Once Upon A Mountain

Linda A. Dougherty

© Copyright 2020 by Linda A. Dougherty

2020 Travel Contest Winner

Photo of the author and son.
Photo of the author and son.  Property of Linda.

I learned many things during our five and a half years of living in Morocco, and perhaps my year and a half of living in a village in the Imlil Valley forty miles south of Marrakech taught me a valuable life lesson- don’t take yourself too seriously.

Everyone told me that I needed one. All of my neighbors could not imagine how I lived without one. They urged. They cajoled. They nudged. My life had to be empty without one. It was the unquestionable communal counsel of wisdom. “Get a cow.”

Now why on earth would I want a cow? I kept those thoughts to myself because I knew Aicha and Khadooj would regard me as hopeless, the ultimate city girl, the dumb American living among the villages in the Imlil Valley of Morocco.

Logically, I pointed out in my halting Arabic that I had no fields for the cow to graze, no place that was mine for me to gather grass for winter fodder, no stable, no room. Seemed like an airtight argument to me.

Patiently, my friends unraveled THE PLAN. They laid it all out, equally as obvious to them because we were, after all, rich Americans. We could pay someone to room and board our cow. Obviously, they had put their heads together and thought this thing through from every angle.

Didn’t I know I could have my own fresh milk and butter? So, I pulled out my buttercup yellow can of NIDO powdered milk with its bucolic scene of a black and white spotted cow grazing peacefully in a lush green field. “Ha boogaree” (here’s my cow)

They were not amused. Aicha rolled her eyes in mild exasperation. Khadooj shook her head. They exchanged side glances that said, “ A Rommi”. An outsider. They clucked like hens. “Why don’t you want a cow? “ The question came at me again and again with an air of puzzlement. It was woman’s work- had been since time out of memory in these mountains. I was dense….a foreign mystery.

I couldn’t explain to my friends who were trying to include me in their mountain-hemmed world that I did not want a cow or anything about having one. I didn’t want the smell, the flies, milking in the wee hours of early morning, mucking out a stable or any part of a cow. They would not understand. To them, cows were not only a source of milk, butter and yogurt, but the bedrock of identity for every women in every village scattered on the rocky face of the High Atlas Mountains. Every woman had a cow. Every woman except me and I wanted it to stay that way.

Aicha and Khadooj at times seemed to want to include me in daily activities. My two pre-schoolers tagged along with me to help Aicha gather grasses to pile inside her mud and stone sided stable so her cow would have fodder during the winter. It was fun and games to us; it was life or death to her. Not enough fodder meant the source of her milk, butter and yogurt would die of starvation well before the small swathes of grazing fields would be green-headed again.

I didn’t need a bossy to make me forget I once had a life where I could pick up a telephone to contact someone in a neighboring town instead of hooting something that sounded like “Yoo Hoo!” and waving to get attention from the village stacked a slightly above us about two football fields away. But, if having a cow was an initiation into the sorority of village women….I wasn’t going to pass.

The suspicion flitted through my mind that they had plotted together in the hopes I would pay one or both of them to stable my proposed cow and sell me fodder. A con, a shake down. I already realized they tended to look upon me as their golden goose, because most women spoke only Tachelheit, the language of Southern Moroccan Berber tribes. Khadooj and Aicha, improbably, had some how picked up some rudimentary Darija, colloquial Moroccan Arabic, that matched my own faltering grasp of the language.

I’d also already experienced early on a bit of the prevailing view of me as wealthy because I was an American. This realization made me, justifiably, somewhat suspicious of everyone’s motives in their interactions with us. But, then, what did I want from them? Some form of acceptance.

