Marrakech Verses

Beaver’s Pick
Laura Jo Hess


Out of every corner of my eye at any time of day, there is someone pressing their forehead to the ground, praying for forgiveness or hope. So why not tap them on the shoulder, smeh he li, Sidi, and ask, have you ever loved a place as much as you love it here or have you even been so disappointed or are you even happy: to my sister in the kitchen. Everyday: shwia.

So why not write about it, about contradiction in people’s faces, in the land, the inherent disappointment you feel as you walk past a wall lined with beggars and their children strewn across their chests in blankets older than your parents. This is Marrakech and there is a world in every brick in the street, a history to every drum circle. I couldn’t do anything but write about being here, about being in-between in a land that itself is constantly in limbo. And walking among the city: tourist or participant? Then, what it means to stay or to leave; to be in the village or the city; to employ language as silence or vice versa; to be a man or a woman? There is an edge of the world here, in this city, where you can dangle your feet and memorize the people who will pass you by, the number of steps it takes to go from the park to the mosque and what people look like before they pray. There is such a place in this city and I couldn’t feasibly leave the country without becoming part of it, recording it, needing it. This city is a drug. You wake up and you’re enveloped by the scents of the fires in the food stalls or the amount of times you feel loved just by the woman in the hijab who holds your hand to cross the street. You learn to need this city, this world where you’ve never been and never will be again, since you can order in Arabic and become a sliver better than the next tourist who couldn’t possibly know the meaning of hamdullah. So I came to Marrakech and watched my feet move over gravel and I found people who wanted to sit on buckets with me and tell me stories about their lives, their succession. Or they didn’t, so I created them, because I am allowing life to a person that may never know such happiness or pain. Does it hurt? Maybe, but maybe not.

It is getting colder in Marrakech and people change with the weather. If it is raining, there will be a man holding an umbrella for you all the way down the street. Or if it’s beautiful there is orange juice and music. Or if it’s not, they are still there. Chantal says it’s safe to say Morocco is the place she grew up, Morocco with single cigarettes and balconies where you can sit for hours watching palm trees in the winter. Something happened here, she says as she walks in colors to the local café. Something changed don’t you see all said in one breath. Sometimes I smile and nod and sometimes not. Sometimes we order in French but usually Arabic. Sometimes we get bread with our harira and sometimes the tea is three dirham more than the previous day. Sometimes Romby kisses our heads as we enter and sometimes he just sits silently with us listening to our foreign speech.

So what about creating a love life for the woman in the park or being mildly obsessed with contrast and Moroccan identity. Is it unethical to use real names of these wonderful or ordinary people who I meet on the curb while eating yogurt? No, because they will never see it and if they do they will not understand and if they do they will only feel beautiful and important because they are important and maybe they’ve never felt so before.

But oh my God I think I may be drowning here in Morocco and becoming infatuated with things like cobblestone and crooked trees or women in hijabs on mopeds or the SIDA festival in the park where the posters are of a woman’s henna-covered hands holding a condom and then some Arabic writing explaining it. I stand there amidst fountains and police officers and hip-hop music from speakers and I attempt to read the words, sounding out the letters. There are boys in the corner rapping to 50 Cent and girls in dance contests thrusting their bodies forward, as if to say, look here I’m so much stronger than you. Why yes, I never doubted it. You’re beautiful and probably brilliant and yet you’ll probably never leave the country. But do you really want to? Yes? Well then why, let me ask you why.

 

1.

Here in Morocco, you can either stay and choose to breathe with your entire body, or you can leave, abandoning everything and the only thing you understand:

To stay is to sit with your feet crossed under your thighs and whistle music through a tin cylinder, propelling snakes to rise from authentic urns sitting at your toes. The tourists think you are beautiful: you in your mustard yellow jilaba and fez cap. You must not understand why they stare. It’s because the sharp music hurts their ears and the smoke their eyes. But they are nonetheless amazed. To be here is to thrust your leg on to the lap of a boy and ask him to heal your pain, the prolonged pain in your knee. Or to hear Allah on the loudspeaker, praying then coughing, (his barbaric yawp from the rooftops)1 five times a day and refuse beggars just as often. Marrakech is beautiful in the daytime—the square shaped by orange stands and umbrellas: people who understand suffering. To stand behind arcs of dark-haired men and tourists with cameras wrapped over their chests, to watch children dance for small change. The boy in the middle just walks around shaking his shoulders, but he is so beautiful that it works.

