Friday, March 4, 2011

"I'll come across the desert with no shoes on, for I love you truly or I love no one."

During my day in Tangier, through the long wait between the ferry arrival and the Marrakech Express, I enlisted a personal tour guide. They wait on the port, flashing their official badges and readying to negotiate a price. The guidebooks say its hardly worthwhile-- another hustle in the Tijuana of Morocco-- but a middle-aged midget (is that pc?) with a faint American twang to his English approached me and I couldn't resist the idea: fresh off the ferry from Spain, American widow being led through the streets of Tangier by a midget with an American accent.

Through the tour Hassan gave me the usual scattered chronology of Moroccan history: Berbers and Arabs, Phoenicians and Romans, Portugese and French. I was more interested in having a Moroccan at my disposal to answer my long brewing questions: Moroccan politics, Islam, women, Gaddafi, the waning Obama enthusiasm.

And the feral cats.

Cats in Morocco are everywhere. In the streets, in shops and bus stations-- everywhere. Hassan told me the story of Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him, I should add, sitting under the ubiquitous portrait of King Mohammed VI), who once sat to rest and had a cat curl up and go to sleep on his cloak. Rather than disturb the cat, he cut the cloak around it and forever granted the cat a special significance in the Arab world. Cats should be fed and made welcome, their quiet intelligence to be admired, Hassan said. Later that night at the station, I watched a man pluck a bit of meat from his sandwich and extend it to a scrawny, one-eyed feline prowling under the tables.

This morning, walking to the Marrakech Gare Routiere, I passed the men outside the terminal who unfurl their blankets on the hot cement and lay out their cigarettes and miscellany to sell. A cat was trying to get a solid grip on the scruff of her kitten's neck and drag it back to the cardboard box against the wall, where an unseen litter mewed and cried. One of the cigarette sellers jumped up and went to help the mother; not taking the kitten from her but, crouching low and bearing the weight of the kitten in his cupped hand while the mother quickened her pace and steered man and kitten toward the box. A neighboring vendor watched laughing merrily and calling to him teasingly in Arabic. My eyes welled behind my sunglasses. I'm not all that sensitive to the plight of feral cats, but it was the perfect image of Moroccan kindness to carry with me on the bus to Essaouira.

A year and a half ago, Bryan and I made the bus journey from Marrakech to Essaouira, this white-washed, sun-drenched town on the Atlantic where the fishermen drag in the sardines and the hippie boys go windsurfing and offer camel caravans out to the beach mansion where Jimi Hendrix and his entourage smoked opium and lived out their hedonistic Oriental fantasies. We caught a taxi from the station to the medina and were just through the gate when Bryan stopped, frantically patting his pockets and asked, "Did I give you the bag?"

The son of a bitch dropped the bag that contained all our cash and credit cards in the taxi.

In the most desparately ambitious French of my life, I dashed to the taxi rank and gave my frantic story to the next driver waiting (as I type this I can see his young, handsome face with Malcolm X glasses). He listened, sorted through my ranting French, and took great pains to make sure I understood what to do. Return to the station and find the security officer, who will have a file with picture IDs of all the drivers. Explain to him. He will track down the driver.

Laden with our bags, we rushed to the station, my eyes beginning to stream, Bryan chanting, "Please forgive me, please forgive me...." At the station we waited for the officer to return to his desk and I collapsed. A ticket seller with a weathered face visored by a baseball cap jumped down and crouched in front of me, smiling. "Pourquoi les larmes, madamoiselle?" Why these tears? He joked with us and tried to entertain us while we waited for the stern and uniformed officer with his hopelessly large box of mustached Moroccan faces. We walked back to the medina, two totally penniless Americans in Africa. We went to the police station where I further strained in my hysterical French, but there was nothing for them to offer. The bag was lost, not stolen. They typed up a report in Arabic and we signed it, uselessly.

Over the next three days, we lived off Moroccan charity. A hotel manager not only gave us a room on the good faith a Western Union would come through for us, but offered us a loan for food that we were too ashamed to take. The girls at the internet cafe let us run up a tab as we sent our SOS home. People in the streets of this small, easy-natured town approached us and offered help, seeming so genuinely concerned and stricken with sympathy for two careless, privileged white kids. A young man with good English and a love of America paid for our taxis and served as our translator as we went to the taxi office to see if anything had been turned in, if anything could be done. For three days, as we took our empty bellies as penance and went to bed early, hoping our wire would be there in the morning, we learned a lesson in humanity. Not just a rebuttal against the ignorant things people would like you to believe-- that Islam is a violent religion, that Muslims hate Americans, etc., etc.-- but that perhaps that primitive childhood lesson, never talk to strangers, isn't so wise. Our Western Union salvation came from Bryan's parents and when we saw all the familiar faces on the street we could grin and say yes, all was well. We could pay the hotel manager, the internet cafe girls (who humbly refused my offer of interest). And with the constant call to prayer from the muezzin and the Hand of Fatima hung on every taxi dashboard and shop register, it was impossible to separate that experience of sheer human goodness from God. I think it was here Bryan made his famous witticism, "I'm going to convert to Islam and change my name to Cat Stevens." I think he was only half joking.

We stayed in Essaouira a week. A man selling camel rides on the beach heard our story and, in the October off-season, offered us a room in a plush British-owned guesthouse for a few measly dollars a night. ("I like you," Aziz said to me once. "The British walk around here so unhappy"-- he turned down the corners of his mouth and blew out his checks in a Hitchcock-esque grimace-- "but you two smile.") Bryan chatted with the hippie boys in the music shops and tried out the guitars and traditional instruments. I'd leave him with his Coke and his sketchbook on a seafront cafe when I went to swim and inevitably return to find him sharing cigarettes and laughing with some hustler who'd tried to sell him fake Ray Bans or hash. Bryan had an easy, genuine charm that people warmed instantly to, and the men of Essaouira loved him.

When Bryan died, I couldn't think of a place better than Essaouira to scatter his ashes. The place where the most was demanded of us. We spoke often of Essaouira, how much we wanted to return there, the characters we met. Over the British rails, the Krakow trams, the ferry from Spain, the Marrakech Express and the bus to the coast, I've carried this urn and brought us both back. I've checked into the hostel where we shared our last few nights here (I expected to find the tacky Jimi Hendrix mural weeping tears of blood, but it's been painted over). I've chosen my spot near the port where the fishermen bring in the sardines and throw the heads to the hungry cats, as the Prophet Mohammed would want. I walked over the beach at sunset weeping. I walked through the medina scanning for familiar faces, wanting to stop the hippie boys and ask, "Souvenez-vous? Remember that handsome, broad-shouldered American boy with the ragged Chuck Taylor's and the Ali Baba beard? It wasn't so long ago-- say you remember, please, please, say you do. Priez pour lui. Pray for him. Et priez pour moi, s'ils vous plait."

Tomorrow I'll spread the ashes. Tomorrow I'll let go.

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