“I want son just like this!” Thump, thump, thump.
Galen’s chest resounded like a Taiko drum as the turbaned and mustachioed man in a floor-length pale-blue robe pounded my son’s back with the flat of his creased palm. He raised him high in the air, showing the other men in the tent our eight-month-old baby. The Berber tribal leader proclaimed what sounded like, “Willy Muhammad! Willy Muhammad!” He’d yell this out periodically as he pumped Galen up and down in his arms. Stubby baby legs dangling and tiny hands flapping, Galen chortled, probably associating the movements with the flying airplane game where we’d lift him over our heads and dip and swoop him around the room.
Usually he was reluctant to let strangers hold him—especially loud and hairy folk—but for some reason the tall, turbaned chieftain with a firm grip on his torso didn’t scare Galen. His big blue eyes gazed steadily at the throng of men congratulating him on his magnificent, though still infant-sized, rib cage and chest.
More thumping and then they escorted Andy, my husband, and me out of the tent and closed the flaps behind us, still holding Galen on high like a flag of baby boy perfection. Chanting emanated from within the massive slate-black tent. I stood on high alert outside the sealed tent flap, waiting to spring forward if I heard a cry or a whimper. When I peeked into the lantern-lit interior, he was sitting on a Berber rug in the center of a ring formed by the dark-eyed men, who were drumming on taut goatskin tars. Galen seemed to be enjoying his princely role and the adoring circle of clansmen swaying in a rhythmic trance around him. A smile graced his face as he watched them with utter equanimity.
I let go of the flap and released a sigh. How did this blond baby Buddha end up being serenaded in a Berber tent high in the Atlas Mountains?
Both my husband and I were seasoned travelers and professional travel writers, and we often ported Galen nonchalantly to remote corners of the globe. We’d pack his toys and diapers, carriers and strollers, and trundle him onto the airplane, this time heading to Morocco on a Royal Air Maroc flight from New York to Marrakech.
Galen was easy to travel with, as he hadn’t started walking yet. He lay in my lap, noisily nursing the entire eight-hour flight. It was the bearded guy sitting next to me who was problematic. Oblivious to the fact that his rough and gamey-smelling wool robe was billowing over both of our seats, smothering me and my baby, he constantly rocked back and forth in his seat, muttering his prayers. He was not the only devout man on the plane. It was hard to reach the bathroom, clogged as the aisles were with prostrate Muslims accordioned onto tiny prayer rugs. I’d gather up Galen, and my courage, and get ready for the gauntlet, my internal voice muttering, “Excuse me while I leap over you and—oops—kick off your turban. I know, I, a mere female, shouldn’t touch you or look you in the eyes, but it’s a challenge to pretend you aren’t blocking the aisle when I have to change my baby’s diaper.” Many had calloused bumps on their foreheads from pressing their faces onto the prayer rug five times a day while facing Mecca—which, in an airplane, must have been a challenge. I was told it is an emblem of pride to have these grotesque grayish growths protruding above their eyes. The guy sitting next to me won the piety award, as he had the most pronounced lump of any of the prostrates. It was the size of a doughnut, ringed with cracked, yellowing, glue-like edges.
A travel writer friend had piqued our interest one late night around the fire, wine flowing freely, with the story of an ancient tribal festival in Morocco that few foreigners had heard about in a region that didn’t encourage tourism—being as it was in the middle of nowhere with no hotels or paved roads. We decided this would be the perfect destination for our next off-the-beaten-path-adventure-with-a-baby.
The Imilchil betrothal fair has been held annually for millennia in the heart of the High Atlas Mountains. Every September, neighboring tribes come together in a festival in which women are allowed to “choose” their husbands. The legend behind this tradition is that two young lovers were forbidden to see each other by their warring families. The lovers cried themselves to death, and their tears formed the lakes of Isli (“his”) and Tislit (“hers”) near Imilchil. Chastened by the young peoples’ tragic end, the families dedicated a day every year on the anniversary of the lovers’ deaths on which people of different tribes could marry each other of their own free will.
Thousands of Berber tribesmen travel to Imilchil by camel, horse, donkey, and jeep to socialize and pair up their children—a tribal “Dating Game” with dowries. Who wants to go to Disneyland when you can walk among woven camel hair tents with thousands of Berbers smoking hookahs and shouting, trading and cooking, and, just for the fun of it, firing antique muskets into the sky—their celebratory equivalent of fireworks. And when you are hungry, exceptionally fragrant and hearty lamb tajines simmering in aromatic mountain herbs beckon you toward the cook fires.
