Thursday, December 8, 2011

Moroccan Mountain Adventures with a Feminist Friend

I’d known Fatima since I’d lived in Morocco eighteen years ago. Though we wrote only intermittently, when I returned to Morocco two winters ago to teach anthropology and travel writing to American college students, she and I bonded again and picked up where we’d left off.  She was in Rabat, where I’d touched in briefly, and then I was in Fez.

One day, Fatima called. “I’m driving to Fez. Let me take you away for a day. You need a break from the city and from teaching duties.”   

Fatima loves her country and simultaneously feels it has a long way to go for its women. Her proposal promised adventures.

I’ll never forget her indignity, eighteen-years back, as she and I stood on the train platform in Rabat waiting for the train to the south where I’d spend the weekend with her and her family. She had killer legs and was wearing a skirt that fell above the knee. Men were swooning. She looked at me and said, “These legs,” she swept her arm up and down for effect, “get me into a lot of trouble.” I admired her panache and that it never occurred to her to wear a longer hem in order to skirt out of trouble. She didn’t buy into the gender restrictions of her culture and wanted to change it one law and one leg at a time.

She hadn’t changed one bit.

As she signed off, she added, “I want to take you to the countryside, to show you The Big Waloo.” This was Fatima’s experience of God: An open vista of breathtaking mountains. Waloo in Moroccan Arabic means “nothing.” The Big Nothing.

Shortly after we left Fez, Fatima told me about a local mineral spring she wanted me to experience. “It’s the real thing, full of well-being and very local.”

She suddenly saw a little boy carrying a pail on the roadside and careened to a stop.

“Hello. Where are you going?”

“To the spring.”

“For water?"

“No, to take a bath.”

“You don’t have running water at home?”


The feminista-Morocco-lover surged.

“Why aren’t you in school?”

“I have no father and three siblings. I have to help my mother.”

“Is she sick?”


“How old is she?”

“Thirty-five.” He said hesitantly.

“So,” recapped Fatima, “She is young, healthy, and capable of working but she has you do it? Where do you live? I want to talk to this mother of yours.”

The boy trembled. He just wanted a bath. Fatima softened.

“Okay, listen, promise me, when you go home, talk to your mother. Tell her that you will make more money when you have an education. Tell her from me that she should get off her bum…”

I interrupted in English, “Maybe that’s enough. It’s his mother...” 

She looked at me angrily, “Yes! And I’m making her a better one!”

We left the youth at the spring and again were on our way to The Big Waloo, Fatima’s favorite lookout point in the Middle Atlas, when we picked up a policeman walking in the rain.

This grown man in uniform, one who’d gone to school and made more money, got the same treatment.

“Why are you walking in the rain? You’ll catch a cold.”

“It’s the only way to get to the residence where I’m a guard.”

 “Is there no other way?”

“Well, I have no car. Walking is fine, except when it rains.”

The grilling stopped. The two carried on like old buddies. We dropped him off. He wished us blessings along our path.

In forty-five minutes, my friend had befriended—and berated—people from vastly different social strata in her society. 

Then, we arrived at Nothing: It was a vast, still, multi-layered and colored expanse of mountains in all directions. Once my eyes tuned to it, I could also make out the specks of shepherd and sheep along a few distant hills. Nearby, a donkey and human ambled together side by side. By the looks of it, they were having a heartfelt conversation. 

The ancient rhythms, the ones all humans evolved to and are still wired to, took over. Fatima had been right. This was the transcendent Big Waloo. And yes, I’d needed a break from the congestion of the bowl-shaped but captivating city of Fez.

We lolled the rest of the day at Fatima’s mineral spring, absorbing so much well-being that we were too tired for anything other than sipping fresh orange juice at the village cafĂ©. Donkeys loaded with a refrigerator, bricks, and melons sauntered by. Fatima was about to grill the donkey driver when she decided to save her energy for the drive back to Fez. 

I realized then that Fatima’s idea of The Big Waloo was more than mountain vistas. She was the Taoist paradox: Something is Nothing; Nothing is Something.