Farewell, Marrakesh

I packed up my belongings this morning. Faical’s mother tried to help me, but I showed her that I was rolling my clothes and not folding them. She seemed surprised by this unusual way of packing. After some time she retrieved two dinner napkins from a cabinet and presented them to me. This was a standard gift in Morocco, Faical explained. I was moved by her generosity.

Meanwhile, she had spent all morning in the kitchen cooking a special dish. It’s cooked only once or twice a year, her kids explained. She had planned to cook it for Faical when he left, but she decided to cook it now since I am leaving. Once again, I knew not what to say to express my gratitude for her kindness.

The meal was delicious. We all ate out of the same large platter as I have been doing since I’ve been here. Faical’s mother expressed appreciation that I was able to adapt so well to their local custom and eat just like them. For me it has been a bonding experience. Sharing a meal in such a manner really makes you feel close to your fellow diners.

I took a taxi to the airport later in the day. I got the feeling that Faical’s mother was on the verge of tears when I was leaving. I will miss her. I will miss all of them. I am amazed by and grateful for the generosity Faical and his family have shown me. I was a complete stranger when I arrived, but now I feel like I’m part of their family.

While I waited at the airport to board my flight, I had a sense of being a stranger again. Amidst the plethora of European tourists whom I traveled with only a week ago, I now feel somehow foreign. I feel that I must break through an invisible barrier to rejoin them. Has my stay in Marrakesh been so comfortable that I have forgotten I am still a traveler? I don’t recall feeling this apprehension even when I left New York back in July.

I arrived in Madrid and took a taxi to Mad Hostel. It was nearing one in the morning by the time I reached the hostel.

Encore

This morning Anas and I decided to go to Oasis, a water park on the outskirts of Marrakesh. Sarah asked to come along, too. As we were finalizing our plans, I received a shocking piece of news: Latifa had stayed back in Marrakesh for another day instead of leaving with her family for Casablanca. The alarm bells went off in my head again. What was she up to? Out of courtesy, I invited her to join us at Oasis.

Anas, Sarah, and I met Latifa at the water park. A sign at the cashier’s counter caught my eye. It showed drawings of two couples. The first couple was fully clothed, and there was a line across them to indicate that such attire was prohibited. The second couple wore Western swimming clothes — trunks and bikini. This was the appropriate attire. Here again was another instance of the dichotomy between Western and Islamic ideals. Latifa, of course, could not bathe because she was fully clothed, but Sarah, who wore a bikini, could. I couldn’t help feeling bad for Latifa who sat in the glaring sun waiting for us while the three of us went swimming.

Afterwards, we parted with Latifa for the third and final time. She took a taxi to the train station, and we took a bus provided by the park back to the city.

Later tonight I took Faical’s family out to dinner. Since tonight is my last in Morocco, I wanted to treat the family. I wanted to take them to a nice restaurant, but Faical insisted that there were too many of them. Finally, we agreed to go to a cheaper place and take everyone. In addition to Faical and his immediate family, Sarah and another cousin came, too. We went to Jama al-Fna and had shawarmas at a small restaurant. Afterwards I bought ice-cream for Faical’s mother and myself.

As we walked out of the square, a little boy came running behind us. He went up to Faical’s cousin who now had his mother’s ice-cream cone and begged it from her. Then he came running to me and stretched out his arm for me to give him mine, too. His boldness amused me. I handed him my cone as well, and he ran off.

We decided to walk for a while, and after we had gone some distance, the women asked me to sing a song. By now my inhibition had greatly diminished. I let loose the same verses of the DDLJ song that I know. I sang with unprecedented virtuosity. We happened to be by a tree when I came to a finish, so I hooked my arm around the trunk and swung around in a mock reenactment of a typical Indian dance sequence. The Moroccans loved it and broke out in laughter. When the laughter subsided, Faical’s other cousin asked me to sing again. The same lines? I protested. Yes, she implored, the voice is so beautiful. I was greatly flattered, but I didn’t want to sing the same lines again. I couldn’t think of another song, so I demurred.

