I can't really remember
the first time I saw Najib. I suppose he had been just one of the group
of Moroccan men who waited for us after class. For me and the other
English teachers in the volunteer programme that summer there had been
so many people to meet that individuals were obscured in a sea of unfamiliar
faces. As the new teachers, we were, unfortunately, easier to remember.
We were instantly recognisable as the slightly dazed foreigners trying
to teach a horde of Arabic speaking teenagers to learn the words to
Bob Marley's 'Three Little Birds'.
In this dry, dusty and mercilessly sunny town of Oulad Teima, four kilometres
south of Agadir, most of the people I met spoke Arabic, and usually
French as well (Morocco's second language.) There were a few people
who spoke English, but Najib wasn't one of them, which I thought was
a shame, as the more I saw of him the more I liked his crazy ways. I've
never seen someone do such a convincing Jim Carrey impersonation.
As the days flew by in a chaotic whirl of social engagements, meals,
parties and guest invitations from just about everyone - including the
Major of Oulad Teima - Najib and I stayed in the background of each
other's lives. When our ever eager students dressed all the teachers
up in traditional Moroccan clothes and organised a party for us, Najib
and I danced side by side -- but we never spoke as we didn't think we
It all changed the day our group set off for a picnic in the Berber
Mountains. At seven A.M., before the heat of the sun reached its full
fury, about twelve of us packed into the back of an old canopy-covered
truck, with our vegetables, saucepans and stereo, and headed off for
the rugged, beautiful terrain ahead. We drove past old men with world-weary
donkeys pulling carts carrying everything from oranges, paper, and even
dead donkeys; past shop-keepers laying out melons and olives, spices
and goat's heads; and finally reached the edge of town. There we made
the ascent into the thinner, mistier air of the Atlas Mountains.
On arriving we set up camp for the day and began preparing the tajin,
a traditional Moroccan dish made from cooked vegetables (mainly potatoes)
soaked in turmeric, which turns everything a warm shade of yellow. This
was no pre-pack sandwitches and plastic ham kind of picnic: we all had
to help with the washing, peeling and cooking and we ate with our hands.
After we finished the food some of us decided to cross the fragile wooden
bridge, climb up some loose and rocky ground and visit the Berber village
where one of our group had once been an Arabic teacher. The original
inhabitants of Morocco, the Berbers still speak a separate language
and many still live in villages often so remote that donkeys are used
to collect water from the streams. The village was strangely quiet,
and when I saw the satellite dishes on some of the roofs I supposed
they were watching T.V. They couldn't have Jerry Springer, could they?
It must get a bit boring up in the mountains sometimes, but I didn't
On our way back down I tried to pick a prickly pear which grows on the
cactus plants. Why couldn't I just have remembered the song 'Bare Necessities'
and not picked by paw? But God (or Allah, depending on your side of
the hudud: the ancient frontier between Christians and Muslims) - works
in mysterious ways. This was the catylst that got Najib and I talking.
We gradually discovered,as he picked the spikes out of my hand, that
we could speak the same level of French. It was probably technically
pretty flawed, but we seemed to understand each other. Had we invented
our own form of pidgin French? When we ran out of words, or confidence,
we played 'scissors, paper, rock'. (How did this game become so well-known?)
We sat together in the truck on the way back and gazed in awe at the
breath-taking scenery, high up from the often chaotic world below. I
didn't see any goats in trees eating nuts as I had done on my way to
the town of Taroudant to the west, but it was still special. Arabic
tunes drifted into the clouds from the stereo as our rickety truck wound
its way along the hair-raising mountain tracks back to civilisation.
I went back home with my host Jamilla that night, but the following
evening the group met up again for a meal in the small village of El-Koudia,
south of Oulad Teima, which is Najib's home. El-Koudia consists of a
Mosque, some shops and a scattering of houses amidst great stretches
of desert land and coarse bushes. Nadia and Julia, two of the other
teachers, were waiting for us at Najib's house, and had spent the day
being decorated in henna by some of Najib's cousins. We were having
the meal at another house but Najib had made some mint-tea and cake,
which we ate under a canopy of grapes in the small vineyard adjoining
the main house. We relaxed on the rugs (hand-spun by Najib's mum) and
felt the warm summer breeze drift in through the cactus plants outside,
as Najib kept replacing my last piece of cake and my last glass of mint-tea
with the next. By the time we had the main meal all I really wanted
was an olive. As usual when everyone finished eating the singing and
clapping began. I am starting to feel that clapping has been sadly over-looked
in the field of Western music. Unfortunately I will never be able to
clap like a Moroccan.
