Marrakech Journal

I was excited to get to return to Morocco last month, and wrote a sound journal piece for the Brooklyn Rail that can be read here. Below is a much longer, more scattered and less refined version, which I wanted to post if only for the insanity of being stranded at the airport on my last day there.

Marrakech Journal - Day 1

9 Aug

I have a new number now. My “Maroc Arrival Number.” It is very important, the concierge told me when I was filling out my check-in form at the hotel.

The hotel is beautiful – open and airy, if hot, so much nicer than where I stayed in Tangier last time I was in Morocco. (Or at least so far – I'm waiting for my room now, writing in a colorful waiting room with a couch running the full perimeter and knit cushions). There are clocks above the concierge desk: Marrakech, Paris and New York. The New York one isn't working. There's a child running around wearing a sort of Groucho mask – round glasses, red nose and a mustache of two horns that unfurl and squeal when he exhales, going off to either side of his face.


Djemaa el Fna is the target. A short cab ride, but I want to find it on my own. My preparations for the trip included buying a Lonely Planet Marrakech guide and then forgetting to pack it, which is kind of perfect. I love getting lost.

I start walking down Mohamed VI Blvd. I hear music, but Djemaa el Fna is supposed to be about two miles away – I couldn't be hearing it, could I? Fearing walking the wrong way forever without knowing, I give in and ask a police officer. My high school French is barely adequate to get through his thick accent, but I arrive at “four red lights and turn left.” From here I see zero red lights ahead. And the music was in the other direction. I start off.

After a half mile or so, the boulevard opens up to a park and I hear hundreds of toads. And drums in the distance again. I stray from the policeman's directions and wander through this strange toad field that disrupts a four-lane highway. Sculpted bushes populate the shallow swamp, and a full chorus of amphibians fills the air. I don't see a single one, though.

I make my way back to the boulevard and a strip of where people have parked on the side of the road, stretched out a blanket on the tile sidewalk and are having midnight picnics, playing cards and listening to transistor radios. There are no buildings around here, just the highway and open field. A middle-aged man is playing a Gnawa bass along with the radio, two younger men clap in time. Another stretch and I've reached what seems to be the end of town. There's nothing ahead of me, no more people around. The taste of the exotic is soured by admitting defeat (as well as all the car exhaust). It takes a long time to get a cab. I'd started on the same route, but even if I'd made the turn when I was supposed to I don't know that I would have found it. Still at least I'm off the boulevard and speeding down narrow streets. We get there but I'm stuck waiting for the driver to find change – roughly the equivalent of $5 back on a $10.

Cars are only allowed a up to a block away from the square, so I still have a short walk toward what is, when I get there, immediately the greatest thing I've ever seen or heard. It takes me back to the state of exhaustion, confusion and overstimulation of the state fair when I was a child. The “place,” as it's called, is enormous and there's a cacophony of drums everywhere. I see an old man, nearly toothless, playing a small, handmade string instrument. He has a large circle of people standing around him, one of the many stage areas demarcated by a lantern in the middle and maybe a few benches. He immediately sees me, too. He comes over and asks me if I speak French.

“No, English.”

He smiles. “My music is the best, the most spectacular,” he says. Some of the young men around me respond with an “Oooooh” that is used often as a sort of encouragement for the performer, like mock daring. “He didn't just say that, did he?”

He pulls me to the front of the crowd. “No, no,” I protest, pulling back, but he forces me, pulling me hard enough that I would have to put up a visible struggle, resulting in unwanted attention either way, then making a gracious gesture designed to leave me no choice. I am the only janqui there. All eyes are on me. I step forward, he smiles, pleased, sits on his blanket and proceeds to play a fast run on is little lute, looking directly at me the whole time. The audience gives an “aaaaah” and I applaud. He then lets out a remarkable wail, a melodic vocal ecstasy. “Aaahs” and applause again. He then gestures to the audience, but mostly to me, to say “wait a moment” and lights a cigarette. He comes and takes me by the hand, again I try to resist and again not enough. I end up sitting in the middle of the circle as he does a series of tricks that involve holding smoke for a very long time and exhaling after drinking tea or while pulling his ear or tapping my nose. His finale is the old trick where he positions my hands, smudging ash on my palm in the process, then smudges his own palm and shows the “magic” transference onto my hand. I don't give him enough of a tip and he returns my money. Fine.

