Anne B. Barriault fell under the spell of Morocco on a tour of Moorish ruins in Italy. She joined an organized museum group excursion called “Moroccan Discovery” and later would return on her own for an 8-day stay in Fes under the caring eye of a resident family. Morocco, she says in her rich recollections of those journeys, is “sensuous, intoxicating, spiritual, and earthbound.” Here is the memoir-travelogue of Barriault’s, a museum professional, visits Morocco, recording colorful impressions in prose with accompanying pencil sketches by illustrator Shawna Spangler.
In the first part of this rhapsodic tribute to the country, Barriault describes the various, sometimes chaotic events of the group tour: a first glimpse of the storied mirages of the desert, camel rides in the sand dunes that magically change color, a somber visit to Chellah, the sacred ruins outside Rabat where storks and eels guard the spirits of the dead.
A scholar as well as author and observer, Barriault explains the meaning and history of the harem, where men protect their women by isolating them, and the hajiba, the ancient laws that require women to enter the homes of their husbands and never again step outside. She examines the veil in all its significant stages through the ages and contemplates the compromises that women must make, whether Muslim or not, veiled or not. She recalls the stares of young Moroccan girls and women at her unveiled freedom, circumspect looks that may hide disapproval or envy. Boys, too, are an important part of her writing. She describes the young men hanging about in city streets and shops, sometimes selling something or simply hoping for some recognition of their open, friendly chatter and attempts to speak English and teach a few Arabic words to the gaggle of foreigners.
In the second part of the book, she visits on her own, in Fes, where she can immerse herself ever more deeply into the Moroccan culture. Having come to the city particularly for a sacred music festival, she finds herself forgetting all about her concert tickets on an afternoon when her hosts — an ancient patriarch and his eight grown children all living together — treat her to a homely feast. Dish after dish –salads, couscous, roasted beef, fruits and finally fresh mint tea served with the aroma of incense — are brought forth, climaxed by a gift of a bracelet made of green glass bead, “the color of Islam.”
She constantly reminds the reader that the Moroccan people, whose history and political life she carefully details, are friendly, open and sincere, happy in the happiness of their visitors, whether tourists on a short trek through the souk (shops) or coming for a longer stay, as she did, to plumb the depths.
Barriault writes with verve and emotion, almost poetic at times in her wish to convey the mystical beauty of this North African Muslim civilization. Illustrations by artist Shawna Spangler provide visual souvenirs drawn from the lush, illustrative narrative. Later the reader feels Barriault’s frustration as she realizes that, owing to the continued upheaval in the region, she will not soon be able to return to the Moroccan she loves.