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.