Country seven of two hundred. A place I have no intention of returning to until I have engineered biological agents that make people gay. I wish I could move the Riad Maison BelBaraka to outside the Medina walls, and I wish all the best to the Berber’s who stay safely in the Atlas Mountains.
Trigger warning: Sexual assault
Monday 9th November 2015
Monday evening my cat greets me as a taxi pulls up to take me to Dudley Bus Station. Cat fuss is the best thing before travel, knowing that she’s going to be okay in my absence now the firework barrage has stopped. It’s weird watching the last buses of the day pull out without rushing to be on them. My coach is bound overnight to Gatwick. All six of us in a 52 capacity vehicle. I kick my shoes off and try to sleep over two seats. Try being the operative word. Even an overnight service with no other traffic on the road still has to stop for traffic lights, and lurch around corners into other bus stations and airports. All of them had night workers doing work between lines of traffic cones under harsh lighting.
I arrive in Gatwick airport at 4am on Tuesday 10th November, for a 7.40am flight. I’ he first person in the special assistance area, and indeed the whole shopping area, decked in Christmas trees and ceiling boughs. A day before Remembrance Day. This trip was Liquid Gate, a side step from Radioactive Glow-in-the-dark Keyring Gate. I downed the whole pint of water in my bottle in security (then promptly emptied it the other end), then had my unmarked bottle of Aloe Vera scanned for drugs. Seriously, the things you do to be geeky about space management, gets a security flag. This whole experience is very different to the crowd fest of getting to Budapest. A lady sits next to me wearing a New Zealand scarf – she’s going to visit family in Christchurch for Christmas. I read a travel book on Morocco, loaned to me by twelve hours ago. It’s a paperback version of Internet travel guides, and rather worryingly they all say to be aware of thieves.
The Easyjet flight is not completely full. The luggage policy is different – there is no weight limit but you must put the bag in the overhead locker yourself, including special assistance passengers. Dimensions are stricter, so I stuff my water bottle in my jacket pocket to stop a potential over bulge. Thankfully the overhead lockers were nowhere near full. It was a grey and orange relief to the yellow and blue Ryanair I’ve been accustomed to this year. Easyjet are celebrating 20 years of flying. The crew wear orange garlands, orange glasses, and big orange badges declaring 20 years have flown by. The crew had stashed prizes in the seat pocket, and the seat next to me wins a free drink. I intermittently pass out, only waking when my head slides off the plane window. This periodic waking gave me a view of clouds over the UK, then brown mountains over France and Spain, before the brown flat land of Morocco. The latter starts with scarred lines in the ground from old tree plantations, with empty irrigation pools tucked in the corners of regimented fields. As we approached to land in Marrakech, the land becomes greener, with the blue irrigation pools filled with algae-laden water. Finally, the red city approaches, and the landing is very smooth.
At some point entry slips into Marrakech are distributed, but no pens to fill them in. I sleep through the communal pen passing between passengers, so end up holding this blank piece of paper for 3.5 hours and then ask the cabin crew for a pen during preparation for landing. This lead to the world’s scribbliest form filling on my knee as my seat tray had to be in an upright position. Like the crew announcements, the form is in French and English, but with added Arabic at the other end of the dotted spaces. I still manage to miss a bit, as “No. 1” does not mean “Flight Number” to me, but the special assistance guy said “boarding pass” and pointed to the number and the dotted line. Passport Control gets the big rubber stamp out, and I smile a massive smile – six trips on this passport and this is the first time it’s been stamped! “Purpose of visit” “Tourism”. Note to self – smiling at passport control with a police officer nearby will get you funny looks. Maybe it’s because you’re not allowed to smile on your passport photo.
I am skilfully wheeled to my driver, holding up a green placard saying Maison Belbaraka. He takes my case and leads me into the red heat of the city, to a white private hire, decked inside in red, white and black rugs. The drive is leisurely, and the city seems extremely red through the purple tinted windows. “Francais?” the driver asks me, as so far I’ve managed to speak only French. “Non, je suis Anglais. Je parle un peu Francias.” Thank goodness for a crash course on Duolingo. The streets vary from wide to bum squeaking narrow. Road signs are in Arabic and French. Beige taxis meet at light controlled junctions, and my driver seems to know everyone, unbuckling his seatbelt to sit on the passenger seat to better talk to other taxi drivers when the lights are on red. He waves to a myriad of scooter drivers, carrying impossibly large loads front and back, be it people, crates, furniture. Mostly they are dark-skinned, but walking on the streets are white skinned women with shiny handbags and big sunglasses. As we approach the Riad, my bum involuntarily tightens at the potential collisions with red walls, pedestrians, scooters, street stalls, donkeys twitching their legs to remove flies, horses doing the same with their tails. I get my first glimpse of the intricacies behind the plain red walls, as tiny doorways overspills with figs, fabrics, metal ware, tiles.
I’m dropped off in a car park, which seems to be a place of abandoned mule carts, scooters, bikes and cars in front of college Mohammed V. Said, a dark skinned man greets me, in the most Western-style clothing I’ve seen. His skin a sharp contrast to his loosely buttoned white collared skirt and beige chino trousers. He leads me down a maze of narrow, plain red walled streets with speed bumps to slow the scooters down. Children pop out of their front doorways to gawp at me, before smiling shyly and running back into the safety of their homes. I step over leather pieces drying outside a handbag shop, before reaching a door saying Maison Belbaraka. Stepping over the threshold is stepping into a TARDIS. It’s hard to take in the detail of the decor, and also the idea all those narrow streets could house such a large spacious building.
The Riad is privately owned, and run by a married couple; Charlotte from Greece and Rachid from Morocco. The name suggests a more modern French Moroccan architectural refit. Everything is intricate, from the rugs to the plaster inlay to the painted floor tiles to the mosaic tables to the fabric drapes for privacy and sun shade. Said – meaning Happy in Arabic – offers me mint tea on the roof terrace. It is baking hot up there to my Celtic skin, even in the shade of the red and green fabric. The seating around the mosaic tables (the floor pattern in miniature) are long cushions almost at floor level. An Egyptian breed cat hops along the white walls of the roof surrounding the terrace. I’m poured tea from a silver metal teapot, intricately hammered, which sits on a shiny blue with gold embellished round cloth. A matching handle cover stops you burning your fingers as you pour. The inside of the pot is full of fresh Moroccan mint leaves – the hot water somehow making the colour more vibrant. As it’s poured into a shot glass, Said calls it Moroccan Whiskey. Beside it is a ceramic painted plate of freshly baked Moroccan pastries – crescent moon shaped, bow tie shaped, round, with chocolate, coconut, fennel, honey, rose and almond flavours. They melt in the heat with their softness before they melt in my mouth.
I’m escorted back to the ground floor and to my room by the fountain which has a Prince Charming frog tucked in the corner. He blends in to the green and white mosaic base, watching as water cascades over a beige urn filled with fresh pink roses on twelve inch stems. The sound of the trickling water and the smell of the roses relax me against the midday heat outside. Canopy awnings shelter the central courtyard.
My room is called Diva. Walking through the massive red wood doors, I’m greeted by a picture of three topless ebony women selling pottery by a road side. Beneath it is a chaise longue, with a well-worn but very comfortable leather seat. The wood, silver and black metal décor match the glass topped coffee table. The relief effect of the intricate silver is visually striking, yet very delicate in texture as I run my fingers across it. The design is punctuated by cedar wood varnished lozenges. A red rug with an octagon star leads to a low rise double red in a recessed wall of iconic Arabic motif. The recess has further hewn patterns inlayed in situ. Two hexagonal tables with fancy carvings flank the frame; Chinese in design.
Opposite, a red wood arched doorway leads to a red en-suite. Two basins are topped by a huge carved wood mirror, and the bath is in its’s own alcove. Keeping the metal grill window features, privacy is obtained with wooden door blinds – these have glass to the central court, which bounces the light to those dining there. The window grate is topped by three coloured stained glass – green, blue and yellow – dividing the semi-circle top into six. This is repeated for symmetry by the bed, flanking the door. Massive brass bolts close the doors. These large brass features are repeated in the curtain and bath towel poles, only this time with sickle moon finials. Stained glass windows match the metal light fitting.
