Youssef and his Family
The late afternoon light is always exquisite in Morocco, so I decide to descend into the riverbed and go on a little wood forage. I see a large pile on the other side of the pebbly, completely dry expanse that obviously sometimes becomes quite a raging river, but my guess is that this belongs to the house 40mtrs further up and I’d be loathe to be discovered ‘stealing’ wood, even if I didn’t intentionally do it. I walk along the riverbed into the sunset. Half a mile further down, I give up. There are plenty of bushes and no doubt the river brings along chunks of wood too when it flows, but there is absolutely nothing to be found – someone, or probably a whole lot of people, have been here before me. I return empty-handed to Emma. Just when I get to the bridge, I see two old women walking home, bent double under the huge weight and sheer bulk of firewood they have collected in the afternoon, god knows where, wrapped in a handmade Berber cloth, the size of a double bed sheet.
As promised, not long after sunset, Youssef turns up, climbs into Emma and we tootle off to his home in a little town by the side of an oasis. When we arrive, the whole family is crowding onto the street to welcome us, mother, sisters, cousins, and many children.
Over the last years, Youssef has built a big house for his near and extended family. It’s by no means finished, but they have already moved in. Maybe they have another house in the village, we don’t know, but for tonight they are all here, including his ailing father who is recovering from a recent eye operation.
The house has electricity, many rooms, several storeys high, a television, a washing machine and a basic kitchen, but apart from that, there is a distinct feeling that this family has only just moved in, or possibly it’s their first house ever. It is literally still a concrete shell with holes for windows, no heating and hardly any doors and yet, the family is happy and very proud to show us all the nooks and crannies. So what I don’t understand, there are at least twelve people in this family and we get shown the whole house. In one room, I see two suitcases, but apart from that, there is no evidence of where people keep their clothes – no cupboards or shelves. Ditto in the kitchen, no tables or chairs and very few cooking utensils. The work is done on the ground, maybe a tarpaulin is spread out and this is where vegetables get peeled and food prepared.
It’s one thing to get one’s head around how little people need here to make their lives work, but there is another thing that I fail to understand: When you go to the souqs, there are many, many stalls offering stuff. You can get everything there – clothes, toys, kitchen utensils, carpets, food, furniture etc etc. But who buys all this, and where do they put it??? Every time we get invited to a house, we are struck by the sparseness. Even in families where we think it’s not out of necessity but out of choice.
We spend a lovely evening with the family, making paper boats, planes and birds, talking to Youssef’s lovely parents and partaking in a delicious couscous. Youssef’s mother takes my hand and won’t let go. She shows me all the women’s parts of the house – the kitchen, the washing machine, the haya – a window, from where she can watch the road without being seen (this is a deliberate architectural design quite common to houses here, so never think there’s no-one watching you!). At some point, I get whisked out onto the road – all the women of the neighbourhood and a whole lot of children meet outside someone’s house to share a very large tagine of couscous. This is the custom in this village, and families take turns to provide the tagine. I get pulled into the fray and Youssef’s sisters and sister-in law reach over the kids heads to grab a handful of couscous and vegetables, deftly rolling the food into a ball and passing it to me. I don’t know how many hands have been in that Tagine and where they’ve been before but there is no way I can refuse this offer of female solidarity, and besides, the food is delicious. I wash it down with a swig of water from the one metal cup offered to me, a cup that all 15 women and 30 children, use. Ah, what the heck, I drink it down gratefully. This is about being invited to be part of what’s going on. It’s an honour to be here and to be treated as one of them.
To complete the natural Morrocan inoculation programme, we also hug and play catch with the delightful children of the house, ignoring their hacking coughs and snotty noses.
Eventually, the family is ready to eat. A delicious couscous is served to us and the men of the house. The women are nowhere to be seen, apparently they eat or have already eaten elsewhere, and the children are told to sit by the wall and wait. Once we have finished, the dish is taken elsewhere, some more food added and it’s the children’s turn to eat. We are a bit surprised that not everyone gathers and eats together, but this is the way things are done in this house. Youssef has the main say here, and he walks around arranging everything, telling his family members what to do, when and where. His mother looks at him proudly – like so many older Berber women we meet, she has a happy, content look on her face and she obviously loves having all her family around her. She is a hard worker and she sees everything. It seems like she is able to comment freely on everything too. Looking into her eyes, I feel a thick stream of love and again and again, she takes me into her arms and hugs and kisses me, smiling and showering me with words I don’t understand.
Its quite intense, the way we re looked after in this house, so by about 10pm, we are happy to ‘escape’ to our van. The next morning we’re up early and ready to go before most of the family are awake. We slip into the house where all except the mother are still asleep. We bid a wordless but emotional good bye. Her eyes are brimming with love and she gives us big hugs and kisses.
The village is just awakening. We pass by children on their way to school, waving and smiling at us, and men and women using palm brooms to sweep the front of their houses. Everything looks fresh and tidy in the morning sun. We cross the river and turn right, back up the road to Tazzarine and off westwards from there.
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