I go for couscous and olives and the owner of the stall doesn't seem to think I'm spending enough. Fine. I'd forgotten what a confrontation everything can be here. A guy sits at my table. He seems to want to talk. He asks me where I'm from and says he has a friend in Michigan. Jennifer. He shown me an American phone number on his cell to prove it. So far he hasn't asked for anything, but I bet he offers to be my guide when I get up. [He didn't, he just gave me the number for his stall and told me to come have the best food tomorrow.]

I move on to another circle. A guy with a four-string banjo is taking coins from the audience. There's a call and response chant and he tosses the coins into the center. It seems like a blessing of some sort. Occasionally he plays a soft oud-like lick on his banjo, and finally kicks it in with others clapping and playing finger cymbals, frame drum and dumbek.

Another group (two string players and three percussionists) are playing 20 feet away. Two young men, probably in their 20s, take a place in the stage area and do a quick-stepping dance while holding hands. Very cute. Slowly more young men fill the inside of the circle. One of the drummer tries to bring some of the women into the middle to dance, but they refuse. The two drum groups almost mesh. Almost. It's an aural hallucination.

While I'm listening a guy starts talking to be about the music they're playing, the Berber tradition. He's asking me questions about what I do, where I'm from, and he wants me to write about the Berbere struggle. He tells me he's a teacher and he doesn't mean to bother me. He wants my Yahoo Messenger name. I tell him I don't use Yahoo and he seems shocked. He shows me his work ID to prove he's a professor and not trying to fool me, then he takes my notebook and writes his name, email, Yahoo ID, and phone number, and under that writes “Please don't forget to talk about the Berber Cause (= Amorzigh Cause) in North Africa)” His English is good but not good enough to tell me more than that the Berbers are forgotten, which I don't quite understand since people seem to talk about them all the time in Marrakech. Plus I want to listen to the music. I wonder if it's possible to interrupt a performance of 4'33”. Can someone in the audience do anything that would be rude or disruptive?

Marrakech Journal - Day 2

10 Aug

The default sound of Marrakech is the motorbike. The persistent, alto growl is everywhere as the motorized burros speed around in all directions. They are a primary mode of transit, but they're also a defining factor of youth identity (like the American car, the means to get away from watchful eyes) and work as pack mules as well. The small motorcycles can be seen pulling wooden carts packed with good for distribution moving through the winding, narrow roads of the casbah.

The noxious fumes they spit out are also a defining part of the Marrakech sensory experience. While the walk from the casbah through the medina to the Djemaa el Fna is visually stunning – a wash of coral and tan walls and blue and white painted signs with swirling Arabic calligraphy – it's tempered by exhaust fumes and horse dung. But the short walk comes to an end with the sound of the drums, wailing vocals and amplified strings that resonate through the Place 18 hours a day or more. The motorbike din works like a curtain, opening slowly to the sounds of the square.

The trance of Marrakech is not drug induced. Alcohol isn't even served at the Djemaa el Fna souks. It has to do with ecstatic devotion, but it's not unaffected by the hallucinatory effects of the heat, where a liter of water can be gone without notice under the midday sun.

Under a canopy made of five large umbrellas a band of three drums and a double-reed flute plays loud, looping music. A half dozen large vipers sit coiled in front of them, a black cobra the most active of them. Knotted in a nest under a burlap sack are dozens of smaller ones. One of the drummers pours water over the burlap bag every so often. He takes out an egg, makes a hole in it and pours the yolk out on the street. Then puts the shell down and takes a smaller snake out and sets it in front of the egg. The snake puts his head through the hole and out the other side of the shell, and ends up wearing it like a necklace – or a neck brace – after looking for the innards to eat. The drummer selects another small snake to take out to the assembled crowd, kissing it and touching it to peoples' foreheads, for good luck and for a small donation. The hypnotic music entrances me, but it's the motion of the musicians – and everyone else – that the cobra is reacting to. Movement seems to make him crazy. When he gets too excited, hissing and making small, warning strikes at the drummers, one of them places a frame drum over him to calm him down. In the background, another performer saying “Give me money paper! Give me money paper!”

My sandal breaks while I'm leaving the Place. At first I take is as an excuse to go back to the my air-conditioned room at the riad where I think I can fix it with the ring off my keychain, but I decide to persevere and head to a block where I noticed some mechanical repair shops, thinking they might have a ring of some sort. I pass a man at a sewing machine and show him my shoe. He smiles and shrugs – a non-English-speaking non-cobbler.

