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?”