You see it sometimes in car commercials. Spectacular, plunging. The steep desert ridge, the hairpinned road, the sharp edge.
We were tired by then, accustomed to avoiding eye contact in the streets, although the men in Morocco—Berbers (Moors, I at some point realized)—were the most beautiful we had seen anywhere. Strange, to be fending them off when we wanted to stare. But in Boumalne Dades we had been spooked immediately. On a walk, on a small path, two had followed us at a distance.
The town was clustered at the base of the rocks. The color of sand. There were no other tourists at the hotel. But Sadie was sick and collapsed in the bathroom, hit her head on the thick wooden door. Across the street I bought antibiotics. She slept and we waited two winter days.
In the café several men gathered. There was propane there, a heater lit just for us, the paying customers. They told us this, turning toward us with open faces, welcoming, curious. They hovered, served us tea and soup.
A young man glared, then addressed us in Berber. I threw out a few words, all I knew. Azul! (Hello.) Mush! (Cat.) He stared, and then switched to English and showed me how to write my name in his ancient, alien alphabet. Others spoke of the Arabs, their long-ago conquerors, bringers of Islam.
A bus driver came and went. Soft face, soft voice. He told us the Berber women had too many babies, one every year, no medicine. He looked at us as if we were his daughters and said, “The women here suffer more than the men.”
We had met one young woman at the hammam, tried to speak to her as we paid for our baths, found no common language but our tattoos—hers on her face, ours on the smalls of our backs. With gestures we asked how hers was done, and she held up a safety pin.
In the fields grandmothers bent under loads of sticks, hauling them home for cooking fires. Black fabric cloaked them, covering all but a single eye.
Hassan, the young man, had been to university. He would not get married. He did not want his grandma with her ear to the door on his wedding night. Did not want the bloody sheet hung like a flag out the window. He frightened me. There was rage in his voice. But he wrote in my journal, You are mazing.
Why did they tell us all this? The bus driver said he had tried to pass out birth control pills, but the women would not take them. He had even tried to trick them by saying it was candy. We looked at each other. “The women here,” he said, “suffer too much.”
That is what they told us. They, with their history, their poverty, their dry cold wind. Their Berber letter yaz, signifying freedom, its shape like a man with his arms up. Themselves, men. The rocks of Dades outside, stacked and shorn. The world, cleft. And we, their pale confessors.