Marra

“Why are you going to Morocco?” my sister had asked. It was March of 2004. Americans had only recently become aware there were such things as Muslims and were scared. I had stammered in response, using the usual four-letter words I resorted to when I didn’t know where or how to begin, though, since I’d met Daoud – a despotic Mauritanian who spent most of our time together giving immigration advice in Fulani by cell phone to friends and family – I’d stopped believing that swearing was the highest form of honesty.

“You shouldn’t speak that way!” he scolded one night with such contempt I was ashamed. Months after I’d stopped taking his calls – something told me to quit while I was ahead – I still swore, but hadn’t started drinking all the dark beer and Beaujolais or eating bacon again.

Preparing for my trip, I had searched the internet for clues as to what to expect when I arrived. A warning that they “pluck hairs from your head on the street if you’re blonde because they consider it good luck, motivating me to search for sites specific to black female travelers, though I only found something by Kola Boof referring to “Arabs and the Muslims” as “the greatest oppressors of Black African people in world history.” Kola went on to describe an encounter at a Marrakech restaurant in 1995 with Osama Bin Laden and his entourage of thugs that led to his showing up at her hotel room later to force himself on her. That night, I imagined a tall bearded man lurking in the shadows of my bedroom. I couldn’t fall asleep.

Opening my bags so every corner could be cautiously sorted through, then shuffling in sock feet away from the safety of “our” world into the danger of “theirs,” it was nothing short of miraculous that I eventually found myself on a plane.

“Are you Moroccan?” a round, brown woman leaned across the aisle to ask. “I’m Haitian,” she added, as if Haiti were closely related.

“Marrakech is like Greenwich Village. You’ll love it. The guys will try and sell you carpet. They’re going to say they want to marry you.” Wolfing down the soggy rice and chicken we were served as if she didn’t notice how bad it was, the Haitian explained that she frequently went to Fez and brought back tiles she sold for profit. Mentioning she had her own apartment in Marrakech, she studied my reaction. The prospect of crashing in a house with another woman from New York was more inviting than staying alone in a hotel room, but when she asked again with the same slyness if I were visiting a boyfriend, I decided there was something unsavory about her and clamped on a headset, pretending to be preoccupied the rest of the ride.

Six hours later, without having slept, I was speedwalking toward the terminal at Muhammed V International through a downpour of rain. Waiting for our passports to be inspected, the Haitian suggested we share a cab when we arrived in Marrakech. Partly hoping to lose her and partly to be polite, I gestured for her to get in front of me in line. Oddly enough, when we reached the checkpoint and I was waved towards an escalator leading to a second plane, the Haitian wandered off in another direction.

The airport was sterile as a hospital. Everywhere, Moroccan women in scrub suits wielded brooms. A documentary about a Brit who’d hitchhiked across the Japanese countryside, a farmer permitting him to lodge in his barn for a night, even though he was a complete stranger, simply because he believed all British men were gentlemen, came to mind as I passed a holding area of people black as eggplants, their belongings in fifties-era luggage or plastic bags, not a single stereotype about their race or nationality working in their behalf.

…an insanely smiling man who promised I’d never snore again had pushed an index finger of black powder lightly into each of my nostrils…

The flight out of Casablanca was fast, no cautious prowl along the runway. I was still fumbling with my seatbelt when it rocketed into space. Marrakesh was sunny. Against the blue, a splash of palm leaves. The free transfer to my hotel that the cheapo travel agent who had booked my trip promised, was a slightly femme guy gabbing with his friend in the passenger seat as if I weren’t there.

Groggy, I fell asleep as soon as I checked into my room and was still groggy when, a couple of hours later, I was swinging towards Djemma El Fna in a swirl of mobilettes and horse drawn carriages, a taxi driver ceding the right of way to some yet not others with a carelessness that was worrisome. In an alley of the souk swarming with flies and stray cats, I wondered if maybe I could sell a swirly tajine being thrust at me on the internet for more than what they were asking. In the usual panic I get when handling money, I passed a fistful of bills to a teenager I then followed dizzily up a flight of damp stairs to his cousin’s shop to buy some earrings, my fantasy of being in the process of launching an online business a momentary distraction from the uncertainty of just having quit my job.