This is why the youth here are suffering: walking back and forth over the same sidewalks and slapping hands with the same boys, drinking the same coffee or tea, dreaming of away, anywhere they could make love, drink, not pray so much and still be Muslim. A boy weeps: Before I knew America, I was going to be a sports teacher, spend days teaching kids how to place the ball on their toes. But now, now I’m dreaming of the states, flat land, and opportunities. Take me with you. You watch him watch you tell him it’s impossible. He sighs. You touch his shoulder, soon, one day.

Or—you tell him, you could always leave. Begging your way to Tangier, to stand on the port with your hands crossed in front of your body, imagining what the mountains of Spain would feel like under your feet. But do you think you can handle Spain after this, after years of being in a place where women cover their heads and Allah holds your hand as your cross the street? There is no second here, after Allah, but in Spain, there might be. But leaving promises more freedom and the chance to feel not so harmful. Leaving means no winter coats in fall, abandoning the dying voice over the intercom. It won’t feel as holy there, but maybe that’s what you’re going for.

But even the Spanish enclaves are not safe. You are not away yet. The Polisario Front takes over the desert. They’ve found you, crouching there among the dunes. But you’ve managed to slip a photographer your phone number; he clutches it in his hands, watching the bus leave with you aboard. You’ve got no water, no food: We are going to die. But at least the news groups can track your movement, make it into a cover story. My God, Morocco doesn’t want you.2

They are trying to send you home, but you’ve swallowed your papers, erased your identity, and sent your children into hiding. Spain won’t let go of the land. Blame it on nationalism, pride, but my God people are dying, crying, suffering. You’ve tried for months to exit this land, taken the dirt between your toes. Now: you’ve given up. You’ll board the plane with the hundreds of other migrants back to Mali, back to Algeria. You’ll tap on your door with the back of your fingernail, your wife will answer, and she’ll know you’ve failed because you’ve returned. You say nothing. She holds you.

But tourists are confused, because they hear the French built up the medina in Marrakech, they created the cloth rooftops and the disappearing food markets, but this is Morocco and those are Moroccans. This is Marrakech and that is a man sitting on cardboard reading palms and he’s never even met someone from another country. This is a land where Tangier tastes like Spain to some, and others, it’s the heart of the country. Like Paul Bowles and the Beats making it their land, learning the correct way to walk and writing at single desks in dim hotel rooms.3 Tangier was the creative center and now, now, now they say it’s a land of hustlers, a place only for people to hide.

 

2.

The city is poison. I am telling you this because I must.

Sufjan emerges from the barn dressed in camouflage pants and a flannel shirt. He is barefoot and doused in cologne. He’s running after bubbles, crying when they pop, and spinning in circles to Arabic music. I hand him a lollipop and he beams, hiding it in his pocket for later. They’ll never teach him to refuse candy from strangers; there is no reason for fear. But I do not pity them for liking it here: with their wheelbarrow and chickens bleeding at the neck, with knit leggings and children entertained only with a plastic bag and a wooden stick on wheels. In the village, they wouldn’t understand depression, mostly because it doesn’t have reason to exist.