Then I pass a row of souks making and selling rugs and mats. On the ground amidst all the other refuse I spot a small length of thread loosely looped together like it might have been the end of a spool. I pick it up, there's maybe 36 inches. This should work to tie the two parts of my shoe together. I keep walking and pass a riad with its door open, the air coming out of the unlit hallway noticeably cooler than that on the street. I walk in and ask if I can sit in the front to fix my shoe. Part of me is happy to be the American who didn't just throw it away and buy a new one.


The shoe holds together quite well. I walk through the medina into the casbah. The casbah here is huge, much bigger than in Tangier or Rabat and with many more dead ends, which means more opportunity for people to jump in and be tour guide. “C'est fermé,” they say helpfully, then, “I'll show you.” Sometimes they show you without asking for anything, sometimes not. Many Moroccans are genuinely friendly and helpful, and no doubt proud that they can negotiate the walled labyrinth, even if the demands of self-employment in the tourism industry involve a bit of hustling. (The average American or European tourist spends in a week what the average Moroccan makes in a year, although my presence is probably hemming that ratio in a bit.) So I walk into the casbah and if “lost” isn't quite the word, I'm still heading in a direction that will get me nowhere. A young man, a teen probably, offers to help me out. I keep telling him “Thank you but I do not need a guard. I do not need a guard.” He says “no fee, no money,” but I know that means no charge but a tip is expected and then haggled over. And the truth is, getting lost is part of the game.

He takes me to an exit from the walled city and tells me to go up to the next entrance and go in to get to the palace. I thank him and he asks me for something for his trouble. I take out a few coins. If you take out your wallet, they inevitably look in it and adjust their pitch. He says to me, “No, that is like nothing,” and then from nowhere another young man walks up and says “Please, a donation for my brother for all his work.”

“Thank you, my brother,” says the first one with excessive humility in the face of the injustice being done to him.

Then, from a different direction of nowhere and every bit as suddenly, five policemen on scooters drive up on the sidewalk. They two youth run – fast. Three of the cops go off on their way again, one blocks the other entry through the wall and the other goes in after them, revving his engine like he's trying to scare cats from his driveway. It's too crowded inside, not worth the disruption of a chase. But he gives them a scare, judging from the looks on their faces.

King Mohammed VI, from what little I know, has been an interesting ruler. Along with slowly divesting the throne's power to the Parliament (he is an avowed anti-monarch), he has pushed a zero-tolerance policy on harassing tourists. I wasn't really being harassed, but the kids weren't waiting around to explain.

It was a bit of a relief and even a little comical watching them leap and the scooters circle, but it was also a bit chilling. While traveling I'm reading A Life Full of Holes, an autobiographical novel dictated to Paul Bowles by Larbi Layachi using the name Driss Ben Hamed Charahi. In it, Layachi recounts a childhood (it's unclear whether or not it's his) spent in and out of Moroccan jails for petty crimes and false accusations. Assuming the protagonist is the same age as the author, the story is set in the 1950s. Things are far better here now. But I couldn't help think about it.

I also can't help but think that Moroccans must think there are far more hippies in the US than there actually are, based on the tourist profile I see here.

I'm writing this sitting at a cafe at the edge of Jemaa el Fna, having coffee before I finally answer the call of air-conditioning and go have a nap. On either side of the cafe are little souks selling CDs of popular Arabic and American music. They alternately blast samples for customers out on the square a dumbek player plays full tilt and in another direction a flutist wails hypnotically. Somewhere a cell phone plays a Mozart riff. It's an insane amount of sound, mixed with the sharp horns of motorbikes and the music of a language I don't understand being spoken all around me. Still, there's a sense that it's quiet now in the afternoon heat. Tents are being erected for the night time. It's like a brief inhalation during a centuries-old song. For the most part, the sounds intermingle oddly well, broken only by the piercing volume of the snake charmer's flute. Slowly it calms down while I sit, although “calm” is hardly the word. It settles, maybe I'm settling, sitting for more than a few minutes for the first time in seven hours. And maybe with the settling I am relinquishing the need to frame – or have framed. If only out of sheer exhaustion, I am simply letting the sound in. It still makes no sense – it's utter cacophony, so far beyond the madness of free jazz or free improv, where the players are still occupying the same space and are to some extent aware of each other. This is a musical tradition filled up like paint balloons and thrown at the wall.

