Morocco, Land of Endless Hassles – part 4
by John Massaro
THESE ARE JUST MUSINGS on my part, but the more I thought about it, the more I surmised that Arabs are a lot like Jews, though on a much smaller and harmless scale. They seem to have evolved in parallel ways over the ages in this region of the world. It’s a Semitic thing. To illustrate my point, let me shift gears for a moment. While in Fez I happened to pick up an international edition of Newsweek, and leafing through the back pages came across a brief story detailing the latest Israeli spy scandal. As I recall, top-secret blueprints had been stolen from a defense plant in Iowa or Illinois. The article stated that the Israelis were “outraged” over the way Washington had publicized the affair, asserting that the incident could’ve been resolved in a quieter manner. That’s right: the country that soaks billions of dollars annually from its benefactor, sells arms to its rivals, murders its sailors in cold blood, sends agents to steal documents, is now “outraged” when one of its treacheries is held up to the light, with just a brief flicker of media attention. I can just picture Ronald Reagan assembled with his advisors around a table, wondering out loud, “Gee fellas, did we say the wrong thing? Maybe we should apologize. Should we retract our statements? Why are they so mad at us?” Having stood there facing Miloud by the Bab Bou Jeloud, unsure of myself, I can almost sympathize with clueless Ronnie.
There’s only one Eiffel Tower, one Taj Mahal, and there’s most certainly only one Djmaa-el-Fna. This great square, the name of which which literally means “assembly of the dead” (sultans once had criminals beheaded here), is the centerpiece of Marrakesh, for many centuries a caravan city in Morocco’s southern desert. Every day of the year, beginning in the late afternoon, this place becomes a circus, a pulsating madhouse of everything meant by the word “exotic,” a word I know I’ve overused in this narrative. From what I’ve read, this has been going on since 1071 A.D.
I had an idea of what awaited me in Marrakesh, but it wasn’t easy getting there. From Ourzazate there were only through-buses originating in Er-Rachidia. They arrived with only a few empty seats, and instead of fighting off all the howling, clawing maniacs at the ticket office I stayed an extra day in tranquil Ourzazate. When it dawned on me how difficult it was to get out of here, I gave up on the bus and paid a much higher price for a seat in a shared taxi. It was a four hour ride to Marrakesh, twice as long as I had anticipated. We ascended to the cool, serene heights of the High Atlas Mountains, through fragrant cedar forests and reddish brown mud hut Berber villages. There were dozens of little stands with signs reading “Mineraux,” where men held up onyx eggs as we drove by; I doubt half of them sold one egg a day. Villagers stood by the road, trying to flag a ride. This was something I couldn’t understand; given the scarcity of vehicles and all these people trying to go somewhere, it seemed they would end up going nowhere unless they walked or rode a donkey. But I almost envied them as we descended to the hot, dusty plains, and by the time we reached Marrakesh the temperature was in the high nineties.
I checked into the CTM Hotel, a delightfully rundown establishment facing the Djmaa. There was a collection of postcards from countries all over the world under the glass of the long reception desk, indicative of a hotel with character. I always like seeing this, and before leaving home I always take some postcards with me should there be an opportunity to make a contribution. America was represented by the banal Statue of Liberty, Golden Gate Bridge, that sort of thing, so I delighted the receptionist with my unusual offerings: one pictured a man gathering maple syrup in snowy Vermont, the other Billy Carter’s gas station in Plains, Georgia. Billy, you might remember, was a colorful, outspoken redneck. For some reason Jimmy Carter, Billy’s older brother, whose presidency was fairly recent, had been popular with the Moroccan people.
Next door was the Cafe de Grand Balcon, a great place to sit, order something to drink from one of the lethargic, red-jacketed waiters, and enjoy the show. It was frequented by tourists and the more refined locals. The odder types stayed away, though boys peddling loose cigarettes regularly marched through; the waiters chased them out. Once a lunatic walked by, and pointing an accusatory finger, harangued the patrons for one minute. Another time a fistfight between two boys spilled into a group of German tourists who were filing off a bus, causing a woman to shriek.
