I find it difficult to share his concern about where we will sleep tonight with the bright Moroccan sun beating down upon us.”
The men surround us, inching forward, shouting. Do you need hotel! I take you to nice hotel, very nice, no expensive! They gesture to us through clouds of cigarette smoke, their lips curled into sneering smiles. We try to push past them into the main square, but they move in front of us, blocking us. I take you to my cousin hotel, very cheap! We have no place to stay, but that does not prevent us from avoiding their eager eyes and walking determinedly in the direction of our unknown destination. Dan is worried. Dan is always worried. I find it difficult to share his concern about where we will sleep tonight with the bright Moroccan sun beating down upon us. It whitewashes our surroundings, the rose walls of Marrakesh fading to a pale blush, the oranges of the juice stalls turned to gold.
Our map has no street names, only labels for markets, mosques, and squares. We wander through twisting alleys and tapestry-covered doorways, stopping every few feet, trying to match the address on our ripped piece of paper to the Arabic letters painted on the walls. An old man in a white tunic and fez is sitting on a bench outside of his hookah shop, his chin resting on his cane. His crease-circled eyes blink in boredom. Thomas and Dan choke French at him, patchworking together enough words to ask directions. He answers them, but I cannot understand. Their words float away, swallowed by the humid air and the hum of other people’s lives. The old man’s hand snakes back and forth, left-right-straight.
We dart through a slender archway, following the ripple of the old man’s hand through the maze of meandering corridors. The narrow alley suddenly widens and we are spat out into an open square, toys and clothing piled on the sellers’ blankets. Thousands of knitted caps are stacked one on top of the other, the stripe and diamond patterns of the wool blending into a mass of color, hazy in the July heat. Henna artists nestle between the towers of hats, only their round, grinning cheeks and painted hands visible beneath their veils. They beckon to me, ink in one hand, reaching for my wrist with the other. Books of photographs lie open on their blankets, flowers and curls rising up from the pages.
Dusty terra cotta walls emblazoned with intense splotches of fuchsia, yellow, and turquoise. The heavy, warm scent of camel leather. The zzzz-choke-zzzz-choke sputter of motorcycles as they navigate the winding souks. Cashmere pashminas reflecting light, creating silvery pools on the deep amethyst cloth. Thomas and Dan are bargaining with a man over wallets, and I slip away into an empty shop filled with thousands of leather shoes, a brilliant kaleidoscope of sandals and slippers. Two young boys run to fetch the shopkeeper, and my brief moment of solitude is interrupted a few seconds later, when he returns to his shop. He wears khaki slacks, a white dress shirt, a green sweater vest, and glasses—a stark contrast to most of the other shopkeepers’ Berber wardrobes. He does not ask me to sit, to try, to buy. He asks me where I am from.
“America,” I answer.
Weariness floods the man’s eyes. The shopkeeper turns to the wall of shoes and begins to rearrange them absentmindedly, his thoughts traveling far from this moment.
“My girlfriend is in America,” he says softly, speaking to the red leather slippers he holds in his hands. “She is in New York.”
I can see he wants to ask me if I know her, if I have seen his girlfriend in America, if she is doing well, if she misses him. If she still loves him. But the man says nothing.
The messenger boys run into the shop, leading Thomas and Dan.
“There you are!” Dan breathlessly exclaims. “We thought you got lured into some opium den! Come on!”
Dan and Thomas go to leave the shop, but I stop and turn to the shopkeeper. He lifts one hand in a weak wave, still holding the scarlet shoe in the other. “Say hello to America for me,” he implores.
A little boy is following me. He holds a wooden toy snake by the tail, its scarlet tongue flicking back and forth when he waves it at me. The boy offers me the toy, shouting prices as he trails behind me through the bazaar. 100 dirham! 90 dirham! I shake my head. 10 dirham, I say, offering the equivalent of a dollar. I think of my niece and nephews at home. They might be interested in the snake for a few minutes, but then it would be forgotten, buried under other toys, the story of the little boy in the market lost with it. I want him to keep the snake, to bend it back and forth, to flick its tongue at strangers. I want him to keep following me, to keep shouting prices—70 dirham! 50 dirham!—until the sun falls and he returns home. He wants to sell me his toy out of boredom, not need, and I enjoy the company his game brings. Okay, okay, 30 dirham! he shouts, exasperated with my haggling. I keep strolling through the souk. 10 dirham, I insist to the scarves and spices, pretending not to notice the little salesman at my heels. I hear no response, and I turn back to the boy, but he has disappeared into the blur of the market.
‘Say hello to America for me,’ he implores.”
