My sojourn in a land of veils, desert nights, and hypnotic drumming rhythms ended when the US Sixth Fleet was ordered to steam toward Moroccan shores to evacuate military personnel and sensitive equipment from its naval communications station. Only two years earlier I had been whisked to that secret military base on the north tip of Africa. Our stay in that land scented with cumin and eucalyptus involved us in cold war cat and mouse games with Russia, miracle pregnancies, a cholera epidemic, and finally the military coup that hurried our return to the states.
Morocco was a land I entered cautiously from my first glimpse of its jade river snaking inward from the coast. If I experienced a slight shiver each time I looked down the road that disappeared into dense vegetation directly across from the entry to our base—the road that led to the reputed Soviet base—I had no real worries. My red passport was my entry to everywhere I chose to go and my protection.
I quickly acclimated to the temperature fluctuations: from mornings requiring sweaters against the desert cold until a sizzling sun brought dizzying heat that felt poured out of an oven. Around four, the temperatures evaporated, heat disappearing as quickly as it arrived.
On Tuesday mornings at Sidi Yahia’s souk, I squatted beside dusty blankets piled with dates, kumquats, or cactus pears to bargain for my week’s produce. I learned the practicalities of the metric system—that a family of three doesn’t eat a kilo of radishes in seven days. It took hours to sanitize fruits and vegetables and sift the weevils out of all the flour and pasta products we wanted to eat. I juggled French and Arabic and learned the language of the belly dance.
Saturdays I wandered the Medina’s maze and negotiated the dirham quota for each embroidered djellaba, string of amber, or gold bracelet that would become my Arabic treasures. I learned the mysteries of knots tied into intricate mosaic carpets and sank my toes deep into their woolen surfaces. The brass and iron sellers jostled for my attention.
“Madame, for you a good price, very good price.”
“Madame, Monsieur, entrer; je prépare du thé.”
I juggled the scalding glass and sipped their sweet mint tea. With the third refill they recognized me as more than a short-term tourist. For me, a semi-permanent resident, they made special bargains. Still negotiating for babouches and caftans—future Christmas gifts—and rugs, took most of an afternoon as Khalid inched the price down only a few dirhams at a time each time I shrugged, “Bissef, it is too expensive.”
Fortunately for me, the village pasha chose another American wife to honor —not me—at his banquet by offering her the sheep eyeball. Knowing that refusing would have been a rude breech of etiquette she hesitated, then tossed the morsel into her mouth.
In spite of the tight security of our location, the months passed quietly. A cholera outbreak stopped thirty miles away. When disgruntled militia attempted a coup against the King and my husband and I found ourselves facing rifles with fixed bayonets, I had already delivered my baby—uneventfully, without the special obstetrician I would have enjoyed Stateside. I left the country by plane, the Sixth Fleet not being necessary after the coup was stopped. An armed escort drove me and the baby to the airport. As our route took us through Rabat and past the palace, my driver engaged me in conversation. I missed the captured rebels lined against the palace wall, facing a firing squad.
Today that baby is a young woman who is insisting that I accompany her on a trip this fall to her birthplace. That trip will take courage. I will return to Morocco, to show my daughter the exotic land that she has known only through photographs and stories, the land she assumes I remember as clearly as a roadmap. We will travel from the white walls of Casablanca north to Rabat–perhaps past the same wall of the King’s palace where the captured rebels’ lives ended. I hope I can find my way through passages to an inner court where Moorish lanterns cast arabesque patterns across silk cushions, inviting us to a feast of tagine, chickens roasted with olives and lemon and peppery herbs. I want my daughter to watch dancers who might recall to her memories of her early steps that became belly dancing like her mother could never master. I’ll take her to Sidi Yahia’s Tuesday souk and hope my rusty Arabic is sufficient for buying figs or dates. No diplomat’s protection this trip; I’ll be on my own, a ten-day tourist.
It was early in the Parisian morning, and I was waiting for a cab to take me to the airport. After solo backpacking through small European towns, I was headed to a land of camels, deserts, snake charmers, leather and Berber rugs.
Au revoir francais, fromage, et baguettes.
And Salam to Fez, Morocco, my new home!
As I climbed into the cab, I double-checked my notes. I had my passport, my boarding pass, and my notes about how to get from the airport to my riad, or my Moroccan hotel. The flight went smoothly, and as we got off the plane, the man next to me offered to help me get a cab. I told him no thanks. There was someone waiting for me from my riad. As I walked from the plane to the airport, we separated. Morocco was warm and beautiful, and I was relaxed, happy, and confident.
I walked through the people waiting to greet the arrivals, looking for someone holding a whiteboard with my name on it. Slowly, the others filtered out of the airport, and before I knew it, I was the one unclaimed arrival. My stomach flipped with panic, but I didn’t cry. Crying was for the Geneva airport, when I arrived alone, tired, and hungry three weeks ago.
I recalled lessons that I had learned arriving in other new cities. I stopped at the information desk, where the ladies giggled at my broken Arabic. I asked a security guard where to find a phone. I found myself talking in French to Yousif, at the riad. “I don’t know who you are,” he kept telling me. I asked if I had the wrong number, and if this was Riad Medina, but this was indeed my riad. I had never felt so lost.
Or so brave. I told myself that I couldn’t stay at the airport for the next four months. I couldn’t even sleep there that night.
I marched out of the airport.
Those who saw me might say that I dragged my backpack and stumbled blindly into the street until I noticed the sign pointing me in the direction of taxis. I remembered reading in tour books that in Fez, there were red cars labeled “Petit Taxi.” Unfortunately, there were none of these saviors in sight. As I was trying to come up with a new plan, a group of men surrounded me, claiming to be taxi drivers. They found someone who could speak English, and I gave him my handwritten directions and phone number to Riad Medina. He called Yousif and motioned for me to follow. And then, I did the scariest thing that I had ever done. When I was expecting to climb into one of the little red cars, he led me to a white car. And we got in.
