One of the main roads leading into Marrakech from the southeast (you almost have to take it if you’re coming into town from the airport) is Mohammed VI, the name of the present king of Morocco. The boulevard is just one of the many that run through the “nouvelle ville,” the part of town built in the early days of the French Protectorate—in the late teens and early 1920s. (The Protectorate’s first leader, General Hubert Lyautey said he had two passions, “policies regarding the natives and town planning.”) We’ve been walking the few minutes out to the boulevard from our place these last couple weeks in the evening in part to breathe a different air than what’s inside the apartment (with all its windows facing into the courtyard), in part to see the sky change from last-sun to first-star, but also to let Hazel get out her ya-yas before bath and bed (she inevitably cranks up before she winds down). And this wide, wide space with its ample sidewalks and its median that spans at least thirty feet (fountains regularly spaced, some lit from within at night, endless but sort of neglected beds of rosemary, plumbago) stretches out to mercury-lamped infinity, especially when the mountains beyond are hidden behind their nightly swath of cloud. Soon after getting here we walked a good part of its length one very hot afternoon on the way out to and back from the Menara Gardens—an enormous olive grove, rectangular basin and storied pavilion (the gardens were originally laid out by the Almohads in the 12th century)—but of course the cool of evening makes better sense, mad dogs and the English excepted. Enormous hotels, some of them chain, sit back off the boulevard, one after the other on both sides, acres of empty café chairs cluster at their bases waiting for dark and for Ramadan to come to an end. But in the waning light the empty sidewalks and fountained median, as we’ve encountered them, have been occupied primarily by what look a lot like tourists—people with backpacks hiking away from the mostly-deserted train station, European-looking couples strolling lazily here and there taking pictures of the lit palms or each other, everyone else zooming along in the dusk—little beige taxis, scooters, motorbikes, the odd Porche SUV, blue and grey French-made sedans, and once a couple tightly clutching each other on a Segue (you know—those two-wheeled long-handled tiny platforms that roll you along in an oddly static upright fashion—we’d actually already seen the driver by himself once before). Part of this phenomenon is certainly to do with Ramadan—people break the fast at home, and are presumably zooming to get there before sunset just when we’ve already eaten and are beginning our ya-ya ramble—only coming out later to take the air after we’ve gone home to keep to our 2-year old’s schedule. At any rate, Paul said tonight how different this space is from the Medina—close, intimate, pressed in together, private somehow too, with walls too high to see over, interior doors glimpsed perhaps but inevitably closed. Here—nothing but wide-open space and speed.
As we left our building in the fading light a guy on a scooter was arriving with an ornate glimmering-in-the-early-dusk silver tea pot wedged between his feet on the scooter’s central platform, together with several bowls of harira covered in foil, a promising black sack gripped in one hand. On one of the corners that we pass on the way out to Mohammed VI there’s a man who sells Winston cigarettes from a wooden box that he’s set on its end; these last two nights he’s had a tiny wobbly black and white puppy with him, and tonight a little brazier sheltered with a fold of cardboard, sparks flying up into the violet sky. We came back tonight in the near-dark and the two gentlemen who sit in the open-air (but ornately gated and elaborately arched) entryway of our building were eating, had finished mostly; we passed through the gate and they offered first me and then Hazel one of those abundantly-delectable coils of sesame-honey deliciousness. They offered her orange and mango juice, and us too—and we ate with them. I’m always knocked breathless by these moments of generosity, connection. And I need to learn the language. That is the refrain. That feeling—impotent of language—rides along beneath virtually every encounter here. I’m all for the observed drama, for green tiles and bougainvillea and lantern-light dancing beneath the dome of the dark night sky, but not really being able to listen and understand, or express to someone else (who is from here but does not speak English the way I want to speak Arabic) what it is I’m thinking, it’s almost all for nothing.
I’ve been reading this academic digestion (published in 2005) of what’s transpired between the United States and Morocco—culturally, politically—from the release of Casablanca on November 11, 1942 (just three days after the U.S. Army landed in Morocco and Algeria, thus launching the first major ground offensive of WW II), through the cold war fiction of Paul Bowles, and what he did after (among other things, did you know he published a recipe for marijuana jam in Rolling Stone in 1974?) and the brief era of the Hippie in Morocco, circa 1973 (“Don’t you know we’re riding on the Marrakech Express,” sing Crosby Stills Nash and Young; my brother-in-law had to show me a live version of this song on youtube— I’m a child of the 70s, but only because I know The Brady Bunch, not because the music, circa age 4, is mine). The author of Morocco Bound, Brian T. Edwards (Northwestern) has academic ties to several universities and cultural studies centers in Morocco, clearly speaks Arabic and its Moroccan variety (Darija), and unfolds a capacious and convincing explanation of the forces that shape, have shaped, our domestic view of this place—as well as the ways in which we need to learn how we in turn are perceived. Among other books on Morocco in circulation, he makes reference to the first “guide-book” to the country written in English, Edith Wharton’s In Morocco (in 1917 she was squired about for a month in a Protectorate-driven jeep)—and the more you read, the further down the rabbit hole of connection you’re pulled. Who hasn’t been here? Churchill had his favorite suite in the storied Marrakech hotel La Mamounia (famously reopening at the end of this month after a facelift that will redefine the term, I’m sure); Hitchcock filmed his second take on The Man Who Knew Too Much on location in Marrakech; at least two of the Beatles and some of the Rolling Stones crashed here, and as I’m late-night surfing the HuffPost, Vanity Fair or some-such on-line, I find that one starlet or another does her bargain-shopping not in one particular store in one particular city, but in Morocco, the country. For some people, of course, the whole country is cheap.
