Before I begin telling you about Morocco, a country in its own league, let me wrap up my overall impressions of the Arab world, which encompasses a large chunk of the Middle East and stretches across the entire Mediterranean littoral of north Africa and deep into the Sahara Desert. If you’ve read my travelogue on Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt, you already have a good idea. Generally speaking, I don’t care for Arabs though neither do I feel any hostility towards them. I had plenty of sour experiences with them – Jordan in particular was a sore spot – but in Syria and Egypt the good experiences outnumbered the bad, and nowhere did things get out of hand. Arabs do tend to be more rude and unfriendly than most other people. They also tend to be unattractive. Their shops and businesses are often scruffy. I don’t like their weird music. Arabic is not a romantic language. The food isn’t bad but it’s not great either; I never had an exceptional meal in an Arab restaurant. On the other hand, Arabs are not religious fanatics, and Islam is a tame religion compared to Judaism and Christianity. (Read the Old Testament sometime – or check out the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, pitting Catholics against Protestants, in central Europe.) Arabs are not terrorists. They don’t hate Americans. All of that is nothing but Jewish media bullshit, and if you believe it you need to get a life. Arab countries are safe to visit. I’ve walked lonely streets at night in Cairo, Amman and Damascus and never felt nervous. Of course, I’m basing my judgment on my own random experiences, and others who have spent time in the Arab world may see things differently – and I’d bet most would have a more favorable opinion. Looking back, what aggravated me the most was the chronic petty dishonesty, which I’ve talked about, and will talk about some more. It seems to be instinctive in these people, and I’m not the only one who feels that way. Years ago I read The Fearful Void by a British adventurer, Geoffrey Moorhouse, who tried to become the first man to walk across the Sahara Desert west to east, from the Atlantic coast to the Nile River, a distance of 3600 miles, using local guides and camels to carry supplies. It was a journey of unimaginable difficulty and danger. I recall one passage where Moorhouse expressed his exasperation with his Mauritanian guides’ constant lies and deceptions, including situations where a wrong decision, like locating a water source, could mean death. (Before setting off, Moorhouse had obtained the most detailed desert maps available and became fluent in Arabic. Exhausted and seriously ill, he quit at about the halfway point, in the small city of Tamanrasset, Algeria, in the heart of the Sahara, believing that if he continued he would surely die.) But again, Arabs – the ordinary people as well as their leaders – have gotten an unfair rap by the media mind benders.
To complete the picture, I’ll briefly touch upon the other three Arab countries I’ve visited, beginning with the United Arab Emirates, where in 2016 I stopped over for two days in Dubai, a bustling Mideast air hub. The U.A.E. is a special case. It’s a small, artificial country with little real Arab culture but with vast petroleum reserves, much like the nearby tiny sovereign nations of Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait. There are a lot of expatriate manual workers there, mostly from Mideast and Asian countries. Dubai is a strange, soulless place, like Las Vegas or Miami Beach, except that it’s wealthy beyond description, floating on oil. I took an hour-long bus tour of the city, and immaculate new buildings – homes, apartments, offices, shopping malls, hotels, restaurants – go on and on and on. It doesn’t seem to matter if business or occupancy is lacking. There’s so much money that nobody has to worry about anything except the oil fields going dry. It’s a tacky place with a cosmopolitan vibe; when I was there, the Beach Boys were scheduled to perform soon. Did you know that the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, is in Dubai? I didn’t until I got there.
But the first Arab country I set foot in was Tunisia, in 1981, having arrived on an overnight passenger ferry from Sicily to begin a month-long, six-country trip by Land Rover across the Sahara, and on down through west Africa. I had booked this with a British outfit; it was something much too ambitious to do independently. I had five days on my own before that memorable journey began in the capital city of Tunis, which some generously refer to as “the Paris of North Africa.” Tunisia was okay, nothing special. In passing I’ll tell you about one unforgettable incident. While sitting on a bench on a pleasant, tree-lined boulevard, minding my own business and reading the International Herald Tribune, a boy sat down next to me and asked me, in French, if I wanted to have sex with him. It took me a few seconds to translate and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. When he persisted, I threw the newspaper to the ground and shouted, “Goddamnit, GET OUTTA HERE!” which he did. That was a unique experience, though in my travels I’ve been offered the same by adults of both sexes several times.
As for Algeria (which, like Mauritania, shares a border with Morocco, and like these three countries and Tunisia, and other African countries besides, is a former French colony), I had minimal contact with the people, partly because it was an organized trip with the two driver/leaders handling everyday affairs, and also because we had entered this huge country at a remote border post with Tunisia, far from the densely populated coastal area, and things just got remoter and remoter as we worked our way south. Stopping in towns like El Golea and In Salah, I remember looking upon the people who languished there as human tumbleweeds living out their meaningless lives, as lifeless as rocks sticking out of the sand. What an existence. The road was terrible all the way to Tamanrasset, beyond which it ended and we just followed tire tracks in the sand, with 55-gallon drum beacons – weighed down with rocks to prevent them from being blown away in sandstorms – spaced about a mile apart, all the way to the border with Niger (correct pronunciation: nee-ZHAIR) and beyond. Assamaka, an old French fort just inside Niger, is the most remote border post to earn a stamp in my passport.
But here’s a question for you: How do you define Arabs, beyond the superficial fact that they all speak Arabic? Are they a distinct race? Not at all. If you look into genetic markers you’ll find all kinds of fun facts, one being that Arab genotypes vary from country to country, meaning, for example, that they have different susceptibilities to certain diseases. Quite a few – Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his attractive wife Asma, for example – could easily pass for Mediterranean whites. Most can’t, however, being too darkly complected of various melanin levels, and it’s not rare to see full-blooded Negro citizens in Arab countries. We can speak of Hamites, Berbers, Tuaregs, what have you, whose skin may be a shade of mahogany but who have strikingly Caucasian faces. In centuries past, some of these people were called Moors. But are they Arabs? It depends on who you ask. There seems to be no general consensus, and no geographical line separating Arab from Negro in the belt that stretches across Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan, where tan blends into brown which blends into black, north to south, though by no means uniformly. You’d be horrified if your sister were to get married here, but in its own way it’s a fascinating racial zone, not to mention incredibly exotic. Agadez, Niger has to be the most captivating town I’ve ever seen. Yet from what I’ve read, there’s still a simmering Negro resentment towards the Arabs throughout this entire region, going back to the days of slavery (which apparently still exists in parts of Mauritania), even though there’s been a good deal of intermarriage. It’s all very confusing. I’ll wind up this aimless discussion by stating that, to my eye, the Arabs are in large part a mishmash of peoples.
I got off on this tangent because I’ve always wondered if Morocco accidentally ended up with the worst batch of genes in the Arab world. This country, which occupies the northwestern edge of the African continent, is the furthest western outpost of that world and of Islam. There’s really something special about Morocco. It’s easily the most hassling country I’ve ever been to, and of the eight Arab countries I’ve visited, the only one that scared me a few times. The reason you never hear anything about it is because King Hassan, a brutal man who ruled the country from 1961 to his death in 1999, was always a friend of Israel, as is his billionaire son who succeeded him, the current king Mohammed VI, both despised as snakes in much of the Arab world. Even had they been anti-Zionist, the country is too far away to have any real influence. That said, Morocco is very exotic and absolutely worth visiting, though you have to be careful.