I don’t know why I got into this unmarked car. The man was obviously trying to gain my trust, and like a kidnapper offering a child a puppy, he told me stories of his American friends. I listened nervously as we approached the city and those red taxis whizzed past us. I hadn’t lost all trust in this man yet, but an escape plan began to form in my mind: maybe I would roll out at a red light and find a nice woman to help me.
He pulled over eventually at what seemed to be a door to the walled city. A man came over and apologized for not being at the airport when I showed him my hotel confirmation. I paid for the cab, and Yousif and I went off into the old city.
Looking back, I might have just been sold into slavery.
He led me through the winding streets, and we stopped at a small, dirty door. I was expecting the worst and prepared to fight.
But a smiling, Moroccan woman greeted us. The other hotel guests were sipping tea near the pool, as promised on Trip Advisor. As I chatted with Yousif, his wife, and a French couple, I thanked my good luck that I had run into good people, that the white cars are actually “Grand Taxis,” and that I was still alive.
Today, back home in America, I am proud of the bravery that I mustered up on that wonderful day. I dream about going back to Fez and getting lost in the old city, and relying on the goodwill and friendliness of the people to find my way home. That day in Fez proved two things to me: first, there are more good people in the world than bad. And second, I am a brave person for taking a risk and trusting the world in which I live. I dream about returning to Fez, where I learned just how brave I am.
Sometime between being caked with black soap and having my boobs scrubbed with what I can only assume was steel wool, I got the giggles. I should have clued in to the oddities to come within the hammam when I was handed a white paper thong upon entrance, but I didn’t. Now, there I was, sliding around on a hot marble slab while some woman hosed me down and repeatedly ordered me to flip over, as if she were basting a rotisserie chicken. I was eventually – mercifully – swaddled in cocoon of towels, ushered to a pile of floor cushions, and fed an endless supply of warm, mint tea. In the end, I felt much the same way as I did during the rest of my stay in Marrakech, which is to say: confused, mildly abused, yet exhilarated nonetheless.
For the uninitiated such as myself, Marrakech can swallow you whole. If London is an anthill of organized layers and regimented routines, Marrakech is the feeding frenzy atop a pile of picnic leftovers. It’s raw, chaotic, colorful, and, at times, jarring.
But sometimes chaos is what we need, isn’t it? To be tossed into mayhem; thrown back to that place where we see everything anew again, as through a child’s eyes. It’s only when we are placed into the unfamiliar that our senses are sent into overdrive, forcing us to live in the present moment.
And to walk through the streets of Marrakech is to have the present moment unceremoniously shoved in your face. Fumes float from the tanner, a metal worker hammers, neon dye drips from wool strung above. Donkeys drag, motorcycles rev, verbena hangs brittle in the sun. A thick snake sways languid to a tune. Cool orange juice to squelch the heat. Hello/Hola/Bonjour, Madam! Special price just for you! Come inside, just to look! Snails for one durham! Scarfs! Soap! Spices! Three men pull a lamb from a pit, steamed and salted. The street is sweet with cumin. A stop for tea. The call to prayer. Five times a day all is dropped. Five times a day, the movement, the melody, the madness is put on pause. Five times a day, there is space to draw a deep breath and take it all in.
The whirling chaos of the Red City often left me frazzled (and once drove me to tears), but it also gave me the cultural slap in the face I so love to experience and am finding increasingly difficult to find. Most of my travels have been to sanitized, Western countries and it seems I’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel so utterly out of place, what it’s like to have expectations shattered in the best way possible.
I thought I was traveling to Morocco for warm weather and a tagine or two, but what I got was a glimpse into another world and a reminder of how grateful I am for destinations that challenge my comfort, my routine and my ideas of what travel is meant to be. Marrakech taught me to embrace discomfort and vulnerability and, yes, even white paper thongs, because it’s in these states that we learn to challenge ourselves and in doing so, broaden our ideas of the world and the lives lived within it.
Sitting in a small circle around the fire that evening, darkness fell all around us. Beyond the glow of the fire, the endless sand dunes that extended outward in every direction fell asleep in the alluring shadows of the night. Above us, the scintillating stars in the infinite sky twinkled with divine secrets to which we were not privy. Someone pointed out Mars in the starlight, while another, the Milky Way. We see what our eyes allow us to see; in the middle of the Sahara, your imagination takes rein and you find your wildest dreams taking flight.
Four snowy-white cats with features resembling that of leopards encircled us. I wondered if they were residents of the desert or nomads at heart, with an insatiable bout of wanderlust, not unlike myself. In the distance, the camels were sound asleep. I smiled at the thought of my intrepid camel with the jagged half-ear, who had hours before ventured into the heart of the Sahara with me at sunset. There are countless ways in which the losses in our lives manifest themselves.
Yet, there are also joys. For instance, the joy of hearing your sentiments being shared aloud by a Dominican traveler named Miguel, who had, at the sight of the sun setting over the undulating mountains of golden sand, exclaimed profusely in Spanish: “Gracias, muchas gracias, God, for creating this beauty, and for allowing me to be part of this beauty!”
Most of all, it is for me the joy of meeting like-minded wanderers on the road, with whom your paths cross ever so briefly, and yet, have the power to leave an indelible mark in the geography of your heart. In the desert, I met one such inspiring woman who caused me to tear while listening to her story by the fire. Her name was Alejandra Cardenas.
A single, immigrant mother who had painstakingly brought up her daughter to have had her heart broken when her child left home at the age of 20, Alejandra decided that she had to, for the first time, live not for others but for herself. She has had a trying life, but her lifelong dream was to travel the world. To embark on this journey, she sold all her material possessions, abandoned all forms of convention, and kept her zeal and courage shining in the paths she has chosen to walk, touching the lives of those she has met, mine included.
Despite having suffered humiliations, one of which included having to literally stand up by and for herself while ignoring the leering faces of unkind teenagers when she slipped and fell in a youth hostel in Italy, Alejandra remains stoic in the pursuit of her dream. She shared her uplifting stories from the road thus far, and the exotic destinations she planned to go after leaving Morocco: Kenya, Egypt, and subsequently, wherever else her heart led her.