Return to Marrakesh

Anas, Latifa, and I arrived in Marrakesh this afternoon. At the bus station Latifa took a taxi to her family’s place, and Anas and I took a separate taxi back to his apartment. There I met his sister, Jihane. She spent the past week with her aunt in northern Morocco, and she finally returned today. She’s a very talkative girl who speaks English quite well, and she quickly warmed up to me. She doesn’t seem like the type who would take long to warm up to anyone though.

Meanwhile, Anas informed everyone about Latifa. I explained that there was nothing between us, but Sarah, especially, began to tease me about her. She enlisted Jihane’s help to explain to me what kind of girl Latifa is.
“Girls here just want money,” Jihane opined. “All they care is that you have dollars.”
“What about you?” Tired of trying to make them understand that there was nothing going on, I decided to humor her.
“I’m the same!” she declared, much to my surprise. “Sarah, too! We want a man with money.”
The unemotional confession was somehow disheartening.

Anas and I agreed to check out a club later tonight. I wanted to see what kind of club scene there is here in Marrakesh. First we would meet Latifa in Jama al-Fna.

Latifa was upset with us for taking too long to come. Now she had to stay with her family and couldn’t hang out with us. It was just as well. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with her. I didn’t feel that she was being genuine. Then she pulled a surprise on me: Her mother and sister were coming to the square, and she wanted me to meet them. I barely knew the girl, and she wanted me to meet her family. I remained outwardly calm at this piece of news though alarm bells were going off in my head. I realized then that I need to be very careful here. This culture is foreign to me, and it would be too easy for me to find myself trapped.

Anas and I waited while Latifa disappeared into the crowd to find her family. Anas, too, was alarmed at this development, and he did little to allay my apprehension. I assured him that it would be alright. She’s leaving tomorrow morning to return to Casablanca, I reminded him. There’s no way she’s planning a future for us.

Latifa emerged from the crowd with her sisters, mother, and a brother in tow. I said salaam to them and talked for a bit. Their English was limited so our conversation was thankfully brief. As I eyed Latifa’s family, I got the troubling impression that they were sizing me up as a potential suitor for her, but I admit it could have all been in my head. Nonetheless, I was glad to see them leave.

Anas and I killed some time at a cafe in Jama al-Fna. We sat on the second floor from where we had a magnificent view of the square. Unlike Casablanca, Marrakesh retains a rough-around-the-edges feel, which makes it so delightful to explore. Jama al-Fna is the epicenter of Marrakesh, and it beats with a vibrant pulse. The whole square is aglow in a soft orange light. People mill about. Motorcycles, horse carriages, and donkey carts weave through the crowd. A constant drum beat accompanied by a wailing singer — a type of music called ginawa — can be heard above the clatter of the traffic. The rising white smoke enhances the mystical quality of the place.

Anas and I went to a posh night club later tonight. The club is part of a casino. It was very expensive to get in, and refreshments were also tremendously expensive at 100 Dirhams for a glass of soda. Anas and I danced for a bit, but I began to lose interest. It’s really not fun to go stag to a club, especially if you don’t drink. We started to take some pictures, but one of the security guards stopped us and pulled us aside. He demanded that we show him the pictures we took. I obliged, and he ordered that I delete the ones that showed anyone else’s face. I assume they’re very uptight about the security and privacy of their patrons and staff. This incident reminded me of the dichotomy that exists here. As progressive and Western-leaning as Morocco appears in many ways, it must still wrestle with its conservative, Islamic identity.

Anas and I left soon afterwards and found a taxi to take us home.

Hill of Beans

We arrived in Casablanca, which the Moroccans simply call “Casa,” late last night. Mohsin’s brother brought us to their family’s apartment since Mohsin was at a friend’s wedding. He joined us this morning, and after breakfast, the three of us took a taxi into the city.

Mohsin and Anas both claim that the only place to see in Casa is the King Hassan II Mosque, so that’s where we headed.

The King Hassan II Mosque is a beautiful piece of architecture. The most noticeable aspect is the square minaret with a large turquoise band near the top. My eyes lingered there, admiring the handiwork and the color combination. I asked the guys if it was possible to climb to the top of the minaret. They laughed and said only royalty was allowed up there.

The interior of the mosque is humongous — appropriate for a mosque that’s billed as the third largest in the world after the mosques in Mecca and Madinah. I sat in awe for some time admiring the immense size and beautiful decor.

