The International Writers Magazine: Starving in Marrakesh
Starving in Marrakesh:
Professor Barbara Foster
In 1997 the Acadamy awarded The English Patient its top honours.
The film struck me as pretentious but the fantasy of riding on
camelback among drifting, sun burnished sand dunes,seduced me
into a booking a Moroccan winter vacation.
The blahs had set in, and what
better antidote than to probe the desert in its myriad moods and guises.
Morocco conjured up images of Marlene Dietrich in one of her juiciest
vamp roles. Perhaps a Gary Cooper type would bewitch me too? Would I
be whisked to a tent among veiled women who used their kohl rimmed eyes
as a weapon? Little did I realize these Hollywoodized scenarios were
dated, that my adventure loomed in the form of guys clad in jeans listening
to transistor radios.
Thirty years earlier I had wintered in wide open Tangiers. Sitting barefoot
on a cafe terrace overlooking the Avenida Espana on a woven mat under
a fig tree, I sipped sugary mint tea for hours. Below a dancing boy
wrapped in a velvet tire whirled himself into a trance. A hangout of
mine, the Lion and Lizard bar, attracted provocateurs like William Burroughs
and Allen Ginsberg. An owl perched atop the bar hooted at witty remarks.
When the hash pipe passed from mouth to mouth, high on smoke swirls,
I had taken my turn. Now a package tour to Marrakesh--a city of wide,
busy streets that despite years of Arabic rule retained a French flavor--suited
my mature pace. Lodged in a modest hotel on the outskirts of town, with
mostly French guests, I cursed the travel agent for marooning me.
Transportation to Marrakesh was in the greedy hands of taxi and rickshaw
drivers noisily haggling over fares outside the hotel. Rather than sucumb
to the over price offerings, I walked. The next day another guest pointed
out a bus to the town center. One of the stops, was Place JemaaelFnaa,
a market square abustle with spectacles from dawn till the wee hours.
Displays in the town square harked back to a medieval fair. Snake charmers,
musicians, "massage therapists," monkey acts, raconteurs of
ancient tales in throaty Arabic, exilir vendors promising sexual potency,
water-sellers swinging goatskin containers and holy men excoriating
the wicked, advertised their wares with verve to spare. Sunny winter
daytimes blended into brisk evenings that required a jacket.
For the month of January, to commemorate Ramadan, the Muslims eat nothing
till sunset--then feast the night away. At sundown straight through
till 2am (the time my endurance ran out) the main square vibrated with
throngs on the move: shopping, eating, gossiping, dancing, and watching
a variety show under a huge tent. Entire families turned out dressed
variously: one woman veiled in traditional garb, her sister in dungarees,
hair streaked blonde. Every night, like an addiction, I felt compelled
stay late at this bacchanal. In bed sleep eluded me.
Daytimes I hesitated to eat in public. Drawn, faces betrayed stomachs
crying out for nourishment. Insensitive behavior on my part might cause
a temper to fray, perhaps incite a violent incident. One morning, half
asleep, I set off on an excursion to a nearby village, Essaouira--known
for its shopping and an ancient port. Exploring this white-walled city
wandering among the souks, the picturesque ramparts, watching seagulls
whirl overhead, waves crest along the beach, restored my equilibrium.
On the bus back to the seductive pink city, I sat next to a handsome
Arab who promptly engaged me in conversation. In perfect English he
reminisced about his stint at a business school in the United States.
Sadly, he confessed to losing an American girlfriend because of her
intolerance of his Muslim faith. I gobbled up his conversation
as greedily as Ramadan celebrants consume their evening meal. Suddenly,
a "hey, what's up," across the aisle intruded on our conversation.
A buddy of my new acquaintance had awoken from a nap. Monir introduced
me to Ahmet, a slender, coffee complexioned apparition out of the Arabian
nights, whose moustache gave him a warlike air. Not one but two Omar
Sharif's at my service. Were these breath stoppers my reward for good
deeds in a former Arabic incarnation?
