Although I was living in the twentieth century, I still held on to the nineteenth-century fanciful idea of Arabia. There were Caliphs and strong sexless eunuchs and harems where beautiful women lay on chaise lounges looking at themselves in gilded mirrors.
On the first morning in Morocco, I went walking to soak up a little more romance to fit with my fantasies.
Some women in the street wore Western clothes, while others kept themselves chaste behind heavy black veils. All the men looked jaunty and handsome in their red fezzes. I approached a junkyard and decided to cross the street before I was forced to look at real life. Someone yelled and I turned. There were three tents in the yard and a few black men were waving at me. For the first time, I realized that the Moroccans I had met earlier and expected to meet resembled Spaniards or Mexicans rather than Africans.
The men were shouting and beckoning to me. I saw they were all very old. My upbringing told me that I had to go to them. At that moment I became aware that I was wearing a short skirt and high-heel shoes, appropriate for a twenty-five-year-old American woman, totally unacceptable for a female in the company of old African men.
I threaded my way over cans, broken bottles, and discarded furniture. When I reached the men, they sat down suddenly. There were no stools beneath them so they did not really sit, they simply squatted on their haunches. I was raised by a southern grandmother who taught me it was rude for a young person to stand or even sit taller than an older person.
When the men stooped, I stooped, I was a young dancer and my body followed my orders.
They smiled and spoke to me in a language that I could not understand. I responded in English, French, and Spanish, which they did not understand. We smiled at each other and one man spoke loudly to a group of women who were standing nearby, looking at me with interest.
I smiled at the women who returned my smile. Young trained muscles or not, stooping so long was becoming uncomfortable.
Just as I prepared to stand and bow, a woman appeared with a miniature coffee cup in her hand. She offered it to me. As I took it, I noticed two things, bugs crawling on the ground, and the men approving of me by snapping their fingers. I bowed and took a sip of the coffee and almost fainted. I had a cockroach on my tongue. I looked at the people’s faces and I could not spit it out. My grandmother would have pushed away the grave’s dirt and traveled by willpower to show me her face of abject disappointment. I could not bear that. I opened my throat and drank the cup dry. I counted four cockroaches.
Standing, I bowed to everyone and walked out of the yard. I held the revulsion until I cleared the lot, then grabbed the first wall and let the nausea have its way. I did not tell the story to anyone; I was simply sick for one month.
When we performed in Marseilles I stayed in a cheap pensione. One morning I picked up a well-worn Reader’s Digest and turned to an article called “African Tribes Traveling from the Sahel to North Africa.”
I learned that many tribes who follow the old routes from Mali, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, and other Black African countries crossing the Sahara en route to Mecca or Algeria or Morocco and the Sudan, carry little cash but live by the barter system. They swap goods for goods, but they will spend their scarce money to buy raisins. In order to honor and show respect to visitors, they will put three to five raisins into a small cup of coffee.
For a few minutes I felt that I wanted to stoop below the old men in Morocco and beg their pardon.
There, they had chosen to honor me with those expensive raisins.
I thanked God that my grandmother would have been pleased with my behavior.
I began this lifelong lesson. If human beings eat a thing, and if I am not so violently repelled by my own upbringing that I cannot speak, and if it is visually clean within reason, and if I am not allergic to the offering, I will sit at the table and with all the gusto I can manufacture I will join in the feast.
P.S. I call this a lifelong lesson for I have not fully learned it and I am often put to the test and although I am no more or less squeamish than the next person, I have sometimes earned a flat “F” at the test, failing miserably. But I get a passing grade more often than not. I just have to remember my grandmother and those four innocent raisins, which made me violently sick for one month.
From “Letter to My Daughter” by Maya Angelou