Joseph's Father's Caves

Joseph's Father's Caves

© 2010 by Orin Hargraves

all rights reserved

We are bouncing down a rocky road in a white pickup truck, the kind that brings the vegetable of the week to the souq in El Hajeb every Monday, only now it is Friday, the back is empty, and El Hajeb is nearly an hour behind us. Hussein's cousin Abdullah is at the wheel. I'm in the middle and Hussein is at the window, exhaling a reeking Casa Sport into the dusty wind.

“What's the name of this place we're going to?” I ask.

“Kifanbayusef,” Hussein says through a tobacco fog. My blank stare tells him that there's no handle on this name for me.

“Do you know kifan?”


“Kaf, Kifan. It's the plural. What is it in English?”


The name comes to life. Kifan Ba Youssef. Joseph's Father's Caves. Hussein smiles and nods when he sees I understand.

“Why do they call it that?”

Abdullah, who is the local, answers: “There are lots of caves there. People live in them.”

“Who was Joseph's father?”

The Moroccans look at each other and exchange an all-purpose gesture, a simultaneous upturning of the hands, head and eyes.

“We don't know,” Hussein says.

It doesn't matter. The information provided is enough. I see dark candlelit caves with hard-packed dirt floors and blackened ceilings. Robed people sit on sheepskins against the rock walls, their faces just visible in the recesses of their hoods.

“The people in Kifan are sherfa,” Abdullah says.

“Sherfa?” I ask Hussein, who is my semantic link to unknown words.

“Descendants of the Prophet. They say so anyway. Holy people. They all have titles.”

A friend in Fes told me about her landlord, a personage of this same order, who received all sorts of adulation and charity on account of it, but was in fact dissolute and unscrupulous.

“How do they know they're descended from the prophet?” I ask.

Hussein grimaces for a moment, then takes the last, filter-melting drag on his cigarette. “I don't know, they just do,” he says, through the blue haze. He flicks the butt out the window. In my imagination, the robed people in the caves are now clutching prayer beads and there is Koranic chanting in the background.

The road, for want of a better term, is becoming less distinguishable from the ground on either side, where exuberant spring growth shoots up between every stone. Even the double tracks we drive on, more often travelled by hooves than wheels, are dotted with green.

“Are you sure this is the way?” Hussein asks.

“Yes, we're close now. Over that hill there,” Abdullah says, pointing with several fingers generally towards the east.

“I hope they got the letter,” Hussein says, “or we've come a long way for nothing.”

“What are you going to do there?” I ask, in a tone to indicate that I know this is a refresher question. He's already told me about it once and he's wise enough now to go through it slower so I can get the parts I missed the first time.

“All the students who are graduating from the teachers' college go to visit a primary school of the kind they'll teach in next year. They sent me to this one because I picked the Middle Atlas region and it's here. I’ll get a chance to meet other teachers and see what the schools are like. Got it?”

“Got it.”

What appeared to be “that hill there” is behind us now. More like it lie ahead. Hussein gives Abdullah a look of serious doubt.

“We're really close now,” Abdullah beams. His face, the product of days spent working in the sun, is a cartoon character's: bright, smiling and full of color.

“How big is the school there?” I ask Hussein.

“There are two teachers. Probably 60 or 70 students.”

“Is it in a cave?”

Hussein has lost patience with me and our journey. Abdullah smiles at me and shakes his finger “No.”

There is the suggestion of a fork in the tracks, signposted in Arabic, but neither direction says anything about Kifan. We take the right fork, even less road-like than the other, ascending towards the northernmost escarpments of the Middle Atlas. The pickup lurches and jumps; if this were a boat, we would be in rough seas. Hussein teeters on the brink of total disbelief.

Abdullah, whom I gather doesn't read anyway, drives on unaffected. The cousins grumble at each other for a few minutes in the native fashion, sounding hot and irritable but really just passing the time. Then the pickup slows and stops.

There are groves of gum trees, hidden from our view till just now when we dropped down into a little vale. On our right, a whitewashed fiberglass-panel bungalow. Children gather at a cautious distance to observe the motor vehicle.