Charlotte gives me a map and circles the places of interest and how to get around. She’s intrigued by my hand henna, as she imagines I’ve already been to the market before coming here. She’s impressed that I did it back home. The staff, dressed in grey and blue baggy outfits, ask how I am in French. Pots of coffee and warm milk and coconut cake is served in my room and the table is dragged even closer to me as I sit on the chaise lounge.
Before coming to Morocco, I brought two African style outfits to 1) blend in better and 2) not overheat. My initial half day plans were to get lost, and find a commission free bureau de change. Not necessarily in that order, but that’s how it happened. The walk from the Riad to the open square Jemaa el Fna is a long one. The pathways are uneven, with broken concrete tiles. They are often blocked by scooters, and pavements are high off the road. I pass many donkeys tied to carts who look like they were fed up with life. A kitten sized black and white cat is crouched by a car, and doesn’t seem to understand when I bent down and offer my finger to fuss it. Guards in different uniforms form a loose circle to chat in front of a massive gate to pristine plastered walls. On the opposite side of the street, I appreciate various ceramic tile shops. All the pillars seem to have small glazed hexagonal tile patterns around the circular pillars.
The road curves around to Jeema el Fna (Big Square) a meeting place. At 4pm it is in the shadow of a minaret – a red male phallic tower oppressing the height of surrounding buildings – and palm trees. Green and gold carriages lined in rich textiles drawn by two horses pile up on the pedestrian approach. The horse scrape their back hooves in the desire to go. It’s a massive meeting of transport types, and I tag myself to different native groups to cross the four lanes of traffic that are passing through, or going to the taxi rank or a bus stop. The pedestrian crossings here don’t follow the same rules as those in the UK. Here, you get honked at by horns or rung at by bicycle bells if you’re on the crossing and the traffic is coming. There’s no indication as to traffic lights further down being on red or green. It’s about believing you can get over the road in the gap between traffic.
I’m hunting for Hotel Ali in the souks and squares for Dirham, the closed currency of Morocco. It’s next to the Post Office, but I don’t see that, having been distracted by the sounds, sights and smells of performers. Live drumming where red outfitted men swing a tassel around their fez while dancing, blending with the horns of snake charmers with numerous rising cobras following one player. Yellow furred monkeys cling to their performing humans, or walk on a lead; some naked, some wearing clothes and nappies. Security are dotted about. Performers ask photographers for money, but given how many people have cameras or smartphones now, their power to extract cash for their image may be waning. Behind these front line performers are bright plastic stools with henna designs attached to them, so women can henna you in your design choice. Then, a line of fruit juice and nut stalls, before heading into the belly of the souks.
Despite my best effort to blend in, with Moroccan dress and hennaed hands, young male stall holders call for my attention in three languages – Arabic, French, and then English. I guess they take one look at my Celtic sandaled feet and assume I have a huge disposable income. The best tactic is to pull the headscarf over my face completely. This means I can’t see where I am going, but lifting my head to get a bearing means the calling starts again. They mistake blindness for interest. Older men don’t call so much, while the few women sellers around sit silently on the floor. The Jewish are the quietest, and my slower walking pace means I can admire the wares. From silver teapots to light holders to mirrors, dried spices, oils, amber, dubious natural gemstones, clothing, textiles, synthetic fleece onesies, handbags, leather sandals, silver jewellery (Berber’s find gold unlucky), sparkly woven baskets, red velvet fez, tassels, bread, pastries covered in bees, figs and fruit, random dried sheep’s heads covered in flies.
Other than the shiny fabric outfits that I’d use for belly dancing, the only thing that catches my eye is a leather pouffe to buy unstuffed to fit in hand luggage. Sadly by this point, my general anxiety has set in, and the narrower souk streets with no light piercing through the black cloth and corrugated metal sheet rooves seem daunting. Smoke from metal drums cooking nuts and meats obscured the still air. I’m not entertaining a haggling session, when I can’t see a start guide price, or a way out. I keep to the middle of wider enclosed streets, drawing the honking of scooters trying to overtake. Everyone else drifts to their right, into the stallholder’s reach. I keep my head to the floor, which rewards me with hexagonal stone slabs (some tri-hexagon), and the odd cedar wood carver at work on boxes and trinkets. The sheer volume of items suggests it is mass produced in China.
When there is finally daylight above me, it seems to be tourist tat or keyrings and miniature effigies of items like sandals. I find a mini plastic silver coloured hand on the cobbled floor. I might be the only person in history to go to the souks and get something without haggling or paying a premium! My self-amusement is abruptly ended when a human pulling a cart full of overstuffed blue woven sacks whistles me out the way. My eyes adjust to daylight and the absence of small entranced treasure caves, replaced by open stalls, with the odd impromptu table set up for fresh wares and argan oil in clear vials. One man stands in the street Rue de Banques holding three large mirrors and trying to lure people to talk to him. Everyone is trying to sell everything in any quantity. The tone is negative. It’s not “I have things for trade”. It’s “You’re going to stop because I tell you to”. Such people don’t deserve my presence or my custom.
At this point, I’m walking into all the hotel entrances asking for Hotel Ali. No-one knows where it is (apparently), but a few take me to the end of the street. I stop following them as I didn’t want an un-agreed or unexpected guide charge. I trust my instinct and walk back to the traffic hotspot, and my reward is the minaret at sunset. This temporary pause reveals I’m next to Hotel Ali. Two men attempt to barge me out the queue for money, and I hold my ground. Dropping my head scarf to reveal my whiteness prompts a grey haired security guy to get out of his chair, and both men apologise. Clothes really do change how people treat you, as does ethnicity. Beggars with crutches swarm from nowhere and put their good hand right under my nose as I walk away from the bureau de change. I’m inwardly thanking my decision to padlock and safety pin shut all my camera bag compartments.
Sunset brings on the calls for prayer, but on the path back to the Riad shop workers call out they do good excursions at cheap prices (not practicing Muslims). Thankfully, in the age of the Internet, I already know what I’m doing. If only this logic applied to navigating the final tight turning streets back to my Riad. Thankfully, the residents seem used to people overshooting the turning and asking under the orange street lights. Said doesn’t recognise me when I get back, and he compliments that I look like a femme de Maroc. The clothes aren’t as cooling as hoped, as my pulsating feet and sweat drenched t-shirt testify.
My pre-ordered dinner is served at 7pm, and it is a feast by flickering candlelight. At least part of the offering was done in the microwave, as the ding is heard over the fountain. The initial six dishes are sweet black dried olives, oily green and red olives, bread, avocado salad, brown lentils, and warm aubergine salad. Then, Said brings out a tagine of chicken cooked in butter and spice, with quinces in sugar syrup. Then, ‘malt whiskey’ mint tea, and orange slices sprinkled with cinnamon. I proverbially roll back to my room to sleep it off. My stomach is quite small these days as I eat little and often. I’m unprepared for a culture that fasts and then feasts. Said tries to explain my appetite as tiredness from travelling, bless him. He worries about me walking barefoot on the tiled floor in case I get cold. It’s 24oC, his Winter, my Summer.
Wednesday 11th November 2015
I wake at 8.30am to the sound of metal tables being moved across a tiled floor. Breakfast is huge. A vat of coffee, a vat of warm milk, two types of bread, two types of pancake, a yoghurt, a boiled egg, jam, honey, salt, sugar, butter, cheese, and chocolate cake. Most of the year, breakfast is on the terrace, but this time of year, bees are fed up of summer flowers and now turn their attention to sugar and honey. I get the bee scout at my table, and it is repeatedly wafted away by Rachid with a cloth. I’m used to bees that are round and fluffy – this looks like a dark brown wasp. Rachid scolds it in French – the honey is not for you, the jam is not for you, the sugar is not for you – as it hovers above each small dish. Eventually, it gets clobbered by the cloth and it spirals concussed under the chaise lounge. Charlotte comes in, and the bee comes back, descending immediately onto my yoghurt coated spoon. “The bee likes you as you are new.” I hand her the spoon the bee is content to sit on. She hands it to Said, who takes it to the kitchen behind me. There’s a loud bang of metal on a work surface. I chat to the couple who have also come down to breakfast. They are from Munich, and comment on the meal etiquette. For continental Europe, the world wars and rationing mean we clear our plates. Here in North Africa, the host has to demonstrate they have such abundance that you can’t eat everything. Part of me wonders if the food I don’t eat gets thrown away, given to the staff, or is served to me or other people later on.
