A Man of Morocco

This story is from Before the Pandemic, when we were still traveling overseas. Honored as best non-fiction and printed by the Nassau Review for distribution in May of 2020, it wound up boxed and locked in a closet when most of New York shut down and the journal lost its editor and staff. Here it is, harking back to former times of travel, with images added…

Thrilled to see a mule with a cart and driver, I took a picture.

I couldn’t help myself. So thrilled was I to see a mule pulling a cart and driver, I snapped its picture when it was close enough to touch. Looking up, I faced the driver, his hand thrust out in anger. Gesturing my apology, I fumbled for some dirham coins. He smiled and nodded. Our tour guide Tariq had warned us, Never take pictures of people without permission. After my indiscretion, I was careful not to catch their faces, only their look. Figures made of fabric, people far away, bodies in the landscape as we passed. Faceless people on a village road, blurred by the speed of our tour bus as it navigated highways from Rabat to the Rif and Chefchaouen, from Fez to Merzouga and over the High Atlas Mountains to Marrakesh. A single woman, cloaked to the ground with a bundle on her head. Two boys riding one mule. Women talking by a bridge, one with a baby silhouetted in the shawl on her back. Teenagers playing tag along the road. An old man leaning on his staff. Young girls, with and without head scarves, chatting in a schoolyard. The dress and scarf of a shepherdess with her flock.

Figures from the window of a bus

Another of the 25-some travelers on our tour, a woman who counts her countries, snapped pictures freely as we made our way through Rabat’s ancient market, leaving angry shopkeepers in her wake. Tariq paused to quell their wrath. Everywhere we went in our two-week circle of Morocco, Tariq shook hands and stopped to talk. He had or made friends everywhere, speaking their language — Arab, Berber, French. And ours.

The tour was billed as an authentic cultural adventure, a chance to experience Morocco intimately. For my husband and me, it was a respite during a four-month sojourn in Portugal, a chance to see Morocco without having to figure it out ourselves. Our fellow travelers, who had spanned the globe, exchanged stories of where they’d been and where they’d yet to go, hungry for more, often using the past tense of “do,” as in “I’ve done.” Cambodia, Kenya, Chile.

Tariq was with us all the way, in the front seat of the bus. He sang us crazy songs. Not singing really but tuneless chanting. Cool banana, cool banana, cool banana, oh yeah. Then he laughed into the mic, an infectious, hiccuping laugh, asking us if we recognized his song. Of course not. But we laughed too, all of us who’d come to look beyond the horizons of North America.

He told us jokes.

How do you put a camel in a refrigerator with three motions?

He paused to let us think, as the bus rolled past fields of sheep, each herd tended by a single shepherd.

Shall I tell you? “Yes!”

First you open the refrigerator. He paused.

Then you put the camel in. Another pause.

Then you close the door.

He told us stories. Of golden eagles and eleventh century kasbahs. Of Moroccan lions and elephants shipped to Rome. Of what happens if you eat too many prickly pears to correct your digestion. Three, he said, only three. Never eat more than three. He illustrated his advice with the plight of a friend who had eaten ten. Lest the seeds create a plug. After his story, I eyed that speckled green fruit on the market stands from a distance.

He told us of the King of Morocco and all he’s done to improve Moroccan life. Allowing his wife and children to be seen by his people. Instituting programs to preserve energy and the environment. Legislating free education for all, with public universities revered as the finest. Securing the rights of first and second wives with paperwork. Protecting the lifestyle of nomads in the Constitution, even though that means their children don’t go to school. Democracy, equality, liberty, Tariq said, summing up Morocco’s forward progress, while acknowledging the backward pull of its mix of ancient traditions: Arab, Berber, Bedouin. Change is slow. People live the way they always have. It’s difficult, respecting tradition while moving ahead.

Occasionally, Tariq ran out of things to say but kept talking anyway. Oh my god! Look at that. There’s a man walking on the left side of the road. And there’s another man walking on the right. It’s exquisite.

And I was made to think how odd — and exquisite — it is to enter another culture and try to understand how different people are and how much the same. How odd to try to grasp the difference by snapping pictures of people doing normal things in their normal lives when to me they appear extraordinary.

From Rabat our bus drove north to Asilah, a coastal town with colorful murals on its walls. From there, we turned east toward the Rif Mountains. As we arrived in the mountain town of Chefchaouen, a confusing commotion erupted beside the bus. Coming down to collect our baggage, we found our bus driver standing in the dirt with his hand twisted tight into the shirt of a teenage boy, the bus driver angry, the boy caught and scared, surrounded by other men voicing their opinions. Tariq cleared us away, to follow the trucks carrying our bags up the hill to our hotel. Later he explained: The boy had been found clinging to the frame under the bus, probably trying to smuggle his way to Tangier, onto a ferry and into Spain, not realizing the bus was headed into the Rif. The bus driver became aware of him, perhaps by a glimpse in his rearview mirror. He drove the final miles slowly, steadily, afraid the boy might fall. Coming to a stop at last, the frightened driver and the gathered men were arguing over how to redirect this boy so desperate to find a life somewhere else, as we walked away.