Her face lit not only by the light of the fire, she effused: “Mija, I urge you to go travel. Travel as far and as widely as you can. Do it when you are young. When you reach my age, you’ll realize how the muscles start to ache and the bones, they hurt from walking too much. Travel is the best education anyone could ever have. You learn so much about people, about different cultures, about yourself. This is something no one and no university can ever teach you.” Smiling to herself, she said in a whisper: “And I want to do that now, to travel the world. Just imagine all the stories I can tell my grandchildren one day.”
That night, with neither electricity nor a proper toilet, I lay awake on the sand-crusted floorboard of my tent as the faces of all the individuals I have met in Morocco, who have each moved me so deeply in their own ways, floated in my mind. As the stifling heat gave way to the frigid cold, I drifted off to an intermittent sleep, wondering what new adventures and people awaited me when I awoke.
About the Author:Agnes Chew is a writer, traveler, and musician at heart, with an insatiable curiosity for life. Enamored with the notion of getting lost in places beautiful and hitherto unknown, she has no intention of removing the rose-tinted glasses everyone tells her have been left on for far too long.
Sugar-packed mint tea coursed through my blood, and the light, quick pounding of Berber drums resounded throughout the tent. Travelers brushed aside the weariness setting upon them from a long day of camel riding through the Moroccan Saharan, and filled the colorful tent from edge to edge with their multi-language babbling.
A hand callused by desert sands grabbed my arm, and suddenly, the colors and voices of the Berber tent were spinning violently around me. “Dansez!” the shrouded face of a young man commanded as I clumsily began moving my bare feet. I quickly attempted to mirror his deft moves, lifting my knees and swaying my legs back and forth. My lack of rhythm was not conducive to the quick hops and jumps of the traditional Berber dance. I was beginning to resemble a scrambling chicken trying to avoid the chopping knife that would inevitably lead to me being served as a lovely tagine.
My eyes darted to my two friends sitting on the edge of the tent, laughing and taking pictures of my nimble maneuvers. I thought of dropping the man’s hands and running quickly to their sides. But, as I was spun in a circle, the glimmer of admiration in the smiles of dozens of tourists struck me.
With an extra enthusiastic kick and a sideways prance, I fully embraced my chicken-like status. I shook off my inhibitions, smiled and laughed. The tent full of strangers nodded at me encouragingly, recognizing my dauntlessness and cheered at my clumsy and spastic renovation of the traditional waltz. As I spun and hopped and kicked, my blood was suddenly coursing with more than just sugar-packed mint tea. It was coursing with liberation and courage. I was dancing hand-in-hand with freedom.
As the drums pounding faded and the boisterous laughs and squabbles turned to peaceful whispers, I found myself sitting with my friends under the brilliant stars of that Moroccan Sahara Desert, over a dinner of chicken tagine. We sat with the young dancing man, who unveiled to us the hardships of life in the North-African country. He spoke of his poor family who lived back in Marrakesh, of his life as a tour guide, and most poignantly, of his travels. In beautiful, accented French, he had spoken to us, in a low, serious voice, “I have traveled everywhere in the world.” Avid and curious travelers ourselves, we leaned in closer and pressed him to tell us how he had accomplished such a marvelous feat. “When I want to travel,” he said, “I close my eyes and point to a place on a globe. Wherever my finger lands, that is where I am. I go there in my mind.”
The young man taught me that night that capturing independence and freedom is as simple as pushing aside your inhibitions and allowing yourself to dance like a crazy chicken. But it is also more than that. Freedom is accessible no matter where you are, no matter what your limitations. Freedom is simply the ability to boldly swan dive into the depths of your own imagination, and use it to carry yourself to another land, where all restrictions, financial, physical, or mental, fade into nothing more than trivial specks of Saharan desert sand.
About the Author: Pamela Barry is a recent graduate who studied Romance languages and International Development. She loves to travel, write, read and run and just returned from a year of teaching and traveling in France.
Perched upon sky blue stools that match the wooden square tables and painted archways of this small upstairs café. Hunched over sketchbooks, our backs resting on the propped open balcony doors that overlook the grandiose palace Mohammed Sixth. Men sing funeral hymns below, carrying a small wooden coffin the size of a child. Walking the streets of the medina with their grave load.
One never sees women at these cafes. Last evening this place was so full and warm with bodies, that we almost left, for at first glance, there seemed no place to sit in the three chambered café. Men in the center chamber, crowded around one of the square tables ushered us over, moving aside to show there is space enough for the both of us.
Brushing knees as we pass, sitting down we entered into a serious realm of the game Dominoes. They played in teams of two, four to a game. At various points of the game tension would mount and pieces would be cast down with a loud snap on the table, the pace quickening. One of the players seated facing us had deep-set sullen eyes, with his back to the bar and doorway of the café. All of them were nearly shouting at one another, half in Spanish, half in Arabic. This man spoke with a grave sternness and deep intensity until after several rapid turns and fervent slap down, he spread his long nosed, sullen-eyed face into a wide grin, laughing a deep guttural chuckle of victory.
Behind him, two men small in stature, like gnomes, work at the bar with their beanies towering high on their onion bulb heads. Here a copper urn sits above a cave of coal embers, glowing the color of an African sunset. Tea and coffee bubbles and froths in copper pots resting on the embers. National guards stand uniformed below our balcony, guarding the empty palace infinitely. Apparently, the king comes here for his annual vacation. Today a game of futbol plays on one of two television sets in café. Chelsea vs. Liverpool, Liverpool scores one point in the first minute of the game. On the other television screen a classic Spanish/Arabic drama is broadcasted. Looking around the place, around half the men wear western clothing and the other half, traditional djellabas.