I opt for western attire, that would conceal me as a man back in the UK – brown walking boots, grey walking trousers, white square long sleeved shirt, bum bag, hair pulled forward. Considerably less people bother me on the walk down to Jemaa el Fna, except the guy who says “hello again” at the day trip shop. I would be very impressed if he recognised me, so I’m wondering if it’s a ploy to get you to stop beyond everyone else’s hello. The Big Square is full of cars carrying goods and butane bottles chained together (for the street cooking).
I beeline down the road to the Isis Spa, until I am sandwiched between a van and a horse carriage. The horse carriage is better at navigating. I step into a space between fabric on the floor, showing different modern textiles in a heap, to try and end this tight jam. Big mistake. My lack of movement and eye level gaze attracts a call from a man, slick hair, puffy cheeks, oily skin, Western attire.
“You are British. You must stay on the right here.” Tactic number one – presume nationality from attire, make conversation about country of origin left hand rule, even though the person is on the right.
Tactic 2 – put time restriction on an event, “The Berber market, last day today. They go back to mountains. Last day for leather. Good leather. Better dyes. Go now. Follow me.” I keep walking, and he keeps following. I see the sign for the Isis Spa and enter the residential side street. He follows.
“No, market is that way.” Tactic 3 – ignore conversation by target to override them to your wishes
I say I have a massage booked at the spa. “You follow me. I do massage for free.” I keep walking down the narrow, red right angle turned streets, until eventually I find the right entrance. “You sure you want that? Not free with me?” I point to the entrance. He shakes my hand, then kisses me on the cheek. He brings his other hand up to stop me from turning my face, and kisses me on the lips with moist, mushy lips. I put my free hand on my face and grimace. “Pas sans le boucle,” I admonish. He smile is arrogant and he walks away, as he’s taking nothing else from me in this unwanted encounter. No-one is around to witness this assault.
I’m greeted by the Isis Spa staff at 11am on 11/11 that use my French sounding surname as my first name. Guests who are leaving compliment my henna tattoos, and are even more impressed that I did it myself. A CD player serenades us with a piano version of Unchained Melody. The mint tea is served in a shot glass stamped “Mod France”, and black dregs sit in the bottom, suggesting it is powder rather than fresh leaves. The changing room is single, and I put my stuff into locker ten in exchange for white plastic sandals and a white towelling robe with the black and red logo embroidered on the chest. As I’m leaving, I read the sign saying underwear or swimming costumes are compulsory. I put my knickers back on and stuff my cossie into my robe pocket. I’m taken up two flights of smooth stone stairs to a terrace. Seemingly all the buildings have the same number of levels.
A thin Arabic woman springs from under a black canopy and receives instructions from the boss lady. I’m taken through a curved topped wooden door into a hot steamy room. The walls are plain cream plaster, the ceiling vaulted in domes cut into quarters, and seats line the whole room that are covered in small square glazed tiles with long plastic cushions for seats. My robe is dumped into a plastic bin at the entrance. The lady speaks Arabic, then French. I reply “Je parle un peu Francais. Je suis Anglais.”
She takes my arms and positions me under a shower in the ceiling, and hot water cascades over me. She points to the plastic couches, as I’m standing there in my white knickers and a smile. “Lounge”. I lie down. She swirls her fingers in a white bowl, and then puts both her hands on my breasts. This is not the massage I’m used to! She whizzes her hands over my skin at record speed, covering me in honey, rose oil and ground almonds. “Turnee” she instructs, looping her finger in a circle. I turn over, and she coats the other side of me in record time. She goes to the other end of the room to fill a deep stone basin built into the seat level. I quietly toast on the heated tiles, covered in a sticky nut fest wondering what it is to be a granola bar.
“Levee” she instructs, beckoning me with her finger to stand by her, under the shower. The shower – like all showers – is now freezing cold. “Froid!” I exclaim, stepping back and eyeballing it. The water dislodges some almond into my eye, so I cup water in my hands from the sink and wash my face. The shower really isn’t getting warm, so she scoops water from the basin with a massive wooden bucket and throws it at me. The last time someone threw a bucket of water at me, I was a single digit age and playing in the garden with the sprinkler. Now a strange grown woman whom I am likely never to see again is repeatedly throwing buckets of warm water at me, spiralling her finger to indicate for me to turn around. She picks each breast up before throwing a bucket of water under each one, then pulls my knickers forward to throw a bucket down them, repeats for the back, which return to my skin with a wet slap of elastic. She lifts my arms up and throws a bucket of water at each armpit. This is a TARDIS sink.
“Shampooing?” she picks up another bowl, this time orange synthetic looking goo. I wonder if it’s a question or information, and she shampoos my hair with splayed fingers, before scooping what appear to be the last dregs of water from the basin with a shallow gold plate into the bucket. It still fills the bucket, which she promptly tips over my head. As water streams in front of my eyes, she points to the couch. I lie back down. She dips her finger into a small bowl of pink clay and mixes it to a paste. The process of speed application starting with my breasts repeats, only this time there’s a hint of back massage, where she depresses my spine like single CPR from the base to my nape, before smoothing her knuckles under my shoulder blades. My feet get scrubbed with a rough sponge. She leaves the room while the clay mixes with the steam in the air before it drips off and pools in the depression under my nose.
She returns, pulls her tabard under her bum to make a dry seat for herself, and sits down opposite me.
“Ton premier hammam?”
“Je ‘m’appelle Salma. Et-tu?”
“Je m’appelle Lisa.”
I’m amused that introductions are now, after two body massages and a bucket toss.
“Tres bien? Ca va?” She gestures a thumbs up. I raise my thumb and repeat her words. She smiles, before “levee” to the shower. This time the water is hot. I’m grinning like a loon at the absurdity of this situation, and she’s smiling, too. It’s the best bath party ever. Even with the shower, I’m still getting gold plates of water thrown under my boobs and down my knickers and in my armpits. More shampoo, another gold plate rinse under the running shower. I run my fingers through my hair to clear it from my face. She looks at me, then runs her fingers through my hair in the same gesture. I have had to come to another continent for someone to ruffle my hair, in a very curious bonding way. I know I look good when I run my fingers through my hair, as I enjoy the tactile sensation on my digits as well as my scalp, and now someone else has joined that experience.
She puts my robe on, ties the sash, and opens the door to the boss lady, who takes me down a tier into a room with two massage tables, orange towels and orange curtains. This rounded, paler bespectacled lady is in the black uniform and gets a lot of instructions. I get pointed onto the table and have my body covered in a massive towel, and my head covered so that only my face is visible. She applies an almond gel to my face, using her fingers like delicate brush strokes creating a picture. While that dries, she massages my feet with individual pressure like reflexology. A steamer comes to the boil, and she gently wafts steam over my face to reactivate the gel, before removing it gently with coral sponges. She lays a sheet of paper over my face and gently presses her palm in methodological fashion to absorb any remaining moisture. She then uses another piece of paper to pick my blocked pores to remove my spots. Yes, really. Another mask goes on – this time rose – and she continues to massage my feet while that works its magic. She wipes this mask away with water, before applying oil that is light. My face is massaged, including my eyelashes, which she brushes with a single finger. She covers my face with another towel, and pulls the big one off me from the feet, having the towel stroke my entire body, before setting to work on massaging my whole body, starting with the breasts. These are gentle, precise, almost ticklish light touch. It’s a touch that peaks my curiosity and I reach out to it; a far cry from the previous water adventure. Both keep me in the present, which is a therapy. Time has no meaning, beyond the repeat of piano-edition Yesterday, Unchained Melody and other classics.
The boss lady appears again, and she takes me to the ground floor into a dark room containing a lit Jacuzzi. It is massive – a cube I can’t reach the sides or the bottom of, and the jets somehow keep me suspended. I get pummelled by water for twenty minutes, before going to a room with low chaise lounges, where I drink mint tea and unintentionally fall asleep under a red fleece blanket for 40 minutes. I wake up to piano-edition Yesterday, and the candles on the alcove have gone out. My henna appears to be darker.
