Women who run with the camels

That is what co-owner Miranda Innes calls women who show up in at her Moroccan B&B alone.

Yet I would not recommend it for the feminine faint of heart.  A woman alone in a souk with her own pocketbook in tow throws Moroccan male concepts of where a woman should be into high disarray and makes the politically incorrect American male construction workers look like priests.  “Luscious Lips!”  “Hello Money!”  “Thank you;  no thank you; damn you!”  And the one epithet which I took as a compliment, though I do not fully understand it: “Berber woman!”

These sassy souk-sayers are no more representative of all Moroccan men than were those tee-shirted hard-hatted lascivious whistling workers on American streets of their US counterparts.  Colorful, yes; memorable, certainly.  But not the voice of all Moroccan men, thank goodness.  And just like in America, if you are walking on their souk streets with a man, or with someone they know, you are far less likely to receive the comments.

Hosts Miranda Innes and her husband Dan Pearce introduced me to Jamal, who has a shop in the souks.  When I met Jamal, he shook my hand, then touched it to his heart—a gesture I would see repeated over and over.  Lovely that gesture, acknowledging taking this stranger into your heart.  Then, after asking where I was from, Jamal offered me a “Big welcome” looking straight and deeply into my eyes.  I felt very welcomed indeed.

The other sound on the streets which took some getting used to was the Call to Prayer five times a day, with a warm-up call before the first one—sort of a snooze alarm system.  I had looked forward to experiencing the days’ cycles of prayer, and planned to participate with my own silent prayers in my own eclectic fashion.

The Call to Prayer is amplified from all of the mosques’ loudspeakers.  Mosques are Marrakesh’s anchors which pin the streets down, keeping them from getting hopelessly tangled up.  You can always look up and locate yourself relative to a mosque, towering benevolently and gently over the ancient camel-wide streets—until Call to Prayers.  Then the mosques all come audibly alive simultaneously—and loudly, with multi-decibel amplification.

The Call to Prayer is primal and deep, like a wild animal’s visceral longing, yearning for its mate, or like a warning, a human air raid sound:  “Take cover!  Take cover!  Go find the protection of the Divine now, save yourself.  Hurry!”  I wanted to duck under my desk the way we were taught in elementary school, in case of an attack, during the Cold War.

And then silence.  Prayer.  Stillness.   Or so I thought.  Sitting in a restaurant in Djemaa el Fna when a Call to Prayer came, I was surprised to see people still bustling around on their errands.   I had expected people to stop in their tracks wherever they were, for at least a moment of silence.

So I asked Jamal about this.  He explained that one cannot just start praying.  Preparation, absolution, must be offered first before praying.  There are two types:  full absolution includes washing most all of the body in ritual preparation for prayer, and the abridged version includes a smaller body geography to wash.  If absolution has not been accomplished, then you may not properly offer prayer.  So the people in the square kept going about their life.  And, he told me rather sadly, not everyone, just like in America, observes their faith.

I confessed to Jamal that I was using the Calls to Prayer to offer my own up, in my way.  I felt suddenly very sullied, not having ritually prepared, just blurting out my prayers wherever I was.  The idea of preparing to pray I quite like, and I wished there were some easy-to-pack version.

Jamal explained that they observe two kinds of prayer:  the kind I was doing, which was between a person and their god, and the kind that people were observing in the mosques, praying together.   In the private prayers, between person and the divine, this is when one “surprises God,” Jamal said.   I love this concept—to surprise an all-knowing deity.  Kind of like showing up unannounced, or maybe throwing a surprise party.  I wondered how I could surprise God—perhaps by praying without an appointment?  I know that I have often been surprised by God—and delighted.  It is intriguing to hope that perhaps the favor could be returned.

Jamal went on.  The prayers in the mosque are the second kind of prayer, stronger, different.  Usually these prayers are led, and the people listen prayerfully, adding Amen’s where needed.   Yes, I agreed that many religions also have this kind of prayer.   And when more people are gathered, it is stronger prayer, different prayer.  I thought of the scene in the movie Avatar where the natives of Pandora, the Na’vi, prayed together, joining their focus and wills to a single purpose.  That’s this second kind of prayer.

This experience reminded me of growing up with daily prayer in our US schools, and I was sad that my children’s generation grew up without either daily method, silently alone or led together.  The Pledge of Allegiance is long gone from US school mornings, also, because it contained “one nation under God,” which is still good enough for printing on our money, but not for the protection of freedom of speech and worship in the schools.

Yet, here in this Moroccan country whose traditions are so laced with worship, the airwaves five times a day are filled with that primal call to prayer:  “Take cover, take shelter, get safe and square with your divine—now!”   I envied the Moroccans this ritual.

There was one other cycle-of-the-day ritual, which happened at Riad Maizie where I was staying ( www.riadmaizie.eu ).  A riad is a traditional Moroccan house with an interior garden; the term comes from the Arab word “ryad” which means garden.  The house has two entrances:  one for people, to enter from the street.  And one for the divine, open to the sky, in the garden.

