Saturday, December 11, 2010
Last night, around midnight: we are awakened in our compartment. “Allez, allez! Casa! Casa! Allez!” Apparently the train from Tangier to Marrakech was not direct and we had to change in Casablanca. The car is pitch dark and we are the only ones on it, and the train itself is no longer in the station but is being pulled out into the yard. We have to get off. I try to find my boots, but one is missing – only in Morocco will they take one boot! After much swearing and frustration and groping around in the dark I locate the missing boot in another compartment, and I am religiously grateful. They put us on a train but I am uncertain, so we set off, knife in hand, to the station, just to be sure. We pass a group of hobos muttering softly in Arabic, and in the distance sullen groups of wildish dogs circle. When we get to the lights of the station, the train we’d been on briefly pulls up behind us, having been OK all along. Trust is hard when you’re paranoid. We get on and fall asleep again.
But that’s all done. Now, we are on the train to Marrakech. I am taken by the beauty of the landscape – the end of a 14-hour train ride, past fields, forests of pointed pine, orchards in ordered rows, hills, mountains. We wake up just outside Marrakech to a cloud-flecked sky, pink light and pink gravel, a vast expanse of scrubbed land, barbed-wire bushes, shrubs like clumps of green hair, sheep, cattle, low-slung buildings that could be villages or farms: The Morocco I came to see. Mountains off in the distance that arrive quickly, not to big after all so closer than I thought, we go right through them and beyond. Fenced-off burial grounds, small buildings with roofs like white breasts that signify a saint’s tomb. Trees in rows and telegraph lines, all sharp against the horizon. Everything is the color of clay. People in bright clothing, purple, orange, blue… Complex irrigation systems, concrete tubes exposed to the air girding fields, where people cool their feet in them and wave as the train passes.
We are lying in our beds at the Hotel al Atlal, room #7, where we came this morning, quite early. We were taken on by a young hustler who called himself “Moulay” who led us from the station to a less-than-satisfactory hotel (which we declined), but down the street we found this place: a bright yellow atrium with a fountain and plants, pretty plaster grillwork and patterned tile everywhere you looked. An old woman and her very attractive daughter. The room is 40 dh per night which boils down to about $5.00 per person. 35 for room, 5 for shower. So many different patterns of tile, all harmonious. On our wall, a blue, yellow and white starburst (only blue and yellow on one of the walls). A big bed, a small bed, chairs, a table, a sink and a toilet. Colored glass on the windows and over the door. Two windows, a corner room on a small street below, wide enough only for motorcycles, carts and horses. People outside shouting their wares. Mark says he wants to “knock out a story” here.
I wake up staring at the ceiling, a grilled pattern of interweaving lines with a deep ultramarine border, the same color that rims the tiles and the door and the window. I’d been dreaming about this place: our guide was the son of the woman here, they are fighting. The girl has a zither, which I tell her I “have played for years.” I throw away a dented coke bottle (Mark objects to this), and the woman yells at me: “now you know everything about our family!” I play a note or two. The girl, wearing only a sheer burnoose, places her cheek delicately on my knee…
Our new friend Moulay was giving us the rap about the rich and the poor, the rich and poor in spirit, etc., and how Jews were OK with him. Just to mess with him, Mark goes off on a tirade about how much he hates the Jews, ending by looking Moulay squarely in the face and saying “you thought I was a Jew, didn’t you?” The boy was flustered, but then he started telling us how the Jews had cornered all the gold and silver currency in Morocco; they will be what ever they think you want them to be. Then Mark asked him why he led people around, was it really out of “friendship”? The kid was even more flustered. “No, no,” he smiled, explaining how we were different, we were friends, though most times it was all for the money, etc. He told me he speaks German, English, Spanish, French, and Arabic. And some Chinese.
The buildings in Marrakech are all orange clay with bright blue shutters. The streets are packed with vehicles: cars, busses, bikes, motorbikes, taxis, trucks, horses and carts, burros, people pulling carts. A meat market smelling of shit and spice, rotting meat and fresh fruit, all under a huge bamboo-shade roof. Exciting. A woman in a veil who draped beaded necklaces on our wrists: “presents, presents for English… you have small money? Five dirham? I have change, see? I didn’t give her any; my change was too small. Mark never got his change back. And now we’re gonna get a tour from Moulay, “only six dirham for my friends…” Maybe we should talk gibberish from now on when people hassle us.
Some people bring cameras, tape players, media screens to help them assimilate new data or retreat from same. Me, I lug around this big notebook, page after page of green graph paper, Scribbling down impressions, logging a day book. Helping me live in this strange place and save it all for later.
We met our boy at 1 pm, and he took us deep into the medina, stopping in shops he knew, part of their deal. Some nice curved daggers but I didn’t want to get into the haggling thing. But then at a “Berber factory” (a large sort of warehouse) I somehow leapt into interest to get something for Cindy, and paid 80dh for a 40dh djellaba made of some synthetic pink stuff. The guy originally said it was 160 dh. I said I had 50, and he said not to joke, please, it’s Ramadan. Moulay remarked that maybe he actually would want to fight! But I understood the shopkeeper’s threat to be an attempt to unnerve me: “no joke please.” I said, all I have is 50 (about $12.00, actually). “Please – your highest serious price.” At this point, kind of digging the game, I offered 80. He laughed a sort of menacing you-don’t-know-how-foolish-you-are-to-have-insulted-me laugh, and I said, OK, I won’t waste your time, I don’t want to buy, let’s go, and I turned to leave. He followed me out saying he’d sell it for 80 dh. So I bought it. I had to, at that point. I realized I had been completely outplayed. I should have pulled the walkout at 50.
But there have been some fights – Ramadan makes tempers flare. Earlier in a café a man had been trying to sell clothes to the tourists and the waiter tossed him out. He came back yelling and the waiter grabbed his hair and walloped him in the back of his head. When he returned again he had blood all over his face, still screaming, and the waiter brandished some bottles at him. In the café there were a bunch of grotesque German tourists, grinning and gawking like pink ostriches, clicking away with their cameras at this display of insane Arab machismo. Mark said: in a fight, always try to grab the ears and pound the head into a surface – go for unconsciousness because you never know what they might be carrying… We struck up a conversation at that point with Moulay #2, an older Moulay. He’s a head and a devout Muslim. He’s a head in a country of heads, where every surface is covered in tiles with crazy patterns that play games with foreground and background, and he says he can smoke four grams of hash in one night. We talked about Bob Marley, who I’ve heard people here call “the prophet” Bob Marley. Moulay was disgusted that Marley “showed himself” by smoking pot publicly, on stage, and that no one should call him “prophet” in any case. Moulay said when you go on hadj, you get a second name, Moulay Hadj, Hadj Mohammed. He said he was a tailor. I told him I would like to be a tailor of words.
Moulay #2 said he could take us to much better stores in the market so back we went. The shaded labyrinth of shop stalls in Marrakech is vast, like a marketplace for the universe. You can buy instruments made of tortoise shells, or loaves of spongy bread from women in veils sitting behind brass scales. A man held a diseased falcon by one leg, like a chicken: “you want to buy?” Everything for sale. People grab you by the arm as you pass, “come in to look, my friend…” An auction, all men sitting around or carrying rugs or djellabas for perusal and purchase. Little boys asleep with their heads on stools. A little boy working the bellows of a blacksmith, very hot, but he’ll be strong. Huge brass doors to a fancy rug shop. A boy sharpening a blade on a huge wheel, turning it with one leg. Women balancing loads on their heads. A man carving inlaid tables, peaceful, calm, methodical, not slipping up once. Shops of brass and copper – urns pots and kettles. Shops of silver catching the light … orange gold and silver … each word both color and object at the same time. Always looking out for some motive or another. Some old American hippies, lost in the market, smoking and hustling tourists for small change. The huge fields of vats in those postcards are tanneries, not inside the town because of the smell. But we saw dyers, old men with glazed eyes and huge calloused hands, colored and gnarled with muscle from wringing fabric. Fabric hung on lines over the alley – you walk through color. A man with crude, self-inflicted tattoos. A mother begging with her baby, imploring. A hunched-over beggar singing with his palm up and outstretched … “black face, white heart” Moulay remarked.