What is it about Moroccan men? I met an English guy, at a different time and place, who told me he had a minor argument there which ended with the empty threat, “I stick my finger in your eye.” Much more seriously, during World War Two, Moroccan troops were imported into Italy by their French overlords, and in May 1944 went on a mass raping spree in the town of Monte Cassino. Some 2000 women were assaulted. Several men and women were also murdered, some tortured as well. Arab men are not noted for their chivalry around white women, but I’m unaware of any other crime of this magnitude in war or peace. This brings to mind another tragic story. In December 2018, two young Scandinavian women were trekking through remote Berber villages in the High Atlas Mountains. Pitching their tent in the wilderness, they were seen by three men who, it was reported, probably falsely, were Islamic extremists. The women were attacked and beheaded, and it seems one of the killers posted a video of the grisly murders on the internet. Actually, this was an extremely isolated incident, and while other foreign visitors may have been murdered in Morocco, I don’t know of any. In fact, despite the frequency of tourists being hassled by belligerent young men, I never heard of any violent crimes there, though it’s probably happened. In any event, the three beasts were apprehended with the help of information supplied by local villagers, and the following year they were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.
As atypical as this double murder was, my advice to women, other than real risk takers, is to avoid solo travel to all Arab countries. Not that I think it’s unsafe per se, but because white women are guaranteed to get a lot of unwanted attention. In the minds of most Arab men, the fact that you don’t have a husband or boyfriend with you means that you’re loose and available. Enough said.
* * *
Morocco is within slingshot range of Spain, just across the Straits of Gibraltar, an hour by ferry from the sleepy port town of Algeciras. If its proximity to Europe lulls you into thinking that the atmosphere will be much the same, you’re in for quite a jolt, because the onslaught of hustlers, swindlers and dope peddlers begins within minutes of docking. Some travelers who arrive mentally unprepared simply can’t cope and take the next ferry back to Spain.
It’s a rough introduction to the Third World. I didn’t take the Tangier ferry, choosing to avoid what Mark Twain called “that African perdition” – modern travelers call it something else – and instead sailed to Ceuta, a tiny Spanish protectorate pasted on the Moroccan coastline. Here at least I could sip one last cafe con leche in peace before the short bus ride to the frontier post. The Spaniards waved me through and I walked over to Moroccan customs and passport control. I laughed after they handed me back my passport and noticed that one-third of the circular entry stamp had missed the page. Nothing surprised me as I looked around: the ripped up sidewalks, the wind-blown trash, the whiff of dry human crap, the crummy shop where I bought a liter of mineral water.
I was immediately approached by an ugly, unshaven hustler and his friend. There were taxis that shuttled between the border and Tetuan, a city twenty minutes away where the hustler was going. The taxis left as soon as five people filled them; we had to wait a few minutes for the fifth passenger. The friend told me I was lucky to be arriving today as the Berbers had come down from the hills for their colorful weekly market in Tetuan. I believed him because he wasn’t going there and didn’t seem to have anything to gain by lying. “See you lat-uh, alligat-uh,” he said as we pulled away. I laughed out loud and waved to him.
I sat next to the hustler in the back seat. He told me he had gone to Ceuta for his sister’s wedding. “That’s nice,” I said. He mentioned the Berber market again but I brushed it aside, now suspecting a ruse. By the end of my trip I had visited six towns where, if you can believe how uncanny my timing was, a Berber market just happened to be in progress the day of my arrival. I’m sorry to say, though, that I never took advantage of my incredible luck.
This is my definition of civilization: the ability of a people to form and maintain an orderly queue. It’s invariable: those countries where everyday life runs smoothly and which boast a high literacy rate and standard of living, are those where people can line up without any commotion, wherever that might be, and wait their proper turn. The more backward the country, the more anarchy you’ll see at a ticket counter. Morocco is a prime example. It’s impossible to convey in words the rage, the maddening frustration you feel when trying to purchase a bus ticket and you find yourself getting nowhere because men are shoving from the left, from the right, drilling in from behind – and meanwhile the seats are going fast. The ticket seller has no idea how long anyone has been waiting and doesn’t care. He’s confronted with three or four fists clutching bills pushing at him through the narrow window opening and responds to the one who shouts the loudest.
“You are still here?” the hustler asked in disbelief. I’d shaken him off fifteen minutes earlier when the Berber market failed to materialize, but now he was back and I felt I really needed him to get me a ticket, though I dreaded being indebted to him. It was a problem. Shouting angrily above the others in Arabic, he caught the attention of the ticket man and I fought my way to the window to hand over the money; I had my ticket to Chefchaouen, a lovely town of ochres, whites and pastel blues. He again offered to show me around the Berber market, claiming we had plenty of time to go there and return before my bus departed. I politely refused, saying I wanted to read my guidebook. He was persistent, as they all are, but finally he waved his hand at me in disgust and left. I sat on a bench in the waiting area outside and opened my book. An old hag sitting next to me asked me for a drink of water. I said no; I didn’t want her mouth on my bottle. When the hustler was out of sight I walked down the street looking for a place to eat. I found a small restaurant and bought a sandwich of grilled chicken, rice and vegetables, my first meal in the country; it was surprisingly good.
I asked a policeman where I could find a bank. A young man nearby overheard me and offered to take me there. There was no use objecting. We found the bank but the line for currency exchange was way too long and I left, cursing myself for changing only $20 at the border where the rate was the same and there had been no wait. This hustler wanted to show me the famous phantom Berber market too, with an added bonus: I could see women having their chins tattooed with henna. I insisted on returning to the bus station, and he insisted on taking me to another bank and then to the Berber market. “I am not guide, only want to be your friend, to practice English,” he explained, producing a card which showed his enrollment in an English language course. He clung to me for eight blocks, trying to direct my movements. I spoke to him in a friendly way, but the whole time marched resolutely to the bus station. Finally he slapped me on the back, said, “Good luck,” and drifted off.
I went through this routine every day. The worst places were Fez and Marrakesh. Until I’d spent a few days in the interior, in smaller towns like Azrou, Er-Rachidia and Ouarzazate, I was convinced that Moroccans were a collectively loathsome people. Why had I never encountered such constant hassles – I mean hassles that just never end – in any other Arab country? I later concluded that tourism is to blame; in that sense Morocco differs only in degree from other exotic, impoverished lands. No other exotic country in the world is so easily accessible, however; few Westerners require visas, it’s dirt cheap, fascinating, and an excursion from Spain is as simple as driving to work, and so they arrive on the ferry in droves. Millions more fly in from England, France and Germany on tour packages. Those arriving from Spain must pass through Tetuan or Tangier; most will visit Fez and virtually no one leaves without making the pilgrimage to Marrakesh. With so much interaction between the haves and have-nots, confrontations are inevitable, especially in the two last-named cities. But I still ask myself, why is this behavior absent – in my experience, at least – in Egypt, the other huge tourist destination in the Arab world? I must say that in the smaller Moroccan towns it’s not as bad. The hustlers are still there but they’re not as obnoxious, and it’s possible to meet nice people.
