Wednesday, March 9, 2011

george wash-ing-ton

A six a.m.bus from Essaouira to Marrakech, a seven hour train from Marrakech to Fez, and voila-- Kelsey of Arabia, alone in the Imperial Cities. Approaching Fez, one's approaching a tremendous fortress-- the world's largest Medieval city enclosed in stark and intimidating walls, and inside an impossible maze of blind alleys and steeply rising, sharply twisting streets. The medina of Marrakech is an exercise in patience and memory-- the medina of Fez is an exercise in futility. I arrived to my plush, British-owned riad to a flurry of apologies that they were overbooked and all they could offer me was a makeshift bedroom: a massage table padded with blankets in a room used for storing luggage, available at half the price of a proper room. The British proprietress seemed slightly repulsed when I enthusiastically accepted.

Riad Verus had an interesting mix of people of solo travelers that made up for my exasperation with Fez's impenetrable size and lay-out. I met an Australian sheep farmer on a year long tour of the world with stories of travels through India and Mongolia, South Africa and Kenya that belonged in the Thousand and One Nights. An Irish guy and I hiked up the Borj Nord to watch the sunset over the whole sprawling panorama of Fez, the lights flaring one by one across the city, the call to prayer rising from the minarets, then back down to the medina for tagine and talk about arthouse movies. I smoked hookah with an American girl working on her MFA in painting at Yale and her Moroccan fiance. "We need to find you a rich Moroccan husband with a riad so you can stay and keep her company," he told me. I told him I'd send for my hope chest. I don't think he believed me.

I gave up quickly on Fez. The philosophical and political heartbeat of Morocco, home to some of the world's oldest and most prestigious medersas, a university older than Oxford and Cambridge-- all of it is deeply embedded in the twist of the medina streets, and after all the leisrely cups of tea with the Essaouira hippies, I didn't have the stamina. So today I caught the train to Meknes and installed myself in a cheap hotel with what the proprietor referred to as a "Turkish toilet" (a hole in the floor-- I'm delighted they blame the Turks for this). Meknes is Fez in miniature. An easy-natured place with an illustrious imperial history (home to the infamous and strangely revered Moulay Ismail, who decided to give Versailles a run for its money and took a few Christian slaves to get the job done).

After dropping my bags at the Hotel Nouveau (with the Turkish toilet), I wandered into the medina. The covered market in the souks is a bizarre mix: half candy store, half butcher shop. You enter to teeming piles of Moroccan confections (gazelle horns, sugared almonds, nougat, baklava) and around the corner find stall after stall of dead animals and blankly staring, severed heads. I bought a mix of sweets and sat at a cafe in the square with cafe au lait. A man in a wheelchair, one leg missing below the knee and severe burns over his face, was wheeling around with a hand extended for alms. I put a dirham coin in his hand and extended my white box of sweets. He looked confused. "Le gateau?" I nodded and he grinned and selected a choice bit of nougat and nut.

I crossed the splendid, intricately designed Bab Mansour, the gate to the Imperial City and wandered in search of the tomb of Moulay Ismail. An old, toothless, skinny man in a baseball hat that said Jesus is My Boss came up to me-- the usual friendly rush of Bonjour! Ca va? When I said I was not French but American, he switched fluidly to English and asked what state. Whenever I say Michigan, I get a blank stare. Sometimes to explain I say, "it's near Canada" or "it's near Chicago" ("ah yes, I know Chicago" they always say). But the man had a triumphant look on his face and said, "The Great Lakes!" He drew the mitten in the air with his finger. "I have never left Morocco," he said, "but I know the whole map." He welcomed me to my "second country."

"Because, did you know, Morocco was the first country to recognize American independence. From George Washington. Did you know this?" This is an oft-repeated piece of history Moroccans extend as a greeting: within it, I think, an offer of solidarity as post-colonials, as old friends. The way Moroccans laboriously pronounce George Wash-ing-ton breaks my heart. I thanked him. My second country. His lined face and toothless mouth reminded me of my Papa (how it exasperated my grandmother when he wouldn't wear his dentures). He told me the easiest way to make it to the mausoleum and said that if we saw each other again, inshallah, perhaps we could have tea and he could practice his English. Inshallah, I echoed, and went off to the mausoleum.

Just a few days left in Morocco. How deeply I will miss this place.


  1. It must be a relief when you tell people where you are from not to be met with a look of pity or scorn.

  2. A skinny old man who is friendly and knows his geography and history--yep, that's Papa.