Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.3.5: Berber Feast

Today, a little something from the Travel Archives from 1988 (Yes! That is me and my hair in that photo):

And Now for a Little Dirty-Dancing in the Desert

One of the ladies who was on my tour still has the negative of the incriminating photograph. It’s shows me, looking a bit wide-eyed, my arm extended around the back of a Moroccan Berber woman in full folk dress. It doesn’t take much squinting to discern that the hand at the end of that arm is cupping her breast.

My hand was on that breast for only a second—I swear it!—and it might, I confess, have, in some primal reflex in that instant, sought to determine its form and firmness, but what really needs to be understood is that my hand was there because my Berber dancing partner PLACED IT THERE!

She did it surreptitiously, but in front of the entire tour group and, as my misfortune would have it, at the precise instant that lady’s camera shutter was open. So there it is, undoctored photographic evidence of cross-cultural sexual harassment. The perfect photo to go next to the headline: American Professor Molests Berber Maiden, Sentenced to Twelve Years in Moroccan Prison.

Moments before the Professor's outrage

Moments before the Professor’s outrage

A career-destroying conviction like that would give me plenty of time to regret letting myself be talked into going along on the Berber Feast excursion. Having wandered the souks that day and evening before enjoying the the fire-lighted activities of the story tellers, snake charmers and water sellers of Marrakech’s huge, exotic Jma El Fna square, an evening of tourist-oriented food and group entertainment seemed rather tame and tedious. My instinct is to avoid travel activities of this sort, which frequently fall within the definition of “tourist trap.” In this case I had no idea it might be a trap from which I might never extricate myself.

Once arrived at the “feast” our group, like several others, was herded into tents at a facility that, in the evening’s waning light, seemed to be constructed from the leftover sets from Casablanca. Sentries in billowy Berber horseman costumes and turbans guarded the entrances, presumably against any invading tourist hordes bent on crashing the gate without paying. Berber women in folk costume and jangling coin jewelry escorted us to floor cushions set around low tables in the tents and, as if on cue, we were brought a dinner of greasy roasted lamb, couscous, and other local delicacies.

It was after consuming my annual allotment of fat and cholesterol that the entertainment began, first with dances performed by young women and a little boy who danced and spun a tassel on his fez with more agility than a professional stripper. This was entertaining, as the young dancing girls twirled and gyrated erotically, and the boy spun and tumbled for the cameras. Then came the part of the evening’s entertainment where the local talent was to be supplemented by men dragged from the audience to join the young Berber women.

Very often these sorts of diversions are designed to help the foreigner look like a jerk. Having aversions to both dancing and looking like a jerk I resisted the tugging and cajoling of several young ladies as long as I could. I managed to avoid one dance that resulted in some of the Berber maidens actually riding on the backs of some of the male tourists. This seemed to delight some of their wives and consorts, although a few looked aghast at movements that were unambiguously sexually suggestive. When a dance that was a bit like a minuet started I though it might be my chance to get the obligation to be a compliant guest settled with a minimum loss of dignity.

It was during this dance that my partner, an young woman who strongly resembled my then girlfriend’s sister, seized my hand from her waist and maneuvered it under cover of some dance movements to her breast. Perhaps it remained there a moment longer than I have already admitted to, but it was quickly removed when she smiled at me and made the little signal of rubbing her fingers with her thumb—unmistakable Berber sign-language for “how about coughing up a few dirham for the ‘feelie,’ dearie.” I wasn’t, of course, to give her any money right then and there, with cameras clicking and all, but when a basket was being passed for tips she gave me a little pinch on the arm as a reminder to contribute a little extra for the impromptu mammary exam.

After the dinner and dancing we removed to the area outside the tents, which consisted of a grassless area the size of several football fields. After tourists were bothered to take brief rides on lethargic camels we were treated to a demonstration of the impressive Berber cavalry charge. A couple dozen riders charge abreast in a single line from the far end of the field, galloping at top speed toward the spectators at the other end. At the last moment the rein-in their chargers and fire their rifles in unison into the air. It’s impressive, and as much a thinly veiled exhibition of potential Berber male violence as the dancing was of Berber female sensuousness.

This demonstration is repeated several times, so I took the opportunity to charge off to the men’s room, located behind the tents. When I emerged I was greeted by none other than my dancing partner, who, with a few other unmistakable gestures, communicated to me that while the others were buying trinkets and watching the horsemen, I could have—for another contribution of dirham of course—a little private and pleasurable entertainment behind the tents.

Oh, sure. New headline: American professor caught’ in flagrante delicto’ with Berber maiden(?) Chieftain says marry her, or be trampled to death by Berber horsemen.

©2003, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 12.11.2003)