Several days after our annoying and uncomfortable flight, we rented a car and drove ten hours north to Fez—the gateway city to the mountains where the festival is held.
After settling into a hotel, and with Galen and his road-weary father asleep, I wandered down to the quiet, softly lit bar to decompress. As I sipped a glass of Clariet de Meknès, a delicate pink-hued wine mimicking the light French style, a dashing man in a khaki safari outfit came over and introduced himself.
With a slight bow, he said, “Bonsoir, my name is Driss. Are you Norwegian?”
“Why no—American—but I do have a healthy dose of Norwegian Viking in my bloodline.”
Driss nodded and said, “Ah, that explains the high, sculpted cheekbones.”
I wondered if this was a sophisticated pick-up line—yet his polite demeanor and gentle smile did not suggest lechery.
I asked what he was doing in Fez. “I live in Paris but was born in Morocco,” he explained. “I’m going to visit my father up in the Atlas.”
Startled, I said, “That’s where I am going.”
His eyes widened, sending his bushy black eyebrows up to his scalp line. “Why?”
I tried not to smile. He made it sound like I had announced I was going to Pumpkin Center, California. “The Imilchil betrothal fair.”
“Really? That is exactly where I’m going.” He took a swig from his club soda as he sat down next to me and asked, “Do you have a driver and a jeep?”
“No, just a rattletrap hoopty rental car from Marrakech and an international driver’s license.”
Driss shook his head with a doubtful expression. “Are you familiar with the route?”
“No, but I have a map.”
“You won’t make it there. It is very dangerous. The wadis have flash floods, the streambeds are already full, and it is freezing at night.”
As I sipped the shell-pink drink, I reflected on this dire news.
He filled in the silence by asking, “Do you have camping gear?”
His cheeks puffed out and a buffalo-like huff escaped his tightly pursed lips. His brows bunched up like storm clouds gathering on his smooth forehead.
I didn’t add that I was with my family and that we did have a vast array of baby accoutrements—enough to open a Toys R Us.
Chivalrously he stood up, thumped his fist on the bar top, making my wine glass jump, and announced with an affirmative nod, “I will take you there.”
Though touched and genuinely interested in his offer, I felt the need to back up a bit. “Thank you,” I said, trying not to make a commitment with the words. I gestured in a friendly fashion with my free hand, taking a sip of wine with the other. “Tell me more about your family and how you ended up living in Paris.”
Nodding gamely, Driss ordered another round.
Though educated in England and currently living in France Driss, a serious and studious chap who became a geologist, was born deep in the Atlas in a cave while his father’s tribe fought the French to gain independence in the 1950s. He told me of growing up with real rifles and daggers for toys. That was his idea of childhood—a far cry from Galen’s reality of being raised in an American suburb, I thought.
My mind was made up. He would be the perfect guide for us. Still, I couldn’t help but grin at the serendipity that had arisen from my need for a soothing glass of good wine.
It was 1983 and I was a San Franciscan. I grew up baking whole-grain bread, dancing in Golden Gate Park at Be-Ins, and running through redwood groves naked. Plastic diapers and Gerber baby food were not part of my reality. I didn’t believe in plastic anything or processed food, so I nursed Galen and on our trips, we carried the soiled cotton diapers with us and washed them at the hotels. The maids hated us.
On the other hand there was Driss, who was thirty years old, handsome, and spoke fluent English, French, Italian, Arabic, as well as Tamazight, his native language. This man was brainy, but he was about to get an education of a whole other sort. I felt a slight stab of guilt that he had no idea what he was getting himself into.
As the conversation dwindled, I thought I should make a perfunctory disclosure as to the scope of our traveling circus, and also clarify that I was not single, in case that was a clincher for him. “I’m with my family. They’re asleep in the room. Do you have space in your car for all three of us?”
His expression didn’t change, but he said firmly, “Yes, yes. My Land Rover is spacious and I have extra camping gear.” It didn’t appear to matter to him who these two other people were. He looked at his watch, then got up from his stool. “Rendezvous with me in the lobby at seven a.m. tomorrow,” he said, paying our tab. “And eat a hearty breakfast.”
The next morning, Andy looked at me skeptically through still-half-closed eyelids when I threw open the drapes and announced, “We have a ride to Imilchil in a jeep with a real Berber. I met him in the bar last night.”
“He said we can’t drive that worthless jalopy we rented into the mountains. The roads are unpaved, there are flashfloods, and we need camping gear. Luckily, he will take us. He’s going there to meet his tribe.”