I took a seat at a table where two young travelers were writing postcards. One was Philip, a tall, thin English boy wearing shorts, which is frowned upon in Islamic countries. He spoke idealistically of coming to Morocco to spend some time and “get under the surface.” But he had only been in the country a week and was already scared; he seemed too precious for his own good. He also had been swindled by a guide in Fez, a young boy who on some pretext demanded twice his fee at the end of the tour. “But at the time, he convinced me that he was entitled to the extra money. I still don’t understand how I fell for it.” Join the club, Philip. The other fellow was Tostin, a German who wore a blue kaftan. He was a character. He wasn’t big but he gave the impression of being a seasoned traveler who could handle himself anywhere. I liked his style at first. He said he was going to the medina later to look for a leather bag and asked if I would accompany him. I was happy to. With a companion I’d be less vulnerable, especially if I got lost, which for me was guaranteed. I preferred not to go there alone.
We crossed the square and entered the medina, and were instantly into the souk, the covered market, endless stalls with every commodity imaginable, including all kinds of leather, copper and wooden articles. Some of it was gorgeous stuff, but the problem was that you couldn’t stop to inspect anything without being commandeered. (“Come, have a look in my shop. Only to look, not to buy.”) We swiveled into a courtyard where locals haggled over bales of raw wool, and stalls were hung with desiccated foxes, snakes, birds and lizards. A man pulled a pink rock from a jar and rubbed it on the back of my hand; it smelled like perfume. There were great carpet stores too, giving the lie to Miloud’s comical claim that you couldn’t buy a rug here.
It was inevitable that a hustler would target us, and this one was a real mangy mutt who heard us speaking English and walked in front of us, looking back. “Come, I take you to my father’s shop. What you want? I have good price for you.” He was speaking more to Tostin than me, so I waited for him to answer. He turned to me instead.
“They are like flies, aren’t they?” I snickered and nodded.
“You are tourists from what country? From England, from America?”
“I am not a tourist, I am an animal,” Tostin replied, squawking and flapping his arms, like a child imitating a monster. I burst out laughing, but the hustler became enraged at this brazen mockery. He clung to Tostin’s side raving in Arabic, and God, what a vicious-sounding language it can be. Tostin was silent, and I’m sure he was a bit frightened too. The creature would drop back and we’d think he was gone, then he’d walk straight ahead and face us walking backwards, abusing Tostin louder than before. Then he’d fall behind again, only to re-emerge as we turned a corner, at one point raising his fists and challenging Tostin to fight, though he never made physical contact. This went on for ten minutes and was quite unnerving. Finally, he disappeared for good.
Haggling is not how I like to shop. It wears me out. In fact, it wears me out writing about it, so I’ll just mention in passing that I had the same exact experience buying a copper teapot in Marrakesh – thinking I’d struck a good deal at $23 after haggling the merchant down from $35 – that I had in Jerusalem when I paid way too much for a coverlet, which I’ve written about elsewhere. Personally, I don’t mind paying a little more than the locals for this or that – I think that’s fair when you can afford to travel abroad and they struggle to make ends meet – but I don’t like being grossly cheated. Everyone has his own philosophy and his own approach, and it was becoming clear that Tostin was the hardcore type. We had wandered apart a bit, while still staying within sight of each other, when I heard a loud “Au revoir, monseiur!” I looked over and there was Tostin standing nose to nose with a merchant, who suddenly screamed “AU REVOIR!” in his face.
“What was that all about?” I asked when we were a safe distance away.
“He is angry because I don’t buy his bag. I said nothing to him. He must be crazy. I go to another shop.” But there must have been more to it. Listening to him haggle in the next shop, where he did end up buying a nice leather bag, I decided the guy definitely has an attitude problem, and if he keeps it up he’s going to get his head knocked off sooner or later. But he was good company for a day, and as I re-read what I wrote 35 years ago, I’m still chuckling over what he said to that hustler.
I took a shower and sprawled out on my bed, but it was too hot to take a nap. My room didn’t have air conditioning, and the overhead fan didn’t put much of a dent in the heat, but as the sun went down, and the sound of tambourines and oboes drifted through the open window, I knew it was time to see what I’d come to see. More music began to fill the huge square, and the whole place was humming well before dusk. The largest crowd circled a troupe of acrobats and tumblers who put on quite a show, supervised by a grizzled chieftain who carried a stick. Locals are not obliged to pay when the hat is passed but tourists are sitting ducks. I saw two English girls fiddling with their cameras. The chieftain spotted them and he pounced. “Cinq dirhams, donnez-moi cinq dirhams!” he bellowed. He followed them as they tried to escape, and I heard one of them say, “I didn’t even take a picture!” Water sellers clinking with bandoliers of brass cups patrolled the square, their water trapped in bulging goat carcasses. There were wandering minstrels strumming tortoise-shell mandolins, and scribes sitting patiently, waiting to write letters for illiterate customers. I saw a man walking a monkey on a chain, and when our eyes met he asked for money. “Wait a minute,” I said. “What’s his name?”