My mother says the eighth graders are cutting themselves this year. They are so sad, she mumbles across the phone line, and all the times I have feared this. In a windowless office in a brick building, she listens to a girl complain about how her boyfriend didn’t say hi to her in the hallway or how she isn’t invited to the birthday party this weekend. My mother, motionless, thinking is this really suffering? She remembers about Amina, how I told her she would be a regular kid in the states, crouching in alleyways holding cigarettes between her fingers. She would be cursing at her mother and demanding new clothes and notebooks, complaining when the cable goes out. But here, she’s wearing the same sweater set to school for a week, and holding her brother’s hand to help him walk.4 She kisses you every time you leave the room and each time you enter. She’ll take your hand and draw henna shapes she’s learned from the side of the box or show you how to milk the cow and pick tea leaves from the ground. I’ve never been somewhere like this, you whisper, wiping your face with the backside of your hand, grinning.

Time passes with you melting down against a concrete wall with a pillow behind your shoulders while Amina watches you from the doorway, imagining what reading a book would feel like, knowing she’ll always feed the chickens instead. In a few years she’ll be chosen for marriage: standing with her head down and her hands crossed over her chest. A woman will point at her, hold her face, study her body and the shape of her eyebrows. Yes, this one. And she’ll walk to the arms of a thirty-year-old man. All this while she contemplates how many times she’s tried to leave: On the way to school, what if I didn’t come back? Herding the sheep, I could disappear.

But: In the city you are bred to fail. You cook pasta in Missouri, but it was grown on a hillside in Italy, or if you are tired, you drive to a restaurant and sit for hours being fed by strangers. My father on Tuesday nights at the Italian restaurant: what a country that you can enter hungry and leave full. But in the village, you must wake at dawn to knead the bread; the chicken is from the pen and the vegetables from the garden. The oranges are grown in the backyard and the only store is a hanout with laundry detergent and apricot jam. I feel queasy at the site of a bleeding carcass, and they laugh, asking: how else would we eat?

Let’s tell the women about gay marriage and eating disorders. Sometimes people don’t eat because they fear image. Let’s tell them about our suffering, cured by medicine swallowed once a day. If you are sad, just take this pill and you should feel better. But the translator knows this world better than us. He says the women would feel uncomfortable, and imagine what his father would say. H’shuma.

And the drum circles in Marrakech, can we talk about the drum circles? Yes, there are men in drag who think they can imitate the beauty of a woman dancing, but have you ever seen a mother put a tape in a cassette player and take the scarf from her head and tie it around her waist? This is in the village, where Zhor is dancing and grinning while Sufjan runs around her, pantless. This is Zhor who is beaten by her husband, who sleeps with her children on either side of her, because she doesn’t want to touch her husband unless she has to. In the drum circle these men think this is funny, being men because women don’t dance in public, it isn’t done. But in the club there is a woman scantily dressed in a pink halter top and she moves like a flamingo. She dances like a bird. But her stomach is showing and it reminds the bartender of the porn he’s been looking at online since he was sixteen. And in the village, please don’t tell the women about this. Please god no. Please let that birth control pamphlet floating around be something they found in the trash, something that blew out of the window of a passing car, something that got carried here. Don’t tell them about it. It isn’t worth it.

If this is the village, then what is the city? On the front page today, Malawi is suffering. Unees Malay, 17, has two children with a seventy-year-old man. Her father sold her in exchange for a cow. I didn’t know it was abuse, he tells the reporter, I just needed food, some money5. But Unees seems far away from here, from the men dressed in bright colors and tambourines or the women at the souks, Hello, in a nasal voice as you walk by, henna? A Moroccan teenager tells you how her cousin is abroad in Africa: Africa! Then she goes off in her tight jeans and tennis shoes and you stand there, almost motionless, thinking, but this is Africa.

If the city is poison, what is the village? Africa?

 

3.

In Morocco you learn to pour tea with delicacy, holding the pot between your fingers, raising it from the surface as the liquid rolls out. This is unique to Morocco and yet it has nothing to do with language. But everything else does, everything revolves around it or the lack of it or the connection between it and silence. Have you ever listened to the sound of a broom against gravel or the voice of a woman who is dying, begging? Well, start listening.