All day, Monday through Friday for almost three years, in an odd contraption of a chair in a halo of sterile light, I had stared through the screen of a giant beige PC. Instead of astronauts searching for evidence that life on Mars is sustainable, they should’ve studied my cubicle. In the souk, when a vendor offered me halava in his bare hand, I ate it hoping the dirt caked in his finger creases would somehow cleanse me.

A kid on a bike had nearly knocked me over, and an insanely smiling man who promised I’d never snore again had pushed an index finger of black powder lightly into each of my nostrils, when, light-headed on a high that was part jasmine, part horse dung, I paused beside a store cluttered with antiques to take a deep breath. His shoulder almost against mine, Omar said: “They don’t make them like this anymore.” Lighting a match to one of the carpet’s tassels, he added, “See? It’s pure wool. You can tell because when you put fire to it, it smells like burning hair.”

He invited me to browse without pressuring me to buy anything, even though it was clear his shop was so isolated it got little business. When I told him I didn’t have much to spend, instead of bartering, in his long djellaba, he led me, Darth-Vader-like, around a corner and into a manky lot of carpets raining from a second floor balcony. I couldn’t tell which of the characters standing around following my every move owned what. He offered me a chair, ordering a short nervous man to fetch whatever I pointed to. The first unambiguously black Moroccan I’d come across, when he kneeled on the ground to bind the carpet I chose, I sensed the excitement of distant relatives meeting for the first time resonating in the unknown between us. Instead of us joking about grits tasting the same as couscous or Berber horns sounding like Coltrane, however, when he leaned toward my ear, it was only to plead, “Please, they give me nothing! Fifty dirham for me, Miss, OK?”

Too restless to sleep at night, remote control in hand, I phased through a montage of bleeding men, women and babies on stretchers or running through Iraq’s flaming streets, unable to connect carnage to freedom. Then suddenly there was young, charismatic Guy Philipe. Pitching his sudden overthrow of Aristide’s government to the media like P-Diddy promoting his latest CD, his coup became a lesson on how to come back from the dead that I’d study over and over. That woman on the Royal Air Maroc plane became an oracle in retrospect.

Omar had suggested I stop by his store at closing time and hang out with his friends, but walking against the flow of shoppers and storekeepers into the dark souk as its gates came crashing down, I’d lost courage and turned back. Days later, pacing around Djemaa, I waited for him. After a while, he appeared with the same easy smile in the same white djellaba. I hadn’t asked him to come meet me, had just fished his business card from my wallet on a whim, calling hesitantly to ask directions back to his store, but he’d offered, and now I felt a little like some corny character in a Harlequin novel being swept off my feet by a chivalrous stranger, striding alongside him to meet a friend of his in the souk. Ibrahim was to Swizz Beatz what Arafat is to Redd Foxx. When I touched a saddle bag and a bread basket asking their price, he didn’t answer, tugging thoughtfully at his beard instead and describing their actual function in real life before they became merchandise in the souk, making the point that Morocco was not a bargain basement for the West, but rather a country rich in culture that was more important to him than relieving me of my money.

Local guys guzzling Special. Unveiled women lip-synching to the house keyboard player’s Elvis Presley covers. The Imperial Holiday did not lend itself to Beat nostalgia as did shuttered hotels around the Medina where William Burroughs and Paul Bowles may or may not have stayed. It was more Howard Johnsons with a slightly Mediterranean feel off an exit on The Cross Bronx Expressway. At night, when I’d look down on Avenue Moulay R’chid from my window, there were no stars, only the glow of shadows smoking cigarettes.

