“Othman, is that a mosque?”
“No – a restaurant.”
“Not that. Over there.” I lean forward and point out of the windscreen at the tower, soft terracotta against the jagged mountain face. “Is THAT a mosque?”
“Yes, yes. Mosque. You wan stop? Take photo?”
Pix and Roo glance up at me. They clutch their cameras hopefully.
“No. No picture,” I tell our taxi driver. “Othman, I want to go inside the mosque.”
Othman waves one hand at me dismissively. I make the mistake of thinking he’s misunderstood, but then, before I can swallow breath, he gives the steering wheel one great, wrenching twist and screeches to a halt in the dust.
Eyebrows pinned up, I look at Pix. She looks at me.
Outside the window, a scrawny jewellery seller – one of hundreds along this winding mountain road – has jerked to life on his plastic stool. He staggers to his feet like a dazed zombie, blinking himself awake as he prepares to extract blood or dollar with a fistful of turquoise and silver.
“You want photo?” Othman demands again. He swivels his huge bulk around to stare at me with puffy, frog-like eyes. I can’t help noticing that he breathes deeply, panting, as though he has trouble with his chest.
This feels dreamlike.
Somehow, getting out of the city smog and breathing the cool liquid air of the Atlas mountains has dissolved something in me. And now we are here. And I’ve selected the resting ground. And this has become the place. And I can do it.
Dip my hand into my satchel. Push fingers deep into the secret pocket. Touch the folded edge of paper. Feel it indent my skin. Pull out the small brown envelope, half folded, small enough to slip into the palm of my hand, unseen.
“No photo,” I tell Othman finally. I point to the narrow pathway that leads towards the mosque building. “I want to go into the mosque. Am I allowed? As a woman?”
With breasts and lips and alluring eyes and skin and hips and a vagina and a body that makes babies alongs with everything else that comes with being one half of the duality that makes up the human soul-vessel. A woman, who across the bloody globe is pushed and pulled into cultural headlocks, backwater braces and city corsets. A woman who, in Kashmir is told to enter the mosque through a tunnelled entrance and who peers out at the world through meshed eyeholes and who is looking at the Western woman with her loose freedom that she has been conditioned to believe in, whilst she is plastered across billboards like a seductive pussy cats; smoky eyes; airbrushed skin.
A woman, Othman.
So am I allowed inside?
Othman only speaks a smattering of French and I don’t think he’s really clicked that this western women wants to venture into an off-the-beaten track Berber mosque alone.
“Yes! You go!” He sounds exasperated.
Fingers click inside me.
I’ll take that as permission.
Folding my palms into a fist around the envelope, I climb out of the taxi, past the jewellery seller who now looks more beautiful; red skinned and toothless like a carved mahogany pirate. He stares after me, as does Othman, as does Ads and Pix and Roo.
Tread carefully down the red dust path, beyond the pottery with its multi-coloured kaleidoscope of tagine pots and enamelled plates. Come to a halt in the small courtyard below.
How to get into a mosque?
Now there is a question.
Palms are hot.
The building is square and there are steps leading up to a platform on the left. Underneath the steps a beaten wooden door is open just a crack. Approach it, push forward, feel the coolness of the dark porch within. Men’s sandals are scattered on the floor but there are no men to be seen.
Heart beating, unsure of whether I REALLY have permission (from who??) to be here, I kick off my running shoes and step inside, breathing in this new air; air thick with prayers and shuffling echoes and mutterings of ghost languages I’ll never understand.
The air hangs not just in this porch but in the great empty room beside it.
So empty. I am hit by the emptiness. Empty of colour, of light, of sound, of smell. The floor is covered in thin rugs, any rich colours and textures of the weaves thinned and faded by a thousand knees sweeping down for a hundred years. At the front is a small alcove in the wall. It is like a fireplace with no fire and the grate is lined with a thick, scarlet mat.
The special place.
That is the place.
“You wan photo? What you wan?!”
Othman’s voice scares the shit out of me. I jump and spin around, eyes wide. My hand presses against my chest. He tuts, kicks off his shoes and ducks into the porch. Behind him the equally bewildered jewellery seller juts out his head, snatching a peek of the drama.
“No photo,” I explain to Othman for the last time. “Look. I’ll show you.”
Othman watches, shaking his head and frowning as I hold up the small brown envelope, rip open the seal, tug out the thin white tissue paper and unfold the creases.
I empty the contents onto my left palm.
One white gold.
One red gold.
They used to be interlinked, joined like two souls. Man and woman. Husband and wife. My wedding ring/s.
A month before coming to Morocco I’d taken them back to the jeweller who had made them. She had kindly, in the greatest of love, un-linked them. Since that time I have been summoning up in my mind all the places I could release them – where I could set them free so they could go forward in their little lives, separate yet honoured.
I’d taken them to the mountain in the hope of throwing them off a great ravine, yet I couldn’t do that. It felt as though they would be lost, apart, alone in the stones and arid dust.
Then I thought I could toss them into one of the seven waterfalls, but there were too many tourists for it to feel sacred.
As we were driving back down the red mountain roads, I’d closed my eyes and thought about my marriage. As safe as it was, I felt contained by it. As beautiful as it was, I didn’t have faith in the religion that blessed it. As loved as I was within it, I felt oppressed and as against the doctrine and cultural grain it rubs, I am truly an individual now.
I am dancing on my mountain top.
And it was as I saw this that I knew that the rings must be returned to the Male Principle Religion Tree that had blessed them in the beginning. It didn’t matter whether they went to a Catholic branch, a Jewish branch, Christian branch or Islamic branch. It is, after all, the same tree, grown imbalanced with the masculine principle held up towards the light and the feminine held beneath the root system.
Here I am holding the marriage rings in my left hand. With my right, I gesture to the alcove in the wall.
“Othman, can I put these rings over there? I want to put them there.”
“Over there?” repeats Othman, scowling with mistrust.
He’s panting still.
Breathes so heavily.
“Yes. Over there.”
“Gahh,” he mutters, holds out his right palm. I drop the rings. One red gold, one white gold.
He pads across the mats, light as if walking on coals, and places the rings in the alcove.
“There,” my man Othman declares, hurrying back.
“Thank you Othman.” I smile at him and want to give him a hug.
He jabbers in Moroccan to the jewellery seller. I slip my feet into my trainers without putting them on properly and shuffle awkwardly up the path. Othman does the same with his shoes. I laugh and point to Othman’s heels and then mine. He shakes his head at me impatiently. He ushers away the jewellery seller and gets into the car.
As we set off there is peacefulness.
There is a sense of serenity.
It only crosses my mind once that the jewellery seller may have gone into the mosque after we left and stolen the rings from the alcove. It only crosses my mind once that Othman didn’t drop the rings at all but instead tucked them into the pocket of his trousers.
I only feel one little jab of protectiveness over them.
Then I think, at least they are together.
And they can continue on their life journey.
And I can continue on mine.
Red and gold.