Then there is silence like the village: holding your hands to your head acting like an animal, muttering solopan, as to ask if you can ride the donkey to the well in the afternoon. Or your village mother pointing to your stomach and lacing her hands together in front of hers, protruding them forward, and lifting her shirt to show you her stomach, zwina. There’s the silence at the café when you hear change jingling in the palm of a shoe shiner, but you can’t locate him. But it doesn’t matter because you know what he looks like and that he’s holding a wooden block beneath his arm, trying to catch the eye of the man at the table to his right, hoping he’ll notice his need for shiny shoes.

Then language: the café owner shuffles over to your table holding a piece of paper. Pulls the chair out from under the table, sits down next to you. He asks you to spell panoramic in French.
Mershi Francais.
But you’re American. You’re white.
I know.
Failure translated into English, so you can understand.

My god to the tourists who think they can digest this in two weeks, a month. My god to myself—only four months. But there’s a man dressed up in a costume with an animal carcass strewn across his chest asking if you’d like a photograph and it takes all the strength you have not to twist your mouth into a small diamond and say don’t you see I’m not like them? Except you are, just more interested.

Here, there is language and there is silence. Language like the cab driver who speaks slow Arabic so you can understand, so thrilled that you’re even trying. Or the Danes at breakfast who pass you the butter and say go for it, probably a phrase they learned last night over dinner. Or the American boy, pulled from school to accompany his mother on her Fulbright, dragged from his home for a year, thrown into a place where the woman at the front desk doesn’t understand what a coat hanger is and people stare because he is so frightened and it shows.

Then: there is silence heavier than this. Like the woman who tucks her hair under her scarf and puckers her lips in an attempt to feel beautiful. But she might return home to a man who will never love her, who doesn’t understand what it means, who follows foreigners on the street. It’s normal, you’re told over dinner, to have your husband take a second wife. It’s normal to want to disappear, she says. It’s not normal, you scream across the table, there’s so much more. The greetings are the worst: everyday Lebas B’chair Hamdullah. They don’t even listen to the response; you could be dying and no one would even notice. But Marrakech doesn’t hurt you anymore. It doesn’t know how.

Because:
Somewhere a Muslim boy is drinking on a roof terrace while his mother washes the dishes and his sister sews a dress. If disappointment had a taste, this is it, down his throat. In his stomach. I am sorry for your pain.

Because:
In a park you smile at the woman cleaning benches and she says she’s Fatima and can you be friends. Tomorrow at three o’clock, your life will change.

Because:
Your father doesn’t love you. Or he does, too much.

Because:
A boy goes to the hammam by himself for the first time and he sits among buckets and tiles that are as big as his body, but he’s been here before so he knows the hot water is on the left and the cold the right and he isn’t scared of the men with beards and chest hair because why would he be?

Because:
Amina in the village herds the sheep and wears nail polish but she’s never felt beautiful a day in her whole life.

Because:
In Morocco, you do things like sit at cafes with tea you’ve never tasted before here and look people in the eyes and stop looking when the call of prayer comes on the speaker. You learn the land and digest the air. You’re healed and angry all at once.

Because:
In Jemaa al Fna you breathe deeply and sit in circles among drums and men and there are no tourists here because they are all on the hotel terrace drinking alcohol and mocking the call to prayer. It is just you and the man with the mullet and his band.

Because:
It’s ending and you’ve just arrived.6

 

4.

It isn’t just the men that want to shake your hand. On a bench in a park a woman with a scarf on her head asks your name, if you have a phone. She sits near to you and writes her name in Arabic in your notebook. Her hair is tied up and you imagine she is beautiful, out of her pale blue uniform and sneakers. Here, there are men and there are women. The women look at you and smile and they have henna on their hands and you emerge from the park at the same time as them and they hold your face and thank God for your existence and that you talk in broken Arabic to the little boy in front of them. But the men just ride on bikes and whisper gazelle to you as you walk by. But at a park, on a Monday, you meet the most wonderful woman and you want to take her to coffee and ask her if she’s ever met someone who didn’t want something from her. I don’t want anything from you, you tell her. You change her life just by showing up in a T-shirt and painted feet. I lived in a village, you say. I’ve never been to a village, she says; probably never will.