“This is it,” Abdullah says.

“This is what?” Hussein asks.

“Kifan Ba Youssef. The school.”

We get out and walk around to the other side of the uninspiring building. Sure enough. Madrassa Kifan Ba Youssef.

“It looks closed,” Hussein says, ready to abandon the mission, but just then the door we're staring at opens a crack. Someone studies us momentarily from the dark interior. Then the door opens wider and a young bearded man in a white gondira walks out. There is an awkward distance between us, we are not close enough to shake hands, not so far away that the impulse to do so is absent, but nobody moves. Abdullah and Hussein, sensing gravity, blurt out formal greetings.

“Wa alikum salam,” the man returns somberly. “Can I help you with something?”

“I am Orho Hussein, from the faculty in Meknes. The ministry sent me . . .” He steps forward to shake hands with the man at the door who doesn't move. Hussein's hand, now with nothing to do, dives into a coat pocket for a piece of paper to bolster his claim.

“Ah yes, the ministry.” The man makes a dismissive, but not friendly gesture at Hussein's attempt to document himself. “There was a letter. You're visiting our school.”

“Yes. This is my cousin Ait Hamou Abdullah” – Abdullah bows and scrapes forward, offering a handshake in a humble peasant fashion that is entirely natural to him – “and my friend, Frank.”

“Nasrani?” Christian? The bearded man asks Hussein, as if to confirm the visual evidence.

“Yes,” Hussein answers, “American. He speaks Arabic.”

The man's hand, which has met but not grasped mine, is quickly withdrawn. “Enchantez,” he says politely, raising the corners of his mouth and baring incisors. Then he continues in Arabic to Hussein. “I am the head teacher. The other teacher has gone to his family in Fes for the weekend. I'll show you the village first before we go inside. Excuse me one minute.”

He disappears inside the door. None of us has a particular impression to confide so we stand and stare at each other. The man's voice and a woman's voice from inside drift out to us in snippets of talk, some of them sharp-sounding and all of them too fast for me to follow. Abdullah and Hussein exchange meaningful looks at some of what is said.

“He told her to put her veil on when we come back,” Hussein whispers to me.

The man reappears and walks out in front of us. “This way,” he says, “I'll show you all there is to see in Kifan Ba Youssef.” I would like to think there is a note of self-mocking irony in this, but if there is it is a radical departure from everything we've seen up to now.

The road we have arrived on all but disappeared before we got here, and in the village proper there are no roads at all, only footpaths. We walk double-file down one of these, Hussein and the teacher in front. Abdullah kindly takes my hand as we follow behind. He is smiling at me, I think, to indicate he feels as lost as I do.

There are few buildings in the village, within our view only half a dozen, and these are scattered, all of one story, and built at different elevations as the area is quite hilly. Everything is of mud brick except the school, and most everything is whitewashed. The gum trees cast long shadows everywhere from the lowering sun. The trees seem to have escaped the French colonial treatment, endemic elsewhere in Morocco, of having their trunks whitewashed to waist-level.

Our pathway descends and begins to circle back in the direction from where we started, taking us down to a lower level of the village. Hussein and the teacher are having a professional, earnest sounding conversation. Abdullah and I are silent, but we exchange approving glances when we find ourselves taking in the same scenery. Caves, I remember. What about the caves?

There are people everywhere, mostly men, in ones, twos or threes. They look like the country people who come to El Hajeb on souq day: brown homespun wool jellabas, orange turbans, weathered skins. The few women about are hooded and veiled, as if anticipating the appearance of strangers on their streets. All the natives drop everything they're doing to devote their attention to watching us pass. None of them offer greetings, but the ones that the teacher speaks to nod or give a word in return. I begin to wonder why this seems to be the unfriendliest place in Morocco. Is it me, the White Devil? Is it an Arab/Berber divide? Can the natives tell just by looking that my friends are on the Other Side? Or do they really think they're holy?

Our guide begins to speak louder, including Abdullah and me in his audience.

