Dangers Real and Imagined in Morocco
USA TODAY TRAVEL
Dangers Real and Imagined in Morocco
Story and photos by Luke M. Armstrong
My world stopped. The tempo of my pulse changed when I remembered our bodies are not meant to smash into rocks. My heart’s audible pace reminded me how much it enjoyed beating.
The mountain had seemed an easy climb from far away. But it led me to limbo. I was suddenly on a ledge that seemed too steep to descend. In front of me was a rock face that no experienced climber would continue to free climb. Up or down? Each choice seemed to carry a good chance of falling.
“Death by Mountain” would make a better obituary than “Death by Stupidity.” But either would have been an accurate way to describe what had taken me out should I fall.
I shook my head of superfluous thoughts and looked down at the city below, resolving to reach it again.
Below me sat Chefchaouen, Morroco. Rising above me were the Rif Mountains, the world’s hash production capital—the place where the term ‘reefer’ comes from. I had traveled here seeking adventure, but finding it, I just wanted to be safely home.
A Welcome Punch in the Face
From the beginning, my trip to Morocco was blighted. Within minutes of arriving in Casablanca, a man who had been sleeping on a curb shakily rose and wobbled zombie-like towards me. He walked up to me and punched me in the face.
After the blow he backed up and looked me straight in the eyes. He nodded in a drunken way as if to say, “Yeah, that’s right, whenever I wake up and see foreigners, I punch their faces!”
A group of Moroccan shop owners ran to separate him from me. One pleaded with me not to punch him back. “This man is crazy. Can’t you see, he’s crazy! A crazy-crazy-crazy man! Do not hit him, please!”
The bum continued to glare at me as he slowly stumbled backwards and lay back down on the curb. I stood my ground stoically, and looked on with a startled awe.
Now, up here on the mountain, I hoped to be lucky enough to live to be punched another day.
Up Or Down?
I came up this way, so I must be able to go down. It’s not like the mountain had changed. How could I have thoughtlessly climbed up such a steep ledge? I stared ahead and saw the cliff only got steeper. Descent was the better option. The only option.
Taking a deep breath, I waited for my heartbeat to slow. I turned my body backwards and faced the valley while I inched a foot downwards. At what felt like the speed of geological change, I inched downward. The sun was setting slowly and the peaks surrounding the valley began to fade to black. I paced myself with the sun’s fading light and slowly we left the sky together.
When I finally touched safe ground, I felt connected with every shipwrecked sailor ever saved by a shoreline. I turned to the overpowering mountain before me. I shook my head and laughed as my anxiety deflated, then headed back to town.
Islamic Hippy Seeks Spiritual Trinket Buyers
Mohammed was the first person to speak to me as I re-entered civilization. “Come in, come in brother,” he told me in English. “Very old, very spiritual things are being sold here. Let me share with you some mint tea.”
It was good to be spoken to when only hours earlier I was unsure if I would ever converse with anyone again. Upon entering his store, he sent an adolescent boy to prepare tea. His store was four walls of impulse buys—Moroccan metal trinkets that would look great in a box in an attic.
He insisted that I sit down while he showed me his “spiritual treasures from the Sahara.” My brush with death made me reflective. I remembered decades before when my dad took my brothers and me into our basement to show us the treasures from his youthful, globetrotting days. I imagined doing the same thing one day with my as yet, non-existent kids. I saw myself showing them fake silver pots, eccentric amulets, cobra candle holders, and ecstatically jeweled boxes as I told them about the Moroccan mountain that nearly led to my demise.
I picked up some silver bracelets. “Oh brother,” Mohammed gasped, “these are made by the Blue People of the Sahara. They are a very spiritual people. They are nomads who make these charms to protect themselves from evil spirits. You know about the Blue People? They are a very spiritual people. I am a nomad, too. I only leave the desert to come here to sell these things for my people. We are a very spiritual people.”
I hoped Mohammed was genuine. The Moroccans know how to move merchandise from their store to your luggage. They invite you in. They give you tea. They become your friend. They express delight the friendship that has formed. And then, they sell you a rug.
But Mohammed lacked the pushiness of his peers. He was obsessed with the spirituality of each object. He wore a nomad’s garb and towered over me like a basketball center. His stature and long grey beard made him an ideal type-cast for Osama bin Laden. But unlike Osama who had preached jihad, Mohammed spoke of peace and love and the spirituality within his wares. I had met my first Moroccan hippy.
Finally, I dished out some dirham and tossed a few bracelets and a brass paperweight into my bag. As I was leaving he stopped me, “Brother, you seem to be a very spiritual person. Me and my brothers…we are all far away from home like you. Every night we share dinner and music in a very spiritual environment. Please join us for dinner. It will be a very spiritual night. Every night is a very spiritual night.”
Clear and Prescient Danger in Morocco
I said yes to the dinner invite of course. After all, this is the standard goal of travelers—to experience a different culture from the inside, rather than peering in from the outside. It is the same impulse that drove me to Morocco, the same impulse that convinced me to climb a mountain—the desire to ring the meaningful out of each trip. Though I would later feel just as threatened, at the onset joining him and his kinsmen for dinner seemed far less menacing.
I walked back to my hotel as a dozen loud speakers from across Chefchaouen’s many mosques broke out in simultaneous prayer to Allah. It was the fifth prayer of the day—the sunset prayer. Walking atop curvy cobblestones while passing colorfully cloaked women and men dressed like Jedi, I realized I had made it to Agrabah—the fictional city I once longed to visit when I had watched Disney’s Aladdin as a youthfully imaginative rabble-rouser.
Dining in Agrabah
Candles lit the room above Mohammed’s store. As is customary, the two youngest boys worked to prepare the meal, while the other men lounged about on cushions smoking hash. The boys worked quickly, pausing obediently whenever anyone with seniority requested anything—usually more mint tea or hash.
