Morocco, Land of Endless Hassles – part 5
by John Massaro
THERE’S A RAILWAY network connecting the major cities of Morocco but I didn’t use it until the very end. What I had missed! My second-class carriage on the 9AM express to Casablanca was new, spotless, quiet ,and punctual. It would’ve been a great finale to my journey were it not for my destination. Casablanca, which combines the charm of Arab apathy with the glamor of French heavy industry, is a dump. I’d come here only to fly home, hoping to leave in two days. I had an open ticket on Royal Air Maroc but hadn’t made a reservation, and the Tuesday flight to New York was fully booked. There were only a few seats left on the next flight, on Saturday, and I was greatly relieved to reserve one.
The thought of killing time for five days in this city was unbearable. Even the aquarium, reputed to be the only place worth visiting, was closed for repairs. The brochure issued by the tourist office was funny. I pictured a bunch of loafers on the government payroll trying to come up with something to write, when there was absolutely nothing to write about:
The most striking thing about Casablanca is its contagious vitality, which comes as a pleasant surprise, and its ambitious atmosphere….The buildings are not excessively high and their regular shapes are reassuring….When it comes to sunshine, Casablanca has nothing to envy in Marrakesh or Rabat….One hastens to discover the city which draws like a magnet….
Some magnet. I had to get out of here so I took a bus to the coastal town of El-Jadida, only slightly less dreary, and stayed for two days before returning. These last days were uneventful except for one incident which really upset me and cost me half a night’s sleep. In retrospect it was the crowning touch of my inability to accept the country on its own terms. I had gone to an outdoor cafe near the train station in Casablanca and ordered a cup of coffee and a pastry. Instead of pastry the waiter, an old man, brought me cake – so much cake that it was wrapped in paper and cut into three slices, like something you get in a bakery box. No normal human being eats that much cake at one sitting. I could’ve avoided trouble by refusing it on the spot, but I ate one slice and pushed the rest aside. It wasn’t very good either, which didn’t help matters. When I was done I called the waiter and politely told him I had only eaten one slice, and that’s all I would pay for.
“No,” he said. “You ordered this so you must pay for it.”
“I didn’t ask for all this cake. Why don’t you just bring it back?”
“It is closed now. I cannot bring it back.”
What’s closed now? I thought. Don’t give me that s***. I got up to leave and handed him eight dirhams in coins. “I pay you for only one slice. Good night.”
But as I walked away he followed me and poked me in the back. “You give me four more dirhams or I call the police!”
By chance there were two cops lounging at a nearby street corner. “There are two policemen!” I said, triumphantly pointing down the street. “We go talk to them!”
Enough was enough. I had developed a siege mentality in this country and couldn’t take it anymore. I wondered how the police would react to this. It was absurd, really – arguing like this over fifty cents, and now there were some spectators who had heard us yelling at each other. What I failed to consider at the time was that, in his mind, he really thought I was screwing him, not the other way around. Two different mentalities.
The waiter gave his side of the story in Arabic and I gave mine in French. The policemen asked me what nationality I was; American, I said. They rubbed their chins and thought it over. The waiter added more. Then one of them spoke up. “Why don’t you take the other two slices and eat them tomorrow?” It was a reasonable solution, but the fact was that I didn’t want them and I told them that. We were at an impasse. Then it hit me that the cops were being courteous, this whole thing was ridiculous, and it would be best just to end it.
“Oh, for God sakes,” I said in English, reaching into my pocket. “Here, take your goddamn money.” I flipped some coins on the waiter’s tray and he picked up the two slices and handed them to me. “I don’t want them.” I turned on my heel and walked back to my hotel, where I sat on the edge of my bed for a long time, very upset. I don’t know why I got so enraged over this, but I did. Wouldn’t it have been nice, after paying him, to take those two slices and throw them in the street? That would’ve provided the catharsis I needed after three weeks in Morocco. But I’m glad I didn’t do anything like that. A traveler abroad is an ambassador of his country, and such a stunt would not have endeared the small crowd that had gathered to the U.S.A.
Just for the hell of it, I returned to that cafe on the eve of my departure after I got back to Casablanca, and ordered only coffee this time. The same waiter was there but I don’t think he recognized me. As a practical joke, I thought about ordering five slices of cake, but then I thought better of it. He addressed me as “monsieur” and said “merci” when I paid him, so it all ended okay.
The final indignity occurred at the Aeroport de Mohammed V. With the flight scheduled to depart soon, I sweated it out on a long, slow line, waiting to get my passport stamped, silently cursing up and down at Morocco. I made it to the gate five minutes before they were due to close it, and as the plane banked towards the Atlantic, I took one last look down at the Land of Endless Hassles.
Oh, I almost forgot. On my last full day in Casablanca, I went shopping at a government-run artisan gift store. Price tags on everything, no haggling. I saw a copper teapot, just like the one I thought I’d gotten a good deal on in Marrakesh, proud of myself for haggling the guy down to $23. This one was seven dollars. I could only shake my head at this point. Will I ever learn? But I did get the last laugh. There were rugs here too, lots of them, and I chose one that was every bit as lovely, and the same size, 3′ X 6′, though a different color and design, as the one I was tempted to buy in Fez for $170, where Miloud’s buddy told me he couldn’t possibly overcharge me because the prices were decreed by the government based on the number of knots. They even let me take it on the plane as carry-on luggage. As a matter of fact, I’m looking at it right now as I type these words. I’ve had it for 35 years, and it’s stood the test of time magnificently. It’s plush with a red background, and a large flower in the middle of red, white, blue and black, and intricate designs of the same colors along all four edges. It’s a beautiful creation. I love it.
I paid eighty bucks for it.
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Source: End the Shots