Rock the Casbah

Morocco is an ancient and fascinating country situated in the northwest corner of Africa and bordering both the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. It was a protectorate of France from 1912 until 1956 (a fact you already know if you’ve ever seen the movie Casablanca) and many of its inhabitants still speak French to this day. My husband Douglas and I spent a month travelling around Morocco in 1989. We first billeted with a local family in Rabat, the nation’s capital. I previously wrote about our time with this family and my extreme frustration that the eldest son, a whiney dullard, was doted on and preferred to his sister Zahra, who was much more clever and worthy of promotion. We stayed in Rabat for about four days and then took a train to Marrakesh.

Marrakesh is a beautiful city located in central Morocco, just west of the Atlas Mountains. Its fortified walls and most of its buildings are made of red sandstone which casts the entire city in a gorgeous shade of salmon pink, as if it were made of bubble gum which had over time dried and faded in the intense Moroccan sun. At the very centre of the city is Jemaa el-Fnaa, the largest public square in Africa, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985. The name roughly means “the assembly of trespassers” and it is still the beating heart of the city. Douglas and I stayed in a hotel on the edge of the square so we could witness its comings and goings at all hours.

Jemaa el-Fnaa is lively and loud all day and well into the night. Early in the morning various food carts, tradesmen, and entertainers enter the square and claim their spots. There are musicians, magicians, and story-tellers set up under colourful canopies, drawing people in with their artistry. Next are the many kebab, fruit, and yogurt sellers arranging their food in enticing and fragrant displays. Lastly there are practitioners of more archaic skills – snake charmers squat in front of baskets blowing shrill pipes while their serpents dance, and dentists station themselves next to tables full of human teeth along with various tools which looked better suited for torture than tooth extraction. I found the piles of blackened teeth quite off-putting, but they definitely left no doubt as to the trade of the man sitting beside them.

We visited the square our first afternoon in Marrakesh and were immediately set upon by a very eager boy. He began by introducing himself and saying he would be glad to act as our guide throughout the day. We politely declined his offer to show us around, so he then asked if perhaps one or both of us would be interested in “having” him. It took a few beats for us to understand that he was prostituting himself, and we both vigorously refused when we realized what he was offering. Undeterred, he then went on to suggest that perhaps we would prefer his younger sister. Younger?! This kid looked to be about 10 years old! How sad that this boy, and probably his whole family, was so destitute that such a transaction was even in the realm of possibility. We again told the boy no thank you and wandered off, trying to lose him in the thickening midday crowd.

We walked around for some time with the boy always lurking behind despite our best efforts to shake him off. Eventually we ended up at a table festooned with multi-coloured, handmade beanies. Douglas was interested in buying one for himself and one for my brother Michael (who still wears his to this day). He chose two from the mound and began negotiating a price with the vendor. I always found haggling off-putting, but Douglas absolutely loved it. He and the woman had just begun their lively exchange when the boy physically wedged himself between the two of them. He told Douglas that he could get him a good price and then began talking to the woman in Arabic. She looked down at him for a moment and then turned her attention back to Douglas. They were clearly enjoying the exchange, but the boy kept interrupting and stalling their negotiations. Finally the vendor had had enough. She stopped talking, turned to the boy, wrapped her hand around his face, and pushed hard. The poor boy went flying and landed on his backside with a resounding thump. I was concerned for his wellbeing and went over to help him up, but Douglas and the vendor just laughed and recommenced their bargaining as though nothing had happened. 

The outdoor market in an Arab town is called the souk, although we more commonly refer to it as a bazaar. The souks in Marrakesh are interspersed throughout the medina – the oldest part of the city where no foreigners may live. The streets in Souk Semmarine, among the largest in the city, are separated into sections housing similar wares, much like the departments at Sears or The Bay. There is a street or two of herbs and spices, then a couple which feature rugs, and so on. This allows shoppers to more easily find what they are looking for. There are also smaller souks which specialize in particular items, such as Souk Cherratine which features leatherware, and Souk Sayyaghin which is noted for its fine jewelry. The vendors in these markets are all the same no matter where you shop. They always ask where you are from, then try to entice you in by saying something like, “Ah yes, Canada. So my Canadian friend, come on in. I have a special deal just for you.” One might feel flattered if it weren’t for them saying the exact same thing to every visitor they see, simply changing the nationality to suit the tourist in question. 

