Daniela dos Santos

Khadija, the old Berber

When I visited Merzouga, in the northeast of the Sahara Desert, I met the woman who most impressed me in all Morocco. Her name was Khadija and she would be about seventy years old. One of her four sons, Hassan, was the owner of an inn and organized camel expeditions through the desert. My two travel fellows and I met him on the road to Er-Rachidia, when his jeep overtook our car and he signaled us to pull over. We acceded to his request and saw walking towards us a man of average stature, dressed in a blue djilaba and a black turban, leaving only his brown face free. He was Hassan Anaam. He gave us indications about the region, offered himself as a guide and we agreed to be housed at his inn.

The following morning, when the sun stretched its first rays, Hassan took us to visit Merzouga. The golden village, diluted in sand and dust, blessed for a small oasis. There, every bit of soil was profitable and each family had a piece of land to cultivate. After visiting the village by foot and when we got visibly distressed by the intense heat, the nice and hospitable Hassan invited us to rest at his mother’s home.

Khadija lived in a cool, earthy coloured house, similar to all the other habitations in the village. When we entered the only room of the house, Khadija hid her face with her black veil. “Salam”, she told us with a firm voice as she fixed her dark eyes on us. We returned the greeting and she continued to follow us with her stare, even while we sat in front of her, on a mat covered with colorful blankets. On the left side of the room, near a small window, there were five wooden platforms one piled up with five mattresses and five cushions touching the ceiling. The beds were laid down every night for the family to sleep, and every morning they were piled up again, to occupy less space.

The woman offered us mint tea and dark bread cooked in the community’s firewood oven. We delighted ourselves with the bread, the best we had eaten in Morocco, but I couldn’t stop being ashamed for being there, in front of the old woman, wearing shorts, clothes that were against the Moroccan tradition. She continued to observe me, making me feel even more disrespectful.

After a while, Khadija released the veil and her wrinkled face showed two black tattoos, one on her forehead and the other on her chin. Curious, I asked Khadija if they had any meaning. It was Hassan who answered me, because his mother didn’t speak Castilian or any other language beyond her Arabic dialect. Khadija was a Berber and followed her people’s traditions. At the time when identity documents did not exist Berbers used to tattoo on their forehead the symbol of the tribe they belonged to and on the chin the only symbol that distinguished them from the other members of the tribe. In the case of Khadija, her forehead tattoo meant that she had been married, divorced and married again. The chin tattoo indicated the number of children she had. I asked Hassan if men also had those tattoos. He laughed, as if the answer was obvious – only women had them.

In her dialect, the old woman praised the two berber bracelets that I had on my arms, made of silver by hand and evoking traditional symbols, and the purple veil that was sliding off my hair all the time. Khadija continued to look fixedly at me, ignoring the story that her son was telling us about the trip that he had made in the previous year to South Italy.

Many cups of tea later, we decided to go back to the inn to get ready for a walk in the desert and to see some of the world’s highest dunes. We were already thanking the hospitality of the Anaam family when, unexpectedly, Khadija uttered something that made her son laugh. Hassan came to me and told me what his mother had said: “The Fátima has got the prettiest legs I have ever seen”. I blushed and thanked the unexpected compliment, but reminded them that my name was not Fátima. The Berber laughed even more and explained that Fátima was the name of the Maomé Prophet’s daughter and, as the legend goes, she was a beautiful woman. Therefore, Berbers call Fátima to all pretty women. Moreover, he explained, it was a form of the old woman saying that she accepted me as being equal to her, as if I also was a Berber.

Of course the Berbers would never say the prophet’s daugther was ugly but, at that moment, Khadija made me feel at home. I felt protected, even though my true home was thousands of kilometers away, in the north, in a place she probably had never heard of.

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