The man on the terrace is John. He is ordinary and not. He is from England. He hates Morocco and loves it all at once. But don’t put words in his mouth. If I told you about my life, he whispers in a voice that you know hurts to speak, you would be horrified. Simply horrified. But last night you dreamed of sweet tea and stage fright. You dreamed of men who spin their head and wait for money to be laid at their feet. You dreamed of lovers in the park, holding fingers, touching sides, wondering if they’ll marry, or if they are really in love. Last night you created a hotel bus boy who sits at a table with some foreigners: English French Spanish Arabic Berber, he says, this is what I speak. This is how it works in Morocco. Brilliant people hold so much and then they are bus boys at a hotel, guards at a garden. And he stumbles in later, with a tray of cookies arranged neatly on a napkin. Then thirty minutes after, smelling of beer, mumbling I have no friends and sitting with his feet on the floor, his eyes indefinitely downward, ashamed. Or you could meet Mohammed in the porcelain shop, who gives you free tajine dishes if only you promise to return. Do you have a family you ask, a home? He shakes his head, I have a baccalaureate degree. No family and glasses bigger than his face, but he is educated, and happy posing in pictures in front of his pots. Imagine Mohammed in the morning riding in through the streets (there are no streets), on his bicycle (he owns no bicycle), trying to teach his son (he has no son) to cross safely. Look left right up down until your feet reach the curb. And pray, don’t forget to pray, son. And Mohammed as you leave, at the doorway, waving. These are the men.

The women, the women are even lovelier. They learn to walk so people watch them. Cover their ears and pray for sound. Or sit on a stool with a pack of cigarettes and wonder how much they can sell them for and what they’ll possibly buy with that twenty dirham. Or Hind at the hotel, kissing your head each time you emerge from the stairway and you are not the man who demands three pillows or the vegetarian woman who simply cannot survive on Moroccan food. You call from the room, Hind, hello, you say into the receiver, Lebas? She is so happy to hear your voice. Stay another week, she says, you just must. The women are so silent and so mysterious like one day you’ll wake up and the entire town will be unveiled. Like they are so delicate and walk with babies on their backs and coconut cookies on a tray in front of them extending their arm at the elbow to offer you some. M’breetch. Ana Shbet. And everything you would say if only you spoke the same language.

At a café on a Saturday, you are sitting with your feet on a chair during call to prayer. A man shuffles by with no nose and a plastic bag. You write his childhood:

He was six, playing futbol in the street and it started raining and he ran so fast he fell in a puddle and he wept and held his knees, lying on his side, waiting for someone to pick him up. At home there is a cat that stays outside the doorway and sometimes we give him fish left over but sometimes papak says Ahmed don’t you give him fish, if you dare. I don’t work fifteen hours a day to feed the cat. But sometimes I’d take my fish and lay it outside anyways because I didn’t like to think of the cat dying. What if the cat died then what? This was the first day he remembered.

His brother kissing a boy on the rooftop and him peering from the staircase, eyes wide, his brother on his knees begging please please don’t tell mamak please no please. And him in the doorway, paralyzed. I don’t know I don’t know what was that why what? But Hicham sometimes he and Simo, they go on the roof but always I thought it was hash and that’s why they went on the roof but my God my God what now? This was the second day he remembered.

Then in the Jemaa al Fna three years ago he was walking with his cane and a girl comes up to him squeezes his palm. She is foreign, maybe twelve, but knows his eyes and hands him ten dirhams. My shoes, my shoes can be shiny now. These shoes, just as good as that man I promise my shoes will be shiny too. This was the third day.

There is a day, a few years from now, when he’ll wake up in the alleyway and he count the branches above his head and pray no one would see him suffering like this and he’ll sit up and this will be his death and all he cares to remember.7

His story is complete now.