Riad Maizie is a beautiful 200 year-old building which Miranda Innes and Dan Pearce had completely restored in traditional Marakchi decoration. Both Miranda and Dan are artists:  Dan is an artist working in oils and comics, Miranda is a author, having published many books on decorating, and one on their adventure of restoring Maizie:  Cinnamon City (Black Swan, 2006).  So the colors and beauty of Maizie are quite spectacular.  Each of the guests felt vaguely guilty since we each believed we had the best room in the house; all are so special.
At Riad Maizie, every morning and every evening, there is a ritual in the courtyard at precisely sunrise and exactly sunset.   Approximately 87 small dark birds with humongous lungs come to the upper north east corner of the courtyard, which was right outside my window, nesting in a specific tree, and they tempestuously sing the sun up into the city, then in the evening tumultuously sing the sun back down into the earth.  It is a loud cacophonous raucous noise, primal like the Call to Prayers, but in a high-pitched bird way—as primal as these little birds can be.   They make a glorious racquet.  And when the birds are sure that the sun’s passage is complete, they disappear as quickly as they showed up.

This reminded me of Carl Jung’s encounter with Chief Mountain Lake.  Mountain Lake was an American Indian medicine man, and every morning Mountain Lake awoke before the sun, and went to sing the day into being.  He had done this almost all his life.  It was his job.   Carl Jung wrote of Mountain Lake, “I envied him the certainty of his purpose.”

Not everything works on time or in proper cycles, however.  The day of my departure, the taxi which had been ordered the night before did not show up.  So Abdul, an achingly handsome young Islam boy who is indispensable to Miranda and Dan at Riad Maizie, turned to me and said, “We must go find another taxi now,” and he gestured to his motorcycle.  I remember thinking, “But I’m 62. It has been at least 20 years since I’ve been on a motorcycle.”

Abdul gestured again, with the look of, “Let’s get on with this, the flight may leave.”  I thought, “Fortunately I’m wearing slacks.”  He got on his motorcyle, swinging my carry-on luggage up onto his lap. I hopped on the back of the cycle behind Abdul, and held on to my luggage (with my arms around him of course).  Then we flew thru the streets of the souks at 7 in the morning, passing hooded men and horses and carts, with inches to go on either side.  Amazing.   Wish I had pulled out my video camera.  Must get a repeat…

Abdul found me a taxi, which drove me through the city as it was waking up.  Very beautiful in the early morning fog.   A timelessness and ancient feeling, in the center of Marrakesh.  It has been there for centuries, with i
ts cycles of calling in the day, the divine, the shoppers.   The mountains witnessed the day begin, and the calls started up once more.

Mountain Lake had told Carl Jung that he thought that white people were a bit crazy, because they think with their heads.  When Jung asked Mountain Lake how he thought, the chief touched his heart with his hand, the same way Jamal had done when he gave me a “Big welcome,” and said, “We think here.”


14 comments for “Women who run with the camels

  1. September 5, 2012 at 8:29 am

    Beautiful evocation using all the senses….and both sources of “tthought.”

  2. Isabella
    September 24, 2012 at 7:23 am

    The reading was very engaging. I felt like I was in Morocco with you and especially Marrakech which I have heard a lot about. Even in reading some places just bear an ancient feeling about them. Thanks for sharing this beautifully written story.

    • September 24, 2012 at 8:39 am

      Hi Isabella,

      Thanks for your kind comments. Since we have been exploring writing non-fiction in class, I’ll give you the backstory on this essay.

      In my EPC1 podcast, I talk about how some stories come thundering at you, while others are quieter and softer in their development. This “camel” essay arrived with thunder–it was one of those “Sit down NOW and write this,” and it came running out the fingertips in about an hour flat. A bit of polishing here and there, and some fact checking between draft 1 and 2, then it was done, but it did not quite have an ending. I wrote it while I was still in Morrocco. Then when the taxi did not arrive, but the motorcycle did–I had my ending.

      I love it when stories come thundering, but they are rare gifts. In between thundering gifts, I find it useful to work out (the “Athlecticism of Voice”– an upcoming podcast). And to woo the softer quieter story lines, strengthening my writing muscle.

      Thanks for your comments! / Jill

      • Isabella
        September 25, 2012 at 2:54 am

        Wow! I have heard you talk about stories that come “thundering” at you and they just flow from your fingertips like that! I will pay more attention now that I know about it. I have had many thundering moments for poetry and have written many such pieces until they were done. A story is probably quite a complicated thought to me so it could have kept me from doing that. Do you think a story that takes 300 pages to write and the writer does not stop writing for weeks on end until they are done can be described in that way? If so, may be I did and now I do struggle to review and rewrite them.

        You are a very gifted writer and thank you so much for sharing your heart. I am so glad you are my instructor and teacher. I know you will be for a long time to come. Thanks.