At the end of my 23 days in Morocco I was glad for having gained a wider perspective on the country by spending time away from the major tourist attractions, and also for getting through it relatively unscathed. The key is to remain friendly and talkative with hustlers, while also showing confidence, giving the impression that you’re going to do things your way no matter what. Those who display anger or fear can find themselves in tense situations. In Chefchaouen I met a young German fellow who was frightened to death of Morocco. He’d been in the country only three days but intended to return to Spain. Too bad because on this day there was a festival where all the townspeople killed a lamb inside their homes and had a feast; the buses weren’t running and the few operating taxis were charging astronomical rates. We were going different ways but we were both stuck here, so we hung around and enjoyed each other’s company. He said it was his first time traveling alone and he was scared all the time, especially when dealing with hustlers. He reacted to them with stony silence, believing this to be the best approach. I told him that only made them more aggressive when they sensed his fear, that it was much better to chat it up, as annoying as they were. Just then a sleazy man walked up to us and said, “Parlez-vous francais?” “Quoi?” (“What?”) my companion replied. “You speak English?” the bum asked. “Quoi?” the German boy repeated. He spoke both English and French, but he pretended to be puzzled by the questions, which the Moroccan took as mockery. “Quoi?” “Quoi?” “Quoi?” he mimicked, his voice rising in volume and anger each time he repeated the word, before cutting loose with some awful-sounding Arabic. Then he left. I didn’t say anything, but I think my point was well-taken. I hope he got back to Spain okay.
* * *
I met him on the way to the CTM bus station in Fez, where I was going to enquire about departures to Azrou, a small Berber town to the south. (When I had arrived in Fez, the driver demanded a “tip” before removing my backpack from the luggage compartment.) I was having trouble communicating with a man I had had stopped for directions, when he walked over and offered to help. (I can usually make myself understood with my high school French, but not always.) He was fluent in both French and English. He steered me the right way and I thanked him, but as everywhere in Morocco, I couldn’t get rid of him. Weary and cynical about mistrusting everyone, I said, “Why don’t we sit down and have a glass of mint tea?” He accepted the offer and we found an empty table at the Cafe Zanzi, where they used the freshest mint leaves, he said.
Miloud, who said he was seventeen, impressed me as being different from the innumerable pests I’d encountered after four days in the country. He had fair skin and a kind expression, a handsome lad who stood out noticeably from the unpleasant faces of most Moroccan males. For a teenager he knew the ropes of the “unofficial” travel business quite well, having guided tourists through the impossible maze of the medina, the old quarter, since the age of nine. In fact, he had met the author of my guidebook the previous year, or so he said. We talked for an hour. I liked him and I enjoyed hearing his opinions about Israel, Muammar Khaddafi, Islam and other topics. He was amazingly well-informed for a seventeen-year-old. I told him how difficult it was, with all the lying and cheating, for a traveler to keep his wits about him, especially being alone. He nodded knowingly; he was even familiar with the word “hustler.” I enjoyed telling him the story about the only hustler who thus far had really deceived me, though in the end it came to no harm.
It happened in Chefchaouen, where I had spent my first three nights in Morocco, and from where I had traveled directly to Fez. A man, thinking I was a Spanish tourist (“Hey amigo”) addressed me in that language. Speaking fractured French, I told him I knew even less Spanish and that I was American. He rattled off some more Spanish, then switching to English told me was a tourist himself, a student from Barcelona. He looked too dark and sinister to be a Spaniard, but he spoke the language like a native and I took the bait. He asked me if he could join me strolling around the medina and I obliged. Looking down at his sandals and dirty, blistered toes, I began to have doubts about his citizenship.
“Your watch, how much you have paid for it?” We had just sat down at an outdoor cafe. He wanted to swap his digital watch for my lowly Timex, but I refused on sentimental grounds. The waiter came by and he ordered two teas in Arabic. “I am studying Arabic for one year. Is very difficult language. You speak with the stomach, not with the tongue.”
“You seem to be coming along very well with it,” I smiled, knowing he would miss the irony.
“Sometimes.” (This was 1986, five years before I kicked the filthy habit for good.)
He pulled a plastic bag from his pocket. “Kif. Do you know? In Morocco, is the best in the world. I give you good price. Six hundred dirhams.”
“No, I don’t smoke that stuff. I thought you were talking about tobacco.”
“Okay, five hundred dirhams.” I frowned. “No, listen. I have friend. If you want he can put inside caramel. Nothing to worry about police.” He boasted that he smuggled thousands of dollars worth of dope into Spain every year by concealing it in caramel candy. It was the third time that day I had been offered kif, which is made from the most potent part of the marijuana plant and cut with other substances. Marijuana grows wild in the mountains of Morocco, and locals smoke kif openly, but the authorities deal harshly with travelers caught with it in their possession. At one time the country was a favorite destination for hippies and other drug subculture wastrels, who swarmed into the country after rock star Jimi Hendrix visited the dreamy seaside town of Essouira in 1968 and put Morocco on the map. (Hendrix died two years later in London after he ate too many barbiturates and drank too much wine.) But the government didn’t like this image and decided to crack down.
According to my guidebook, 500 Americans had been arrested on drug charges in the early 1980s. My “Spanish” friend denied this. I told him the same lie I’d already told and would continue to tell: I used to smoke pot every day for years but I started getting bad headaches and my doctor told me to never smoke it again. It sounded plausible, it gave them the satisfaction of friendly conversation, and it was final, though earlier that day one pusher had persisted: “Hey man, this is Morocco, this the capital of dope, this not shit American drugs.”
I paid for the tea and we left. He suggested we go to a shop where I could see how rugs were woven. The young owner, who had been lying down, jumped up and gave me a demonstration on the loom. He then said we should go upstairs to see his rugs, but I said I had no intention of buying anything and thanked him. “As you wish,” he solemnly replied. I knew my friend would return later for a hefty commission on anything I bought. I was getting tired of these games and told him I wanted to go back to my hotel.
“You have something for me, some money, some gift?”
“No, I paid for your tea.” I smiled awkwardly, proud for having handled him the best way possible. He stood there scowling as I walked away.
“So you see,” I said to Miloud, “in this country it is very difficult to find someone you can trust. Now take you for example. We’ve been talking for a long time and I’m sure you are honest and different from the rest, but I’m not completely sure.” I smiled and he smiled back. I regretted saying what I had just said. “No,” I added apologetically, “I know I can trust you.” I called the waiter over to pay the bill. “So!” I announced. “Do you want to be my guide tomorrow?”
He smiled coyly. “Maybe.”
