Over the past week I could feel myself letting go of my usual penchant for structured time, and felt proud of myself for cancelling a day trip up the Atlas Mountains, as well as a half day cooking class. I was feeling a bit more free spirited than usual…which is why my last day in Morocco ended in a way that was totally unexpected. It’s a long story but I think worth telling here, so pour yourself a cup of mint tea and put your feet up for ten minutes.
Have you read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho? I never thought that I’d have an experience which echoes the plot of the book that was one of the mean reasons I’ve yearned for Morocco. When I was younger, it was one of my favourite books, but on subsequent re-reads I’ve liked it less because it’s guilty of essentialising the people of Morocco and it’s a pretty simplistic morality tale — but I guess that’s what fables are.
For those who haven’t read the book, it’s a timeless sort of tale where the protagonist, a young shepherd, is a restless searcher. His heart leads him from southern Spain to Morocco. Once he arrives, he is almost straightaway befriended by a local…and has all his possessions stolen. But losing everything ends up being a blessing in disguise because it forces him to undertake a different journey to the one he’d imagined. And so on, and so on. The ups and downs and twists and turns that make up a life are laid bare in Coelho’s book, and ultimately, all’s well that ends well. In terms of my Moroccan adventure, I didn’t get any of my stuff stolen but I was taken advantage of…and it led me down an unexpected path. But let me set the scene first before I get to what actually happened.
As the bus pulled into the port city of Essaouira on the Atlantic coast of Morroco, I could see a kind of mist visibly hanging over it. Marrakech had been hot and a little dusty and polluted, so the sticky sea air of Essaouira was a refreshing contrast. The change in air was palpable, windy rather than stagnant. They call the wind the ‘Alizes’ – a different wind to the one that supposedly causes people to go cuckoo. I can’t remember who first told me about Essaouira, but I’ve always had it in mind to visit one day. It’s easy to see how it made it onto the hippie trail. There’s a laidback vibe and the low-key riad I stayed in had a beachside feel, nothing like the luxurious one that was my base in Marrakech.
The colour of Essaouira is white, with blue accents on doors and shutters. The medina is small, easy to fully explore in a day. Few vehicles are allowed in, which makes it particularly enjoyable for rambling. That’s actually the main thing that spoils the experience of Marrakech’s medina – the noisy scooters whooshing past you everywhere.
Walking through the medina’s rundown and vacated Jewish quarter – the Mellah – it’s funny to think how Morocco was, in some ways, more cosmopolitan in the past like many countries in the region. Everyone looks different in this part of the world, and it’s because of the rich cultural mix of Berber, Arabs and the countless numbers of slaves that were brought here from other parts of the continent. The glories of Morocco have only been possible through a huge amount of indentured labour.
In working out how to make the most of my short time in Morocco, I sought advice from seasoned travellers on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum, asking whether I should do a day trip to Essaouira or actually have an overnight stay. Someone said that being a daytripper would mean that I miss the experience of the city coming alive at night – and it was spot on advice. At night the city is transformed, and locals pour into the medina to shop for food and other goods. For a light dinner on my one night there I went to a popular local joint for some harira soup and was completely out of place as the only tourist in the eatery. But no one took much notice and I sat there quietly sipping my soup, thinking how unsatisfying it is to be a tourist and not be a real part of the life of a place – though it’s okay once in a while for the experience of people watching and for some reflection time.
In Marrakech the hassle from shopkeepers and random boys prowling the medina is par for the course, and I expected it, and was surprised in Essaouira that people left you alone a bit more. They’d still shout out to me, “Japon! Conichiwa! Arigato! China! Chinoise! Ni hao!”, but far less than what I’d gotten over the past week. The more successful sellers in Morocco are multilingual, and their ears are open to any indication of language you have – Spanish, French, English. They were unsure with me since I’m Asian and by myself so there’s nothing for them to overhear.
