Ever since I was a young girl, maps fascinated me. My father had gifted me a globe on my 7th birthday. I would look at it for hours, and lose myself in the glories of exploration. “We are here ma’am” said Ibrahim, our driver, a stout man with sharp features approaching his mid-40s. And there we were. I wouldn’t have believed it myself, that here I was, parked outside a small village in Morocco. It had been a long time since then; now twenty-two, yet the explorer in me smiled a hearty smile as I exited the vehicle.
Bhalil, a small village tucked away beside the distant mountains, stood calm and tranquil. To the unaccustomed eye it was just an ordinary village that reeked with poverty. “Is this it??” I asked myself. “It couldn’t be” replied the voice inside. Ibrahim led the way. I followed him on a narrow and deserted street, a dead, calming silence had taken over me. The sun stood distinct in the sky. The street ended, leading us right into the village. I stood momentarily and peered across the uphill on which the village rested. I was mesmerized by the eye-catching houses that were painted in pastel shades of pink, yellow and blue. It was a spectacular wave of colour and life that stood on the dusty, barren land. I could hear soft gales of laughter from the children playing with stones on the side. We ascended uphill on the dusty broken roads. The sun smiled at us.
I wanted to capture every detail of this alluring town that even blinking felt like a loss of precious time. I’d been in Morocco for four days, and visited beautiful places but this struck me as something authentic, away from the tourist facades that occupied the most popular parts of the country, this was real.
Cool air blew our way, stronger the more climbed up. On left hand side ran the remains of what seemed to be a canal, neglected by the mountains which once used to provide it with fresh streams of water, now stood there dry and dead.
We carried on until we reached an uneven platform, with two women sitting beneath the shade of a lonely olive tree outside a broken door, its paint decaying as it struggled to hold firm its handle which was half falling off. The women were carefully forging some strings together. ‘Ah they must be making the buttons’ I thought to myself. Prior to our arrival I was reading about the women of Bhalil, who are known for creating the traditional jelleba buttons. Each versatile string forged together using a complex technique, I know I certainly wouldn’t be able to master, yet the end result; a subtle ball of extraordinary detail, used as buttons for Morocco’s traditional attire.
‘Wait wait’ signalled Ibrahim as he approached a petite old woman stood at the door of what seemed to be a residence of some sort. Her warm smile was surrounded by loose folds of skin; she wore a black head scarf tied in a knot under her chin, and a faded yellow maxi accompanied by a chequered apron around her waist. After a brief conversation with her, Ibrahim insisted that we come in “please come please.” We were welcomed in by the very endearing old lady, Naima.
The interior of the house was something I’d not quite ever seen; the walls had a stalagmite texture and formed an uneven arch above our heads, the ceiling lazily painted with a sharp shade of yellow. “We are standing inside a natural cave house” said Ibrahim, snapping me out of my fascination into a whole new realm of curiosity. He went on to explain that the village of Bhalil is notable for its unique cave houses located in the old part of the village. We sat down on the assorted sofas aligned across the edges of the cave, my eyes couldn’t help but wander around every corner, when I realised that the sink had no tap, Ibrahim explained to me the cave houses have no access to water inside so they have to go outside to the local water source to get the water every day. Its only when you sit amongst those less fortunate than you that you realise that things you take for granted are actually blessings.
Naima didn’t speak much, but her hospitality spoke for itself, she prepared fresh Moroccan tea and walked slowly towards us with the tray in her delicate hands, she glanced up at us with a brief toothless smile she softly said ‘Marhabba’ (Welcome). She placed the tray on the crooked table in front of us which was scattered with photographs and letters. It seemed like Naima was used to having visitors from all around the world.
Her late Mother Um Aicha was frequently visited by tourists, who sat with her and took photographs, it soon become a tradition that whenever someone would visit the cave they take a photograph and later post it to Naima with a letter. Her mother was 90 when she passed away two years ago explained Naima, her family had been cave dwellers for over 300 years, generation after generation living in this very cave. Ibrahim pours the tea into a cup, if you’ve ever had tea in Morocco, you will most likely notice two things: the tea is poured from very high up and an extra glass is also poured. I watched him carefully, wondering if I’d ever be able to master the art of Moroccan tea pouring, most likely not!
We sipped on the fresh mint tea, the very smell of it reanimates the spirit, Naima sat quietly for a moment then pointed at the tea and with her limited English, she jokingly said “Moroccan whisky” she giggled to herself; it was hard not to join in.
I sat next to Naima and asked for a photograph; every time she smiled her eyes would squint a little, just like mine did. Ibrahim burst into laughter every time he attempted to take the photograph. “what’s so funny Ibrahim” I asked “You and Naima same same” said Ibrahim, he’d obviously seen some sort of resemblance, he showed me and Naima the picture and she smiled, she held my hand and said ” abnatay”, Ibrahim told me that it meant “my daughter” my heart melted, I felt overwhelmed that someone I’d just met could treat me with utmost respect and love, it was beautiful.
Everything about Bhalil touched my soul, how such a shattered and deprived neighbourhood sang blissful songs of hospitality, unity and contentment. How its women found happiness in every strand of the buttons they made with love, how the village men knew one aother by name as if they were all part of one big family. How for its children, imagination was enough to make playtime last until the sun set, as shades of crimson, amber and tangerine were thrown into the dusty sky over Bhalil , its beautiful colours embracing the heavens gracefully.