Andy just stared at me.
“Quick, get dressed. We have to eat breakfast and then meet him in one hour.”
I bundled our rosy-cheeked, sleep-kissed son in a 100% organic, non-dyed cotton blanket and nursed him while drinking mud-black espresso in multiple snail-size demitasses.
When Driss joined us in the lobby, he looked astonished to see an infant and a husband and a mountain of poorly packed stuff. Not only had I not explained our exact family logistics last night, neither had I described our penchant to throw things helter-skelter into overstuffed, oversized duffel bags.
After readjusting his bewildered expression, he reached out his hand to shake Andy’s in a firm, reassuring grip that seemed to ease Andy’s skepticism that I had actually rounded us up a legitimate ride. He had been reluctant to just toss our possessions into another vehicle and spend the next four days traveling to a remote mountainous region of Morocco with a stranger.
After we crammed ourselves into his highly polished Land Rover and started driving toward the silhouette of the elephantine mountain range looming to the east, I discreetly stuck Galen’s head under my blouse. I caught Driss’ eyes—just once—looking at us before glancing hurriedly away, his Groucho Marx eyebrows knitted in horror and confusion at the sight of an American woman breastfeeding her son in his back seat.
Andy sat in the front, his tension dissolving as we drove out of town in a vehicle much more comfortable, and safer, than the cranky clunker we had left in the hotel parking lot. He and Driss talked avidly about Sufism, and other religions. It fascinated Driss that Andy was Jewish but practiced Sufism and had traveled throughout the Middle East to study with mystical Sufi scholars. I could tell he was delighted and amused by our whimsical trip to the Atlas with a baby, and that he was genuinely beginning to enjoy our befuddled yet trusting travel style.
Driss enthusiastically pointed out various caverns where his father had hidden while fighting the French. We begged him for details and made him stop the jeep at each place that held a story from his warring, nomadic youth. He guided us along the stony trails where he had herded livestock up to high-altitude mountain pastures, leading him to discover the veins of crystals and fossils that had inspired him to become a geologist.
I dug around in one of our duffel bags and pulled out a super-sized crystal that we had purchased from a pack of goat-herding children on the side of the road between Marrakech and Fez. There was a story behind this crystal, I told Driss. The children had waved us to a stop and run to the car, holding sparkly, deep-purple amethyst crystals that they were selling for a dollar. Andy and I bought the biggest one and drove off feeling like we’d scored a major treasure. I held it in my hands, marveling at its perfect purply crystal interior.
It was hot in the car. The air conditioning wasn’t functioning. Sweat beaded on my forehead and my palms got clammy. That’s when I noticed my skin was turning purple. Worried that I had contracted a strange disease, I made Andy stop the car and take a look at my hands. After inspecting them carefully, he picked up the crystal sitting in my lap. The amethyst was fading to a pale lavender, and my palms were turning magenta. A stain of purple bloomed across my cotton trousers.
Driss howled with laughter and slapped his thigh, causing Galen to stop nursing when we nearly drove into a ditch. Driss caught his breath and said, “I used to do that trick to tourists, too. But I dyed mine orange to be different. I would tell them it was a rare fire-opal crystal from a rebel’s hideaway.”
He put our ordinary crystal rock on the dashboard as a talisman and a good joke.
The road was ripped by water troughs, slippery with scree. Large boulders were expertly skirted. We climbed and climbed a staircase-like route—narrow, muddy, rutted. The jeep jolted and jounced through ravines of striated pink and yellow rock.
As Galen dozed, lulled by the rocking ride, Andy and I studied the passing moonscape. Driss broke our reverie by asking, “Why do you travel with your baby and all this luggage to places far away from your home?”
I thought he was being polite calling our smelly diaper sack and other odd assortment of bulging bags “luggage.”
Andy didn’t answer, so I piped up, “Even though we both grew up in middle-class families in America, I guess we’re nomads at heart and are happiest when wandering in foreign cultures. Luckily, our son seems to enjoy it, too.”
Driss smiled in the rearview mirror, though he still didn’t dare look back at me. “We are very much alike. I love foreign cultures. I hope I will meet a wife who wants to travel with our children—but it will probably not be at Imilchil—so don’t get any ideas!”
At dusk, we reached the lip of the rift, known as the “plateau des lacs,” at an elevation of 2,119 meters. A scene from One Thousand and One Nights throbbed below in the mile-long valley of Assif Melloul (“white river”). Thousand-head herds of horses, camels, and goats milled about, restlessly stomping, their pawing hoofs raising a taupe-tinted veil of dust. Bleating and hawing drifted upward in a cacophony of sounds highlighted by hoots, rifle fire, cymbals, and banging drums. A legion of black tents cut a swath through the center of the valley that was pulsing with revelry.