Within my first month of village living, a teenage girl from Taourirt, the village just a stones’ throw below us, came for a visit. I recognized the age-old routine as she held out a few apples from her family’s prized apple tree that stood ten yards away from my door. Every walnut, apple and cherry tree, every square foot of precious flat field belonged to a family and woe to anyone who was caught plucking or trespassing on that property. I realized this after one old village woman upbraided me in a torrent of angry Tachelheit and Aicha translated the gist, we’d accidentally trampled a few of her precious rye plants in the field while walking rather like ungainly elephants to get to our house from the road which led on a narrow beaten strip around her family’s field next to our house. After Aicha explained and I apologized and said we would be more careful, Aicha translated and added “they are not from here, they didn’t know, ” the woman left, seemingly mollified.

According to Moroccan unwritten rules of etiquette, those few apples offered by Naima, who I’d never seen before, meant I was indebted to her, and by extension as not an adult, her family, since the apple harvest was money earned. I knew, from reading and shared experience of other Americans who lived in Morocco, the only way to excuse myself from this unwanted debt was to give them something more valuable. It was the ultimate game of one-upmanship. They were expert gamesmen while I could merely recognize the game was afoot.

Just that morning, I had baked several batches of American style cookies with lots of butter and sugar I’d brought from a weekend trip into Marrakech. I was sure they had never tasted the likes of chocolate chip cookies before and imagine they would rapturously swoon over my offering while joyfully cancelling any levied debt. But the large bag of cookies to take home to her family didn’t deflect Naima from her mission- to ask me if I had “she sleep” to give her. Thinking she wanted a western style half-slip, I glibly answered in my broken Arabic, “Sorry, but I only have one and I left that in Marrakech. I don’t wear it here.” She looked incredulous, silently taking her cookies. It wasn’t until a week or so later something happened that helped me understand her look of disbelief.

Trying to fit in, or at least not stick out with my American clothing, I dressed like the village women from my scarf swathed head down to my cheap plastic shoes that surprisingly turned out to be more practical and comfortable to walk in than the expensive hiking boots I’d lugged from the US. Considering all the cow and goat droppings that paved most paths, and my frequent slips off semi submerged rocks into streams, the plastic shoes were definitely the right choice. Besides, it made me more like them at least on the outside.

In fact, my village woman imitation was good enough to fool small flocks of tourists migrating through the mountains late in spring, summer or early fall. It became my own personal game. My daughter was dark haired, with deep brown eyes and easily tanned skin. I dressed her like the local girls with a mid-calf length dress, plastic shoes and seerwal- Moroccan style pantaloons.

Fool the Tourists” game would happen unexpectedly and I waited for those chances. The first time, it was happenstance, but after that, I waited for that chance at another round. My daughter and I periodically trotted alongside Aicha and Khadooj on some errand with them, chatting and laughing along a well used path or near a pock marked dirt road that led up to villages higher up the valley. Sometimes villagers walked along the dirt drive, although typically everyone on mule or on foot used a spider web network of well-trod paths between villages. Occasional trucks rumbled slowly up the questionable road, bringing supplies like heavily filled butane gas tanks up and toting empty tanks back down the mountain road. Tourists, some on foot and a few daring the jostling camion ride shoulder to shoulder with wool dejllaba clad village men and butane tanks, would lean with their elbows slung over the rim of the truck, taking in the scenery. Tourists hailing mostly from Germany, Spain or England, would see us and smile beneficently. The locals on display. What a picturesque view of pastoral people. Smile.

Then, my all-American looking son would inevitably run up from well behind, as if perfectly timed. He was dressed in OshKosh B’gosh hand-me-downs from a kind friend with two older boys back home who’d stocked me well with stair step sizes before we left. He wore American sneakers. With his dirty blond hair, fair skin and blue eyes, there was no mistaking him as an out of place transplant. He inevitably yelled out something like, “Hey Mom!” I glanced sideways to take in their startled double takes and intense stares while keeping a stone face and pretending not to notice them. Life got monotonous in the mountains, so fun had to be snatched whenever and wherever one could find it.

We were the first American family who had ever lived in the valley. The men and women were accustomed to young Peace Corp workers who came to manage the forestry project and they saw plenty of tourists come to hike paths or climb up Jbel Toubkhal. They were used to tourists who brought in much needed money into the stunted local economy. But, I was a married women with little children, something they understood. My life faintly echoed theirs, though my life was significantly easier.