Latifa met us at the mosque, and the four of us walked around the mosque plaza for a bit. I realize now that most of the minarets I’ve seen in Morocco have been square, although minarets generally tend to be circular. Furthermore, mosques here usually only have one minaret whereas I’ve seen at least four in most mosques, especially ones as big as the King Hassan II Mosque.

From the mosque we took two taxis to the “Old City.” I began to see what Anas and the rest had meant about Casa. There’s really not much to see around here. It’s not the exotic place portrayed in the eponymous film. In the black and white classic, Humphrey Bogart’s brooding character, Rick, runs a bar in a seedy neighborhood, full of all types of corrupt, conniving types. The story takes place against an Orientalist backdrop, replete with camel caravans, dirt roads, and Arabs in flowing robes. Maybe at one time it was a realistic representation, but the Casablanca today is a sprawling, industrial town with wide, paved roads and modern buildings. It’s a dull place, and I didn’t find much going on. Bogart’s lines from Casablanca the movie ring in my head: “…the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans….” For me, Casablanca itself hasn’t amounted to more than that.

Anas, Latifa, and I hung out at a sheesha cafe tonight. I’ve noticed that Latifa has become more free with me. The attention is nice, of course, but the thought that she’s only interested in me because of my American-ness nags me. At the end of the night, the Moroccans decided amongst themselves that we would take a bus back to Marrakesh tomorrow. Latifa suddenly declared that she would come with us since her family is back in Marrakesh for a few days.

Sleep haram in Marrakesh!

This morning Anas, Faical, and I headed to the hammam.  Since it is Jummah (Friday), throughout the Muslim world it is considered almost mandatory to clean oneself thoroughly today.  I took my jalaba with me to change into afterwards.  This time I didn’t feel as uncomfortable as I did the first time.  It helped that the weird man in skimpy shorts wasn’t around.  Anas, who is the definite veteran of the Moroccan hammam, scrubbed both Faical and me.  Faical scrubbed his brother in return.

We returned to the apartment afterwards and ate breakfast, which again consisted of sweet tea, bread, cheese, and jelly.  Then the three of us went for Jummah prayers.  I wore my jalaba and felt like a local.

After Jummah prayers, we met Faical’s mother and Sarah at the apartment of Faical’s cousin.  The apartment is beautiful with intricate Moroccan designs covering the walls.  Faical’s cousin, Lutfi, and his wife are extremely friendly.  They had prepared a large bowl of couscous, which is a traditional North African dish.  It looks and tastes like a mix between rice and pasta.  I had expressed a desire to eat couscous to Faical’s family, and they had assured me that I would eat it today since it is the typical dish on Fridays.  We all ate out of the same big clay bowl.  The couscous was delicious, and I ate a lot.  The experience of communal eating is itself a memorable one.  The family laughed, joked, and talked merrily throughout the meal.  I contributed when I could.  Meanwhile, Faical’s mother made sure I had the choicest parts of the broiled lamb meat.

After lunch I felt sleepy, and Lutfi invited me to take a nap on the living room couch.  I gratefully accepted.  Faical, Sarah, Anas, and Lutfi’s two boys soon joined me.  For some time now, Anas and I had started a “No sleep in Marrakesh” slogan.  I had taken it a step further by declaring, “Sleep haram fe Marrakesh.”  As in, sleep is forbidden – as if it were a sin – in Marrakesh.  The point was that we had to see as much of Marrakesh as possible, even if it meant sacrificing sleep.  Sarah knew our slogan, so now when I attempted to sleep she kept waking me up with the chant “Sleep haram!”  The kids picked it up, too, and soon they were all ganging up on me and doing whatever they could to keep me awake.  I played along and grabbed at the kids when they tried sneaking up on me.

By and by, Anas and I decided to head to Casablanca this evening.  We had talked about going for some time now.  I have heard that there’s not much to see there, but there’s a certain attraction about the city, mainly because of the eponymous film.  Since it is a weekend we can hang out with Mohsin, Faical’s friend who lives there.  Moreover, Latifa has returned home to Casablanca and has been messaging Anas and me to come visit.

