The Sheltering Sky
Out of Africa I'm in my room in Sevilla, Spain. I spent the morning walking in this peaceful city checking out the Teatro de la Maestranza trying to buy tickets to the Opera El Cid featuring Placido Domingo. I listened to a violinist in the street playing the haunting melody of La Paloma and sat by the tranquil river watching the boats float by. No one offered to show me a mosque or sell me a rug. So it's in that context, sitting here thinking about the harsh Sahara desert and Morocco, a country without a symphonic orchestra, that I conclude, if Europe is a fine suit of clothes, Morocco is a hair shirt. I'm sure I read somewhere that Joan of Arc, Thomas More and Ernest Hemingway all visited Morocco the week before giving up their lives.
It's not that I hated Morocco, I may go back someday because I left with vivid memories and experiences I've never had and places we didn't visit. But Morocco forces you pay attention to it and compels to work at it, constantly, and I am drained from the encounter. You notice the stomach growls as a potential sign of trouble limiting the distance you're willing to travel from the safe harbor of your own clean toilette. And having a green salad with tomatoes, olive oil and vinegar is a forbidden pleasure. And then there are all of the people wanting to help you, putting you on guard, thereby missing a close encounter of the good kind (which we had several of), or dropping your guard and having their friendly charm lead to a close encounter of the worst kind, buying a rug (more on this later).
I'm convinced it was appropriate that we visited Morocco when we did relative to our six month Ramble. It was God's test to see whether we had the mettle to last the entire six months or were we puny American Tourists unable to cope with the rigors of travel. I keep having these flashbacks to scenes in the Sheltering Sky where Kat nurses her husband who eventually dies of typhoid in the middle of nowhere and she ends up in some ksour playing kissie face with the local sheik. It sounds romantic, but it didn't happen to us and we are looking forward to next five months richer for the experience.
Our first day out of Marrakech we crossed the high Atlas Mountains with our driver Mohammed I firmly in control of his Mercedes and Susan and I in the back seat anticipating our entry into the Sahara desert. Susan was so happy I wasn't driving (I think she overreacts when I power slide into the supermarket parking lot). Our first Kodak moment occurred at Ait Benhaddou (above,) an incredibly beautiful kasbah. It was used as a backdrop in Lawrence of Arabia and, more recently, in Jewel of the Nile. It took me a very long time from this narrow vantage point to get a shot without tourists in the way and the group trying to take pictures behind me was having the same problem.
These kasbahs and surrounding oases appeared throughout this fertile valley. Our travel guide indicates that there were frequent disputes over territory and water rights. A quote from historian Walter Harris "Their whole life was one of warfare and gloom. Every tribe had its enemies, every family had its blood feud, and every man his would- be murderer" reminds me that the Moors invaded and impregnated Sicily in an ancient time and that was how they came to film The Godfather.
Our second day out we arrived in Erfoud, 35km from the great sand dunes in Merzouga and hired Mohammed II to drive us into the desert in his Land Rover. We took Mohammed I with us so he could interpret. Getting to Merzouga in the daylight is a matter of simply following the telephone poles across the open desert until you see two heavy camel operators. There are no signs and no roads, only little piles of rocks and electric wires stretching to Timbuktu. Looking into the distance and watching the sand dunes come into view was a little like the first time I saw snow driving from Florida to Pennsylvania as a kid.
They were everything I had imagined and everything I had remembered from the countless movies I've seen of men walking in circles across endless miles of sand piles or French soldiers fighting the Moroccans or Peter O'Toole's blue eyes sparkling in the desert sun. So we hired Mohammed III (I see a pattern emerging) to guide us to the highest point we could see. I couldn't believe it, but as we trudged up from one side of the dune, two young men, one German and the other British, trudged up from the other side and we bumped into each other at the very top. With apologies to Mel Brooks, the conversation went something like this:
Ron: "Hello. We didn't see you, where did you come from?"
German: "We're camping on the other side of this dune in those tents you see down there."
Brit: "Where are you staying? We're quite ready for a hot shower."
Susan: "Have you been following this Kosovo thing and what do you think is going to happen to the Euro when the UK joins the EU. And do you think that it's fair how the Moroccans treat their women?"
Ron: "We're staying at a nice place in Erfoud. Great shower. Costs about $90"
Mohammed III: "I guide you there by camel, no problem. We have mint tea right here to seal the deal. Only 10 dirhams."
Susan: "I read in the Herald Tribune that British Telecom is planning a joint venture with Hoesch-Rhone which should create one of the largest monopolies in western Europe."
German: "You give me name of hotel."
