Being in a foreign country is hard, especially when you’re separate from your social network. But new friends are everywhere, even in the most surprising places
Moving house is one of the most stressful things you can do we are told – right up there with divorce and starting a new job.
Last July I was in my car driving from my old home on the coast of Morocco to my new home in a tiny village in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, Imlil. Squeaky the Cat was with me, making her displeasure known, and I was worrying about how I was going to get my washing machine up the steep, rocky hill. That was all a welcome distraction from the real worry: how would I fit in in a small, traditional community where I was going to be the only foreigner.
The day passed in a whirl. As my truck and I drew up at the bottom of the mountain, I was met by six of the local men and a mule and my washing machine problem was solved. I panted my way up to my one bedroomed house, cursing the altitude that sucked the oxygen from my lungs, and the door was flung open by Imran, aged eight and a half, who was desperate to show me round. He guided me proudly from the kitchen, to the bedroom, to the sitting room and then, hopping from foot to foot with glee, produced the piece de resistance…. The landlord had fitted pink and blue disco lights round the side of the sitting room. I was left momentarily speechless but soon recovered.
“Ifulki, Ifulki! (beautiful),” crowed Imran. Tea was produced and my six helpers came in and drank the sweet brew gratefully and, finally, I was alone.
My house is perched on the edge of the hill looking out over the tops of a forest of walnut trees, the front door opens out on to a large yard which is shared with the three houses of my neighbours: my landlord and his two brothers and all their families, and at the end is a large set of gates which is closed at nights. This grouping of houses is called a douar and is a normal way for Moroccan families to live.
Imlil is an Amazigh (Berber) village and so everyone speaks Tashlaheet as their mother tongue. If they have been to school, they speak Arabic too. I speak Arabic but my Tashlaheet was confined to a few words and I knew that I would have to learn some more pretty quickly. Those first few days, I kept my door open and a procession of visitors trooped in from the other houses.
In Morocco, the sexes socialise separately, and before I moved in my landlord had set some conditions: “No men, no parties and no naked sunbathing on the roof.” I was rather flattered at this exciting picture he had built up of my life.
Privacy is not a concept that is really understood here where everyone lives such a communal life and I soon got used to my neighbours wandering into my kitchen and looking in the fridge or popping into my bedroom to have a glance through my wardrobe.
Occasionally, it could lead to some awkward encounters like the time I had just walked out of my en-suite shower starkers into my bedroom to find my landlady standing there holding a plate of couscous for me because she had seen me coming in cold and wet after a hike.
I was quickly included in douar life and invited in for elevenses of sweet mint tea and home-made, hot bread fresh out of the oven smothered in melted butter from the cow who lives downstairs and honey from the hives on the hill. The women all speak in Tashlaheet but know enough Arabic to include me. Naturally, they wanted to know about my personal life.
Fatima: “Alice, are you married? Do you have children?”
Me: “No, I have never been married and I don’t have any children.”
Fatima: “But why? You are beautiful and nice. There is still time. Don’t worry.”
Me: “I never wanted to be married. I am happy to be free.”
Fatima: “But, Alice, a woman has no worth unless she is married and has children. You must get married.”
Me: “If God wills it.”
Thwack. Initially it is a bit of a blow to the self esteem to be told you have no worth but because there is no malice in it and I know the women love me, it is not hurtful as it would be in our culture.
The reason I moved to the Atlas Mountains was to train for a big ultra race I had (madly) signed up for which involved running round Everest. I had to get fit to do it and this was the perfect place to train but that meant I would have to venture out in my lycra when all the women around me would only leave the compound fully veiled. One of my core exercises was weighted step ups and the only place to do them was outside my front door in the middle of the yard.
“Oh, Lord!” I thought as I pulled on my leggings, plonked 12kg into my backpack and stepped outside, “This is going to be so embarrassing, they are going to think I am totally insane and going out in leggings is like going out in a thong at home.”
I gritted my teeth and got on with it. 1/2/3/4…10 and then something rather lovely happened. Three of the little girls, my landlady, her sister and her 90 year-old mother-in-law (the Hajja) came out to see what was going on and when I explained what I was doing, joined in with gusto. Wahid/zooj/tlata/arba we bellowed as we sweated our way through. At the end, we all congratulated ourselves and I brought out lollipops for everyone to celebrate.
After that the ice was well and truly broken and my friendships with the women progressed. There is one friendship that I hold especially dear and that is with the Hajja. Every day, she taps on the door and comes in. She often brings me a peach or an apple or a handful of dates and we settle down for a chat. We sit together on my sofas or out on the terrace and I produce some shortbread, which she has definitely developed a taste for. She is my main teacher for Tashlaheet. She points to things and tells me the word and I write it down and repeat it. She loves the house and often says, “My son built you a beautiful house.”
Although she is 90 and rather frail, she is bright as a button and takes a keen interest in my writing and my travels. Our lives could not be more different. She was married as a young teenager and has lived her whole life in the valley. She is illiterate and never went to school but is happy that all her grand daughters do go to school and are working towards their exams.
She loves the phone and likes to Whatsapp video my Mum back in Scotland, always asking after her health with great enthusiasm. If I ever feel lonely or homesick, I just pop down to see her and immediately feel I am part of a family.
One day, we were sitting together on the terrace overlooking the hills and she taught me a knew word. “Izhayzh, “she said, taking my hand in her warm ones and patting it. “I feel so relaxed.” We sat there holding hands, listening to the birds singing from the walnut trees with the sun warming our faces, simply two friends.
My 1001 Nights by Alice Morrison is out now (£18.99, Simon & Schuster)
Images: Unsplash, Supplied