We went to a clothing shop and I bought a “gandala” from his friend Mustapha for 62 dh: “Moroccans cannot buy it for this price, my friend.” But it’s nice, quality workmanship, all cotton, embroidered. Everybody shakes hands.
We stopped at a pipe-maker Moulay knew and Mark bought a very cool pipe with free rings lathed around the stem held in by the bowl. The inside of the bowl was camel bone, though Mark wondered if it was actually dog bone. In South America they sell “tiger’s tooth” stuff that’s actually dog teeth. The pipe-maker showed us this fantastic device he’d made, a massive black egg-shaped bowl and a set of pipes that could be twisted around into different shapes and configurations. “Your idea?” Mark asked. “The smoke’s idea,” the man answered. Moulay could not stay in the room while we tried out the pipe due to the temptation: “I cannot make Ramadan, have small heart, not big heart.” They all said Mark looked like Ali Baba.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Pastries like perfume; people who live in mazes. Went to the American Legation in Tangier, a fancy old building in the Medina, with Bela and Bob. Morocco was the first country to officially recognize the United States in 1777. The official embassy is in Rabat, and now only Robert Shea, an old state-department hand, lives on here, alone – a smiling man who looks like he’s gritting his teeth, a giant bald American white father, who interrupts dinners for announcements and patronizing language lessons. Then we went to Mme Porte’s, a fancy tea-parlor with glutinous cakes and a couple of very forward Moroccan women staring at me. A woman who looked like a transvestite (and maybe was) with gigantic glasses on a neck-chain, in flamboyant red pants, carrying a spaghetti-haired dog; another woman , hunched over, in a bright pink dress, who Bela said resembled a wild bird. Bela has beautiful knees.
Chris wondered if Blaine Blaine was a liar who’d convinced himself. “Every man,” she intoned, “will look at this orange and see it differently…”
When my sister fell out of her crib, when she was 2, and broke her collar-bone, did that make her lose her sense of adventure, make her more cautious?
Idea for a story: action, description, dialogue, plot, characterization are all separated into different sections, to be assembled by the reader. Mark says I write “purple prose.”
The men here grab you by the arm, pseudo-affectionately but aggressively, with a parasitical “hello, friend.” For the women, it’s threatening. Mark says the American school is laid out like a military compound, an imposing structure on the top of a hill. Chris is painting intimate collages of doorways, sexy, dark and mysterious. A pause in a conversation and we hear an eerie piping outside. In the distance, fires at night on the other hills, fires of burning garbage.
Last night, Sara was sitting on a sink when it broke off. Fountains of water shot off into the bathroom, flooding the halls. And earlier in the week, Carol fell asleep with a lit cigarette and her mattress caught fire. She woke up in a pyre, yelling for help and they threw the thing out the window. She was alternating between screaming “oh gawd” and how she almost died, and taking pictures and laughing. Sara called the fire department, who asked her “don’t you have water there?” and “what do you want us to do about it?” Outside the smoldering mattress, bats swooping like boomerangs.
Blaine locked me in his room, picking at his body and telling me about his new novel. He’s written an entire novel! It’s called Blueboy, the Tragical History of Cloud Range. You can get your way a lot by being either rich or crazy.
Carol is working on a sacred, secret painting. She says she’s “gonna do Ramadan, except for maybe a little wine.” She says “slime” instead of “salaam.” She says, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do for my next pictchah.” Chris is offended, saying that artists should work on ideas, series, follow a theme to its exhaustion, improvising and experimenting. Her new sketches of doorways are changing, bigger in the frame and blacker. Soon they will fill the canvas. Her old boyfriend keeps calling long distance, there are tears, though she insists she is in a good mood and snaps at people when they say she’s spacey or sad. She’s irritable.
Yesterday I got bit by a dog on the way to Paul’s – just a nip, no blood. But weird. Clara found a complete, shiny black snakeskin. Staying up all night on the first night of Ramadan, Mark, Chris and I saw Venus rising in the east. “If I had a camel I’d ride towards it,” Mark says.
The other night Mark and I went downtown at 2:30 looking for adventure, getting tired of Carol’s friends making a fool of her and her enjoying their attention. We went to a greasy place and ate greasy food. We met two British chicks; one was real tough and tried to be intimidating, sneering, but they turned out to be friendly. Her friend was incredibly attractive. They kept saying stuff like “heavy” and “whole heap” (a West Indian expression, they assured me when I asked), and that they’d come to Tangier “for the men.” The sneering girl was with a Moroccan dude they kept calling “John Travolta.” On the way back, the king’s flags were crisply cracking in the wind. “Great audio.”
Someone says Moroccans cannot leave the country. How can this be possible? They also say the same was true in Iran under the Shah. But students were able to go to college outside Iran! The Shah’s secret police used to photograph all the anti-Shah rallies in Europe and the USA, then harass the student’s families back home. So the protesters started wearing bags on their heads.
All the antennas on the roofs of the city point in the same direction.
Summer 1980, elections back home. Tonight, I looked at the newspapers and tried to figure out politics, tried to have an opinion of some sort, but I couldn’t form one. Reagan calls his wife “mommy,” and says “I’m not smart enough to lie.” Carter, Reagan. I literally could not choose, nor could I tell whom the others were choosing or who the papers were choosing. And how incredibly important it is at this time to be able to tell, to be able to choose. Hands are tied. I would love to be able to put it all on the back burner, ignore it all, run away to Seattle and hide in Cindy’s skirts. But “things” cannot be ignored, can they? Yet I ignore them, don’t care to get involved in politics, and I know that someday, somehow, inevitably, I’ll be involved anyway.
Jerry is selling all his belongings down to his shoestrings to make his way in this town, boiling water. He read one of his “in the head” manuscripts today, full of insanely fine-rendered details, dead bees, sounds, dreams, the process of waking up in minute imagery. He is both photographic and somehow blank in his transcriptions of the mundane, but, as Paul Bowles says, “it all means something to the writer…” Jerry’s story starts with a bush that has flowers dangling from it in the shape of stars. He said that after putting that delirious plant in at the beginning he felt that he could take the story anywhere, like waking up in a strange place. Clara’s story had an image of a boy dangling a toy doll’s leg on a string into an open manhole, laughing like a hyena – she said she didn’t make it up but saw it in Tangier. She told me she once worked as a secretary in an office that was under a primal scream therapy center.
Nothing but unfinished books in my library. I said I couldn’t go near my one finished story, and Bowles asked, “is it like decaying corpse and you need to wait till the stench passes to go near it?” As a “teacher” here, he limits himself to the fine-tuning, correcting grammar and making subtle word-choice suggestions. The polish and the spit. Blaine thinks this is bullshit, and did I really think I was getting my money’s worth? He got worked up, saying how Dostoevsky had terrible grammar but was possessed by fury and his artistic passion dictated no returning to correct and fix, only new progress at a rapid pace. That’s how Blaine sees himself, an ARTIST. “I hate to write,” he claims, but that’s all he does, saying he can’t help himself.
Paul told us that, as a child, he used to study an old atlas that was so big he could lie on parts of it. He’d make his own maps on grid paper, creating the flora and fauna and local legends and maybe even the language. Blaine Blaine said, in one of his moments of stunning insight, that Paul Bowles created North Africa and Morocco the way J.R.R. Tolkein created Middle Earth.
Mark grew into his father’s library – he died when Mark was nine (“a skeleton on the couch”), and all that was left were the books, his only windows into his dad’s character. He remembers his dad telling him, “people tell lies to satisfy a need, and eventually they wind up believing them…” Mark says he has an ancestor who fought in the Civil War – Charles Reinfed – who went from private to captain, survived many of the major battles, was wounded four times, and eventually died from a broken neck while house painting.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Mark told me how weird it felt to stab somebody. I guess he did, once. I asked him, was it a feeling that one could grow to like? There’s an older black woman here named Virgil who is always talking about world politics; Mark asked her how old people felt about death. What a question.
