My Berber hostess Zaina insists I return for a visit to a cooperative in a remote mountain village followed by lunch at her house for couscous, although we were scheduled to arrive in Essaoura, a 4 hour drive, by afternoon. Knowing that lunch at Zaina’s house, with several courses, would take many hours, and that the visit to the village was an hour in the opposite direction of my end destination that day, I agreed. I couldn’t miss the chance to see these women.
We drive into the hills behind the village of Biougra, through a beautiful rolling landscape with cactus, argan trees, dry grass and the simple square built terra cotta houses of the Berbers. Eventually, we turn off the main road and drive for a few miles on an unpaved dirt road, at the end of which is one of the most charming villages I have ever seen. Rough stone houses boast brightly painted doors and curling metalwork on windows, with crumbling stone walls surrounding the courtyards.
We are greeted by two beautiful young girls wearing brightly colored traditional dress, embroidered skirts with cotton embroidered scarves covering their heads. We are led inside a courtyard, and then into another, interior courtyard where a group of women and girls similarly dressed are cracking argan nuts. The women are friendly and smile as I offer my greetings in Arabic, but they are reluctant to show their faces, while the younger girls shyly hold back. It isn’t until we leave the courtyard together that they ease up a bit. The women and their daughters gather around me chatting and laughing. I give them scarves and candy I brought from home as a gift, although I hate the idea of them changing their beautiful white cotton ones for mine, which seem garish in comparison, but they welcome the items from America. The curiosity of the younger girls at my presence is obvious and I can tell that some of the them are eager to have their pictures taken, but their mothers quickly tell them to stop looking at the camera and to cover their faces. An older woman presents me with a wonderfully aromatic bunch of sage. Three more give me the scarves off of their heads, gifts I treasure. We kiss three times on the cheeks and wave goodbye and they make me promise to stay for a few days the next time, a promise I hope to keep.
We return to Zaina’s for a tremendous platter of couscous with chicken and vegetables, accompanied by buttermilk in which we put yet another type of grain, then fruit and fresh mint tea and cookies before we head off to Essaouira, sorry to leave.