The International Writers Magazine: Hacktreks in Marrakesh
Marrakesh in a Time of Terror
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
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.
among some of the stalls, picking up the little boxes and trying
to pry the lids off.
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 theyre 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 dont know. I dont
mind them at all, though, and surprise a few by asking their names.
Mohammed. Mahamoud. Sameh. Hassan. The littlest one, who couldnt
have been more than ten, wants to know where Im 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 dont
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 dont want a guide. Like a good little businessman, the boy,
Sameh, insists that Ill need one, that its 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 hes 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 Im 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 hes lost an opportunity to
make a few Dirham, Samehs 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 cant 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. Theres
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, its far from the nucleus of some imagined
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 Ive
met, the genuine curiosity and thoughtfulness they so openly present
overwhelms me with warmth, making me feel as if I belong, as if its
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
was warned to stay out of Morocco, told by nearly everyone that
as an American woman, Id only be looking for trouble if I
went. "Theres a war going on," I heard again and
again, "and any Islamic nation wont be a safe place for
an American, particularly a female American".
I wasnt 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 Id
experienced back home. It gets easier and easier to ignore the echoing
chorus of voices whod insisted that any and every Islamic
person I met would want to harm me. I begin to understand Marrakeshs
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 theyd been selling the day before.
Insistent, they are, violent, they are not.
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 Ive
told her Im 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 Ill be offended at his disdain for his sometimes
loud and obnoxious foreign clientele. We laugh together, talking about
why Coca-Cola isnt 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 "doesnt
have to eat alone". I smile when I realize he offers after Ive
remarked that Im 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 Ill be forever
changed. I know theres 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 - theyll 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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