Blue nets. Spirals. The whispering world. Burial gowns.
Today, I tried Jerry’s technique for self-hypnosis: you notice three visual images, three auditory images, and three sensual perceptions. Then three again, and again if necessary, then two, then one. I almost fell asleep, but it did open up a hypnagogic state. I closed my eyes, though. Next time I’ll leave them open.
The Countess (well, Blaine Blaine calls her “the Duchess”) is writing what she won’t call an autobiography so she calls it a “memoir,” concerning her life on the screen, and "how the camera really does rob something of your soul, my dear."
Someone asked the Russian woman Béla, “are you sure you’re not a Russian spy?” her answer: “Why should I be sure?”
Mark has been having a lot of pretty bad luck. He loses things, the banks are not open the same hours every day, his manuscript disappears. But it all comes out OK. The drama of a good story, or a story of any kind, really.
Jerry heard Bob B. talking about a house he lived in for a while, with six bathrooms, each a different color. He’d use a different bathroom every day. Bob lies out in the sun all the time and he has a butterfly tattoo on his upper thigh.
Another honking procession. It gets tiresome. Someone on the street today called Clara “you beautiful fish.”
Mark says he saw a bullfight once where midget toreadors fought little baby bulls. It’s hot. During the day, the secret is to stay inside and not move at all. Got a letter from Cindy. Par Avion.
Banter with Chris: “your skin is so soft.”
“It used to be like a reptile’s but I had it removed.”
“Didn’t you molt, like a snake?”
“Yes, actually. It’s at home on a coat hook.”
“A relic. I hope you don’t have to put it back on again when you go back.”
Clara said she wrote a story about a man who wakes up and it’s totally dark and how he rummages around. I imagined him discovering another animal present, a not entirely hospitable one. She felt bad about her stories. I told her, maybe her heart knew they were finished before her mind did; one must always dare to be un-good. She let me read her story about the man in the dark. It was logically thought-out, from despair, to dream, to building: houses, statues, cities, out of the clay that is the only tangible thing in his environment. Making boxes, numbering and labeling the darkness, etc. She also showed me a strange episodic vision she wrote about an aimless woman named Spandex. Spandex goes for a drive. Spandex has a moral dilemma. A relationship with a vapid lover known only as Him. Hilarious. I’m a little jealous. I am not writing much at all, except in this journal.
Sentences. Each word a word from different paragraphs, four paragraphs of alternating words systematically jumbled, like a code. Language is a code, art is a code. One of Paul’s assignments: write a story for someone else to finish. I want to write a story for Paul to finish, but no one else wants to.
Surrender. That’s what Islam means. I’m energetic, but I don’t want to move. We do nothing but write and eat. A town where everything has hash in it.
Today is King Hassan II’s birthday, many, many floats displaying wonderful modern technology, farming equipment. The people here farm mostly by hand, furrowing with an axe, cutting wheat with scythes, threshing by air, the burros carrying the heaviest loads. I have no interest in such a parade; the bread here is delicious enough already.
Marty had asked Chris: “will you be an artist on our float in the King’s Birthday Parade?”
Chris asked, “why don’t you do it, Marty?”
“Oh, I’m not an artist.”
“Well, I’m not a parader,” she answered.
She paints, I write, no one else is here. A moment of solitude in which to rediscover my soul. Soul in print. I have just returned from tea with Claude Thomas, a lovely French lady who is Bowles’s French translator. She lives in a fantastic place out of some Rilkean Duino fantasy, a big mansion on a hill above Tangiers (a white-tiled roof with chimneys that resemble tiny houses). The grounds of the estate are planted with eucalyptus and palm trees, with an extensive terraced garden with fountains – one of which was decorated with mosaics that were crumbling and buckling. I was awed by the luxury. She only lives there one month out of the year. Paul looked at home there, or perhaps wished it was. Me, too. We had tea in a gazebo perched on the edge of a high cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, looking down to the sea splashing the rocks and fishermen casting their nets, so high up that birds were flying beneath us. The teahouse was at the end of an arbor/arcade that connected it to the main house. There were cushions and patterned tiles and an overall restfulness I have found no where else in this city.
We had tea and ate cucumber sandwiches and apricot, strawberry and orange preserves – made from fruits grown on the estate by a woman named Fatima, who also served us. We were joined by a strange young man named David, an American who had been raised in Tangier. Apparently, he is heavily drugged, to prevent manic fits or something, but he was nonetheless capable of lucid conversation. In the teahouse with the breezes, David told us how some Moroccans had tried to convert him on the street (“evil voices”) and how they told him that after death Muslims went through the door to heaven, while evil people – including Christians – go through the door to hell. He told them that he would choose hell. I told Claude that her house would be a perfect place to see the world only through magazines. She told me about a children’s story called L’enfant ____, in which a young boy living only in the Metró imagines the upper world through the names of the subway stops. Paul described an Easter Mass in Chichicastenango where they have sacrifices burning under each step to the church, and a statue of Jesus that is submerged in water for three days. When it rises out of the water, they set off fireworks inside the church. David told about a woman who had been walking up the hillside to these lush Tangerine estates, who was assaulted by two men in a red car who tried to kidnap her. They were somewhat notorious, having done the same thing – successfully – the previous week.
The camera parts click together like carbines. Some of the guys with the program have cameras that are so sophisticated it makes me nervous. Tiny things, fit in the palm of your hand, like CIA-issue cameras. The register of paranoia. Mosques like gun towers. It’s OK to be scared. It’s OK not to not be scared. Or it’s OK to be scared of being scared. Spotlight on the Americans! Da-dadada! A flash from a hash-high this afternoon: What if the Moroccans do think we’re spies? Descending, fanning out to gather oblique information. Picking up their trash, putting it in our pockets.
A road so bad Paul described it as “driving on a river bed.”
Juan said the almond pastries the other night were like “eating perfume.”
Today we drove off to find a piece of the true cross, the Roman ruins at Lixus, the oldest in Morocco, founded 3000 years ago by the Phoenicians, very far out on the Atlantic for them. Phoenician rock-building involved careful placement of squared rock, but the Romans used mortar and moved much quicker, setting up little Romes all over the empire like Ramada Inns, making each strange place look the same. On the way there we saw red clay cliffs and goats reaching up to chew lichen and bark off helpless trees. The trees are stripped to their midsection and will probably die. Ann said that down south, she’d seen goats climb on each other’s backs to reach the bark. Lixus is on the top of a hill looking out over Larache and many salt-fields that were once a harbor for triremes and such. One of the photographers announced he was going to Azila, a quaint Moroccan seaside resort, because “these rocks are boring.” I agreed with him, adding “if you have no imagination.” Climbing up, we passed a mosaic of Neptune, with crustacean legs, claws and feelers instead of a beard around his well-modeled face. There was a tiny amphitheatre built for gladiator and lion fights, and I thought, how provincial – to lose one’s life for such a small, hick audience. Better to die in Rome, in the Coliseum. We found a room with a great arch that was cool inside, like the nave of a church. In the forum, sad pillars stuck out of the walls and were evocative and moved me to a transcendent plane of being – hahaha, Romans. I’m here, you’re not. We saw the stables where they kept the lions. Sara found something that she believes to be a human bone. A gladiator bone. A lion bone. I found a small bone that resembled a miniature woman’s torso, very mystical, to go with the collection of smooth stones and other stuff I’ve picked up. A subtle menthol purple. Walls of cactus that looked like clusters of prickly Mickey Mouse ears. On the way back, shops selling precious stones, roadside stands, deserted beaches. Blue and magenta flowers. The surprise of a twisted stump amid a forest of trees and leaves. Animal dots on the vast hillsides. A crazy place. Even the electricity is different.
