During our somewhat-spontaneous road trip through the Moroccan desert with our new friends Brad and Lynn, we took an overnight camel trek to the Merzouga sand dunes. The sand dunes were lovely, the stars were bright, the tajine was tasty, the camels were uncomfortable, but fun to have done once. But perhaps the most memorable part of our night, was when I asked them to tell us a Moroccan story. Not feeling comfortable enough in their English, our guides, Assou and Mohammed declined. So, I said, O.K., I’ll tell one.
This is the story of Little Red Jalaba, as told to Assou and Mohammed in the desert.
“There was a little girl who wore a red…”I paused, trying to find a synonym for hood, dismissing cloak and cape.
“Jalaba,” Brad said, referring to the traditional dress of Moroccan women, which sometimes contains a hood.
“Yes, Jalaba. So, Little Red Jalaba’s mother told her to go visit her Grandmother who was very sick.” Here I paused again, making sure they understood the familial relationships. They nodded, so I continued. “So, Little Red Jalaba’s mother said, ‘Here, go take this food to your Grandmother.’ Little Red Jalaba’s Grandmother lived on the other side of the woods.” Another pause, explaining, “forest…lots of trees.” They nodded and I moved on.
“As she was walking, she met a wolf.” Hmmm…wolf. “Do you know this word?” I asked. They did not. “Like a big…dog,” I said. They still looked confused.
“Aaaaoooo!” Brad said.
“An ishin,” Mohammed said. I don’t know if that’s more like a desert fox, or a wild dog, or wolf, but I went with it.
“Little Red Jalaba met an ishin. And this ishin can talk.”
“Because it’s just a story,” Brad interjected.
“Right. The ishin said, ‘Where are you going?’ Little Red Jalaba said, ‘I’m going to see my Grandmother because she is very sick. Now the ishin is very bad.”
“But very smart,” Brad added, pointing at his head.
“So the ishin ran ahead of Little Red Jalaba to her Grandmother’s house and ate her up. Then he put on the Grandmother’s clothes to pretend to be her.
“When Little Red Jalaba arrived she said, ‘Grandmother, what big ears you have,’ and the ishin said ‘So I can hear you better.’
“‘What big eyes you have.’ ‘So I can see you better.’
“’What big teeth you have.’ ‘So I can eat you up!’
“The ishin tried to eat Little Red Jalaba, but just then, a…” Another pause. Would they understand the concept of a woodcutter? I looked around at the sand dunes and then over at Brad.
“A hunter?” he suggested. “Do you know hunter?” he asked our guides. They looked at each other and then at us and said no. Brad pantomimed using a gun and added, “Shoots wild animals for meat.”
Yes, they understood. I went on. “The hunter shoots…kills…the ishin” (and I made the universal sign for for kill, dragging my finger across my neck and sticking out my tongue, complete with gagging sounds). “The hunter cut open the stomach” (again I resorted to charades, this time dragging my finger down my torso) and the Grandmother jumped out! She was O.K.”
“Oh my God,” Assou said, shaking his head. “She jumped out. Oh my God.”
“What’s the moral of the story?” Jason wondered.
“Don’t talk to strangers?” I offered.
The four of us Americans glanced at each other, all thinking of the touts who pester tourists in Morocco, asking “Where are you from? Where are you staying? You want good place to eat? I show you.”
“So when we come to this country and people ask us where we are staying, we don’t tell them, because of Little Red Jalaba,” Lynn said, voicing our thoughts.
I think we did a pretty good job conveying our story. I don’t know if swapping stories from one’s own culture is really something travelers have done for millenia, but I’d like to think so, that this is how cultural diffusion works. If Assou or Mohammed ever retells the story of Little Red Jalaba, would she turn into a he, not unlike the sex change Quan Yin underwent turning into a Goddess when her story crossed from India into China? We’ve already swapped out Riding Hood for Jalaba, wolf for ishin (whatever that is—my internet searching hasn’t confirmed its meaning, though it isn’t wolf), and woodcutter for hunter. What other changes might the story undergo?