The café is roughly six or seven strides from the entrance of Hotel Africa. Nordine, King of Hotel Africa, speaks French, German, English, Spanish, and Arabic. His frequent vocal outbursts are jovial, resonating profoundly within his throat “Bravo!! Salam alikom!!, Saha.” He sits upon his African throne, a green plastic chair, on the second floor balcony that overlooks the intricate tiled lobby of the hotel. There is a three hundred year old fountain in this lobby, the water sourced from the majestic Rif Mountains. Towering giants in the distance, they provide the skyline of Tetouan.
Two daily meals are served here around 2pm and midnight. Always cooked in a tagine, slow cooked tuna, squash, chicken, sweet potato, couscous, sardines, potatoes, vegetables, everything beautifully spiced and frequently served with hot peppers and lime. Flat bread serves as cutlery. 10-12 people sit around a four-person card table covered with clear plastic that also serves as a lobby desk where paperwork is filed and passports handed over. Everyone sat comfortably round this small squat plastic table, the green chairs moved down from the balcony for the meal. We all eat from the same tagine, respectful in portions and execution of fitting a mouthful onto a small piece of flat bread, torn for the occasion of each bite. The men in the cafes seem to be permanent fixtures and they get to know us well.
As unmoving as the blue back dropped photo realistic representations of daises in vases framed and hung on the café wall. And what of the dead child? Why is it only men carrying the body, walking the streets singing? A man wearing a grey djellaba helps another smaller man, wearing a beanie, stuff a small television into a peach plastic bag while the beanie man holds the remote in his left hand. The operation is complete and he sets it down on a stool in the cafe, it is unclear why. I admire the way death is met by the living here. Harmonic cries in the ancient knowledge of song, everyone falling into natural harmonies. Drawn to the sound, I stumble upon a small room above a hotel nearby. Banging on tabletops in furious rhythmic beating, a room full of young teenage men boys, raucously singing and banging beats of death in an air of mourning but not of great sadness, passionate creation of remembrance.
About the Author: Californian musician artist vagabond, this piece was written in Tetouan after spending 10 days hitching from Berlin to Morocco. Living in each moment, simply and freely.
We pay the ferryman with a coin into his mouth and he whizzes us across the Strait of Gibraltar, across waters of indigo and cerulean collapsing into jade, a white foam skirt trailing behind us. At the crest of every wave I release a breath—exhaling my Western anxieties, the weights I carry at home in Prague, where I was studying at the time, those obligations and fears of the unknown. None of that matters in Morocco. And this feeling inside of me spreads throughout my body like a drunken warmth, a pocket full of ashes–the anticipation, it tingles. I thrust my face in the wind. My eyes water and I exalt the sun.
My body sinks into the ferry as it descends into what seems like another world. “Down, down,” I whisper to myself, “into the lovely, dark, and deep.”
Fresh off the boat into Tangier we meet yet another sea—one of solicitors, echoing salam! bonjour! hola!, waving us into cabs, into the market place, offering to guide us to our destination (for a fee, of course). We walk past them and find our way onto the sticky seats of the Souk Bus, the only two girls without their heads covered. The bus swerves off on a curvy road and I stare out at the orange rocks, trying not to notice the turning heads with eyes that burn through me.
The bus takes us into the city of Chefchaouen, its buildings washed white and blue by the hands of Jewish refugees in the ‘30s. From a terrace we hear the Mosques calling throughout the city, singing to each other through megaphones posted on towers, the Arabic melody rising above us in the peach glow of the setting sun. Within the enclave of the Rif Mountains, the town becomes an amphitheater. I hear children playing down cobblestone hills, Moroccan women talking together as they pin up laundry, the skins of goats slapping the ground. A city of sounds. Standing at just the right place, I can hear anything.
Fes is even louder. Its medina loses us like a labyrinth, donkeys carting skins down narrow passageways, the fleshy smell of leather tanneries kept in by the rainclouds. The French man who hosted us said we were lucky to come when we did. The festival occurred a few days before our arrival, an animal slaughtered in every household. “Streets covered in blood,” he told us. The rain had washed it away.
In Marrakech, the rain wants to wash us away as well. Rain pours over the market alleys and we seek refuge in couscous tagine pots and mint tea. The square of the Jemaa el-Fna floods as shop owners scurry to collect their inventory into plastic bags, but the horn of a snake charmer never stops singing. “Insha’Alla,” I say. God’s will. Overhead, dark clouds threaten us for days until, finally, we descend further south, crossing the desert threshold into the city of Zagoura.
After zigging and zagging on the edge of the Atlas Mountains at an absurd speed we arrive in the Sahara, leaving behind the dark clouds for a transparent night sky. I had never seen the stars so clearly–the expanse of sky opened itself to us as we mount our camels and join the Berber nomads. In their turbans they play drums and castanets and sing by the camp fire, beckoning us to drum and dance with them. When we dance and sing there under the night sky surrounded by nothing but a sea of sand for miles, I am lost in the mystical present–not in my fears, not the weight of a future I have yet to establish. I crave the unknown. I crave the beauty of our camp oasis, of being truncated from all that is familiar. The rest of our party retreats to their tents, but we don’t follow. Two Berber boys walk us through the desert, outside the edges of the campsite, past the sleeping camels, sinking into sand dunes as we try to climb them. When we’re far enough, we fall onto our backs. Perched at the crest of a dune, we bury ourselves in a sand blanket, cuddled in the warmth of the day kept insulated, the night sky glimmering overhead, our breath creeping to silence in mimesis of the stark desert air.
One of the young Berbers who had helped in our burial gestures to the sky. “You, at home in America, you have T.V.’s to watch, television…artificial, right? But this,” he says, spreading his arms at the white moon, the black screen so clustered with constellations, with shooting stars, millions of light-years trapped in one singular moment of time, “this is the television of nomads.”
About the Author: Lauren West is a recent honors graduate in English from UCLA and has traveled extensively, visiting a total of twenty countries throughout her life. She is currently working for the non-profit political project Citizen Mofo, fighting the good fight, and plans to teach abroad in Asia next Fall.
