Do You Know The Way
To Rick's American Café?
by Michael Marcotte
[submitted to PPSA Online Magazine April 1998]
"Morocco doesn't seem to have an ozone layer," says my wife.
"Mmm," I mumble, but with a feigned interest, as if I had actually heard what she had said. I may be getting a little ditzty from too much sun. I got a touch of sunstroke several years ago on the Masada plateau; perhaps it is some kind of delayed relapse.
The sun does seem fierce. It pours down like a billion tiny needles, forcing me to squint constantly and scrunch my face into an expression that could give a quite literal interpretation to the moniker "Ugly American." The heat causes the air to appear to shimmer like water. That's what air does in exotic places: shimmer. From a distant minaret a sing-song Islamic call to prayer wafts across the rose-colored buildings and roof tops to the Marrakesh street corner where we have momentarily paused. Sounds waft, or trickle, or drift. It is sacrilegious for sound to travel unremarkably in mysterious and exotic places.
This is my first and only time in Morocco. I had only once previously even contemplated visiting here. That prior occasion had been because I had wanted to go from Spain to Senegal. Morocco had stood unyieldingly in the way. An Arab country like Morocco doesn't seem like somewhere an American would want to go.
"And what in heaven's name brought you here as part of a vacation?" asks a voice behind me.
I turn to answer the question. I am only slightly surprised to recognize the voice's owner...a remarkable feat of self control on my part, under the circumstances.
Humphrey Bogart only has one set of clothes in my admittedly imperfect memory: raincoat and fedora - the ones from 'Casablanca'...or maybe 'The Maltese Falcon.' Anyway, there he is: the very personification of the word 'melancholy', doleful eyes peering inquisitively at me from beneath the familiar tilted brim of his hat. I try to act nonchalant.
"My health," I answer, "I came to Morocco for the waters."
"Waters?" he asks, "What waters? We're in the desert."
"I was misinformed." I say.
Bogart tilts his head slightly and frowns...something about this exchange is familiar.
"It was mostly EPCOT," I tell him. "My wife and I visited there a couple of years ago. We were intrigued by the unique architectural style and sense of antiquity conveyed by the Moroccan exhibit."
"Antiquity," nods Bogart, smiling slightly. "EPCOT is only a few years old. That's just Hollywood fantasy. You didn't really expect a Disneyland version of Morocco look and feel like the real item? Morocco is a true blue, third world North African country. You think a few million comfort-minded Americans visiting Florida actually want to see the REAL thing? An honest-to-God Moroccan street scene smack-dab in the middle of those quaint little air conditioned restaurants and gift shops? Why, a dozen authentic odors alone would bankrupt Disney, inside a year."
I have a sudden flashback to our very brief visit to a very bad smelling alley in Fes, where leather hides were being cured and dyed. Only in my mind, Jim Carey/Ace Ventura pops up just long enough to exclaim "Do NOT go in there!"
"I rather thought the European countries at EPCOT were pretty realistic," I answer. "And "Casablanca" didn't paint all that depressing a picture of Morocco."
He pretends not to know I mean the movie; "Casablanca, Marrakesh, Tangier... no big difference, they all can tend to get old after a while; no pun intended."
Our conversation is interrupted by a small mob of Moroccan youngsters wanting to shine our shoes. Bogart just shakes his head and waves them away. I smile and point at my tapestry huarache sandals. They still want to shine them. I am dubious that tapestry ever looks good, shined and buffed, so I say no and try to ignore the youngsters. If I were to give a few coins to each of the boys who have asked so far, I think I would be, by this time, poorer than most of them.
Several of the boys follow for another block, still asking to shine our shoes, and screwing their faces into "come now, what's a dollar between us?" expressions. They absolutely refuse to believe that "No" means "No," even after the tenth time. Apparently persistence must oftentimes pay off.
A group of tourists exiting from their hotel across the street draws the boys' attention and they're off like a flash, descending upon their new victims. "I get that everyday," mourns Bogart. (Bogart resides permanently in my recollection in Morocco, except for brief excursions to float down some African River with Katherine Hepburn.)
