Morocco Day 2-4: Every Sensation in the World

July 30-August 1, 2007–Marrakech

Some seven hours later, we wander out of our room. The electricity is still not happening, which meant no air conditioning all night long, which meant, essentially, no sleep. Outside—in the shade at least—it’s bearable, but there’s no air circulation through the small window in our room, and we’ve already discovered two of the big deficits of the riad system. First, the tube shape of the structure, in which the rooms surround a small, central court, means that every sound rebounds and echoes like the interior of a drum. Great acoustics for a concert hall perhaps, but lousy for sleep. Air, naturally, does the same thing; and that’s the second disadvantage. Down at the bottom of the “well,” where our room is, there’s not a lot of air moving around.

We have our petite déjeuner on the roof terrace, but it’s not all that petite: mint tea; apricot preserves; gobs of butter; and a basket of scrumptious, French-style bread to slather it on, along with a kind of flat, chewy, fried bread that’s something like a cross between a crepe and a pita but infinitely better-tasting than either. I ask what they’re called, but don’t understand the answer: it’s either m’semmen … or it’s not.

In any case, we load them up with marmalade and butter and roll them into jelly burritos. There are small café tables with umbrellas set around the roof, as well as a larger, tented structure that looks like something out of a harem movie: overstuffed divans line three walls, and there are draperies and carpets and multicolored pillows with long, feathery tassels. Kitschy, but it works. It’s an invitation to recline, to sprawl, and we succumb. When the breeze blows through, ruffling the fabrics, it’s luxurious.

The interior of the tent could easily hold 30, but only two other people are there, another male couple, also Italian, who are of that sniffy, expensive-haircut, too-tight-Armani shirt, we-may-be-homos-but-at-least-we’re-thin variety of queer that neither one of us can abide. They’re both wearing the expression that M calls “pesce lesso” (boiled fish): face blank, eyes slightly popped, lips gently pursed in a look that says “Does anyone else notice that dreadful odor?” To me, it’s the international fag symbol, more reliable than plucked eyebrows or T-shirts emblazoned with “Palm Springs.” They make barbed, ironic little comments to one another, and we studiously ignore each other’s presence.

I don’t know why it’s so unpleasant to encounter one’s countrymen in a foreign land.

Breakfast done, we descend the narrow stairs to the street to find our way to Jasmin’s hotel, just around the corner and down another alley, which two boys, who look no more than 12 or 13, are desurfacing with picks and shovels. She’s off to the train station, and so are we: We’ve got to make our reservation, which can’t be done online or by phone or other than in person, for the night train to Tangiers, where we’ll catch a bus for Chefchaouen (شفشاون). We’ve got just enough time for a quick peek into the outermost edges of the souks and an orange juice at one of the outdoor stands that line one side of Place Djemaa el Fna (جامع الفناء).

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Unfortunately, at the train station, we discover that there is only a single couchette left for the train tomorrow night at 9 p.m.—there are seats available in second class, but my days of sitting upright for 10 hours straight ended in 1991, when I took the Greyhound from Los Angeles to Milwaukee. We can get couchettes for the next night, but that means another day in Marrakech, which I’m already starting to find overwhelming. Actually, a large part of the intense and protracted negotiations that culminated in what is now our itinerary focused on my desire to see none of Morocco’s big cities and on M’s to see at least three of them.

Nearly a week later, while we’re having dinner in Fez, I overhear a conversation at the next table. Five or six Americans—young, students I imagine—are discussing their trip to the medina in Marrakech. One girl, who I swear looks part-Hawaiian, says: “There’s a million things going on—the snake charmers, those guys in blue with the monkeys, the smoke from all the grilling they’re doing in Djemaa el Fna, the story tellers, the women trying to give you a henna tattoo, the African-looking guys with the cymbals, donkey carts going by, guys on scooters, a million people walking around. It’s, like, every sensation in the world.”

