When a group of people speak many languages with varying degrees of fluency, words must take on a broader meaning. It is necessary to incorporate context, vocal inflection and gesture into an attempt to both communicate and to listen, as verb tense, possessive pronouns and other specifics are sacrificed to lack of skill and practice in a language not your own. "Mon ami" (my friend) can mean "your friend", "you are my friend", "where is your friend?", "are you talking about your friend?", "have you met her friend?" . . . it all depends on the context.
Here in Marrakech, the word family has taken on a broader meaning. Previously meaning "those that are related to me", and, in the metaphorical context, "those that have been in my life for a very long time", the word family, here, has been further expanded. Rachid, Hamid and Bahija became my family in just a matter of hours, and they are already gone. Different languages, lack of blood relation and brevity of interaction made no difference in this context - they adopted me, took me in, fed me and took care of me. They have been my family.
I was with Hamid and Rachid one night, and the evening ended with "Adam! Sept heure. Mon ami." Which meant, "Adam, we will see you again tomorrow, of course. Meet us here at 7:00. We will have dinner, and we would like you to bring your friend." (Meaning Phillip, the New Yorker whom I met here.) That same evening, I had made a bit of a social faux-pas regarding gender and physicality, which was kindly but forcefully corrected, so I was somewhat concerned. But family forgives.
The next night, Phillip in tow, we began the trek to . . . well, I had no idea . . . and the group became larger as Abrahim, his wife and their children appeared. Hamid tired of either trying to remember or trying to translate Phillip's name, so he turned to him, "Ismuka Youssef." "What did he just say?" asked Phillip. "Ummm he just decided that for tonight, your name is Youssef, like Joseph, because that's easier to deal with." Phillip rolled with it, and he joined the family.
Copious amounts of soup and bread and pastries and dates and who-knows-what else were piled in front of us. We were sitting on tiny stools in an alleyway, where two stunningly beautiful African women ladled out Harira into wooden bowls. We laughed and spoke and gestured like one big multinational family, with Phillip adding Spanish to the linguistic mix. The rest of the food seemed to come from Bahija, though I never saw the food (other than the soup) come out and I never saw money exchange hands. And then we were done.
"Adam! Une heure. Couscous." And goodnight.
1:00 the next day, we met at Cafe Brioche. There was some kerfuffle about how much time Hamid was taking as it was time to go to the Mosque. He arrived, the women disappeared and off we went. I stood outside the Mosque while they prayed, and then into the car and to the home of Abrahim.
THIS is what "Couscous at 1:00" means:
A giant communal platter of food -- and I promise you that you have NEVER eaten Couscous. I do not care what imitation version of true homemade Moroccan Couscous you may have sampled. Unless you were in this living room in this house, you have no idea.
"On va a les poissons qui mangent le pain!" Hamid told me after lunch. That one baffled me. It literally means "We are going to the fish that eat bread." I nodded and smiled. "7:00" means the best soup you will ever have seated on a stool in an alley. "Couscous" means we will meet, pray, go to someone's house and spend five hours there as a family. So at this point, I just nod and follow. We hopped in the car (just the men) and drove past all of the palaces and Les Jardins du Roi, to here:
Where one finds the ENORMOUS fish. The ones that eat full loaves of bread.
They are gone now, my Casa Blancan family, as is my friend Phillip who has continued on his journey. And I miss them.
Full disclosure. Life here has not been all warm and fuzzy family stories. I have also encountered many of the "other" kind of people. Shady people, desperate for money and for whom I am a target. I can't always suss them out right away, and I can never dissuade them. I can only avoid and escape, which has led me to another realization, a tough one.
I, too, suffer from the white-savior complex. I thought I was above or outside of it because mine has nothing to do with race, but the fundamental (and fundamentally wrong) idea is the same, and is based on three horrifying assumptions:
1. I am, on the scale of good to evil (or right to wrong) closer to good/right than the other,
2. My ethical and moral scale applies to your life whether or not you agree to it, and 3. My inherent goodness can, simply via proximity, sway you to the "better" side of the scale.