How much does the one-legged man love his motorbike?


Flipping stations on the radio in my room. Is it possible I heard John Lennon's “Woman is the Nigger of the World”? I flipped back and it was over. “We make her cover her face and dance”?


Went to the supermarket in New City and bought 2 liters of soda (an apple thing and a lemon thing), a bag of some kind of peanut snack, four small bags of olive mixtures, a bag of raisins and a bag of figs, all for $5 American.

I shall now write about my exercises in commerce.

Bought some finger cymbals for 37, a shirt for my sister, a wallet for my dad, a carved cat for dad's ladyfriend, a hat for myself (still haven't found any vinyl, though), maybe something else, but what I mean to get to is this: I bought three small paintings from a wonderful fellow in the casbah this morning.

I was walking past a short row of souks where men were making small paintings on wood. They're for tourists. Often the same cartoonish pictures are repeated from one painter to the next. But one guy had a painting of two Gnawa musicians playing back to back. They looked to me like they were rocking out. It made me laugh, then double back because it seemed like a good gift for 37, plus no one else seemed to have that particular design. When I got back to his souk, he smiled and greeted me. Probably saw me the first time, but there was something that seemed genuine about him, something I liked. Nour-eddine Boukheir didn't have that mix of servile pushiness that I'm not comfortable interacting with. He asked if I'd like him to explain Arabic calligraphy to me, which was as easy a question as if he'd asked if I'd be drinking 8 liters of water today. Why, yes! I was having trouble following him because of his accent (although his English was quite good) and because it was so hot in the little stall that I was soon dripping sweat. After a short while he instructed me to turn on a small electric fan and offered me a glass of mint tea, then proceeded with the lesson. In short, it's about symmetry. If one side (top/bottom or left/right) of a character takes up 1/3 of a circle imagined around it, the other side should be twice as big, filling the other 2/3. He drew letters for me with his hand-carved bamboo pens, dipping them in ink and then drawing circles around them, then making 12 precise points horizontally and vertically to show that they were balanced. He then transliterated my first name into Arabic “as a gift,” carefully painting decorations around it and signing his name. Having already decided I was going to buy pictures from him eased the conversation for me. I showed him the one that I wanted and he told me the price. I then picked out two more and he wrapped them up for me and offered to write the names of the people I was giving them to. Instead I had him write the names of my niece and nephew. Seeing more words written raised more questions for me about how it's constructed, which he seemed to appreciate. We were having a very nice time, laughing and telling each other about ourselves. Then I asked him for the total and panicked when the number was right but I thought he said “Euros,” which would have made the price well more than ten times as much.

Inside the souk was Boukheir's “real” art, some of which was quite nice. And we'd been having a friendly time. I didn't want to insult him but I also didn't want to pay what he might have just asked for. I gave him 25% over the dhirham amount (which is what I was going to do anyway) and asked if it was OK. He said “thank you, it is not expensive,” which I didn't know what meant. I asked again if it was OK and he said it was so I thanked him and left. Later realized that the price in Euros would have been preposterously out of scale, and that “Euro” and “dirham” sound similar in the Marrakech accent. Fiendishly so, perhaps.


Back at the Place, one musician is playing an 8-string instrument with a flat body. It looks like a mandocello, but maybe it's something more native. In any event, it's another instrument in the role of the oud. It's sound is distorted to unbelievable levels through an amplifier made from a portable speaker and probably a radio or boombox hidden under a blanket (the usual setup for amplification). He plays in short bursts, frantic lines with long, open spaces between before a frame drum starts setting a driving rhythm. It's not so different from the Velvet Underground. Another drummer makes the rounds, holding a hand drum out for donations. It really is only the white people they ask. Moroccans will give money, but they don't get asked. Maybe that makes sense. Janquis with cameras are especially targeted, which also makes sense. All the white women have painted hands.

There is probably no city in the world with as many tenor banjos per square foot as Marrakech. The banjos are strung with heavy very heavy strings and played with a plecturm. I don't think they're modified in any other way, but it's a different instrument. Maybe in keeping with the mores of the incestuous string family it should be called “banjoud.”

