She met us in full chador.
How could I be sure we were meeting the same woman? The truth is that I couldn’t, and that was part of the excitement. That is the beauty of travel; doing things one would never do at home. Would I follow a masked stranger into an unfamiliar alley in my hometown? Of course not! I would stick to safe places and routines. Here I didn’t know what was safe and what wasn’t so it was all the same to us.
We followed her into a silent maze of streets, walls golden in the morning sun, her chador billowing in the breeze as she rushed deeper into the city.
Marrakech was like a time capsule, its history laid bare for us to see and touch, but I knew so little about it. I wanted to learn more.
“Those are the baths,” she said in French, pointing at a crumbling building. That was the extent of our tour. The rest of the time we rushed behind her in silence, afraid of getting lost.
We would see a person here and there - men dressed like wizards in full hoods and pointy shoes, women bringing laundry inside - but they never looked at us. Still, I could feel eyes looking at us from behind curtains made from old bed sheets, so I knew we were not alone.
Eventually she stopped at a large building. Most of it was painted light blue, then it just stopped and was cement gray. It looked like someone had run out of paint and just left it that way.
The girl that had been with her when we got our henna tattoos was outside playing with a large sheep, trying to smooth its matted coat. Our guide ignored the girl so we followed her inside. The room was large enough to be a comfortable living room, but then I noticed that it was lined with twin mattresses and bedding was piled up against the wall to form makeshift couches. There was only one door in the room – the one we had just walked through. There were a lot of people in there and they were looking at us expectantly. We waved shyly.
Our guide went to a slight man dressed in white who was seated in a corner of the room and got on her knees. She kissed his hands.
We looked at each other, unsure what to do. We started to kneel when the man stood up and motioned for us to stop.
“There is no need. It is not your tradition,” he said shaking his head.
English! We were relieved and started to apologize for not dressing appropriately, for not having a chador, but we had just arrived and did not know where to find one…
He smiled and dismissively waved his hands. Then he nodded at the woman who brought us to his house. She got up and in one swift motion, took off her chador. She was a young girl – maybe 19 or so, just like us—not the older woman we had expected. The man must have been her father. It was then that I noticed that the other women inside the house weren’t wearing chadors either. They wanted to make us feel at home, and for the first time, they smiled at us.
Our friend was a very pretty girl. She had a wide, friendly smile and sparkly eyes. She made sure we all sat down and served us tea while the rest of the family watched us from across the room. We did our best to make conversation, but found that only the men and boys spoke English. They asked us if we found Moroccans to be friendly and we had to laugh. One of our friends was very popular with the taxi drivers and shopkeepers, and we had been jokingly offered up to 20 camels for her.
“She’s going for 20 camels at this point,” I said, pointing at the girl we had dubbed Ms. Morocco.
The ice was broken, and we sat down in small groups. They asked us questions about life in Europe and America. We asked them about life in Morocco. They told us about the lavish weddings, and even pulled out family photo albums. For a while, we felt right at home – all differences forgotten in the universal sharing of wedding stories.
At one point, all the men except for the father left the room. I wouldn’t have noticed it, save for the desperate bleating of the sheep that the girl had been playing with outside. The men dragged it to the front door and started singing as they struggled with it and held it to the ground.
Then one of the mustachioed uncles, a man who a few minutes ago had been laughing and drinking tea with us stood at the door with a large machete. He went behind the sheep and slit its throat. The animal’s blood spilled onto the tile floor, into our room, onto the feet of the men. I was so shocked, I kept taking pictures (warning: graphic, don't click on the thumbnails if you don’t like blood).
There were a few minutes of terrible silence, where my friends and I didn’t know what to do.
This had been the reason we had seen so many sheep and goats on the train - Eid al-Adha – the family was recreating the biblical story of Abraham’s obedience when asked to sacrifice of his first-born son. But what next?
The sheep was hung from the doorframe (our only way out for the room) so that all the blood could drain off its neck. I couldn’t look at it anymore, and my stomach turned knowing that the logical next step was for us to eat the poor animal. The women started lighting up coal stoves (indoors! I was sure I would die of carbon monoxide poisoning!) and the men passed down raw cubes of meat to them.
The meat cooked for less than five minutes, and then it was put on a plate besides some bread. Our hosts graciously waited for us, the guests of honor, to take the first bites.
I closed my eyes and chewed into the vilest piece of meat to ever cross my lips. To this day I cannot eat lamb without my stomach turning.
I was wrong about the carbon monoxide poisoning. I was sure that instead I would be eaten alive by the worms that were surely infesting the undercooked meat I had just swallowed. But what could I do? There was a man with a bloody knife blocking our exit.
So I ate it all.
Our guide wanted to give us a gift when we finished lunch. She gave us Moroccan makeovers and made up our eyes with her precious khol powder. I wanted to give her a gift to thank her, so I dug into my backpack and found a gold lipstick tube. I gave it to her, and she hugged me in gratitude.
Soon, it was time for us to go back. We said goodbye to our new friends, refused the offer of food for later, and headed out onto streets that suddenly didn’t seem so unfamiliar.
Children were outside playing soccer. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that instead of balls they were kicking charred sheep’s skulls. It was like a scene in hell's playground, but we were getting used to this strange land.
Later that day we headed out for the Sahara. We were done with the city and crossed the Atlas mountains, marveling at their unfamiliar vistas, to travel deep into the desert on the back of camels. We traveled with Bedouins with only a comet to light up the dark desert sky.