Those of you that know me have heard me vehemently opine that the rhetoric used to justify our nation's actions abroad is based on these ideas, and that they are false. But it goes beyond policy rhetoric and deep into the core of how we treat one another. In New York, my home, I have created a life that supports my ethical scale. Here, not because it is Marrakech specifically but because it is "other", I have learned that it is vastly ignorant and insanely egotistical to assume that my scale should apply, even if I had the ability to sway another to its adherence. I am powerless - completely and utterly powerless - to "save" anyone. But bigger than that - bigger than my failure to be a savior - is the enormity of the ridiculousness that I would even try.
How dare I?
This is not my world to change, and until I stop trying . . . but still, I think the idea might be bigger than me and my sidewalk interactions in Morocco. Until WE stop trying . . .
But what do I know? I am learning, each day here, that my knowledge, as they say, is but a spec of dust. I barely know the full meaning of even a single word.
- - Adam
So it's happened. I have fallen in love, wholly and completely, with Marrakech. I cannot pinpoint the moment for you when it happened, but I am smitten. It is a good thing I will have an empty savings account at the end of this whirlwind trip, otherwise I would be looking at apartments. I still might peruse the listings . . . just to see.
Yesterday was day two of Arabic class. More vocab, more verbs . . . more struggle. I am shocked at how difficult this is for me. My little adult brain, which normally functions at a respectable level, has not had to do academics since . . . well let's just say centuries turned after the last time. Hayat is as patient and kind as ever, even posing for a picture between the words I am destroying.
After class, I met Rachid, Bahija and Hamid for lunch. If you know an Arabic family, then you know "meeting for lunch" means "spending the next many hours together". They are amazing. They took me to a restaurant tucked in a basement where more than a few strange looks were cast my way, which I relished. What is about me that LOVES to be the only white guy in the room?
Over the course of the next four hours, there was food, laughter, I think an argument, some new words were learned, and Hamid's car was almost towed. I was invited again to Casa Blanca, and when they buy an apartment in Marrakech next year I am to come, use it and bring my mother. "C'est a toi, aussi, Adam" -- "It is also your apartment, Adam." We went on Facebook (where many of you ladies were accused by Hamid of secretly being my girlfriend . . . and where Cherif is my "best friend") I did have a slight panic attack over what might come up (remember I had converted only the night before), but my last 100 or so tagged pictures are thankfully tame.
After a nap (English to French to Arabic to French to gesture can make for an exhausting afternoon), I met a fellow New Yorker for dinner. We found a lovely rooftop restaurant within both of our backpacker budgets, then met a Brit for coffee. I will say, it was quite nice to be able to speak without thinking so much. There have been several times when I tried to speak French, or Arabic and accidentally came out with Spanish (another language I barely know). So an evening of my native tongue, as they say, was much needed. It was also nice to hear Phillip's recounting of how overwhelming he found everything as a new arrival. The recognition of those feelings (and the realization that mine had somewhat dissipated) led me to realize I have found my rhythm here in Morocco. Or, I suppose, it would be more accurate to say that I have found their rhythm.
This morning I woke up early to meet Yahya to pick up the keys and drop off some of my things on my way to class. I was able to re-find the apartment again without problems, so I was early and had time for breakfast and some studying before hopping the bus to class.
And that's when it hit me - I had fallen in love. It was not the moment of falling, it was the feeling of having already fallen and landed, painlessly and perfectly, in the middle of this strange and noisy and wonderful place. The mopeds and the con-artists, the market and the square and the frustration with the language; the busses and the friends and the snakes and the monkeys and the juice and the incredible bread; and the coffee and the bread and the coffee and the coffee . . . I love it here.
Settling the rest of my belongings into my apartment this afternoon only served to deepen my love, just removed from the square and having it all to myself, I feel like I am home.
If you turn left instead of right when you leave my building (toward the center of the Medina and away from the square) life is somehow what I've always wanted. Little stands of fruit, pasta, coffee, spices and grains alternate with the shops for gifts and knick knacks. And there are fewer people, less tourists and therefore less pressure. And less mayhem.
It turns out, outside of New York City, I am actually quite easy to please. Some Arabica coffee, some yogurt, a couple round loaves of delicious bread and some fruit - each bought from a different vendor - and my day is complete. Tomorrow morning I will get up for class and I will walk out the door fed and caffeinated and knowing I am right where I am supposed to be. For now.
- - Adam
I may have been converted to Islam this evening at the Brioche Cafe. But more on that later.