Sunset tonight: running to see it, as excited as I was to feed the ducks 16 years ago when I was seven and knocked out my front tooth. Orange paint strokes, so rich in color, turning brown at the edges; behind me, pinks and blues and the chanting in the distance. Today there were clouds, the first day I’ve seen clouds at all, though earlier, at the ruins, the sky was a sort of flowering gaseous layer. Bowles says that when Ramadan falls in summer, without water during the day, people hallucinate, and towards the end of the month tempers flare.
Yesterday, in Paul Bowles’ dark apartment with Clara and Jerry, canaries twittering away, and Mohammad Mrabet arrived after a while. Leprechaunish, intimidating, he takes over a room. First, Mrabet said that he hated America, then he said he loved it (money was there). Paul, aside, advised me not to expect consistency. Henry Miller had just died, and Mrabet was sighing. He had never met the man, but they had corresponded. Mrabet said that sometimes, it was better not to meet one’s heroes, saying something like “you come to the land of mint and caught a cold” (mint is supposed to cure colds). Mrabet told me that if I want to learn how to tell stories, I should learn the language and live with an Arab family for several months – out in the country – and have them invite everyone they knew to come and visit and tell all their stories, to see how it’s done. He told me “I could go to America and make more money than you,” and he’s probably right. We talked about critics and reviews. Paul quoted a southern newspaper’s review of Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar when it came out, as follows: “this is the worst book ever written by anyone, anywhere, on any subject.” Chuckling, he added: “a portable review, eh?” Paul is such a wonderful, twinkling man. Mrabet says about Paul: “when the lions die, only the dogs remain.” He is the last of a certain breed of writer.
Paul has a small Walkman tape-player, with recordings of Stewart Dempster blowing a trombone in the Great Abbey of Clement VI, a room with a 14-second echo, and recordings of Conlon Nancarrow’s nutty compositions for player-piano (Mrabet cannot stand this music). Both he and Mrabet have these dazzling wristwatches, with a rotating pattern on one side and a clear glass so you can see the mechanism working on the other.
Telling stories is something both Paul and Mrabet do, mostly…intertwining truth and fiction so you can’t tell them apart, in a cord. Tiles of a mosaic – lies that add up to a truth. Paul says that the Koran prohibits art, pictures, as lies, and certainly “anything that casts a shadow” (a graven image, statuary) as an evil worse than lies.
Bowles described how the Kuwaitis frustrated the Moroccan real-estate salesmen, because they always paid the asking-price without haggling. So the next time, the Moroccans would ask for more, and the Kuwaitis would pay it. It drove the Moroccans crazy, because they had no idea what the limit was.
I described my story to Clara as “having an absent plot.”
In Jerry’s story, pink fades to violet, a relationship dies, an alchemical transition. Yesterday I was convinced he was listening outside the door, so today I told him exactly what I’d said to Mark about his stories, how they were beautifully written but ultimately dissatisfying, due to lack of events. But well done. I hope his feelings were not hurt.
Big grasshoppers here. Are there locusts? Bowles talked about how centipedes have a poison in their claws which they dig into your skin. The effect of the poison has been described as “like raining inside your body…” One can use a pumice-like “cobra stone” to remove the poison by rubbing the spot, but these are expensive objects and hard to come by. Bowles described apothecaries here that sell magical objects, feathers, bones, ostrich eggs, dead birds, powders and herbs, everything one needs to cast a spell or to buy a curse. There are little snail-like seeds one grinds up to mix with kif that will “drive you crazy.” Datura, another wholesome magical herb that grows in abundance here, features a white flower that droops down, and apparently grows inside the American School compound. One mustn’t sleep next to the flower; you will sleep forever. The land of the Lotus-Eaters. Moroccans like to give a potion of datura as a practical joke, as it basically paralyzes you with hallucinations and a gaping-mouth for 12 hours. Another Moroccan joke, one that Paul’s chauffeur likes to pull: you take a palmetto leaf and cover it in spittle, then stick the thing into a scorpion’s bean-shaped hole, until it grabs on and you slowly remove it. Then, you snip off its stinger, so it’s harmless (though you have to be quick). His chauffeur used to walk into cafés with one in his hand and freak out his friends when he shook hands with them. Scorpions here are light brown, cream and coffee colored.
Eric Satie had 50 umbrellas in his apartment when he died, and he slept in a hammock over a hot-water bottle. Paul has a pyramid stack of old leather valises piled by the door to his apartment, with exotic travel stickers on them: ready to go.
The man who made faces: me. Camas said I had a funny face. The kids in the village laughed at my face. Mrabet told me yesterday, “your face funny.” He said I looked like Jerry Lewis. Then he said he was tired of working. I said, “me too,” and he laughed, sighing and shaking his head, saying that one of his days beat my month, how my life so far had been “school and home and school and home, home school school home home school school school home home school,” and so on. “Like Gertrude Stein,” Paul said, tapping his cigarette down, bemused. Mrabet told me he had been thrown out on the street at age 10, “to raise a man, throw him into the thorn-bushes.” He had to live on the street, fight off would-be molesters with a knife, even killed men (with gun and knife), “and now [laughing] I take people apart – with hands.” He described motorcycle accidents as heroic and traction in the hospital as glorious, how once when someone called him maricon he rammed into the other bike and broke the driver’s leg. He has no stomach, as most of it was removed – a duodenal ulcer that Bowles described in glowing detail (the doctors showed it to him after the operation, in a jar): “a black volcano, exactly the shape of a volcano, growing out of his stomach.” Mrabet proudly displays his scars. He’s been cut up, but he’s still alive, in excellent shape; vitality, art, stories pour out of his being. Claude Thomas said he often trance-dances at her parties. His drawings are as hypnotic and rippling as Sue’s henna hands, marvelous snowflakes of line and orange skin. I have not lived like Mrabet. I’m like a hothouse flower.
Last night, a student named Ralph P., a vaguely suspicious character with access to a lot of stuff, pounded on Bowles’s door at 1 am, swearing and yelling “Paul!” He was drunk and it raised quite a scandal in the apartment building, but Paul slept through the whole thing. Ralph even tore off the doorknob. “Quite a scandal…” Paul said. “Never, in thirty years here…”
Diary. Journal. What a bizarre crime it is for me to give myself over to this object, to store my memories in this thing…well, I’ll still have the memories. But what if I lose them by writing them down? A theatre of objects, objects speaking, objects deserting themselves. In any theatre, one deserts one’s self. Objects becoming vessels, human beings as vessels, objects as language, like words, connecting us like umbilical to what Octavio Paz calls the “abdominal ruminant belly.” All objects you lose in life end up on the dark side of the moon. In life, everything leaves scars. Sacred trees are scarred by winters, by goats chewing their bark, by lover’s knives, are severed, dismembered, and turned into desks, pencils, paper. Everything continues, funnels backwards. Wood decays in phosphorescence, or is burned into charcoal. In Azila, the city of white, we saw a man covered in soot selling buckets of charcoal. In Azila, by the sea, city of sunlight and merriment, we saw children and adults swimming near boulders over which ran streams of blood from a slaughterhouse, and streams of sewage from the happy village. Everything has its cost. This is a country of birth defects, blindness, bum legs, old women with 90º bent backs – hunched backs filled with mystery, holy cities shrouded in every flea-ridden camel’s hump.
Chris K.’s friend back home, who fantasizes about suffocating little babies: “don’t leave me alone with them.” Someone called Megan R. a “mutton face.” Women in veils, kohl-eyed. “They’re really laughing at you,” Chris said.
Everything is a sexual overture in this country. You cannot get past it. Driss. Even Said, the sad young boy who spoke such perfect English – and who, with three other boys, tried to abduct three girls here, you know, get them on a back road, fuck the American women. Sexual frustration here is awesome, tangible, you can feel it in the streets, in the hostile glances from people, and you think, yeah, America’s like this, sort of, but people here do smile back at you now and then. This place drives me crazy. I can’t figure it out. Do I romanticize the beauty and the ugliness? Are the elements of beauty here merely vestiges of a past which is being trampled by Coca-Cola? Yesterday, in the dust-rain of Azila, Keith was asked: “aren’t you representatives of Coca-Cola?” And later, I was accosted by an Arab, who asked “who do you think you are, Coca-Cola? To come to a country and not speak the language?” Coke is poison in lovely green bottles.
