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