Anas and I caught the 7pm train to Casablanca.  On the train I was reminded again how incredibly social Moroccans are.  We found ourselves in a car with an older woman and her daughter, a precocious little boy and his aunt, a young woman in her mid-twenties, and an older gentleman.  Soon the Moroccans were all talking and laughing amongst themselves.  The little boy appeared to be entertaining them with his responses to their questions.  I couldn’t understand them, of course, so I kept silent.  Eventually, however, they asked Anas about me, and they drew me into their conversation.  The young woman spoke English very well, and I started talking to her.  If someone had looked into our cabin, he would have thought that we were old friends, laughing, joking, and sharing food.

Around Marrakesh

Today Anas agreed to take me on a tour of some of the tourist sites in Marrakesh. First we visited the Majorlif Gardens. The gardens are beautiful and well-maintained. I wonder whether Calatrava, the architect of the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, took some of his inspiration from the Majorlif Gardens. The walkway that he designed there is very much a modern version of a vine-covered pool at the Majorlif Gardens. Instead of wood, Calatrava has used metal arches to support the vine canopy above.

Anas then took me to Palau Bahai, which is an old palace. It is beautiful but falling apart. There is some maintenance work ongoing but not sufficient to keep it preserved.

Later in the evening we stopped by the market, which is known as La Souk. I wanted to buy a jalaba, which is a long robe-like garment worn by local men, so that I could dress like a native for Friday prayers. I bought a gray jalaba, and Anas helped me with the negotiation.

Afterwards we stopped by Jama Al-Fna to eat dinner. We had tangine, which is a Moroccan delicacy comprised of meat and potatoes, and I tried lamb’s head meat, too. It didn’t sit quite well with me. Not that it made me ill, but only that I didn’t care too much for the taste. An overweight, jovial young woman sat next to me on the bench at dinner, and she let me taste some of her food as well. I also tried lamb brains. I tend to like brains, but these weren’t so great.

Anas the Daredevil

Since I arrived in the North African country of Morocco, I’ve been eating all kinds of questionable foods from street vendors and the like. It wasn’t until I ate at McDonald’s last night, however, that I took ill. I’ve had an upset stomach since this morning, and I’ve lost my appetite.

I needed to get the strap on my watch mended, so Anas borrowed his friend’s dirt bike and took me into town. Anas is a happy-go-lucky fellow, and this attitude seems to manifest itself in all that he does. His driving of the dirt bike was no exception. He rode at full speed and weaved recklessly between traffic. I clung on for dear life, imagining the bloody mess our helmet-less skulls would make were we to get into an accident. Fortunately, we made it to the watch repair shop alive and with only one near mishap, and I got the strap fixed. I dreaded getting on the bike again, but I had no choice. Luckily we survived the ride back as well, and besides my fixed watch, an afro was all I had to show for the ordeal.

Marrakesh

Dear Friends and Family,
Salaam from Marrakesh, Morocco! I arrived her two days ago, and it’s been incredible. Marrakesh really jars the senses with its bizarre clash of cultures, languages, smells, and sheer activity, and I’m already enamored by it. I’m staying with Faical, my Moroccon friend from the train to Basel (I wrote about him in my blog), and I expect to be here until the 28th. You’ve been most kind with your suggestions and tips throughout my trip so far, so if you have a moment, please let me know any insider info you have about Marrakesh or Morocco in general.

Regarding the blog, I regret that I’ve fallen almost three weeks behind. Spain kept me busy. Don’t you fear though. I’ve been keeping my journal up to date, and I will copy over the juicy stuff hopefully this week. I’ve already added three more entries, so feel free to check them out.

I hope all is well with you. Thanks again for your continued encouragement. It gives me the motivation to make the time to write!

Faical’s Struggle

Later tonight Faical decided to take his mother to dinner. He asked Anas and Sarah if they wanted to come, but neither did. I agreed to go along.

I ate a McDonald’s burger after many weeks. Back in America I never eat at McDonald’s. I hardly eat fast food in general. In Morocco – as in most developing nations where McDonald’s has a presence – the fast food restaurant is considered a luxury. So it was a nice outing for Faical’s mother. Over dinner I spoke to the two of them about life in Morocco. Faical translated for his mother.