“Good! Let’s talk about money. My book says that 50 dirhams (about $6) for a full day is the right price. How does that sound?” I didn’t like being so blunt about payment, but I wanted to avoid any misunderstanding later.
“That book shows the price from last year. To buy things now it is more expensive. You can give me seventy dirhams?”
“Hmm. Sixty, let’s say. We can finish at four o’clock instead of six o’clock.”
He thought about it. “Alright, sixty.”
We shook on it and I went to my hotel, congratulating myself on finding someone I could trust, and someone who was genuinely friendly and sincere besides. That was all I wanted. I didn’t want to spend seven hours gorging myself on “must see” sights. If there was anything I wanted to see it was the craftsmen at work – hammering copper, working leather, carving wood – away from the main thoroughfare with all the tourist shops selling their finished products. If you show the least bit of curiosity for just a moment, you’re dragged inside by the shopkeeper. No, there would be none of that; I’d made it clear to Miloud that I didn’t want to do any shopping. It would simply be the pleasure of plunging into the most difficult-to-navigate medina in Morocco, knowing I had someone to find the way out when I wanted to leave, someone who had lived there his whole life, and whose presence would keep all the human flies from buzzing around me.
Miloud was sitting outside the Cafe Zanzi at our appointed hour. We drank coffee and took a taxi to the Bab Bou Jeloud, a great stone arch and the main gate to the medina. He pointed out the different colored tiles on either side of the arch – one side green, the other blue – and we were swept into the river of humanity along the rue Tala Kebira, the main artery. I didn’t know anything about the golden age of Fez, when scholars from all over the Arab world flocked to the Karaouiyne, one of the world’s oldest universities, nor was I really interested. So I pretty much yawned through Miloud’s historical narrative of the Medersa of Bou Inania and the Mzara of Moulay Indriss. He sounded like he was reading from a book. There was nothing special about these structures. I think he sensed my lack of interest when I ignored his suggestions to take photographs. He led me through narrow alleys that stunk of animal carcasses to the tannery. Now this was the sort of thing I wanted to see. There was a large courtyard of vats and tubs filled with dyes of different colors, where hides were washed, softened and colored. The stench was overpowering, but there were men walking around actually dripping with this slime. I climbed to the top of one of the low-lying houses surrounding the courtyard and took some pictures.
“I enjoyed that,” I told Miloud as we walked out a different way. He asked me if I knew anything about the Palais de Fez; I didn’t, of course. He said it was once the greatest mansion in the city, but now it was a great artisan center. Actually, it was a huge emporium with rugs and carpets of all sizes and designs lining the floor and walls. He took me there.
“Sit down, please,” a man in shirt and tie said to me in English. “Would you like some tea?”
“No thank you. We just had coffee.”
He smiled and nodded. “First time in Morocco?” I said yes. “Of course you do not want to leave Morocco without taking home a beautiful rug.” And so it began. He started unrolling carpets and throwing them on the floor, asking me what size and color I preferred. He turned them upside-down, explaining that they took months to weave. He showed me one with more than 90,000 knots, he said. I would’ve thought 900 knots, but what did I know?. I didn’t come prepared to haggle over a carpet and had no idea what they cost. I asked him the price of a small rug which had caught my eye. “This one is $170.” He brought out a table which indicated the price per square meter, according to the grade of the rug. The more knots, the higher the grade. The government, he said, established the rates based on the grade so there was no way he could overcharge me. “You can pay with dirhams, U.S. dollars, travelers checks or credit card. If you like, you can make only a down payment now.”
“Well, they’re all really nice but I wasn’t planning to buy anything yet. I’ll be doing a lot more traveling in Morocco and I – “
“This is not a problem. We can ship for you. And for that small one you like, the shipping costs very little.” I didn’t like that Miloud had tricked me into this place, but I was beginning to soften; I really adored that little rug, and I had some blank $100 travelers checks in my money pouch. “You know how much a rug like this costs in America, don’t you? Seven, maybe eight hundred dollars.” He was closing in for the kill. “When you see something you like, and you don’t buy it, you wait, and then you never see it again, it’s a shame.” My inner voice was telling me don’t buy it. Wait. You’ve got plenty of time yet. Let’s look into these “government-controlled prices.” This guy might be just as much a thief as some louse in a dirty kaftan. “Here, you can read yourself. Letters from all over the world. This one is from New York.” From his desk he had pulled out a scrapbook filled with gushing letters. I read the one supposedly written by a woman from New York. Her carpet had arrived in perfect condition and she went on and on about how wonderful it looked on the floor of her apartment.
I stood up and said, “Well, I think I’m going to wait. I might be coming back to Fez before I go home and if I don’t find a rug I like somewhere else, I’ll come back here. Can you give me a business card?” His mood changed, seeing that it was pointless to continue. I knew and he knew we’d never see each other again. He dejectedly called up to a colleague on the upper level, and a card came fluttering down. Outside, Miloud told me I was foolish not to buy that rug.
“Listen,” I said. “This is the first carpet store I’ve seen. I want to see other rugs and I don’t want to buy anything until just before I leave. Maybe in Marrakesh. I told you that yesterday.”
“There is nothing in Marrakesh,” he replied impatiently. “This is where they make all the rugs, here in Fez. In Marrakesh there is nothing.” We walked along. Things were beginning to unravel. That exchange had not been pleasant. “Now we can go where they make copper” – he then added with a touch of sarcasm – “like you want to see.” We turned into a small shop filled with copper plates, daggers and jewelry. “Take your time,” said Miloud, standing by the doorway. Now there was no doubt that he was just trying to wring money out of me.
“Welcome,” the shopowner said.
“I think I should tell you that I don’t want to buy anything.”
“Oh, money money money. Don’t talk about money. Where you from?”
“New York! Wild and crazy guy, huh?” He rocked me by the shoulders. I couldn’t help being amused. “Sit down for God’s sake. Every American who comes here buys something from my shop. I know you’ll buy something too. Look at this.” He pulled an engraved copper plate with an oasis scene from the shelf and wiped it with a towel. “Voila! How much do you think you pay for this in New York, if you can find it?”
“Oh, I don’t know. About eight million dollars.” We bounced prices around for a few minutes, but I didn’t budge in my determination to buy nothing while Miloud was “guiding” me. Unlike the rest, though, this man didn’t sulk when I left without making a purchase. In fact, he asked me what I had enjoyed seeing in Fez and recommended a few other sights. I liked him for that. There weren’t many like him in Morocco.
Miloud didn’t react when I walked out empty-handed. Right next door there was another shop. He said, “Here you can watch them making the rugs.”
“I told you yesterday that I didn’t want to buy anything,” I snapped.
“You said you wanted to see how they make things,” he shot back. “Here you can see.” We went upstairs. I was livid now. How badly I had been fooled by this little rat! I think I’m a good judge of character, but I sure slipped up this time. I had looked directly into his eyes the day before and thought I saw honesty, but he saw only dollar signs in mine.