The three Moroccans who spoke some English kept me involved in the French and Arabic conversations floating wildly about the room. They summarized the gist of various exchanges and translated my contributions. All the while, cats plotted in the shadows, aware only of the aroma of cooking.
Hamad, another nomad-gone tourist-rug-salesman, spoke to me in broken English, pontificating on the value of cats as rat controllers. “Cats are very spiritual animals,” Mohammed chimed in. I told him the story of my Guatemalan cat, Mish, who I had taken in at two weeks old after her mother had fallen from a tree and died. I related how Mish followed the same fate a year later when she fell from my roof.
“We have a saying here in Morocco,” Hamad told me, “Curiosity made the cat fall from the tree and die.”
Mohammed II, Hamad’s brother, took out a Guimbri, a guitar-like instrument, and began to play. Others grabbed bongos to keep rhythm. Originating from Gnawa, Guimbris are supposedly the ancestor of the American banjo. The melody is played in chorus with a tapping on the face’s cow skin drum. Mohammed told me that music was a way of singing to Allah.
The meal was served traditionally with one communal dish in the center that everyone dipped in with unleavened bread. Meat was mixed with a melody of vegetables all heavily flavored by olive oil and complimenting spices. Moroccan life leads up to this meal, where the toils of the day are tamed by the closeness of community within a clan.
The night was progressing perfectly. We sat in a circle smoking, laughing and I felt fully accepted amongst them. It was perfect. Then I started to suspect that everyone was plotting to hurt me…
Escaping From Friends
When everyone had eaten their fill, the communal dish was set in the corner for the cats. More hash cigarettes were rolled and smoked. The candles had burned out. A few flickering lights remained. Now the conversations were in rapid-fire Arabic. Not being able to participate, I was left to my thoughts. Frequently, the group would burst out into seemingly sinister laughter and everyone would glance at me.
What are they laughing about? Why are they glancing at me like that?
“Yes,” added Mohamed, “Stay here with us, it will be a very spiritualnight…” He added with the tone of an inside joke.
My thoughts began taking turns down narrow, hashish-constructed alleyways.
Why had they really invited me here? Why had everyone been so hospitable to me? They aren’t trying to sell me anything? What do they want? Why is everyone touching each other and giggling like little girls?
The constant talk about how “spiritual” everything was, now seemed to have a deviant double meaning. There also seemed to be a strange sexual tension in the air that made me more than a little uncomfortable.
In hindsight and in print, it is easy to see that I was being paranoid and ridiculous. It would be easy at this point to dismiss me as a xenophobic. But not being used to smoking hash, my thoughts had left rationality far behind.
Hammad reminded me of the offer on the table, “You will stay the night with us?”
What was going to happen when the lights were out?
I did not plan on finding out. I had not just survived a mountain to be taken out by a group of guys dressed like Jedi. I abruptly thanked them for their hospitality and stoned off my rocker, hightailed it back to my hotel via dubiously dark streets.
The Sober Daylight
It is in the sober daylight that the mysteries of the night are uncovered. A ghost in a closet turns out to be your pet cat. A sinister knocking at the window turns out to be Christmas lights blowing in the wind. In my case, my own worry that I was being invited to share dinner with sinister strings attached turned out to be just my forgetting the cultural markers of Morocco. Well, that and smoking from hash cigarettes they passed my way.
Morocco is a man’s country. True to form of a male-dominated society, both sexes lose out. Men and women repress the natural inclination towards falling in love and showing affection. The business of marriage is decided by family ties and wealth. Love is possible in theory, but just as an accident. It is not the foundation of the institution. Holding hands in public, even with your husband, is rather risqué. Many women have deep-seated resentments towards the husbands they were forced to marry and an uneasy tension between the sexes is clear to see.
The effects of these conditions have become a part of the culture. Men spend most of their time with other men. They giggle, and are as touchy-feely with each other as men and women in the West are. What I had seen that night as men flirting with each other is just how they interact.
The morning after the dinner, I was set to leave Chefchaouen, but not before returning to Mohammad’s store. I had promised to come back to deliver prints of the photos I had taken the night before. After a search, I found a Kodak store and printed out the best shots from the previous night.
“You won’t really bring us the photos,” they had chided the night before. “People like you say that, but no one ever brings photos.” They had initially been reluctant to let me take photos, but after I assured them that I would make prints for them, they were transformed into sixteen-year-old girls at the prom. They posed in different positions and insisted I take photos until the battery in my camera died.
The next morning Mohammad seemed genuinely surprised when I reentered his store with an envelope of photos. I felt like I was apologizing when I handed him the photos. In a way I was. I was sorry to have allowed my irrational mind see them as anything other than kind strangers who had welcomed me into their lives for a night.
Mohammad and I laughed for different reasons as he flipped through photos from the previous night. He thanked me and promised to give copies to the others later that day.
I took a final glance at his many spiritual trinkets and walked outside to take one more glance at the mountains. I thought about the previous night and knew that how it ended mattered little. It would be a night I would always remember and be grateful for. I took a final glance at the mountain that had not killed me and walked to the bus station. It was a good morning and the day was just beginning to unfold.
After setting off hitch-hiking post college from Chile to Alaska, Luke Maguire Armstrong made it as far as Guatemala. There for four years he directed the educational development organization Nuestros Ahijados in a mission to “break the chains of poverty through education and formation.” He is the author of iPoems for the Dolphins to Click Home About and co-editor of The Expeditioner’s Guide to the World. His first novel, How One Guitar Will Save the World, is at large looking for a publisher. Follow him on Twitter: @lukespartacus.