I learned how to make the staple of traditional Moroccan hospitality of the city or mountain folk- mint tea, heavily caffeinated and sugared so much that years of drinking this delicious drink caused many a toothless smile by the time village women were middle aged. I could make a decent imitation of couscous, although I never got the hang of sifting the steaming hot grains with my hands before piling on the stewed meat, vegetables and chickpeas in the well dug into the center of the mound of grains.

Weekly, I washed my clothes with a gaggle of women, listening to their banter and song as we stood on the banks of the stream that flowed down the mountainside through the valley. During my first laundry session, unbeknown to me, one of my panties escaped and started to travel downstream where a woman snatched them with quick reflex while others pointed and said, “ Sleep…sleep” I grabbed the returned underwear and started to shake with laughter. I laughed so hard, tears rolled down my cheeks while the girls and women looked at me with one of those “she has gone crazy” looks. Between guffaws and gasping for breath, I explained the story to one of the teen girls who had been to the local mdrasa for a few years, long enough to pick up some Arabic. She translated the story into Tachelheit for the older women.

Naima came to my house the other day and asked me for ‘sleep’. “ “I thought she meant something else and told her I had only one and left it in the city.” HA, HA, HA…I doubled over, roaring while they tittered uneasily with questions in their eyes and looked uneasily at one another.

Why did this strange foreigner think telling Naima that she had only one pair of underwear and left it in the city and had none up here was so funny? They failed to catch the humor of language bloopers. I later learned their favorite form of humor was telling me dirty jokes which I thankfully did not understand, although the pantomime left nothing to the imagination most times.

In the Imlil Valley, one valley of many in the High Atlas range lying south of Marrakech, small villages are stacked unevenly along the river’s path. The majestic snow-capped Mount Toubkhal stands as the guardian of the valley and witness to centuries of people eking out their lives in the valley by growing rye grain for bread, potatoes, carrots, peas to eat and walnut trees and apples for market. The washboard narrow road that often got washed out by downpours dumped into what the locals called the “Garage” (also another word borrowed from the French colonial era) Our little Renault-4 tin can car stayed parked there and we hiked a mile upwards to our little home, with provisions brought in from the city lugged on our backs in backpacks. There was no electricity back then in the valley.

In spring, summer and early fall, day-trippers arrived from Marrakech in grand taxis (taxis that ran between cities as opposed to petite taxis that shuffled through a city proper). Arabs from the city mixed with European tourists. Our valley was the destination for a United Nations of European hikers, planning to scale Toubkhal, the tallest mountain in North Africa. During the month of Ramadan, strays returned from their expatriate lives in European countries to spend time with their village families.

There was only one café then- Café Soliel, just up the dirt path from The Garage. A tethered row of hardy mules stood waiting at the side of the even narrower rutted road that ran up to higher villages. The mules’ owners, hopeful for trekkers looking for an adventure into the High Atlas Mountains, lounged nearby whiling away the days with mint tea, talking about crops and the occasional impromptu wrestling match. A rustic beehive style village ferran that baked bread for the café squatted nearby. There was a small hanute, a Moroccan Mom and Pop store, for visitors to buy a room temperature bottle of Sidi Harazam or Sidi Ali water, depending if you liked your water flat or fizzy.

Brahim, a carpenter from Aroumd, the farthest village up the valley, had his shop there. He was a well-respected man, intelligent and could boast that he had graduated from the local school in eighth grade. Most did not, especially the girls who were needed to shepherd younger siblings and tend to the chores of a hard- scrabble fight for survival of each family.

Had I graduated with honors from college and been an art teacher in a former life? These hearty women could stir glowing coals in their canoons under the teapot without flinching or a singe. They could carry heavy loads of dirty wash in a large metal washbasin on their heads down to the river. I was confounded when they adroitly walked up almost vertical steep scree-filled slope with a squalling baby strapped to their backs, while balancing the water–heavy clean wash load on their heads without using their hands once. I followed these nimble goat-women with both hands grabbing onto roots or whatever I could find to haul myself up behind them. I couldn’t traverse a mountain stream without a ducking while they minced gracefully along the path of partially submerged rocks without a single slip.