“There are about 20 caves in Kifan Ba Youssef. Every family owns one or more; all of the families are related and all of them are sherfa. Each family uses the caves as they wish. Here's one.”

On our right, an archlike earth portal. As we stop to peer in, children who have been tentatively following gather round and peer with us. The cave looks shallow and empty but for a carpet of sheep dung. The head teacher scatters the children with curses. Abdullah and I look at each other and he seems to see a question in my eyes, which he responds to with the all-purpose gesture, which perhaps now means “What on earth!,” or something like that.

“People only farm and raise livestock here,” our guide says. “There is nothing else.”

Moving on along the path we pass other caves and other natives. One cave has two cows standing in the door. One has people inside it, cooking something over a fire; there's a hole in the top where smoke pours out. We look at them for a moment; they look at us; we move on. It's like being in a museum where every gallery you look into turns out to be either not in use, or the staff canteen.

“We don't often have visitors to Kifan Ba Youssef,” the teacher says, “so people are curious. Of course there are no Christians here.”

On we go, back uphill now, and effortlessly it seems, for we are propelled forward by the incisive beams of concentration directed at us from all sides. By now we've attracted a swarm of children who move with us at a safe distance from the teacher's occasional blasts at them. Ahead appears the roof of the school: an almost welcome sight, if only for the reason that inside it we can't possibly be objects of such close scrutiny as we are here in the open.

“This is our mosque,” the teacher says, pointing out a non-descript mud building which we might well have passed without noticing. It has no minaret, tiles, windows or loudspeaker, but it does have toothless old men hanging around outside it, which is a giveaway. Inside the open door we see a white-robed man, probably the fquih, sitting on the floor. The place doesn't look big enough to accommodate more than two dozen, which is perhaps the whole of the adult praying population.

“We can't go inside because of the law that forbids Christians to enter mosques,” he says with a sympathetic look at Hussein and Abdullah, who pass the look on to me. “Even during the time of the Christians there were no Christians in Kifan Ba Youssef.”

‘Time of the Christians’ is dialect for the colonial period, at the end of which I imagine our host was only a toddler. None of us chooses to remark on his pointed history lesson, which he has declaimed loudly enough for all in our vicinity to hear. We carry on once again, now towards the school, as dusk draws down. I envision a bumpy and happy ride into the last vestiges of the sunset with Hussein and Abdullah, who at the moment seem cardboard cutouts of their usual high-spirited selves. I hope they are as ready to leave as I.

“Come in now and drink some tea, I'll tell you more about the school,” our guide says in monotone.

The teacher holds open the door of the school for us all to pass in. Domestic noises issue from a room not far off and we are led down an unlit corridor towards these. We emerge in their living room, their only room it seems, 12 feet square and functionally divided into the kitchen corner, the storage corner, the sitting, eating and sleeping half.

“Salamou alikum,” he says gruffly to the woman there, a beautiful girl not older than 20, who is puttering with tea things.

“Ah! I forgot!” she says in alarm and quickly flips up the hood of her blue jellaba and safety-pins a black veil across her face. Reduced to two eyes and a forehead she is not less beautiful. She is also putting on gloves, indicating clearly that she's not a handshaking sort of woman.

The teacher shoots out a stiff arm toward a floral chintz-covered banquette against the far wall, pointedly directing our attention away from his wife.

“Sit,” he says perfunctorily, “You're welcome.”

We sit, three in a row on the banquette. The teacher sits down on the other one, facing us in profile, as a sergeant about to review his troops. Then he begins a speech that lasts about three minutes, delivered as if from a memorized text, without feeling or modulation in his voice. Several facts emerge: the school has two classrooms and 75 students, ages 6 to 12, half from Kifan proper, half from surrounding farms. There are 55 boys, 20 girls. The teachers both have supplementary hours. An extra position has been approved for the school but is not yet filled. The school itself can accommodate only the incumbent teachers, as there are only two living rooms and both teachers are married. Any new teacher must therefore find his own lodgings in the village, which will be difficult.