Galen once again stopped suckling, sensing this phantasmagorical scene pulling us downward onto the alluvial plain. I held him up to look and Galen screeched in delight at the anthem of mayhem arising from the vast valley floor. When we reached the outskirts of the encampment, he bounced up and down holding onto the window edge, excited to see the cartoonish bearded camels flirtatiously blinking their long-lashed orbs. Swaggering Berbers sporting curved daggers gathered around our vehicle, peering in at the foreigners. We slowly drove into the vortex.
There was a rush and doors flew open, and Driss was pulled out of the jeep by brothers and cousins and uncles. Driss introduced us to the flanks of relatives that poured forth to slap his back and raise eyebrows in our direction. Galen was an immediate rock star, swept up by the tribal leader, who was eager to introduce him to his comrades in the grand meeting tent.
Driss didn’t seem fazed that Galen was being carried off with exuberant fanfare, so we weren’t either. While he set up camp, he encouraged us to follow Galen’s entourage.
As Andy and I waited outside the tent for Galen to be returned to our arms, the temperature plummeted and a silver moon rose from behind the ragged mountain peaks. Driss had understated the weather conditions. It was bone-chilling, with high winds delivering frigid, face-slapping blasts.
Driss insisted that Galen and I sleep in the inner tent sanctum on his bedroll with most of the blankets and sheepskins he had brought for himself. He and Andy retired to the outer tent, wearing all their clothes to keep warm. They stayed up, pacing around the bonfires, drinking gallons of scalding mint tea. Volleys of rifle fire crackled through the hoarfrost encrusting the starry night air. Sleep eluded all but Galen in his baby oblivion.
The next morning, steaming tin cups of thick, dark coffee warmed our hands. With Galen perched in a pack on Andy’s back, we wandered through the maze of tents, everything covered in a fine silt stirred up by the snorting horses that galloped through camp, their riders whooping and hollering while waving muskets above their heads.
Warrior blood flows through the Berbers’ veins. Berber is derived from the Latin word “Barbari,” or barbarians—a title given to them almost 2,000 years ago by invading Roman armies, who were repeatedly attacked by a race of fiercely independent tribes. Many Berbers call themselves some variant of the word imazighen, meaning “free people” or “free and noble men,” and their symbol is that of a man holding his arms to the sky—a free man. A man who will not be conquered.
We were ushered into a low-hanging tent by a group of tittering women bedecked in silver jewelry, their eyes rimmed in kohl, and geometric, smoky-blue tattoos on their face, hands, and feet. Driss had told us that some Berber tribes tattoo the women’s chins to indicate whether she is married or divorced, and if she has any children. Some tribes believe that the tattooed symbols provide protection from evil. He also shared that French colonial scholars, in their search for the origins of Berber art, suggested that North African Berber tattoos resembled Neolithic pictograms in caves in Spain.
Up until now, the Berbers had seemed delighted to have us in their midst but suddenly, a woman was yammering at me and wagging her finger in Andy’s direction. The other women in the tent began nodding, concurring with her. We were obviously doing something wrong, but what? Driss was off helping his father trade horses and bargain for rifles, so we didn’t have our translator to clarify why we were causing such a stir.
My gaze followed the direction of the women’s pointing fingers and narrowed eyes, landing on Galen, who was in the pack on Andy’s back. The women continued to tsk, poke and pull on my sleeve, pointing at Andy and Galen, empathically trying to tell me something.
Ahhh—the man should not be carrying the baby. That was my job.
They calmed down once we transferred Galen to my back, then gestured for us to sit on the rug and drink tea. It was an elaborate process that involved dramatically pouring scalding water in a high stream into the teapot over seven different kinds of herbs—wild mint, thyme, lemongrass, geranium, sage, verbena, and a hint of absinthe wormwood—and three or four generous clumps of raw sugar. Our hostess then put the teapot directly on the flame to bring it back to a boil.
After serving us the cloyingly sweet tea, the women went back to their chores, humming and murmuring softly to each other.
It was busy under the eaves of this open-sided tent. As I jiggled Galen on my lap, Andy and I watched bearded men sharpen daggers and scythes on whetstones; women in ornately embroidered black dresses trudged in, carrying amphorae of sloshing water on their backs; babies crawled over every faded orange, red, and green wool rug overlapped on the floor; and the older children stared in wonder at Galen’s corn silk hair.