A big jet flies overhead. On the back of the 100 dirham note there’s a picture of an oil refinery. The back of the 50 (or is it the 5?) is a modern dam. The king’s birthday parade had floats with farm equipment, airplanes, giant telephone handles, boats, technology, plaster-board mock-ups on chintzy truck beds. I passed the floats on my way home from Paul’s. I was not interested.
The next morning I woke up at dawn, mosquitoes were killing me. In a haze I walked to the Medina. All along the streets were bits of confetti and 3” purple hearts made of crepe paper which men were sweeping up. I sent an envelope full of them to Cindy and I wrote to her about Morocco and how odd I felt (Juan described it as not knowing whether to laugh or to cry, to be exhilarated or defeated), how Morocco is a dance between fascination and revulsion, between beauty and fear, between the visionary and the filthy: “a land of magic where the people eat only dirt and live to be hundreds of years old. To speak the language of soil, the grammar of debris, to cut open a man and find only wheat in his veins and a raw cucumber for a heart…” What nonsense I’ve been spewing. Does being in a place at once exotic and disgusting prompt romantic spoutings? Morocco’s not at all what I expected it to be. At any rate, I’m drunk on words, playing with toy-soldier parades of them, considering their meanings as secondary and the pleasure as primary, infantile, and fun.
Hanging tassels. Shops filled with cheaply-made crap. A butcher shop with dozens and dozens of chickens, plucked, hung upside down or draped over the counter, covered in flies, waiting to be eaten by men, a numbing repetition of eyes and beaks. The alleys beckoned, I found even the water seductive. Out of a dream I saw a woman in a purple skirt, a girl in bright orange slippers skipping in the circle before the Kasbah gate. A motorcycle snuck up behind me, soundless, terrifying. Down the labyrinths I met only cats, an occasional passer-by, a woman throwing garbage from her doorway. Mosques in the early light, a blue door at the alley’s end. On the steps of the fort by the harbor, an old woman muttered and fingered some beads. In broad hats, purple, red and aqua shirts and red & white striped skirts, women with heavy loads of mint argued in the marketplace. All daily life is ritual. I suppose that is true everywhere, but it weighs more here. Mark wonders why so many people have eye problems here. Chris is obsessed with leg defects. I turned a corner and there was a burro, braying pathetically, its front feet tied tightly together but otherwise untethered. Paul says the only thing Moroccans treat worse than their women are their donkeys.
Ann and I work up a ridiculous routine about an imaginary euphemism for going to the bathroom: going to the pastry shop. “Oh, do I need a pastry now!” she says, laughing herself silly.
Friday, August 7, 2009
Jerry’s friend Azziz, talking about magic in Morocco: “In Europe, not so much, but here, it exists.” Paul Bowles wrote in a story about spells here “burrowing” into the night. But I think that, if magic exists here, it is dying. Perhaps I am on a magic quest – I want to go to those places on earth where magic is possible. Geneva, New York was one of those, in retrospect – a decaying ghost town on the fringe of the “burnt-over district,” near where Joseph Smith got his visions and where Freemasons killed ex-members who revealed some secrets in Canadaigua in the 1840’s. A corrupted spirituality, not unlike Tangiers, actually.
Clara and I went to see “Reggae Sunsplash” at Ciné le Paris; sat in the balcony, packed tight as sardines – almost all the patrons were male. The volume was too shallow, and we were not high, but it was enjoyable to watch Bob Marley do his thing. Then up for a chat with a “spy” that Clara met on the street, an energetic young Turk who claimed to be an international policeman, here to make 1,000,000 Dh. for cracking a counterfeiting operation. We sat for a while in their hotel room. He had a pudgy, blonde Dutch wife, and both of them hated Morocco and couldn’t wait to leave. He showed us the passport he had for his little dog, a little white speck named “Sugar,” with room for a photo and a paw print. An international dog. The dog and the papers, he told us proudly, cost him $1300, but it was worth it. His wife had a homemade tattoo on her left hand, three blue dots in a tiny triangle. I asked what it meant and she explained, “not like police, like life, like people, a common sight in Holland.” He told us that the recently deposed Shah of Iran had a solid gold toilet in his private plane. He said “money is like a train and people are the station,” and told us how he once burned 3 million francs to amuse his friends “because friends are worth more than money” and because he “was the best in ‘the game.’” He had a wristwatch with loose diamonds in oil around the face and as he moved his arm the diamonds slid around.
Late. Finished a story about Cindy and me, fictionalized, done. Frustrated. Can’t tell if it’s good, don’t care anymore. Now I’m getting half an idea for a story but I don’t know how to finish it off. A story about a boy and the wind, the wind in a wicker basket, the blind wind-master, sort of a “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” thing. Something will come up. Trying to write for the sake of the program, pacing the floor. The room is total silence. And hot – the windows must be shut for the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes here are fast and hard to hit, as quick and tenacious as the kids hustling tourists on the street.
Bob B. described something he wrote as “very vin ordinaire,” and I imagine my writing is ordinary, too. Paul Bowles suggested Bob write a page in French, then translate it into English, or write a story from the ending back. There is a mother and son couple here – isn’t there a mother and son couple in “The Sheltering Sky”? Is that what drew them to the program? They never write anything…
Imagining blasphemies, sins, violations, defilements, guilts. Entering a mosque and pissing on the wall, old men attacking you, hitting, pinching, beating you till you lose consciousness. Keith told me he had a dream of machine-gunning Moroccans. I imagine the baby in Ouezanne down a well. The imp of the perverse, doing what you’re not supposed to do. Guzzling water in public during Ramadan, the big fast coming up very soon. No water or food from sun-up to sun-down. Someone said no shitting or pissing either, could that be possible? And no sex with living things, whatever that means.
We take turns analyzing each other, since we’re thrown together. Chris describes Clara’s adventuresomeness as psychology rather than temperament, having to do with breaking out of the bonds of some family repression and being flattered by constant male attention she’s never had back home, and how Clara could get hurt because she’s being careless – as opposed to others here, who she said took chances but looked them right in the eye. Clara has had marriage proposals three times already. Chris hit a man on the street who was harassing her, and he and his buddy ganged up on her and hit her back. They had been grabbing her, grabbing her purse. Barbara got spat at from a car. The cars are crazy here. They never even slow down for the little stump-like stop-lights. “Ya, ya, ya.” I find Chris very sexy, like a witch. I suppose that woman from Ouezanne, from the hills, was a real witch. Chris told me about a collage box she made, an old dresser drawer covered in velvet with rusted barbed wire coiled around a pair of mirrored sunglasses: don’t get too close.
I love the sound of opening this journal. I record what comes, I pry things open and scribble down the secrets and try to do the same with myself. But secrets are ultimately unexciting when you finally unearth them. Unless you’re recording evidence of a crime or a terrorist activity. But why would you record that? So what really matters, you don’t record. Which means none of this really matters…
Tangier used to be a garden city, Paul Bowles told me, a grove of trees that began immediately outside the medina. But it’s all houses now. “They don’t like trees,” he said. It seems like this is a “trick” country – you have to know how to work everything, like the toilet here in this room, or the complicated gas stove at Paul’s house. In Tangier, the street cats often have rabies; I give them a wide berth.
“Hamdullah” – “it is the grace of Allah” or “thanks be to Allah.” Paul recalled a scene where a Moroccan man was late getting on a bus, in the days of the French colony here, and the French driver shut the bus door in the man’s face. The old man’s finger had caught in the door, though, and the violent action broke it clean off. “Hamdullah,” the man said, soaking the blood in dust by the roadside. Acceptance of loss; things must happen. You can wash things in dust.