In another circle a banjoud player is playing with seven percussionists (hand cymbals, floor tom, frame drums and someone playing a row of three dumbeks with sticks). This is seemingly more organized than many of the groups are, with a lot of vocal interplay, although surely many of them all know the same songs. One of the drummers is trying to get Arabic women in the crowd to dance but none will.

Each “stage” has a lantern in the middle. At the center of the square are the food stands, which string lanterns overhead, so the who square is mostly dark with lit areas surrounded by onlookers and a blinding glow in the center obscured by smoke pouring off the grills.

After I leave the square I stop by a nightclub on the way to the hotel. They play the entire Lady Gaga CD while I sip an ice cold Casablanca lager.

Marrakech Journal - Day 3

11 Aug

After the wonderful madness of Jemaa el Fna and the claustrophobic din of the casbah, I decide to go in search of silence in Marrakech. I walk to the Jardins de Menara and climb to the top of the small palais there. The Menara is a large open space, something I'd pictured as a sort of bucolic retreat. But the air here is deathlike, a dry stillness that can't drown out the sound of the highway in the distance. The only living sound here, besides the occasional brave bird, is the constant hum of insects.

Outside the garden, the traffic hum is rarely broken by the intrusion of car horns. When drivers do use their horns, it seems most often to be as a warning that they're ignoring traffic rules (as if to say, for example, “watch out, I'm speeding around this bus straddling two lanes and I can't see in front of me!”) rather than as a curse for the infringement of some perceived right to unfettered movement.

On the way here, I heard Michael Jackson's “Thriller” and the Bee Gees' “Too Much Heaven” on passing radios. I also got an email referencing David Bowie's “Jean Genie” and saw someone wearing a t-shirt that said “Lust for Life.” These songs now fight for space in my head and will continue to do so until I get back to the Place and have them blasted out by Berber banjo.


Still searching for what Moroccan silence sounds like, I walk to the hotel Le Mamoun, knowing nothing about it other than having been told by a Portuguese friend that it's the last bit of “old Marrakech” and that I should see it. (On the way I realize that the police officer the first night had said “four red flags,” not “four red lights.”)

I'm met by two security guards and a metal detector before I even make it into the building. They're very nice, though, and as they explain to me that they won't be opening the tables until later because of Ramadan. I begin to understand that this is also a casino. I make my way in. Rodrigo was right – it is something to behold: the splendor of Moroccan décor, the old Arabesque Deco, but here (unlike so much of the city) it's beautifully maintained. And although the tables won't open until the sun is safely set, the slots are open. I walk through, making a lap around the floor and listening to a mix of Euro synth pop of indeterminate origin and, occasionally, what sounds like traditional oud songs transcribed for a nonhuman ensemble of electric keyboards and programmed rhythms. The casino is mostly empty, but there are the occasional dings and dongs of the slot machines, although one seems to specialize in sounds of whimpering dogs and horses giving raspberries. Still not the silence I was looking for. If I'm still out in six hours maybe I'll come back to hear the gaming room in its splendor, although a sign reading “jacket and tie required” makes me think nighttime security might not be so accommodating.

I exit and head over to the hotel building. A cotillion of six men in white robes with deep red vests and fezzes is on hand to open the door for me. None of them says a word as I walk in. The hotel lobby is even more opulent, decadent, than the casino. Workers inside nod to me but also don't speak. At first it is seeming like a quiet place. With the exception of occasional voices in other parts of the multi-room lobby, the only sounds in here are the sounds of water running through two small fountains (actually just old-style spigots looking rather posh emptying into reservoirs in the wall) and the closest thing I've heard yet to Muzak. It is Muzak, in fact, if not the actual company. At the supermarché I heard soft-edged Moroccan songs, designed (or at least selected) to ease the shopping experience and far different from the passionate pounding at Jemaa el Fna. But it was still organic music. Here at Marrakech's priciest hotel I hear pure new age synthesized Arabic music. Nonobtrusive, inoffensive, it isn't meant to be listed to, which is what I'm doing. Unsurprisingly it mixes well with the sound of the water cascading reverberating through the tile and marble rooms.

Water's another constant hum, but one with enormously positive associations. It's the sound of refreshment, of growth, of life. It's safe, reassuring, especially in the treble range that connotes “not deep enough to drown in.” Traffic sounds are anxious. Insect sounds suggest death, or at least discomfort. Water, traffic and bugs aren't so different from one another on an acoustic basis. They are more like each other than they are like thunderstorms, rollercoasters or horses galloping. But water's the one that reassures us we're going to be OK. A set of stained glass doors leads to a sort of cloister with a with a large fountain in the center – and the same sort of Muzak. Surely there was a time when this place was allowed to exit, and to invite visitors, without the piped-in soundtrack.