Often, Aicha or Khadooj would point out a faint moving speck inching along a mountain path a mile away and tell me, “Look, so and so is coming.” It took me many seconds of them pointing until I could just about make out through squinted eyes the ant form moving across the valley. I could tell time on my watch while they looked at the sun and told me the time of day. On more than one occasion, they exaggeratedly yanked up their right arm as I did to look at an imaginary watch on their wrists, then looked up to the sky and pronounced,
Almost four.” They were always right. My skills added up to nothing in this world and I grew to admire my friends.

Life became a pattern in our little cement four-roomed house that laid half way between two small villages. Our house was skirted by a drop on one side and steps down to the river, with fields and a dirt irrigation ditch like a shallow moat guarding the other side of the house. We rose early while the sun was yet behind the tallest peaks and the pinkish glimmer of dawn began to peek into the valley. The singing of the women beginning their work greeted our day. We made breakfast, eggs if we had them or bread with jam.

Bill began his daily rounds with Brahim to gather data for his doctorate thesis, the reason we were in this valley. My day then started in earnest. Make the beds, sweep out the rooms with the straw broom, strain and boil water for drinking and cooking. Do a little school with the kids. Once a week was laundry day, though hanging up wash outside was a tricky thing since socks often disappeared off the line despite the fact the lines were right outside our small bedroom windows.

After having lived for almost a year in the mountains, I had an illuminating discussion with Aicha and Khadooj about our worldviews on theft. The week before I’d seen two teen girls moseying around our clothes line one sunny afternoon ostensibly chasing unruly little goats who’d “wandered” on the small patch between our home and the step etched stone drop off, conveniently around our clean wash lines. At the time I bought into the myth….goats were known to have minds of their own. Later in the afternoon when I collected the dried wash, I realized several pairs of socks had gone missing. It didn’t take much sleuthing capacity to realize that the girls had absconded with my socks. I had no clue which village they belonged to, something they had calculated.

I huffed about it to my friends who told me that the girls’ parents knew nothing about it and it was all the girls’ fault, shrugging off the theft. I realized their minds it was as someone once explained, “It is like stealing one orange off the tree of someone who has an orange orchard to them.” To me, it was right and wrong and I was frankly by then, tired of being taken advantage of even by Aicha and Khadooj at times. I pointed out, “But their parents know they stole them because they will see the socks when the wash is hung out and they will know where they came from. They will know the girls stole them and if they do not make them return them, they are thieves too.” I realized that it wasn’t a big deal in one way. I could afford to replace the stolen socks. Widened eyes and thoughtful silence from my friends told me that my words were a new pair of glasses to view the world that couldn’t be cajoled in a bargain for reality.

The pattern unrolled day after day, accented now and then with a visitor who was curious to see how the Americans lived. Aicha and Khadooj could always be counted on for a daily visit with their gaggle of children during cold winter days. I didn’t fool myself about the motivation. It wasn’t me who drew them in but the butane heater that sat in our salon, another word Moroccans borrowed from the French that the Berbers borrowed from their Arab countrymen. It was a beacon of warmth that was irresistible. Like moths they were drawn to the flame many a winter afternoon for a few hours respite from the biting cold that blew into all valley homes through ill-fitting shutters over un-glassed windows and under doors. At dusk, we lit kerosene lamps in the kitchen and. The yellowed light lent a homey feeling as the darkness settled outside. We ate supper, talked, did the dishes, read stories then went to bed.

Early to bed and early to rise. Though, not as early as all of those women who were lucky enough to have cows. Their days started while I was still bundled in bed, thankful that I didn’t own a cow that would daily call me out into the mountain darkness. It was an early morning ritual I was glad to leave to Aicha and Khadooj.