I basically refused to be drawn too much into conversation with shopkeepers in Marrakech, but I felt a bit more relaxed in Essaouira and succumbed to several conversations with the young men working in the shops. The results of these conversations weren’t too bad given they all wanted something from me. I’m not sure how much of what we talked about was truth and how much was fiction, but I got to learn a little bit about their lives with a folder of Sahara desert tour pics on the table between us. They weren’t selling too hard and talking to me probably broke up the monotony of the day. Certainly the conversation I had with one young man about globalisation vs. tradition came from a real place, and it was already something I’d been thinking about a lot here. There’s clearly an increasing availability of foreign made goods for sale in Morocco and I saw people get excited about a huge pile of slippers for sale from China. I’m not sure what chance countries like Morocco have against the might of China’s manufacturing sector; it seems a bad situation to be in for a developing country.
I’m generally pretty cautious when dealing with people on the road, but in the very last few hours I encountered yet another young Moroccan man who called out to me by saying, “Nice shoes!” A few people had actually complimented my bright yellow sandals, and it wasn’t completely insincere because I’d seen for myself that the traditional colour for shoes here is yellow. I told him I didn’t have time to chat and that I was looking for lunch and he invited me to eat freshly grilled sardines with bread and salad. I cautiously followed and we came upon a table where there was another foreigner. He turned out to be a young Austrian guy who was backpacking through Morocco for two weeks. The two guys had met at a bar the night before, and another Austrian was sleeping off his hangover back in their cheap accommodation. Seeing another foreigner made it easy to relax and enjoy the food and company. It suddenly felt like it was possible to have a genuine interaction with a local.
The Moroccan guy, Simo, said that he was in Essaouira for a month on holidays and that he came from Casablanca, which was a much more modern place. He had longish curly hair and was wearing a Spanish brand t-shirt (Desigual) and Havaianas and looked like a typical beach bum. Not the least bit attractive to me, but seemed pretty chilled. Apparently he wasn’t a good Muslim because he drank and didn’t pray. He was a little vague about what he did for a living, and I wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth about working in his family’s calligraphy business. Lunch was simple but delicious, and made me feel a bit sleepy afterwards.
The three guys were going out to a beach down the coast that afternoon but they had a short amount of time to kill so we all walked back to the shop. The Austrian guy was left there to wait and Simo told me to look at the cheap riad he was staying in a few doors down, so I might stay there next time I visited. I shrugged my shoulders and thought sure, why not? There were a lot of people about and I knew I wasn’t in any danger. Soon he was talking about Argan oil, which is a local product that absolutely everyone seems to flog here, and that he could give me a quick massage to demonstrate its power. I told him I wasn’t cool with the idea and felt uncomfortable. I said my husband wouldn’t like this. He reassured me that in Morrocan homes they use Argan oil a lot and it was normal for family members to massage each other to clear their minds. It sounds ludicrous writing it out now, but at the time I was thinking how it wasn’t so far from my own experience growing up in a Vietnamese family with pungent oils being rubbed into my neck and other strange home remedies, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
I sat down at the edge of the bed of the open room – absolutely refusing to lie down as he suggested (!) – and a minute or two into the massage I could hear his breathing and I got the sense that he was getting some sort of sexual gratification from touching my neck and bare shoulders (including my bra strap). Eww!! I could hear the call to prayer as this was going on, so he really wasn’t kidding about not being a good Muslim. I’m not even going to go into the complexity of gender relations in a Muslim country, but let’s just say that the majority of Muslim women would never put themselves in such a position with a stranger, so the average unmarried young man has limited opportunities to even be near a woman. As Josh said to me later that night when I told him about what happened over Skype, touching me like that was probably the highlight of this guy’s month! I certainly felt a little dirty after the brief encounter.
He followed me out as I quickly sought my way back onto the street. He was acting like nothing had been remiss, saying that I should’ve been more relaxed. He made small talk about how when I return to Essaouira in future I could always stay at this hotel. Actually, he seemed a little shame-faced, especially when he asked me for ‘a little present’ (money) but I refused to acknowledge his request and made it crystal clear that I just wanted to get the hell away from him.