And that’s as good a description of Marrakech as any: every sensation in the world. It’s fantastic, it’s exhausting. It’s compelling and it’s appalling. There’s color and sound and motion: enough to set your nerves on fire, enough to give you vertigo. There are a thousand hands out: buy something, come here, look at this. Hola, amigo, hey! Spagnol? Frances? Englesh? Italienne? Come inside? Just look. Solo vedere. What you want? Espices? Babouches?

Everyone has exactly the same rap: The guys at the spice stores pinch up a small amount of mint or rosemary, smash it between their palms, and stick them under your nose. They grab your wrist and dab it with what they call “ambra”—which I’m horrified to discover (a) is actually ambergris and (b) costs 12 dirham per gram (about $655 a pound). They open a bottle of saffron and shove it in your face. They insist you come inside the store—the best stuff is always inside. It’s the same in every town we visit, in Marrakech, Fez, Chefchaouen, Midelt. If you pause for the briefest moment to look at a piece of pottery or a pair of sandals, someone attaches himself to your side and starts pulling items off the shelves and thrusting them into your hands. The natural reaction is to take them, but after a while we learn simply to keep our hands stiff at our sides, no matter how difficult it is.

The Spagnol? Frances? Englesh? Italienne? chorus is no friendly invitation to make new friends internationally; it’s an attempt to figure out what language to hawk their wares in, and it is relentless. Virtually every shop keeper speaks enough of at least five languages to make a sale: between our bad French and their bad Italian, English, or Spanish, everybody makes himself understood. Except for “No, thanks.” There’s no “no thanks” that works in any language.

Once they recognize that we’re speaking Italian to each other, they all—all across Morocco—repeat the same lines: “Where you from? Rome? Milano? I have a brother in Genova. (Or: I worked for two years in your country. Or: I have many friend in Italy.) “Morocco, Italie, igual. Siamo fratellos.”

They’ve each memorized some version of “Chi va piano va sano e lontano“ (more-or-less: slow and steady wins the race), but not everybody remembers it right: One guy keeps saying “Chi va piano va piano, chi va lontano va lontano,” which you can hardly argue with. Several of them add some variation on “chi va forte va alla morte“ (haste makes waste), though it usually comes out something like “va forte fa muerte,“ and even that renders the idea. In any case, they seem genuinely impressed that we know the proverb, too. “Bravo, bravo,” one vendor says to M, clapping him on the shoulder, when he finishes the phrase before the vendor does.

There’s no denying that there’s a certain charm to all this—the first ten times, but they’re persistent far beyond anything that a Western sensibility could consider even remotely tolerable, and it’s not easy finding the right “register” with which to respond. After a bit, it’s irritating. Then it becomes exhausting. And then it is merely a plague. As you walk through the souk, with one little shop literally on top of another, you wonder: don’t they realize that every single vendor is saying exactly the same thing: Hola, amigo, hey! Spagnol? Frances? Englesh? Italienne? Come inside? Just look. Solo vedere. What you want? Espices? Babouches? Morocco, Italie, igual. Siamo fratellos.

For my part, I’m relieved to be taken for Italian rather than American. Frankly, I’d rather they not know where my passport was printed, and if they want to believe I’m Italian, it’s OK by me. Most of the time, though, they peg us for Spaniards. The odds are in their favor: Marrakech is crawling with Spanish tourists.

We try simply ignoring them, but they seem offended when you don’t answer at all, and a few times we hear insults at our backs. The only escape is simply to ignore their questions and walk away, murmuring a litany of “non merci, la shukran, no gracias, no grazie“ as you go. You get away, but the sensation isn’t pleasant. Plus, we quickly learn not to look at anything unless we want to get caught up in a situation from which rescue may become necessary.

As we exit the souk one afternoon to head back to the hotel for a nap, we hear an exasperated Italian tourist say to her friend, “Mica posso comprare tutto Marocco“ (“It’s not like I can buy all of Morocco”) and yet that’s what it feels like they expect you to do.

