In Tangier, in the winter, the Café Hafa becomes an observatory for dreams and their aftermath…. Long pipes of kif pass from table to table while glasses of mint tea grow cold … a matter of indifference to customers long since lost to the limbo of hashish and tinselled reverie…. They look at the sea, at the clouds that blend into the mountains, and they wait for the twinkling lights of Spain to appear.
—Tahar Ben Jelloun, Leaving Tangier, translated from French by Linda Coverdale
Just before departing for Morocco with my family, I finish reading Leaving Tangier. The protagonist, Azel, looks toward Spain, recalling his beloved cousin who drowned attempting to cross the Strait of Gibraltar, imagining his own “naked body … swollen by seawater, his face distorted by salt and longing…” This melancholy novel unfolds in a series of mutating reflections—in addition to the twinkling lights of Spain bouncing off the water–the view north reflects the view south reflects the view north again.
To reach Morocco, my family travels by ferry from Algeciras, Spain to the port of Tangier. Which is not Tangier, but an armed camp with a formidable police presence, enclosed in barbed wire. As soon as we disembark, we are bused to a blocky concrete building to be processed. Tangier may have captured the imaginations of western literati, but this particular port of embarkation lacks signs of human habitation; it’s a bulwark to prevent trafficking emigrants and drugs.
Azel finally makes it to Spain in Leaving Tangier, but his successful crossing leads to sexual exploitation and ruin. Laila Lalami plies related waters in Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. In that novel, she plumbs the frustration caused by lack of opportunity and failed futures, a sense of defeat that spurs her characters to risk everything for a place on a rubber boat speeding across the Strait of Gibraltar. A character named Murad judges passage in a Zodiac preferable to sneaking in on vegetable trucks. “Last year the Guardia Civil intercepted a tomato truck in Algeciras and found the bodies of three illegals, dead from asphyxiation, lying on the crates. At least on a boat there is no chance of that happening.” Murad is a bit too optimistic. Despite paying exorbitant sums, these passengers are not smuggled onto dry land; they’re forced to jump from the boat 250 meters offshore. It’s a miracle that none of them drowns. All but one ends up in a Spanish detention cell awaiting deportation, or worse—rape and expulsion to a life of prostitution in Madrid, tempered only by Valium. Like Ben Jelloun, Lalami sets her novel between opposing mirrors. Initially the Zodiac passengers look north. After they’re forced to jump into the sea, those who survive Spain’s underground economy look south to Morocco–anguished for the life they abandoned, while those who are deported from Spain assess the implications of that brief northern sojourn from their final, southern vantage point.
like a prayer—
weekly, or more,
—Kevin Young, Book of Hours, “Obsequies”
We meet our driver for the ride to Chefchouen, or Chaouen as the locals call it. Wedged into the foothills of the Rif Mountains in northern Morocco, Chefchouen was founded in 1471 to protect against Portuguese invasions. It was settled shortly later by Muslims and Jews fleeing the Spanish “Reconquista” in Andalucía. Our drive is four hours. We arrive after dark.
We wake to the pre-dawn symphony of muezzins calling people to prayer. This medley is unlike anything else—ancient and immediate, holy and deeply rooted in community. Stepping outside, we are greeted by a bouquet of smells: the communal oven where women and children come to bake the day’s bread, the admixture of cinnamon and turmeric wafting from cafes, smoke curling from unfiltered cigarettes, and kif.
The visual tableau overwhelms. Morning is well underway; Chefchouen’s ancient streets teem with people. The streets are too narrow for anything beyond foot traffic and the occasional donkey hauling gas canisters or cases of Coca-Cola. Most astonishing is the color blue. Chefchouen is a blue town. Houses are rinsed in a spectrum from azure to cerulean, a feast of color intensified by Moroccan sunlight.
Blue is a color that washes over fairy tales: consider Icelandic writer Sjón’s eerie and enigmatic The Blue Fox. Blue plural—“the blues”—signifies a complex, ever-expanding musical genre. Beyond painters, the color inspires countless writers, including Maggie Nelson, whose brilliant and penetrating investigation of blue is captured in Bluets. “Each blue object could be a kind of burning bush,” Nelson writes, “a secret code meant for a single agent, an X on a map too diffuse ever to be unfolded in entirety but that contains the knowable universe.”
Nelson returns us to Morocco: Around this time “I was planning to travel to many famously blue places: ancient indigo and woad production sites, the Chartres Cathedral, the Isle of Skye, the lapis mines of Afghanistan, the Scrovengni Chapel, Morocco, Crete.”
We walk uphill to Chefchouen’s medieval city wall. A twenty-minute climb gains nothing on the soaring highlands. Several elderly Berber women walk down the side of a mountain on the dirt path toward town. They wear traditional red and white striped garments. Some have additional brightly covered fabric tucked in at the waist; some wear the multi-colored pompom hats native to the Rif Mountains. A few have head coverings of yellow terrycloth towels. It seems these women are subsistence farmers; they carry sacks on their backs filled with produce to sell at the market below.