        • September 25, 2012 at 12:37 pm

          Hi Isabella,

          Each writer needs to learn their own individual kinesthethic thunder meter. Stories come knocking in different ways to different people. In my book, one authors calls it the “I must write” voice, that inner voice that just takes you by the astral shoulders and firmly pushes you into your writing chair.

          When I have NOT listened to that voice, because it was inconvenient, or I’d rather savor THINKING about writing the story, then eventually the feelin leaves me. And often I am sad. If I try to write it after the kinesthetic feeling leaves, the story is flat, dry. the muse gives you deadlines!

          You asked about 300 page stories. I think the idea stays thundering until you ground it on paper, and then once a long story begins, it has its own life and cadence. It will / can call you back to the keyboard often.

          Happy to have you in writing conversations! / Jill

  3. September 24, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    Beautifully written piece! I have always wanted to travel to Morocco and this put me there. The ride through the streets on the motorbike reminded me of riding through the streets of India. I was in a van, but it was no less invigorating!

    Thank you for sharing this with us! Travel writing is one of my passions and anytime I can read a piece that actually puts me there, anywhere, is a delight that I savor.


    • September 24, 2012 at 12:59 pm

      Hi Jen,

      I do hope you get to Morocco–though as you just read, it is very handy (and fun) to have a man with you. So I’d recommend a companion. The colors were amazing there, so intense. Perhaps this will inspire you to write about your time in India? Just any small detail can be a whole story, if you find the nexus of it.

      Thanks for reading. / Jill

    • Isabella
      September 25, 2012 at 2:55 am

      I have always wondered what travel writing is! Thanks for clarifying it for me. It is something I enjoy too. I would like to travel a lot but I have not yet done so, when I do, I will have much to write about.

  4. LIsa Frischhertz
    September 24, 2012 at 9:43 pm

    Jill, I loved the imagery of this piece, especially that of the 87 birds gathering in their own form of prayer to announce the daily advent and departure of the sun. That line alone, and the image of Jamal “touching his heart with his hand,” as a symbol of welcome and acceptance has me longing to travel to exotic locales. Superb! Thanks for sharing!

    • September 26, 2012 at 12:45 pm

      Thanks Lisa. Ryan Air flies from Pisa Italy to Marrakesh a couple times a week for very cheap rates. Ryan Air is like Jet Blue, only cheaper.

      I too hope you get to have exotic adventures. Thanks for reading.


  5. September 27, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    I really loved reading this piece. Showing the common ways of prayer with the different religions was wonderful. I could hear the birds that welcomed the morning and ended the day with their chatter. The motorcycle ride must have been a bit scary, but thrilling at the same time. A new way to see the city that most tourists don’t get to experience.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • September 28, 2012 at 11:14 am

      Hi Joan,

      The motorcycle ride was a bit scary–but only for a brief moment. Then I realized I would never have this experience again, not the first time part, not this particulary gorgeous man, not this particular morning light. So I let go of fear and was completely present with every sense, which made the ride that much longer in memory. The colors are so vibrant there, the light itself feels different. These brilliant colors went blurring by my side vision. I smelled the stacks of vegetables, fruit, and burning incense in the air. The already hot wind on my face, warming up the day. It only took seconds before I was delighted that the taxi did not arrive. I was also grateful that I packed light!

      Glad you enjoyed the ride, too ;0) / Jill

  6. February 21, 2015 at 5:48 am

    I so enjoyed reading your blog. It jumped out at me from the list on the HoB FB page. My husband is taking part in a weeks event, the Trans-Atlas marathon, in Morocco in May. Both of us are travelling to Marrakesch and I will have a week by myself while he is running in the mountains. I was heartened to hear of your travels as a lone woman in the country. I have am well travelled but stories of being harangued by men in Morocco have made me nervous. Do you have any suggestions for how I spend my time while there? I don’t have a big budget but am easily satisfied by simple experiences.

    • February 21, 2015 at 10:20 am

      Dear Rose

      How exciting! It is an amazing country and the colors are extraordinary.

      I would strongly suggest you have someone take you through the market the first time. And a man would be ideal. Your hotel should be able to offer a guide. It gets confusing in the market and you will want to know your way– as well as some reliable shopkeepers. Be prepared to barter. It is expected. I found the coinage quite confusing too–wish I had studied conversion a bit more.

      You might want to find other spouses to go to dinner with–or people from your hotel. I had a wonderfullong ceremonial multi course dinner.

      Life in the city early morning is fascinating as people are just waking up. The light is gorgeous. Lots of provisioning going on.

      You can find trips to tge dessert to meet caravans and ride camels. I had ridden a camel before and it is an unusual experience that you might enjoy.

      THank you for reading my blog! I appreciate it!!! If you would like to Tslk about traveling there contact me by Fb message and I would be delighted to chat. Safe travels! I look forward to hearing about your adventures.


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