ESSAOUIRA, Morocco – We pushed into the red-plastered room 10 at a time, pens poised on paper and cameras clicking. We chattered and gawked, because what else can a group of almost forty people do but chatter and gawk?
“Come this way,” called the tour guide from somewhere in the crowd. I hung back, embarrassed by the commotion we were causing. This pattern of point-and-stare felt like window-shopping, and I craved real human interaction. I searched the faces below for forgiveness.
Forgiveness came in the form of a sky-blue glass eye. The woman on the ground, wearing a bright pink shirt and flowered headscarf, smiled up at us. She set down the palm-sized stone she was holding and waved me over, directing me around piles and baskets of argan nuts. Her name, she said, was Khadija. I took my place on a cushion at her side, cross-legged and open-eyed.
Cosmetics made of argan oil are just beginning to reach global markets, but the technology for extracting it is ancient. Just one big rock, one little rock, and a nut in-between. One by one, she cracked open those slippery nuts by hand, gentle and precise like no machine could be. She offered me her tool. The worn stone felt soft and easy in my hand. I brought my hand down and cracked one nut open, then another.
The group moved on, and I reluctantly trailed behind. My little escape from our zombie-like walking tour didn’t feel like enough. While others marveled over soaps in the gift shop, I wandered back.
Khadija grinned at me from across the room – she was expecting me. I knelt in front of her like a grandchild waiting for story time, and we began, clumsily, to communicate.
She asked if I was a “madam” or “mademoiselle,” pointing at my finger. I laughed and told her I was too “shwiyah,” or “little,” to be married. She mimed a beard, then smiled and shook her finger and said, “La, la,” meaning “No, no.” But her face grew more serious when she mimed “children,” and three times she said “madrasa,” the word for “school.”
Our guide told us that many women working in this and surrounding cooperatives have children out of wedlock, or are divorced or widowed – outliers of traditional Moroccan family structures. Khadija’s story was lost in translation, but from the urgency and strength with which she told it, I felt she had struggled. I pretended to understand what she had told me, smiled and squeezed her hand.
I told her my name, my age, and that my family lives in Moscow. She grabbed a handful of argan nuts and reached over to slip them inside my bag. “Russiya!” she declared. As I waved goodbye, I made a silent promise to make damn sure those little seeds would make it to Russian soil.