It was my last full day in Morocco after a week of filming my TV show, Bare Feet, and I found myself and my film crew standing outside the metal gate of a simple, concrete home. Ouafea, my young guide, who had recently married into the Amazigh or Berber tribe, offered to bring me to Imouzer Kandar, a Berber village an hour outside of Fes and home to her in-laws. As Zakaria, Ouafae’s new husband, came out of the house and through the gate to greet me, he began scolding the stray dog that was barking incessantly by my feet. “Stat-uh zeet!” he said in a Berber dialect. I was stunned. I could hear my own grandmother saying the exact same phrase in our own southern Italian dialect back in Italy. We were standing on a different continent, but the phrase was identical! How similar were Zakaria and I?
I’m a short, brown-haired, hazel-eyed, Italian American girl from Stamford, Connecticut. My parents immigrated to the United States from southern Italy in the mid 1960s. Both came from the same small town, Minturno. Both sides can trace their roots back for generations to this town, and the Mallozzi surname can be found sprinkled on both sides of my family tree.
My family’s story inspired me to start my TV show, Bare Feet with Mickela Mallozzi, where I like to say, “I make new friends by dancing with strangers.” Season one featured 13 destinations around the world, including my family’s hometown of Minturno, Italy, in the pilot episode. In season two, I was inspired by my own family’s immigrant story to feature the ethnic communities in my adopted home of New York City, traveling the world within the five boroughs by using dance and music to connect with each culture. For the latest season, my family inspired me yet again, but this time, I wanted to dig even deeper into who I was and the dances and music that make up who I am. So I decided to take a DNA test.
When the results came back, I was amazed at my ancestral map—the Iberian Peninsula, the Middle East, the Caucuses, the Balkans, Western Europe, and more! All I could think about were the dances I was going to learn—flamenco in Seville, Spain; the odd-metered circle dances of Romania; Irish step dance and sean nos in Ireland; Bukhara classical dance in Uzbekistan; Oriental dance in Cyprus; the acrobatic dances of the Sukhishvili Georgian National Ballet in Tbilisi, Georgia; the list goes on. But North Africa was the region that made me the most excited. It represented the opposite of everything that was familiar to me—the desert, the Arabic language and culture, the Muslim religion, and so on. I chose to visit Morocco because of the beautiful dances and music that I had heard so much about—Gnawa was the starting point, the musical genre that represents the people of Morocco.
The week leading up to my arrival at the Berber village became very personal. The night we arrived in Tangier, we met a lute player who resembled my father, and I was brought to tears by his uncanny likeness. He let me call him “my Moroccan father” that evening.
The last day of my trip led me to the indigenous and free people of Morocco—the Amazigh, or the Berbers. Here I was, at the gate to Zakaria’s childhood home, hearing him speaking the same words of my own family’s dialect, except in a place that I was told was so different from my own. Yet they were the same.
We walked into the home where Zakaria grew up, met at the entrance by his Mama Khadija, who had spent the entire day prior baking traditional Berber cookies, bread, and goodies for my visit. We were offered Berber tea as a sign of hospitality—the higher Zakaria poured the tea from its spout into the glass below, the more welcome we were. And I couldn’t shake off just how similar this home felt to me—the thick cement walls and the simple, square architectural style of the home, the olive trees in the yard, the fruit trees on their land. It even smelled like Minturno to me, of a brush fire burning somewhere off in the distance.
Mama Khadija took me into the living room and dressed me in a full Berber woman’s outfit called jawharah, an all-white robe whose name translates to “pearl”; my head was covered in a beautiful, yellow silk scarf. I was now ready. I didn’t know what to expect, but we were about to make a 20-minute drive up the mountain to meet the same musicians who performed at Ouafae and Zakaria’s wedding less than a year before, in a traditional Berber tent, with the rocky, mountainous landscape as our backdrop.
We piled into a 10-passenger van, filled with giant, silver teapots, tea glasses, Mama Khadija’s cookies and cakes, me, my crew, and all of Zakaria’s immediate family. I’ve been filming my TV show for years, but I will never shake off the excitement that I get in anticipation of connecting with people through the language of dance and music—my knees were bouncing with elation for what was to come.
We arrived at a natural spring with other Berber families picnicking and filling plastic bottles with the therapeutic water. Arm in arm, Mama Khadija led me up a rocky path to a green tent with men standing in blue and white robes, chitchatting and waiting for their guest: me. This entire setup was for me, almost a replica of Ouafae and Zakaria’s wedding, but nothing was exaggerated. The Amazigh people are known for their incredible hospitality, and to feign a welcome is an insult. This was all real, and though I could not communicate with the musicians, singers, and dancers through words, I joined right in, in normal fashion, as if I had known to do this my entire life, as if it were in my blood.
I wedged myself between the row of performers, following their every move, their bounces, their sways, and their chants. The maestro–a tall, dashing man with a large, green cape—led the group, sashaying from one end of the line to the other, shaking his shoulders and conducting the group with his bendir, or hand drum, setting the rhythm and tempo for the other bendir players to mimic. It was an hour of call and response, men’s voices filling the tent, the jangles on the women’s skirts adding a high-pitched pulse, while the drums rang in my ears and kept my body moving.
I thought the song was over, but then I heard a last chant. Ouafae came up to me to share the message of their song. “Mickela, they are singing your name,” he said. “They are saying, ‘Mickela, you are welcome! Mickela, you are welcome!’” I turned to the singers as they kept the chant circulating, hearing my name sung in a beautiful, Arabic accent. I looked each of them in the eye, and I began to cry. I was overwhelmed by pure connection to these people and the rocky earth that lay beneath the carpeted tent. I held my hand to my chest as a gesture of gratitude and said all I could. “Shukran.” Thank you.
Season three of the Emmy Award–winning Bare Feet with Mickela Mallozzi began airing this fall on PBS stations across the USA. Check your local listings or watch on Amazon Video. Care to join Mickela? Dance down the Danube with her in 2020 on two Tauck river cruises.