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Maya Angelou in Morocco

Of Tea, "Cockroaches" and Epiphanies


maya angelou

The ever-effusive Maya Angelou, to whom travel through Africa -- Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, Ghana -- punctuated the searching stanzas of her life.

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You'd better be on your best behavior when you read Maya Angelou. She's liable to reach through the page, grab you by the collar (or the nape of the neck, if you're not that decent) and shake you up: no slackening allowed when you read Angelou, no putting on airs either, or feigning squeamishness or ignorance. She likes her readers fully caffeinated, jovial when she's jovial, alert even through her many violence- or drug-induced stupors, and seriously engaged (if not necessarily serious) in her often lecturing, occasionally hectoring, always rhythmically pleasing themes: self-possession, self-respect, the joys of self-expression, the limitless joys and mysteries of anything foreign, and above all (except maybe race), the cross-hairs of cultural conceits.

She lived in Egypt for a couple of years in the early 1960s, when she was an editor for an English-language magazine, and taught in Ghana for a couple years after that, traveling about here and there, as always the wanderer on roads as much as in words. When she was with a dancing troupe crossing Europe she took a trip to Morocco. She'd never written about it until this year. Yet another surprise worth the wait.

Angelou just published her latest memoir, [link=http://erclk.about.com/?zi=15/2qiy]Letter to My daughter ("I gave birth to one child, a son, but I have thousands of daughters"). It's a very light compendium of 28 breezy chats on home, giving birth, vulgarity, violence, Senegal, surviving, Mt. Zion, and so on.

Let me excerpt the bit on Morocco, being the most relevant for our purposes. It's a wonderful vignette summing up the sort of inevitable and embarrassing presumptions foreigners have about places like Morocco, places of dust and sandy stereotypes like the Middle East--stereotypes that fall flat on their southern nethers once reality dawns. This all takes place over a cup of tea offered by strangers, a bridge across a language divide that Angelou comes very close to blowing up. She relates the story with her usual cheer and self-deprecation, both of which she'll readily admits she needs in big doses to counter her equally large capacity for susceptibility and misplaced outrage.

Although I was living in the twentieth century I still held on to the nineteenth-century fanciful idea of Arabia. There were Caliphs and strong sexless eunuchs and harems where beautiful women lay on chaise lounges (sic.) looking at themselves in gilded mirrors.

On the first morning in Morocco, I went walking to soak up a little more romance to fit with my fantasies.

Some women in the street wore Western clothes, while others kept themselves chaste behind heavy black veils. All the men looked jaunty and handsome in their red fezzes. I approached a junkyard and decided to cross the street before I was forced to look at real life. Someone yelled and I turned. There were three tents in the yard and a few black men were waving at me. For the first time, I realized that the Moroccans I had met earlier and expected to meet resembled Spaniards or Mexicans rather than Africans.

The men were shouting and beckoning to me. I saw they were all very old. My upbringing told me that I had to go to them. At that moment I became aware that I was wearing a short skirt and high-heel shoes, appropriate for a twenty-five- year-old American woman, totally unacceptable for a female in the company of old African men.

I threaded my way over cans, broken bottles, and discarded furniture. […] They smiled and spoke to me in a language that I could not understand. I responded in English, French, and Spanish, which they did not understand. We smiled at each other and one man spoke loudly to a group of women who were standing nearby, looking at me with interest. […]

Just as I prepared to stand and bow, a woman appeared with a miniature coffee cup in her hand. She offered it to me. As I took it, I noticed two things, bugs crawling on the ground, and the men approving of me by snapping their fingers. I bowed and took a sip of the coffee and almost fainted. I had a cockroach on my tongue. I looked at the people’s faces and I could not spit it out. My grandmother would have pushed away the grave’s dirt and traveled by willpower to show me her face of abject disappointment. I could not bear that. I opened my throat and drank the cup dry. I counted four cockroaches.

Standing, I bowed to everyone and walked out of the yard. I held the revulsion until I cleared the lot, then I grabbed the first wall and let the nausea have its way. I did not tell the story to anyone; I was simply sick for one month.

When we performed in Marseilles I stayed in a cheap pensione. One morning I picked up a well-worn Reader’s Digest and turned to an article called "African Tribes Traveling from the Sahel to North Africa.”

I learned that many tribes who follow the old routes from Mali, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, and other Black African countries, crossing the Sahara en route to Mecca or Algeria or Morocco and the Sudan, carry little cash but live by the barter system. They swap goods for goods, but they will spend their scarce money to buy raisins. In order to honor and show respect to visitors, they will put three to five raisins into a small cup of coffee.

For a few minutes I felt that I wanted to stoop below the old men in Morocco and beg their pardon.

There, they had chosen to honor me with those expensive raisins.

I thanked God that my grandmother would have been pleased with my behavior.[…]

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