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rock the casbah

GEAR | December 2000

There are some fantasies that prepare us for reality. The first visit to the great pyramids of Giza feels oddly familiar, as if we've just stepped into a history class on Egypt. Likewise, take a trip to Paris and it's easy to slip into fantasy and walk the streets through the eyes and words of Miller, Fitzgerald or Hemingway. That is how I feel as I board the last train of the evening from Casablanca to Marrakesh. I have just stepped into a fantasy that I've had for decades, beginning with Rick's Café in Casablanca.


But fantasy rarely matches reality.


Outside the window, the cinderblock shantytowns slowly give way to open desert. The setting sun throws red flares over the moonscape of a land that has been coveted ever since Islamic armies swept across North Africa 13 centuries ago and declared this region "the land where the sun dies."


It is after midnight when the train stops, and I find myself standing in a circle of 60 locals in Djemma el Fna Square, central Marrakesh, watching a Moroccan man eat a handful of broken green glass. Food stalls with lamb, couscous and vegetables line the square. Smoke wafts through the desert night, carrying with it the aroma of cooked meat, saffron and a trace of urine.

The glass eater stops in front of me. Little speckles of blood stain his lips. He holds out his hand. I give him a 10 dinar note. He purses his lips together as if to say "Not quite Scrooge."

Translated, Djemma el Fna means "the meeting place of the hanged"  the kind of activity that once passed for local entertainment. Today, it resembles a multiplex parking lot, but it is here that all journeys in Marrakesh begin. As author Paul Bowles, Morocco's most famous ex-pat resident, said, without the square Marrakesh would become just another Moroccan city.

There are acrobats, snake charmers, trained monkeys, fire-eating men, frolicking midgets, medicine men and Cheluh boy dancers  moving sexually to the rhythm of chimes. A hefty Australian woman, dressed in shiny boxing shorts and boxing gloves, is standing at the edge of the square. She is preparing to fight a local teenage boy. Someone in the crowd calls her a cow and she walks into the circle and swipes the Moroccan with a good left hook to the ear.

I leave the square in search of a place to sleep. I walk to a park and sit on my backpack next to a horse carriage.

"Shit," says a Moroccan man standing next to me. I look confused. "You want some shit?" He doesn't seem the type to be selling hashish. "Thanks, no shit for me right now."

"No problem, my friend," he says and points to a nearby sign with a picture of a smiling mouth and oversized teeth. "If you want shit or teeth fixed, I am here."

For as many reasons as there are to stay in Marrakesh, there are as many to leave. Besides the traffic, the days are long and the sun bleeds relentlessly. One night I catch a cab to Brasserie Le Petit on Boulevard Mohammed V, where they serve the local beer, Stork, by the crate. There, I meet Casmad, a bus driver with a scar running from temple to jawbone. He pulls two beers out of his crate, and we toast Morocco's chances of winning the 2002 World Cup. Walker, Texas Ranger is playing on TV. "I have a wife in Casablanca and one in Marrakesh," he says.

"Do they know each other?"

"Yes. I have three children with each."

"It's not difficult to keep it all balanced?"

"I drive the bus one way and stay the night, and then the next day I drive back and stay with the other. Is that not easy?"

"Not where I come from."

"Then you need to move."

Feeling bolstered by Casmad's stories, I catch another cab to the most popular club in town, Disco Paradise, which opens at midnight. I arrive late after making a quick detour to the hotel to borrow clothes from the manager. The dress code at Moroccan discos is strict: you can't wear a $200 pair of sneakers, but a pair of $15 black Kmart shoes are fine. I enter wearing an overly large rayon shirt with a design of a tropical bird fighting with a tiger. I've traded my shoes for black vinyl ones two sizes too big.

As in all North Africa, the music of choice is rai, rave-like and haunting. The disco smells like sweat and gin-and-tonics. The women are all suntanned with jet-black hair and chocolate eyes. For a brief moment, I find my fantasy taking shape as three women dance around me. Then I slip and rip my pants. Trading shoes was a mistake.

The next morning, waking up in a stupor of Stork and with a growing inflammation in my right ankle, I walk to the nearest hammam, a Turkish bathhouse. There I pay a large man in a loincloth for a massage. What happens next is not so much a massage as a wrestling match. He stretches my arms and legs and kneads his iron-hard hands into my back. I take the pain with the pleasure and oddly enjoy it. I feel refreshed.

With hindsight I should have known Sahid, the rug merchant, would sense the $100 bill scrunched in the toe of my left shoe. I'd forgotten about it until I found myself sitting cross-legged across from him, drinking mint tea. He is pushing his rugs.

"It will give your home a piece of Morocco," he says.

"I don't have a home."

"You have children, of course." I say no.

"A wife?"

"No." He wags a finger in my face. "A man must have a family and a home, or he is nothing. And in that home he must have good things, for instance this rug."

I stand in the late afternoon sun with the rug under my arm and the money gone. Realizing I'm completely lost, I pause to find my bearings. It's useless. Just then, a boy on a cart of tanned hides stops and looks in my direction. He is no older than 12, but sizes me up for what I am: a lost traveler. He points to the back of his cart.

I get in. The carpet feels heavy, like a sack of potatoes. I feel cheated. It has nothing to do with the price, but with the fact I bought a rug in the hope of gaining a home. I had just learned a lesson on the art of the sell: give people what they don't need by making them want what they don't have.

The boy whips his donkey and shoos people out of the way. I'm not sure where we're headed, but I'm grateful that we travel in silence. I'll soon be leaving, and I want a room in another country with clean sheets and soundproof windows. I want someplace to call my own, if only for a while. I'll throw my rug down in the first place I land.

In the distance I hear flutes and a voice crying out to come watch the show, For the first time since arriving, I feel as if I'm coming home as we roll into the meeting place of the hanged.

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