Had anyone asked me, I’d have predicted that all this would have a counterproductive effect on sales, that potential clients would become so avoidant that they’d simply stop shopping. But it doesn’t seem to work that way—or, at least, not for a lot of people. I can’t help but notice, as we wander, that a significant number of tourists seem to be enjoying the experience of bartering, cajoling, importuning. I suppose it’s folkloristic, in a certain light, but I find it hostile and assaultive. They don’t do it to other Moroccans, and there’s an undertone of “You’re rich; it’s your duty to buy something.” In any case, the shopkeepers remain utterly unruffled. As I said before: they don’t experience stress, they merely cause it.

We walk, trying to avoid the booby traps, slightly stumbly from lack of sleep, and we drink water—lots of it. We’re going through about four-and-a-half liters each per day, but neither one of us is sweating. Outdoors, the heat is so dry that sweat evaporates before you can even become aware of it.

And yet. Despite everything, the souk is fascinating, visually staggering. One feels as though colors have never seemed so vivid, that shadow has never been so richly textured.

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In the evening, in particular, the light softens, deepens, and what other word do you have for that effect besides “exotic,” that word so tainted with colonialism and “othering”?

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“Foreign, strange, outlandish, bizarre, curious, alien,” the dictionary suggests, by way of synonyms, and you need synonyms, but those seem wrong. What it is, is beautiful, and yet perhaps it’s beautiful precisely because it is “strange” and “foreign,” because you’ve never seen anything like it before. Or perhaps it’s so delightful because it matches a picture you have in your head: Even if you’ve never been here, you’ve imagined the souk, you’ve seen depictions of it in movies or read descriptions of it in books.

Yet, in the end, you realize that this is somebody’s work place; someone’s trying to make a living here, in a country where the legal minimum wage is 3.20 dirham per hour (0.39 US cents or €0.29) and the average annual salary is equivalent to about $1,520.00.

Would that tourism were not ever a political (and moral) question….

Speaking of which….

In her book, Karawan: Dal Deserto al Web (originally published in French as Les Sindbads Marocains: Voyage dans le Maroc Civique but not available, as far as I can tell, in English), Fatemi Mernissi introduces her discussion of Moroccan democracy and resistance movements by recalling George Orwell’s trip to Marrakech in the winter of 1938, where he recuperated from tuberculosis and, between September 1938 and March 1939, finished a draft of his novel, Coming Up for Air.

Mernissi subtitles this opening chapter, “The difficulty of being a tourist in an Arab country,” and writes:

[W]hat is surprising is that Orwell, a leftist and human rights activist, admitted that his time in Morocco had been a failure because, despite the fact that he liked Arabs, he couldn’t communicate with them: “I like the Arabs [Orwell wrote], they’re friendly people…. But I’ve been unable to make any sort of real contact with them because they speak a kind of bastard French and I’ve been too lazy to learn Arabic.” Obviously, our thoughts run first to the issue of language when we have trouble communicating with foreigners…. But Orwell was too intelligent to reduce difficulties in communication to a simple matter of linguistics…. (My translation; learn more about Mernissi’s work on her website, http://www.mernissi.net/.)

Indeed, Mernissi goes on to comment that Orwell, as a “politically committed” socialist fully engaged in the struggle against totalitarianism, was uniquely positioned to pose questions regarding the link between tourism and political principle, though she also cites a study by Professor Fouzia Rhissassi, a Moroccan expert on English-language literature, whose Orwell’s Marrakech reduces Orwell to the standard cliché: “…despite the fact that he was a Leftist, he remained a standard-issue European racist,” Rhissassi writes.

Rhissassi’s analysis is a bit too facile for Mernissi, and it’s altogether too facile for me, aside from being the most sententious, knee-jerk, and shallow thing Rhissassi could have managed to say. If even someone like Orwell can’t get more consideration than to be considered a standard-issue racist, then there is literally no point of contact possible.

Still, the issue of being a western tourist in Morocco—of what one sees in Morocco—is heavily encumbered with first world/third world issues, with skin-privilege issues, with issues of past and current colonialization, and, more substantially than even Mernissi might be willing to admit, with the question of language.

