Life rattles on. The weather swung cold right at Eid, the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Cold rain at night, chill sun during the day. We’d come back from Essaouira on Thursday—Thanksgiving morning—having left warm beach and mild air to return to the dust and exhaust of Marrakech. On the way home we passed truck after truck full of sheep for Saturday’s slaughter, central activity of Eid, celebration that marks God’s sparing of Abraham’s son Isaac in favor of the sacrifice of the ram. We saw plenty of rams being herded along the roadside and through tiny towns on our trip home. And on Wednesday, in Essaouira, two rams positioned like two cop cars at a donut shop—nose to tail and tail to nose snuggly wedged together into a bright blue handcart, feet bound. Paul saw scooters balancing driver, ram, and ram-wrangler. All of them seemed to look as sheep do, mostly just present.
The coast was beautiful—and heading out of Marrakech to get there felt just like taking the bus north out of Manhattan—where you slide by that brief sweep of posh Park Avenue that hugs the green heart of Central Park and then churn north through mile upon mile of projects, grey streets, tenements. I specifically choose that old-fashioned word because the squalor does feel like it ought to be from another era, black and white and demolished by now. The same with this city. It was deflating to head west out of town and watch the acres of red-walled poverty unfold. Laundry strung out windows, bare dirty feet in cracked plastic sandals resting on scooter pedals, broken windows in dilapidated buildings. Lots of empty buildings, new and old. There go the magical walled moments inside the Majorelle’s blue depths, the classic lines of the implacable Koutoubia, the crisp and buttery croissant at Café Amandine across the street from the 70s-retro-Euro-swank of the black and white Bab Hôtel. All the concentrated and beautiful culture at the center of Marrakech just collapsed. It was disquieting to pass out of the bubble. The contrasts are complete and exhausting and everywhere. Right in the middle of the surrounding stretch of poverty sits a new Marjane, the French we’ve-got-everything-for-cheap company not unlike WalMart. You get the picture. Then there’s a long wall of billboards picturing computer-generated architectural renderings of a new apartment complex promising that you can make your own little box “just like you like it”—literally, you could not see the end of this massive herd of buildings, one exactly like its neighbor. Who is going to live here? Marrakech already is filled with scores of the very same thing—empty new apartment buildings everywhere you look. Where will they come from? It was depressing, in a way.
Then we’re out into the countryside, mud-walled olive orchards and grapevines buttressed with caning rolling away from the two-laned road going west. We zip through a thoroughly modern interchange with entrance and exit ramps and European-style signage pointing to Casablanca, a flash of familiar. Then sparsely inhabited land gives way to a moonscape of rock and sand, interrupted briefly by the industrial sprawl of stacks and conical towers—an Italian-owned cement plant flashes by. They’ve blasted right through a huge hill, eaten half of it, and exposed its dazzling white parabolic profile. No vegetation whatsoever across the rocky plane to left and right. (Here is where Paul’s Spanish seat-mate throws up). Somewhere along the way I spot a white minaret tipped with bright red (odd, as I thought about it, like the cartoon idea of a cigarette)—this was the first white building since leaving Marrakech. Essaouira, of course, is dressed exclusively in white and blue. The taxis too. As we approach the coast the land begins to heave, juniper and argan trees turn the hills to dark green. We crest the last rise, make a hard turn, and there is the thick hazy ribbon of blue Atlantic, the flutter of white skirt that is Essaouira.
We spent four days in the old city—which dates from forever ago. Archeologists trace human habitation there to prehistoric times. A Carthaginian navigator set up a trading post in the 5th century BCE, then in a long parade across the centuries came the Portuguese, the Spanish, the English, the Dutch. No one quite managed to stay, except the Arabs from long ago and the French in the early 20th century—and Berbers who were there to begin with. Just this morning a waiter from the café next door reiterated what I’ve read elsewhere—Morocco is not like other Arab-speaking countries. Berber peoples make up 30-40 percent of the population. “I am Berber,” he says, affirming this reality. Orson Welles came to Essaouira in the mid-20th century to shoot scenes for his Othello. A park right off the ramparts is named for him. It contains a monument featuring a bas-relief bust now missing both its nose and its explanatory plaque. The single white marble plaque that’s left announces the date and the dedicator, in 1992 the future king. You get the feeling that whoever did the vandalizing wasn’t quite prepared to haul off a hunk of marble engraved with the future monarch’s name. Or maybe it didn’t pry off so easily? Or they were interested only in defacing the foreigner? Or who knows. Easy to project my own post-colonialist preoccupations.