Chefchaouen is known as Morocco’s Blue Pearl, called thus because there was a time when its Jewish residents painted their neighborhood blue to distinguish it from Islam’s green. Although many of Morocco’s Jews emigrated to Israel decades ago, the walls of the town are still painted freshly blue each spring in time for Ramadan. And for tourists like ourselves who collect images of its many shades of blue to post for friends back home.

Chefchaouen, Morocco’s “Blue Pearl”

Arriving in a city — Rabat or Chefchaouen, Fez or Marrakesh — we walked through its medina. The medina is the oldest part of a city, the walled-in honeycomb of ancient dwellings built as long as a thousand years ago, with a maze of narrow streets and tiny alleyways, some so small that two people must turn sideways to pass each other by. The narrowest of the passageways are long and empty, with shuttered windows and unlabeled doors along each side. Wider streets are busy markets, lined with one-room shops, each crowded with one colorful thing to buy. Vegetables and fruits I couldn’t name, different types of meat or fish, rugs, jewelry, multi-colored shoes. Gold or silver decorations for Arab or Berber weddings, sandwiches and sweets, green herbs, black and yellow olives, bins of spices in shades of red and brown, dozens of eggs and tens of barrels of different kinds of sweet-smelling dates, buckets of soft pink rosebuds and racks of djellaba — the hooded outer robes which many men and women wear. Impossible not to reach out and touch the soft leather of a bag, the rough woolen weave of a cloak, the deep pile in a carpet, the slippery silk of a scarf colored by dyes made from the agave plant. The scent of freshly baked bread enveloped us as we passed an oven in an alcove — buy theirs, plump and brown, or bring your own to bake. At lunchtime, clusters of customers gathered around grills piled with skewers of meat, the sound of the sizzle as enticing as its smell.

A medina is not just a market. People live there, in dwellings we never saw. Are they dark and close like the shops? Or are they full of light, like the riads where we spent our nights? Those remodeled mansions of rich men were hidden in the medina behind nondescript doors, which ushered us into garden courtyards open to the sky. When the door of a riad closes to the world outside, the only sounds are water falling on water mixed with welcoming words. Commotion falls away. You sit. Someone hands you tea with the refreshing smell of mint. And crunchy cookies. To give you pause before they show you to your room for rest.

Medina alleyways are lined with unmarked doors, some of which open into spacious splendor.

But I wondered what might be behind the private doors, where people really live? The alleyways and workshops of the medina seemed claustrophobic. The cubicles where men and women sew or cook or sell their wares were dim and tiny. Eventually I noticed how a shopkeeper might walk next door to talk with a neighbor or go three doors down to buy some lunch. How their workshops are decorated with family photos and knickknacks. How they talk across the aisles as bicycles, mules, and carts navigate the crowds with fresh supplies. Children run around corners, seeming to know their way by heart. You can buy a fraction of a huge hunk of cheese, enough for just one day. There are pharmacies and lawyers. Some people never go outside the medina walls, beyond the gates.

The old medina in Fez has 10,000 streets and alleys; 80,000 households; 350,000 inhabitants. Leaving it behind, our bus drove to a nearby hill, and we looked back. From afar, the streets of the medina were invisible, its buildings indistinguishable one from another — except the mosques, with minarets tall and white, their roofs tiled green. Below the minarets and across the skyline, satellite dishes crowded the old town’s rooftops, all facing in the same direction like palms lifted up in prayer.

The medina of Fez from a hillside overlook

One catches only glimpses of the minarets from inside a medina. Their entrances are elaborately carved or beautifully tiled to usher worshippers in. Buttons along the alleyways help the blind find their way when the call to prayer rings out. No one enters a mosque except to pray. It feels intrusive even to peek.

The one exception is Hassan II, a mosque in Casablanca that we entered on our final day. Tourists are allowed inside, but only on guided tours. It’s Africa’s largest mosque, the world’s fifth, with the world’s tallest minaret. 105,000 worshippers can gather: 25,000 inside and 80,000 on the plaza. On special days men line up to pray in perfect rows on the cool expanse of its shiny mosaic floor between carved and tiled walls, or outside on the patterned stones. Places for women are smaller, hidden upstairs behind a screen. The huge columns of the main floor rest on rectangular bases with built-in speakers. At the front is a stairway from which an imam leads the prayer, barely visible in the vastness of the space.

Hassan II in Casablanca

Every day as Tariq reviewed our agenda, he punctuated his sentences with inshallah. God willing, this is what we’ll do today. Inshallah.

Shall I tell you another joke?

Yes?

Well, you know who is the greatest of all the animals?

Yes, you’re right, it’s the lion.

Now the lion wanted to give a huge party so he invited all the other animals to come and celebrate with him. The animals came together, and they partied. They sang and danced and they were all safe. No one ate the little mouse or chased the graceful gazelle. They were all on their best behavior.

But there was one animal that didn’t come. Do you know which animal that was, and why he didn’t come to the party?