Brit: "By jove, this Mohammed chap is a bloody bore!"
Ron: "Its the Erfoud Inn. Call us when you get in. We'll have lunch."
(Mohammed III drags Susan off into the dunes as she shouts "May all the camels of your ancestors return and caca in your tennis shoes")
We left our new friends and walked across the seams in the sand dunes leaving footprints that would be gone in the morning. We joined all of the Mohammeds at the Marzouga Cafe and had mint tea before the trek back to Erfoud. Half way back, we stopped to watch the stars emerge into a perfectly black sky. Susan noticed the big dipper so I began explaining to these Bedouins who have been roaming the deserts for centuries, how to locate Polaris, the North Star. There we were the four of us in a tight circle, me pointing to Polaris, all gazing at the night sky, Susan interpreting into French, no one for miles around, and a phone rings, I swear! Mohammed reaches into his coat pocket (he always wore this blue blazer but I hadn't noticed the bulge before) and pulls out his cell phone. I'm not sure, but I think it was his wife wanting to know if he was going to be late for dinner. I heard him say things like "Americani", "I know it's late", "I realize this is the third time this week, but he's showing me how to find the North Star", "The wife wants to know if you are a liberated women", "Yes, I'll pick up some cous-cous on the way home".
I won't bore you with the details, but we hired another guide in Rassini, Mohammed IV (I'm not making this up) to take us through several kasbahs. We found out how serious these Mohammeds are when the last one tricked us into a rug shop and and hour later we left abruptly, two rugs under our arms, having outbargained their best salesman. Shooting over my shoulder, I managed to get a photo of the four Mohammeds chasing us as we fled Morocco for Spain...........Ah Espana! where the women are good looking, the men are all proud, and the tourists are above average!
I always feel like the Dean Martin to Rons Jerry Lewis. I'm always the straight (wo)man. Where does he get that stuff?
When we finally stepped back on to Spanish soil I felt two things: surprised that we actually made it out of Morocco with no mishap and not much the worse for wear, and a strong desire for a couple of days in white space to think about it. You cant think about Morocco while youre in Morocco, youre too busy staying alert, watching out for incoming "guides" or food that's going to kill you. And I didnt want to jump right back into the cacophony of Spain without saying my personal good-byes to that strange and difficult country. So, a couple of days in Seville doing nothing more than paying a visit to the Barber of Seville for a terrific haircut and laying about, not even consulting the guide books, trying to process our Morocco experience. Wherever it ends up packed in my suitcase of memories, its sure to inform the rest of the trip,
After pondering, I decided that we were fortunate in our visit: we didnt suffer infestations or grimy sheets or rotted food or holdups at knife point all stories we heard. I left with prickly heat rash, a rumbling stomach, and exhaustion from the four a.m. prayer calls, but intact. We met some travelers in the Port of Tangiers while waiting for the ferry to Spain, who werent as fortunate as we, since they were a bit more exposed to the elements of Morocco. A young American couple, Will and Kristin, using buses, trains and hostels, travling light, and a Canadian backpacker, Brett. We had a few hilarious hours on the boat crossing the Strait of Gibralter swapping stories and guide-avoidance techniques. Poor Brett had only spent a few days in Morocco, in Tangiers and Casablanca, and was held up at knifepoint twice and was fleeing, glad to be leaving Africa. Hed also been charged by a rhino in the jungle somewhere; guess he had a bad week. Casa, as those in the know call Casablanca, and Tangiers, are not the most hospitable of Moroccan cities. Will and Kristin had somewhat better experiences but were also glad to be departing, Kristin couldnt forgive the Muslims their treatment of women and their xenophobia, after all, whats the good of all those mosques if only Muslims can go in? and what is best way to deal with the stand up turkish toilets and no toilet paper? Do the veils and draperies encage the women or liberate them? Will was a savvy traveler, even spoke Arabic, but was happy to be able to quit worrying about Kristins well being and comfort, since they had stayed in some dicey places and women travelers are targets, escorted or not. Will is a geek and Ron got to show off his bag of hacker goodies. Finally, a kindred soul who understood techno-babble and was duly impressed by my husbands toys. They were so sweet and fun and full of adventure. We didnt tell them of our cosseted travels, in a big bad Mercedes with a Mohammed to protect us. Actually, except for the petit taxis which are some sort of tiny cars made of egg cartons and tinker toy parts, Mercedes are the only cars you see there. They are called Grand Taxis.