As I walk out, the afternoon call to prayer echoes through the medina, emanating from the towering mosque that dominates the area skyline. I head to the entry and begin to remove my sandals when I am politely told that I am welcome to enter if I want to make Moslem prayer, but that normally tourists are not allowed in. I politely say that I understand and leave. There was a time when, for many people, at least in America, the house of worship might be the only place where they heard music, at least as performed by a trained player of on something as massive as a pipe organ. Perhaps in another place in another time, the house of prayer is the only place to hear nothing.


At Djemaa el Fna again, for the last time before I leave. Super-crowded on a Thursday night; weekends must be madness. It's also the last night before Ramadan. (Some establishments – at least those that deal in such wages of sin as alcohol and gambling – seem to acknowledge it early, maybe to get on Allah's good side after a year of drunken casino nights.)

Last night I took a cab to get here. The driver told me he would take me to the best restaurant in the medina and wait for me and then take me to the Place. I said no thanks, but he insisted in the Moroccan politely inflexible way. I thought “OK, I'll learn a new restaurant anyway,” but told him I wasn't hungry then. He didn't seem to understand – he just kept repeating all he was going to do for me. (I suspect he did understand, even though it's hard to see what his end game would have been). He dropped me off, saying he'd come and pick me up in an hour, so I went upstairs to have a look. A majestic dining room, of course, and a violin-led trio playing the traditional el mahoune “classical” music, much more refined than the raucous music on the street. I took a business card and made exit in case he was waiting for me. Once you get a Moroccan guide (or they get you) they have a way of watching and waiting for you to exit so they can continue to escort you; again, a useful and affordable service, but it's not easy to turn it down. The guides come back in to greet meet you so that the owner can see who brought them, and then they collect a commission for bringing in the business.

Yesterday afternoon I found myself in one of the many dead ends in the casbah. A man was quick to want to help, offering his friend (who spoke better English) as a guide. I wanted to explain to him that I wasn't lost, I'm just superstitious about backtracking. But probably it's best not to get into superstitions.

I haven't seen a black cat here at all. And there's at best about a tenth as many cats here as in Tangier. In Tangier they're everywhere. You can turn a corner and see 40 gathered together eating. People love them and feed them there, there's just not the notion of having them live in your home. It's like if everyone in New York thought rats were adorable.

New York, it seems so long since I've seen you.

The casbah is like if the West Village was made of clay and you didn't speak fag.

Part of the madness of the Place is that you can never quite find the drums. The musicians all play in ecstatic waves, the center-lit circles may have a magician or a balancing act, but the sound of the drums moves like a snake through the square. The strings can only be heard as you approach a group, and sometimes not even then. But chasing the drums is an excellent sport.

A violin looks spray-painted, another instrument fantastically distorted through a homemade speaker, while a man in boots dances on a large pan like a steel drum.

Royal Air Maroc - Shame on You!

(Not my video, but i was glad to find something from the events of day 4.)

Marrakech Journal - Day 4

12 August

Never underestimate the Moroccan gift for complicating travel. Last time I was here I took a train from Casablanca to Tangier and my fellow passengers were amazed that the train was only four hours late.

My flight from Marrakech to Casablanca (the first of four flights to get back to Lisbon) today was about 40 minutes late, When I got to the Casa airport, I went to a desk to get a boarding pass (they couln't check me all the way through in Marrakech). The agent told me that the plane from Casa to Madrid would be too late for me to get the connection to Lisbon. The computers were down as well, but he went to a supervisor's office where they were working and came back and told me I could go ahead and go to Madrid or they'd put me up in a hotel in Casa and put me on a direct flight the next morning. I said I'd stay the night (even though Casablanca is quite unappealing) and the agent went back to the supervisor's office to book it for me, then came back and said that actually I was booked on an Iberia flight operated by Royal Air Moroc, not a RAM flight, which somehow meant I could go ahead with my original plan. I'd spent about half an hour with him trying to help me so I had to rush to get to my orginally planned second flight, which of course I'm waiting for now, 30 minutes late and it will be at least another 30. In the meantime, the display monitor has started to say a different gate, but no one seems to know for sure.

