Okay,” I say, “but you have to do all the talking.”
He doesn’t get the joke. He’s been encouraging me to go see this lady but for reasons unknown to me he’s also been a little broody about it. I put my jellaba on, plus some shoes made of yellow Fes leather for appearances’ sake, and we head out into the darkened village.
Idris surprises me by stopping short of Lallia’s shack and knocking at the door of a brand new house made of concrete. A voice answers from inside. It sounds like a child’s. Idris grins and dips into the shadows, leaving me alone on the step.
“Knock again,” he says, “And say salam aleikum.”
I do as I’m told. The door flies open. Twelve inches below my eye level is the face of a withered little man, maybe 35 or 40 years old, with an arrow-shaped nose and perfect teeth. He looks at me in wide-eyed amazement. This is Mohammed, one of Lallia’s two grown children with developmental problems. I speak to him:
“Hello Mohammed! Mamnk a tgit? How are you?”
The man turns and runs into the back room, chirping with excitement. Idris is bawling with laughter, still hiding in the shadows. When tiny Mohammed appears again he comes through the doorway and throws his arms around me. My apprehension vanishes instantly. A hug? This is the most human gesture I’ve felt in weeks.
When he decides to let go of me, he exchanges the formal greetings with Idris.
“He is a very simple man,” says Idris, “and a good man. He is sick, but he has a good heart.”
Mohammed beckons me to follow him into the back room, but when I round the corner I recoil in horror. Draped across several couches in the living room there are several girls in their late teens, their faces uncovered. They’re all busy Facebooking on their phones.
“There are women in there!” I whisper, turning back to Idris. “What do we do?”
Idris peeks around the corner. “It’s okay,” he says to me, “they’re only girls.”
The next few minutes are highly embarrassing as Idris and I sit on a couch waiting, for what I don’t know. I eat a peanut with the wrong hand and say ‘mamnk a tgit‘ on Idris’s command. There is much talk about my Moroccan shoes which I cannot follow.
At last Idris stands up and says, “So Lalia is at her home, and Mohammed will lead us there.”
Mohammed dons his warm jellaba and skips out into the night, beaming. Idris and I follow at a distance.
“He is a very simple man,” Idris says agan, then calls in Berber,
“You remember Gavin, Mohammed?”
“Are you glad to see him?”
“Are you very happy?”
“All the time ‘yah!'” Idris nudges me with a smile
My heart melts. Idris, an overwhelming person, had hitherto overwhelmed most of my memories of the village. But now I am remembering what it felt like to be ushered into Lallia’s old mud house, with the whole village at my heels, for the quasi-ceremonial eating of couscous as a welcome from the general populace. From that point on Idris had taken charge of me and taken me into his home, but damned if, sitting as the guest of honor in that old lady’s house, I hadn’t felt like one lucky kid.
Mohammed has given Lallia a heads-up and she’s waiting for me in the old wooden doorway. I am hugged. I am coddled. My cheek is pinched and then kissed. I couldn’t remember this lady’s face before but now I recognize it clearly.
It was a shock to suddenly be at such close quarters with someone, in contrast with the social situation at Idris’s home — don’t enter a room with women. Don’t touch with your left hand. Greet everyone on equal terms. Let Idris do the talking.
I’ve never been close to any grandparent, and now I am close to tears in the embrace of this precious, warm personality.
We go upstairs and I’m seated in front of the TV. Mohammed’s sister is pulled into the rooms. Is she Mohammed’s twin or is she older? Her skin is dark and wrinkled and her head is shaved.
“Say hello to Gavin,” they all say. She smiles, but shrinks away from me and won’t speak.
I’m the center for attention so I struggle for things to say.
“Tell Lallia she has a very lovely house,” I tell Idris, “And that I love this kind of traditional architecture.”
Lallia’s response horrifies me. Idris doesn’t need to translate; her tone and gestures are expressive enough:
“Eh! Traditional architecture? We live in a shitheap! This house isn’t fit for livestock! Traditional architecture? Get up, I will show you how we live.”
I am crimson with shame but her tone is that of casual conversation as she leads us from room to room pointing out all the things they are lacking.
“Look at this bedroom! Hardly any blankets! We’ve either got to sleep on top of them and shiver for want of covers or put them over us and feel the cold through the floor! Look at that shelf, hardly any possessions! A pot, a dish, some perfume…” Here she snatches from the shelf a half-full bottle of amber perfume and a block of orange musk. I recoil in horror as she holds these things out for me, a gift. Idris is no help and I have to accept them, though I know straight where these smelly things are going when I get home.
Then one of the girls from the other house comes up the stairs. I now see the strong family resemblance — Lallia’s granddaughter perhaps? Earlier she’d said ‘hello, how are you’ to me and I’d figured she was just showing off for her friends. But it turns out she speaks English almost as well as Idris. She takes over translating for Idris, who looks uncomfortable at having been made redundant.