Rising early enough one morning to catch the complimentary breakfast in the dining hall, I quickly escaped the mob of French tourists dishing up plates of runny eggs, swollen canned olives and hard pink tomatoes as if their life depended on it to try the bare-bones bakery across the street. With a bag of pastries that tasted like rugelach if rugelach were filled with gravel and sweetened dirt, I entered a café where a couple of men ignored me as they dunked shards of bread into saucers of honey. There, sipping a sweet pot of the a la menthe and, later, crossing a narrow sidewalk while approaching men who stepped into the street with averted eyes, I reveled in insusceptibility, a hooded brown djellaba I’d buy becoming an invisibility cloak I’d gratefully dive inside and live.

On an empty park bench in Gueliz, I worried about my jobless future. Realizing the fog above distant storefronts was actually the High Atlas Mountains, yet again oblivion called. The nicest day since I’d arrived, I replaced my worn leather boots with a pair of rope thongs and shuffled drowsily through the tilted palms of La Place, the Koutoubia mosque rising like incense smoke behind me. Omar appeared looking flustered, explaining the lunch he had invited me to share with him and Ibrahim was canceled due to no one having cooked. Without asking if I was interested, he informed me we were eating at his mother’s. Breaking my promise to my sister to “not go anywhere with anyone,” I wound up beside him in a taxi, spinning past a grove of olive trees somewhere near Menara Gardens. When we arrived, he advised me to push the door in and take a look so I’d feel safe entering. I did, recognizing his mom who I’d met in the souk, over a low indoor grill and another woman holding a baby.

Another breezy cabride and the two of us were crossing Djemaa El Fna again under the hot sun. At a busy intersection, daring me to lead the way back to his stall, the souk shattered into moving parts, the pattern too complex to piece together logically, Omar spinning around me the whole time laughing.

“I tried to wear a tie everyday, work like my brother does in a hotel, but that’s not a good life for a person like me,” he revealed while we were crouching face to face over
a teapot and two empty glasses. Hanging up a public phone one night, a young man stepping up to ask where I was from, had remarked that my eyes were beautiful. All I could think to do was to make sure I still had my wallet. When you look in the mirror and all you see is a ghost, you imagine that’s all anyone else sees. The awkwardness of being forty-four and getting close to a guy so much younger crept up on me. I decided it was best to leave. With a determined benevolence, Omar rose also though, insisting that first he wanted me to meet someone he had learned a lot from.

Talia had the hook nose and sinister cadence of a conniving Arab in a Disney cartoon. I couldn’t believe he was real, but he was actually the most real person I had met in a long time. Stacking a pile of French coffee table books on my lap once we entered his large carpet store in a busy part of the souk: “These people knew nothing about Morocco.” he sighed, pointing to his name in the acknowledgment section of one of them. As the sullen men in collars and belted slacks standing around, turned back carpets like giant pages, Talia argued that to appreciate Moroccan carpet, one must understand the context from which they originate, a context way deeper than Westerners know or can fully understand. A British man and woman who appeared couldn’t have had worse timing. When they asked for a price, with disdain, he swatted them back out the door.

“The Navajo use such familiar symbols. Is it evidence of Arab influence?” he pondered, smiling watchfully. “These tassels spun by hand, touch. Can you see a difference? These,” he noted with disappointment, “were done on a machine.”

Unlike Excel spreadsheets and Powerpoint presentations, I smelled and felt the soft dusty kilim across my legs and layered around my feet. I wanted to confide in Talia, reassure him I was worthy of his thoughts, express how being at home in this strange place when home had grown so strange, was such a relief. But when Omar draped a mutant mud cloth I’d been staring at around my shoulders that Talia gently fastened at my neck with an antique fibule and said: “This was made without interest in the continuity of the stitch. Without interest in profit, sister. Just for personal discovery. . . .” I could tell they’d already noticed I was having an identity crisis and were assuring me I was in the right place.