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?

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