As far as Orwell’s reactions to Morocco are concerned, as these excerpts from his essay, “Marrakech,” may suggest, he was remarkably candid:

 

When you walk through a town like this—two hundred thousand inhabitants, of whom at least twenty thousand own literally nothing except the rags they stand up in—when you see how the people live, and still more how easily they die, it is always difficult to believe that you are walking among human beings. All colonial empires are in reality founded upon that fact. The people have brown faces—besides, there are so many of them! Are they really the same flesh as yourself? Do they even have names? Or are they merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff, about as individual as bees or coral insects? They rise out of the earth, they sweat and starve for a few years, and then they sink back into the nameless mounds of the graveyard and nobody notices that they are gone….

All people who work with their hands are partly invisible, and the more important the work they do, the less visible they are. Still, a white skin is always fairly conspicuous. In northern Europe, when you see a labourer ploughing a field, you probably give him a second glance. In a hot country, anywhere south of Gibraltar or east of Suez, the chances are that you don’t even see him. I have noticed this again and again. In a tropical landscape one’s eye takes in everything except the human beings. It takes in the dried-up soil, the prickly pear, the palm-tree and the distant mountain, but it always misses the peasant hoeing at his patch. He is the same colour as the earth, and a great deal less interesting to look at….

What does Morocco mean to a Frenchman? An orange-grove or a job in government service. Or to an Englishman? Camels, castles, palm-trees, Foreign Legionnaires, brass trays and bandits. One could probably live here for years without noticing that for nine-tenths of the people the reality of life is an endless, back-breaking struggle to wring a little food out of an eroded soil.

And yet, even in light of Orwell’s unashamed naming of the westerner’s difficulty in seeing, the question remains: does poverty—or, more accurately, does the significant earnings and standard-of-living gap between Morocco and the West—explain all, pardon all? Mica posso comprare tutto Marocco and, similarly, mica posso single-handedly repair the economy or remedy disparities that I am not personally responsible for and which I am not empowered to reverse no matter how much I might desire to do so.

Repeatedly, when we were trapped in relentless harangues centered on the effort to sell us something that was obviously overpriced (frequently on the spot) and/or that we simply did not want, a Moroccan vendor or his partner (the highest-pressure sales tactics always require a team of two) would at some juncture point to our shoes or our shirts and ask, “How much did you pay for that?”

The response didn’t matter, because the question was simply a means to arrive at the second part of the performance, to reach a predetermined and foregone conclusion: “If you paid XXX for your shirt/shoes, why aren’t you willing to pay XXX for something made by hand/of such excellent quality/that is so unique and/or special,” and countless variations on this theme.

There was literally no way to say — and here, the matter is not merely a language barrier – “It makes no difference what I paid for it in Italy or America or anywhere else. Here in Morocco, it would cost me 10 or 15 times less. If we want to discuss relative values, let’s talk about what it would cost me in Morocco. Or, to be even more accurate, let’s talk not about what it costs in absolute terms of money, but in terms of how many hours I had to work in order to buy it.”

There was no opportunity to describe the fact that, as far as clothing is concerned – to use that as an issue – we in Italy (but not only here) are victimized by multinationals and by business and apparel-industry practices that force us to pay exorbitant and shamefully inflated prices that by far exceed the actual value (or durability) of the clothing or shoes we buy.

Such facts as these could not become part of the conversation because the vendors were capable of seeing only a single basis of economic comparison: that represented by the euro/dirham exchange rate, by “Morocco” and “The West” (the quotation marks are essential), or by their ineluctable insistence on an image—not entirely false, but neither specifically meaningful nor accurate—of “higher” wages and living standards in Europe.

In other words, if there is a failure to see, if there is a culturally induced invisibility, it flows in both directions. In fact, it strikes me as eminently fair to ask whether part of the difficulty of being a tourist in an Arab country—or, at least, in Morocco—is that the westerner has not the slightest chance of being seen as an individual. For every “laborer who is the same color as the earth” there’s an American or European who is the same color as his money.

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Posted on 1 August 2007, in Tales from the Road and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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