Moroccan Folktales: Chapter One (Part 1)
My maternal grandmother was born in the 1950’s in the northern Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Her childhood in her remote village consisted of stories of ghouls, magic, and adventure. The elderly taught the children moral lessons through storytelling, as television did not exist in the mountains. My grandmother remembers many of these stories from her childhood, albeit that childhood ended shortly since she was married off at 16 to a cousin who was twice her age. Despite that, she never lost her childlike enthusiasm over the years. Even now, as a mother of five and a grandmother of plenty, she still jumps and laughs with her grandchildren. She’s one of my favorite people in this whole wide world.
Whenever I visited her as a child, she would stay up with me at night and talk for long hours, even when I was very little and could only say childish things. Sometimes she sang me lullabies or would tell me the stories she heard when she was my age. I would curl up against her and listen to her fantastic tales, and it is those memories that my now 20-year-old self would always cherish.
Fast forward to today. It had been months since I heard my grandmother’s voice, and it’s been almost 4 years since I last saw her in person. I realized that I missed her and her stories terribly. And so, I hesitantly picked up the phone and called my mi-la-la. I didn’t think she’d answer because of the time difference, and I was worried she may be upset that I haven’t called in so long.
My heart warmed at hearing her voice. “Salam, mi-la-la,” I said with a smile on my lips.
“Sara? Labas a binti?” How are you, my daughter? Her voice was as kind, just as wise, just as melodious as I remembered it. I missed her so much.
We spoke for a bit to catch up, and eventually I asked her to retell the story about the girl and the 7 doors. She chuckled, amused that someone my age would still ask to be told a story, but she began anyway.
An idea came to me. “Wait! Let me get a notebook and pen!” I told her in darija. “I want to write your stories down.”
I rummaged through my belongings on my desk and grabbed what I was looking for. I got comfortable in a chair and told her to proceed.
And so, she began the tale…
“There once was a young girl living with her older brother in a house with 7 doors. You remember them, right? And the girl only had a cat to keep her company.”
“What was the girl’s name again?” I asked. “I want to write it down.”
My grandmother paused for a bit. “I don’t think she had a name,” she eventually replied. “I always just knew her as the girl and the brother.”
Ok, I thought to myself as I jotted notes. It’s gonna be a little redundant to keep referring to her as “the girl”, but I guess I can fix that later.
She continued. “The girl’s brother always traveled to work in the city. They didn’t have parents, so he was the one taking care of her. One day, the young man left again on a business trip as usual, so the girl was taking care of the house and sweeping. Her cat sat nearby and talked to her. She was the girl’s only friend, and they had an agreement that they would never betray each other and share everything that they found.
As the younger sister happily swept the house, her friend the cat found a cozy corner and eased into a restful nap. A few moments later, the girl found a small chickpea on the floor while sweeping. Thinking the cat was still asleep, she ate the chickpea by herself. But alas, the cat was watching with one weary eye open, and soon became very upset with her friend for not sharing. After confronting the girl, the cat sauntered off and found the matchbox the girl used to start a fire for cooking. Angry at her, the cat peed on the matches and left the house from the window. She never returned.”
I quickly paused writing my sloppy notes as I tried to keep up with the story. “Whoa, mi-la-la,” I interrupted. “Why’d the cat do that? That was so uncalled for. It was just a chickpea!”
My grandmother chuckled. “It’s just a story, Sara.”
“I know, but that wasn’t realistic.”
“Well, that’s how the story goes. The cat was a bad friend and very sensitive.”
“I can see that,” I muttered. The story made more sense to me as a kid than it was now. Maybe that was the point. Nonetheless, I urged my mi-la-la to continue.
“The girl looked for the cat everywhere, but she was nowhere in sight. And now there were no working matches, so no fire, and no dinner. Before her brother left he told her that she couldn’t open any of the 7 doors to go out, and there weren’t many houses nearby in the forest they lived in anyway.
Three days passed, and the girl became weak from starvation. Her brother still has not come back from his work in the city, and probably was not going to come back any time soon. The girl was becoming desperate, and so she defied her brother and opened all 7 doors on the eve of the 3rd day. She stepped out of the house and wandered in the dark. She could not see much in the dark forest, but soon came upon a light from afar, and she started to wander towards it.
The girl knocked hesitantly. The house, of course, belonged to a ghoul. He opened the door begrudgingly and eyed the girl with hunger.
“Assalamu alaikum, Uncle Ghoul,” the girl said politely.
“Wa alaikumusalaam,” the ghoul replied. “If you had not said assalamu alaikum first, I would have used your meat for the stew. But since you said assalamu alaikum first, I will not. What do you need?”
“Uncle Ghoul,” the girl began. “I need matches. I do not have any, and I cannot cook without them.”
The ghoul grinned at her. “Well of course, I can help you,” he said. He opened the door wider and invited her in. He led her to his fire in the house and grabbed a piece of metal to stick in the fire. When it glowed red, he pulled it out and put it on the ground.
“Step on it,” he told her.
“But it’s hot,” she protested.
“If you do not step on it, I will not give you the matches,” he responded gruffly.
The girl, feeling her stomach rumble, stepped on the hot metal with her bare feet. They became burnt, of course, and her soles started to bleed. The ghoul then gave her the matches, and so she left, bloody feet and all.
Her feet naturally left a trail of blood on the way home, which became a very easy path to follow for any bloodthirsty creature. And so, shortly after she left, the ghoul followed the trail all the way to her doorstep. He knocked 3 times.
The girl’s heart froze, not expecting anyone to visit. “Who is it?” she called out from inside.
“Please open, sister. Open for Uncle Ghoul,” the ghoul’s voice sang out sweetly.
“I will not open, Uncle Ghoul. I will not,” the girl sang back.
The ghoul was enraged. He stomped repeatedly to break down the door, and the girl cowered in fear within her house.
When the first door finally collapsed, the ghoul became very tired and went home. He swore he would come back the next day and break down the next door.
And now the girl waits.
*Note: some of the dialogue bits of this story make more sense in darija. Some sentences rhyme and some are actually sung as lyrics. I roughly translated some parts so that they’d make more sense. Thank you for reading, and until next time in Chapter 2.