The girl is a fountain of words. “Would you like something to eat? No? Er, Lallia says it isn’t optional. Have some couscous. Would you like to change the TV channel? Why aren’t you touching the meat? Here’s a fork. Calm down Idris, this show isn’t anti-Islam and anyway, Mohammed can’t understand it. Eat more couscous! It’s okay, Lallia says you won’t get obese; hahaha. Now she wants me to say something about myself. Er, I’m studying communications technology, but I’m almost finished. It’s very hard and… ”
Lallia begins speaking more energetically. The girl turns pale but translates,
“Lallia wants to know if you are married.”
I am not married. Lallia keeps speaking but now the girl is keeping her mouth shut. I turn to Idris but he’s keeping his eyes fixed on the TV, chewing resolutely on a stringy piece of orange.
Lallia follows my glance. I must have an orange, she says. No, don’t take the small one, take the big one. (This is the worst orange I’ve ever eaten. Lallia might have bought it weeks ago, not knowing when I would turn up.)
Between this girl having been ordered to come to Lallia’s house and Idris looking like he might cry, I’m beginning to get an idea of what’s going on. I think it’s bloody hilarious, but I’m the only one. Idris and the girl are holding a silent conversation with meaningful looks across the room but they have their own dialect of adolescent grimaces and eye-rolls, which I can’t interpret.
For everyone’s sake I’m trying to eat as fast as I possibly can. I begin exchanging closing formalities with Lallia, aware that my translators are withholding certain things from me.
I don’t care. Lallia really is a joy to talk to. On the edge of the world, stuffed into an obscure valley in some obscure mountains, I’ve found a slice of family, and so what if she wants to marry me off to her granddaughter. Idris is the only Moroccan with whom I have ever really bonded, and in this moment I almost resent him and his starched piety for hiding this side of his world from me. Had the atmosphere in Idris’s house been less stuffy back before he’d become religious? I can’t remember.
To me a Berber home has always meant hospitality pure and simple, but for the first time I am beginning to see two sides to that hospitality: Idris’s formal, Islamic brand, but also a more human, less formal type.
Goodbyes are said at last; Idris and I stagger off into the night. Idris has withdrawn into one of his rare silences. I wonder what it is like for him to be alone with his thoughts. He rises at 5 in the morning for prayer. His studies and job run into the hours of darkness, daytime prayers leaving only minutes for a lunch break. At night he volunteers his time to tutor young children in algebra. He then makes the 30-minute walk through the city back to his dormitory where he puts in his earbuds and falls asleep listening to the Quran. Idris’s life abhors silence. At least that’s how it looks from my perspective.
After walking in the darkness for a while he speaks to me.
“What is the word for somebody when all they think about is money? When they only love money?”
“Greed,” I say. “We say that person is greedy.” I don’t get his drift but then he explains,
“When Lallia invites you over she thinks you can marry her granddaughter, and that you are rich because you are from America. That is why she asks me to bring you to her house.”
I say nothing. I’m now realizing what the guided tour of her poverty had been all about, and the gift of the girly perfume burns in my pocket.
“Of course that girl would never want to marry you,” Idris says.
I respond “Whaddya mean?” with a tone of mock-indignation. That’s the kind of thing he used to find funny. Maybe he doesn’t understand. He goes on,
“Young people are good Muslims,” he explains simply, speaking very slowly. “You saw me take Lallia’s hand and kiss it when I saw her, and other things I never do with women except in this village. Every time I do this, I ask God to forgive me. But the people in this village do not understand that these things are bad. The women can’t speak Arabic, they can’t read the Quran. But even if I were not a Muslim, we take care of our guests. We don’t ask for money. When Lallia looks at you, she only wants your money.”
At this point I am looking up at the stars and grinding my teeth. Resentment takes hold of me, resentment toward Idris. What’s his problem? Talking shit about an old lady. I am so overwhelmed by the affection of Lallia and her family. I know she’s genuine.
If I didn’t envy the idea of marrying the granddaughter, I’d still have taken Lallia back to America without a second thought and installed her there as my grandmother. And can you blame me, as I lay in bed while the tinny strains of Quranic verse drifted across the room from Idris’s headphones, for lapsing into nostalgic thoughts about Berber life as it must have once existed — as it still did exist in Lallia’s ancient hovel — where Islam had colored, added flavor to the culture, but not been allowed to absorb the ‘Berberness’, what the French call Amazighité. The Scots never gave up their culture, nor the Basques their language. All over the world isolated mountain peoples have held tight to their way of life. But here it seems to be slipping.
Berber historians agree that before the Arabs conquered, mountain life bore the hallmarks of unity between the sexes, positive democracy based on absolute social equity, the value of free enterprise in a harsh physical environment, and everybody making it generally easy for one another to have a damn good laugh.
The younger generation is migrating to the cities, buying Western clothes, working at French bakeries, studying communications technology. There’s a desire among Berbers, a quest for cultural authenticity. Is modernization helping or hindering the effort? One could argue both ways.What about Islam? What happens when the youth, as well as a modern education, gets a Quranic education? I remember what had happened when I spoke to Idris’s sister on the phone…
No more words pass until we get back to our house. In deriding old Lallia, I am complicit in my silence.