One evening Douglas and I were wandering through Souk Semmarine when we got lost. This was a rare occurrence because Douglas had an extraordinarily good sense of direction, but the souk was like a labyrinth with twisting streets that all looked the same. There were no landmarks by which he could get his bearings, and the buildings were so close together that he couldn’t get even a rudimentary sense of direction by checking the position of the sun. It was beginning to get dark when he finally admitted that he had no idea how to get us out, and our guidebook had warned against staying in the souk after dark. We considered asking a vendor for assistance, but we knew they would at least delay us with a sales pitch or perhaps even demand we buy something before helping us out. Eventually we came across an unmarked building with voices coming from inside, and, figuring it was probably someone’s house, we stepped a little way in to ask for directions. We had barely passed the threshold when we realized we had inadvertently entered a mosque.

Some Islamic countries, like Turkey, allowed non-Muslims to enter their mosques provided they do so respectfully, following all the rules and performing whatever rituals are required. Morocco was not one of these countries. It was considered a transgression of the highest order for an infidel to enter their places of worship. We had read about this in our hitchhiker’s guide and therefore immediately backed out of the mosque, repeatedly saying “Sorry!” as we retreated. The men gathered therein were clearly not appeased by our apologies. They immediately started angrily shouting at us and shot to their feet. They began to give chase once they hit the street, so Douglas and I started to run. Before long the men were pitching rocks at us – not little pebbles thrown to make a point, but rather large stones hurled with the clear intention of causing bodily harm. We redoubled our speed (as best we could in sandals) and ran on until finally a saviour appeared in the form of a rug merchant who beckoned us into his shop. He hid us behind a pile of rugs and feigned ignorance when the angry mob asked if he’d seen us.

The vendor invited us into his back room for a cup of calming tea, and we gladly accepted. His English was quite good and we chatted about this and that as we waited for enough time to pass for us to safely be on our way. He kindly drew us a map of how to get out of the souk and back to Jemaa el-Fnaa, then gave us his card as we were leaving. We promised to come back the next day even though we weren’t sure that we would. Douglas and I talked about the afternoon’s events later that evening and realized that buying a rug from this man was the least we could do. At a minimum his kindness had spared us physical harm, and at most he may actually have saved our lives. We went back to his shop the next morning and bought one small and one medium sized run, the latter of which adorns the floor in my guest room.

The next day we rented a car and headed east to visit the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert. We stopped for the night in a beautiful valley in the Atlas foothills, populated largely by Berbers. Berbers are the indigenous people of North Africa. Ten thousand year old cave paintings found in the area are thought to have been created by Berber tribesmen, so they were firmly established in Morocco well before the Muslims came in the 8th Century. Douglas and I booked into a lovely hotel on the edge of the valley. Its courtyard dining room featured several long tables surrounded not by chairs, but rather by lounging couches. This allowed patrons to lie back after their meal, a welcome option we took advantage of after dinner that evening. Our meal began with locally grown green olives – tart, fruity and delicious – freshly picked sweet and juicy figs, and delicious bread still hot from the oven. The main course of tagine (a Moroccan stew served throughout the country) featured grapes bursting with flavour, and the mint used in the tea we drank after the meal was harvested just outside the window. There was a Berber wedding being held somewhere nearby, and the echoing sound of drums and human voices raised in joyous song and ululation washed over us. It was a glorious evening. 

We headed off early the next morning hoping to be in the sand dunes of the Sahara that night. Our guide book informed us that one had to drive through many miles of flat, unmarked terrain before reaching the hostel on the edge of the dunes, and suggested that a local guide should be engaged to navigate the trip. We ended up hiring Abdul, a member of the Tuareg tribe. The Tuaregs are nomadic Berbers scattered throughout the entirety of the Sahara Desert – from Morocco and Algeria in the north to Niger and Mali in the south. They are known for their distinctive indigo blue headwear, and have survived in the desert since prehistoric times. Abdul sat in the passenger seat without a map and relied entirely on his own deep familiarity with the terrain to get us to our destination. He would simply point straight ahead, right or left, and Douglas would follow his lead. There was literally nothing out the window one could use to orient oneself, and yet in less than two hours Abdul had led us to a small building sitting on the edge of the largest sand dunes I have ever seen. They stretched out as far as the eye could see, and many of them were taller than three story buildings. 