I photograph the pink and white wax leaves in the central pool. Leaving the Spa, I’m smiling, glowing, with shiny hair highlighting my red heritage. I am still on the steps when the cat calling starts as packs of men leer over me saying “Like like like nice nice nice”. This removes all the relaxing work of the massage, and it persists until I cover my head with a scarf. Then it’s back to the usual “you stop because I tell you to” calling. I learn quickly that red pedestrian zones on maps are the greatest spots for being bothered. Any sign in English is meant for tourists, while French and Arabic only are meant for natives. The walk back along the main road gets me whacked in the face by red tarpaulin as men making plastic roof coverings pull down shades to block out the mid-afternoon sun. Back in the safety of my residential area, I see cats navigating glass shards set into walls, and other cats sitting optimistically as men rummage through giant yellow waste bins. A vacuum flask is waiting for me in my room, with Sultan black tea, Nescafe coffee and sugar – all in French and Arabic. I still struggle to drink hot liquids without milk. In the courtyard, I hear the sounds of a happy family as Charlotte’s daughter is taught French by a female teacher.
It gets dark, and I dress in African clothing with an added buff so only my eyes are on show. I head out for the Terrace des Epices restaurant. This gets me a different attention. Stall holders only call out the Arabic “Yassouf”, but eventually “eyes” and “ninja” get added as I progress down this narrow stall laden street. I stop to tie my shoelace, my headscarf slips, and a wool and silk scarf is put on my head by an oily skinned fat cheeked middle aged man. It is not possible to stop in the street without getting assaulted. I take it off and ignore his sales pitch about blocking out the sun (I already have several head covers), the materials (rough), and if I’m alone. My belief is mistaken that I’d get photos later in the day, as less people to hide behind means I’m picked off easier.
Eventually I find the stairs to the restaurant. It’s black painted open terrace with rattan hanging lights. Straw hats saying reserved sit on tables in booths. I’m lead to the open terrace, where I’m ignored by the staff for twenty minutes. When I want to be left alone, I get bothered. When I want something, no-one comes. I scan the other patrons, and the pale skinned ones sit like I do – slumped into the chair, wearied from so many people taking from you. Eventually I see massive hinged blackboard menus in Arabic, French and English. When a waiter finally pays attention to me and brings the freestanding floor menu over, I order spiced coffee and tagine with beef, walnut and figs. They both look dark brown in the lighting. The coffee is in a tiny glass, and I wonder how people don’t dehydrate with such small fluid intakes. It has cinnamon and cloves, and I taste nothing more once it numbs my tongue. A tray of bread and olives is put on my table, but I don’t touch it in case I have to pay for it. A receipt is put on my table that is just a barcode. I watch other patrons take it to the front desk to pay, and follow suit.
Now the stalls are covered in clear plastic sheets, and only old men perched on stools remain as sentinels guarding the stock. I only see one homeless person, and he sits on cardboard feeding scraps to a cat. I wonder where the other street beggars have gone, until I reach the Big Square that is chaos in hanging smoke. Previously empty benches are now filled with men. Extra stall carts block pedestrian crossings. The light of the square is gone due to the sheer volume of people blocking any light from performing acts, board games on the floor, children sitting on metal food cans using them as drums, shirtless dancing men, tea light holders lit up. I opt to take a moving video to avoid the begging women with their sons.
At some point a man from the Central African Republic (slightly chuffed it exists beyond Pointless) asks why my face is covered. I say it’s because I’m cold. He realises I’m English, and is impressed I’m dressed in African clothes. He’s surprised I don’t drink alcohol or smoke as a British person. His side of the conversation is in French, mine is in English. He invites me back to his place for music tonight or tomorrow. I decline, saying I’m meeting friends and leaving tomorrow. He just walks away, as what he wants from me isn’t happening. I feel used, and depleted that people only want money or sex from me. A further five men approach me and have a very similar conversation and abrupt parting. I wonder if there’s a queue behind me of men hoping I’ll say no to those in front of them. I later research that single African women in public are considered prostitutes and they cover their faces so clients don’t recognise them.
I bid for higher ground, like the goats that stand in trees in African plains seeking safety. The Café de France has detailed mosaic tiling inside, but I don’t stop until I’m at the top before I get my camera out. All of the bright plastic chairs are taken, so I take a photo of the chaos of the square at night under the lit minaret, before going down a tier to repeat the action. The walk back is slow, painfully slow, as the pack of women I’m hiding behind have had life taken from them by this place.
Thursday 12th November 2015
Dawn chorus of birds in the courtyard wakes me, followed by a loudspeaker from a nearby mosque (what did they do before loudspeakers to call people to prayer?). The boiled egg is replaced by an omelette done in a microwave served on a plastic plate. Somehow it doesn’t make me ill. The bees come and land on my plates, and the birds sing from the courtyard trees and play in the fountain.
I’m up early enough to see the house staff arrive in Western clothing before changing into their work clothes and sweeping up leaves. I choose full anti-social Western attire – snood on my hair, sunglasses and headphones. I am greeted by a small tortoiseshell cat outside the Riad, and she is very affectionate and very dusty. She purrs and energetically paddles her front paws on the hard stone slabs. I guess she doesn’t know any different, or doesn’t care who sees her happiness. I wish I could say the same. I procrastinated a long time before leaving the Riad, slowed by the cold I’ve picked up from the staff, and avoiding the anticipated barrage of people assaulting my ears or my body, and leaving me if they are not getting money or sex from me. Everything takes. Even my happiness is taken from me, except in the privacy of the Riad door with a cat.
Hands of women sitting on the floor with sons sleeping in their lap came up to me, but only two shop holders call out. I notice a space filled with old TVs next to a shop selling Gold Vision satellite dishes. I photograph a fancy fronted spice shop with the dried produce covered in flies and birds, and the multi-uniformed guards leaning against the gate. One of them came over as I look at my photo. “Can I see your camera? You cannot take photos of uniforms. Delete it.” I delete it, and he tells me to delete the college entrance photo that was previous, until I tell him it’s the college. I broaden my shoulders, take off my sunglasses and stare him in the eyes. “You are playing with fire,” he says. I continue to stare at him silently. I know my human rights, and the All Blacks Haka is running through my mind. I clench my fist in a nervous reflex, and he walks away. People who submit to hierarchy are susceptible to it from all sources. I continue to stare at him, while he joins the other thugs for hire playing dress up propping up the gate.
I put my sunglasses back on, and walk past the hand reaching up to me from a woman sitting on the floor by the high wall. People who make a choice to support patriarchal hierarchy with financial inequality, while there are those at their feet seeking basic life needs, do not get my respect. They get my pity. And I’m intrigued that human door props in a Muslim country fail the basic instruction of their religion of providing for the needy; instead choosing to be a doormat to the insecure who lock themselves away from human contact behind walls. They are not Muslims, they are men who have forgotten what it is to be human. And I’m also intrigued that people beg me for money, as I’m clearly not a Muslim. If you find the people of your own belief system who are rich enough to hire thugs aren’t helping you, then why do you stay? The green star of the Moroccan hangs above us, and I know a pentagram means Venus the feminine in my Celtic beliefs. What does it mean here?
Incidentally, if the guard had said, “Please delete the photo of me” I’d happily respect that, as consent is an important concept. But assuming behaviour because of clothing choices, due to an ego problem of perceived authority over others? Not so much. What’s he afraid of? That I’m going to pass his image around in a way he can’t control? A way that makes him an object? Where was he when the guy kissed me and invaded by body, not my image?
More hands rise from the floor like cobras, until I reach the Jemaa el Fna and find real cobras making a bid for freedom across the square. Their captor grabs them and puts them back on the mat under the green sun umbrella. The helicopter fez tassels are not in full swing. The drums kick start and fail, as no-one stops to listen. At one point, a snake charmer grabs the arm of a female passer-by, turning her to look at the rug. I turn away from the sight, and trip over a pile of street bricks. A man at my feet is chipping off the cement and piling them up. This temporary pause means horse carriage riders pounce on me. I spur myself on, feeling the sweat pool on my clothes as the temperature reaches 26oC.