Two little girls were operating a loom. The owner introduced himself and I told him politely but firmly that I was not going to buy a rug or anything else. “I am not asking you to buy anything. It is more important to have love than to have money.” Yeah, okay. I was getting wise to this spiel. Back in Chefchaouen, I had fallen for it. I checked into a hotel room which the owner told me cost 55 dirhams. The sign posted on the door stated that the price was 38 for one person. I went back to the front desk and mentioned this. It was high season now, he implored; he had to charge me extra. “My dear friend, in my heart” – he placed his hand over it – “I don’t want you to leave thinking I have stolen your money.” That satisfied me at the time, but later I thought, if you don’t want me to think you’re a thief, why don’t you charge me the right price, the one the law requires you to display, instead of giving me this “high season” baloney. The sign, which was in French, English and Arabic, had said nothing about high season.
None of the rugs here appealed to me. They were berbers, of a different style and material and not as colorful and plush as the others I’d seen. He was spreading them out on the floor and Miloud was helping him. “Shokran,” the man said to him, a bit overdone. He turned to me. “Do you know, shokran, what it means?”
“Yes, you know. It is the first word we learn when we are little babies.” Oh, please.
He offered me a rug for $150. I suspected it was a ridiculous price but I didn’t care because I had no intention of wandering around Morocco with a rug folded over my shoulder. I repeated my line, that I wasn’t going to make any major purchases until near the end of my trip. I got up to leave.
“You can give me any price? Anything?”
“No, I’m sorry.” He followed us down the street and then he really let me have it.
“You are a fool. If you always wait to buy something you will buy nothing.” He kept talking and I kept walking, not bothering to look back. Miloud and I headed to the Bab Bou Jeloud and left the old quarter. No doubt he was frustrated at producing a dud customer in three places, and I was starting to hate him.
“Why do you say you don’t buy anything until you leave? When I hear this I laugh at you. If you don’t want to buy, just say no.”
“Why? What’s wrong with saying that? It’s the truth.”
“Oh, you only go to look. You will buy nothing,” he jeered.
“Listen, is it your business if I buy no rugs or if I buy ten rugs? I told you yesterday I didn’t want to go to the stores. I know you go back later to get paid. Do you think I’m stupid?”
“And do you think I want to work only for the money you give me?”
We walked in silence. This was getting intensely unpleasant. God, how he had fooled me. I should’ve heeded the advice in my guidebook and gone to the tourist office, where I could’ve hired a registered guide. It would’ve cost a lot more, but they never would’ve pulled anything like this, knowing they could be reported and lose their job. I couldn’t get over how this little creep had deceived me. We were still walking together, but to where I didn’t know. I would try to end this miserable “tour” diplomatically. Looking at my watch – it was 12:05 – I said, “Well, I think we should stop now. I give you forty dirhams, alright?” It seemed fair: I was offering more than half the agreed upon price for less than half the agreed upon time.
“What forty dirhams? You say sixty yesterday. Now you make me very angry. Keep your money!” He walked off in a huff, leaving me standing there with camel cud on my face. He stood ten yards away with his arms folded, glowering at me and muttering in Arabic. I was perplexed. He was making me feel like a cheat and I was falling for it. I changed course and tried to be conciliatory.
“Miloud, hey, come here. Didn’t we say we’d go until four o’clock?”
“You said you would pay sixty. Now you change what you said?”
“Listen, I think we have two different mentalities. In my country if you make an agreement and you change the time, you change the price too. It’s no problem. Look, I pay you sixty. Can you show me other places? Can’t we see the men making copper and wooden things?”
“They are not working today. It is a holiday.” The lying bastard. But I let it pass.
“Can’t we walk around the walls and see the other gates?”
“I said I would be your guide for the inside of the medina, not the outside. It is fifteen kilometers around the walls. Do you think I walk fifteen kilometers for sixty dirhams?” No, you son of a bitch, but it’s obvious you don’t care what I see and don’t see. You don’t want to walk in the sun, that’s what it is. You know I’m not going to ask you to walk ten miles.
“Let’s have some tea and then we decide what to do,” I suggested. I was discombobulated. I knew I was being played, but at the same time I felt a bit ashamed for going back on my word. Okay, I’d pay him sixty – and really, what were we talking about, eight bucks? – but I’d try to stretch out our time so I felt less cheated, as ridiculous as that was. He showed me around for another hour, pure charade. When we finally split up we were both smiling, and I was glad to get through it with a happy ending. But when I sorted out my thoughts later, I decided I’d been had. What I should’ve done, when he stood there cursing at me in Arabic, was said, “Here, take your fucking sixty dirhams. You’re just another hustler like the ones I told you about.” That would’ve been most satisfying. But it misses the point, which is that in his mind he had every right to be paid sixty, and nothing else mattered. That I came from a wealthier country was a factor – and I knew from experience that the rules change when a “rich” tourist visits a poor country – but at bottom, our minds worked in different ways, more so in this part of the world than in any other. There’s just something about Arabs – many of them, anyway – that’s different. The deceit, the craftiness, the mind games to squeeze money from the unwary. Take Turkey, for example, which is not an Arab country but does share long borders with Syria and Iraq. I spent five weeks traveling alone around Turkey where, from my observation, the standard of living is just slightly higher than the average in the Arab world – that is to say, materially poor by our standards, but by no means desperately poor. Yet there is a genuine code of hospitality towards the foreign visitor in Turkey, and you simply don’t come across people like Miloud, and the shopkeepers and merchants whom I’ve just written about, whom you’ll find in other Arab countries as well, though not as concentrated as they are in Morocco.
* * *
These are just musings on my part, but the more I thought about it, the more I surmised that Arabs are a lot like Jews, though on a much smaller and harmless scale. They seem to have evolved in parallel ways over the ages in this region of the world. It’s a Semitic thing. To illustrate my point, let me shift gears for a moment. While in Fez I happened to pick up an international edition of Newsweek, and leafing through the back pages came across a brief story detailing the latest Israeli spy scandal. As I recall, top-secret blueprints had been stolen from a defense plant in Iowa or Illinois. The article stated that the Israelis were “outraged” over the way Washington had publicized the affair, asserting that the incident could’ve been resolved in a quieter manner. That’s right: the country that soaks billions of dollars annually from its benefactor, sells arms to its rivals, murders its sailors in cold blood, sends agents to steal documents, is now “outraged” when one of its treacheries is held up to the light, with just a brief flicker of media attention. I can just picture Ronald Reagan assembled with his advisors around a table, wondering out loud, “Gee fellas, did we say the wrong thing? Maybe we should apologize. Should we retract our statements? Why are they so mad at us?” Having stood there facing Miloud by the Bab Bou Jeloud, unsure of myself, I can almost sympathize with clueless Ronnie.
There’s only one Eiffel Tower, one Taj Mahal, and there’s most certainly only one Djmaa-el-Fna. This great square, the name of which which literally means “assembly of the dead” (sultans once had criminals beheaded here), is the centerpiece of Marrakesh, for many centuries a caravan city in Morocco’s southern desert. Every day of the year, beginning in the late afternoon, this place becomes a circus, a pulsating madhouse of everything meant by the word “exotic,” a word I know I’ve overused in this narrative. From what I’ve read, this has been going on since 1071 A.D.