“I don't expect I'll actually teach here,” Hussein says, “this is just where they sent me for a visit.”

“Your first two years you go wherever the ministry assigns you,” the teacher says, and this prediction seems to close down the subject. With perfect timing, the wife appears bearing the tea tray.

In a longer-established family the wife would never need venture out of the kitchen and the tea detail could be left to a daughter or servant girl. As it is, the woman begins, with careful, quiet concentration, to make the tea before us in the usual hospitable fashion. Her husband, perhaps sensing what an object of admiring attention she has become for us, steps in.

“That's enough, I'll do it,” he says to her, in the same gruff way he greeted her. She gives him a look with the visible parts of her face and quits our circle.

“Allah!” the teacher says, and drops the hot kettle on the tray with a clang. His wife's gloves, it seems, were conveniently doubling as potholders. Abdullah, Hussein and I exchange looks to confirm our understanding that we will roar about this later. The wife looks back for a moment at the sound, but her eyes don't say what she thinks.

“Where did you come across the Christian?” the teacher asks Hussein, and Hussein looks at me to see if I understand, to see what I'll do.

“I live in El Hajeb. I'm also a teacher. I teach in the lycee.”

“There aren't any Christians in El Hajeb,” he says.

“There are three foreigners there,” I say, emphasizing the word slightly to suggest it as an alternative to his word. “A Frenchman, a Bulgarian woman and me. We all came this year.”

“Really? Why did you come to Morocco?”

I start to deliver my own memorized text about the Peace Corps. The speech contains many big words that I don't pronounce well or confidently, and as usually happens in this speech, I can see that I'm losing my audience. But Hussein, who has worked as a language teacher for the Peace Corps, comes to my rescue, explaining the organization with an eloquence and fluency that I can only dream of, pitching the exposition at just the level of social, political and humanistic interest that ideally suits his audience. At the end, I'm sure that a milestone has been reached in cross- cultural understanding.

“Couldn't you get a job in America?” the teacher asks.

“I was working before I came here. I wanted to see how people lived in another country.”

“And how do you find us here? How do we live? What will you tell people about us when you go back?”

The questions, delivered vehemently, reduce me to polite, inarticulate mumblings, and render all of us silent.

The tea, fortunately able to brew despite our own lack of progress, is now ready for the ritual tasting and pouring. The teacher pours out the first glass and returns it to the pot to mix the sugar. The second glass, poured from a splattering height, fills up golden and clear, and the green smell of mint suffuses our corner. He tastes it, makes a face that for most would signal disgust but for him seems to mean approval, and pours out glasses for the three of us and himself. The wife, with no chamber to retire to, and probably no chance of joining us, fiddles and fusses in the far corner, making little noises that awkwardly remind us she is there.

“Where in Morocco do you come from?” I ask the teacher.

“I am from Kifan Ba Youssef.”

The sentence comes out with a touch of pride, but also perhaps some of the burden of a reluctant native son. Most curiously though, it comes out with some emotion, and the first suggestion that the man experiences anything other than disdain.

“Really? Did you want to come back here to teach?”

“I didn't request it. The ministry sent me here.”

There is even more feeling in his voice this time, caught up between resentment and resignation, and it catches us all by surprise because we didn't think it was in him. It has the effect of loosening us all up a bit, into a changing of postures, and we all turn to him with more interest. I continue the line of questioning.

“Does your family still live here?”

“Yes. We saw them out there, in the–”

“Do they have a cave?”

“All the families have caves.”

I climb to the height of impertinence that only foreigners can achieve with relative impunity: “Why don't you and your wife live with your family?”

But I can see, the question is far beyond the pale and I want to retract it before it's even finished. Abdullah and Hussein are twitching. The wife has stopped her fidgeting and tensed up like a hare at a rustle from a bush. The husband's eyes flare in amazement at my directness. But he rides past his initial shock, and I haven't abandoned him, I haven't turned away from him yet. He answers the question head on.

“They don't accept her.”

The wife rises immediately. The couple exchange the most anguished look, though of hers we see only a twisted brow and tear-swelled eyes. She runs from the room.

