Burning Bushes with Berbers. Bonus: “Boner”

A burning bush in the desert

Our last night in the Moroccan desert was the coolest impromptu culture exchange that has ever happened. Clusters of students from our study abroad group wandered (not far) into the dunes to stargaze. It was just a short walk, but the remoteness of the desert made it an adventure. The Milky Way glowed down at us from gazillions of miles away and millennia ago while we tried to find the Dippers and Orion’s Belt. From home, they’re easy enough to recognize. But that night they were nearly impossible to pick out from the blanket of stars spread over the sky. Also, we kept getting distracted by pesky bits of space rocks burning up as they entered Earth’s atmosphere – we saw a shooting star every couple of minutes.

We lost ourselves so thoroughly that we didn’t notice that nearly twenty Berbers had joined us. Their village was at least a twenty minute walk away, but apparently we were big news in town. (Imagine: 120+ tourists roll up in 4×4’s in your backyard desert to camp.) They struck up conversation – our common language was Spanish, which all of them knew at least a little of. They speak Berber to each other, but also know Arabic and a varying amount of French. A few knew some German, as well. A lot of the conversation revolved around getting them to teach us Berber and Arabic. “Stars” in Berber is pronounced “eh-ter-anh,” with an accent on the last syllable.

Ahmed and his friends were my buddies for the night. Their ages were hard to guess in the dark, but by the end of the conversation I had a pretty good idea. They got tired of teaching me how to count to ten in Arabic pretty quickly, so with a glimmer in his dark eyes, Ahmed launched into the next lesson. He pronounced a word slowly so I could catch all the syllables, really get into all the nooks and crannies of the phonetics. It was something like, “al-go-dohn.” When I finally got it, their poorly repressed glee clued me in on what sort of word I was learning. Next came the definition. This was a three- or four-boy task: one to hold the flashlight, one to quickly sketch out what the word meant, and one or two more to quickly wipe it out in giggly embarrassment. After a few hasty sand sketches I understood what they’d taught me. It turns out that all across the world, even laying in the sand dunes in Morocco, eight to twelve year-old boys will find amusement in the word “boner.”

Group picture

The grand finale of the night was to be fiery. To keep us entertained, a few of the older Berbers set fire to a few dead, scraggly bushes between dunes. The light from the burning bushes pushed up the sides of the dunes in waves, attracting ISA students, and even more Berbers. The fires, proving to be an excellent icebreaker, coaxed everyone to break off in small groups of four or five and discuss Berber vocabulary and their daily lives. Ahmed shared his life’s dreams with me. They were ambitious: he either wants to meet a beautiful tourist and get her to marry him so he can move to the U.S., or play for Football Club Barcelona. As the bushes ran out of combustible material and dark started to roll back down the dunes, Ahmed looked over his shoulder at the few lonely, distant lights of his town – lighthouses in the desert. He had a thirty minute walk home, at least. The impossible number of stars lighting his way would likely go unnoticed. He’d probably end up thinking about beautiful American tourists, or playing for FC Barcelona, as any teenage boy would.

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