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The International Writers Magazine
: Hacktreks in Marrakesh

Marrakesh in a Time of Terror
Theresa Hunt

In a sun-lit haze of desperation, faces scatter around the market place, struggling to fulfill an unforeseen purpose. Bells hang from alleyway stalls, noise is every where, spanning a range of languages from the sharpest German to the most rhythmic and striking Arabic. The heat is oppressive; nonetheless heavy brocade fabric is everywhere. Amidst the dust kicked up by road-side beggars, donkeys, scooters, and tiny trucks are women in the most beautiful and elusive fabrics, cascading from the tops of their heads and reaching down past their ankles.

Market stalls in crowded, haphazard souks offer prayer rugs, leather sandals, and silvery metal boxes covered in colorful stones hauled up in trucks from Mauritania, a sign insists. I pause among some of the stalls, picking up the little boxes and trying to pry the lids off.

My mild interest is met with a swarm of young men, some of whom are sellers, and some of whom have been trailing me since I entered the row of shops. Whether they’re there to talk to me, to watch me, to get something from me or just because they were so amused at my attempt to haggle the night before over a silk scarf, I don’t know. I don’t mind them at all, though, and surprise a few by asking their names. Mohammed. Mahamoud. Sameh. Hassan. The littlest one, who couldn’t have been more than ten, wants to know where I’m from, but guesses instead of asks. "Canadianne? Francoise?" I pause. I am plagued by the warnings that have been thrown at me, plagued by the memories of the media coverage of the bombing in Casablanca, just weeks ago. I am disturbed and haunted by the face of my own president, muttering the phrase "Axis of Evil" over and over again. I am brave, I take a breath.
"Je suis American," I say, I am American. The men don’t flinch, the boy seems indifferent. "Avez-vous un guide?" He asks, not missing a beat. Do I have a guide? "Non," I reply, smiling to myself, and to them. "Je ne veux pas un guide". I don’t want a guide. Like a good little businessman, the boy, Sameh, insists that I’ll need one, that it’s very difficult for tourists to navigate the market place, and that he will keep hawkers and beggars away from me. I explain in broken French that I prefer to walk alone. He explains - half with words, and half with gestures after he realizes that my French is extremely limited - that he’s concerned for my safety, furrowing his brow and looking to the other, older boys for support. They nod in unison, though only Sameh talks to me.

In sweeping, overly dramatic motions, Sameh very seriously pantomimes what he must perceive of as dangerous situations, but then gives up halfway through when he sees I’m not going to change my mind. Older men in a stall behind him selling sacks of grain laugh at his seriousness, or perhaps at his warnings of danger lurking in every corner. Feeling somewhat odd at being the center of attention and having drawn a crowd, I begin to step away. Worried that he’s lost an opportunity to make a few Dirham, Sameh’s warnings start again, coming more quickly and furiously now. He calls after me, he jumps and waves his hands wildly, seeming to say that great boulders will fall from the sky and fire breathing dragons will hunt me down if I do not hire him for the afternoon. The old men behind him roar with laughter, and I can’t help smiling myself. I tell him "Bon Chance", good luck with the other tourists, and say good bye. I walk backwards as I say this, wanting as much to keep moving as I want to stay and figure Sameh out. There’s a tenderness in his face, a hopeful stubbornness that attracts some part of me - the part of me that wants to believe so desperately that for all Marrakesh can be, it’s far from the nucleus of some imagined evil.

Hours later, I sip mint tea from a clear and smudged glass. I lean back in an unstable chair and stare at the broken mosaic that lines the floor of a café I stumbled across on my way back to the hostel. I imagine the existential thoughts filling everyone's head around me and wonder why I'm not having them. Everyone seems to have them, from the hawkers to the thieves, from the backpackers to the weavers. Their purpose is bigger than me, bigger than what I could ever understand. Life is different here, a complex maze of survival instincts that reflect the difficulties in navigating the medina. The meditative gazes of the Moroccans I’ve met, the genuine curiosity and thoughtfulness they so openly present overwhelms me with warmth, making me feel as if I belong, as if it’s possible that if I stay here long enough I will understand something greater than myself.

Understanding myself, understanding others, understanding something is what I came to Marrakesh in search of. I look at the faces around me. Dark, shining, weary, age-tracked faces; young, fresh, optimistic and hopeful faces. Workers, gypsies, children covered in dust, begging for a look inside my pack, laughing at my every move fall in step with men in linen business suits or police in stiff, nearly spotless uniforms who seem oblivious to me as I pass.

Were these the people I was warned about before I left home? Were these the people who were supposed to spit on me as I passed, kidnap me, an American traveling alone, in the interest of making a political statement about the war or fulfilling some jihad? These young women, these old men, these impish children - were they the ones who were going to bomb the bus I would climb aboard in a few days, hoping eventually to get to Fez?

I was warned to stay out of Morocco, told by nearly everyone that as an American woman, I’d only be looking for trouble if I went. "There’s a war going on," I heard again and again, "and any Islamic nation won’t be a safe place for an American, particularly a female American".
I wasn’t past fear - I was cautious and let these warnings settle into the forefront of my consciousness when I first arrived in Marrakesh. The chaos, the noise, the aggression of market peddlers seemed overwhelming. I was glad when I was back alone in the hostle, behind the locked door of the private room I indulged in getting for the night.

But the more I venture out, the more I force myself to interact, the more I can distance myself from all the conditioning I’d experienced back home. It gets easier and easier to ignore the echoing chorus of voices who’d insisted that any and every Islamic person I met would want to harm me. I begin to understand Marrakesh’s market place as alive and thriving, as a living, breathing, reactionary organism in its own right. After some time walking the same worn paths through the center of the city, around the market place and past the great, crumbling walls that encase the medina, no one seems to notice me. If they do, it is only to smile or try to sell me something different than what they’d been selling the day before. Insistent, they are, violent, they are not.

I remain at the café for hours, still sipping slowly from the same glass before the owner, dressed in a long, white and blue striped kaftan insists that he refill my glass from a fresh pot. I accept with a nod and a smile. I try to write, try to read, but mostly wind up staring at all the life passing before me. Two people talk to me, first a woman, a university student, who through twists and turns in our conversation, eventually winds up asking me how it is we can bear to keep animals on a leash in the United States. They belong roaming free, she insists to me, they are for everyone to take care of. They do not "belong" to anyone. I agree with this and she smiles. She must leave at dusk, so she wishes me well in my travels and scribbles down the name and address of an Australian friend she has living in Fez, where I’ve told her I’m headed next.

Minutes later, I meet a man, Saiid, who works as a musician, playing in a restaurant around the corner for tourists. He is on a break, and has stopped in to get a snack. He tells me about his job, rolling his eyes slightly as the words fly out of his mouth, but then seems a bit apologetic, as if I’ll be offended at his disdain for his sometimes loud and obnoxious foreign clientele. We laugh together, talking about why Coca-Cola isn’t sold in glass bottles anymore in the US and the salary of the average teacher in this part of Northern Africa. He insists on buying me a snack as well, so that he "doesn’t have to eat alone". I smile when I realize he offers after I’ve remarked that I’m running out of money and wonder if I can pick up some work anywhere around Marrakesh.

I'm wistful as I sit, and want mobility so bad I can feel it burning in my muscles. I listen to Saiid tell me about his family, but I am desperate to get up and go, to keep moving on, to get out to the desert and see a sky so big that any problems I have will feel minuscule in comparison. I am desperate to let the endless combination of muted earth and distant horizon soak into me so deeply that I’ll be forever changed. I know there’s a place where the sand stretches out for hours and days, a place where sudden recognition of just how many shades of red there are is lucid and commonplace. I know that the wind makes patterns in the hills of sand and dust, forming lines that snake down to your feet. I want to be there, away from everyone, from everything, from the chaos and crowds of people in Marrakesh.
Something tells me to wait, though, and to sit a while longer with Saiid, who smiles warmly at me from across the table, sipping his tea. I think back again to the warnings, travel advisories, and scrolling headlines that begged me to stay out of Islamic North Africa. I think about the picture everyone painted for me of the Moroccans, of ugly, spiteful, malicious and desperate people. I think about how ridiculous the one last dramatic warning - they’ll try to kill you - was, as Saiid invites me to come and meet his other friends from the restaurant. I politely decline. Afraid that I may be offending him, I explain that I must return early to my room to prepare for my trip North in the morning. He seems to understand, though, and for the first time, away from the propaganda, I seem to finally understand some things as well.
© Theresa Hunt - May 2004

Bio: Theresa is an avid traveler who teaches Literature, Writing, and Women's Studies at two universities in her home state of New Jersey. She has explored travel through volunteer work, education, and ecotourism projects, and most recently spent time in Greece and North Africa.


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