I am drowning in the commotion, but we cannot pause for too long … “
Twilight transforms Marrakesh from a dust-covered city cowering from the sun into a nightly carnival, a nocturnal ritual of dances, animals, musicians, acrobats, and merchants hawking their wares. Hundreds of food stalls blossom in the once-empty Djemaa el Fna square, the opaque smoke from the open-air grills distorting the lamplight. The rhythm of our steps is dictated by the boom-boom-ba-boom-boom of drum circles, the trailing whine of snake charmers’ flutes, the whimpers and shrieks of monkeys chained to their owners by the shackles around their necks. Veiled belly dancers slowly gyrate to the jangle of tambourines, their crimson-stained lips and the smears of black on their eyelids doing little to conceal that they are men. A man sits on a carpet in the middle of the square, a mound of teeth—gold, porcelain, and real—displayed before him, along with several menacing-looking dentist’s tools.
I am drowning in the commotion, but we cannot pause for too long or a man will rush to us, brandishing an upside-down tambourine and demanding coins as payment for the entertainment of the spectacle. We have to keep moving. I am jolted from my unabashed absorption of my surroundings as a slick iciness floods over my palm—a shrouded woman applying henna to my unwilling hand. I wrench my wrist from her insisting grasp, and wipe away the paint before she can finish her design and demand dirham for her work. The ruddy brown stain lingers on the back of my hand.
A small boy works at his grandfather’s tea stall, his big brown eyes sparking as he plays to the crowd. He jumps down from the tea stall and approaches us, taking Thomas by the hand and gently unfurling his fingers one by one. The boy motions for Thomas to hold out his hand, palm to the sky, as he quickly bends to the ground and jumps up again. The boy’s movements are swift, practiced. He wraps his tiny hands around Thomas’s fingers and curls them back into a fist. Then he holds up his own fists and opens them, motioning for Thomas to mimic him. And when Thomas does, there is a charcoal smudge right in the center of his palm.
“Magic!” the boy exclaims, grinning, his eyes open wide with delight. Then I watch as his expression fades, and darkness etches his once-glowing eyes. He holds out his own small hand, a mirror image of Thomas.
“Money,” he insists.
I don’t know if it is the call to prayer or the girl’s moans that wake us. It is four-thirty in the morning, and imams are summoning their congregants to the dozens of mosques whose minarets dominate the city skyline. Their wailing chorus permeates the pitch blackness, voices distinct but not discordant. We can hear the girl moaning in the breezeway outside of our door, the mournful melody rising up from her chest to join the choir of prayer. The three of us in the room are awake, but we say nothing to each other; we just listen to her crying out in the sweltering daybreak. Soon, her long, trailing notes transform into yelps of pain. Her agonizing shrieks crescendo into a howling symphony, suddenly interrupted by the sounds of her getting sick.
“Oh God,” she utters softly between racking sobs, “please let me die.”
We listen to her anguish, unable to leave our room even though the sun has risen and the air is becoming stifling. We don’t want to walk past the girl, lying in a heap on the floor of a Moroccan hostel. We don’t want to look into the eyes of her boyfriend, smoothing the hair back from her damp forehead, whispering calming words each time the shooting pains seize her body. We are powerless to help, but we are not indifferent.
A long time passes before we hear the doctor arrive. The boyfriend and the doctor discuss her symptoms—when she started vomiting, how long her cramps have lasted. The doctor sets down his bag with a thud, and rustles around in it until he finds what he needs. He attempts to rouse the girl, who is so exhausted that she falls into a comforting hum of sobs in between each excruciating episode of sickness. The doctor tells her he is going to give her an injection to ease the pain and make her stop heaving. She mumbles her assent, and we hear a weak cry when the needle pierces her. Then she sleeps.
It is nearly noon when we finally leave our room. We pass the crumpled form of the girl, still lying in the breezeway. She shivers under thick, woolen blankets, though the heavy steam of the midday sun creates beads upon her cheek.
Thomas and I stroll through the part of Marrakesh we have not yet seen, waiting for the palace to open. Our map with no street names says all attractions are closed between noon and two in the afternoon, so we wander through more shop-lined streets, killing time. The wares in this quarter are more worn than in the souks near the Djemaa el Fna, the silver tea sets brushed with tarnish, the corners of the old postcards bent and frayed. It is quiet here, almost still, like a pause between breaths. No shopkeepers call out to us here, but their curious eyes follow us as we walk.
We emerge from the narrow passage into a large, open plaza, and at first I do not notice that Thomas is not near me anymore, that he has stopped walking. I turn back to find him, and I see him unfolding the map. Before I can stop him, Thomas has completely opened the map, studying it intently. I can feel the eyes of strangers on our backs, the weight of their opportunism heavy on our shoulders.
“Put that away!” I hiss, but it is too late. A young man approaches, his deliberate strides swiftly closing the distance between us.
“Hello,” he says. “My name is Adi. Are you lost? Where are you going? You are looking for the palace, yes?” He gently takes the map from Thomas’s hands, inspecting it himself. “The palace is closed right now, but if you want, I can take you to the old Jewish Quarter, with the Jewish cemetery and shops where you can buy spices or shoes or dress. And the price is marked—not like in the tourist section—so you get the same price, Muslim, Catholic, or Jew! I do not ask any money of you, I just want to help you, but if you like, this is my father’s restaurant,” he makes a sweeping gesture to the café next to us, “you can come back and eat there if you are hungry later.”