In the surrounding villages huddled stone upon stone in the hushed misty gray of early morning, a lone rooster here and there called out while cows stirred and shuffled in dark stables set below the flat-roofed homes. The mother of each family or an older girl quietly would slip out from their cocooned wool blanket into the chill of dawn, dress quickly for the day while the rest of the family slept on. Women would bustle about their kitchen, stirring up live coals from under a nighttime blanket of ashes in the clay stove. Orange fingers jumped from one stick to the next in a growing glow. An iron pot of water settled over the fire. Dumping out a mound of wheat flour into a large flat clay dish, a pinch of salt, oil and yeast get worked in with practiced hands. Hand over hand, the elastic dough is pushed and punched into flat round loaves and set aside with a towel over them. Barley grain is measured and poured into the now boiling pot. One last stir, the morning porridge is left to bubble over the fire and she grabs a chipped plastic bucket.

Slipping outside into the still-gray morning, throwing back the stable door, threads of outside gray soften the stable darkness. She croons a greeting to her destiny. Squatting down by the cow with the pungent earthy smell around her, her head rested, slowly rising and falling with the breathing ebb and tide of the cow’s side, she steadily coaxes a steady stream of pale blue milk into the bucket below. She finishes, with a pat and the morning handful of grasses. Carrying the bucket carefully back to her kitchen, she puts it down, stirring the thickened porridge with a spoon and measures out coffee into a kettle of water to boil. Her work wheel has just began to turn until night falls and she can once more crawl into her cocoon as the wheel stops. Some nights a sick child needs tending or a mewling baby needs suckling and so she is once more, drawn from her cocoon into the darkness.

I knew this was the life of the women around me and there was no way I could ever approximate their lives. It bothered me at times to be ever the alien, but I became increasingly well practiced in other kinds of survival skills necessary when living in a different culture. As one American acquaintance wryly put her experience of learning Arabic, “You only have to squawk like a chicken and flap your wings once before you learn the word ‘djaja’.” Being able to communicate is something you take for granted in your own world, but as a transplant, even the simplest tasks become challenging.

Survival is an effective goad. I realized having Aicha and Khadooj who spoke Arabic at the same elementary level I did was both a blessing and a curse. It soothed the lazy part of me because I didn’t need to expand my Arabic beyond what they could comprehend. It also didn’t force me to learn Tachelheit. The only phrase I ever learned, to my disgrace, was “ Sgneer grir yan ee meek.” (I only speak a little) I could spit that out with the best of them.

Early on, when I tried to get women to teach me a few simple words, they had no clue how to help and flooded me with a cascade of Tachelheit. After several attempts to get a few sips of useful words, I grew tired of drowning in rivers of unintelligible words poured out by several women simultaneously and quit. Discouragement buried my initial enthusiasm under the mud of good intentions. So, my social circle constricted because of language. Likely, I should have hired one of the teen girls who had some inkling of schooling and knew some Arabic which would have made learning Tachelheit somewhat feasible.

My language lack was a distinct disability in the world of village women who spoke only Tacheleheit. It drove me into the arms of Khadooj and Aicha, which was probably like winning the lottery for those two outcasts. Not only did they live nearby, but they were unique in that we could communicate on a basic level. My friendship with them restricted my social acceptability elsewhere. When I was invited into other homes or parties outside of Aicha and Khadooj’s village, it was through Bill’s friend Brahim and his wide network of family scattered in various villages. A cousin over there, and aunt here- they were all connected through the most powerful and enduring social construct in Moroccan society- family.

Clinging to Khadooj and Aicha was a survival compensatory choice. Their connections seemed to be only with each other and with their immediate family. I don’t remember ever meeting or hearing about brothers or sisters or aunts and uncles. That should have clued me in to something was greatly amiss in their world.