I find myself at a crossroads where no streets are marked. I pick the busiest road, and have to keep stepping over older men crouching on the floor watching the traffic go by. I reach a petrol garage, this strange plastic white oasis amid streets of red plaster, and turn back. I’ve had enough of not knowing where I am. All the buildings are capped at the same height, so the religious turrets can stand out, and I’m getting colour blindness. I go back to the road junction and stare at my map. Vans honk their horns at me, so I dip into a building site that is surrounded by plastic walls to conceal the fact it’s a pile of rubble. Maps only make sense if you can see the layout, and this much renovation means throughfares no longer apply.
A Berber guide comes to me. It’s his day off, and I tell him I’m looking for the tombs. He says they are not open yet. I ask for the Palace. He points to the road currently obscured by construction signs and says it’s down there. He says he is not Arab, he is Berber, and he does not speak Arabic. He learned English in Leeds when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, and mimics an Iron Fist. He compliments my henna, is impressed that I did it and says it is a striking contrast of dark dye on pale skin. He talks about the pottery his people make in the mountains, and says he’ll take me there tomorrow for mint tea. I lie and say my plane leaves in the morning. Realising he’s not getting anything from me, he leaves me to my pithering. The road is very wide, and vans are making deliveries to shops. The shops are bigger, but they still spill out onto the street, and with the scooters and bikes stacked on the remaining pavement and gutter, I’m forced into the road, pincered in by vans making deliveries. Like some miracle, I see an arch that’s a pedestrianised street, and the cobbles are wide enough that I can walk in the middle undisturbed while bees swarm around pastries. The signs above shops proudly declare they are Berber made from the Atlas Mountains.
The pathway leads to the palace. I park my arse on an empty bench and drink my entire water bottle to combat the midday sun. A woman covered completely crosses from the palace and sits next to me. We look at each other and smile empathetically. I think we’ve both had enough of men in the streets. I never want to see a man ever again, especially one that thinks the street belongs to them rather than remembering they belong to the Earth. It’s like the song, “Do you wanna build a snowman?” If you had that on repeat, eventually you’d twitch at the thought of snow. I’ve stopped smiling at people and now fix a scowl to my face and keep a Terminator rigid head. Then I realise no-one is around, and I turn to see a massive construction side that says “Coming soon, public toilets” for the convenience of Palace visitors. I start to wonder if smelling bad will keep men away from me, and I contemplate the freshly dropped donkey dung in front of me as a rickety cart rolls by. I think I’ve found a place I like less than London.
I look up at the tower and see green tiles against the red plaster. A stork flies in, and I see the nest. Then four more storks fly in and perch on the highest point. It revives my spirits. Nature always comes out on top. I peer my head into the open palace gate, and it’s a meticulously laid out tree garden – nature is controlled rather than allowed to thrive organically. Google Earth tells me that all the high walled money hoarders are hiding trees from everyone else. I contemplate if the ratio of green trees to red walls in Marrakech is the same proportion of the flag. I start walking North, thinking all streets lead to Jemaa El Fna. I walk in the road, as taxis are parked three cars deep on both sides, leaving a narrow through fare of people and vehicles.
Over the road works, I’m in a wide pedestrianised area, but the central path is not a sanctuary. It is filled with really dark skinned African men holding white backed smart phones and metal faced watches in their hands, thrusting them into the noses of bewildered white tourists who have slowed down too much. I start to understand the nature documentaries of Africa, where animals travel either slowly in massive packs, or quickly in smaller groups. The slow, isolated prey get picked off easily by predators, and a single white female tourist with a camera is certainly that. I like to think I’m doing my bit to pave the way for single females by staring at people who mistakenly think they have authority over me, and blanket ignoring unwanted attention as I owe my time to no-one but myself. I really get why Western actors wear sunglasses and baseballs caps. It sadly doesn’t deter the most stubborn of shop owners, who decide I am Spanish by calling, “Hola”. I have a flashback of the Halloween props back home that detect movement and begin a creepy recording. Even walking in the road, because I’m fed up of stepping over people to avoid the bikes and scooters parked three deep on the pavement, triggers this auto-response.
Back in the Riad, I spend a long time in the bath nursing my head cold, my sun burn, my overheating, and my leg pains. Even hiking boots are no match for the pitted plaster and stone slab mismatch of Marrakech walkways. It’s hard, and it takes from you: The weather, the pavement, the men. Last time I was this sore on holiday was Budapest, where everything was massive and spacious. Given Marrakech is the biggest market in Morocco, everything is tiny. It’s as if they haven’t realised they have this massive flat plain to expand into, beyond the Medina walls. They don’t want to change. Instead, they want to be a mental institute, only someone forgot to get the sane out and brick up the gates. Maybe the clue to this insanity is in the currencies acronym MAD.
Friday 13th November
I wait in bed until I hear a microwave ping in the kitchen. Breakfast is a very speedy affair, as my camel ride tour picks me up at 9am. I stuff most of my breakfast into a bag to eat as lunch, as my stomach refuses to accommodate more without feeling sick. I opt for Western clothes, getting heavier with sweat with each wearing despite their bagginess. I wear my hand of Fatima t-shirt over the top in the hope of warding off evil. A brown head buff and sunglasses complete the covering. I hover outside College Mohammed 5, and the school children pay no attention to me. They lean against the wall by the ornate door until a single female teacher appears from the car park and opens it. I notice car boots have shoes and rugs on them, presumably due to prayer in the adjacent mosque. A massive van pulls up beside me. I show him a piece of paper with my name and tour details on it in block capitals. The bus already contains four people, Americans studying in Spain and touring countries nearby as travel is easier than from the states. It’s so nice to talk to people with white skin whose first (actually only) language is English. The exchange of experiences and useful information is effortless. I can finally smile and tell jokes.
The drive through the streets, past men standing in doorways spitting, past women scowling and even the odd (potentially gay) man with the sucked-a-lemon / don’t-talk-to-me expression, donkeys pulling overloaded, rickety wooden carts on car tyres having their rear tapped by a male driver with a stick. Eventually, there are two Babs (Arabic gates) that take us to freedom beyond the limited city. Suddenly, there are groves, palmeries and olive plantations. Telephone poles made to look like palms are closest to the road. Most of the trees are behind walls. I wonder if the Medina is surrounded by a band of green like the pentagram on the flag. Like a shot of lightning, I see a colour that isn’t red or green – blue roof tiles on the entrance to a golf course. Our driver rubs his fingers together, indicating the rich. There’s so much space, and greenery. I’ve never been so happy to see grass.
The scenery changes to property development. A massive faded billboard of a man in a turban being in awe of a key stands proudly on a roundabout next to a billboard about dates. I find I can read French effortlessly now, but the Arabic script is still a mystery. Surprisingly, the house plots have a starting price, a rarity in a haggling country. The road turns to gravel track as we pass low walls surrounding regular metal street lamps next to electric supply boxes for future houses. The gravel becomes sand with tyre marks. I get my camera and press it against the purple tinted glass to photograph a goat herd, and the driver stops so I can take it properly. We reach an isolated building. Our van and others are divided into camel ride and quad bike tables. After filling in tiny forms about insurance liability, a white cotton headscarf is knotted to our heads and we pose for tour photos.
The staff in blue Berber overalls invite me onto the rear camel called Banana. The last time my legs were this far apart was volleyball digs. My blue and white attire perfectly match the rough stripes of the saddle, in a way a reverse saddle as it is padding to fill the gaps of the humps. I’m clipping my cameras to me when Banana decides to stand up. I lurch forward as he straightens his back legs, and there’s a long pause before the front legs level up. In a quick reflex for my camera and the rusty metal loop of the saddle, I realise my hand is bruised from staring down the private guard. The staff come rushing to me asking if I’m okay in English as I inspect the red and blue mark on my palm. I reply in French then English, I’m okay. The other four camels are loaded up, and Banana walks a little bit backwards with every camel that rises in sequence.