Cobras are fully formed in their eggs, ready to bite and kill.
Paul Bowles told me some good stories about William Burroughs in Tangier in the 1950’s. How Naked Lunch was written in a Pantopon delirium, scribbled on pieces of yellow paper strewn about his Medina room, with shoe prints and coffee grinds all over them. How Burroughs once came by and said: “Paul, I did some mescaline today, and I’m on a blue-violet ray. I’m still on it. I’m invisible. I walked all the way into town and nobody saw me.” He was walking on a narrow beam of light. Later, the children in the medina all called him “el hombre invisible.” And once, on Paul’s birthday, Burroughs walked into his apartment, dressed like an undertaker in full formal dress, and pulled off his grey gloves finger by finger, saying “Paul, you just missed a very pleasant funeral...” It turned out Burroughs had never liked that bartender. Bowles is full of stories, so refined, cultured, fragile and canny, fastidiously dressed and quick of wit. I think he adds to or makes up details for these stories. Why not, and who cares? Paul said he was writing the text for a book by a photographer who died in the Andes at 3000 feet while stepping back to “get a better shot.” In the Andes, Paul himself collected spiders and stuck them on cardboard in creosote with hat-pins, but they pried themselves loose and broke away, carrying the pins along.
Bowles told me tarantulas eat only live animals, so my sister must have been fibbing when she told me about how one summer, a few years ago, she secretly kept a tarantula in the house, feeding it hamburger, till it escaped.
I met Mohammed Mrabet tonight, a vigorous, tight-muscled little dude, a storyteller and visual artist. His drawings are complex, graphic pen-and-ink hallucinations of hands with eyes, fingers, people and snakes in tense, weaving, intricate, radiating lines all self-contained and aflame with the madness of vision. Very “anthropological.” He would not touch Blaine Blaine’s self-published book, Secret of the Golden Calf because of its aura, he said. “Blood and honey, everybody funny.” He said L.A. was “like the Sahara, only dirty.” A handsome French woman named Claude Thomas was there, too.
Moroccans are born hustlers. King Hassan II is the biggest wheeler-dealer of all. He keeps the action. On the head of a pin. His pin. If he goes, the whole thing goes. Shooting in the streets, etc. Russia is pushing Algeria is pushing Spanish Sahara to declare independence which is undermining Morocco’s claim to it which Hassan cannot renounce for fear of losing face. He is playing a complex game. When the Boeing 727 he was in was attacked by fighters from his own air force – in an attempted coup – and the pilot killed, he got on the radio and reported that the king was dead and then landed the plane himself. The general who orchestrated this coup was named Oufkir, and, so the story goes, the king himself personally dispatched the general in his own office. Oufkir originally made his bones with Hassan back in the 60’s, when he went to a Paris and kidnapped an opposition leader from a café there, then murdered him and cut him up into pieces (the head was delivered to the king). It was a huge scandal in Europe and for months, according to Paul, no foreign newspapers were allowed in Morocco. The 727 attack wasn’t the only attempt on his life, either. Two of his own generals tried to kill him, earlier. He is widely believed to have baraka, a charm, a lucky star that the father hands down to his chosen son. Hassan has it in spades.
Paul told me about the “blue men” from the south, whose cloth dye turns their skin blue, and the Berbers who live in the Rif, in storied houses like out of the Bible – a man on top, then his sons, then the women, then the sheep, then the cattle at ground level. A man in a house like this once told Paul, “no, above my head, on the roof, are the storks, and then Allah.” In Morocco, there are towns ruled by living saints. He told me about living with his wife Jane in Ceylon, where bats as big as cats hung in the trees outside their house, very Poe-like. A lovely place to live, he said, but his wife hated the “cuckoo-clockness” of its inhabitants, writing once to him: “everything is promise but the only thing vile is the people.”
Some Buddhists sent Paul a flyer in the mail: “Religion without God.”
Moroccan weddings – Sue, a blonde girl in the program, watched a cow get slaughtered and then later ate it. The husband dips his fingers in henna, then puts the bowl on his head and dances around, then throws the bowl out the window. The marriage ceremony lasts three days. First day, henna painting for the women (they cover their hands in complex spidery designs that look a lot like Mrabet’s drawings; Sue’s hands were beautiful); A big party for the men. Second day, a party for the women, with music played by the women. Third day, a procession around the block and around the town, with much cheering, noisemaking, and music (crazy reeds and drums). The groom in white, blindfolded, led up to his wife’s chamber. Later, the bloody bed-sheet is hung like a flag outside the window.
There’s a girl here with the program, Blondie: very unhappy disco-chick, tight-painted, lipsticked, sneering high-heeled girl, who describes Tangier as “real spook city out there…” She likes to wear purple, wants to do coke. Coke? Here? Like wanting to be packed in ice like a dead fish. Why is she here, anyway? Blondie’s mind at work: Christmas in L.A., three murders; since body and soul are two, it all adds up to…666! I imagine her going into the Kasbah in a SCUBA suit, to keep germs out.
What if every word was an acronym, could be broken down, so that language eventually fell apart? G.U.I.L.T.Y.
Mark told me about going on leave in Thailand and getting Thai hookers – one who used a fan to lower herself onto her customer and spin around. A redneck pal of his just couldn’t deal with it, freaked out, sped up the fan and she lost balance, flew across the room and was knocked unconscious. I try to imagine a fan holding someone but can’t, and I have trouble with the geometry, but it’s a funny story as he told it. The story was all in the delivery and the delivery was all over me.
The line-up of the stars: Venus right in the center of a crescent moon. Venus, the last star to fade in the dawn, Lucifer. Lucid. Light. Last night we heard all the animals for miles around – goats, cows, cocks – all making a racket, dogs baying at the top of their lungs. The awful opera.
A fig is not actually a fruit, it is the flower itself. Aleatory – having to do with chance. Paul talked about translating Isabel Eberhart’s diaries, about Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst.
Robert J. had a nervous breakdown and he was interested in the Manson family. Two prongs of the same fork. When Uri Geller was in TV once in England, thousands of forks were mysteriously bent.
Bowles suggested we write 500 sentences, each sentence allowing only one polysyllabic word per phrase, off the cuff, without thinking. Bob B. (MA in creative writing, PhD in theatre) allowed as how he had done that once, writing a textbook for non-English speaking classes with limited vocabulary. Then he started talking about the “mechanics of plotting” and I asked him if he could write without thinking. He asked me “you mean, you think I’m too intellectual to write fiction?”
Mr. Blaine Blaine imagines walking into the ocean with all of his books in his arms. He refused to let Mark look at Secret of the Golden Calf because it has “made people commit suicide.” His pen name for that book was “Zakatarius.” It really is a book about the Golden Calf worshipped by the Israelites when Moses went up Mount Sinai to get the tablets of the Laws from God.
During Ramadan, Muslims may go swimming, but they have to shake the water out of their ears. It’s still pre-Ramadan now, lots of marriages, drumming and crowds outside, weird flutes, chanting and singing. Getting it all in before the big fast. Last night sitting out on the bluff under the stars with Stephanie we saw processions of honking cars go past, heard singing and partying , dogs and roosters, and finally the call to worship at 3 am. I had never stayed out so late to dig the sounds. Lots of them. So different from the USA.
Mark said he once interviewed Sloane Coffin, who told him that at one point, early in the hostage crisis with Iran (which is still going on), the mullahs and the Revolutionary Council were ready to release three hostages, but Jimmy Carter in an interview dismissed the Iranian grievances as “ancient history,” so they changed their minds. Mark thought he had an exclusive with this but his paper rejected it. Our free press.