In terms of survival techniques, the one skill I became well versed in was laughing at myself. When you live in a fish bowl as an object of great speculation and interest, you cannot take yourself too seriously because the possibility for mishaps is endless. During our eighteen months in the Imlil Valley, we were the local sitcom playing all day, every day. It was better than cable for the locals. We were the talk of the valley, the hottest topic around.

Everyone knew that we paid the unheard monthly sum of $350 to rent our house. This of course bolstered their perception of us as wealthy as did the way we lived. By city standards, we were living humbly, but we had beds, furniture, a stove with a butane tank, and Moroccan seddari, sofas that lined our salon with a floral design on a navy back ground with matching pillows and curtains at the windows. We were a like a Better Homes and Gardens model home for the village women.

They knew what every room in our home looked like. I imagined that Aicha and Khadooj, village outcasts for reasons I never fully understood, used their connection with me to broker some kind of social advantage. A shrewd exchange of information gleaned from their interactions with me for some degree of recognition in their woman’s world. Their entrance into my foreign world was a bit of a passport into respectable mountain society for them. But mostly, they were a duo always seeming to stand a bit outside the inner circles of village life.

Even Brahim who did not gossip as the women did only once, after almost a year, gave Bill a veiled caution against my friendship with these women who, despite living in a different village than he did, had some kind of social stigma attached to them. Or was it clannish possessiveness and a tinge of jealousy? We didn’t know. But, I was certain every detail of our life was discussed and dissected up and down the valley. We had no secrets.

At my husband’s insistence, before we moved in, he had a western style toilet installed indoors in place of the squat shot toilet the landlord had put into a dark closet near the door. We bucket flushed it, but given that everyone else either added to their cow’s manure or used the men’s or woman’s designated tree on the village outskirts, we lived in hygienic paradise. I never asked where the sewage ended up, but after a couple of months guessed the river was the likely recipient. This realization ended my washing laundry in the river with the women after only a few months. The presence of the toilet was no secret anyway since it had been hoisted, gleaming white porcelain, across the fields and into the house. I knew that very foreign object undoubtedly that was discussed over tea and dinners around the valley even before our truck disgorged our unheard of treasures and we appeared like aliens alighting a new terrain.

The large wood wardrobe we’d dragged from the city was the talk of the valley and the envy of many a village woman. Every piece of furniture toted from the truck up and over the narrow trail running next to a field of rye and into our house was eyed and mentally scribed as further proof of our wealth. Three beds with frames, a large woven rug, froshes, boxes that hid untold bounty…..it stirred their imaginations and curiousity.

We hired Brahim to cut out panes and insert glass into the traditional bright blue wood shutters so we could let in light while keeping out at least some of the cold wind. Village houses tended to be either the same temperature as the outside weather when the shutters were opened to let in the light or a tiny bit warmer with the loose fitting shutters closed, but also as dark as a tomb inside. Cold winds still plunged their fingers through the cracks around the shutters.

In the spring, we nailed in rectangles of screening that we brought from the city to keep out the flies when we opened the shutters to welcome in the fresh air. Like every mountain house, we had exterior metal scrolled bars for security imbedded into the cement wall outside of each window shutters.

Everything we did was different. Everything we did was news. Most men had traveled to Marrakech for one kind of business or another. They were nonplussed by us, having seen more of the world. But the valley-bound women were avidly curious.

Adopting the Moroccan custom of carrying babies and toddlers on one’s back in a sling, I tried to wind the long sheet around David who was two when we first arrived. Hiking trails for his little legs was a bit too demanding, Somehow as I walked, he would slowly snake out the bottom. No matter how discreetly I tried to adjust him, curious eyes would suddenly be watching from windows in Taourirt, the village we passed by to get to our house.

If I hesitated to cross a swiftly flowing stream, despite having confirmed by a glance around that nobody was there to witness my almost sure to happen fall into the water, as soon as I emerged looking like the Lady of the Lake, sure enough, heads that were invisible when I was dry, poked up from nearby fields, craning to catch a glimpse of me soaked. . Every detail of our lives was broadcast up and down the valley.