Half way to Marrakesh, the bus screeched to a halt. At sundown the passengers
stampeded off to a roadside, open air restaurant filled with simmering
pots which exuded tangy smells. My cavaliers guided me to a choice table.
While the passengers scrambled for food, my escorts competed to serve
me larger portions of the soup and cakes reserved for breaking the Ramadan
fast. Neither would let me pay. Being the only female among this crowd
of males smoking water pipes and horsing around did not intimidate me.
Truly, I felt like an honorary Arab.
Back in Marrakesh my bookends escorted me to the Cafe de Paris, a cosmopolitan
hangout in the European section filled with stylish tourists and expatriates.
French pastries, sweetened to suit Arabic taste, tempted me to be wicked.
We took an elevator up to the roof, clinked glasses of mint tea and
swore eternal friendship. Below Ahmet pointed out the silhouette of
the Koutoubia mosque where he prayed. Chants of the muezzin summoning
the faithful resounded from roof to roof. Monir entreated me to
stay with him for a month in Essaouira, Ahmet (a bedouin) insisted I
sample life under the tent at his ancestral home in the remote Sahara.
I agreed to both, although my excursion was over in three days. Should
I forsake my western identity for robes and veils like a character in
a Paul Bowles novel?
Next day our triad met for a shopping expedition in the casbah, an intricate
conjunction of lanes and alleys. While Ahmet bought items for his shop
in Essaouira, Monir took me to a coppersmith trained from childhood
to engrave complicated, traditional designs. Then we visited a rug merchant
who stacked up carpet upon carpet like a stairway to heaven. Monir bargained
ferociously as though he were outraged at the asking prices. Although
voices were raised, angry gestures made, Monir and the seller both knew
that this dance would end in a deal. Meanwhile, my companions insisted
I drink glass after glass of sweet, intoxicating mint tea.
Finally Ahmet rejoined us along with a former business associate,
Hamid. The four of us adjourned to a cafe where I drank more tea, although
at this late afternoon hour they could only stare wistfully. Not having
eaten since breakfast, I felt faint from starvation. When Hamid invited
us join him for dinner at his home, stomach grumbling, I agreed straightaway.
||Thus began a trek that seemed
as long as a pilgrimage to Mecca. At one stand, Ahmet bought me
a pair of brocaded Moroccan slippers called babouche. Trudging along
in this traditional footgear past booth after booth, I joined the
throngs hurrying home to break their fast. At crossroads floods
of hungry Moroccans threatened to sweep me away, but my cavaliers
acted as a protective shield. In the souks, goldsmiths, cobblers,
dentists and spice merchants plied trades passed from generation
to generation. No foreigners and few women were in sight. Finally,
we went through the medina gate, hiking another mile or so, twisting
and turning. Via a muddy alley, we wound up at a small stone house
indistinguishable from others nearby.
Hamid escorted us into his family
home, a two story apartment which was immaculate inside. The living
room had colorful tile floors, a few chairs and a gigantic television
set that reigned over the emptiness. Hamid introduced me to his wife,
mother-in-law and daughter--all unveiled. Nonetheless, traditional values
predominated. Before retiring to the kitchen, the women grunted
at me. Hamid’s wife appeared periodically to refill my tea. Around
five o'clock my cavaliers, in boisterous good humor, exited. Monir informed
me that they were off to buy a chicken for dinner. Looking out the window,
an azure sky marked the end of a perfect day.
Appropriate to the season, the tv channel remained tuned to the Ramadan
ceremonies in Rabat's central mosque. Now and then, the women tip-tiptoed
in to refill my tea. Hamid's daughter, eaten up by curiosity, could
not take her eyes off the stranger shivering in a light sweater. I did
exercises, wrote in a notebook then, lulled by the droning music on
tv, fell asleep.
Noise in the hallway awakened me. The men returned bearing aloft a fat,
pink chicken denuded of feathers. This killing would not be on my conscience,
I vowed. Although I am a vegetarian, imagining the taste of this fresh
killed bird, cooked and juicy, made me consider chucking firm principles.