There doesn't seem to be many people here, maybe because it's the first day of Ramadan. We found one guy who wouldn't help us because he was only there to help VIPs, which seems like a pretty risky thing to say to a bunch of angry Spaniards. (The Moroccans, for the most part, are keeping quiet.)

Meanwhile, since it's Ramadan, there are people in traditional garb kneeling and facing east all over the place, which I'm not proud to say is an alarming sight in an airport for a New Yorker – something like a TV movie that I'd turn off.


The plane is now two hours late and isn't anticipated for another 4½. By way of apology, Royal Air Maroc is giving me a free sandwich. I had hoped I would have enough time on my layover in Madrid to go downtown – the airport is very close to the city. The Casablanca airport is far from town, even if I wanted to go. But now I won't do either.

The airport is also out of milk. I am having sugar with my espresso. I'd usually take it without, but I've developed a taste for sweetened caffeine while I've been here.

The airport has reduced me to having nothing to write about. I am avoiding reading my book because I'm too close to the end and I fear finishing before I get back to Lisbon. I'd rather choose not to read now than have nothing to read later. I wonder if I'll bother to type this part up.


Discovered that the bookstore here has a small section of books in English! A fair number of vampire stories, a lot of stuff I didn't know, a few things I didn't care to know. (And one Paul Auster I hadn't read, but in French.) Selected two paperbacks by authors I didn't know but they looked interesting enough – an Egyptian novel about gender selection and a Japanese book about a man with no short term memory. Took them to the register: €18 each! So I put them back and went to the music store where I picked up a Berber CD, a Malhoune CD and something else the woman working there recommended, all for €14 total.

I am writing this very step-by-step, blow-by-blow, just like the Driss Ben Hamed Charahi book I'm (not) reading. One phrase he uses a lot that I like: for something that is the same day after day, he says “today and tomorrow, today and tomorrow.”

I see a sign that says “hotel / cyber-center.” I don't know if the cyber-center is for hotel guests only. The hotel has its own elevator and is on a separate floor, but the woman at the desk doesn't ask me for a room number and did take my money so I guess it's OK. Better than OK. Quiet and air-conditioned. The rest of the airport is hot with human frustration. Then went for me $5 worth of free food. Moroccan pizza is nice, like what's sometimes called “pita pizza” in the States, I guess. The vegetarienne comes with black olives that still have the pits, plus a side of yogurt and a pre-made salad with a scoop of tuna stinking the joint up. Morocco is one of those places that thinks you're not really vegetarian, you're just saying that. I notice a cat walking around the food court, so I scoop the tuna out of my salad, use the lid as a dish and give it to him.


This airport has gone insane. Another gate has declared mutiny, passengers chanting in Arabic something similar to the “Hell no, we won't go” cadence (although surely their demands are the opposite). Children have climbed up on the agent's counter and are screaming and singing little melodies into the microphone, which is then being broadcast throughout the terminal. Being children, untrained in intercom use, their songs and messages cut in and out as they jockey for turns. Around them is a ring of other passengers taking photos and videos. This goes on uninterrupted for 90 minutes or so. No airline personnel were around. I don't know if they were frightened or just uninterested. I wonder if any of the video will show up on YouTube.

I've spent the last couple hours hanging with a guy who was born in Morocco but lives in Italy. It was he who clued me in to the meal voucher. I saw him eat so I knew he wasn't observing Ramadan. I said to him, “May I ask you a question? I do not mean any disrepect, but do people get crazy and angry because they are fasting?” He looked very serious and thought for a few minutes and then said, “Yes.”


A man blocks a security cart, refusing to let it pass until his questions are answered. Two more agents come over, for a total of four, and surround him. They pull him aside to talk, then move his suitcase, get back in the cart and try to escape. He gets in their way again, but immediately after resigns his post, letting the cart pass. There have been other scrimmages and shouting matches in the last few hours as well.

It's dark, but I don't think the fast can be broken until 21:30. Maybe I'm wrong about that. It is quieter now. People are also no longer concerned about reserving their smoking for the smoking area (which isn't even enclosed). A frustrating full day in an airport where smoking is allowed. I’m having trouble recalling why I quit. I take out my bag of figs and go to sit by the wall.