I had an idea of what awaited me in Marrakesh, but it wasn’t easy getting there. From Ourzazate there were only through-buses originating in Er-Rachidia. They arrived with only a few empty seats, and instead of fighting off all the howling, clawing maniacs at the ticket office I stayed an extra day in tranquil Ourzazate. When it dawned on me how difficult it was to get out of here, I gave up on the bus and paid a much higher price for a seat in a shared taxi. It was a four hour ride to Marrakesh, twice as long as I had anticipated. We ascended to the cool, serene heights of the High Atlas Mountains, through fragrant cedar forests and reddish brown mud hut Berber villages. There were dozens of little stands with signs reading “Mineraux,” where men held up onyx eggs as we drove by; I doubt half of them sold one egg a day. Villagers stood by the road, trying to flag a ride. This was something I couldn’t understand; given the scarcity of vehicles and all these people trying to go somewhere, it seemed they would end up going nowhere unless they walked or rode a donkey. But I almost envied them as we descended to the hot, dusty plains, and by the time we reached Marrakesh the temperature was in the high nineties.
I checked into the CTM Hotel, a delightfully rundown establishment facing the Djmaa. There was a collection of postcards from countries all over the world under the glass of the long reception desk, indicative of a hotel with character. I always like seeing this, and before leaving home I always take some postcards with me should there be an opportunity to make a contribution. America was represented by the banal Statue of Liberty, Golden Gate Bridge, that sort of thing, so I delighted the receptionist with my unusual offerings: one pictured a man gathering maple syrup in snowy Vermont, the other Billy Carter’s gas station in Plains, Georgia. Billy, you might remember, was a colorful, outspoken redneck. For some reason Jimmy Carter, Billy’s older brother, whose presidency was fairly recent, had been popular with the Moroccan people.
Next door was the Cafe de Grand Balcon, a great place to sit, order something to drink from one of the lethargic, red-jacketed waiters, and enjoy the show. It was frequented by tourists and the more refined locals. The odder types stayed away, though boys peddling loose cigarettes regularly marched through; the waiters chased them out. Once a lunatic walked by, and pointing an accusatory finger, harangued the patrons for one minute. Another time a fistfight between two boys spilled into a group of German tourists who were filing off a bus, causing a woman to shriek.
I took a seat at a table where two young travelers were writing postcards. One was Philip, a tall, thin English boy wearing shorts, which is frowned upon in Islamic countries. He spoke idealistically of coming to Morocco to spend some time and “get under the surface.” But he had only been in the country a week and was already scared; he seemed too precious for his own good. He also had been swindled by a guide in Fez, a young boy who on some pretext demanded twice his fee at the end of the tour. “But at the time, he convinced me that he was entitled to the extra money. I still don’t understand how I fell for it.” Join the club, Philip. The other fellow was Tostin, a German who wore a blue kaftan. He was a character. He wasn’t big but he gave the impression of being a seasoned traveler who could handle himself anywhere. I liked his style at first. He said he was going to the medina later to look for a leather bag and asked if I would accompany him. I was happy to. With a companion I’d be less vulnerable, especially if I got lost, which for me was guaranteed. I preferred not to go there alone.
We crossed the square and entered the medina, and were instantly into the souk, the covered market, endless stalls with every commodity imaginable, including all kinds of leather, copper and wooden articles. Some of it was gorgeous stuff, but the problem was that you couldn’t stop to inspect anything without being commandeered. (“Come, have a look in my shop. Only to look, not to buy.”) We swiveled into a courtyard where locals haggled over bales of raw wool, and stalls were hung with desiccated foxes, snakes, birds and lizards. A man pulled a pink rock from a jar and rubbed it on the back of my hand; it smelled like perfume. There were great carpet stores too, giving the lie to Miloud’s comical claim that you couldn’t buy a rug here.
It was inevitable that a hustler would target us, and this one was a real mangy mutt who heard us speaking English and walked in front of us, looking back. “Come, I take you to my father’s shop. What you want? I have good price for you.” He was speaking more to Tostin than me, so I waited for him to answer. He turned to me instead.
“They are like flies, aren’t they?” I snickered and nodded.
“You are tourists from what country? From England, from America?”
“I am not a tourist, I am an animal,” Tostin replied, squawking and flapping his arms, like a child imitating a monster. I burst out laughing, but the hustler became enraged at this brazen mockery. He clung to Tostin’s side raving in Arabic, and God, what a vicious-sounding language it can be. Tostin was silent, and I’m sure he was a bit frightened too. The creature would drop back and we’d think he was gone, then he’d walk straight ahead and face us walking backwards, abusing Tostin louder than before. Then he’d fall behind again, only to re-emerge as we turned a corner, at one point raising his fists and challenging Tostin to fight, though he never made physical contact. This went on for ten minutes and was quite unnerving. Finally, he disappeared for good.
Haggling is not how I like to shop. It wears me out. In fact, it wears me out writing about it, so I’ll just mention in passing that I had the same exact experience buying a copper teapot in Marrakesh – thinking I’d struck a good deal at $23 after haggling the merchant down from $35 – that I had in Jerusalem when I paid way too much for a coverlet, which I’ve written about elsewhere. Personally, I don’t mind paying a little more than the locals for this or that – I think that’s fair when you can afford to travel abroad and they struggle to make ends meet – but I don’t like being grossly cheated. Everyone has his own philosophy and his own approach, and it was becoming clear that Tostin was the hardcore type. We had wandered apart a bit, while still staying within sight of each other, when I heard a loud “Au revoir, monseiur!” I looked over and there was Tostin standing nose to nose with a merchant, who suddenly screamed “AU REVOIR!” in his face.
“What was that all about?” I asked when we were a safe distance away.
“He is angry because I don’t buy his bag. I said nothing to him. He must be crazy. I go to another shop.” But there must have been more to it. Listening to him haggle in the next shop, where he did end up buying a nice leather bag, I decided the guy definitely has an attitude problem, and if he keeps it up he’s going to get his head knocked off sooner or later. But he was good company for a day, and as I re-read what I wrote 35 years ago, I’m still chuckling over what he said to that hustler.
I took a shower and sprawled out on my bed, but it was too hot to take a nap. My room didn’t have air conditioning, and the overhead fan didn’t put much of a dent in the heat, but as the sun went down, and the sound of tambourines and oboes drifted through the open window, I knew it was time to see what I’d come to see. More music began to fill the huge square, and the whole place was humming well before dusk. The largest crowd circled a troupe of acrobats and tumblers who put on quite a show, supervised by a grizzled chieftain who carried a stick. Locals are not obliged to pay when the hat is passed but tourists are sitting ducks. I saw two English girls fiddling with their cameras. The chieftain spotted them and he pounced. “Cinq dirhams, donnez-moi cinq dirhams!” he bellowed. He followed them as they tried to escape, and I heard one of them say, “I didn’t even take a picture!” Water sellers clinking with bandoliers of brass cups patrolled the square, their water trapped in bulging goat carcasses. There were wandering minstrels strumming tortoise-shell mandolins, and scribes sitting patiently, waiting to write letters for illiterate customers. I saw a man walking a monkey on a chain, and when our eyes met he asked for money. “Wait a minute,” I said. “What’s his name?”