Faical’s father passed away many years ago, and since Faical is the eldest, the care of his family fell on his shoulders. He dedicated himself to doing well in school and with the help of a teacher, he managed to enroll at a school in France for further study. He works part time and sends money home as often as he can to support his family and to provide for his sister’s schooling. It is a big responsibility for someone as young as him, and I can tell that Faical feels the full weight on his shoulders.  He’s an upstanding man, however, and he does not complain. He’s a driven person, and if a little luck favors him, I’m sure he will go far.

It’s evident that Faical’s mother thinks very highly of her first-born, as she should. She’s a lively woman with a big heart. Despite her troubles, she manages to keep her head up. She treats me like her own son, and subsequently, she is keen on getting me married. Unlike many women engaged in matchmaking, however, Faical’s mother appears to have a rational, pragmatic approach. She has promised me a bride in Morocco once I am established in my chosen career.

The Bathhouse

Later in the afternoon, Anas informed me that he was going to a hammam and asked me if I wanted to go. I most certainly did. I imagined hammams were exotic bathhouses with ornate hot tubs and beautiful female attendants. It was about time I paid a visit. I asked Anas if I could first get a long overdue haircut before going to the hammam. The barber was right nextdoor to the hammam, he told me, so it wouldn’t be a problem. Anas loaded a small bag with some items, and we headed out.

I arrived at the hammam with a fresh hairdo and full of anticipation. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this place wasn’t what I had expected. What struck me first was the smell. The place reeked of sweat and mildew. To be expected in a public bath but discomforting nonetheless. Anas led me to a corner, and after pouring a few buckets of hot water over the tiled floor, he instructed me to sit down. I felt very uncomfortable. There were only men here. They were all in shorts, some in more provocative pieces than others. I gingerly sat down. How was this any different from a communal shower? I wondered. Granted, nobody was completely nude, but weren’t they all cleaning themselves in one communal area? Who knew what kind of filth I was sitting in? I sat tensely. Anas noticed my discomfort and tried to get me to relax. He poured a bucket of hot water on me and handed me a bar of soap. It was an unusual kind of soap. It was a maroon color, and it was soft like butter. I lathered my body with it. I quite liked it. I moved to wash the soap off, but Anas stopped me. He gestured that I should leave the soap on for a while. I sat back and leaned against the wall.

The humid heat in the bathhouse had a calming effect. I was getting used to this strange environment. Watching scantily clad men scrubbing each other, however, isn’t exactly my idea of a fun time. One man in particular weirded me out. He would lay on the floor for a bit, stretch this way and that way, perform some rapid exercises, and then start scrubbing himself vigorously. Every few minutes he would repeat this regiment. I tried to avoid looking at him, but he was in my direct line of sight. I wondered how long it had been since he last bathed. How much scrubbing was enough? To make matters worse, he wore especially skimpy shorts. After some time I saw him offer to scrub another man’s back. The man accepted.

Presently, Anas produced a dark gray, sandpaper-like scrubbing glove and offered it to me. I refused to take it. A little while later he insisted on helping me stretch out my muscles. I relented, and he proceeded to fold my appendages in different angles. He cracked my back and stretched out my arms and legs. He knew what he was doing, and it felt good. I finally started to relax and to understand this element of Moroccan culture.

Whereas for me, an American, this type of physical contact with other men carries homosexual undertones, for Moroccans it’s not an issue. These men could scrub each other’s backs without thinking that either had a homosexual attraction to the other. Male-to-male physical contact has a brotherly aspect to it, not a sexual one.

Anas pulled out the scrubbing glove again, and this time I let him scrub my body. I began to enjoy the rigorous cleansing. I couldn’t remember the last time I had my back scrubbed, let alone with the kind of vigor that Anas applied.

My whole body felt rejuvenated after Anas finished. I sat back against the warm wall, physically and mentally at ease as Anas poured two buckets of hot water over me. He asked me to scrub him as well, and though I resolved to return the favor in equal form, I didn’t quite do justice. After a while Anas retrieved the man in skimpy shorts to get his back scrubbed. When he finished, the man offered to scrub my back, too. I declined. He still gave me a weird vibe despite my new understanding of the Moroccan culture.

It had grown dark by the time we emerged from the hammam. A cool breeze had picked up, and my eyelids suddenly felt very heavy. I could use a nap.