The next day we were invited to share a meal with Driss’s extended clan. Aromas of greasy grilling lamb and savory tajines mingled with the sharp odor of camel dung, smoke, and dust that hung like a thick cloud throughout the tent.
One of Driss’s distant cousins had the most gorgeous baby about Galen’s size. She had huge doe eyes framed in kohl, eyelashes thick and black, mocha skin, and a wind-chime laugh. Engraved and beaded bracelets adorned her pudgy arms.
I admired the child and the mother held her beautiful baby out for me to hold as I passed Galen to her.
Galen and the little girl clasped hands and were juxtaposed light and dark mirror images of plump infant cuteness.
The entire tribe gathered around, cooing over the two babies. We laughed and agreed how adorable they were together. They were even batting their eyes, flirting with each other.
The parents made playful, suggestive gestures about the two becoming engaged, and Driss said teasingly, “They think we should marry them here at Imilchil today when the governor flies in to officiate the group marriage ceremony. Everyone is exclaiming they are a perfect match.”
Andy and I laughed and had to agree—our babies were a good-looking couple. Meanwhile, Galen was leaning toward his new girlfriend, trying to plant a gooey kiss and embrace her in a wobbly hug. She beamed and seemed amenable to this new-found baby love.
Curious, I said, “Driss, ask them what their child’s name is.”
The father proudly intoned, “Muhammad.”
The parents then pointed to Galen, inquiring what “her” name was.
Uh oh. I froze, the sea of expectant, smiling faces making my face flush as though from a spotlight. “Um…his name…is… Muhammad…?”
The temperature in the tent grew frosty as the baby’s mother and father grabbed little Muhammad from my arms and stalked off, deeply offended that we had mistaken their firstborn son for a lowly girl.
Driss pulled us out of the tent in a hurry without saying goodbye to his cousins, who were glowering at us from the back of the tent.
Once out of earshot, he said, “Well, that was embarrassing! Guess I will stay out of the marriage broker business. Let’s pack up. We will leave right after the ceremony this afternoon.”
In silence, we wandered to the epicenter of the festivities, where a large stage had been set up. Several dozen teenage couples in full ceremonial regalia shyly wandered through the crowd, holding hands. The young girls in a flurry of fabrics, headdresses, and jewelry; the young bucks—many shorter than their brides-to-be—in white shirts and pants, daggers dangling from their belts.
Galen slept soundly in the pack on my back, a blanket draped over his head to protect him from the high winds and also to ensure that he would not be mistaken for a marriageable girl-child.
Tribal flags snapped in the gusts. A helicopter buzzed across the valley and landed near the stage in a frenzy of clapping, vocal trilling, and the ubiquitous rifle fire.
The copter’s rotary blades kicked up tornados of bone-dry silt, which hovered about the debarking governor like a mystical shroud. With great fanfare he brushed the dust off his satin baseball jacket and mounted the stage, holding a bullhorn. Over all the chaotic noise, he gave a speech and then announced that the couples were now man and wife. And that was it. Very anti-climactic. Everyone dispersed, Andy and I scribbled a few notes for our travel piece we’d work on during the flight home, and Driss herded us back to the jeep, as he was in a hurry to catch his flight home to Paris that evening.
Back at the hotel in Fez, Driss helped us load our mammoth pile of baby items into the rental car. Saying goodbye, he reached out to hold Galen, gave him a squeeze, and bounced him up and down. Galen grasped Driss’s thumb and sucked on it. Gazing into my son’s lake-blue eyes, Driss solemnly said, “Little Muhammad, I really enjoyed meeting you. I hope my son will be brave and strong, but not as pretty as you.”
A Berber musician friend of mine recently looked mystified when I asked him what “Willy Muhammad” meant and described the scene thirty years ago in the Atlas when Galen was prince of the tent show. I yelled it just like I remember the mustachioed chieftain doing as he hefted Galen above his head for the throngs of turbaned Berbers to admire. Puzzled, Khaled scratched his balding head and then said, “No, no. They must have been saying something like ‘Wahedlee Muhammad,’ not ‘Willy,’ silly! It means, ‘Oh, little Muhammad!”
This true story was first published in Wild Life: Travel Adventures of a Worldly Woman. It was also recently published in Vignette & Postcards From Morocco. I will be sharing this story March 23, 2017 at the Storytelling Summit and Reading at Café Clock in Fez, Morroco. Click here for event details.