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Where East meets West - A Morrocan Love Story
Bev Hill

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 could.

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 expect cable!

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." No…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 and hospitality.

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.

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