Water and Culture
by Ryan Powell, Ait Yaddou, Morocco
Sitting slightly askew on heavy sacks of grain in the blazing spring sun, I settled myself down for a six-hour open-air Cameo ride to my village 80 km away. I thought I was being quite shrewd by leaving today because yesterday was Ahydood, the "Water Holiday." Celebrated throughout Morocco, Ahydood is when people ask for rain for their new growing season.
The children especially get involved in this celebration. They carry squirt guns, water buckets, and any other gadget that holds water and allows for quick dispensing and soaking. They wait on rooftops, behind cars, around corners, and other places you'd never expect to douse unsuspecting victims with water. It is all done in a sporting way and everyone takes the soaking with good humor. Most of that day, I stayed inside the apartment, knowing I would be an obvious target if I went outside. To my surprise, not a single drop of water touched me on the two occasions I did go outside.
After the Cameo left town, we came to a slow moving river. It was then that I noticed the rows of children on both sides of the road. They wore devilish smirks on their faces, all holding something behind their backs. I thought, "What's going on? Ahydood was yesterday, right? Does it run for more than one day?" I quickly turned to a man sitting next to me and asked, "When was Ahydood?" he grinned and said, "Today." I thought, "Uh oh, no wonder I didn't get soaked yesterday. I've been grossly misinformed."
As we approached, it seemed that the Cameo driver purposely slowed down. Since he was inside the cab with the windows up, either he wanted a free washing, or gets a good laugh out of hearing everyone yell as they are doused with cold water. I tend to believe the latter.
As buckets were emptied on us, I just removed my glasses and hat and enjoyed the cool water on that hot day. The six-hour ride was sporadically interrupted with random streams of water as we passed through other villages.
When I arrived in my village, I went to my house, changed into dry clothes, and went to the village center where the people were gathering; singing and playing drums (called taloonts), saying "Arlpe anzar" ("May God bring rain"). As people came and went, huge bowls of cous-cous were brought out for us to eat. People returned to their houses for dinner a little after sunset.
An old folk tale tells the story of a young couple in love who sought to be married. But because they were not from the same tribe, their marriage was forbidden. It is said that when they were told of this they cried so much their tears formed two lakes. These two lakes are the basis for the annual Imilchil Wedding Festival and are appropriately named Isli and Tislit, meaning groom and bride, respectively (in Berber).
One day out of every year, every man in every village goes to the spring to remove all the vegetation that has grown since last year. They lay the vegetation around the spring to let it dry (feed for animals) and then cook a massive meal of boiled vegetables and meat (called a douez) to celebrate.
by Jennifer Bohman, Souss Massa National Park, Morocco
The south of Morocco is officially classified as semi-arid; for most of us that means just plain dry. Rainy season here is at the time most people in the United States are having winter. Contrary to my initial understanding, rainy season around here means the only season when it possibly might rain, but there are no guarantees that it will. During this season, every conversation I began with comments on whether there had been any rain in the past few days, its abundance, and if any other neighboring villages had had rain.
In the springtime, the nomads from the Sahara roam into my region. They come to graze their camels on the stalks of the barley that have been left after harvest. As I sit and watch the camels herded by, black silhouettes against the setting sun, I believe it is the closest I will ever come to anything from the Arabian Nights. These tribes have sustained their traditional pastoral lifestyle for centuries, with a few minor adjustments—I watch some of them drive their camels with rickety white mini-trucks.
One of the most sacred of social rules can be traced to these nomads. It is absolutely forbidden to ever deny water to anybody asking for a drink. It is quite customary to see someone walk into a store, ask for water, drink it, and move on; it's just how life works. This stems from the nomads traveling around the desert for centuries; they depended on the wells and villages they knew to provide them with water.
So, in my dry region, where water is scarce and the farmers are perpetually looking to the sky and Allah for rain, I see these same farmers handing a family that has set up camp for a week or two a few gallons of water. Water is the scarcest and most precious of resources and yet their religion and culture have made people generous with it.
by Erin Olson, Agadir L'henna, Morocco
Much Moroccan art is seen in local crafts, and water has contributed greatly to the need for such crafts. Bowls, bidons (water containers), and other water-holding devices are crucial to the Moroccan people. In many villages people do not have running water in their homes. Some people visit wells, and some visit streams, lakes or springs, sometimes traveling long distances. This means there is a great need for water holders—both to carry and to store water). Some water bidons are ornately carved wood bowls and barrels. Sometimes metal and copper are pounded into large containers, which are also decorated. Clay pots and bowls are also a specialty in Morocco. Artisans learn their craft over many years. The area of Fes (Fez) is particularly known for its beautiful pottery.
People of the desert have a great deal of music and many folk tales about water. At weddings, women sing "Oweed aman" ("Bring the water") as a good luck wish for the new bride and groom.
by Jessica Seem, Zaouia Village, Morocco
There is a Muslim ritualistic washing that takes place before prayer five times a day—right now—in late October. S'hor is around 4 a.m., D'hor around noon, L'asair around 3 p.m., Maghreb at 5:45 p.m., and L'ashou around 7:30 p.m. People follow the washing ceremony with different degrees of strictness. You are meant to wash your hands, feet, and face five times each—with water; no soap is necessary. The water must be pure and of drinking quality for these ablutions. Even in a drought, people aim to use their best water to wash before prayer. Also, during certain prayers, people will go through the motion of washing their faces—effectively, "washing with the prayer."
by Beth Giebus, Tetouan and Agadir, Morocco
"Everything alive was made from water," reads a passage from the Koran.
Moroccans, a deeply religious people, consider water to be the essence of life. It is fitting then that the city of Marrakech, the heart of Morocco, is an oasis. The city's center, Djema El Fna, ripples with a rhythm unlike any I've ever known. Street vendors and storytellers, acrobats and snake tamers, bearded ulmans and veiled Berber binats—all drift to the tides of its drumbeats and the breathy rush of its flutes.