Once, after a soaking rain left the path down to our car parked in The Garage in muddy puddles, Bill decided he would go ahead of us with his laptop and get the car ready for us to travel into Marrakech for the weekend. I shouldered a back pack stuffed with wash, locked our metal door, and set off with the kids. We arrived looking like we’d taken mud baths enroute down as we’d slipped and fell all the way down to the waiting car. More amusement for the locals!

During Ramadan, although we are not Muslim, we figured we would honor their custom of fasting during the day, eating at night. We found out by Khadooj’s approving comments that everyone in her village of Targamoula that had a clear view of our house sitting kitty corner below them was keeping an eye out to see if we had our lights on after sundown and before sunrise which signaled to them we were keeping the fast. It was a long month in which we proved to our neighbors that we respected their traditions although they knew we did not partake in their beliefs.

Bill was not absolved from scrutiny by the fact he was a man. My husband was almost as comical as I. They didn’t care that he was a Fulbright Scholar and National Science fellow doing his PhD research to earn a doctorate in City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania. To them, he was the man who, as far as they could tell, never worked a day in his life! All he did was visit one home after another with Brahim, sip mint tea after mint tea, measure cow pies, weigh wood piles, ask stupid questions that made no sense, and write it all down as if it all was of great significance.

Cow manure was here and there and everywhere. Why weigh it? Wood, now that was important because it was so hard to get. Women needed it to bake bread, to boil tea, to make meals unless they were lucky enough to afford a butane gas tank with a screw-on burner to cook. Few women had that luxury so they had to scavenge on the almost bare mountainside since trees were a protected resource, both the cash crop trees belonging to specific families as well as the leftovers of long ago harvested stands of forest on the slopes of the mountain valley that the government stewarded. Folk had to be patient to wait for a tree to fall to old age, or some kind of weather event that would make a branch fall off and be fair game to snatch up to feed village fires. Still, all this measuring of wood was more unfathomable behavior to amuse.

Brahim was a gift to Bill and to us. He unraveled the mysteries of his world and acted as surety for Bill, an essential go-between so that Bill would be tolerated, if not welcomed, into homes to do his research. After he graduated from the local elementary school having proudly completed eighth grade, it was too expensive for Brahim to attend high school in Marrakech, so he let his dreams wither like so many and made his life work in his village. He was respected up and down the valley and he lent his reputation to Bill as his right hand man in the research project. Brahim not only received a salary as Bill’s assistant, but he also got side jobs of making simple furniture for us. It was a symbiotic relationship.

We left Imlil Valley, with far less fanfare than we had arrived. We headed back to Marrakech for Bill to organize his data and write his thesis in earnest. We doled out most of our possessions between the assorted friends and helpers. Brahim got the mother lode ofour sofas, curtains, the prized wardrobe, the table he’d made and chairs. Nobody expected otherwise because he was in a different category than all of the other more casual relationships. Still, we found it necessary to cover up each pile, no matter how large or small, with a sheet or blanket to avoid comparison and jealousy as people dropped by to collect their own pile.

In the process of dividing up our spoils, there was almost a tussle between Aicha and Khadooj over my stove with its oven. Khadooj wanted the oven and Aicha wanted the stove. It was hard to convince them that the stove and oven went together and could not be separated. Khadooj kept repeating, “Khus-knee ferran…khus-knee ferran” (I need an oven) until I snapped, “ Don’t nag me!” I tried to soothe her saying that she had a butane gas heater to cook on while Aicha had to gather wood. She wasn’t buying my reasoning in her jealousy. I assured her if I could split it and give her the oven, I would, but it could not be done. She sulked. I gave it to Aicha and a treasure trove of other items to Khadooj, but realized that Khadooj was likely to finagle the stove away from Aicha either in some endless bargaining session or by simple nagging which seemed to be her speciality.

My mountain clothes, some toys, some dishes, towels, teapots and assorted other things were divvied up among people we knew. Our house was bare; the bits we were taking back to our duplex in Marrakech were packed in our car. No need for a truck because the wardrobe, stove, beds, sofas, table and chairs, lanterns were all staying behind to the delight of the recipients.