They also carry laundry. There’s a spring below the wall with an open structure containing massive wooden sinks for washing clothes. On this particular morning, two women are doing laundry. My observation is that it’s more than the family’s weekly wear. One woman kneels, scrubbing two sizeable rugs spread on the stone slabs next to the communal sinks.
In Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Halima and her three children perch precariously on the edge of the Zodiac, escaping their husband and father who beats Halima black and blue. “A woman must know how to handle her husband,” Halima’s mother reproaches her. Instead, Halima makes the perilous decision to flee, wondering “what would have happened had she, too, gone to Europe like her brothers. Would she have an apartment, a washing machine?”
I know what I’m seeing at the spring in Chefchouen, but what am I looking at? In the context of walking several hours to carry a load of carrots to market or traveling on foot down a mountain to wash clothes, my energized conversations with colleagues and friends about feminism in America seem oddly beside the point.
When next we meet Halima in Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, she’s back in Casablanca, reduced to abject poverty, “squatting on the dirt road, waiting for a nod from someone who needed laundry washed or spring cleaning done.”
I reflect on laundry back home. In twentieth century Philadelphia, my grandmother washed clothes in a copper washtub that my father describes as oval, nearly a yard long and two feet high. MomMom boiled the clothes in soap and water, using a scrub board for resistant stains. After rinsing, she removed excess water by hand, or with a wringer, then hung the clothes to dry on a clothesline. MomMom was a small woman with four large children—two boys and two girls—and myriad household responsibilities. Despite meager schooling (she did not complete sixth grade), MomMom had a passion for education and for fairness. In the 1920s and 30s, she made sure her boys knew how to wash dishes and mop floors.
Nevertheless, she washed their laundry when they left for college. They sent their dirty clothes home once a week in boxes designed for that purpose and she returned fresh, clean clothing in those same boxes. I’m told that was the custom.
With the purchase of my parents’ first house in 1955, came a washing machine. My mother was a professional editor who worked at home, often at the dining room table. It was not unusual for that table to be covered in sets of galleys, at least three large dictionaries, and a clutch of sharpened pencils at the ready.
In addition to her editorial responsibilities, my mother was in charge of the household wash. Like MomMom, my mother had four children. Laundry, however, was not the chore it was for her mother-in-law. My mother couldn’t understand why people minded doing it when all you had to do was throw the clothes in the machine and turn it on. My mother also had a dryer. When the clothes came out—warm and full of static—she dumped them on the dining room table.
I re-consider that image for the first time: sheets and towels, my sisters’ and my underwear, my father’s tee shirts and jockey shorts, all piled on top of whatever manuscript my mother was editing at the time.
A female body completely veiled in white cloth, her face completely concealed, only a hole left free for her eyes… All of us from the world of the shadow women, reversing the process: We are the ones finally who are looking, who are the beginning.
—Assia Djebar, So Vast the Prison, translated from French by Betsy Wing
The Berber-Algerian-French writer/filmmaker Assia Djebar (nom de plume for Fatima-Zohra Imalayen) was a devout Muslim and a western-educated woman. She was a member of the intelligentsia, a university professor, and an expatriate deeply tied to home. She wrote mostly in French; only late in her life in Arabic. Like the veiled woman above, Djebar looked from the outside in and the inside out. In Djebar’s So Vast the Prison, Arab women face Europe, then look toward home, and then turn toward Europe again.
Here is Djebar’s description of another passage by boat, an Algerian mother and daughter sailing to France to visit their son and brother imprisoned for political activities.
The [passengers] would never guess that this lady in a flowered summer suit just a few weeks earlier… had been just as elegant but in a different way. Reigning in the first rank of guests … as they celebrated the seventh day after the birth of her youngest nephew, she was an Andalusian Moorish woman! In which place are we playing a role? Is it there among the family or here on this boat among these passengers who are tourists like themselves? [Italics in original.]
“You possess only what will not be lost in a shipwreck,” writes El Gazali, a revered Muslim theologian, jurist, and mystic quoted in Tahir Shah’s In Arabian Nights. Shah left a comfortable life in London to move his family to Casablanca. His tales of refurbishing a Casablancan mansion—antic and maddening and in vivid contrast to his ordered life in England—are delightfully recounted in The Caliph’s House.
Shah’s In Arabian Nights weaves the centrality of storytelling in Moroccan culture into the search for Shah’s own, personal story. “‘The stories of Morocco are like a mirror,’” he learns from his friend and mentor, Dr. Mehdi.
I can’t interpret what I saw when I watched those Berber women walk down the side of a mountain to scrub clothing at the spring in Chefchouen. Nor did I venture up to the highlands above. Based on the view from the bottom, home up there must be one of astonishing beauty, extraordinary vistas. In So Vast the Prison, Assia Djebar shares the Berber blessing for the arrival of a first child, a girl. “Hail to thee, daughter of the mountain. You were born in haste, you emerge thirsty for the light of day: you will be a traveler, a nomad whose journey started at this mountain to go far, and then farther still!”
Back in America, I tend to split laundry responsibilities with my husband. My daughters, when they are home, prefer to do their own. In the course of writing this essay, I’ve made several trips to the washer and dryer.
I now understand that when I was growing up, the dining room was my mother’s office; the table on which she folded laundry, her desk.