The Universal Language of Women

by Marianne Crone
(the Netherlands)

My husband and I stayed with Samarah’s Moroccan family on the invitation of her husband, Hamid. We met him on the train, which chugged and spittered along the tracks through a countryside as flat as a billiard table.

"Come with me to the mountains?" Hamid asked.

"What do you mean?" I said, but Hamid ignored me and turned to Erik. He said that he had been married for two weeks, that he was twenty-six, that his wife at the age of twenty-seven stood no chance on the wedding market. I felt quite sure that the dowry was more than he had expected.

"Do you think we should go?" Erik asked me.

"Oh, yes." I kept my voice down. "He'll probably want to show us off to his parents-in-law, let them see his foreign connections, and that he speaks English. But I don't mind. I'd love to meet other women. Tell him we accept his invitation."

Transport from the train station to his wife's village was by louage, a shared taxi that started its journey only when it had six passengers. After a ten-minute wait, three women waddled toward us and heaved themselves into the back seat, squashing me against the door. Hamid and Erik squeezed in front.

Our driver raced through blind curves, around other vehicles and drove on the wrong side of the road most of the journey. We zoomed past low houses with corrugated tin roofs, wayside shops and heaps of watermelons. Mosques whizzed by, their minarets pointing straight to Allah. For miles we drove through flat farmland interrupted by occasional farmsteads. We stopped three times to drop off our fellow-passengers. When we arrived in the village, a smell of goat and chicken dung engulfed me.

Hamid told the driver to stop in front of a farmhouse. We hobbled out, and he thumped on a heavy metal door. Shuffling feet, clanging of a lock, an elderly lady opened the door. Hamid examined her and said, "Wrong house. I have been here only once."

"I can't believe this," Erik said when Hamid moved out of earshot. "It's true all these farmhouses look pretty much alike, but to not know where your wife's family lives beats me."

Hamid had a private chat with the driver and summoned us to get in again. The louage hobbled across an uneven path, splashed through a puddle and stopped in front of a buff-coloured wall. Hamid jumped out, and with a big sweep of his arm he showed us the mountains. We noted scattered farmhouses, roaming goats, cackling chickens, plump sheep, and a gang of boys playing football. No young girls, no women.

I scoured the horizon and saw no contour of any mountain, no hillock, not even a small bump in sight. Fawn-coloured farmsteads lay scattered around the village. They looked desolate, turned in upon themselves: four blind walls and locked doors, impregnable fortresses. Each door displayed an imprint of Fatima's right hand, used as protection against the evil eye. Life for women takes place within these four walls; they do not go out unescorted.

We walked along the wall and Hamid showed us more mountains. This time he pointed at sheep grazing in a stony field. Finally, he recognized his in-laws’ house, and they bowed their heads and shook his hand. The father embraced him. Hamid stood tall in their esteem.

"Salaam." Samarah’s mother greeted us, and clasped me in a warm embrace.

Hamid acted as interpreter when she asked us to stay overnight. The mother and I had no common language, but the twinkle in her eye established a bond. Robust and short, with flushed cheeks, a facial tattoo distinguished her, a simple line drawn from her lower lip down to the cleft of her chin. A number of fine dots marked both sides of the line. A lock of hair covered part of her forehead tattoo.

"She's a Berber," Hamid said.

Erik raised his eyebrows.

"The tattoo." Hamid sounded contemptuous.

"What does it mean?" I asked.

He told us that the tattoo was a kind of identity document. The one on the forehead indicated to what tribe his mother-in-law belonged. The chin tattoo distinguished her from other members of her tribe. The number of dots showed how many children she had.

"And what about Berber men?" I asked.

Hamid laughed, as if the answer was obvious. "Only women have tattoos."

The mother opened the door wide and waved us into a sparsely furnished room. Benches covered in tasseled cushions lined three sides of the room. A table stood in front of them. Samarah covered it with an embroidered tablecloth. Hamid sat at the head, next to him Erik, and the men in his wife’s family, and then the women at the far end. Samarah’s father looked fierce with his handlebar moustache, but he was a gentle grandfather, and handed sweet tidbits to his grandchildren when the other adults were not looking.

With downcast eyes, Samarah put a round-bellied teapot and gilt-decorated glasses in front of her husband. He did not deign to look at her but ordered her to get more glasses. She had the same robust posture as her mother, the same twinkling eyes, kohl-lined. Hamid poured the tea from arms length height into a glass. Then he poured the frothy liquid back into the pot and repeated this several times. Green tea, mint and sugar blended to a perfect brew.