As we watched the landscape rolling past, there were guesses about which animal stayed home, none of them correct. The bus stopped so we could see monkeys on the side of the road. They were several shades of brown, hard to see against the dirt. They were quick, as curious about us as we were about them.

We snapped pictures freely and then continued south on a highway through the Middle Atlas Mountains, well beyond the green fields of the north, which had been dotted with shepherds and sheep. Southern Morocco is everywhere earthen and ashen, with shades of grey and darker grey, beige and tan and sand. Dwellings, hotels, homes, and shops all blend into the hillsides like monkeys lost against the landscape. But there are colorful accents in the towns — a palette of surprisingly passionate details. Lavender, green, and yellow shop doors. A woman in a pink scarf or red djellaba. Elementary schools painted in multiple pastels. There are as many brightly colored plastic chairs as cats waiting to be fed. Tariq said cats are well cared for because they keep themselves so clean. Not so with dogs, even after they’ve worked hard all their lives tending sheep. We saw one whose work was done, after his shepherd sold his sheep. He stood outside his former home, scrawny, awkward, waiting for something to eat, an excruciating sight.

Tariq sometimes turned the table on us, probing around our lives, poking at things we overlook or think we understand.

“I hear that in America, in a place called Utah, some people have two wives. Is that true?”

“I hear that in America anyone can carry a gun. Do you?”

“Can everyone in America go to university?”

Sometimes Tariq ran out of words but before falling silent, he punctuated his thoughts with greetings, “Nice to meet you. Thank you very much.” We laughed at his incongruity.

Occasionally we came to an oasis. I always pictured an oasis as a single well or a mirage in the distance surrounded by a few palm trees. In Morocco an oasis is a river of green, following the path of water where it runs, even as it goes underground. Wide swaths of lush vegetation curve and flow for miles, bordered by the earthen and ashen towns.

An oasis is a river of green

Shall I tell you which animal stayed home?

Yes?

Yes, you’re right, it was the camel. But why?

You don’t know?

Because he was still in the refrigerator.

Tariq told us about his family. His mother is Berber, seven years older than his Arab father. His father was lucky to find her, he says. When Tariq comes home to find his mother there, he speaks Berber. When his father arrives, they switch seamlessly to Arab or mix the two without a thought. Tariq’s parents never went to school. Neither can read or write. They live in Marrakesh, where they built a one-story house, finished just enough for the children to be safe on the rooftop terrace where they hung their laundry. When Tariq grew up and got a job, he finished the second floor and moved upstairs. His younger brother built a third; his parents still live downstairs.

He’s been guiding tours through Morocco for 19 years, so he’s away a lot. When he’s home, he likes to sit with his parents to eat and talk. As he tells us this, he gestures lovingly to invisible chairs on either side, as if they’re with us now.

“Sometimes my parents go away to visit my sister at her house, and I miss them when they’re gone,” he says. “I will always consider them. I can imagine how I’ll miss them when their chairs are empty, and they’re really gone.”

He asks, “Do you live with your parents as they grow old?”

As we neared Merzouga in southeastern Morocco, we learned to tie turbans around our heads against wind and sand. And of other ways to use a 10-meter turban: filtering water, splinting a leg, making a sling, creating shelter, carrying a child or a pile of wood, as a rope for a bucket at a well.

Tariq gave us directions about how to mount a dromedary. Yes, we rode camels, the one-humped kind. I was startled by the terrible noise a dromedary makes when mildly disturbed by the dromedary behind it.

You mount a camel while it’s lying down. It’s patient as you climb aboard, especially since the handler rests his foot on the camel’s curled-up front leg. But hang on tight as your dromedary rises. It’s anything but smooth. As it untangles its legs to stand, it moves like a teeter totter, pitching its rider back and forth. In case you’re wondering, as I was, you sit on top of the single hump, on a saddle that isn’t soft.

Someone asked, “Tariq, will you be riding too?”

He said, “No. You ride. I walk. I’ve ridden a camel.” And then he laughed, not setting our minds at ease at all.

From my camel, I watched Tariq walking in the distance: a tiny solo figure in a red jacket, stepping steadily along the ridge of the empty dunes, leaving a singular line of footprints. A speck barely visible in the monochrome hills of sand. As we approached our destination, the shadows of the dunes were lengthening, accentuating the layers that reached toward the horizon.

In the desert

Tariq told a story of once, when he was guiding in the desert, two of his party saw a dune they thought to be nearby. Tariq told them it would take six hours to reach, but they set off anyway, late one day. When they hadn’t returned by sunset, Tariq and others tried lights as beacons but to no avail. Eventually in hopes of guiding them in, they built bonfires on the peaks of the dunes. Many hours later, the hikers reappeared, hugging each other and crying. Inshallah.

Perhaps you had to be there to understand the cumulative beauty of this man. A gentle man, honest, with bubbling humor. Thoughtful, full of integrity, authentic. More than many who make the news. Meeting this man of Morocco made Morocco for us. Prodding us to think about ourselves and how we live, we didn’t do Morocco. Morocco did us.

Shall I tell you one more joke?

Yes?

How do you put an elephant into a refrigerator in four motions?

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