“Boris.” He made me shake hands with Boris, then lifted him to his face and grimaced; Boris grimaced back. I took a photo and gave him a few dirhams. Before I could slip my camera into my pocket I was accosted by a snake charmer who asked me to take a photo of him while he hypnotized his cobra. Then he grabbed a smaller snake and draped it around my neck. I objected but he insisted on taking a picture with my camera so I went along with it. He requested twenty dirhams for his efforts but was content with five. A fire-eater whom I merely glanced at expected payment for the glance. I gave him some change and demanded a good performance; he came through. Black boys in white pajamas twisted deliriously through the throng to the brassy racket of finger-cymbals, swinging the tassels on their fezes. Children with frail grandparents in tow cruised the grounds, bugging pale-faced tourists for a handout. I walked to the other side of the square, passing a tight circle of spectators watching two teenagers with boxing gloves duke it out.
On the edge of this spectacle were carts piled high with oranges, which insulated the square from a steady stream of taxis, scooters, bicycles and horse-drawn wagons. A tall glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice cost fifteen cents. I bought one. Nearby stood a row of blind men holding out their begging bowls and chanting “Allah” every ten seconds. Women holding tarot cards squatted on the pavement, leering at passersby through the slits in their veils. Storytellers entertained listeners. The strangest of all was the folk-medicine man. He sat cross-legged in a striped djellaba and one of those Russian fur hats, and spoke into a microphone attached to a small amplifier. In front of him were fifteen metal bowls filled with herbs and spices in their natural state, and five containing powders of different colors. There was a dried lizard and two preserved hedgehogs perched on other bowls, and some live animals too: a hamster and an inquisitive squirrel tethered in a cage. An ancient book lay open on the ground to a page illustrating the human respiratory system. He held another book in his lap, and as he read from it he spooned the herbs and powders onto paper sheets and stirred them. Then he rolled the paper into cones, and sold them for a quarter. The audience listened attentively; business was good.
As it got dark the oddballs cleared out and the food vendors took over. I chowed down at a stall where they served harira from a pot so huge that a man could’ve stood in it. Harira is a thick soup of chickpeas and atomized vegetables. They ladle it into a ceramic bowl and give you a wooden spoon that probably hasn’t been washed properly. Travelers get sick in Morocco but it’s a throw of the dice, and all those sizzling brochettes and smoky aromas were just too tempting. I sat down to a plate of hairy-looking meat that I couldn’t identify. It did not taste good. I asked the man sitting next to me what it was and he said “le pancreas.” I’ll never eat pancreas again. I left half of it and walked off to buy a hard-boiled egg from one of the many egg vendors. The aroma of frying fish seduced me. I wanted to stick my egg into a fish sandwich but the dishonesty of this vendor spoiled my appetite. He doubled the price after preparing the sandwich, claiming that the five dirhams he quoted me was only for the fish; the bread was another five. Typically Moroccan. In Fez, I had asked a vendor for a glass of juice. He said three dirhams, but after squeezing the oranges charged me four. “You said three,” I protested. “No, I said four.”
I bought two bottles of mineral water at the Cafe de Grand Balcon and went home. I walked past two boys, about twelve years old, who stood in the darkness outside the open door of the CTM Hotel. One was masturbating. I began to step back outside for another look to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, then stopped, not wanting them to think I had any intentions. The other boy grinned and pointed at his friend, whom I couldn’t see now. Before going upstairs I looked back one more time. There was the friend, standing in the doorway, waving at me with one hand and pointing with the other, still grinning. I went into my room, laughing, and said, “Christ, now I’ve seen it all.”
* * *
I wanted to have a look at the remote deep south of Morocco, so I rented a car for three days. That morning I bought a container of yogurt for breakfast, after admonishing the storekeeper that the price had been cheaper yesterday. He smiled and lowered the price. Having no spoon, I squeezed it straight from the cup and ate it while walking down the street. A boy stopped me and pointed to a dab of yogurt on my nose. I thanked him and wiped it off. He followed me and requested one dirham for telling me this.
“Monsieur,” he pleaded.
“No. Go away.”
I took a taxi to the car rental office, where I had reserved the car the previous day. It was a flaky local outfit called Sud Voyage. Even with car rentals, the rates published in the brochure are so outrageous that they expect you to haggle them down, and this I had done. Now they were telling me the car was due back on Thursday. It was Tuesday morning: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday – that was three days, he said.
“Monsieur,” I explained. “There are 24 hours in one day, yes? Therefore, there are 72 hours in three days. In 72 hours it will be Friday, not Thursday, so I will return the car to you on Friday.”
“Alright, Friday.” He looked at his watch. “It is 9:30 now. You must return the car by 9:30 on Friday.”
“I will try.”
Leaving Marrakesh was all the fun. The car was a small Renault model. It had only logged 33,000 kilometers (about 21,000 miles) but already it had been driven into the ground. Window handles were broken, the rear-view mirror bobbed up and down, and half the glass was missing on the sideview mirror. The left front tire had less tread than a tennis ball and the car clattered as I drove away. That’s when I noticed that the fuel gauge read below empty! They had probably syphoned all the gas out when the previous renter returned it, leaving enough only to drive to a nearby petrol station, knowing that there’d be more to syphon after I returned it, because no one lets the gas level get that low. Very resourceful people.
It was an interesting excursion. The road to Tafraoute was extremely curvy, and I got car-sick for the first time in my life, dashing any hopes of driving all the way to Laayoune, the one big city in what used to be a territory called the Spanish Sahara, which Morocco laid claim to after its independence from France in 1956. Since the 1960s, there’s been a four-way tussle between Spain, Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania over this mineral-rich sandy waste, involving a separatist group and occasional guerilla warfare, but it’s too complicated to go into here. This matter has never been resolved, but Morocco has long held the upper hand. To avoid antagonizing anyone, the Michelin company shows no borders in this disputed area on its excellent road map. Actually, before leaving home I had considered skipping Europe, starting off in Morocco, and traveling on public transport all the way to Senegal, but the instability and the scorching desert heat made me scrap the idea. What tantalized me was the opportunity to travel through Mauritania, an inhospitable country that practically no one visits. I became wistful when I saw a road sign indicating the distance to Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, but going there now was sheer fantasy. The furthest south I went was desolate Goulimine, a gateway to the open Sahara. I wanted to linger here a few hours, but a man on a bicycle kept following me everywhere I walked, asking what I wanted. I’d get in the car, drive a few blocks and make a few turns, thinking I’d lost him, then he’d reappear and start pestering me again. The same thing had happened in Taroudannt, a much prettier place, and when I couldn’t take it anymore I fled. I decided to flee Goulimine too, after stocking up on water and apples, but on the way out of town there was a checkpoint where a policeman told me I had committed an infraction by driving on a bald tire. He threatened to confiscate my drivers license and demanded to see the spare; I smeared my clothes with dirt and grease while dislodging it. He berated me more and examined the vehicle papers while I pretended to be remorseful. Finally he told me to leave.
