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Memories of Morocco

Rockin the casbah

Everyone okay out there? Have you laid in a supply of necessities, just in case of disaster? All of us here in LA have earthquake bags filled with things that might be in short supply in an emergency: fresh water, water purifiers, first aid kit, matches, dry goods, abortion rights, voting rights, police accountability. The recent earthquake in Morocco, which killed about 3000 by current count as of this writing, brought all this to mind.


Ouarzazate City, if you can call it a city, is the capital of Ouarzazate Province in Morocco. The province is part of the area that most suffered destruction from the earthquake, though less so than neighboring al-Haouz Province, in which the epicenter in the High Atlas Mountains was located. I spent about a month in Ouarzazate thirty-four years ago. These are some memories.


Preceding that I enjoyed my set up in Marrakesh: a rundown shack on the rooftop of a two-story apartment building off Marrakesh’s Jemaa el Fna, run by a matriarch named Mina, which turned out to be a common name for Moroccan matriarchs. But a few annoying run-ins with locals, cops, and, worst of all, tourists led me to seek a less trafficked home base. This was one of those weird years when the Hijri calendar landed the beginning of Ramadan in early April, so I’d already endured a week and a half of the Islamic Holy Month and its effects on Moroccan psyches. Laborers in Marrakesh abstained from food and water from sunup to sundown, and from sex, alcohol, and tobacco all month, around the clock. Not a recipe for a contented working class in a busy city.


I decided to go southwest, over the High Atlas Mountain range, into the Sahara to Ouarzazate. I was told it was far less touristed there and very quiet. In Ouarzazate, the pace of life was supposed to be much more relaxed. Farmers walked almost imperceptibly slowly as they tended their fields. Most of the other business in town took place out of the sun, in shops, cafes, or administrative offices.


It was the year 1989. I arrived in Ouarzazate in mid-April. When I got to town I was immediately greeted by a friendly man who wanted to know where I was from, where I was staying, what was my good name, and what I planned to do there. I had often been greeted this way, and to my surprise it was rarely because anyone had something they wanted to sell me. They might of course have a relationship with a small hotel or restaurant, possibly getting a thirty percent kickback, but the genuine curiosity stemmed from their relationship with the entire rest of the community. Who is this stranger? We’ll be gossiping about him. Is he polite? Is he clean? Is he friendly? Is he a cheapskate?


We ended up sharing a leisurely round of mint tea in his carpet shop, agreeing in the end that we would be friends with no business, as I would neither be lugging nor shipping any carpets, no matter how beautiful. My entire budget for what turned into a two month stay in the Maghreb and Spain – this was 1989, remember – was about $2,300.


On Ramadan, one fasts from the rising of the sun until it sets, though Morocco’s tourist destination status insured that most eateries would be open during the day. I learned how to count in Moroccan Arabic – classical Arabic, closer to what they speak in Egypt, uses a different word for the number “two” – so I could understand when the shopkeepers discussed the prices they planned to charge for things, what the Moroccans themselves were paying, and target my bargaining thus informed.


Living and traveling more amongst the people than most tourists, due to my low budget, I was subject to hostile looks and sometimes even a sarcastic “bon appetit” when caught breaking the fast before sundown. Not wishing to offend, I kept any eating or drinking to my room, when I had one, and often fasted the whole day like a regular Muslim. After sundown, the custom was to have a bowl of soup called “harira,” made with lamb broth, chickpeas, lentils, and aromatic spices. In Ouarzazate, I stayed in a small room in a two story building I suppose might be called a hotel, though amenities were minimal. It was off the main road through town, but behind it was a small, nameless (at least to me) restaurant. The harira there was better than I’d had anywhere else.


One evening I was seated at a table by myself. A man at the table next to mine had an artificial leg plated with the most elaborately embossed or engraved steel I’d ever seen used for such a purpose. In my memory he also had a leather eyepatch with a stitching of wheat-colored thread all around just a couple millimeters in from the edge. He was bearded, as was I. When we were each served our soup, he reached over and handed me a couple of dates.


This wasn’t the first time I’d had a stranger share fruit with me for iftar. It happened at bus stops, on buses, in parks – any public space. I also found myself in conversation with random Arabs and Berbers. Many conversations were in French, which I spoke only haltingly, though by the end of a month I seemed to have become conversationally comprehensible. But just as frequently I was spoken to by an elderly person in Arabic or some Berber dialect without any care that I couldn’t understand what I was being informed or questioned about. Sometimes my interlocutor and I resorted to improvisational sign language.


Everybody was always in everybody else’s business. If an argument broke out between two people, everyone within earshot was instantly part of it. At one point in my travels I companioned with an ethnological linguist named Paul Castella from St. Etienne, France, who had a theory that the communal participation had to do with the Islamic metaphor that we all live inside God, rather than in Christian epistemology where a piece of God lives in each of us.


We met students who attended the high school, the Grande Lycée, there in Ouarzazate, and they introduced me to their teacher whom I was told wanted to discuss Freud and Pasolini with me and of course my professor friend Paul. Eventually we learned the teacher’s curriculum was part of the dramaturgy for the Lycée’s student production of “La Machine Infernale,” Jean Cocteau’s retelling of the story of Oedipus the King.


On opening night of the performance the theater was packed. Paul and I were lucky to get seats. They were in the very back row, up against the windows through which the overflow audience who couldn’t get seats inside watched, squatting on the windowsill or hanging onto the window frames. This was clearly the hottest ticket in the northwest Sahara’s administrative hub. Audience members were vocal, shouting out comments, a wisecrack now and then, to which an actor, sliding out of character, would briefly retort.

In general I was able to follow the story. It helped that I’d read Sophocles’ version and seen Pasolini’s, too. And that it had long ago been injected into the Western theatrical bloodstream. What Cocteau brought to it was out of my reach, except where his stylistic sense influenced the mise-en-scène, I guess.


I visited casbahs and donkey markets, and got as far into the Sahara as the desert town of Merzouga, close to the northern border of Algeria. On a trip to the Todra Gorge I saw an unfinished shell of an apartment building that was named for President Jimmy Carter, who saw to it that US funds were directed to that structure and other housing for the Moroccan people. Reagan no doubt put a stop to that project.


Now, as the death count from the earthquake grows, I remember the people who were so friendly to me despite my being a touristic disappointment.


Many of the outer walls of the buildings and some entire homes were made of the northwest Sahara’s pinkish mud fortified with fibers and sticks. Some buildings I remember, including the one out of which the restaurant operated where the man with the embossed metal leg shared his dates with me, I imagine did not fare well in the quake. The casbah just south of town was hundreds of years old, and made mostly of earth baked under centuries of sun.


Nothing lasts forever, but things I’d assumed were made to last, like a desert fort or the right to an abortion, are crumbling in these latter days. As if the world is sweeping the vulnerable away with more malice than usual. In any case, my heart is with the herb growers, rugmakers, shopkeepers, cooks, bus drivers, innkeepers, ditch diggers, construction workers – all the people of Morocco as this tragedy washes over them, the way events in history always have over all of us.

Morocco Earthquake Atlas Mountains Ramadan Moment of Truth


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