The festival was planned for sundown. Idris made sure I was decked out for a traditional celebration — I wore a nice silky foqiya robe under my scratchy wool jellaba, topped with the new headscarf (a replacement for the one left in Dakhla). The outfit was jazzed up with the bright yellow slippers of Fes leather which were already giving me blisters — Idris wouldn’t hear of me wearing my hiking boots on such an occasion.
We were loitering around the living room — myself, Idris, Idris’s brother, brother-in-law, and assorted male family members whose relationship I’d forgotten. Idris’s mother was in the kitchen with some other women. They’d been in there the whole day, cooking up some kind of banquet.
I was doing the thing where I try to act comfortable while I’m being completely excluded from a Berber-language conversation. Idris noticed, and tuned the TV to the National Geographic channel for my benefit.
I was thirsty so I went into the kitchen, nodded politely at the company of women, and poured myself a glass of water. I don’t mind drinking Moroccan tap water if the source is high in the mountains.
A long time ago I was in a cafe on the high-altitude Tizi-n-Tichka highway and I asked for a glass of water. The waiter merely gestured to an array of rusty oil drums with a plastic dipper hanging from a nail above. I’d lifted up the lid of one and peered inside, highly suspicious. Just then, a young man in a leather jacket who was smoking on a bench had called to me, in cheery English,
“That’s the cleanest water in the world!”
His tone somehow changed the character of the swill in the oil drums, and from that point I’ve drunk whatever the Berbers drink, though I haven’t been able to completely vindicate the stuff for occasional gut woes.
Ironically, I’m certain I’ve never gotten sick from drinking straight from streams in Morocco, so when piping it to kitchen taps they must muck it up somehow.
I settled in to watch the NatGeo channel when Idris materialized and crouched down next to me.
“Listen,” he said, smiling, “in a Berber home we have two types of rooms; the rooms for the women and the rooms for the men. If the women are in the kitchen, then men can’t go in there.”
I guessed he was referring to my expedition for a glass of water, and I was confused. I said,
“But I hang out with your mother all the time. She’s everywhere all at once.”
“It’s different with my mother,” he said, “You’re family.”
I didn’t ask him who the ladies in the kitchen had been if they weren’t family. I took the rebuke on the chin. In the end he insisted it wasn’t a big deal.
“Thanks for telling me,” I said, “I make cultural mistakes from time to time.”
It was about 6:00 in the evening. The time had come to make tracks for the festival. Idris’s mother emerged from the kitchen with a — for want of a better word — pedestal on top of which was an entire chicken, floating on a fluffy cloud of couscous and eggs. It was a beautiful sight. No doubt the chicken had drawn breath and scratched for worms in Idris’s back yard only that morning.
“What’s that?” I asked Idris, indicating the strange container. He wrote the name of it in my notebook. I can copy what he wrote, but I can’t tell you how to say it:
We stepped outside and formed ranks behind Idris, as no one else really knew where we were going. Idris hoisted the lmtrrs onto his head and our group followed him down cactus-lined paths between houses. We picked up another lmtrrs from a neighbor (“that man is too old to carry it himself,” Idris explained). Men had begun to gather in a sandy clearing at the bottom of the village in a copse of argan trees. The platters of food were gathering, too.
I hadn’t seen any women up to this point, and figured they had some separate shindig going on elsewhere.
Apparently this was the assembly point for the village. Idris pointed out to me some old ruins on a hillside further down the valley.
“That’s where we’re going,” he said. “My ancestors lived down there a long time ago. That’s where the festival is.”
The ancestral home of the village? The word Ifkhal means ‘old man’; I wondered whether that meant that the village was celebrating its roots.
Once everyone had assembled, we gathered up our loads and continued down the valley. By this point we were all pretty hungry.
It was nearly dark when we reached the base of the valley. The frogs and crickets had begun to lend a little music to the night, while overhead swallows and bats — there are plenty of both in these parts — did their bit to keep the mosquitoes from bothering us.
We rounded the last bend, where there was a mosque on the far side of the river. Around this, four or five hundred men and boys had gathered with their platters of couscous. The male residents from every village in the surrounding hills had convened here. We waded across the river to join them.
There was some singing and praying. I didn’t understand what was going on. Did this festival have religious significance, or were they just praying as part of routine salat?
When that was done we knuckled down to eat. Only ten or so people could fit around a given platter of couscous, so we had to split up. I was stuck in a group of guys from another village. We waited for everyone else in the throng to get themselves situated to attack the repast. Then someone hollered “have at it, boys!” — so we did.
There’s a certain way to eat couscous or rice in North Africa: plunge your hand into the communal dish. Grab a fistful. Squeeze as hard as you can to compress it into a dumpling. Pop said morsel into your mouth.
As for me, I’ve never been able to master this approach, thanks to my wet noodle grip. What else can you do with no utensils? I tried piling some couscous into my open palm and lapping at it like a cat, but I gave this up out of shame and just fished out the eggs.
The carnage over, the praying started again. Some of the men went back inside the mosque and the loudspeakers on top of the building started bellowing, as they do. I sat and waited, writing a bit in my notebook. Idris’s brother-in-law Yusuf came and sat down next to me. He said he had no idea what was going on either.
“You don’t have this festival where you’re from?” I asked, as his hometown was only 15 kilometers away.
“Small cultural differences…” he explained.
“And I prefer it here over my home,” he went on. “The frogs, the trees, the water…”
The one time I had visited Yusuf’s village I’d been run out of town by wild pigs, so I agreed with him that it was nicer here.
I really liked Yusuf. On the way home I walked with him for a while. I told him that I was sorry I hadn’t been able to attend his wedding last year.
“I know your wife is in town, but I haven’t got to meet her yet,” I said. I was interested in his wife, Idris’s sister. I’d spoken to her on the phone a few years ago, the day I’d first met Idris. Her English was excellent, and she’d been fun to talk to.
“She’s an English teacher, isn’t she?”
“Yes, in Agadir. She teaches French also.”
“Really? She speaks excellent English. I spoke with her on the phone.”
“Ah – no you didn’t.”
We were walking single-file along the path; I was in front. I turned around to give him a look of questioning. His face said something odd. He continued, sounding embarrassed.
“You didn’t speak to my wife. She didn’t want to talk to you so she gave the phone to her friend.”
I went, “?”
Yusuf looked in agony. He explained, “when Idris phoned my wife so you could talk to her, he didn’t know that in Islam it’s not good to speak to a woman who is engaged. So my wife gave the phone to her friend. The girl you spoke to was not my wife.”
My jaw must have been hanging wide open.
“No shit!” I said. I was gobsmacked. I wasn’t upset at the double-cross; I’m always sensitive of causing cultural clashes, but the whole affair fascinated me. Best of all, it hadn’t been my fault, the phone call had been Idris’s idea. His poor sister must have tossed the phone away like a hot potato.
“Well heck, I’m so sorry,” I said to Yusuf, hoping to comfort him — for he clearly thought he’d put his foot in his mouth. I went on,
“I mean it. Thanks for telling me. I often make these cultural mistakes, but I’m learning.”
Actually I was starting to think it was hilarious. Idris’s sister and her friend must have been having a good laugh at the other end of the line. But I thought it tactful to change the subject, and Yusuf and I walked on up the hill discussing American Thanksgiving.