When I am asked: what is the worst insult in Morocco? I remember to warn people not to ever dare call someone an ass (donkey). For this gentle, hard working and resilient animal brings out the worst in Moroccans, and the simple use of the word can lead to disproportionate physical violence. I too always wondered why that is. But I might have finally found the answer…
Donkeys remind me of my beautiful country. When my first child was born, I bought him a stuffed one, though I gave up trying to find a Moroccan looking one, and resigned myself to the fluffy and cute Eeyore (Winnie the Pooh’s buddy). Then, as my son grew older, I was excited to find an even bigger one, the smart and plump Donkey from Shrek, which still didn’t look nor act a bit like the donkeys that reminded me of back home. Coming from Morocco, donkeys had a special place in my heart. When I was invited to go horseback riding with my in-laws during my first visit to the Midwest, I asked to trade my horse for a donkey. I was confident that it was the only animal that wouldn’t buck me off, and yet patiently take me on a long and pleasant promenade. Of course, they all laughed at my goofiness.
Last week, I was again reminded of the donkey, and it was while I watching the beating of my fellow Moroccans protesting for democracy. Brains are surprising that way. They venture and dig into the deepest corners of our unconscious to pull out the most unexpected associations. But there it was before me, a hard working donkey, so resilient, so dedicated, dodging sticks on the head and kicks in the ribs, and never gratified.
A donkey is a donkey: he is no pet. He doesn’t have the speed of a horse. He seemingly has no grace, and yet when you need him, he is usually there, and he will carry you and your belongings, across miles, despite your fiercest and most indifferent heel or stick kicks. He is in every village, laboring in interminable circles, grinding grains, transporting harvest or water, and plowing soil.
If only the donkey could speak, he would say: I deserve as good of a treatment as a stallion, and maybe even just a little more appreciation. He would brag that he nailed his role in Shrek, and he would protest that he deserves just as much love as Eeyore. But mostly, he would remind us that US president Andrew Jackson was the “jackass” who proclaimed: “let the people rule,” turning the donkey into a symbol of democracy in the most powerful country in the world.
But, our donkey is not allowed to speak, for when he dares to make a sound, we frown at his strident unmelodious bray, and wish he didn’t have a voice, or didn’t even have a soul. After all he is just a donkey, and he will always be.
Which brings me back to why the word donkey brings out the worst in my people: Is it because it reminds us of who we really are? How we are treated in our own country? What happens to us when we dare to speak up? How vulnerable and miserable it is to live without freedom or dignity? Aren’t our doctors merely donkeys when they are asked to work hard, accept their conditions, or get brutalized when they dare to protest?
I realized finally why I wanted to buy a stuffed donkey for my son. It was my way to reconnect and reconcile with my own inner donkey, that other hard working, dedicated Moroccan, who strives for social justice, and dignity, and who wakes up every morning wondering if he will ever see a better day. Lately, the smart ass in me has been whispering: donkeys can come together to make a change and we can finally get the love and appreciation that we deserve. Every donkey counts. As we patiently continue to live up to our donkiness, we too can aspire to become someday an emblem of freedom and dignity.