Mustafa pushes the cows out of the cramped barn one by one and motions for the two of us to follow him. I scramble to collect my things among the laughter of the women in the family, amused my lack of organization. Fatima, seeing that we are missing herding sticks, shuffles over to the nearest tree, and brakes off some branches for us both and motions for us to catch up to her brother. Mustafa has already pushed the cows to the next road and gives us a look as if to say “You wanted to come and work with me, now come and work.”
The cows stumble a bit, weaving though the olive trees down the hill, to the highway. Amongst the nervous moo-ing of the cows, Mustafa signals for us to hold them back while we wait for a safe time to cross the highway. A bit frustrated with our lack of herding ability, and concerned that we are going to kill one of his cows, he scrunches up his face and jogs to the back of the herd and leads the cows across the highway without incident. Once on the other side, Mustafa looks at us and smiles exposing his large, unkept teeth and tells us “mashi mushkil” meaning “no problem” in Darija (Moroccan Arabic).
The endless blue sky is interrupted by strategically placed clouds. We walk on a dirt path, muddied by last night’s rain fall. On either side of the path there are thick grassy fields. The sound of cars and trucks rushing by on the highway are getting more and more faint, and the sound of birds, insects, and the methodic footsteps of the cows are getting more pronounced. Our path starts to intersect with a river, and we walk parallel to it. Mustafa motions for us look at the water. It’s ink black. He makes a drinking motion with his hands, and then shakes his head to say no. “Zaytun,” he says, meaning “olive” in Arabic. “Zaytun,” he says again, making sure we know what he is saying. Later we would learn that an olive factory upstream dumps their waste into the river, and farmers like Mustafa have to deal with the consequences. The cows start to cross the river where it is most narrow, perhaps 6 to 7 feet wide– a stride for a cow, several leaps for us. Mustafa, seeing our confusion, picks up a rock from the side of the river, plops it in the middle where we are supposed to cross, and gracefully hops across the water. We manage to cross, but with significantly less grace, making Mustafa chuckle a bit.
We walk for several more minutes, until we come upon a valley. Mustafa throws his stick down, and rushes over to the cows. He kneels down, and ties a rope around the two front feet of every cow, ensuring that they won’t be able to wander too far. He takes a seat on the ground, and motions for us to do the same. Mustafa pulls out his smart phone and quickly looks for something. His eyes open up, and a smile appears. A song comes on that is both calming and anxiety-producing. A marriage between slow elevator music and quick passed synthesizer. We ask him where the song from, and he responds “Algeria.” “Algeria?” we ask again, not sure if that’s what he meant to say. “Algeria,” he says one last time while leaning back and pulling his baseball cap over his eyes.