We’re off behind a plume of red dust left by the quad bikes. Thankfully I don’t suffer sea sickness, as I undulate backwards and forwards as Banana strides his left legs and then his right ones. I also survive the longest before aching, due to belly dance training. We cross a stone road (tarmac melts in such heat) where the central reservation is removed for camels to cross (not a zebra or pelican in sight). The track is marked by a groove from repeated wear, and human and camel imprints. We pass patches of scrub, odd bushes, even odder palm trees and flax. It’s still all red and green. It’s inspiring, looking at the vast emptiness in front of us, with the ridge of the Atlas mountains in a blue haze. It’s freedom. It’s natural. I have my head up high and I’m smiling. The staff are enjoying my smile. “Habibi,” I say from belly dancing. They are delighted. It means joy of life to them. I try and take video and photos on the move, but most of them end up lopsided sky shots with the rapid undulation. I stick to enjoying the sensation, including that of flies landing on my face. A camel made from flax is put on my wrist, made in record time on the go. It is given freely.
A mirage appears in the desert. A dense group of palm trees with a man crouched by a motorbike. It turns out it’s part of our tour, an official photographer dressed in western clothes (presumably Arab if he’s after money). The camel line stops strategically for official and unofficial photos with their camera and ours. Naturally, the ones they take on their equipment are better as a lure to part with cash back at the headquarters.
The camel train continues, past isolated houses that are being built. The metal scaffolding piled in the corner of the courtyard is turning red with rust. The bricks of the walls are ventilated, waiting to be plastered. Out here, the trees are on the outside of the building rather than in a courtyard. For lunch, we stop at a Berber farm, where olive trees grow and goats graze. Another camel team is already there, disembarking for photos. Banana rests his head on the bum of the camel in front and lets out a relieved sigh. I reminisce about Blackpool donkeys doing the same when I was young. We are lead under a thatched roof of twigs and invited to wash our hands in a blue plastic bowl that’s shaped like a tagine. As water is poured from a watering can, the waste water runs down the conical sides and is collected in the bowl. The tables are low, and the bright silk rugs and mismatched cushions inviting. I end up at the head of the table, and it turns out every other person on this trip is an American student studying in Spain. I’m feeling like the English eccentric and take photos of the freshly made savoury pancakes, honey and mint tea being brought out as bottled water is poured into my disposable plastic cup. The Whiskey Morocain is poured from a great height with a flourish – without froth it is just water. The food is delicious.
The staff start clapping, trying to get the nearest tourists to join in. It’s not the easiest of rhythms to the uninitiated, but I know it from belly dancing as the 9/8 rhythm. My hips start twitching. I kick off my shoes, tie my headscarf around my bum and rise to dance. The delight of the staff that someone wants to join in is palpable. Suddenly, I’m surrounded by blue clad Berber men. The guy who has been singing “Hey banana” all trek to me teaches me to dance Berber style. It’s a shoulder shrug and a small chicken step. “Like this,” he encourages, showing me different moves. I can keep up with the changes from my improvisation training. It’s midday in the African desert, and I’m dancing on a full stomach. A straw hat with the Moroccan flag embroidered on it is put on my head, and my favourite member of staff takes my hands and circles them while we turn in our own circle. The other staff rouse the other tourists to dance around us. I’m at the epicentre of swirling, happy clapping circus, and I’m grinning like a loon. The other tourists exclaim, “I have no idea what’s going on,” but they go with it. We have a clapping crescendo to finish the dance, and a zaghareet call (it’s an Arabic expression of happiness). I try and emulate that like I do at dance class, but it still eludes me. The staff and I laugh at my attempt.
While others are led to the farm house for a comfort break, I’m left holding the Moroccan ceremony hat. A teenage boy wearing a shapeless orange and white striped smock, who has been silently watching everything unfold from the safety of his home, holds his hand out to take it. “Shukran,” I say, Arabic for thank you. There’s a small hesitation at the thought of getting back on the camels because of the saddle girth. I know to have my camera already clipped on before I get up this time. A quick pat on the front leg, and Banana rises. I give his dusty fur a quick scratch and he favours me with a look through his long lashes, and kind of smiles with his overgrown upside down rabbit teeth. I’m honoured to be given a flax camel on a stick, a thank you for dancing.
The path back is more defined, past finished houses with white and blue roofed gates to their walled gardens and tilled fields on the opposite side. The Atlas Mountains shimmer in the midday heat. I understand why African djembes are made of wood and goat skin, as there is nothing on the horizon. I wonder how anything could survive out here, but I see green-yellow butterfly pairs dance around each other, and birds flitting from bush to bush with a song. Shakira – the camel two in front – decides to growl, and the staff walk next to her and emulate her. Clearly I’m not the heaviest person being carried today. The camels are rallied to run, and American voices exclaim, “Oh my God, my life just flashed before my eyes!” The guide tells me, “Good massage.” That’s one word for it.
Dismounting reveals my legs are parted so wide you can drive a quad bike through them. The quad tour is already back, using air compressors to blow red sand out of their shoes. The camel train is led by the most comfortable method of riding them – standing up on the lead white camel – leading across a dried up river crossed by a concrete road viaduct. We are given water in metal cups and invited to look at the official tour photos. I only like one of them. It’s very “spot the tourist”. I part with the set price of 50 Dirham cash to have it printed on the spot. Others have them emailed for 45Dh an image. I have a scanner at home, and no interest in giving my email address out.
The van ride back to the Riad takes us on a different road, this time past the massive police station. Walking like a crab seems infinitely more comfortable than walking normally, and I gingerly perch on the chaise lounge in my room to drink tea from the vacuum flask jug served on a silver metal tray. My door is open to the courtyard. I feel safe. I could leave Marrakech on a happy note. But I strategize that it’s safe outside the Medina wall. I web search the Majorelle Gardens – a botanical garden gifted by Yves Saint Laurent – North West of where I am. I pack 50Dh entry, and 60Dh for potentially overpriced coffee. I leave my camel stinky clothes on, complete with added honey stain on the trousers. I set out on the final road from my Riad, belching and scowling my way to the double gates. No-one bothers me, and I get to appreciate the only trees on the street – four palm trees being grown in cut off Texaco metal barrels. I figure I can photograph these things on the way back.
I’m free again. The roads are massive, and the kerbs seem even higher than in the Medina. People with walking sticks join those in wheelchairs in being in the flow of traffic. I bide my time to cross with two women, as the scooters and bikes ignore the red light. I pick up a coin off the floor. It’s not Moroccan, which is probably why it’s still on the street. Nothing is left on the floor, due to the begging volume. My head is up, and my sight firmly fixed on the trees of the Gardens.
A fat cheeked oily skinned Arab man walks by me. “You’re going to the Gardens? I work there. It’s closed today. I take you to the Berber market in the old town. It’s open one day a month to non –Berber. Not the Big Square. That’s fabrique in China. This is quality. Local prices, not tourist prices. For an hour. I take you for free.” Quite why I didn’t say, “I’m meeting my husband at the Gardens,” and keep walking I’ll never know, as this hour shopping trip takes me back into the walls, and I doubt my 110Dh (£7.50) will cover his commission, let alone buy any hand crafted Berber item. I’m still happy from the morning, and trust the Hand of Fatima shirt and the matching pendant found on the first day can protect me from evil.
He repeats his sales pitch in French three times, in different phrasings. He keeps pointing to my map to indicate where we are now and where we are going. I get an unexpected history tour: the oldest gate of the city, built by the Portugese. Various filming locations for films like The Mummy, Laurence of Arabia. The oldest house in Marrakech, 1154 with exposed wood. The first mosque in Africa, and first fountain with holy water. The fountain tiles indicate Christian, Islam and Berber belief systems, and it is padlocked to control the use of the water that – I’m told – can remove the spot on my face that the massage didn’t deal with. Fountains get fancy treatment to highlight the importance of water as salvation in a desert.
The mosque is the only place where there are people, including women carrying mattresses. It’s so novel to see so many women about. The old residential streets are slightly wider than the area I’m staying in, so it’s easy to avoid the odd old man sitting on a small rug by a home door. Actually, no-one is bothering me while I take pictures and look up and exclaim at the beauty of the architecture. They must be used to Rachid taking tourists to the Berber shop.