At the end of the night we all walked back under a ceiling of stars
to the truck which would take me to Jamilla's house in the village of
Chrada, on the other side of town. As the back of the truck was open-top,
Najib decided to accompany me and keep me warm under his coat. Everyone
was dropped off along the way, including Najib, or so I thought until
a windswept head grinned at me through the front passenger window. Strange
men don't often just 'come in for coffee' in Morocco, so we said goodnight,
and saw each other the next day when we went to the seaside town of
Essauoira, to the north of Agadir.
Essauoira is a beautiful town. The air's salty, the walls are predominantly
blue and the beach stretches out for miles. There is every kind of fish,
cooked on open grills, and smooth wooden carvings, for which Essauoira
is renowned. The first time I was in this town, three years ago, I was
stranded on the beach with a rampant stomach bug, but this time was
one of the highlights of my whole two-month stay in Morocco. While we
were being serenaded by some folk musicians in an open-air restaurant
and drinking café au lait, Najib disappeared and returned with
a small wooden camel he'd bought for me.
By the end of the night we managed to escape the group and went to where
the cannons, in less tranquil days, overlooked the North Atlantic Ocean.
We sat on a cannon and Najib started saying something about how he had
two hearts. I started to wonder if he had a wife and was looking for
number two, as in Morocco men are still legally allowed to have four.
As my palms started to sweat with fear he pulled a stuffed yellow heart
with a smiling face from under his jacket, leaving him with one heart
for himself. When we got back to our lodgings we were slightly reprimanded
for disappearing into the night, but we made a hide-out from some cushions
and retired to the kitchen.
The second month, after the teaching had finished, Najib and I joined
another organisation based in Chrada. The two of us and twenty other
Moroccan volunteers spent about three weeks planting trees, irrigating
soil and pushing each other around in wheelbarrows, in an attempt to
breath some life back into Chrada's public garden. It rarely rains in
Morocco, and as the western Sahara gobbles up more land all the time,
areas that once grew orange trees are now left bare. It was strange
that here I was in a baseball cap and workman's vest, digging trenches
with a bunch of Moroccan men, when only a week or so earlier I had been
teaching my class to say: " I am sad because my gold-fish is dead."
I'll never be a teacher.
We all stayed in a community hall and shared community cooking and sleeping
accommodation, which meant, as the only girl, I was left in a dormitory
on my own with ten empty beds and a small window. When it got too hot
to sleep inside we all slept on the balcony, where I tried to sleep
at the far end in the shadows so Najib could roll himself in a blanket
and come and sleep next to me. He never made it though, as somebody
always caught him and rolled him back. I didn't sleep much that month
as we were right next to a Mosque, and the sound of Arabic prayer was
often the last thing to be heard at night and the first thing you could
hear in the morning. It can be a beautiful sound, but then sleep to
me is also a beautiful thing. I never met Najib's parents as his father
is an 'Iman', the prayer reader who creates the haunting sound from
the Mosque. With this kind of occupation we didn't think either parent
would be ready for their son's relationship with a Western hedonist,
although I did meet friends and cousins who all treated me with warmth
Although the lives of men and women are publicly quite separate in Morocco,
it's changing all the time. As a visitor from the U.K I was lucky enough
to experience life on both sides of the gender divide. When I was with
Jamilla I was treated like a sister. They dressed me up in Moroccan
clothes and tried to teach me Arabic. Jamilla's sister even took me
on a tour of the orange factory in which she was working. When I was
with Najib I went to the traditionally male-dominated cafés,
drank coffee and smoked cigarettes. Some men disapproved, but most accepted
me for who I was in the context of my visit. At night I played football
with Najib in the school-yard and I even took Nadia for a tour around
town on the back of a friend's motorbike. That was an incredible buzz,
even though everybody stared at us.
I went back to Morocco to see Najib during Ramadan this December - the
time when all Muslims fast for a month - and I'm hoping to go back after
college this July. Ramadan was no picnic for a religiously-confused
Western girl, and it showed me that making a commitment to Najib in
the future would involve many perhaps unreachable compromises. Religion
is the backbone of Moroccan culture, whereas the pub seems to be a more
familiar notion to many Westerners. If only Najib and I had been born
in the same culture. I would love to find a way to be together, but
then maybe flowers will grow in the desert and maybe they won't. As
they say in Morocco: "Insh'Allah, my friend, Insh'Allah" -
If God be willing.
What will be will be.