Or, or it could be like this: You could sit down to talk to a man with no teeth and a porcupine. You could sit down on a piece of plastic and pet the animal, holding the spikes, grinning with this man. You could ask him his name and if he is from here and listen to his response and understand it even though it’s in Arabic, even though nearby there is a man who has long curly gray hair and dark skin. He is shirtless, poised around a tea pot of scalding water. Look at me, he says with his arms, his shoulders. Suddenly, you realize: this is not a game, this is terror. The circus man is preparing to pour boiling water over his body for the change in the bottom of your pocket. Pain for money here: that is how it works today. And the child sitting at the edge of the crowd swaying back and forth, starving and freezing, and the tourists ogling at him with pity, him thinking, didn’t your mother ever teach you not to stare? No, no one ever told them it is wrong to buy alcohol and sell it to young Muslims whose parents would cry if they knew. Or photograph the beautiful colorful spices in baskets and not pay the man for his gorgeous dreadlocks and color. But in the medina they get fed up with the persistent battering etcetera. But this is Morocco and you are in it indefinitely.

It is getting colder here and now you use all three blankets and wear close-toed shoes and even the interactions change. You know, most people talk to tourists for money, says a boy in a plaid flannel shirt with a dictionary in his back pocket, but not me. That’s not why I am talking to you. You smirk. Oh yeah? What are you talking to me for? He pulls his lips together tightly, trying to figure out what to say that means you’re foreign and I can’t help it. Help it—like it’s a disease.

 

5.

It is late in December and you must retire now. Your shoes are worn through to the soles and your clothes soiled with dirt. You close your eyes and it’s over. It’s over you say to yourself as you board the train. It’s over and you’ve changed. It’s over and you’ve learned about the color of hands and the width of roads in this country. Remember when you were handed dates on the train home and it was Ramadan and you knew what to do with them and you read the Arabic aloud to the woman next to you and she laughed like a little girl. Mezyan she says and takes your hand B’chair Hamdullah like she was your grandma or something and she loved you more with each blink and breath. You’ve got one foot on the train and your hand on the bar and Marrakech in the background but not Marrakech just the train station. Marrakech is back there with the people with the snakes and the monkeys. It’s with the oranges and the man selling teeth. Yes, for tourists, but my God he is selling teeth. Marrakech is an anthem and you’re leaving it and you’re younger and my God are you happy.


Glossary of terms/people

  • Smeh hi li, Sidi – excuse me, sir
  • Shwia – a little bit
  • Hamdullah – thanks be to Allah
  • Harira – moroccan soup
  • Romby – waiter at a café
  • Sufijan – host brother in the village
  • Amina – girl in the village
  • H’shuma – shame on you
  • Solopan – donkey
  • Zwina – beautiful
  • Meshi – not
  • Lebas – how are you (The best translation is ça va in French)
  • B’chair – good (classical Arabic)
  • Gazelle – literally Gazelle, but often name used by men to refer to women
  • M’breetch – I don’t want it
  • Ana Shbet – I am full
  • Jemaa al Fna ­ center of Marrakech
  • Mezyan – good (modern Arabic)
  1. Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself. *imagine Whitman in Morocco
  2. Agence France-Presse. Morocco Said to Abandon Hundreds of Migrants in Desert. October 14, 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/14/international/africa/14wire-morocco.html
  3. Pension Palace in Tangier, said to be the place where The Sheltering Sky, based on the novel by Paul Bowles, was filmed. It also used to be a common place for immigrants to hide out while waiting to flee, as seen in a documentary.
  4. Her brother, Mohammed, had a disorder where his knees often caused him great pain
  5. LaFraniere, Sharon. “Young brides pay the price of African poverty.” The International Herald Tribune November 27, 2005.
  6. Form by Rand, Ayn. We the Living.
  7. Form by Ayn Rand. We the Living.

pencil

“I am twenty years old. I am a junior in College in Connecticut, NOT UCONN, but this small school that no one really knows about. I just spent a semester in Morocco and I’m pretty obsessed with the country as a whole.” E-mail: ljhes[at]conncoll.edu.

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