The beauty of traveling alone is that you can get turned around, change your mind or, in my case, go in the completely wrong direction without being beholden to any itinerary other than the one in your own mind. Saturday was meant to be a day of parks and gardens, but when wandering a city with an iPhone that doesn't work, sometimes you end up in the Casbah instead.
Where you may or may not contemplate ownership of a moped, but decide against it.
I do not really like big groups of tourists and, in general, touristy things, but I love dead people and the things they made. This is a problem in Marrakech, or any country with a long and elaborate history, because all of the tourists are here to see the places made by dead people. So I am not, as I like to thing, so unique.
I entered the Saadian Tombs, which were on my to-see list but not planned for my Saturday of gardens, because they happen to be inside the Casbah - surprise! Within the walls is a small garden of outdoor graves and three buildings of tombs. Defiantly refusing to hire a guide or carry a book-of-sites around, I never the less snuck up to a tour guide's group when I heard him say, "One of the great misconceptions about Islam is...", but the screams of French child who wanted her picture taken drowned out what could have been the unraveling of my/our great ignorance and the unveiling of barrier-bashing truth. I did, however, overhear that tombs held people in order of importance, with the largest and most intricate reserved for royalty (click on Saadian above for more history):
I was not terribly moved by the tombs, which felt odd. I love cemeteries, tombs, history, burial rituals . . . yet something was not landing. I was vastly underwhelmed by the site, and wandered back out into the Casbah. Walking the streets, I started to feel annoyed by the countless shops holding things I could not fit in my suitcase and could not afford even had I the room. I felt even more annoyed at the spoiled childish thoughts running through my head.
I was jolted out of my self pity by two boys wanting to show me the way to les Palais. I explained that I knew where they were and wasn't taking the tour today, but let them walk with me because they were amusing. At the end, in front of the palace walls, one asked for money. I handed them 10 DHS each . . . and he turned on me. His eyes flashed anger, he began to yell at me "This is like giving me ten cents! You insult me!" The kid was maybe 17, but something started to boil in me. I wanted to tell this little monster that I was tired of being harassed and pushed and swindled by . . . and I heard the irrationality of my thoughts. So I just said, "I have to go" and walked away.
The problem with traveling alone is that you are alone. When something happens, there is nobody else to defuse or help. There is no other point of view, or conversation to be had after. The problem with traveling alone is that it is lonely, and as I walked the hot streets home, an intense sadness washed over me.
I need people, but here in Morocco I am surrounded by thousands and completely alone. I spent the rest of the day in a cafe or in my Riad, too tired and hot and frustrated to venture back out on any further adventures.
I woke this morning and better equipped myself with directions to Le Jardin Marjorelle, a beautiful oasis created by Marjorelle over the course of many decades. The garden contains plant life from all over the world, gorgeously laid out by the designer into a calming and lovely escape from the streets.
Yves St. Laurent had the gardens renovated and opened to the public, and there is a memorial for him within (center photo):
I walked out rejuvenated, but after lunch alone in a cafe, the feelings began to creep in again.
At lunch, contemplating how little real human interaction I have had here, I realized that I have two "party" tricks that I use to meet people when traveling. In the States, Canada, the Virgin Islands - within our hemisphere - I can say "I direct theatre" and/or "I live in New York City" and those little conversational nuggets garner me enough interest to engage in lengthy chats with almost anyone I meet. I am not particularly impressed with either factoid, as they are simply what I do for work and where I happen to live, but I now see that I've been relying on that cache for at least a decade, whenever I am outside of NYC.
In northern Africa, theater is not terribly prevalent (somebody generally has to ask somebody to translate the word) and even less impressive, and my favorite response to "Je suis de New York." has been a blank stare, followed by "New York is not the capital."
Is this what I am here to learn? Have I come all the way across the globe to discover how to define myself outside of my profession and location? Without those two verbs, work and live, who am I?
One cannot simultaneously be learning and have learned, so I left the questions rattling in my brain and began (like a New Yorker) to walk home. And then he approached - a beautiful and charming man whom I noticed half a block away. I was in Gueliz, well outside the hustling of the market, and he was my answer. A friend. He smiled, stopped and said, "Bonjour!" The rest (in French):
Him: English? American?
Me: American. From New York
Him: (no reaction, then) Would you like a -------?
Me: A what? I'm sorry I didn't understand your question?
Him: I'll give you a massage. Naked.
Me: (Damn it!) No thanks.
Him: Okay, then let's go get coffee. In that cafe over there. We'll get coffee and talk and get to know each other.
Me: What? Why?
Him: To sit. To talk. We'll see, no?
What the hell was I to do? Here I am walking down the street dying to get to know some people, but he had led with prostitution. Could we still be friends? But he leaned in with that glint I have come to recognize - the shiny, emotionless look of the pursuit of money (go to Wall Street or sit outside one of the corporate buildings on the east side and you'll see the same look) which is bright and charming and enticing, but empty. And broken. And I am drawn to it. So I walked away.
A few parks and gardens later, I was home and had fallen asleep studying my Arabic lessons for class tomorrow. Knowing I had to finish, I headed to the Cafe Brioche for coffee and some food, energy to study. Pouring over conjugations, I leaned over to a very friendly looking guy asking him if he spoke Arabic. He did, but unfortunately not French, so he beckoned in the woman at the table. And I found some friends.
Hamid and Bahija are husband and wife, and Rachid is their friend. Rachid became my dearest closest friend in a matter of minutes, in that way only Arab men can. They move amongst other men with an affection and joy that frightens and baffles American men (myself included). He speaks no English or French, so Bahija translated most of what was said. I was invited to his home Casa Blanca, phone numbers were exchanged and he bought my mother a gift. Apparently I will be meeting them tomorrow afternoon. "Are you Muslim?" "No." "In time." And by the end of the evening I had said (well, repeated phonetically, really) a prayer that secured my conversion with great laughter and clapping, followed by a very serious, "Someday. Maybe. Someday you will." from Bahija.
I declined dinner to come home and study and write this little missive (it is a letter to you, after all) but walked them to the square and said goodbye, promising to meet them tomorrow. Rachid was very sad and had to be told repeatedly that I needed to study and sleep and that I would see him tomorrow.
Huh. And all it took was "Do you know this word?" or, really, "Help?"
- - Adam
It is amazing what successfully riding public transportation in a foreign city can do for your confidence. All at once the city gets larger (I can get to other places!) and smaller (it's not so big and scary!) in a single ride. With the holiday, I had been hesitant to leave my little enclave not knowing what would be open or closed, but today was my first Arabic class and, well, I had to get home after. So I did, on the number 1 bus. Win.
But yesterday, with the city still relatively quiet, I walked to a cafe to meet Yahya, who will be my landlord beginning on Tuesday and until I depart Marrakech. Here's the apartment in a photo snagged from the Air BnB listing.
It's a cute little one bedroom (he apologized for the couch color) a few blocks and a million miles outside the square. I am definitely looking forward to moving outside of the fray. The square is NOTHING like Times Square, but it is as overstimulating and aggressive, so the best analogy I can give is moving from the Times Square to a studio on Ninth Ave. Not far, but far. "That's where you can get shawarma - real shawarma - and for normal price," Yahya told me, pointing to a closed cafe across the street, "after the festival is done." Yahya is French, in his fifties, an artist and self-proclaimed student of world religions who was eager to talk politics, America, airlines and anything else. More on him soon, I am sure, after I move in to the apartment adjacent to his early next week.
But before I move out of the Jemaa el Fna Square, I want to give you a sense of this magical and terrifying place. In the morning, as seen by a young-ish American on his way to Arabic class, the largest section of it looks like this:
But at night, temporary restaurants, street performers, story tellers and rifraf of all sorts descend upon the area with the gorgeous African sunset. Film has yet to capture dusk in the way the earth glows a magnificent yellow here, as the sky and clouds darken on the horizon and colors you cannot imagine float in the air . . . and then darkness. It is magical. And when the palette is complete and has faded into night, you are left with this, taken in the same spot as above:
Sleeping off last night's exhausting magic, I rose this morning to meet Khalid out by the main bus depot. He picked me up in a grey Volkswagen, and the thought did occur to me that I was hopping into a car with a stranger in a strange city, perhaps to vanish and never be heard from again. But, alas, my life is rarely as interesting as my fear. Khalid is lovely, driving me through Marrakech, pointing out places to see, offering advice and even suggesting that, if I wanted to, he would take me on a moped ride through the city to see what Marrakech is "really like". I tried to contain my glee at the prospect. If you know me, you have already guessed that I failed. Khalid laughed openly at my "Yes!!"
He then introduced me to my teacher for the next two weeks, Hayat. She is fantastic and sweet and teaches with positivity and encouragement. When I apologized (again) for my awful accent and butchery of her beautiful complicated language, she stopped and kindly said, "You must know. I love to teach. I love it. And I am very patient." This is she:
And this is part of my first lesson, conjugating an introduction
(My name is, Your name is, etc.):
I will end today's written journey through my life and mind with two admissions.
The first is that it happened. I have been warned repeatedly about being led away and suddenly finding oneself in an awkward situation where you must purchase or offend. It's a brilliant cultural con, and I fell for it even though I was aware and poised to avoid it. Two charming college kids, working in the market on holiday break, showed me at least 100 herbs, soaps, dyes, oils and scents (while asking me a million questions and practicing their English). I made it through their terrific sales pitch (and to be fair, we laughed and chatted and had a blast throughout) and I only spent 260 DHS (around $30.00). I thought I had succeeded, befriending and talking to them without being pressured into a large purchase. The money exchanged hands and I was offered tea. Triumph . . . right? Then, blam, before I could stop it, I am in another locale, with his cousin, pressured to purchase a Moroccan rug and ship it home. Damn it! I barely and awkwardly escaped without a new carpet, but carrying the shame that it had worked on me, too. I would rather have a rug.
Here is a picture of one of the two young men (the other - the one who got me - snuck out of the frame on purpose at the last second) and a photo of the carpets I almost owned.
The second admission is that I have to confess, though I am loathe to admit it (as you know I champion bizarre juxtapositions of morality and sex, e.g. prayer and prostitution), that the "massage" offers had more to do with my demeanor than prostitutional prevalence. Apparently my "I am nervous because I don't know where I'm going" face looks strikingly similar to an "I am nervous because I am illegally soliciting drugs and sex" face. Now that I know my way around, the massage offers have all but disappeared and the drug dealers have reduced to a drive-by whisper ("Hashish?"), no more intimidating than the "Smoke? Smoke?" of Washington Square.
I guess it's back to the cafe for me . . .
- - Adam
I have now been in Marrakech for 24 hours. I arrived yesterday on Swiss (thru Zurich) and if you have to travel anywhere, you should do so via Swiss trans-Atlantic. I am saying if you have to go to Vermont from NYC, I would recommend flying through Zurich. It is the most civilized travel experience I have ever had. I was dreading the 8 hour flight, but around hour 6 as I tore off a bit of flaky croissant whilst watching ALCESTE A BICYCLETTE, I thought, "I'd be fine here for a few more hours."
Marrakech is wild. It is an incredibly vibrant city that moves simultaneously at 1000 miles per hour and as if the entire population could lay down for a nap at any moment. The market is a whirlwind of mayhem but if you turn down an alleyway (this one leads to my Riad) you find instant silence.
I have learned, in my first 24 hours, that a white man, by himself with no camera or backpack, wandering the streets of Marrakech is probably looking for hashish and hookers. Let's be honest, a white guy in his 30's or 40's wandering ANY city alone is very likely to be seeking the same, but in Marrakech they are genuinely surprised when I am not. My favorite is a frightfully charming young man, probably 16, who works the area in front of Cafe de France. He is bizarrely confident for his age, first offering me a flyer for a local restaurant then whispering, "I take you where you can get massage and shower." The second time I saw him, "You again!" he exclaimed, then, "Really, my friend, I can show you where to get best massage." Our third encounter was less subtle, "The sex is really good."
I have also learned that getting hit by a moped or bicycle is just not that big of a deal. It will happen here. Repeatedly. And it's fine. It honestly just makes me want to buy a moped, but Cherif says I am not allowed.