“Boris.” He made me shake hands with Boris, then lifted him to his face and grimaced; Boris grimaced back. I took a photo and gave him a few dirhams. Before I could slip my camera into my pocket I was accosted by a snake charmer who asked me to take a photo of him while he hypnotized his cobra. Then he grabbed a smaller snake and draped it around my neck. I objected but he insisted on taking a picture with my camera so I went along with it. He requested twenty dirhams for his efforts but was content with five. A fire-eater whom I merely glanced at expected payment for the glance. I gave him some change and demanded a good performance; he came through. Black boys in white pajamas twisted deliriously through the throng to the brassy racket of finger-cymbals, swinging the tassels on their fezes. Children with frail grandparents in tow cruised the grounds, bugging pale-faced tourists for a handout. I walked to the other side of the square, passing a tight circle of spectators watching two teenagers with boxing gloves duke it out.
On the edge of this spectacle were carts piled high with oranges, which insulated the square from a steady stream of taxis, scooters, bicycles and horse-drawn wagons. A tall glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice cost fifteen cents. I bought one. Nearby stood a row of blind men holding out their begging bowls and chanting “Allah” every ten seconds. Women holding tarot cards squatted on the pavement, leering at passersby through the slits in their veils. Storytellers entertained listeners. The strangest of all was the folk-medicine man. He sat cross-legged in a striped djellaba and one of those Russian fur hats, and spoke into a microphone attached to a small amplifier. In front of him were fifteen metal bowls filled with herbs and spices in their natural state, and five containing powders of different colors. There was a dried lizard and two preserved hedgehogs perched on other bowls, and some live animals too: a hamster and an inquisitive squirrel tethered in a cage. An ancient book lay open on the ground to a page illustrating the human respiratory system. He held another book in his lap, and as he read from it he spooned the herbs and powders onto paper sheets and stirred them. Then he rolled the paper into cones, and sold them for a quarter. The audience listened attentively; business was good.
As it got dark the oddballs cleared out and the food vendors took over. I chowed down at a stall where they served harira from a pot so huge that a man could’ve stood in it. Harira is a thick soup of chickpeas and atomized vegetables. They ladle it into a ceramic bowl and give you a wooden spoon that probably hasn’t been washed properly. Travelers get sick in Morocco but it’s a throw of the dice, and all those sizzling brochettes and smoky aromas were just too tempting. I sat down to a plate of hairy-looking meat that I couldn’t identify. It did not taste good. I asked the man sitting next to me what it was and he said “le pancreas.” I’ll never eat pancreas again. I left half of it and walked off to buy a hard-boiled egg from one of the many egg vendors. The aroma of frying fish seduced me. I wanted to stick my egg into a fish sandwich but the dishonesty of this vendor spoiled my appetite. He doubled the price after preparing the sandwich, claiming that the five dirhams he quoted me was only for the fish; the bread was another five. Typically Moroccan. In Fez, I had asked a vendor for a glass of juice. He said three dirhams, but after squeezing the oranges charged me four. “You said three,” I protested. “No, I said four.”
I bought two bottles of mineral water at the Cafe de Grand Balcon and went home. I walked past two boys, about twelve years old, who stood in the darkness outside the open door of the CTM Hotel. One was masturbating. I began to step back outside for another look to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, then stopped, not wanting them to think I had any intentions. The other boy grinned and pointed at his friend, whom I couldn’t see now. Before going upstairs I looked back one more time. There was the friend, standing in the doorway, waving at me with one hand and pointing with the other, still grinning. I went into my room, laughing, and said, “Christ, now I’ve seen it all.”
