The unbearable lightness of being naked

by Sharon Hammond (South Africa)

A leap into the unknown Morocco


I stumbled upon Daphne on the dusky rooftop of a riad in Marrakech. This six-foot Canadian with man-sized feet was the only other guest there, and she was naked. Or mostly naked, which is startling for me at the best of times, but particularly in Morocco - a conservative north African Muslim country. “Oh, er, hello!” “Hi,” she said, blowing a plume of smoke and looking up briefly from under a straw hat propped on top of a riotous pile of hemp-yellow curls. She wore the tiniest bikini bottoms and was bent over a fine piece of silk, sweat glistening on her freckles, and rolling between her bronzed breasts, as her fingers, blackened with henna, drew delicate brush strokes across the fabric. Embarrassed, I turned to leave, when she said, “I hope you don’t mind. I love the sun and I need to work.” Daphne wore her skin as comfortably as a child, so I found I actually didn’t mind (although I had to stop myself from blurting out sun safety warnings). My daughter, who was three, thought this was just grand and stripped to her panties. In the coming days, she’d end up bare-bottomed, riding Daphne’s naked back in the pool while my red-faced husband kept his eyes firmly on his laptop and pretended nonchalance as he groped blindly for his mint tea. Daphne designed scarves and was based in Berlin, but her spirit was as free as any Berber’s. It was in Morocco that her creativity really bloomed. She travelled alone and explored the souk and twisting back alleys for fabric. She found a lean-muscled man in a whitewashed corner who devotedly spun silk for her all day on an antique loom. Another skinny man became her driver, beaming in delight as Daphne hiked up her Berber robe, straddled his motorbike and stuck out her Birkenstock feet like boat paddles before they roared off, helmetless, into the midnight throb and throng of Djemaa El Fna square. Daphne did her best to be modest. She really did. To ward off harassment or disapproval, she stained the tips of each finger, to the first knuckle, black with henna to indicate she was a married woman, which she was not. She always wore a black Berber robe in public to cover as much of her lanky limbs as possible, but it turned out to be a men’s robe. She should have known, because it billowed around her tall frame perfectly. Yet, instead of unsolicited catcalls or mutterings, she somehow drew admiration, chivalry and kindness. Men and women alike were almost protective of her, as if she needed guarding from her unconsciously wild and trusting self. When she was crippled by menstrual cramps, the ladies from the riad kitchen gathered in her room like hens, clucking advice and handing her cups of cinnamon tea to take with the Ibuprofen I’d dispensed. No, there was no way Daphne could hide her light under a bushel. My own light, of course, was quite comfortable under its bushel until Daphne began to fan its tiny flame. “I’m going to a hammam,” she said one afternoon when she found me lounging in the courtyard with the riad’s baby tortoise for company. “Come with me.” It wasn’t a question. I stuttered, thinking of a million reasons I couldn’t - my legs needed a shave, for one, and, two, I don’t do publicly nudity. Ever. I heard myself saying, “Sure!” For one glorious hour I learnt to be naked, like a child, lying on my back on a warm, marble slab alongside Daphne’s Amazonian limbs, while an aya gently scrubbed, sloughed and soaped our skin, her hands as tender as a mother’s. Afterwards, we strolled, still naked, through the hamman to take a dip in the cold water pool and cool off. A young, European couple was waiting their turn on loungers. They looked away shyly. And we? We just glowed and glowed. Everything about her was haram. Her lamp razed bushels as fast as she tried to stamp them out with feet as big as men’s. She set my own lamp alight, dragging me out of myself and laying me bare on warm marble as if it were nothing.