The conversation, mostly in French, is probably littered with lies about his personal life. Mine certainly is. I’m lying for self-preservation. Rachid may not be his name, as it’s a Moroccan Prince. I do believe he has two wives, as he let slip where they live – Egypt and a place that isn’t Marrakech – and potentially an unknown quantity of children. I keep a poker face when his slips about his gaff, so he keeps mentioning me meeting his wife and children in Marrakech nearby. He has five brothers and three sisters. He’s 30, he doesn’t like African women as they are tall by the time they are my age. When he asks if I have a husband, I say that he died of cancer. It’s a good job I can spin fiction from my writing. I answer that I’m Christian (which I’m not, but explaining Celtic Buddhist to someone who isn’t speaking much English), and he answers that he’s not a practicing Muslim, gesturing to his upper left arm saying tattoos. He never asks about my job, I never ask him what his commission rate is, as that would indicate I know his game.
The shop seems to be a converted house. I’m met by an old Berber man in blue work overalls. He offers me mint tea, sweetened with fig as a gesture of friendship. The only seats are in the side room with the (presumably) most expensive items – the rugs and blankets, which adorn all the walls, the seat, and are stacked in piles around the edges. I keep my head still and steady as I take in the silk rainbow pouffes attached to the ceiling so my interest isn’t noted. Tea is served from a massive ornate metal tea pot, and I attempt a Berber toast. I get as far as “Freedom for you” before phonetically blagging the rest. I have a kaftan put over my clothes and a turban, and pose for a photo. I’m shown a gelebi – a kaftan with long sleeves and a hood to keep out the sun in the day and keep body heat at night. The colours are plain and the size shapeless tents.
I’m shown hard wearing rugs made my Berber women in the Atlas mountains. Each one is unique and kilim – it tells a story of that woman. Various symbols indicate the Hand of Fatima to ward off the evil eye, and they ask if I got my shirt from the Big Square. I try and explain that it was made for a festival in England (Barefoot) that healed people with dance, laughter, yoga, henna. “Rachid” has gone quiet as he sips his tea and listens to proceedings and likely a sales pitch he’s heard many times before. The Berber (didn’t catch his name) has a wistful look on his face as I talk about such things. It must seem a life away from being under the thumb of Arabs taking so much from him and his family in the pursuit of bits of paper. Even if I had the cash, I don’t support such business practices. We return to the symbols hand woven onto the rug: one symbol is against polygamy (I like this woman), another is a ward against evil, a cross for Christianity. The symbols are always in sympathetic colours to the base weave.
I’m alarmed when a lighter is produced and he holds it up to the rug for over a minute. Agave cactus thread (rough and silk) is flame retardant, developed for when wind blew into tents and knocked a fire coal onto the floor rugs and bed covers. It is warm to the touch but unmarked. Doesn’t feel all that nice, but compared to the desert probably a luxury. It’s lightweight from a nomadic people, weighing 400 grams and perfect for aeroplane suitcases. Machine washable at 40oC. A standard size off the hand loom of 5ft by 3ft. Packs down to smaller than my camera. I get an education in the natural dyes used for the colours as an example of each is opened and presented at my feet – cinnamon for brown, cobalt for light blue, lapis or indigo for dark blue, mint for green, saffron for yellow, henna for orange, poppy for red. Tears appear from nowhere at the poppy dyed rug. My Dad died on November 11th, and that anniversary is recent. I cover that it was my late husband that loved poppies. I get the most half-hearted attempt at comfort – the Berber equivalent to life goes on – before the sales pitch continues.
I’m presented with man -made bed covers, in a wafty cactus silk – demonstrated to be flame proof again – that still isn’t soft to the touch. But it is shiny, in three toned stripes of a colour repeated. There’s a selvage rather than tassels at the edge. It’s even lighter at 250 grams. I’m asked to indicate my preferences, and I say brown and blue together (which doesn’t happen) and rainbows. A multi-coloured bed throw is pulled from a pile, along with the colours of the German flag. I’m underwhelmed, and now the sale really starts. I’m asked to say in Berber which items I’m interested in with a simple yes or no. The rugs and covers are picked up in reverse order, and I pick the blue rug with the anti-polygamy sentiment and a red striped blanket. They can do a good price if I buy many items.
A square paper notepad appears, and further lines are added to divide the page. His name is on the top of the left column, and my (not my real) name written in Arabic is written on the right. It looks beautifully curvy and ornate. Beneath the names are three potential exchanges of haggling as there are no fixed prices, and the word “END” at the bottom of each column. I pull my 110Dh from my pocket and put it on the tea tray. “It’s all I have left. I leave tomorrow. Just enough for the Majorelle Gardens.”
“Your card in your hotel,” he insists.
“I don’t bring my cards on holiday. Only cash. This is what’s left.”
There’s a look that most people might miss directed at Rachid. He’s not happy that he’s picked a poor tourist that he’s spent at least half hour giving a culture lesson and mint tea and photographed dress up. I get the feeling it’s been a bad week. Rachid seems dumbfounded that the history tour of the old city parts won’t get him any money. Quite why he thought someone is a frayed edged shirt with honey stain on their trousers and sweaty hair had money to flash, I’ll never know. Imagine stalking an animal on the African plains for dinner, only to realise it’s a bag of bones.
I think we’re leaving, when a really oily skinned man with receding slicked back hair appears from nowhere. Arabic is exchanged between the three men, and a final plea is made. “Please, look at the jewellery. For my family.” This part is sincere, but I’m directed toward the earrings. I lie and say none of my family or friends have pierced ears, so they would be pointless as the suggested gifts. We move down to the metal bracelets, silver, copper, brass, some hand beaten with floral motifs, others set with carnelian and lapis. I choose a copper one with silver banding and offer the 110Dh I have. It gets a pained face, “It’s nothing”, like I was supposed to suddenly gain extra wealth by entering a different room. The slick guy laughs and says 110 and it’s a deal. There is no interest in the coins left in the plastic bag. Rachid is in the entranceway still in disbelief that he got it wrong. I’ve got a history tour, photos, tea, a culture talk and a metal bracelet for £7.50.
I wear the bracelet right away. On the walk on familiar streets, Rachid points to my wrist and says the copper matches my skin tone. This is the first time he touches me, and sadly not the last. The conversation turns, “In Morocco, sex is only inside marriage. But I hear in Europe it is easy. Is that true?” I’m not speaking for a continent. I say in English and French that for me, sex is inside marriage only. I get three face kisses, each punctuated by a verbal no. “I take you to meet my wife and children at home.” The Arabic word ‘shooma’ meaning shame on you, only works if there are other people around to hear it. There is no-one. Even the cats aren’t going to bear witness to sexual assault. A part of me dies inside. I turn away, and there’s a delicate finger sliding along my trouser seam. It hurts from the camel ride. I turn again and scowl even more. The hand makes six more passes punctuated with “Nice bottom” “I like petite women” and the victim blaming “Why have you changed?” I use my camera bag to protect my bum, and can feel the vibrations of his fingers on the base of it. He gently holds my arm and I’m on my twelfth verbal no. “I’m not aggressive. I’m not aggressive”. I’m being addressed by someone who lacks the mental cognition to know that gentle sexual assault is still not consensual. I’m a great believer in treating other’s as I wish to be treated, but this isn’t being stopped by words, so I put my hand in his face. The bruise on my palm impacting his nose probably hurts me more than him. He gets the message that he’s not taking any more from my body in lieu of the money he expected, so he gives two directions to the nearest street and walks away with a sickening smile.
The first woman that raises her hand in begging, I’m tempted to give the bracelet to so I have less reminders of this experience. But that would involve stopping, and I don’t until I see road traffic and a school emptying. An Arab youth is quick to think he’s going to make easy money off me when I pull out my map and look up for a street name. “Riad Larouss. Parking” I say. The streets are zig-zagging a residential area, and I’m tempted to dive into the next open door into the presence of a woman. The six words we manage in English involve football, Arsenal, but mostly he’s in front indicating that I stay right to avoid the scooters. At the car park, I go to leave, but his hand on my arm stops me and he rubs his fingers together for money. I give him the six coins I have left – 30Dh. “This is nothing. Euro.” I tell him it’s all I have left and I’m leaving tomorrow. He looks at the coins in his palm like they insult him, and another Arab youth pats him on the shoulder in a gesture of, “some tries are losses.” I wonder how quickly his expectant behaviour will escalate to theft. The guide books are right about thieves. Everything is taken from you here.
