Aug 1, 2017
By Jessica Sjouerman
When Morocco Taught Me to Dance With My Fears
I stared at the outstretched hand in front of me. Its owner, a thirteen-year-old Moroccan girl with persuasive green eyes, had caught me peering through the doorway of a room at a traditional Berber wedding in Tamtattouchte, Morocco. The room was packed with at least three generations of Berber women who danced barefoot with colorful scarves knotted loosely around their hips. I’d lost myself in the different layers of rhythm as the women clapped, sang and beat a plastic drum filled with seeds and stones. When I’d locked my gaze with a pair bright green eyes, I’d snapped back from the doorway and hid behind my travel partner, Matt. But now here she was, with her hand outstretched, ready to dance. Green Eyes smirked. I knew I wouldn’t be let off easily.
It had been a month since Matt and I hitched our first ride from the ferry in Tangier to Meknés. Our trip through Portugal and Morocco had already changed my life. Instead of feeding my habitual thoughts of fear and anxiety, I’d begun to say yes to opportunities. In spite of my knotted gut and tight chest, I’d said yes to hitch hiking through Morocco with Matt. My heart, which had been broken for months, healed with every act of kindness I’d experienced; every ride, mint tea, toothy smile and hand-signed conversation that I’d said yes to.
Like most things on our trip, it was by chance that we met Mustapha on the side of the road in the High Atlas Mountains earlier that afternoon. He was in his twenties and had eyes so dark it gave the impression he wore eyeliner. In less than two minutes of meeting us he’d asked, “Would you like to come to a traditional Berber wedding? Matt and I exchanged a look that said ‘don’t you love how the universe has its own plans?’ We’d turned to Mustapha and said, “We’d love to.”
Green Eyes waited. For a moment I imagined the entire room of women laughing at me. My stomach flick-flacked. And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”
I realized that the heavy armor of fear I’d chosen to wear restricted me. I remembered that real freedom is already inside me – it hits me in the face each time I abandon my fears and say yes. Freedom had sprung to life when I’d allowed myself to be stripped naked by a sturdy Berber woman who scrubbed me like a baby at a local hammam. I’d cried with laughter with the other women who watched. It had bubbled inside me when I caught my first ride from the side of the road in Lisbon. I wanted to be free from the fears that held me back. I wanted all the opportunities that life had to offer.
No sooner than I’d touched my palm to hers had she pulled me inside. The room of girls enveloped me. Green Eyes handed me a thin red scarf. I tied it around my waist and looked up at her, proud like a toddler who’s learned how to stand. But she threw back her head and cackled with laughter. The other women doubled over in stitches. Green Eyes shook her head.
She took the scarf from me and secured it around her hips. Without breaking eye contact, she began to move each hip up and down, so fast it became difficult to follow. After a few minutes she removed the scarf and fastened it around my hips. My heart froze. The terror must have shown on my face because the women screeched with laughter. The entire room had stopped to watch me dance.
I was at once acutely aware of my limbs, my clunky hiking boots and the heat that radiated off my face. Someone beat the rattle drum and it vibrated in my chest. Or was that my heart? I took a deep breath and began to move my hips up and down, up and down. I felt like a stiff white girl. I heard a few giggles but I closed my eyes and kept going. The rattle drum pounded.
Up and down. My cares began to melt. My cheeks ached from my smile and my chest burned with breathless laughter. Up and down. Faster, faster. My armor of fears cracked with every movement and tumbled down in pieces. I became more naked with each fragment that fell. Up and down. I was completely exposed. There was nothing left to hide behind. The women laughed and clapped, flicked their fingers and shouted, “Zweena!” Beautiful. They stroked my hair and hung onto my arms. My heart swelled with gratitude. Green Eyes smiled and without a second thought, I lifted the wine-colored pashmina from my neck and wrapped it around hers. “Saha,” she said. Thank you.
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About the Author
Jessica is a Cape Town-based travel writer and photographer, amongst other things. She is a passionate advocate of travel as a means of self-exploration and feels that everyone would discover the power of human kindness if only they hitch hiked a little.