Gerald A. is a very interesting character. Quiet, smirking, often mumbling his words or singing to himself, his shirt untucked and his gestures slothlike but gentle, while his mind burns away deep inside – remembering the exact syntax of conversations for days after, putting together impressions, a hidden cauldron that pulls the world inside, changing its shape, its color, in understated, detailed ways. His craft of writing is very fine, and he takes it far more seriously than I do. When I asked him if he was gay, he answered yes but then wanted to know how I knew, and I couldn’t answer. He certainly doesn’t fit the tight-physique stereotype, and he doesn’t care if he wears black socks with madras shorts. His interior and his exterior are opposites. He told me a little about his adventures in Tangier, about a “house of confidence,” and his visits to the Turkish baths with his friend Assiz, whom he met on the street not long after arriving. He told me about a party he went to with a 6’4” German with absolutely no body hair named “Woodi,” and two 16 year-old Dutch girls who told him they “know all about the man.” He says he is interested in witchcraft, but just how much he knows about it is unclear.
Even the trash is interesting here. Chris K. and I wander the streets of this little village just outside the compound, catching stares from the people because we scour the pavement for litter, fragments of the dark heart of a culture’s garbage soul. Aliens collecting trash from gutters. Chris and I have walked down shaded streets filled with children playing, sucking on frozen sugar and looking up at us, sometimes smiling, sometimes hiding, sometimes holding up a pained and frightened look – like strange and delicate pastries. Children sitting behind the cage that protects the first floor windows. A child with pock-marks covering her face and hands. A seven year-old carrying a delirious baby in a papoose, the baby lolling its head back and forth as the girl walked, moaning without even the energy to give a full-throated cry. There is a hill there, a dump, where children play soccer in bare feet on a clearing that’s covered in shit, broken glass, rotting food, and dead rats. Smiles, though, are universal currency. We met a boy named Said (which means “happy”) who spoke fluent English (they all speak 5 languages) and who was much taken by Chris (I can relate). Said and his sister and a large group of their friends all followed us back to the compound, chattering and laughing. Something to do.
These houses are subtly and individually painted, though the construction is uniform – a sort of redundant modernization of traditional forms, boxes with balconies. Some are white, others are painted in the greatest pinks or orange-yellows, with trim done up in blue-green or even lavender. An apartment in the city of dreams.
I have arranged 12 smooth pebbles in a circle on my bedside table. When people come into the room, it’s the first thing the notice, and they always comment on it. Carol came in wearing a bright yellow bathrobe. I said, you look like a night nurse, here to take my temperature. A childhood spent in hospitals. Carla said my postcard photo of Oum Kalsoum looked like a night nurse. I said she looks more like the wife of a South American dictator.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
A Trip to Ouezzane
We arrange to meet Driss at 8:30 the next morning but we are late – he finds us at the breakfast table. Ouezzane is in the foothills of the
Rif mountains. We take a round-about route, a bus to Suk-a-Labat and a cab from there. On the crowded bus, Driss tries to move the Moroccans around, being bossy and cocky now that he has American friends that he either has to impress or feels bigger around or both. I feel extremely uncomfortable and the Moroccans are offended. Driss explains that we are “upper class” and that was why he made such a stink. There’s a beggar who herds a crying young girl ahead of him down the aisle of the bus, holding an infant in his arms; he gives the alms to the baby to hold. Also a religious chanteur who makes his way through, and children selling cigarettes, gum and pastries. I had been up all night coughing and fall asleep, banging my nose on the seat in front of me.
In spite of the DEFENSE DE FUMER signs, much kif (tobacco and hash, mixed) is passed about, and the mood improves. Driss tells me he’s seen all about the USA and Vietnam from movies and T.V. shows. Deerhunter has as its French title Journé au bord d’enfer. On the bus they play the music of Oum Kaltoum, Egyptian singer of ancient melancholic songs, who can sing for two hours straight and who once performed at the pyramids for an audience of a million people. Out the window, groves of trees, shacks of grass and metal in the middle of nowhere with Coca-Cola signs on them, cattle, burros, the arid, scrubbed landscape rolling by in the heat, evidence of slash-and-burn agriculture. They like to wear watches here; every man has one. They don’t like to open windows; the bus is stifling, no breeze. One of the students we are sitting with had a parakeet in a cage.
We pass groves of oranges, purple flowers, tents with potters surrounded by fields of pottery, six-foot tall baskets you could hide Cleopatra in, brightly-colored laundry hung over hillside bushes for to dry. We see hay bales stacked up like Mayan pyramids, or like long houses with chimneys that Driss says look “like Chicago.” There’s an amazing friendliness and closeness on the bus which I contrasted with the alienation one feels on US busses. Of course, the seats are more tightly packed together, and there are no armrests.
“You know it,” Driss keeps saying in English. Driss’s favorite things to say: “fuck off,” “shit fine,” and “haraam” (which means “forbidden” and therefore, in this topsy-turvy world, a good thing).
When we arrive at his village it is mid-afternoon. Driss had come home, he said, to sign a document at the school where he worked and to get his check, and to pick up new clothes. We go into a café and sat down. He offers us tea and fresh figs, torn apart to reveal their rich red fleshy insides, like the sweetest, softest, sexist plums I ever tasted.
I write to Cindy:
Here in this café in the mountains it is hot outside; inside the walls are cool and thick and high, painted pink to the height of a man and white from then on up, to a series of small, arch-shaped windows which allow shafts of light that the smoke makes solid. Driss is smoking. It is good after eating, he says, like mint tea and spicy food, it helps you sweat, cool off. We have eaten mocheoui (spiced meat), figs, mountain bread, and tea. I am slightly suspicious of Driss but I laugh at myself for these feelings. Mark and Clara lie indolently on benches. There is a man asleep in the corner. I am writing a poem for you, written from what I imagine to be your perspective. There is a closing stanza I have not written, something about moods changing suddenly but I haven’t voiced it yet:
We learn to say goodbye. It takes
Time. You seem
To have learned well. You say:
“Your tears have the taste of sadness.
It is as close as you get to it."
Mark announces he would like to eat food that is the color of these pink walls. Driss grabs the plate of a protesting friend and shows us green vegetables, as the wall is also green in parts. We laugh. Then he takes us up the winding cobbled streets to his house.
The house was built on the side of a hill, with an atrium, open at the top, with a well right in the middle that goes down about thirty feet to a pool of foul water. On the second floor, where the women live, the floor is tiled in a red and orange pattern with green highlights. In one corner stands a T.V. set tuned to Barrio Sesamea, and the room is filled with old women, young women and children sitting on benches along the walls. Driss’s mother is heavy-set, with a face like a bull-dog and blue lines and dots down the center of her forehead and chin. Three younger women bustle about doing chores. There’s a girl, about 16 or so, with an appealing smile, playing a game similar to jacks only with stones. Mark and I communicate with the kids by playing this game and making faces. A serious dark girl with big eyes (they all have such big eyes, like droplets of oil) holds a baby. A quiet boy with a bracelet, and another boy with more spunk who measures my nose with a ruler. A pretty girl in a purple dress with an orange top smiles at me. Another girl with curly hair in green, and a pair of twin moppets with black hair that was really curly, and with the biggest eyes of all – one of whom is quite taken by me (and I with her) and she stares intently and unwaveringly into my eyes, and I into hers. A strange feeling.
An old woman with a face like the side of a hill, with cliffs and plateaus, comes over and shakes our hands, kissing her own hand each time. A moment before she’d been sitting on the floor, but she is astonishingly spry. Driss puts on the Four Tops and dances around. The kids dance around a bit, but I don’t want to. I would rather watch. They are watching us, and we are watching them. Then the old woman gets up and dances too, really well, and we cheer. Later, Driss tells us that she’s a mountain woman, who comes to town only occasionally to stay with people. Usually, she lives by herself, alone in a grotto in the mountains. She knows how to read the stars, and people’s palms.
Then we visit a friend of Driss’s who is laid up with a headache, a doctor of psychology or philosophy who apparently studies too much. He offers us a Coke and plays chess with Mark. I fall asleep. When I wake up they’re all gone. I dash out just in time to hear the chanting for prayer start; the sun has gone down, Mark having compared it to a coin falling into a slot to amuse Clara. Driss convinces us to stay until after sundown so as to avoid traveling by day. But his document still has to be signed, something he did not tell us, and could not be signed until the next morning.