“Just hold on tightly, Fatima,” said the Berber man as I felt myself being thrown forward, and almost a second later felt myself being dipped back as my camel stood up. The name ‘Fatima’ had become almost second nature to me as our driver, Omar, had christened me as such from the start of our 2 day journey to Merzouga, the start of the Saharan desert in Morocco. At first, I thought perhaps he just didn’t understand my American turned British accent, but I soon found out that ‘Fatima’ was the name of the prophet Mohammad’s favorite wife, and it was a sign of respect.
The mix of French, German and Spanish brought me back to present as I surveyed the diverse group around me. Our twelve person group was just about to start on our overnight trip across the Saharan desert. An hour later we stopped our camels to take in the sun setting over the dunes. Despite being only an hour away from the village of Merzouga, as I looked around me, I felt like I was floating in the middle of a golden ocean. The sight of the dipping dunes turning from a golden color to a greying hue as the sun finally dipped out of sight, is breathtaking.
“Arch, come try this,” called my husband with a childlike excitement in his voice, once again bringing me back to reality. In his hand he held a sand board, which is exactly like a snowboard, except on sand. I turned just in time to see him jump on the board, and just as quickly fall off the board. The sand was too soft to fly down the slopes as we had imagined. He decided to improvise and sat down on the board and slid down.
Before we realized it, night had descended upon us turning the scorching golden ocean into a cool, black sea. Sitting on top of the dunes as the sand flitted across our face is a humbling experience. The world seemed so far away and I don’t think nature has ever made me feel so small. I looked up and the sky was bejeweled. I felt so close to the sky that I almost felt as if I could reach out and catch a star.
I suddenly felt a light shining on us (no it wasn’t a falling star), and my rumbling stomach confirmed it must be a call to camp for dinner. As I walked down the slope, I could hear the Berber man calling “Come Fatima, come”
About the Author: Archana Shastri is a communications professional, originally from New Jersey, now residing in London. Travelling and writing are two of her passions.
Anna puts her hand on my leg as I climb into the four-by-four. We’re in the small Moroccan town of Rissani, our final stop before Erg Chebb – one of Morocco’s Saharan ergs. Mustafa, the driver, smiles and says, “Welcome Maroc” – a phrase we’ve heard at least two dozen times in half a dozen towns. “Merci,” I reply.
It’s nearing the end of September, but the heat emanates off the crassly paved streets and tumeric-yellow sand. Out the window, a young boy rides a motorcycle down the footpath past the men sleeping on trash out front of their stores. The female students are on their bicycles, dressed in white hijabs, heading home from the Quranic school. “In Rissani, students are very smart, but very poor,” Mustafa tells us. We drive through the gates of the town and into the desert, along dirt tracks carved by tires. The car comes around the berth of the great Saharan dunes, and in the distance we see our accommodation: a windowless stone building surrounded by eight-foot stone walls. Ten camels are dozing by the walls, although we are told by Mustafa, “the camel never sleeps”.
We unload our bags and head barefoot into the dunes. It takes half an hour to reach the top, and once there we both fall silent. A full moon hangs over the Moroccan-Algerian border – while to the West, we catch the diffused pink and red of the setting African sun. It seems surreal, impossible. Our silence is shortlived, as three Berber children follow us up the dunes and try to sell us handmade dolls, stones, and jewelery. I empty my hip pocket and show them I have no Dirham. They giggle and make me empty the rest. The youngest, a toothless girl in pink and white points and laughs, and they all run back down to find other customers. Once night falls, we head in for vegetable tagine and mint tea, and then to bed.
The next evening, our guides Muhammed and Abdul saddle up two camels for us, and we head into the desert. “Fatima, Ali Baba,” Abdul addresses us. “Tonight you will sleep under the stars.” Our camels sway and weave effortlessly through the soft Saharan sand. As the sun sets, the contoured shadows stretch further and further, until they flood the entire desert in cool grey. We arrive at the tent to the now familiar sight of stray cats searching for food. Anna gives them some of her water and we lay down on the magnificent Moroccan rugs set out prior to our arrival.
After dinner (more tagine, more tea) Abdul and Muhammed take us further into the dunes. The stars are hardly visible due to the fierce moon, which lights the entire desert as if it were a flood light. Muhammed sets some shrubs ablaze to ward off snakes and we sit down. “I have a joke,” Abdul tells us excitedly. “Why does Abdul live in the desert?” “Why?” I ask. “Because he is… Abdul!” They both laugh hysterically, and we follow along. To Abdul this is a gag, perhaps lost in translation… But to us, it seems strangely profound – Abdul lives in the desert because that’s the life he was born into. He never once questioned this; he was born a Berber, and so he will live and die a Berber. We continue exchanging jokes until we laugh ourselves tired. That night, Anna and I sleep hand-in-hand on the Saharan ground, looking to the starless sky. We dream of the whistle of sand over the endless dunes and of the moonlit birds flying overhead, searching for something to feed upon.
About the Author: Michael MacKenzie: I’m a twenty-one year old writer who quit his job, packed up his stuff, and went traveling around Europe, Africa, and Asia for half a year. I’m currently undertaking an Honours project focusing on the narrative linearity and serialisation of travel writing. Travel and writing are my two biggest passions. Earlier this year, I was shortlisted for the World Nomads’ travel writing scholarship to Beijing, which has made me more determined than ever to get my foot in the door of a career in travel writing. Read more on my blog.
“I learnt the satisfaction which comes from hardship and the pleasure which springs from abstinence,”
-Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands, 1959
My son Walker wants to join me on an adventure in Morocco. I propose a rash undertaking, a trek to the Riff Mountains, the Mediterranean coastal range where the grass is greener, so they say… Not many tourists yet venture here. Yet it has one of the highest mountains in North Africa, Jbel Tidiquin, 8031 feet above the sea, and I would love to climb it.
