National Geographic : 2005 Jan
down the trail outside the village. He was a gaunt, bearded man in his mid-50s. From under a threadbare black turban, his warm eyes and snag gletoothed smile conveyed pleasure at seeing Driss again, and he welcomed us to Tamalout. Hossein leaned down and shook our hands, after each shake kissing the tips of his fingers in accordance with local custom. Driss asked if we could stay at his house. Dismounting to walk with us, Hossein said he would have it no other way. In Berber cul ture, hospitality graces even the simplest of homes. On the outskirts of the village we had passed a circular lot some 50 feet wide with a stout pole poking through a foot of cut barley. Three young men in turbans and sweaty white smocks were threshing the grain, using whips to drive a half dozen donkeys tethered in a line to the pole. As the animals plodded through the grain, the dust flew up and caught the sun like powdered gold. In the surrounding fields of wheat and alfalfa, men plowed by mule, reaped by hand. As we entered the village, children saw me and cried, "Arrumi!"("Roman!"), an offhand trib ute to rulers 16 centuries gone and the name by which Berbers still refer to Westerners. Little appeared to have changed since the days of the Latins: Barefoot boys used sticks to prod sluggish cattle toward their pens; turbaned men sharp ened scythes on whetstones; women trudged by, amphorae of sloshing water on their backs. Hossein lived in a dwelling typical of Berbers in the High Atlas-a squat house with stone walls and a wood-raftered roof.The ground floor was a stable in which he quartered his mule, a cow, and a few scrawny chickens. In a room on the second floor, a tarnished bronze dagger dangled from a hook; from another hung a long-dormant clock. Carpets of faded orange, red, and green wool overlapped on the floor. To freshen the air, Hossein opened the windows, and in rushed flies from the stable. Shooing them away, we stretched out on the carpets as Hossein ordered unseen women in another room to prepare lunch. Soon we were joined on the carpets by Bas sou, a visiting teenage neighbor dressed in jeans and a jaunty black fedora, and by Hossein's young daughters, Itto and Hadda, who wore floral blouses and skirts, with wool leggings underneath. ("Itto" is a Berber name one rarely hears in urban Morocco, or even outside the eastern High Atlas. For decades the Moroccan authorities prohibited registering children with 90 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * JANUARY 2005 Berber names but in recent years have grown slightly more tolerant.) I asked the girls their ages. Both shrugged. Keeping track of birthdays isn't considered important in rural Morocco. Itto, scarved and peering bashfully at us from between her fingers, appeared to be about ten; her sterner sister, Hadda, looked older. Bassou pointed to Hossein. "Even Hossein doesn't know his age," he said lightheartedly in Arabic. "He's just old and senile!" Hossein smiled at me, apparently uncomprehending. To get by in the cities, where men often go in search of work, Berbers must learn Arabic. But here in the High Atlas, where most inhabitants speak Berber, Bas sou's fluency in Arabic distinguished him. He at tends secondary school near Midelt-Tamalout has only a newly built elementary school-on a scholarship and was proud of it. "I'm good in math and science," he said. "I read a lot of books in French and have French friends. I want to go to university." He hoped to use his education to escape the poverty of his village for a more promising future in the city, but getting a job in Morocco, for Berbers and Arabs alike, frequently depends not on talent but on connections. Hossein brought us the first course of lunch, a bowl of clarified butter and shards of home baked bread. He told us that he owned one cow, but to earn money, he rented it to a well-off neighbor, who took most of its milk; he had a small field on which he grew barley and wheat; he collected firewood in the surrounding cedar forest. Though ever thanking God for his lot, Hossein was as poor and thin as most Berbers we were to meet on our trip, and he would be lucky to grow enough food to feed his family. During the second course-a watery stew of onions and goat meat served in a clay terrine Hossein showed he knew at least some rudi mentary Arabic. He asked me, in Arabic, "Shall I pass you the meat?" I looked puzzled, and Bas sou laughed: Hossein had meant salt. "By God, my tongue will lead me to jail!" declared Hossein. He told how he had recently been summoned to testify in court against a fel low villager charged with logging illegally in the forest. Through a Berber-Arabic interpreter, Hossein testified in favor of the accused, but he understood enough Arabic to suspect that the interpreter, who'd probably been bribed, was distorting his words to convict the man. "I told my story to the judge in my own words,"