I stumbled upon Daphne on the rooftop of a dusky riad in Marrakech.
This six-foot Canadienne 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 riotous pile of hemp-yellow hair.
She wore a straw hat and the tiniest bikini bottoms, and was bent over a fine piece of silk. Sweat glistened on her freckles and rolled between her bronzed breasts as her fingers, blackened with henna, drew delicate brush strokes across the fabric.
Embarrassed, I was turning 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 does, so I found I actually didn’t mind (although I had to stop myself from blurting out sun safety warnings). My three-year-old daughter thought this was just grand, and promptly 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, pretending 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 traveled alone, and explored the souk and twisting back alleys for fabric. She’d 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 Birkenstocked-feet like boat paddles before they roared off 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. It turned out to be a man’s robe, which she should have known, because it billowed around her tall frame perfectly.
There was no way Daphne could hide her lamp under a bushel. My own lamp, of course, was quite comfortable under its bushel, until Daphne began to fan its tiny flame.
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 lamp under a bushel. My own lamp, 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 only 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 join her. My legs needed a shave, for one, and two, I don’t do public nudity. Ever.
I heard myself saying, “Sure!” It seemed Daphne’s adventurous spirit was starting to rub off on me.
For one glorious hour, I learned to be naked, lying on my back on a warm, marble slab alongside Daphne’s Amazonian limbs, while an attendant 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 American 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.
This story was a shortlisted finalist in the 2019 World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship.
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