“Excuse me. Please forgive me. I'm sorry. It's none of my business. I shouldn't ask.” I've exhausted my vocabulary of apology and it does no good.

Now we are all squirming except the teacher. He sits quietly and looks suddenly tired and haggard. His guard has fallen down.

“Excuse me a lot,” I say, regretting I haven't learned more of the thousand native apologetic phrases.

“I met her at the teachers' college. My family had arranged a marriage for me with a girl from Kifan Ba Youssef. They say I mustn't have a wife who isn't sherfa.”

“God preserve you!”

“God help you!”

“God show you the way, brother!”

Abdullah and Hussein cast blessings on the teacher from a place apparently deep inside them, and suddenly the three have launched a verbal symphony, developing various themes of the teacher's plight. Families bring such suffering. Love only brings pain. There is no understanding between tribes. Old and young Morocco will never be reconciled. Fate deals harsh blows. The world is a sad place to live in. It is the conversation that has festered just under their skins since they met. It takes on even greater intensity to compensate for the half hour it was suppressed.

I am trying to keep up with it now, and Hussein and Abdullah are trying to include me, keeping me in the game with a glance now and then. But the teacher isn't convinced yet. He meets my eyes when he's speaking, but only for a second and then something happens. It's as if he can't really be saying these things to a foreigner, in his own language. And when this thought, perhaps, starts to trip him up, he turns away from me.

It is, in the end, a conversation in which a foreigner can only spectate, with a little awe and envy at the natives’ instinct for fraternizing intimately among themselves with no prior acquaintance. How can they complain of suffering when such easy camaraderie comes naturally to them?

Sitting outermost from the teacher in our row of three, I see that I'm gradually fading from his sphere of attention. I'm resigned, comfortably enough, to drop into the background now and let the sugar from the tea dull my senses. They'll talk on; drink more tea; parry about invitations for dinner, which I hope we'll politely refuse, and then we'll go home. I think about the wife now, as the member of the party I have most in common with: both disenfranchised by conventions. Where has she gone off to, I wonder. How scandalous would it be for me to go and find her and strike up a friendly talk to pass the time?

Before long there is a lull in the conversation. Tension sets in immediately. There is still an imbalance here: the natives have found their common ground, but the price for it seems to be dawning on them. Abdullah and Hussein can't help looking at the door through which the wife departed. The teacher turns his eyes towards me, blinks nervously, and looks away.

“You'd better go to your wife,” Hussein says gently.

“Excuse me,” the teacher says, then rises and leaves. The three of us exchange looks and whisper around the idea of what will happen next. For several moments, the answer appears to be nothing. But then there are footsteps, and the teacher comes back into the room. His wife is behind him, sans hood, veil and gloves, and smiling so beautifully that we can't help but respond in kind.

“My wife, Fatiha. And I am Khalid. Excuse me,” he says, embarrassed for not having told us before.

We shake hands all around again. Fatiha has the perfect confidence and decorum of the lady of the house. Then she and her husband sit down next to each other on the banquette, and suddenly both look radiantly happy.

“In reality,” Abdullah remarks, “it's difficult for people to keep company where they're not welcome, and it must be really hard for you here – and your wife – don't you think so, Frank?”

“Uh, yes. Very difficult.”

We are all silent for a moment, but for the rustling of fabric under our shifting seats. Then the teacher turns a sunbeam of a smile on me.

“Meshakil insania, isn't it?”

I know meshakil, “problems,” but not insania, though it sounds like insane, insanity, and I'm almost willing to let it mean that. But I ask the question: “Insania – what is it?”

Hussein, in his best language-teacher fashion, rises to the occasion: “You know nas. Insan is the singular. Insania is the adjective,” And the light goes on. Human. Human problems.

“Oh yeah,” I say, “Human problems. I get it. Yeah. That's it.”

The natives, all buddies now, congratulate each other on my understanding.

“You're welcome with us,” the teacher says. “Welcome to Kifan Ba Youssef.”