Our guide in the Sahara desert, Mubarak, made a point about the cave nomads we visited: ‘They’re only happy because they don’t know any better. If they were educated, they would be very unhappy living like this.’
We had just visited (and brought gifts of money, yogurt, moisturizer and other goods to) a woman with 11 children who lived in a cave in an area that looked a lot like the face of Mars. In the miles leading up to her property, we joked about finding Matt Damon around the next corner (reference to the movie Martian). It wasn’t the most attractive place. Rocks were about the only thing visible on the cracked ground (there wasn’t a blade of grass in sight) and the mountains that rose up were carved in erosion scars. The side of a massive mountain we approached had a giant M of sliding loose sand from a recent storm. It looked like a still photo, but at any moment, the entire mountain would crumble to the ground.
The woman we visited had 2 of her 3 boys with her (she has 8 girls) ages 7 and 14, and a grandson, about 1, wrapped in a blanket. She had 2 caves, some very basic pens for chickens and sheep made out of mud and rock, and one sweet donkey. Goats were presumably being herded by her husband somewhere out there in the rock fields. I couldn’t imagine what those goats were eating, but there must have been grass somewhere. The ceiling of the cave was black as night from the years of fires underneath it. Our guide translated, while she looked on smiling, that she had cut her own umbilical cord for every one of her 11 pregnancies in this cave we were sitting in.
She made mint tea for us and we watched her clean out the glasses afterwards with some precious well water and her fingers. No soap, no anti-bacterial lotion, just some very dirty hands.
These poor people, I thought afterwards. But Mubarak’s comments echoed in my head. If they knew different, this would be a miserable existence. But they didn’t, and that woman was happy.
The same thoughts crossed my mind when he brought up women in Islamic culture being kept covered, hidden away, education restricted in many cases, especially in remote villages… It was religion, it was hundreds (if not thousands) of years of culture, but it was still hard to see women with their eyes lowered, burdened by their heavy robes hiding their face and body. Their children were free to run around in shorts and t-shirts, but they stood there, hidden from sight, beauty covered. ‘If they knew better, they’d leave us men. They’d never stick around,’ he said with a smile on his face. Was it fear of God, fear of strange men, society’s requirement, or a freedom that no one but their family and husbands could lay eyes on them that kept them covered in public… we could debate it until we were blue in the face. It’s their culture, they’re happy this way. They think you’re crazy for not covering yourself. Whether living in a cave, or living behind a veil, these simple comments are one in the same. Ignorance is bliss in the desert, and elsewhere. Happiness is a state of mind.
Is it better to know life outside of the cave?