Thomas and I know that Adi seems too good to be true, that no one does anything for free, but we follow him anyway, as if knowing we are being taken advantage of somehow changes the fact that we are willing accomplices. Adi leads us through twisting passageways between the dusty walls of homes and shops, calling out to the children playing in the alleys, the women ducking into doorways. I try to memorize our route, but the bends and turns we weave through make it impossible. There are no signs, no identifying markers to find our way back, just a seemingly endless maze of corridors.
A long time passes before we hear the doctor arrive.”
Lavender, calm you, saffron, cook, dye clothes, ginger, turmeric, pepper, eucalyptus, oil.”
Our route leads to a long, covered market, lined with dozens of shops, but not a single side street. Adi’s purposeful steps lead us to a spice shop where vivid mounds of saffron and ginger infuse the air with their scent. The shopkeeper combs his fingers through his bushy black beard, his countenance remaining unchanged as we approach.
“Hello,” Adi greets the shopkeeper. “Do you speak English?”
“A bit,” the man replies disinterestedly.
Adi turns to us and tells us that he has to go do other errands, but that the shopkeeper knows enough English to show us his spices. Adi extends his hand to Thomas as he bids us farewell, and I wonder if I was wrong about him all along. But then he turns to me, offering his hand in farewell. I take it, though it troubles me to do so, realizing no Moroccan man has touched me since we arrived five days earlier. Somehow I know that by bringing us here, Adi is gaining something that makes it worthwhile for him to shake the hand of a foreign woman.
Adi leaves and the shopkeeper encircles us with the names of spices—the healing powers of these dusts, the beautifying powers of those. His English blossoms, rehearsed and bored, as he waves small glass bottles of perfume and powder under our noses. The shopkeeper’s words flow into a continuous stream, with no pauses to note the difference between one spice and another—Lavender, calm you, saffron, cook, dye clothes, ginger, turmeric, pepper, eucalyptus, oil. Suddenly, he grabs my wrist.
“This not cocaina,” he says calmly, as he rubs a white, chalky paste on the back of my hand. “This make smooth skin.” The shopkeeper swiftly repeats his action, this time on Thomas’s hands. Soon, the paste hardens into a pale crust, and I watch as cracks form on Thomas’s hands, a reflection of my own.
The spice merchant throws several items in a plastic bag—a bundle of twigs and a stone that bleeds red when dampened—“Berber toothpicks, Berber lipstick!” he says. “Gifts for you!” A young boy enters the shop with two small glasses of tea, and the shopkeeper hands them to us. Thomas and I sit quietly on a bench in the shop, overwhelmed by the spices and the gifts and the scalding tea. The spice seller says, “I let you think,” and then exits the shop.
“Don’tdrinkthetea!” Thomas grunts through gritted teeth, though we are alone in the shop, with no one to read our lips.
We leave our gifts and our glasses of tea on the table and hurriedly exit the shop. I wave back to the shopkeeper and his friends as we quickly leave, calling out a weak excuse as we go. “Uh…we are going to look at other shops. We’ll be back!” I lie, jogging away from the spice market.
The chalky paste on our hands has crumbled away by the time we reach the palace. Thomas and I are breathless and giddy after what we have deemed a narrow escape, a reckless adventure, a brush with danger. Adi and the spice merchant have been transformed in our minds into deeply malevolent figures, sinister swindlers whose plots we valiantly thwarted. They would wait until we leave, then accuse us of stealing the gifts! They were going to have us arrested and left to rot in a Moroccan prison! The tea was poisoned! I am laughing so hard at our vibrant retelling of the experience that I almost do not notice the sign next to the palace gates: Palais El Bahia, Hrs. 08:30-17:45. The palace had been open all along.
It is late when we return to our hostel from the city square on our last night in Marrakesh, but the overwhelming sensations of the last five days in Morocco have fatigued us more than the nocturnal carnival. We climb the spiral staircase to our room, but instead of stopping on the second floor with the others, I continue the ascent. The doorway to the roof is open, and I step out onto a large, open terrace. In the evening light, I can see billowing sheets draped from wires traversing the terrace. A breeze glides through the rooftop canopy, making it ripple gently, a welcome respite from the oppressive heat of the city streets. I walk to the edge of the roof and lean against the dusty wall, observing the bustle of Marrakesh from afar.
The soft glow from the Djemaa el Fna seems almost inviting from my vantage point on the roof. Evening has lessened the harsh intensity of everything—the vivid colors, powerful aromas, and deafening sounds of the hectic city. The sweet, cool breeze carries with it the scent of frybread and spices, and beyond the city I can see the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. The warm hum of laughter and mingling voices drifts through the night to the top of the building where I stand, listening to it all. And beneath the current of faint drumbeats and far-away festivities, I hear myself breathing.
Somehow I know that by bringing us here, Adi is gaining something that makes it worthwhile for him to shake the hand of a foreign woman.”