An old lady I didn’t know stopped by before we left. There was no mint tea, no cookies or cake, no seddari to sink into and relax. I knew she wanted something. …a final last chance to get a souvenir. I looked around the naked rooms and spied a sponge and a partially used bar of soap in my kitchen. I handed them to her. She thanked me and went away with a smile, happy to have gotten something

Apparently, as soon as we departed, Brahim happily engaged in a then-common Moroccan practice of departing renters stripping down the place sometimes to bare wires in the cities. In our Imlil house he pillaged the toilet, the screens on the windows and more. He even pried out the toilet to reinstall it in his own house with visions of enticing tourists to rent a guest room in his home, fixed up with our matching curtains, sofas and a western toilet as a lure. He was….enterprising and not beyond squeezing every last benefit he thought he could claim of his connection to us. Every bit he knew we installed he claimed as his own to the understandable rage of the city-based owner.

We heard found our names were known when Bill returned to do a post doctoral study funded by Fulbright again and met the newest Peace Corp worker in the valley. She told him that we had unwittingly set off a tempest. It turned out Brahim and our house owner were from different clans. The entire valley engaged in heated debate for years over what Brahim did long after we were gone. Though we had gone there hoping to bring benefit like an early solar energy prototype that looked more like a crystal ball, our unintended legacy seemed to be a clan war of words.

Thirty years has passed and the villages are very different in the photos I see online. After years of resisting government efforts to bring electricity to the valley as an act of holding on to freedom and suspicion of the mahkzan (government), they now are electrified at least in part. A paved road into the valley replaces the rutted narrow road. In August 1995, a devastating flood wiped out Imlil and The Garage, killing an estimated 150 including tourists and they rebuilt in earnest- bigger, more amenities. We only read about it online twenty years later.

I’ve read about the flood and wonder if our house survived. Did Taourirt n Ait Mizane that was close to the river below us get swept away? I remember being served the delicacy of cow stomach in someone’s house there, and being invited to sit on the roof top, helping to shelling a walnut harvest with the other women. I wonder if Aicha and her family are among those who died in that flood because her house huddled in a gully. The collection of villages expanded and modernized. Hotels and guest homes dot the valley, an unabashed hook for European tourists. Imlil Valley now has the clinic they always wanted and two ambulances, one a gift from an English group and one from a French group. There is a modern hospital in Tahannout, a village half way to Marrakech. The road snaking up the side of the mountain was widened and tourism booms.

School inched closer to the valley even as opportunities grew. Village girls in the valley and beyond now have an opportunity to go to high school and university because of Education for All, a non-profit network of boarding schools offer Berber village girls a future that my friends never imagined. My husband left behind an early prototype of solar energy at Brahim’s house that looked more like a crystal ball but delighted Brahim by powering electric light in his house and a TV. Now, many have cell phones and solar panels power a high end guest house- Kasbah Toubkal and a host of other guest houses attract European tourists beyond the hikers and backpackers of our day. Small shops here and there offer crafts to tourists. Imlil boasts an internet café.

Some day I’d like to return to see what shreds of our old memories of life in Imlil remain tucked amidst all the changes. I wonder if Aicha and Khadooj, younger than I in years but harder used in life, are still alive. Are they stooped and toothless, cared for by extended families of their now grown children? Is Latifa, the cute but light fingered little girl of Khadooj now a mother herself? Did Brahim’s little boy who he brought into Marrakech to get treatment in a clinic survive his childhood? Mountain people that go through the crucible of childhood turn out to be amazingly durable.

We’ve caught glimpse of Brahim in an online photo, now working at Kasbah Toubkhal as a cook. He looks a bit greyer, though not much different from the lean carpenter who was Bill’s friend. Aicha, Khadooj, Brahim, and their spouses and children are frozen in time between the pages of our photo albums. We knew them once upon a mountain.

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