The city is beautiful. Hazel capered on the beach, was knocked down by a wave (which took her down I think only because her diaper became so suddenly sodden and acted like an instant anchor), we ate the best Italian gelato since our arrival in Morocco, and we met Steve and Sharon, an English couple who run a Mexican restaurant tucked away in one of the folds of the old city. We ate there three times in the four days—and I found myself relaxing into the feel of banter with proprietors in our own language, loved listening to their accents (he is from Rotherham outside York), and delighted in my first cup of real Earl Grey since Berkeley. There’s not much Mexican about the place. They found after two weeks that mole and other time-consuming Mexican sauces were impossible given that it’s just the two of them behind the counter, and the ingredients are too sparse. But the signs were already made and they remain, improbably in Morocco, La Cantina. They serve their ‘Acapulco Chicken’ alongside scones with jam and cream, vegetarian stir-fry, and a really delicious chili-cheeseburger. Sharon, who is tall, blonde, immediately confiding in her tone and affectionate, said to me the first night, “People come in ‘ere and say, ‘This is the best Acapulco Chicken I’ve ever ‘ad—and I don even know what Acapulco Chicken ought to be!” I’m sure I’m being ridiculous in trying to get their accents. (Paul just told me it was Oliver Twist ‘enry ‘iggins English. Duly noted.) But it was such a delicious novelty to sit in their tiny warm place (candlelit at night) and chit chat about Jemaa el Fna and English football, Thailand (that’s where they go from January to March) and what Jamie Oliver has done to Steve’s hometown (turned on it the full tousled-blond wattage of his food fame combined with an affable insistence that Brits be more healthy in their eating).
I could go on about windy, sunny Essaouira: the riad with its breakfast on the blue and white terrace (I do love the beautifully assembled breakfast tray that someone else presents and takes away); the model-boat builder we met down a narrow side street (he does only three a year, all built by hand, all modeled after mid-19th century clipper ships—he’s done several versions of The Cutty Sark—all usually commissioned by a wealthy Frenchman, he said); the narrow cobbled lanes of the human-scaled old city and life lived elsewhere (a woman collects water in buckets at a public fountain, through an open door I glimpse what must be the neighborhood bread oven—a line of flame at the far end of an otherwise darkened room); the catch of the day laid out a couple feet from the rocky shore; breathtaking heaves of color-changing sea and brief high-arcing peaks of white spray; Hazel happy and naked in the sand.
Back in Marrakech we are changing apartments all of a sudden—same building, different floor. We’ll have outdoor access and romping room (albeit tiled and high-walled) just out the living room sliding glass doors. The bedrooms are smaller but the kitchen looks across a high counter into the living room, so there’ll be less opening and shutting of doors, less calling out between me and Paul What did you say? from one echo-y room to another. The place is also more generously furnished—good-bye sexy black leather banquette, hello faux-velvet matarba, a Moroccan-style narrow L-shaped couch with bolsters. We move Saturday. My folks come on Friday, so they’ll have one luxurious night in the queen size bed that the school delivered yesterday for Hazel’s room (she would have been the pint-size out-sized inhabitant of what amounts to a hotel room—mod black bed frame, mod black bed-side tables, mod black dresser drawers—an odd fit at best). And then the folks will get to choose between two twin beds in Hazel’s new petite room. A nice shift. She is on fire with their coming, jazzed about the new place, generally buzzing and taking forever to fall asleep at night. She is like her mother. She lies there in her quilt-and-blanket-festooned crib, asking me to “Think about the things" and wailing for more when I pitilessly leave the room.