Thinking back on this a few days later, it’s a funny though embarrassing story — how could I have let it happen?! — but I really don’t think he is a bad person as such. He was an opportunist who wanted some money and didn’t want to beg, and didn’t have enough courtesy to leave me alone. Maybe it’s worked a few times in the past. It’s ultimately not a big deal for me, though it sucks to think that being a lone foreign woman made me an easy target whereas the Austrians would see a different side to this guy. But perhaps they’ll be compromised in other ways. Josh said he’d been caught out quite a few times in foreign places, been coerced into paying for expensive meals and drinks through such interactions. It’s just what happens when you’re in a new place and you’re a nice person. The other thing was that I suddenly remembered an incident that happened to someone I’d studied with in Paris. She had ended up getting a scalp massage in a public park from an Arab guy (maybe he was Moroccan!) – we all laughed at the time about it and it seemed like such a bizarre thing to happen, but now it had happened to me too. I wrote to her saying that two years later, I completely get how that happened to her.
In any case, the incident was a bit of a bum note to end my time in Essaouira, which had otherwise been really lovely. Here I was thinking that it was possible to have a genuinely nice exchange with a local – and turns out that I had been right to have my guard up after all. Or so I thought. The story doesn’t actually end there.
Because of what happened, I kind of lost my mojo and was keen to return back to Marrakech. I dipped my toes in the Atlantic before walking to the bus stop, getting there an hour before departure, which is a lot earlier than I’d been planning to. After a little while, I decided to sit down on the kerb next to an older Moroccan man. Fifteen minutes to departure, I pointed to the bus and asked him in French whether that was indeed the bus for Marrakech. He confirmed and we started to talk – using French, the only common language we had – and he asked me how I liked Morocco. I said I enjoyed the country but…not Moroccan men – pulling a face as I said that which showed how I felt. I was feeling a bit vulnerable, and needed to share my feelings with someone. At that point he laughed and laughed, shaking his head. It’s true about the men, he said.
It was soon time to board the bus and coincidentally, we discovered that our tickets meant that we were seated together…and that’s how I ended up sitting next to him for the few hours to Marrakech. As soon as we were seated properly he laughed again about my comment about Moroccan men, shaking his head, because it really tickled him. I smiled and said that when I come back to Morocco, I was coming with my husband. He heartily agreed that I would have a much nicer time if I did. We chat on and off the whole way back to Marrakech using my frustratingly limited French. He was voluble and open and seemed genuine, in stark contrast to my previous interaction which had occurred in English. I got to learn a bit about his life.
Ahmed had worked on the outskirts of Paris for 44 years, from the age of 18, and had now retired. His parents had stayed behind in Morocco, and they had both passed away in recent years. He was married, and he and his wife split their time now between Marrakech and France where their five children lived, along with several grandchildren. I asked him lots of different things, including whether he was Muslim and he said that he was. He’d even been to Mecca, showing me a photo on his phone. I said to him, ‘You are Hajj Ahmed’, which I believed to be the correct title for someone who had done the pilgrimage. He laughed and pat me on my arm saying I was right.
Given how small my French vocabulary was, and how annoying it was that I’d left my French phrasebook back in Marrakech, we were still able to have a warm conversation. He kept saying what a coincidence it was that we had tickets next to each other and he invited me over to have mint tea and sweets with him and his wife. No pressure, he shrugged. I hesitated — but as I’d already thrown caution to the wind once that day, I decided to give it one more shot because here I was having a genuinely nice exchange with a local. He gave away too much banal detail about himself for me to think he was dodgy.
So that’s how bad turned into good, and how I ended up getting off the bus with Ahmed in Marrakech to catch a cab with him to his house. My instincts were completely right this time, and his wife Fatima had hot mint tea and sweet biscuits waiting for us. She had a bandana on her head, and I could see her brown curly hair tied back. She didn’t seem to speak much French at all for someone who had lived in France for a few decades, but I suppose she’d been a girl from the village that Ahmed had married and brought over to start a family. She’d probably stayed at home, in the local community, while he had gone out and worked. We sat together in companionable silence when her husband went to have a shower, relaxing on the lounge and looking out the window. He came back and laid out his prayer mat and turned it toward Mecca to pray while the tv was blaring in the same room.