The hapless bird had its karma. I decided not to mix it with mine.
Silently, heads bent, the women brought in the first course: traditional
lentil soup. They put a measly portion in my bowl. Whispering the men
gathered in a conspiratorial knot. All looked at me hungrily as though
I were the main course. A prisoner in this household of powerless
womenfolk, I wondered if my taste for adventure had landed me in the
soup? Shouting in this remote spot was an exercise in futility. The
men settled down for a tasty, hearty meal. But by now I’d lost
my appetite. Nibbling on overcooked vegetables, my stomach yearned for
the well prepared French food back at my hotel. Their bellys full, the
comrades smoked a water pipe which did not come in my direction. Nor
did they offer me hashish cigarettes that made them giggle. They weaved,
danced and sung Arabic songs that brought tears to their eyes.
Abruptly, food cleared away, the owner of the household piled up jewelry
for sale. Since Monir was a shopkeeper, he needed merchandise to take
back to Essaouira. A mountain of silver rings, bracelets and necklaces
showcased the local styles. An entire bazaar could have been stocked
with this collection. Meanwhile, every item offered to Monir, in turn
wound up thrust in my face. All three men loudly urged me to buy at
the “bargain prices”. Uneasy, I decided it would be smart
to buy something, anything! Playing the game, I inquired about a very
ordinary amber necklace. The price quoted was astronomical. Despite
the risk, I decided not to buy. Obviously they planned the dinner as
a ruse to empty the American’s wallet.
While Monir haggled, I remained mum. The jewelry cleared away, the men
resumed smoking. Meanwhile, they looked at me as though I were a precious
stone they coveted. They had reverted to Arabic, no longer bothering
to translate for my benefit. When Monir sidled over to me and asked
if he could rub my back I knew things were critical. It was escape now,
or they would take the dinner out in trade.
Oceans of mint tea filled my bladder to bursting. On the verge of hysteria,
I followed Hamid’s wife to the bathroom, that is, to the bottom
of a winding, skinny flight of stairs. No handrails to hold onto, petrified
of toppling down, I staggered up to the toilet on the freezing cold
roof. It took a herculean effort to remain upright and use this miserable,
if spotless, hole in the ground. After using the bathroom, several
ruses that would extricate me from this trap crossed my mind. My hosts
were waiting eagerly with more “special” jewelry only offered
to visitors with particularly “good taste”. Inspired, I
pretended to be violently ill, clutched my stomach and groaned,"take
me back to my hotel." Monir resisted, but the commotion won a reprieve.
As a compromise, Monir offered to walk with me till I felt better. Meanwhile,
I remembered how isolated we were, how far I'd trudged to get to this
dismal spot. My grim companion escorted me a few blocks out to the main
road where one could walk without slipping into mud. I prayed for divine
intervention, a magic carpet that would spirit me away from these connivers,
probably waylaying foreigners on a regular basis.
As though on cue a rundown taxi pulled up. I moved to get in, but Monir
held onto me. Pulling out a wad of dirhams, I gave the driver my hotel’s
name. Since dirhams spoke a universal language, the driver ignored Monir’s
objections. Swiftly I hopped in and he took a quick route which passed
the Place JemaaelFnaa-- Ramadan celebrations in full swing.
At my hotel, I rushed into the lobby, then directly to the restaurant.
What a furious appetite! About to close, they made an exception and
agreed to serve the panting American. I ate a mushroom soup, a double
order of coq au vin, for desert a multi-layer chocolate cake. Forget
the mint tea, I ordered Pinot Noir. Never have I felt such urgency at
the table. I gorged as though it were my Last Supper. Food hadn’t
tasted this good since I ate at my favorite New York French restaurant.
No longer starving, I patted my full belly while congratulating myself
on outsmarting experienced con men. Truly, my Marrakesh could not be
found in guidebooks.
© Professor Barbara Foster - December 9th 2005
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