* * *
I wanted to have a look at the remote deep south of Morocco, so I rented a car for three days. That morning I bought a container of yogurt for breakfast, after admonishing the storekeeper that the price had been cheaper yesterday. He smiled and lowered the price. Having no spoon, I squeezed it straight from the cup and ate it while walking down the street. A boy stopped me and pointed to a dab of yogurt on my nose. I thanked him and wiped it off. He followed me and requested one dirham for telling me this.
“Monsieur,” he pleaded.
“No. Go away.”
I took a taxi to the car rental office, where I had reserved the car the previous day. It was a flaky local outfit called Sud Voyage. Even with car rentals, the rates published in the brochure are so outrageous that they expect you to haggle them down, and this I had done. Now they were telling me the car was due back on Thursday. It was Tuesday morning: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday – that was three days, he said.
“Monsieur,” I explained. “There are 24 hours in one day, yes? Therefore, there are 72 hours in three days. In 72 hours it will be Friday, not Thursday, so I will return the car to you on Friday.”
“Alright, Friday.” He looked at his watch. “It is 9:30 now. You must return the car by 9:30 on Friday.”
“I will try.”
Leaving Marrakesh was all the fun. The car was a small Renault model. It had only logged 33,000 kilometers (about 21,000 miles) but already it had been driven into the ground. Window handles were broken, the rear-view mirror bobbed up and down, and half the glass was missing on the sideview mirror. The left front tire had less tread than a tennis ball and the car clattered as I drove away. That’s when I noticed that the fuel gauge read below empty! They had probably syphoned all the gas out when the previous renter returned it, leaving enough only to drive to a nearby petrol station, knowing that there’d be more to syphon after I returned it, because no one lets the gas level get that low. Very resourceful people.
It was an interesting excursion. The road to Tafraoute was extremely curvy, and I got car-sick for the first time in my life, dashing any hopes of driving all the way to Laayoune, the one big city in what used to be a territory called the Spanish Sahara, which Morocco laid claim to after its independence from France in 1956. Since the 1960s, there’s been a four-way tussle between Spain, Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania over this mineral-rich sandy waste, involving a separatist group and occasional guerilla warfare, but it’s too complicated to go into here. This matter has never been resolved, but Morocco has long held the upper hand. To avoid antagonizing anyone, the Michelin company shows no borders in this disputed area on its excellent road map. Actually, before leaving home I had considered skipping Europe, starting off in Morocco, and traveling on public transport all the way to Senegal, but the instability and the scorching desert heat made me scrap the idea. What tantalized me was the opportunity to travel through Mauritania, an inhospitable country that practically no one visits. I became wistful when I saw a road sign indicating the distance to Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, but going there now was sheer fantasy. The furthest south I went was desolate Goulimine, a gateway to the open Sahara. I wanted to linger here a few hours, but a man on a bicycle kept following me everywhere I walked, asking what I wanted. I’d get in the car, drive a few blocks and make a few turns, thinking I’d lost him, then he’d reappear and start pestering me again. The same thing had happened in Taroudannt, a much prettier place, and when I couldn’t take it anymore I fled. I decided to flee Goulimine too, after stocking up on water and apples, but on the way out of town there was a checkpoint where a policeman told me I had committed an infraction by driving on a bald tire. He threatened to confiscate my drivers license and demanded to see the spare; I smeared my clothes with dirt and grease while dislodging it. He berated me more and examined the vehicle papers while I pretended to be remorseful. Finally he told me to leave.
I returned to Marrakesh by a cooler route, passing through the seaside town of Sidi Ifni, which used to be a Spanish resort, but now rots and crumbles under Moroccan rule. Further north, Agadir is a Virginia Beach clone, and the destination of European jet-setters; I chose to spend the night in Essouira instead. Some say Jimi Hendrix was the greatest rock guitarist of all time, and maybe he was, but he was also a deplorable human being programmed for death at an early age. Nevertheless, I know how he felt falling in love with Essouira, a truly beautiful town of whitewashed walls and bright blue shutters, fortified with medieval Portuguese ramparts. One night here was sufficient, though. I wanted to get that car back to Marrakesh before it fell apart, but more than that I wanted to spend a little more time savoring that city. I longed just to spend two more days lounging on the rooftop terrace of the CTM Hotel and unwinding from three months of travel (I’d spent more than two months in Europe, mostly France, Portugal and Spain), gazing out over the Djmaa-el-Fna as it picked up steam with each passing hour.
(to be continued)
* * *
Source: End the Shots