We team up with a wonderful driver, Ahmed El Abdi, who takes us first to Tangier for the night, where we are given the room, we are told, used by Bernado Bertolucci when he filmed his version of Paul Bowles novel, The Sheltering Sky. It has a dark-wood chair inlaid with fragments of mother-of-pearl that is exquisitely uncomfortable. Adjacent is a fine bureau with tooled cabriole legs, and when I open one of the miniature drawers there is a scrap of crumpled paper with illegible scrawling…and I wonder if this might be some script notes from the mind of a genius filmmaker.
It reminds me of a moment some years ago when I stayed at Francis Ford Coppola’s Blancaneaux Lodge in the glazed hills of Belize. It was during the off-season, and the eco-resort was near empty, so the manager offered that I stay in Francis’s private bungalow. I looked around his room and saw portraits of his extended family, including Nicholas Cage and Sofia Coppola; piles of scripts, and notes scribbled on scraps of paper. This was a creative retreat for the director, and he came here to find inspiration, the manager said brightly. I happened to be carrying a few of the books I had authored, so I scattered them around the room, and put some in the dresser drawers, hoping Francis might find something he liked and give me a call. I’m still waiting.
So, here, too, I have a couple of my books, and I slip one into the bureau drawer. You never know.
The day following we make the five hour drive from Tangier to the village of Chefchaouen (which means “look at the peaks”). Along the way we stop and Walker enjoys a number of “firsts,” his first camel ride, his first cup of coffee, and his first “monkey shower,” when a road-side handler places the primate on Walker’s shoulder for a photo op. One “first” he refuses is a hookah suck. At the back of a roadside café curved like the shell of a snail, men are drawing conspiratorially on giant hubble-bubble pipes, and so I order up one with two hoses. When it arrives I show him how it works, and the water gurgles, as a cloud of smoke curls the air. But Walker declines the cool smoke, and orders a Coke instead.
We pass cork forest and olive groves, soaring brick minarets trimmed with white, flocks of black goats and off-white sheep, and most provocative to Walker’s eye, shepherdesses in scarlet hats, white tops, boots and bright red knickerbocker leggings.
The sun is burning low and coppery when we pass through the Bab el-Majorrol gate into Chefchaouen, which happens to be a sister city of Issaquah, Washington, where I enjoyed many a hike when I lived in adjacent Redmond, and the two towns, I must say, would seem to have little in common. Up a steep, steep hill we grind, the engine sounding like a spoon caught in a disposal. We pull into the Atlas Riad Chaouen, nestled in a saddle beneath the stark limestone rock face of Ain Tissemlal (3280′) and Jebel el Kelaa (4206′), known together as Ech-Chaoua (the horns). Though in the shadow of these peaks, the hotel at the same time hangs high above the village, like the lair of a Doctor Seuss character. We drop our bags in the room, which is filled with the swish of the wind from the eucalyptus trees outside the single window. We pull back the curtains and are dazzled by a flood of canary yellow light. But when our eyes adjust we gape at a view of medieval houses whitened with a bluish lime — the walls shine in the sun like a glacier.
Walker is restless, and wants to stretch legs, so we decide to take a short hike to the ruins of a 250-year-old Portuguese mosque on a slope across the main river valley. It’s a hot hike, but it feels cooler for the long view from the crumbling tower across the river to the medina. Try to imagine the coolest, most mouth-wateringly liquid blue you’ve ever wanted to drink or dive into on a hot day: the homes in Chefchaouen are painted that color.
On the way back to the hotel we thread through the eastern gate of the medina, Bab el-Ansar, into the compact, cobalt blue-washed world via its steep and maze-like walkways. Even the stairs are dyed soft blue or cream. It makes the ice cream for sale from little carts irresistible, and we indulge in some soupy blue scoops on cones. Then we divagate the worn cobbled alleyways, some so narrow Walker’s long outstretched arms can touch both walls. We pass beneath tiny balconies, past little shops selling woven blankets, cedar wood antiques, necklaces of silver and red coral, and fennec furs. The tea houses are crowded but breezy with chat and brews. No cell phones here; just a cool, serene atmosphere. Blue is the overriding color; there is no seam between building and the sky…it’s like walking along the bottom of a resort pool.
Originally a fortress town, Chefchaouen was founded in 1471 to halt the advance of the Iberians after their capture of Ceuta to the north (still a Spanish protectorate), and served as a religious sanctuary for Muslims and Jews absquatulating from Granada. A series of dynasties ruled the area, long a center for Sufi mysticism, and the ‘zouia’ brotherhoods still practice their rites and traditions today. Access for Christians, however, was only gained in 1920, when Spanish troops occupied northern Morocco. Before then, the tourist brochure trumpets, only three westerners had ever visited this secret base. The invading Spanish found a time capsule of their own culture.
Now, Hispano-Moorish influence is apparent everywhere: in the clematis-covered archways that span the streets, in the narrow barred windows, and in the studded doorways that open onto sun-drenched patios. The singularly most stunning elements, however, are the blue painted buildings, soaked in different shades of turquoise and azure, producing a semi-mirage effect. The blue wash only came about in the 1930s, when Jewish refugees finally decided to paint over the previously Muslim-green window frames and doors.
Thirsty, we agree to sit and sip glasses of mint tea at one of the shops, one cluttered with treasure, and weighed down by a mountain of bargains. There are ancient Berber chests, silver teapots, ebony footstools, and weapons once used by warring tribes. Walker’s eyes brighten, and he soon finds himself tangled in the art of negotiating. He has the habit of rationing his conversation, which works to his advantage, as when his silences are long, the salesman breaks the quiet by punching his pocket calculator and lowering his price. Walker ends up buying an antique pistol for $30… the opening price was $3000, so he feels pretty trick about the deal, even though the salesman claims the firearm is older than gunpowder. I submit to a couple of kelims, the short rugs originally made to cushion the knees of the devout when they prayed towards Mecca, but now lining the walls and hallways of the infidels in the west. With our bootie in hand we head back up the hill, beads of sweat popping off our brows like insects. We pass a line of women in red and white striped overskirts and large conical straw hats with woolen bobbles, and they seem cool as cucumbers despite the heat. We beat it back to the hotel, which though modest in most regards, is generous in its air conditioning, and we sit back and enjoy the arctic air.
