15 June, 2007


ُI was trying to decide between the maroon embroidery of simple design or the garish cotton candy pink embroidery in a more fanciful design. Though beautiful, the reason for buying the skirt annoyed me and made this trip through the souq in the medina of Rabat far from enjoyable. Someone at Peace Corps had decided we needed to "blend in" as we traveled south towards Ouarzazate, our second training base. The women in our group were directed to purchase a traditional Amazigh skirt from the souq and wear it on the train ride to Marrakech and subsequent grand taxi ride across the mountains to Ouarzazate. There was no explanation of why they felt we needed to "blend" or why they felt this was the appropriate way to handle it. Even better is that none of us thought to ask. Because nothing is as inconspicuous as 25 American women standing around Marrakech wearing Amazigh skirts, Tevas, sunglasses, and wielding gigantic backpacks with water bottles carabinered to the side, portable CD players, and cameras.

I tagged along with a trainer and a group of about ten women as we wound through the alleyways of the medina finally reaching a small courtyard with the wooden doors of the shop stalls opened wide into the spotty shade of the space, sunlight spilling through ragged holes in the flimsy roofing above our heads. These were the stalls for the tourists - Rabatians don't go to souq to buy such things - and the sellers seemed quite happy for our appearance so early in the morning.

The skirts are made of somewhat thin black nylon, like finely woven netting, never so thin as to be see-through. They are segmented into the main, ankle-length skirt and a shorter top skirt that falls to the top of the thighs with a slit cut halfway up at the center front of the skirt. The edges of both layers are trimmed with a variety of scrollwork-like patters in gold and bold colors. They are unique and lovely.

We stuffed ourselves into the stall of of one seller, sorting through colors and designs and trying to bargain with the help of the harried trainer. All of a sudden a crash erupted from one of the stalls behind us and I turned to see two men, arms locked around heads, wrestling on the ground knocking over a few small display tables full of tiny wooden boxes and brassware that lay in their way. One broke away and stood, face a tight mask of rage, only to be grabbed by the other who tried and failed to land an effective punch. The men pushed and pulled at each other, their weight as they nearly fell taking down another vendor's table. By now a crowd had gathered though no one stepped in to halt the fight. Rather we all stood and watched, a few murmurs of worry or disgust. Suddenly the two pulled apart again and this time of brandished a medium, rough-hewn knife. A woman in the crowd shrieked and the murmurs grew louder, but the courtyard was silent except for the crashing of tables and the items atop them and the scuffing of the men's shoes on the stones. The man thrust the knife wildly at the other who managed to keep several inches from the blade bowing his torso away from the blade. We had been herded deep into the shopkeepers stall and I stood in the doorway as the men battled in front of me, looking at each other as though neither would be satisfied until the other was in the ground. The knife was knocked out of his hand and the two fell to the ground again, locked in an angry embrace. Someone in the crowd shouted something in darija and I turned to ask the trainer what was said.

"He said 'It's o.k. They are brothers'," the trainer told me, shaking his head in disbelief.

I hadn't thought of this in a long time. The memory came to me this morning after reading the news from Gaza over the last few days. Of course it could have just as easily come from the news from Iraq or Lebanon or.....


PS: Not one Tamazight or Tashelhit woman in my villages ever wore one of those skirts, though they did love to compliment me on mine.

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