I lock myself in my room, strip off, scrub my hands and face until they weep blood, and pack my suitcase to leave. At some point, I hear Said knocks on the door to settle payment and order a taxi for tomorrow. We finish the transaction in Dirham rather than the quoted Euro, and I break down in tears. My words are quiet and broken by sniffles as I recount what’s happened. “Moroccan men,” he chastises the tale, and writes out 019 on his palm, saying it’s the number of the local police. Given I’ve seen in the big square that no-one rescues tourist women from assault, I don’t want to leave the Riad or see another man. I’ve already washed all the DNA evidence from my face so it’s just my word against an assailant that likely told me a pack of lies. My scan of my photos shows he always got out of the shot, save for one of his back where he appears all black in the shade. I don’t know if it’s best to call the Embassy, if they stand alongside you when reporting crimes. Said makes me coffee, served with cake and Moroccan sweets. The shock of the assault means it’s tasteless. I tie a pillow to my bum, cover my face in a scarf and weep all night. Intermittently, I follow the Paris terrorist attacks and don’t need to translate the Twitter tag #porteouvre (open door) to those offering shelter to those affected. I wonder if tomorrow’s flight path takes us over France.
Saturday 14th November 2015
Breakfast is eaten in slow motion. I have no appetite or taste. I hold my coffee still long enough that two birds fly to my table and peck at the pancakes and bread basket. They regard me while they chew, before taking another peck. Only that which flies is free, and I’m flying out of here. New guests to breakfast cast glances at me, likely wondering why I look so haunted. Charlotte gives me the departure form for the airport to smooth out the process. The taxi arrives, and it’s the driver that brought me here. He wheels my suitcase in front of me, and an Arab boy chases after the bouncing padlock and tries to take it. I wonder if he’ll ever learn that some things are not to be touched without consent.
The taxi has tourists from another Riad. They are American, and I retell the tales. They are shocked. The woman is originally from India where such assault is common, which is why her family moved country in the hope of a better life. The man is second generation to Chinese parents and has no concept of what we’re talking about. “You’re gusty,” he says about my solo travel. Things only change if we change what we do.
The airport is a welcome sight. I change my Dirham back into Sterling, save for a 20 note and two coins that I haven’t seen before. I’m happy to be served by a woman at the exchange desk and at the Easy Jet bag drop to get my boarding pass stamped and activate the pre-booked special assistance. I’m pointed to sit on a row of five seats – quite possibly the only seats in the airport – and talk with a Finnish and German couple who have been pestered to get boyfriends for two weeks by those who don’t accept women can be gay. The German lady has a Moroccan appearance, which got even more jeers and confusion by the local men who couldn’t understand why a white woman would want a ‘local’ woman. They give me their leftover Oreo cookie packets and wait indefinitely for their Paris flight.
I get a text from my Mom, who watches the 24 hour news channel, saying there’s been a security threat at London Gatwick North where my flight is due to go. I wait half hour for someone to bring me a wheelchair. I then wait another hour for the same person to come back and take me through security. The boarding gate is now closed, and I had contemplated fleeing to the desert and the coast to be a refugee going to a better life in Europe. Passport control slowly eats a croissant while we wait, before calling me forward. The physical pat down is very thorough by a woman. The EasyJet staff are relieved to see me, given I was scanned into the system 110 minutes ago.
I look out the window of seat 7A at the limited city. I fantasise about a Buffy the Vampire Slayer hell mouth opening underneath and consuming it. It doesn’t happen. I fantasise a biological airstrike making everyone gay, so men leave the women alone and instead treat other men in the detrimental way they had previously treated women, bringing about positive change quicker. That doesn’t happen either. The cabin crew or pilot make no mention of London Gatwick. I cry with relief when I see the coast of Africa left behind, and order a bacon sandwich and British hot chocolate. Given I haven’t seen pork for a week, or drinking chocolate, both taste amazing. The first song on my psychic ipod is Manic Street Preachers “If you tolerate this, then your children will be next.” I cry intermittently through the four hour flight, having a safe outlet to express my emotions. The salt in my tears stings at my weeping wounds. The flight is longer as we’re in a holding pattern above Gatwick South, and one landing attempt brings us too close to another plane.
I bypass the massive standstill of extra security checks in the special assistance electric buggy, as the staff are needed for other special assistance passengers. My hand luggage means I don’t have to queue for hold luggage either. The buggy enters the main shopping area, and I have to get out. The confused crowds are so dense that buggy passage is not possible. Thankfully, I want a Christmas hot chocolate anyway to cheer me up, so camel hobble to the counter. I tell the server when she casually asks how I am about the constant harassment, sometimes sexual. “Just because there’s a lot of my ass doesn’t mean people get to take free handfuls!” I try to raise my endorphin levels with gallow’s humour. She tells the young man making my drink to be extra nice to me as I’ve had a rough trip. He pauses like he’s preparing to give an Oscar speech, before turning to his colleague and asking, “What will my boyfriend say?” I laugh out loud. “You don’t fancy me! That is absolutely perfect. Thank You.” He laughs too. It’s probably the most positive reaction he’s ever had from a woman for being gay.
The crowd is not moving, mostly due to static people waiting for Terminal North to open. The rest of us are either trying to add to that pile or leave. People take photos and selfies of the standstill by the shops. This isn’t just a selfie. This is an M&S selfie. The crowd is so slow that people that arrived two hours ago now have ten minutes to be on a National Express coach. The odd presumptive middle aged white man shouts out, “Keep moving,” and it’s met with eye rolls – what does he think we’re all trying to do? An Israeli woman behind me has heard me talking about coaches. She is also trying to get a coach, to Victoria. “I follow you?” she asks in broken English. This is echoed by a string of foreign women behind me, and we slowly conga to the exit sign, make a sharp right and find ourselves in the coach bay. I ask to see their tickets, point to the information board, and take them to the relevant stand. I point on the ticket to the service number, the matching number on the stand, and indicate the orange numbers on the coaches themselves. I point to the relevant hour on a watch for their coach arrival. I give them Oreo cookies, my cereal bars, and go and help another batch of foreign women. Some women have a long wait, so I show them the cinnamon smelling toilets (it is Christmas next month) and demonstrate filling up my water bottle with the taps for the journey ahead. “You nice lady,” they all say. Yes, yes I am. I endeavour to be what I wish Marrakech had been. There is joy in helping people on their journey in a strange land. The staff are distracted with shift changeover and the potential of Terminal North reopening.
My coach arrives on time. Most people boarding it have special tickets allowing a journey change due to the disruptions. Those who were destined for Paris return home. Those destined for Marrakech could only go if they had cabin baggage not hold luggage. In the current climate, most decide it’s not worth the hassle. I sit next to an elderly Sikh man. We discuss how we can make the world a better place. He listens to my mistreatment in Marrakech. He says he knows some Muslims and Arabs who swear to God five times a day, but it’s a lie as they commit the same sins over and over again. Prayer / confession used as an absolution only to repeat the same mistreatment is no way to live. Basing your morality on a book is also no way to live (or at least pick a better book). He offers me his last bag of squashed crisps when it’s his stop, and that’s tea for me.
Tarmac, rain and wind greet me when it’s my stop. I go to the nearest tree in the street and lean my head against it. It’s good to be home. I spend a week with waking nightmares, pushing pillows out the bed until I realise they aren’t attacking me. The days I’m too exhausted to leave the house, but when I do, I tell everyone what happened and invite them to suggest ways to bring positive change.
I think of the two young women in acrylic fleece Christmas jumpers riding a scooter in Marrakech, smiling with excitement at the speed, and hope they are the future. The Internet has been a lifeline in my home, to connect and share with the world in free exchange. If women stay at home in Marrakech, then maybe the Internet can free them. They can read this, and other things, and know there is a better way. For the women that begged me for change, here it is.