Almost nobody speaks English here — Arabic and Spanish are the lingua francas — which is in a way refreshing, and it prompts Walker and me to talk in ways we don’t when in restaurants back home. We point to items on the menu, and the waiter hovers like a black and white butterfly, nods, and then flits away. When he returns he serves us in a way that seems almost protective, as though there is a religious dimension to the hospitality, to the supper and succor for strangers.
After dinner I importune the front desk manager, who does speak a crumb of English, if he can help us find a guide to take us climbing tomorrow. “Ah, you want to go up our mountain… here we call it Mount Baldy” he informs, and Walker pulls off my hat and chuckles that it is the appropriate mountain for me.
“Yes. Can you find us a good guide?”
“Of course; the best. Be here in the lobby at 10:00 am.
“Isn’t that a bit late? Its summer…it gets hot. Shouldn’t we start quite early to avoid the midday heat while hiking?
“No, no… you will be fine. Besides my guide doesn’t start before 10:00.”
The sky lightens slowly the next morning, and time seems to pour like treacle as we linger through breakfast. At last, about 10:30 Moroccan Time, Anass Hazim, 27, saunters into the lobby and extends his hand. His skin is parched and rough and feels like the hand of a reptile. He tells us he has been a guide for seven years, and has climbed Mount Baldy many times — we have nothing to worry about. It should take a nice and easy three hours for the whole enterprise. But I am a little leery of his leather leisure shoes, even if it is but a stroll. I ask about water, and he says, not to worry, we won’t need any. But that doesn’t feel right, so I quickly buy four plastic bottles of Sidi Ali water from the restaurant and stuff them into my pack. He piles us into a car, and we drive through twenty shades of moonscape into the Parc National de Talassemtane, to a settlement called Akchour. At the foot of a low dam on the river Kelaa we park. The surrounding mountains are all burnt umber and dusty taupe, scarred with horizontal serrations, jutting up in every direction. Here we shoulder our packs, and start walking up the side of the river, past oleander bushes, through stands of Holm oak and feathery pines, and alongside steep cliffs. It’s steep and hot, following the contours of the gorge, so hot it sends chills down my arms. Walker and I each swallow a bottle of water in the first hour. I’m a little surprised to note that Anass doesn’t wear sunglasses or a hat, and to see that he smokes constantly, but perhaps that is the norm in Morocco. Our guide in the Atlas, Rachid, did as well. But there is something about Anass that doesn’t quite seem guide-like. His eyes are not far-reaching as are the eyes of most of the wilderness guides I have known. He seems to focus more on the surface of the present.
About noon we come to a natural stone arch that crosses the river, the Pont de Dieu or “God’s Window,” and here Walker announces he doesn’t want to go any farther. He wants to wait here in the shade by the bridge.
“It’s too hot, Dad.”
I’m okay with that, and since it must only be a short walk from here to the top, I figure we will be up and back in an hour. But Anass doesn’t want to go any farther either.
“Why not?” I ask. “You’re the professional mountain guide.”
He draws his face into hundreds of little wrinkles, not in a squint, but as if his face is drawing inward to escape a truth.
“I have not guided beyond here before….only to the bridge”
“Tourists don’t go past here.”
“Well, I am…you have to come with me…you’re the guide.”
So, I leave a bottle of water with Walker, and tuck the last one in my fanny pack for easy access, and Anass and I start the steep climb. It is a faint trail, zigzagging through the cedars and brush, and after a few minutes I can look up and see what looks like the summit. But suddenly Anass stops.
“We must turn around.”
“I don’t understand. Why? We can see the top.”
“No, that is not the top…there are four more peaks beyond that to the summit, and you have to go up and down steep valleys. It will take three days.” He gives me a glaze like the gleam off a knife.
“But you said three hours.”
“It is too dangerous to continue. It is a technical climb.”
“What do you mean? We’re on a path…let’s keep going.”
I turn and start to hike and Anass follows me grudgingly. I stop after a few minutes, and take a draw on the water bottle, and offer some to Anass…his brow is glistening with sweat as he takes a long drink, and then announces he is turning back.
“You can’t turn back…you are my guide.”
He clearly isn’t gripped with this idea.
“You must turn back with me…there are wild Barbary apes near the top…they will attack you. I know this.”
This gives me pause…the image of fending off a troop of wild macaques, alone on a hot mountain, is not favorable. But I catch myself…this can’t be true.
“I’m going on Anass even without you.”
He screws up his face until his eyes are no more than slits.
“You should not. If I get into trouble that is okay; but if you get into trouble, it is a big problem for me.”
“I’m sorry Anass….you go check on Walker. I’ll hike to the top, and be back soon.”
He gives me a gimlet glare, then turns on his heel and heads down the hill.
I realize now how brutal the sun is… it is midday, and there is no shade as I continue. But I am convinced it is but a short ways to the summit, and then I can turn back and reunite with Walker and the river.
But as I get closer to the top it seems to roll away, as though on wheels. And then the trail careens off to the side…I follow it, and it takes me over a shoulder that reveals another peak higher than what I had been watching. But it is not so far, so I continue. And I take judicious sips from my water bottle.
After another 30 minutes of hiking I breach another pass, and see there is still another higher peak. I weigh the options, wipe my brow, and decide it’s better to continue…it can’t be that much farther.
But it is…I struggle up a steep section, and rise to another false summit, and stare at a new, higher summit, but this one is across a wide and deep valley. It does look as though it might take days to traverse this route. Anass was right. But the good news, I tell myself, is there are no Barbary Apes in sight.
So, I take a long draw from my plastic bottle, and begin the return hike, now most certainly not overburdened with an abundance of water. Along the way I notice something I had missed coming up… discarded clothing. There is a pair of blue socks; a while later, a sweater. And then at a sharp bend in the path, a pair of trousers. What happened here, I wonder, that people abandoned their clothes on this trail?