Driss quickly leads us up the side of the mountain, past boys throwing rocks at us, past a garbage dump, past the highest houses, to where shepherds live. Mark says that when he was collecting welfare, he used to tell them that the position he was looking for was “shepherd.” At the top of the mountain the view of the village in the valley and the hills and the purple mountains beyond is staggering, the sunset to our left soaking the haze in deep orange. It is nightfall when we come down the mountain. We stop in at another house for a while, smoking kif and listening to Pink Floyd, before convincing Driss to move on. We are finally on our way the bus when Driss tells us that we were invited to stay the night. In fact, we more or less had to stay, because there are no more busses, and Driss still had to sign his contract or whatever it was. Was this something we missed, a miscommunication? Is it a peculiar trait of Moroccan hospitality that hosts do not want their guests to leave?
Life just goes on here. Whatever happens, happens. Whatever happens must happen. So, we go to a party. Driss has basically been taking us around, showing us off to all his friends, giving them Marlboros and generally being a big man. It strikes me that, perhaps, in his village, Driss was in fact not particularly well respected. His actions, ordering people around, his pride, seem like the actions of an insecure man. It takes one to know one.
The party – Chaud Soleil – cheap Moroccan wine. Mark and I realize that the party is undoubtedly in our honor, and Mark says that since Americans are reputed to be such great partyers that they will try to drink us under the table. A nauseatingly green room with sofas all around, tapestries of the Kaaba and of belly-dancers, a naked electric light bulb dangling in the center. There is much kif and much wine and much music on the cassette-player; music by “the folk pope of Morocco,” whoever that is, weird piping and drumming, as intricate as the patterns on their tiles and rugs, and music by Lamchaheb, a pop group, and James Brown even. The music of centuries, perfect for getting stoned. A little man dancing and singing, telling us to “shush,” pursing his lips and running his fingers and thumb off them, then making a graceful “stop” motion with his hand. He wants us to just listen to the music, but he starts talking. There are four Moroccan guys there and they are pretty drunk. Then Clara is moved to dance, that subtle belly-dance thing that only involves the hips and shoulders, a loose piece of cloth tied about her thighs. I begin to suspect an ulterior motive to their urge to get us loaded, and I was grateful Mark was there with his South Bronx and Southeast Asia experience.
One weird moment makes me quite nervous: there had been some hashish on the table which, along with the spicy dinner of meat and egg and bread, had been swept up and by accident thrown away in a frenzy of cleaning. When I tell Driss about this he gets very upset, throws his cigarette on the floor, slams his wine down on the table, and goes into a deep pout that is sullen and tearful. I am afraid that he suspects that I stole it, since I’d asked him earlier if I could buy some from him. I am afraid that he is upset because his trusted friends have turned out in his mind to be thieves. It is at that moment that I realize our terrible helplessness, both in that room, outnumbered, and in that village, as the only Americans, with such a language gap, no Arabic, only halting French and Spanish, and with Driss our only means of getting back to Tangier.
But it all ends well enough. The little man dances with Clara, and lewdly pretends to kiss her groin, so Mark makes it clear the she is his. Driss’s brother tries to smooch Clara goodnight. Only the other man, very sweet, mustachioed and sensitive, refrains from the nonsense. Then Driss finally takes us home.
The 3:00 chanting has just started. They chant at sunrise, at noon, at sunset, at last light, and at first light. We hear the loudspeakers blaring as we went outside, and the little man, carrying a bottle, careens drunkenly down the inclined street right into a wall, then over a little to a door which he bangs on, shouting, presumably to his wife to wake her up and let him in.
As we are going up to Driss’s we encounter a young man with a desperate, intoxicated look on his face, blood all over his shirt, and a flat-ended knife in his hand, sort of like a sharpened putty-knife, also bloody. He and Driss start shouting. We split. Mark is visibly upset, having been stabbed once in the Bronx and only that afternoon showing me his scar and describing the glint of light on the blade as it arched toward his arm, held up to block. He picked up a rock and when we got inside his fist is still clenched around it. Driss goes out again and when he comes back in, Mark grabs a flowerpot thinking he might be the guy with the knife. Crazy. If they’d been trying to freak us out at the party, shouting at us, banging their glasses, that bloody knife made it all seem pale. We never found out what had happened.
Driss throws up. He had thrown up once, earlier in the evening, and then had returned to drink three shots of wine in succession and thus recover his manhood. We sleep the night on damp sofas that smell like dung under the lambskin covering and under blankets so thick they weighed 10 or 15 pounds. That morning, we have breakfast with Driss’s family, an uncomfortable scene as he talks for a long time in Arabic, making the women uncomfortable, irritated, upset. We are no longer welcome guests.
Driss takes us out to show us the village, holding hands with Clara, showing us off again, though Clara’s clogs are not fit for cobbled streets on hills. His delicate, beautiful friend Hamid accompanies us, as he too is going to Tangier, though Driss barely speaks to him. We go to his school and finish his tasks, and then around to where artisans work (women stay inside all day long). The bakery, where people bring their bread to bake (no ovens in the homes). Men at a loom weaving rough fabric, a pipe-maker at his lathe, making flutes. They work, listen to music, talk, smoke kif, work. Driss tells us the flutemaker is an apprentice, though already accomplished. Very mellow and timeless scene.
Driss wants us to stay longer but we absolutely force him to get us to the bus on time, not an easy feat. He insists on showing us the local mosque, fantastic tile-work and men lying around. For reasons known only to Driss, he takes us to the public bath, toilets along the wall just holes in the ground to squat over and a bucket of water to wash your (left) hand in when finished. Moroccans eat only with their right hand, which makes the traditional penalty for thievery – having the right hand chopped off – an enduring punishment.
We barely make the bus. Again, no open windows, stifling: a man stands in a djellaba, a wool suit underneath, with layers of shirt and undershirt, absolutely sweatless and imperturbable. Driss continues to ignore Hamid to fawn over Clara, to embrace her and caress her hair. Clara doesn’t mind; she likes the idea of a Moroccan boyfriend.
Outside the bus at a stop along the way, there are slaughtered goats hung upside down, their weird faces still intact, a man hacking pieces off of one with a flat knife. They’re getting ready for a celebration; the week before the fast of Ramadan, which was approaching, is a time for weddings and feasts. Later I watch as a man drives cattle over piled hay to separate the wheat from the chaff.
There is an old woman sitting next to me, and I become aware that she has her hand up to her nose in an unmistakable gesture of disgust. I imagine it’s because of the way I smell, though Mark, across the aisle, confides to me that he himself can hardly breathe, sitting next to a noxiously obese woman. We crack jokes about filthy Americans.
What’s really happening is this: in the seat behind me, Driss is burrowing his head into Clara’s lap and he’s taken his shirt off because of the heat. A group of young Arab men have been pointing at us and laughing, probably commenting on Driss’s behavior. Driss ignores them, and Mark and Clara and I, being stupid Americans, do not understand the jokes that are being made at our expense. At the town of Azila, one of the men gets off but before he does he lunges at Driss (Mark insists darkly that he took something out of his pocket, though I missed that). Driss laughs but pulls back, and the guy gets off and then comes back, shouting, and the driver and others pull him off the bus again. Mark and I realize that it was Driss’s offensive conduct that caused the woman to cover her nose and caused the fight scene. As soon as they guy is gone, Driss gets off the bus and buys a straight razor, then returns to the bus and speaks bravado in Arabic for at least a minute to cover up his earlier unwillingness to respond to the guy’s challenge. Mark gives Driss a shirt and tells him to put it on.
Driss never paid us back for his bus fare. When we got back to the compound they were all in an uproar about our disappearance, and they’d even called the police about it. After that, they insisted on sign-out sheets. When I told Paul Bowles about our adventure, he was incredulous: “Ouezzane?” he asked. “That’s like going to Elkhart, North Carolina. Why?”