Sunday, March 6, 2011

africa unite, cuz we're moving right out of babylon

This morning, after the rain had stopped and I was fortified with cafe au lait, I was walking through the medina and came upon a box of mewing kittens. I stooped to pet them and a little boy toddled up, no more than three years old, grinning at me and reaching to pet the kittens, too. I chattered to him in scraps of French and English, he to me in Arabic and toddler babble, smiling merrily all the while. Together we enjoyed the pleasure of encountering small, fluffy kittens in a box in the street, still wet with rain. He turned and ran to his mother, a veiled woman watching him on the other side of the narrow street. I stood. "Vous etes tres jolie, madame," she said to me behind her scarf. You are very pretty. I have heard this sentence about twenty times a day since arriving in Essaouira, from the boys in the street who want to know where I'm from and welcome me to Morocco, from hippie guys in the shops who want to show me Berber jewellery and embroidered caftans, who want to know if I like Cat Stevens and if I've been out to Jimi Hendrix's place yet. I'm not pretty, but I understand that I vaguely fit an ideal: a blue-eyed, busty American girl with a heap of dirt blonde curls and an easy smile, either brave enough or merrily stupid enough to be wandering around Africa alone. I thank them and pay no mind. When the woman said it I felt shy and flattered. Not the kind of pretty the boys want to believe, but the kind of pretty that will talk and pet kittens with a little boy on the street.

Any exchange with women here feels like a great privilege. Moroccan women are hardly an image of oppression: you see them in the street with their beautiful multi-colored scarves and caftans, whipping through the medinas on their mopeds or playing on the beach with their children. Very few are in burkas, but even those who are give off a certain proud mystery. The teenage girls in skinny jeans and pretty sweaters are no different than the girls I teach how to write poetry at Shelter of Flint. But women do not work in the shops, do not call out "Ca va?" in the streets, do not wait tables in the cafes or sit in those cafes, for that matter, and so traveling in Morocco makes you feel like a kind of third sex. Not one of the men, but not quite one of these women, either. That compliment offered on the street was gratefully received.

But back to those boys.

There are certain things you're not supposed to do if you're a female traveling alone in Morocco. You're not supposed to admit you're on your own, for one thing. You're not supposed to indulge the attentions of strange men. But the laughing charm of the hippie boys and my spiritual connection to them, my unspoken gratitude towards them, gets the better of me. Yesterday I sat drinking tea in a leather shop with a burly dreadlocked guy, Titi, who showed me pictures of the trips he leads through the Sahara and talked about music. As he poured tea he started singing Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds." "Singin' don't worry about a thing, cuz every little thing gonna be all right." Bryan's brothers picked out that song for his funeral. Bryan had an unashamed love of Bob Marley. Often I'd climb up the stairs to the apartment and find him in the bathtub, his shaving mirror propped on a chair, listening to Bob Marley or Chet Baker (or on an espeically pensive day, NPR). It was one of many eclectic, lovely facets of Bryan. When he died, I used to walk around for hours at night listening to Bob Marley on his mp3 player. So to hear a guy in Essaouira sing that as he poured me tea, just hours after I'd spread the ashes.... A great stab of pain and a wave of wonderful sweetness hit me all at once.

Tonight I went into a clothes shop to find a souvenir for a friend. He requested "one of those outfits Arabs wear when it's hot," so I discussed this with a young shopkeeper in full Tuareg garb-- djellaba, a mile of scarf wrapped and knotted around his head. Uncertain of the Muslim gender taboos and whether it's ok to buy clothes for another woman's husband, I said it was for my brother. "What size is your brother?" he asked. About six foot two, medium build meant nothing to him so I drew a JJ-shaped outline in the air and the man sorted through piles of linen and cotton. His friend came in and they insisted on celebrating my purchase with a backroom jam. No joke. They broke out castanets and drums and their fingers worked fast and beautifully over the skins-- in this town of Jimi Hendrix's ghost and the Gnaoua music festival, all the hippie boys are musicians. The Tuareg boy, Yassine, asked me if I would go have tea with him. It's right at the top of the list things you shouldn't do: accept dates from strange young men in Africa.

So we went to a cafe on the port and had whiskey marocain. He told me about the Tuareg tribe in south Morocco, his family there, how he learned English from hanging around the gas station in his village where the Sahara tours would come through and fill up, the many traditional uses of that impressive Tuareg headress. As nomadic people, the Tuareg use the scarf to strain water, to sleep on when they have to set up camp for the night, to bundle things they need to carry. He told me he wanted an American girl to marry-- "The Moroccan girls," he said, "They just want money to buy nice clothes." I steered the conversation away from nuptials, but as he poured tea I imagined what it would be like, my first post-Bryan kiss from a tall Tuareg boy on a fishing port in Morocco, with the sweet aftertaste of mint tea in our mouths.

And then he started singing Bob Marley under his breath. "Africa unite, cuz we're moving right out of Babylon...." and I laughed. "Why you smile?" he demanded. Bob Marley, I said. I like him, too. He started telling me his favorites and we sang verses back and forth, me giggling. Sun is shining, weather is sweet, make you wanna move your dancing feet. Those tacky, infectious melodies universally adored. Bryan in the bathtub, the scrape of his razor and his cigarette dangling out of the ashtray.

Well, even with the romance of the port and the sugar buzz of the tea, Tuareg boys are still good Muslims. We exchanged email addresses and parted chastely.

Off to Fez tomorrow. I will miss this place badly-- this town glittering with significance on the Atlantic Coast.

1 comment: