Monday, October 26, 2009

Sidewalk talk

I want to capture what it feels like to walk around this city. We’ve been here long enough that we (Hazel and I) have worn into our days certain patterns that make what was new and strange a month ago now seem like the humdrum of the everyday. The physicality of the streets and sidewalks is still striking—and I know I’ve referred to this in earlier posts—but it’s a daily lived negotiation of rough and smooth—you pick a path out of the maze. In some places the grooved tile, alternately of rose and sand (done in designs that are reminiscent of M.C. Escher) gives way to a broken jumble, an empty section that’s packed hard dirt, or disappears completely under a parked car, a pile of gravel or sand. I guess I’m stumbling over what I unthinkingly expect back in the States, but there it is. Walking home the other evening down a relatively quiet cross-street a restaurant bloomed briefly out of the dark and the uneven sidewalk—an impossibly tall flung-open front door and wide floor-to-ceiling windows showed a swank, sleek, elegant and empty space, a sweep of marble and towering thirties-era crystal chandeliers, curve of leather and several expectant suited emcees—it looked like a place Myrna Loy and William Powell might sit down for drink. Then back into the dark, the rubble underfoot, like I had dreamed up the whole vision. Shops meticulously wash clear their own stone stoops and sections of slick tile, but what’s not obviously connected to a business or apartment building, those lengths of geometry that follow a stretch of blank (or graffitied) wall seem to fall prey to whatever forces of entropy are at work. Early on when we first got here, in the intense oven-breath of mid-morning heat, wildly hot even at that hour, we were out walking on a busy street that feeds into Mohammed V. I was successively snapping digital frames and simultaneously watching the progress of someone in a wheel chair opposite us. He (she?) was moving along on the other side of the street, in the street, skirting a series of cafés whose chairs completely blocked the sidewalk, a sea of parked scooters, a set of curbs without handicap ramps, a construction site whose spilled detritus had devoured the sidewalk whole—and of course was moving in the flow of traffic to avoid all of it. It didn’t seem easy. Around the corner from our apartment the sidewalk to either side of a big hotel is blocked by scrollworked gates that effectively privatize that section and force you out into on-coming traffic, if you don’t feel like walking their arc of driveway, often blocked by a midnight blue Jaguar anyway. But on the wider boulevards there’s just more room for whatever else is happening besides you.

Construction is everywhere—from the five-story deep ochre-red pit that takes up an entire city block on Mohammed V to the half-finished luxury hotel that’s catty-corner from our building, to the other hotel gathering shape on the opposite corner (someone said this one is owned by somebody on the school’s board). Cranes tangle over rooftops and swing their burdens across dusty lots, cluttered sites in all stages of completion checkerboard the city, but the Théâtre Royale is an empty shell of unfinished grandeur.

We happened inside the other day—it sits magisterially across a busy fountained thoroughfare from the single enormous arched entrance of the train station, looking as if behind its sandstone façade and beneath its elongated dome roof hides all the tiled and carved glory that a royal structure ought. But it is in fact a shell. A couple times on earlier walks (back during Ramadan on quiet early evenings) we’d noticed especially the gorgeous arched glossy wooden shutters and doorways—and at that time of day the entire massive structure was lit with the soft golden fire of the setting sun, a spectacularly arresting vision. I caught site of a single shutter on an upper story window blowing gently in and out with whatever wind was playing at that height, like breath softly inhaling and exhaling, the kind of random movement you associate with some part of an unattended and maybe abandoned building. We’d heard from somewhere that the theater was never finished (guidebooks attest to this fact)—whoever was responsible ran out of money (does the King himself run out of money?).

And so it was. Last week walking by we saw a man in white khakis and white oxford shirt looking a lot like an official guide sitting on the front steps of the Théâtre Royale. We asked if we could look inside and he took us in. Enormous deep-pink marbled foyer, wrap-around double stair case lifting up and up, tile-work and high wooden archways in all directions. He said this entrance space is used for artisan showcases and as a gallery. He lead us through a soaring anteroom (open air, actually, onto which second and third story windows opened), back outside and on through a gated side-garden (empty tiled pool somehow supporting a gracefully bending papyrus plant, bedraggled beds of roses and bougainvillea in weed-choked beds), up a steep ramp to one of those beautiful shining wooden doors, over its lip and into an odd nowhere-space, an area between the backstage of the high-backed amphitheatre to our right and the vaulted, gutted, tiered space of the theater-proper to our left—echoing, empty, deathly still, airless, profoundly disturbing. A concrete-block and battleship-grey cement interior, three tiers of stacked balcony in the silent gloom and a wide stretch of empty cement on the sloping main level all looked down at a non-existent stage and a gaping pit where scenery would otherwise hang when not in use. Opposite all this raw space hung a huge expanse of dark curtain, while on the other side sat an open-air stage, its narrow boards cracked and sunken from exposure, facing curve after concentric curve of steeply rising cement seating, capacity one thousand, our guide said. A slice of deep blue dusk looked down into the performance space. Films, primarily, are what people come to see in the amphitheater—no acting company with any regard for its actors’ footing would mount a production on that outdoor stage, let alone a dance company. The interior space, of course, has never seen a production.