I returned to Marrakesh by a cooler route, passing through the seaside town of Sidi Ifni, which used to be a Spanish resort, but now rots and crumbles under Moroccan rule. Further north, Agadir is a Virginia Beach clone, and the destination of European jet-setters; I chose to spend the night in Essouira instead. Some say Jimi Hendrix was the greatest rock guitarist of all time, and maybe he was, but he was also a deplorable human being programmed for death at an early age. Nevertheless, I know how he felt falling in love with Essouira, a truly beautiful town of whitewashed walls and bright blue shutters, fortified with medieval Portuguese ramparts. One night here was sufficient, though. I wanted to get that car back to Marrakesh before it fell apart, but more than that I wanted to spend a little more time savoring that city. I longed just to spend two more days lounging on the rooftop terrace of the CTM Hotel and unwinding from three months of travel (I’d spent more than two months in Europe, mostly France, Portugal and Spain), gazing out over the Djmaa-el-Fna as it picked up steam with each passing hour.
* * *
There’s a railway network connecting the major cities of Morocco but I didn’t use it until the very end. What I had missed! My second-class carriage on the 9AM express to Casablanca was new, spotless, quiet and punctual. It would’ve been a great finale to my journey were it not for my destination. Casablanca, which combines the charm of Arab apathy with the glamor of French heavy industry, is a dump. I’d come here only to fly home, hoping to leave in two days. I had an open ticket on Royal Air Maroc but hadn’t made a reservation, and the Tuesday flight to New York was fully booked. There were only a few seats left on the next flight, on Saturday, and I was greatly relieved to reserve one.
The thought of killing time for five days in this city was unbearable. Even the aquarium, reputed to be the only place worth visiting, was closed for repairs. The brochure issued by the tourist office was funny. I pictured a bunch of loafers on the government payroll trying to come up with something to write, when there was absolutely nothing to write about:
The most striking thing about Casablanca is its contagious vitality, which comes as a pleasant surprise, and its ambitious atmosphere….The buildings are not excessively high and their regular shapes are reassuring….When it comes to sunshine, Casablanca has nothing to envy in Marrakesh or Rabat….One hastens to discover the city which draws like a magnet….
Some magnet. I had to get out of here so I took a bus to the coastal town of El-Jadida, only slightly less dreary, and stayed for two days before returning. These last days were uneventful except for one incident which really upset me and cost me half a night’s sleep. In retrospect it was the crowning touch of my inability to accept the country on its own terms. I had gone to an outdoor cafe near the train station in Casablanca and ordered a cup of coffee and a pastry. Instead of pastry the waiter, an old man, brought me cake – so much cake that it was wrapped in paper and cut into three slices, like something you get in a bakery box. No normal human being eats that much cake at one sitting. I could’ve avoided trouble by refusing it on the spot, but I ate one slice and pushed the rest aside. It wasn’t very good either, which didn’t help matters. When I was done I called the waiter and politely told him I had only eaten one slice, and that’s all I would pay for.
“No,” he said. “You ordered this so you must pay for it.”
“I didn’t ask for all this cake. Why don’t you just bring it back?”
“It is closed now. I cannot bring it back.”
What’s closed now? I thought. Don’t give me that shit. I got up to leave and handed him eight dirhams in coins. “I pay you for only one slice. Good night.”
But as I walked away he followed me and poked me in the back. “You give me four more dirhams or I call the police!”
By chance there were two cops lounging at a nearby street corner. “There are two policemen!” I said, triumphantly pointing down the street. “We go talk to them!”
Enough was enough. I had developed a siege mentality in this country and couldn’t take it anymore. I wondered how the police would react to this. It was absurd, really – arguing like this over fifty cents, and now there were some spectators who had heard us yelling at each other. What I failed to consider at the time was that, in his mind, he really thought I was screwing him, not the other way around. Two different mentalities.
The waiter gave his side of the story in Arabic and I gave mine in French. The policemen asked me what nationality I was; American, I said. They rubbed their chins and thought it over. The waiter added more. Then one of them spoke up. “Why don’t you take the other two slices and eat them tomorrow?” It was a reasonable solution, but the fact was that I didn’t want them and I told them that. We were at an impasse. Then it hit me that the cops were being courteous, this whole thing was ridiculous, and it would be best just to end it.
“Oh, for God sakes,” I said in English, reaching into my pocket. “Here, take your goddamn money.” I flipped some coins on the waiter’s tray and he picked up the two slices and handed them to me. “I don’t want them.” I turned on my heel and walked back to my hotel, where I sat on the edge of my bed for a long time, very upset. I don’t know why I got so enraged over this, but I did. Wouldn’t it have been nice, after paying him, to take those two slices and throw them in the street? That would’ve provided the catharsis I needed after three weeks in Morocco. But I’m glad I didn’t do anything like that. A traveler abroad is an ambassador of his country, and such a stunt would not have endeared the small crowd that had gathered to the U.S.A.
Just for the hell of it, I returned to that cafe on the eve of my departure after I got back to Casablanca, and ordered only coffee this time. The same waiter was there but I don’t think he recognized me. As a practical joke, I thought about ordering five slices of cake, but then I thought better of it. He addressed me as “monsieur” and said “merci” when I paid him, so it all ended okay.
The final indignity occurred at the Aeroport de Mohammed V. With the flight scheduled to depart soon, I sweated it out on a long, slow line, waiting to get my passport stamped, silently cursing up and down at Morocco. I made it to the gate five minutes before they were due to close it, and as the plane banked towards the Atlantic, I took one last look down at the Land of Endless Hassles.
Oh, I almost forgot. On my last full day in Casablanca, I went shopping at a government-run artisan gift store. Price tags on everything, no haggling. I saw a copper teapot, just like the one I thought I’d gotten a good deal on in Marrakesh, proud of myself for haggling the guy down to $23. This one was seven dollars. I could only shake my head at this point. Will I ever learn? But I did get the last laugh. There were rugs here too, lots of them, and I chose one that was every bit as lovely, and the same size, 3′ X 6′, though a different color and design, as the one I was tempted to buy in Fez for $170, where Miloud’s buddy told me he couldn’t possibly overcharge me because the prices were decreed by the government based on the number of knots. They even let me take it on the plane as carry-on luggage. As a matter of fact, I’m looking at it right now as I type these words. I’ve had it for 35 years, and it’s stood the test of time magnificently. It’s plush with a red background, and a large flower in the middle of red, white, blue and black, and intricate designs of the same colors along all four edges. It’s a beautiful creation. I love it.
I paid eighty bucks for it.