The hostel itself was very sparse inside, but we hadn’t expected much. It was also brutally hot, so we spent the rest of that day out on the dunes. We were alarmed to see that there were no beds in the building, but the owner set our minds at ease when he showed us the mattresses on the roof. He explained that most visitors liked sleeping outside because it was cooler, and also so that they could take in the vast expanse of the night sky unsullied by light pollution. Late that evening Douglas and I snuggled under a thick blanket (nights are surprisingly cold in the desert) and admired the starlit canopy overhead. The ever moving sand on the dunes provided a hissing white noise which before long ushered us into a deep sleep. Sometime later that night the wind picked up and we were abruptly awoken by a raging sand storm. All we could do was bury our heads under the covers and wait it out. For hours sand pelted the building and our blanket as we cowered beneath, until finally, just before dawn, the wind calmed. We emerged to see that the dunes had all markedly changed shape, and stayed up to watch the expanding sun rise over this magical, ever-shifting landscape.

We said our goodbyes to the hostel’s staff once the sun had fully risen, and Douglas once again blindly followed Abdul’s directions. Before long he brought us to a Tuareg tent. The family inside greeted us warmly, and the mother offered us a meagre breakfast and some tea. I hesitated to take it as I’d noticed the water she was using had not been fully boiled, but I couldn’t see any way to refuse without being rude. These people had practically nothing and yet they were willing to share with two complete strangers. I drank very little of the tea, but I would soon learn that a few sips were more than enough to cause massive damage. My intestines began to revolt as we reached the edge of the town where we were spending the night, and I was experiencing explosive and extremely painful diarrhea by the time we got into our hotel room. Wave upon wave washed over me, and before long there was blood in the toilet bowl and I was too weak to stand. Douglas looked up the symptoms of dysentery in our guidebook and determined he needed to get to a pharmacy immediately to buy me some antibiotics. Dysentery is nothing to be sneezed at and is still responsible for an estimated 1.1 million deaths per year, almost exclusively in the developing world.

I lay exhausted on the bed after Douglas left, trying my best to sleep or at least ignore the growing urge to defecate because I knew how much it was going to hurt if I gave in. Suddenly there was a loud knock on the door and someone began rattling the doorknob. I startled from my shallow slumber and called out, “Ma marie ce n’est pas ici. J’ai mal. J’ai tres mal.” I figured it was housekeeping trying to bring in fresh towels or something like that, and was baffled when the noise in the hall increased as someone began slamming themselves bodily into the door in an attempt to smash it open. This went on for some time, but luckily the door held and eventually whoever was on the other side gave up. It wasn’t until days later when I was almost fully recovered from my illness that I realized with horror that the person who had tried to break down the door almost certainly meant me harm. Perhaps they had seen Douglas leave and knew I was alone and vulnerable. This was a truly terrible realization, but I couldn’t imagine any other scenario that made sense. 

Douglas was gone for a couple of hours because he stopped for dinner after visiting the pharmacy. I was in such a diminished state that I didn’t even mention the incident at the door when he returned, and also I was just glad that he’d gotten the medication I so desperately needed. Douglas was absolutely terrible at languages – he couldn’t remember foreign words to save his life and his accent was atrocious even when I prompted him. With this in mind I’ve always wondered exactly how he conveyed what he needed to the pharmacist. I assume it must have consisted of a hilarious pantomime of cramping and pooping and then looking in the toilet with alarm. In the end it doesn’t matter how he made the druggist understand because the pills he procured as a result probably saved my life. Still, I wish I could have been there to see his performance. 

I find after all this writing that I’ve still only covered about half of my most noteworthy experiences in Morocco, so I shall continue the tale next week.

2 thoughts on “Rock the Casbah

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