Later, when we all watched tv together, he motioned that the female ‘victims’ on the local talk show were crazy. I couldn’t tell whether that was because of what they were talking about – problems with their husbands – or whether it was because they were covered in head to toe in black with only their eyes showing. He asked me if I was happy here, and I said that I was, thank you very much.
Their big terrace on the outskirts of Nouvelle Ville and was absolutely huge for just an older couple. There seemed to be ten bedrooms or so, enough to fit in several generations of a family. Ahmed clearly loved being well-to-do in Marrakech and having a sense of status that he would never have had as a lowly worker on the outskirts of Paris. We talked a few times about the prices of things, and he wanted to know how much I paid for things in the souk, how much for taxis, how much my riad was. We compared passports and he was gobsmacked at how much I’d travelled. He said I must be rich and I assured him that I wasn’t. How many Euros per month did I earn in Australia? What did I do for work?
Ahmed loved showing off his home and his Mercedes — all of which I complimented him on — and offered me a bed for the night. I told him I already had a hotel room. D’accord, he said, but next time you come back to Marrakech, feel free to stay here. With my husband too? I asked. Yes with your husband too, he said. We have a huge house.
In my last post I was musing about the lives of middle-class Moroccans and here I was getting a firsthand glimpse of a subset of the middle-class, the ones who return from being abroad. It reminded me of the relationship between the expat Vietnamese who come back to Vietnam, flashing their money around and feeling triumphant. Perhaps there was something of that here in Morocco too, with so many millions living abroad in France (and other parts of Europe, like Belgium). Also, I think the only ones probably entitled to French citizenship were the ones born there, so total assimilation would be difficult and Moroccans have good reason to return later in life.
An average Moroccan in France with their state pension could live like a king in Marrakech, as Ahmed ably demonstrated. It’s also why many expats go to poorer foreign countries to retire. But it might get a bit boring at times, even with a lot of family and friends around, which is why Ahmed enjoyed talking to me and having someone new to show off to. I guess I was a bit like a stray kitten he’d taken in. Being a woman on my own had led Simo to try and take advantage of me, and now that same characteristic was inspiring someone to look after me a little. When I told him I was planning to go to Jemaa el-Fnaa after my visit here, he said in a fatherly tone that it was too crowded and too hot, and not a good idea with the valuables I was carrying in my bag. Instead, I should stay and have a cous cous dinner with them. I wasn’t sure what his wife thought exactly, but she smiled a lot, and I accompanied them in their car to a local souk for some daily grocery shopping. They bought fresh vegetables and he commented on how cheap it all was. I practised a few Arabic phrases from the guidebook and they corrected my pronunciation.
After he dropped his wife off at their place, he drove me back to the medina and walked with me to where my riad was. I told him I needed to come back and settle the bill, and introduced him to one of the owners, Michael, who was expecting me. Ahmed said he would wait for me while I sorted things but I told him I was tired and was going to stay put. He seemed genuinely disappointed and mentioned that I had his number if I changed my mind later. Although freshly made homemade cous cous would’ve been a real treat, I needed to decompress after all the adventures I’d had and also get ready for my flight to Lyon the next morning. If I had another night, I would’ve happily agreed, but as it was, I’d already been subjected to so much kindness. I thanked him again for everything. Famous Moroccan hospitality is clearly alive and well, and I didn’t have to pay to do a day trip up a mountain to have the experience of having mint tea and sweets with a local Berber family.
We said goodbye and Ahmed said, we will meet again here Inshalah (God willing), or in France where you can meet my granddaughter. And you will speak to me only in French he said, laughing, warmly clasping my hand and kissing me on both cheeks.