The people we met along the way were the highlights of our visit. I especially remember Samil, a young man educated in France now working with his father in the construction business, who said "If you have eyes and a heart, it is difficult to live in this country." He told us that among the educated no one likes the King, (although we had heard the opposite from the villagers) because it appears that the Kings interest is in keeping the people miserable and hungry. If they have full bellies, shelter, a job, some peace of mind, they will look up from their backbreaking labor and see that the government is not serving them. As long as they are busy struggling for the next loaf of bread and a shelter from the elements, they wont concern themselves with anything else. Our driver in the desert also worried aloud about the consequences of all the new schools: "What will we do with all these children after they are educated? There will be a revolution!" Better to keep them uneducated and ignorant. And beyond the Imperial cities of Marrakech, Fes and Rabat, in the harsh desert, is where a lot of these people are, still living and working as they have for centuries. Using the same tools, the same architecture, the same irrigation systems, growing the same crops. Time, and any sort of technological evolution, stopped long ago.
Still, I was powerfully impressed by our experiences in the desert. Climbing the Saharan dune was something I have long wanted to do, and being in that vast and historic desert was thrilling. It was more- and less- than I expected, as all of Morocco proved to be. It is more populated and exploited than I expected, it is also more diverse geographically. It has long black mountains and red buttes. It has red-gold dunes and vast plains of scrub. It has settlements of clay villages, called ksours, and it has lonely black tents of Bedouin families moving mysteriously around, living here or there for a few months and then disappearing. We saw them in the desert and in the mountains. And it has the huge, lush, fabulous oases that are the source of all life and most myth of the desert communities. These palmeries are long plantations that follow the desert rivers and provide food and trade for the villages that are built above and around them. Rarely will you see a village inside of an oases because they are far too valuable as agriculture to despoil by houses. Date palms, nut and fruit trees, wheat and clover, corn and vegetables are all planted in small ancestral family plots that are guarded carefully, often fought over. You will be driving through what seems like a huge flat endless plain of scrub and sand and desolation and then suddenly drop into a vast hidden gorge at the bottom of which lies one of these oases, like a great green river flowing through the arid canyon.
There is still terrible poverty among the people who live in this area. Not all the oases are rich. And not all the people live in the ones that are. In Rassini, there has been 15 years of drought and two locusts plagues. Biblical stuff. Killed off the oases with desertification. But the King is right, the people still seem happy not knowing anything but their small hard lives. The children are pure delight and beautiful with bright, knowing eyes, full of sly intelligence. We visited one of the ksours with yet another Mohammed (the fourth? fifth?) and wandered the tiny packed-dirt alleys and visited the home of a family: two rooms, one open to the sky for living and one with platforms covered in rugs for sleeping. One piece of furniture, a sort of china cabinet with a few family treasures. And a small TV set. They dont have running water or indoor plumbing, but they get a few local TV channels for entertainment. Seems a bit skewed to me, mass hypnosis. However, they were very proud of their home and stood for a photograph for us, tickled to death when Ron showed them the picture on the camera. We also saw the one source of water, a well with a leather bag, that was used by the donkeys as well as the villagers. We left, trailed by some of the children (there were 300 children who lived in this village) who wanted to hold my hands, touch my clothes, talk to me. Ron was scary to them, too tall, his hands too large.
To revel some more in the contrasts and contradictions of Morocco we drove on to Fes, out of the desert, through the searingly beautiful Middle Atlas mountains and checked into a new, beautiful hotel, the Jnan Palace and one day for lunch we dined alone in a palace, and the charming young maitre d, another college-educated young man with no prospects of a job, gave us a grand tour that included the apartments of the owner's wives (4) and the roof terrace with a view of the sprawling city. The food was wonderful and the maitre d turned out to also be the entertainment and played the lute for us and sang strange Arabic songs of longing for Andalusia, the fabled Spanish land that was lost when the Christian kings of Castile conducted their "ethnic cleansing" back in the 13th century and expelled the Moors who had been living in, and ruling, Spain for 600 years. We paid one more visit to the souks, with one more guide. We admired one more mosque and one more palace, each from the door again. Peering into the doors, not allowed in; that's how Morocco is to the visitor. Always a surface, either luxurious or impoverished, always sadly beautiful, and always mysterious and just beyond reach.
So. Now we are back in Spain. And last night we battled through the tourist ghetto to the flamenco where we sat with three American girls who had sailed to Tangiers, in shorts, and turned around and left three hours later. Im really glad we were forewarned, that we were able to be cosseted and escorted, that we listened to the friends who had been and who said, if you can afford it, go first class, it will make all the difference. And it did. I thought traveling that way would keep us too removed, out of touch, but I was wrong. Like the country, it was another contradiction: the more protected we were the more we were able to see and experience.