Today is the Eid Al Kbir festival, which means much of the city is shut down. A street off of the Jamaa el Fna yesterday:
Another street off the same square today:
The thing I love most, so far, is the cafe's. It is perfectly acceptable to sit and order a coffee and sip it for an hour. Or two. The tables are all positioned with chairs side-by-side facing the street, perfectly set up for conversation and people watching. My favorite so far is one a bit outside the square, where the waiter is in his sixties, carrying a fanny pack of cigarettes that he sells mostly to stopped cars and mopeds or the occasional horse-drawn carriage driver. The 12 or so tables were filled with all Moroccan men (between 50 and 75 years old) and me. Le cafe noir could take paint off a car (just the way I like it), the flies were intolerable, and the music was blasting from inside except when turned off during the call to prayer. I ended up in quite a few tourist photos, sitting there amongst the men who were verbosely solving the world's problems.
Here in Morocco, I am both very visible and completely interchangeable. Walking around alone, without a companion or a guide book, I am using my French to get by and make my way around, but still I stand out. And I am irrelevant, foreign, a target or a customer but no different than the rest. I was approached by a man today with a huge, "Remember me?!" and he was shocked that I was not this other man.
Him: "I sell you hashish. Yesterday. In the square."
Me: "That wasn't me."
Him: - baffled look -
Me: "C'etait pas moi."
Him: - baffled look - "You look like him." - pause - "You want hashish?"
Is this how we see each other? To suddenly be the foreigner and see how we treat those we categorize . . . I don't know. When I lived briefly in Walnut Creek, CA (a VERY white town outside of San Fran) I remember seeing an interracial couple (he was white, she Indian) and feeling vaguely bad for them but not knowing exactly why. Being here, different, an outsider, I realize now it was that I knew how everyone in that town described her - she was 'that Indian girl". No wonder we cannot figure out the larger conflicts if we barely see each other as people.
Tomorrow I will meet Yahya, a French/Algerian painter with two rooms to rent, to try to figure out my accommodations for next week. He is sending me his address and i'm going to try to find it on my own. Then on Friday a man named Khalid will pick me up outside the square where the horses line up ("How will I find you?" I asked. Pause. "I think I will be able to pick you out," he replied) and we will begin my Arabic tutoring. After our initial phone call to set up the meeting time and place (the tutoring sessions were booked several weeks ago from the US), Khalid called me back to let me know I should call him if I need anything between now and Friday.
But today with the holiday, I will probably just visit another cafe.
- - Adam
So it's Saturday night and I have been home since late afternoon. Attempting to pack and still the bag is empty (why is putting it all in the bag so scary?!); Googling and AirBnB-ing and Kayaking and online banking; cleaning and re-arranging and throwing out; and panicking. Quietly, gently panicking. I mean what was I thinking booking a trip to North Africa and the Middle East . . . alone?!
It's gonna be awesome. That's what I was thinking. It's going to be a journey of discovery and soul searching and seeing and smelling and learning and saying and fumbling and finding and doing. I am going to spend the next 33 days in the places I speak of, read about and liberalize viciously in reference to and in defense of . . . places I have never been. I am going to learn some Arabic, see the desert and travel to Israel and Palestine, and then see my boyfriend in Barcelona. I cannot wait. Except for that part where I'm completely terrified and desperately want to cancel every leg of the journey, I cannot wait.
So here is the plan, should you want to follow along:
Monday, 14 October (time to start writing dates and times like the days and times where I will be, right?): Fly to Zurich overnight, then to Marrakech the following morning.
15 October - 22 October: I am booked in a room in Marrakech. I begin tutoring in Arabic on Friday.
22 October - 3 November: Probably Marrakech, maybe some Fes, Casablanca . . . this leg is not yet booked, but on the 1st I'll head across into Spain, making my way up to Barcelona (a night in Madrid? Or Valencia?)
3 November - Overnight flight to Tel Aviv out of Barcelona
4 November - 8 November: Tel Aviv (I have a room booked in an apartment with a stranger named Eli), Jerusalem, Ramallah, Jenin
8 November: Fly back to Barcelona to meet up with Cherif!! The reason this journey all began - seeing my beautiful boyfriend (he's studying in Copenhagen 'till mid December) - will take over the final week abroad
8 November - 16 November: Travel with Cherif from Barcelona to Berlin, then one city he says is a surprise, and on to Copenhagen
16 November: Fly back to NYC
Well look at that. I mean that list. I mean that I just did . . . looked at it. And now I want to go again. I am terrified in the best way possible. Okay, I can do this. Wish me luck. And in return I will do my best to try to not try to sound like Judy Dench in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but I make no promises. I am on my way to meet my gay lover after all . . .
- - Adam