Way back in the late twentieth century, in the stone-studded hills above the sky-blue Moroccan village of Chefchaouen, a goatherd sang an Arabic love song to me.
I was in my own late twenties then, footloose and single, and although the goatherd had technically been singing not to me but for me, demonstrating how he passed the hours roaming those gray-brown slopes, I chose to hear it as a serenade. I perched on a boulder as the goats flowed like water through the canyon and the song echoed off the rock walls. The beautiful interlude cemented Morocco in my mind as a place where magic might be just around the next bend.
A dozen years later, I found myself back in the sky-blue village, and one of my first thoughts was to hike up into the hills again, to see if something else magical might happen. This time, though, the conditions were different. On this trip, I had responsibilities: I was working on a book about Arabic and the years I’d spent studying it, and my parents had joined me, to participate in its last, most personal section. They had traveled in Morocco before I was born, and I wanted to see the country through their eyes. But I really wanted to see them differently as well—as they were before they were parents, before me.
I was supposed to be the Arabic expert, but my Moroccan dialect was rotten, and by the time we arrived in Chefchaouen, I’d logged all manner of mixed-up restaurant orders, misheard taxi fares, and misinterpreted directions, landing us in dead-end medina alleys. The cumulative errors had begun to smart a bit. At lunch on our second day in town, I proposed a hike into the hills, hoping equally for another singing goatherd and a break from my language responsibilities.
The responsibilities were self-imposed, but that had always been my role. They were the free spirits; I was the sensible one. Their adventures in Morocco, during several long trips in the 1960s, were the stuff of legend, as much a part of my childhood bank of fairy tales as Hans Christian Andersen. They had been decidedly cavalier, traipsing off with no specific destination and no more than a dozen words of Arabic. Certainly they could understand my desire to take a walk for no other purpose than in hopes of something interesting happening.
After lunch, I led them out of the top end of the medina, past the spring that fed the village and into the hills. Except for the minaret in the distance, white and blocky as a stack of sugar cubes, the terrain was similar to where they’d raised me in New Mexico. Silvery, spiny desert plants jutted from between rocks; evergreen scrub clung to the slopes. I’d come to Morocco thinking that I’d learn more about my parents in a foreign setting. But that wouldn’t happen today: my whole life, we had gone on hikes up a mountainside just like this one.
After the first tedious uphill stretch, we stopped to catch our breath.
“I don’t know, honey,” my mother said. “This doesn’t seem like the best idea.”
I gritted my teeth. This was so like her, to voice her reservations only after we’d set off. If Morocco was going to shake up our roles, to make my parents not my parents, that wouldn’t happen today either.
She did have a point, though. She and my father were very fit, but they were in their seventies. It was the hottest part of the day. Everyone sensible was inside having a nap. My mind raced ahead. What if one of them collapsed? Would I leave them, run down the path? Would I have the language skills to find help? My brain spun frantically, lining up key Arabic vocabulary words: taxi, hospital, insurance.
I passed around the water bottle and examined the trail.
A short walk ahead, the path curved into a dry ravine, shaded by scrub oak. Perhaps something interesting waited there. It seemed not too terribly risky to forge on a little farther.
As we climbed the ravine, single-file, I heard footsteps behind. A middle-aged man in a button-front shirt and dark trousers, incongruous in this wild landscape, quickly gained on us. As I stood aside to let him pass, I greeted him, trying not to pant.
“As-salaam aleikum,” I called. The formal greeting did not reveal my true question: are you my new goatherd? Are you the start of a new adventure in which I can show my parents all I’ve learned?
“Waleikum as-salaam,” he called back, without breaking stride. Over his shoulder, he added, “Come to my house for tea. You are welcome.”
But he was walking fast, and the vague directions he shouted next blurred into a mass of syllables.
I told my parents what the man had said.
“Hmm,” my father replied. This was just like him, his usual expression of interest—or perhaps of polite disinterest.
Well, we had a tea invitation. We would go a little farther.
At the top of the hill, there was no sign of the man, nor of a house. But there was a tree casting thick shade. And sitting on a rock beneath it was a girl in a school uniform: white shirt, navy skirt, black shoes dusty from the road. She had set aside her backpack and was bent over, working at something in her hands. She stood up and presented each of us with a freshly cracked walnut.
“Garga’,” she said, with a smile.
We all said it back to her: “Garga’.”
I didn’t know this walnut-word—and I barely recognized the nuts themselves. They weren’t brown and oily, but snowy-white and succulent. They were crisp with moisture and laced with bitterness from the thin skin.
My father fished in his bag for something to offer in exchange.
“Huh, I didn’t even realize I had this,” he said, pulling out a candy bar.
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