Surrounded by the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains, Marrakech is built within a fertile valley. Long, thin granite formations of gold, pink, and mauve hold the city with its bordering palm trees like an outstretched hand. I once remarked on this to a shopkeeper who told me, "Yes, it is a good sign. We are protected from the evil eye." (The image of a hand with an eye at the center of the palm is known as The Hand of Fatima; it is the most prevalent symbol found in Morocco and is used as a talisman, particularly against the evils inflicted by jealousy.)
As far as I know, water is not a focal point in religious ceremonies, except as part of mandatory absolution before prayer. For most Moroccans, this cleansing takes place in the hammam, a communal bathing area, sometimes referred to by Westerners as a "Turkish bath." Although the hammam is a retreat, I wouldn't describe it as tranquil. When my neighbors, Amina and Aisha, first asked me to accompany them to the hammam, I was expecting to spend the afternoon lazing about in a languid, steam-filled haze. I was mistaken.
Armed with soap stones, pumice, sisal mitts, a green-gel detergent ("shampoo," they said), three buckets of hot water, and one bucket of ice water, we scrubbed and scoured, scoured and scrubbed. In the interest of truth, I must admit that I myself was more scrubbed upon than scrubbing. Amina and Aisha, who rolled their eyes up to Allah every time I cut carrots or kneaded dough, sighed with undisguised pity when I tried to handle a sisal mitt. "This way, this way!" they demonstrated until, with growing impatience, they sanded me down in soap. Twenty-five years worth of accumulated grime rolled off me, along with millions of terrified skin cells. Looking down at the sisal mitt, I couldn't help examining the dirt I never knew I had. Then, raising my head, I saw that, despite the hammam's veiling mist of vapor, I had become the clear-cut center of attention. With tears streaming down their faces, Amina and Aisha and everyone else in the room—from toothless grandmothers to 10-year-old girls in braids—were laughing to the point of hysterics. It was obvious, I suppose, that I was not prepared for such vigorous bathing. I was not just mskeena, meaning poor, pitiful one; the greatness of my pathetic state was emphasized with the shrill cries of "m-s-skeeeeeeeennnn-ah!" I laughed, too, though not quite as heartily. Noticing my unease, Amina picked up a bucket of water, pouring half over her head, the other half over mine. Flashing a smile, she teased: "It's water! Just water!"
by Beth Giebus, Tetouan and Agadir, Morocco
My experience with water in Africa may not be typical. Morocco is generally considered to be more developed than other African countries, and Tetouan and Agadir are, in turn, more modernized than other regions elsewhere within the country. Although I traveled quite a bit and often stayed with Volunteers who lived in more traditional settings, my day-to-day usage of water was not all that different from that in the United States.
If water was not an immediate concern, I was very much affected by water indirectly. The people of Tetouan and Agadir relied heavily upon the tourist industry to feed their economies and their children. Often, tourists pass through these cities quickly, lightly—not realizing the heavy toll their entry takes upon the cities' inhabitants. Each day, the Mediterranean sea brings shiploads of drug traffickers into Tetouan; every night, the hotels along Agadir's shores become thinly veiled havens of prostitution.
At the universities in Tetouan and Agadir, I lectured on the poetry of Walt Whitman and the battles of Gettysburg. Within those classroom walls, I met students who dazzled me with their brilliance; in the United States, they would be surefire candidates for Ivy League degrees or Fortune 100 positions. But in Tetouan and Agadir, only one or two percent of college graduates actually get jobs. It is very sad to see such talent go unrecognized and undirected; it is even sadder to see these young men and women trade away their skills for the beachfront profits.
Late into the evening, I would lie across my living room floor, propping myself up with pillows and sketching lesson plans for the next day's classes. With a tap on the door, my next door neighbor, Amina, would enter, carrying a cup of mint tea and a gift of almonds. Her eyes, darkly lined in kohl, would not be laughing. Softly, she'd ask to borrow my silk scarf or silver earrings. I'd squat on the floor in an old faded djellaba, as Amina, dressed in a black skirt, blouse, and high heels, sat elegantly in a chair. For a few minutes, we'd talk—though she'd interrupt to correct my Arabic or tell me the Berber translation. "Ousteda (teacher)?" she'd tease, pointing to me and shaking her head in mock disbelief. "Oh, yes, but you know English very well, don't you?"
Sighing, she'd get up to leave. It was very late. She didn't say where she was going, and I didn't ask. There were some words I didn't need to learn.
In the mornings I'd awake to the thunder of the mosque (ALLAH K'HBAR!), the cackling of chickens, and the sounds of Amina crying next door.
On days like this, an hour or two before dawn, I'd get up and run—past the mosque, past the hammam, past the public oven, past the houses of my students, the houses of my friends; down to the souvenir shop, the liquor store, the hamburger joint, and Club Paradisio. "Morocco is a land of contrasts" tout the travel brochures, and along this road, a scant two miles, those contrasts come together at a frightening speed. On one end, there are bikinis, champagne, discos, and too much free-flowing cash; on the other, centuries-old traditions struggling to survive.
By the sole virtue of my U.S. passport, I could travel freely, along this road and countless others. But for many of my Moroccan neighbors and students, this road leading to the shores of the Atlantic was just one more dead end. And each time they traveled it, they seemed to cast off something of themselves, something much too valuable.
For some reason, I was compelled to pace this route, thinking that if I could do it long enough, often enough, it would all stop—or, at least, slow down. Like some hapless courier, I would race back and forth, not knowing what message, if any, I carried. It didn't make any sense, but it was all I could do.