Another man loses his shit, starts screaming and throwing the stanchions that support the line dividers. He gets applause, which soon turns to people clapping in rhythm, which then turns to four or five men and one woman all pounding the floor with the metal stands. An announcement is made (in French) over the intercom, they stop to listen then start again. Repeatedly starting and stopping. An airline employee walks past, glances and keeps going. Ten men run after him, them more follow, including a couple of women. The airline employee laughs and shrugs like there's nothing he can do.

Some black men in Arabic garb begin passing out oranges. I guess the fast ends at 21:00. A group continues speaking with the airline employee off to the side. There is no effort to quiet the others or to pick up the posts they've thrown around. Two more employees have joined the first one. Given the choice, I guess they'd rather help the crowd that's talking than the crowd that's throwing heavy things.

The post-throwing begins again. Two employees lock themselves behind a gate door.

The crowd heads en masse down the terminal. I try to ask the Moroc Italiam what's going on but he forgets to reply to me in English and sits down on the floor. I don't know a word anyone has said, but I decide to go with the crowd. I am starting to get nervous about taking notes, given the Moroccan attitudes on journalists. The crowd – 100 people or so – surround another cart, a female guard driving, a woman and child in the back. After a minute of screaming, the guard throws her hands up, exits the care and walks away. The woman grabs her terrified child and exits the cart in the other direction. Soon there will be real property damage but nobody has tried to hurt anyone yet – not even close. A few start to turn the abandoned care over but others stop them. The mob has rules. Instead they return to the post pounding in the greatest cacophony they've made yet.

A man pulls a seat cushion off the care and stomps on it, breaking an arm rest. A girl, 12 years old at most, films the whole thing.


A new legion of official has been brought out: woman in red blazer.

I still don't know anything anyone is saying, of course, but I imagine it's fairly predictable. “An outrage!” “Nothing I can do.”

I saw a French woman I spoke with earlier this afternoon pounding a stanchion on the floor. I'm trying to find her to translate for me. I think she spoke Arabic as well.

An actual gendarme walks through now. I ask someone to verify. He is police (although he's dressed like how I picture the dress uniforms for the French Foreign Legion).

He is police and he was telling people not to take photos, so I put my notebook away. We've just gotten on the plane. There's a weird sense of camaraderie among us – or some of us, anyway. Smiles and nods and sarcastic bon soirs are exchanged. I tap on the newspaper being read by one of the most vociferous post pounders and when he looks up I give him a thumbs up. If we had a common language – guess I'm assuming we don't, but if we had opportunity to speak, I don't know what I'd say really, but I did want him to know that I support someone not putting up with something they don't want to put up with, anyway.

On both flights today women in hijab clothing have taken my window seat.

So, why I don't want Moroccan police to think I'm a journalist:

Three years ago in Tangier I happened upon a concert on a crowded beach. It was clearly a big event, a mix of traditional (or as the woman at the airport CD store said today, “typical.” I asked her for traditional Berber music and she said “oh, you want typical” which might not reflect my musical tastes in general but in this case it was spot on) songs with synth pop. The singer was playing his violin balanced vertically on his knee the way the Moroccans do, but there was also a horrible keyboard and programmed percussion. It wasn't great but still I wanted to know who I was seeing because, hell, here I was on the beach in Tangier seeing it. So I tried asking a few people and, getting nowhere, decided to go and ask a group of police officers standing to the side. Surely they'd help. None of them spoke English. They called some other officers over as if they spoke English, but they didn't either. I was saying “nom de musician' and pantomiming violin and pointing and doing everything I could think of and they kept telling me the name of the telephone company, which I could see from the signs everywhere was the sponsor. They must know what I'm asking, I thought. How could they not? They just think I'm asking something other than the obvious. So finally I say, “I am very curious. Je suis un journaliste.”

With that they backed away and refused to look at me again. I later told this to an American I met who worked for the embassy in Rabat and he laughed. Saying you're a journalist won't get you anywhere with the police, he told me. No good can come from talking to a journalist.

So today, when the police officer told the crowd not to take photos at something much more volatile than a pop concert, I decided not to look like an American journalist.

The pilot is speaking. I can't understand him but I can only assume he's saying “Good morning ladies and gentlemen, boys and motherfucking girls. This is your captain with no name speaking and I'm here to rock your world.”


Watching the three attendants in the aisle giving the safety instructions is a lot like watching the Supremes. Soon I'll be in Madrid and will start figuring out how it is I'm to get back to Lisbon. But that's a different notebook.