Macaque Memory

A conversation with a college friend about finding one’s voice reminds me of a trip to Morocco, the birthplace of Fatema Mernissi. I am introduced to Mernissi through Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems, and after that, I devour all her other books. Never before have I read a Muslim woman’s perspective about her space in the contemporary world. And she presents it with humor.

In her writings, Mernissi, my Scheherazade, shares her dreams of trespass from the Moroccan harem, clarifies the contradictions in modern Muslim countries, and reminds me about the forgotten queens of Islam.  She looks for clothes that are not restricted by the size system in stores like Nordstrom.  Her re-telling of the world encourages me to include mine.

Madrid to Gibraltar

In my re-telling, I travel with Selma. We reflect on our voyage through life and the places where our paths meet. One such time begins in Spain. Selma and I leave Madrid early that summer morning. At the station, we have a hurried breakfast of cold Spanish tortilla in a roll with a café con leche. It’s a breakfast that we remember because of our excitement of that day, not the culinary expertise of the station chef.

It’s not supposed to be cold, says Selma, the expert on all things Spanish.

By mid morning, we are in La Línea de la Concepción.

The Rock of Tariq

From the station, we walk across the Spanish/English border and take the funicular to the top of the Rock of Tariq, جبل طارق‎. Tariq was the Commander of the Berber army who conquered Visigothic Hispania in 711. From there we photograph the African Coast. Standing on one of the mythical Pillars of Hercules, we take in the panoramic view and witness the busiest waterways of the world connecting Africa to Europe.

Gibraltar is the last vestige of a sunny spot for the British Empire. The other rock in my travels, Alcatraz, became a notorious prison and has since evolved into a tourist trap. I’m not sure what to think about this one: A desperate attempt of the British Empire to hold on to the last sunny corner, where there’s no uprising. Maybe once global warming heats up the UK, they will return this rock to Spain.

Distracted by the historical magic of this space, we ignore the semi-wild Barbary macaques trying to open my bag. These are the only true natives of this crossroad.

Reflective Macaques

Macaques are capable of self-doubt and introspection, traits once thought attributable only to humans. Some species have displayed behavior indicating the use of judgment, creativity, even language. They are able to recall past images and apply them to current problem solving. In other words, macaques employ memory in order to survive, says Ocean Vuong in his poetic memoirish novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

And I wonder what the macaques of Gibraltar remember. And whether these natives of the rock can choose to forget who came and who went.

After an afternoon of sightseeing, by 4:00 pm we are at the port waiting to board our ferry to Tangier. While we wait, Selma and I reflect on the intersection of our lives with others.

Before our story begins, our mother is five, and to protect her from the blitz in London, she  is sent to her grandparents in Wales.  Around the same time, in Morocco, Fatima Mernissi is born in her family harem, surrounded by women, her mother, her grandmother, and her aunts.  From them, she learns to treasure  education and decisiveness while retaining a sense of humor.  She learns that Dreams are the most creative experience in our life.  It is in dreams that we capture new ideas and learned thoughts.

An announcement directs us toward the ferry. As the last passengers arriving from Morocco disembark, we wait in line to find our place on the ferry. We saunter up the gangplank and find our seats.  It will take us less than an hour to cross the Straits of Gibraltar. Before dinner, we will arrive in Tangier.  Selma leans over and reminds me what mummy used to tell us of her first trip from England to Pakistan: By the time we reached the Straits of Gibraltar, Afshan had got used to the sway of the ship. Not bad for a ten-month-old!

Mummy’s memories have always been ours too. Our voices have always been with us as has our audience. We just need to document them somewhere.

The ferry engines hum louder as we prepare to depart. The captain announces our estimated arrival time, leaving us plenty of time for another cup of coffee.

Create Cultural Memories through Literature and Art


  1. I don’t know what to appreciate more, the knowledge of history,the decription of your travelling or the unique perspectives of your cross cultural identity, My mind is in a whirlwind!!!

    • We’ve been lucky to be teachers for so long and then having family members-parents, grandparents, aunts…all who love to read. Our own minds are a whirlwind and that’s why we invite you to join us 🙂 thank you for joining us

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