It is getting hotter. The heat is rippling, like just out of a kiln. I stop every hundred yards or so and try to rest in the scant shelter of a scrawny cedar. I pull a branch from the tree — it smells like soap — and turn it into a hiking stick. I take the last few sips of water.
Then I start to feel the onset of heat exhaustion: dizziness, muscle weakness and nausea. My throat is dry; my lips cracked. The heat bites at the corners of my eyes. I feel a sweat fever coming on, though I feel no sweat. In a landscape as this one can sweat four gallons a day without realizing it. The sweat evaporates too quickly to be noticed.
I know what happens next….the throat constricts, the body temperature soars. Disorientation, hallucinations, gagging and liver failure follow, and then coma and death. On the upside, I could qualify for a Darwin Award.
The sky is anything but sheltering here, but Paul Bowles would appreciate this setting, I believe. He derived his most famous title from a popular World War I tune, “Down Among the Sheltering Palms.” Because in the Sahara there is only the sky, Bowles omitted the palms, leaving the fine fabric of the sky. Bowles presented the new conditions of modernity, ground rules for the infidel: the sky is the thin membrane between life and death, the traveler’s final frontier, and the last obstacle to repose.
I stop and sit on a lozenge of stone for a spell, and watch as a high-tufted Houbara bustard lands on a crag and struts about. I envy the bird. I want to fly. No, I want to rest, and lower my head into my lap. I can feel my body wilt and meeken. I fight for clarity in the mayhem of my mind. I curl into a little ball with my arms wrapped tightly around my knees and become a pebble on this path. I am, at this place, at this time, unessential to the world. But then I shake my head vigorously, and pull myself up leaning on my stick. I know I have to continue. I’m out of water, and there are no other people on this trail in the summer heat of the Riff. I pull out my cell phone, but there is no service.
So, downwards I stagger, my legs making long steps as if of their own accord. Had I jockeyed my horse into a flaming barn, I wonder? The faint path seems to divide into three, and I take the left one, as I lean that way. But after a time it peters out, and I am thrashing through sharp scrub. I’m lost. This is not the “lost” of the Fès medina. This is a lost that could have serious consequences in short order. I turn around and scrape back up the hill to the tracings of the path, and take the middle way.
After a spell I think I am beginning to hallucinate. I see a pond, and walk towards it, but it wavers away. I think I see a woman hiker and yell to her, but as I get closer I see she has the feet of a goat. She must be Aisha Qandisha, the Moroccan siren who lures people to their doom, causes uncontrollable ecstasy and ultimately destructive obsession. But as I warily move towards her she turns into a tree. I am accompanied only by myself. Having worked as a guide on the Grand Canyon, I know the dangers of heat exhaustion, and I recognize that I am sliding into a dodgy state. But what is the choice?
What was I thinking taking this trek alone in the midday sun? I am not Thesiger and his Bedouin, but a lesser mortal who has spent most of my adventuring on water. Now I am without my favored element, and suffering for it.
It is said that a Sufi dervish wanders the earth because the action of walking dissolves the attachments of the world, and that his aim is to become a “dead man walking,” a man whose feet are rooted on the ground but whose spirit is already in Heaven. I wonder if I am at this moment a dead man walking, though I can barely take a step, so perhaps it is a dead man stumbling.
At last I see the Kelaa canyon rim, I think… it wobbles rubbery in the heat. I disbelieve my eyes, and strain to refocus them… But the precipice is real, and though it feels as though every molecule of moisture has been sucked out of me, the sight gives me another wind. I totter and lurch downwards, mentally munching nothingness. In most circumstances a bridge is a good trek spoiled, but here it is nirvana. I spy the span, and Walker standing waving back at me. I make it to the bridge, and give Walker a hug, and then find a spot to lay down in some shade. Anass stands above me, his mouth turned down at the corners like a cartoon. He grabs a palm-frond and waves it around my face, like an Orthodox priest blessing me with his thurible. Walker grabs my hand and fixes me with his eyes.
“Dad, I was getting worried… and wanted to call for help, but cell phones don’t work here.”
I can only grimace… my tongue is gluey with shame; my lips round to form my son’s name, but no sound comes forth. My lips feel like dry corn husks chaffing against each other. I feel as though the sun had ruthlessly charged through my body, and left something less than before. It burned my outer layer and left me floating numb, a derelict shell.
Walker fetches me the last of his water, and I drink it greedily. But my throat cries for more. Walker gently pries the water bottle from my rigid fingers. Anass tells me I was gone for four hours, and that he was about to head down to Akchour to find a landline and call for a rescue team.
I take a long rest, and Walker and Anass fetch more bottles of water, which I down as though they are miniatures. Then, with Walker helping me I slowly make my way down the path, like a battle-wounded soldier on retreat. When we get to the Akchour reservoir, both Walker and I pull off our clothes, and jump into the cold, cold waters. There is an overwhelming feeling of Tissir, an untranslatable Arabic word for a state of bliss and luck.
That evening, back in the powder-blue cocoon that is Chefchaouen, we all take dinner at an open-air restaurant in the Plaza Uta el-Hamman, across from toffee-colored walls of the 18th century Kasbah. The legendary ruler Moulay Ismail built this Kasbah, but it is most noted for the hardheaded local chief, Abdu l-Karim, who was imprisoned within the walls in 1926 by Spanish troops. With his fall, the Spanish took over and held northern Morocco for the next 30 years. Now, it is a garden and a tourist attraction.
Between bites of our goat-meat tajine, washed down with freshly-squeezed orange juice (alcohol is prohibited here, though not apparently kif, which grows in abundance in fields surrounding the village), I ask Anass why he lied to me about so many things.
“You are strong, Mr. Richard. But as a guide, as a Moroccan, I was worried about you. I watched you the first hour, and saw someone more proud than wise. I did not think you would listen to my ideas. So, I tried to turn you around. These were my ways. I am sorry.”
But I was glad to be alive, dining in a blue cloud, across from a Kasbah. Like the nomad, when there is no more, it is time to leave.