At the end of the first week of classes we invited over several other teachers who live in our part of town—an easy way to hang out with adults while Hazel careens about with other kids and can crash or get a hug when she needs to. Selfish invitation, but a good trick. My point is that I heard stories about a Marrakech that I have not experienced—after dark at Pasha, “the biggest club in Africa”—girls dancing in cages, prostitutes (“They were, weren’t they?!!”) lounging about or being proffered, night-time splendors and sparkly excesses. Someone else talked about leaving a bar at 4AM and deciding to walk instead of catching a petit taxi, and then being surprised by a guy who pulled a knife. He was a kid, basically; the two women (one a more-than-fluent French speaker) made some noise, and then got help from obliging and sympathetic people who happened to be there too. Another plays soccer with a local semi-pro club, and Paul comes back with a story about a girl whose maid wakes her with chocolate milk every morning, excepting those during Ramadan. And a couple days ago on Sunday night, what turned out to be the last night of Ramadan, we saw two girls dressed partially in riding gear—jodhpurs, tall boots—heading into the McDonald’s at the train station. There’s money here too.
We’ve been here during a time that’s not typical—these last four weeks have happened in an altered state. And because Ramadan arrives each year according to the lunar calendar (and the time it comes shifts eleven days back each successive year), it has been almost a full generation since Ramadan fell right at this time, one of the hottest of the year. Is it new then, this experience, for everyone? On that recent Sunday evening walk we started out earlier than usual, in full sun, taking a different route, heading down a street parallel to Mohammed VI, this one narrower, residential, through part of the affluent Hivernage neighborhood (again, what the French built). Lush blooms from some of the walled houses and quieter hotels spilled out onto the sidewalks, the entire green corridor bordered by mature silver-leaved olive trees; we could see into the gloom of heavily shaded side-streets (So this is where the BMWs go at the end of the day! I found myself saying to Paul), and as we turned west and headed out to Mohammed VI, the feel was different. Something had lifted. We saw joggers along the shaded median of a busy cross street (and again on Mohammed VI once we joined it)—all of them men, but still. Two tricked-out cyclists on serious road-bikes zipped by us (one even with a helmet). Families strolled with children or sat on benches where before we’d been almost alone. People laughed. A white Mercedes (father and son in the front seat?) flashed by, and several black VW Touaregs (another subject entirely). Was it the beautiful Sunday evening, clear and cool? Everyone out for a spin or a promenade? Or because the end of Ramadan was just so close? There’s a guy (I’m assuming it's a man) who’s been practicing an instrument out into the courtyard during Hazel’s naptime for the last week—it sounds like a cross between an oboe and a trumpet and also something else entirely. Wherever he is and whatever instrument he's playing, the sound catches in the basin of the courtyard and reaches up to all the surrounding windows. The city seems to have unfolded from the month of day-light abstention.
We went out again last evening (a couple days have passed since I began writing)—the first day of Eid el-Fitre, marking the end of Ramadan. We passed cafés filling as the sun set, the train station swarming with arrivals and peopling kissing hello (the train we saw had just come in from Fès), the two green-tiled fountains to left and right of the soaring entrance splashing away, and the chairs and tables outside the McDonald’s that give onto the wide tiled space surrounding the station totally packed with families. (The smell outside the McDonald’s is, sadly, the same as the smell outside of every other McDonald’s in the States that I’ve ever walked by or had to stand inside. I’ll go there to eat something only if I can’t think of ANYTHING else to write about. It will be a sad day, I think, if that happens—though interesting maybe in the anthropological sense. I have a feeling what I’d write.) Walking by one of the cafés on our way out to Mohammed VI Paul saw a man who lives in our neighborhood that he’s talked to on several occasions; he’s Moroccan and was sitting with another Moroccan man. I hadn’t met him before—we stopped and shook hands, spoke together in a mixture of English and French. Hazel said her soft Bonsoir and Ça va—so quietly! (She sometimes pitches those small words almost dog-whistle high.) It was an interesting moment in part because I felt we were one act of the evening’s sidewalk theater—all the café chairs arranged facing out, side by side, tables in front or to one side; in part because everyone sitting on the sidewalk was a man (one woman sat inside at a window looking out). Just a tiny moment of gendered self-consciousness. The day, now fading, had been blue and clear; now out beyond the teeming boulevard the Atlas caught the last light leaning at the them from the far west, faintly rumpling their surface (creating a look like crushed iridescent taffeta from such a distance); the tiny sliver of the moon hung above the train station in the space the sun had just quit—a tension had broken. The evening felt full, bustling, a surge back into the streets. Most people we saw I’m sure weren’t hungry! In those earlier days, many of them so very hot—almost the entire time we’ve been here, actually—the feel was strained at some level, whether I was imposing my perception of people fasting and thus hungry onto the scene or because indeed there was a certain something at work in a place where most everyone was doing so. So. The fast is done, bars reopen, cafés, restaurants, the ice cream place beside us as well. And what parts of this place shift that we can’t see?