We had mint tea, orange juice, fresh fruit and croissants on Saturday with a Tunisian couple and two of their girls. Kaïs is a pilot and flies out of Marrakech for Royal Air Maroc; his wife was a lawyer before she had their three girls, all under age 4. The two older girls go to Paul’s school—that is the natural and original connection. He is lovely—we’d met him on the street in front of our apartment just after we got here as he corralled two of his girls (the third was then yet-to-be-born) and we promised to get together. I emailed weeks later, then he called weeks after that just as we’d returned from the doctor’s and gotten Hazel stable, but only just, while she was in the bath. And then we ran into him Friday night, again with the two older girls, and made a plan for Saturday morning. We met at Grand Café de la Poste, which occupies the enviably central location behind (huh!) the main post office right off Mohammed V. It’s the place guidebooks say you find a lot of Americans and ex-pats, and it does have the feel of what you might expect of a Moroccan café in the French style, from the Protectorate days of old. There are potted palms, dozens of votive candles flickering amidst the greenery by night, a forest of white canvas umbrellas shading the carefully arranged wicker seats and tables that cluster around the deeper shade of the wide porch. Inside, the décor is all whites and creams (tablecloths and lampshades), curves of black wood, brown leather club chairs—what colonial times would have called gracious and cool and civilized, and not unlike the idea of home.

We all seemed to gravitate to a secluded spot up the wide central flight of stairs—thick knotted rugs, glass-topped low tables and clanging brass ash-trays, stiff brown leather poufs, banquettes, and the thick twist of maroon tasseled velvet rope invitingly looped across the next flight of curving stairs—the girls treated it like a swing. We stayed three hours.

Eventually Paul and Kaïs fell into conversation about school and Souad and I talked about life in a Kingdom. It was gratifying to talk with someone who is both an insider, in the sense that she is a native French and Arabic speaker, but an outsider too—she is Tunisian. Without reservation she spoke about the poverty here, that narrow band of wealthy who see to their own affairs above all else, and the great mass of everyone else, uneducated, who live without a sense of the wider world, without the cool privilege of gardens and pools and air-conditioning, who live primarily in the streets. She said that three years ago she used to love that area in Jnane El Harti—the one with the two enormous cement dinosaurs that face each other, their expressions benign (they are herbivores after all), in an oval of sand that also sports several yellow swing sets. But now the swings themselves are gone, the broken chains hang limp, the dinosaurs, whose backs are traversed by a narrow path up and a short slick slide down, are filled with city-trash—used diapers, cigarette butts, candy-wrappers, probably condoms if you looked closely enough. When Hazel and I have been there, usually just before noon, gaggles of teenagers sit on the cement edge, shoving and laughing, kind of pawing at each other with that adolescent combination of abandon and restraint. Souad used the deterioration of that section of park as an example of how people just don't care about the greater good—and maybe more significant, are not educated enough to cultivate a sense of the importance of civic life. I brought up the empty Théâtre Royale as an example of this kind of civic neglect—Paul, later, says who has money for theater when you’re struggling to feed your family? I’ve puzzled over that disparity here—the unbounded love people have for children and the paucity of any sort of child-friendly space that you don’t have to pay to get into. Kids play in the street. There's an alley across the way from our apartment that churns with play—kids of all ages on bikes and trikes, in doorways and in the dirt and cement and gravel sweep that is both front yard and thoroughfare all at once.

What I mean is that you feel at every turn the uncomfortable rub of poverty with the ephemeral money of tourism—and the rush and buzz of all the industries that gather round that inconstant flame. (Paul reports that a lot of his students, when asked, have said they want to go into the hotel industry.) So there is the huge billboard, four stories tall, showcasing the improbable blonde with plunging purple neckline stretched across the façade of the Zara department store (a Spanish company, it fittingly shares a block with the McDonald’s), across the snarl of traffic from the Kentucky Fried Chicken, and across the street from the Grand Café de la Poste. I’m leaving out the arc of fancy stores (which includes a Levi’s that sells jeans for 1145 Dhs, roughly $150) and several other European-style cafés all within a one-minute walk from the dilapidated dinosaurs in the sand. To be fair, the Jnane El Harti, if you’re a grown (child-free) person with time on your hands and a good book, is a lovely place to sit—you’re in the company of palms and lantana and laurel, roses, stretches of well-watered rosemary-bordered lawn (not for walking or lounging on, however—this garden is very much in the manner of the French, not known for their creation of green space intended for foot-traffic: pelouse interdit!). Though an ice cream cone is cheap and really good, a pint of Häagen Dazs costs $8. It’s a city, like many others, but the poor seem poorer and more numerous, the wealthy fewer, more remote.

And I haven't even gotten to the plentiful and omnipresent donkey carts, hauling everything from cement bags to children's car-seats (these were stacked in a mountain of boxes that towered high as a semi), or the incredibly enormous and unlikely loads balanced on the backs of spindly scooters: a full-size wooden couch-frame, thousands of fresh eggs cushioned on dozens of wide cardboard pallets, two dog-house sized panniers of fresh mint, a family of four.

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