When most of the day's heat had gone, we went outside to sit in the courtyard. Not on chairs; Moroccan village houses contained few chairs. Piles of soft cushions lined the wall. We leaned against them and drowsed in the hot languor of late afternoon. The dappled pattern on the sun-drenched courtyard resembled fine lace. We all sank into pleasant idleness.

The shadows grew taller. A small lizard took over the still sun-hot walls as its hunting ground. Crickets appeared and I listened to their gentle whirring in the hot night air. The younger girls, supervised by their mother, busied themselves in the kitchen. The friendly sizzle of frying food stirred activity. The father and grandfather put two round tables with stubby legs in the courtyard. Samarah puffed up the cushions and put them round the tables. Hamid grabbed Samarah by the arm and indicated that his cushion was not plumped enough. She hastened to obey him. Erik caught my eye, and then the men crouched around one table, the women around the other.

Hamid shouted some words in Arabic. Samarah hurried to the kitchen and returned with big round, flat bread. Two of her sisters each carried a large bowl piled high with steaming cracked wheat decorated with chunks of chicken, bright orange carrots and yellow-green marrows. No plates. No cutlery.

The mother showed me how to roll the grains into a ball and dip it into the sauce, using my right hand only - the left reserved for hygienic functions. She pushed the best morsels of meat and raisins my way.

After the meal we again sank back in our cushions. The cool night-air stroked my face. Thousands of stars sparkled in the ink-blue sky. No light pollution marred this part of the world. Hamid stood fuming in the doorway and summoned Samarah to join him in their bedroom. The mother looked at me with a meaningful smile. I looked at Erik and shook my head.

The mother helped me push two benches together for Erik and I to sleep on. She rubbed her forefingers against each other, pointed at Erik and pointed at me. I showed her my wedding ring. She flashed a conspiratorial smile and left us alone.

A shaft of moonlight shone through a slit in the curtains. Moths gathered in its path, easy prey for the green lizards. A cockerel mistook the hour and crowed. A dog barked in the distance, a second one took over and a third until the sound drifted away. Sleep claimed me.

The next morning the village muezzin's voice over the loud speakers of the mosque woke me. "Allah Akbar," he croaked. Allah is great.

The house awoke. Hamid bawled a cavalcade of sounds. A door slammed shut. Another salvo of words bounced against the walls. Feet pitapatted. High-pitched voices filled the courtyard, and from my window I saw Samarah surrounded by her sisters. With one hand, Samarah tried to hide a bloody streak on her face. They indicated for me to follow them. We clung together on the porch and sat on the stone steps, inside the house, but away from the men.

In a rush of words emphasized by gestures, Samarah spoke. One of the girls dabbed the bleeding scratch. Another put her arm around her shoulder and hugged her. A babble of voices, all joined in the commotion, all wailed, all spoke at the same time and interrupted each other. I heard indignation in their voices then soothing words, comforting words, consoling words. I did not understand Arabic but I knew that Samarah told about her husband’s violence, his coarseness, her marriage of two weeks.

Her body language and tone of voice were universal. I needed no translation.

Comments for The Universal Language of Women

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Jul 31, 2012
The lives that do'
by: Anonymous

Brilliant. It was possible to see the place, the women. On both sides, the woman with better experiences of her own worth, and the women struggling with their feelings of worth in a society that values goats ahead of them. Anyone who likes this, check out free on Project Gutenberg, the true reflections of ME Hume-Griffith (1909) who followed her husband in that region for 8 years. Little has changed for many women during the last 100 years. Its called 'Behind the Veil in Persia'.

Oct 09, 2011
indeed a universal experience
by: Vartika

loved the story. The words, feelings cross the borders, one can easily realate to it despite all cultural differences

May 05, 2011
by: Esraa Khalouf

Wow... I am an Arab, but never thought that deep and detailed description is so importatn... thanks for sharing

Oct 05, 2009
by: Suneetha

I could get a feel of the place, the time and the mood at once and it stayed with me till the final word.


Sep 26, 2009
Sad snapshot
by: Anika

Excellent descriptions. I've traveled in North Africa and recognized much of it immediately. Unfortunately, such treatment of wives isn't always cultural, though we westerners like to think it is. There are chauvenists in all countries and of all religions. Nice work.

Sep 24, 2009
by: Fi Benson


your tale is thought-provoking. It amazes and shocks me that this sort of attitude and behaviour towards another human being can be deemed by some factions, by some cultures, as acceptable so long as it's carried out because of gender differences. It shocks me too that it continues and continues and continues.

Beautifully, simply written.


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