For some reason I hadn't thought of Morocco as an Arab country, but more of a mixture of Arab, Berber, French expatriates, and the assorted scoundrels sometimes associated with Morocco's colorful past. Each of the larger Moroccan cities even has a Jewish quarter; not something I would offhandedly associate with Arab countries.
The sun is still bothering me. Having to squint constantly is giving me a headache. I'd like to get indoors somewhere and have a cold drink.
"So how about a visit to Rick's Café Americain? You can probably get us a good table, huh?" I ask.
"Be real," Bogie replies. "There's not really a Rick's American Café, those scenes were just filmed in a movie studio. Besides, that was in Casablanca, this is Marrakesh."
"Speaking of Casablanca, it didn't look at all like any of the scenes from the movie. It was all modern, except the Medina."
"That's because none of the movie was filmed in Casablanca," Bogart notes.
"None?" I am stunned.
"Not a single frame," he says. "Some of the background scenes were shot in Fes, in the old Medina, but most of it was filmed in Hollywood, on movie sets. Casablanca is Morocco's principal industrial city and a major North African shipping port. There's more money there. The French built up Casablanca a lot during the brief period when Morocco was a French colony."
"Well, that explains why I liked Fes so much, then. All the narrow little corridors and byways filled with people in robes, donkeys, intricate carvings, ornate archways and cornices...it all was more reminiscent of the movie 'Casablanca'. There was more of the EPCOT style architecture, and Indiana Jones movie surroundings."
"Well then, you have the Almoravides and Alemohades dynasties to thank for that," says Bogart, "It is the oldest of any the cities you've visited here, dating back to the Idrissids."
"Idrissids?" I ask, "You mean those little bitty green insects that suck plant sap?"
Bogart stares at me coolly. "I think you mean aphids," he says. "Now, why would I be talking about insects in an article about Morocco?"
"Uh...because they kill all of the plants, and that's why the landscape looks so barren?" I venture.
"Never go on Jeopardy," Bogart disdainfully advises me. "The Idrissids were followers of Idriss ibu Abdullah, a descendant of Fatima, Mohammed's daughter."
"Never heard of this Idriss guy," I say. "Who was president of the United States then?"
"Hiawatha," says Bogart. "Idriss founded the city of Fes in 789 A.D. That's over seven hundred years before Columbus discovered America."
Bogie may know his Moroccan history, but I am certain he is wrong about Hiawatha, who lived closer to the 1600s in French Canada. I think. I decide to let it go.
"The Medina has some parts that still look that old," I acknowledge.
"So, you would pick Fes to live in, if you had to live in Morocco?"
"Gosh no!" I exclaim. "If I were forced to live here - and mind you - I might have to be forced, I'd pick either Tangier or Casablanca. Both of them seem much more cosmopolitan. Fes does seem to be one of the better places to visit, though."
"Understood," nods Bogie. "Keep an eye on your wallet, kid. I was pick-pocketed in the old square the other day."
"Probably those baggy pockets," I remark, showing him one of mine, "I sewed Velcro and a zipper into these."
"Amazing," he says. I can't tell if Bogart is really impressed, or if he is just patronizing me.
The staff of native Moroccans at the EPCOT exhibit had seemed very friendly and sincere. When we asked about relations with Americans, one of the young Moroccan men had seemed a bit unhappy in telling us that everyone always asked this question, but few seemed to realize that Morocco had one of the longest periods of peaceful relations with the United States of any countries in the world. I relate this information to Bogart.
"And you don't find the local Moroccans to be as friendly?" he asks.
"Well," I confess, "hardly anyone seems to speak to us or smile, unless they are wanting us to hire them as our guide to the next corner."
Bogart chuckles. "You're just experiencing culture shock," he says. "You probably think this is a horrible little country. Americans tend to like to go on nice comfortable vacations where everything is just like home, everything is air-conditioned and the showers work fine, and "native" people smile benignly, and bring ice cold drinks on trays. This, on the other hand, is reality."
"Such an astute observation, coming from a heat-induced hallucination," I reply.
"I prefer to think of myself as a mirage," he answers, somewhat offended.
"You seem awfully preoccupied," my wife says. "You looked like you were mumbling to yourself again."
"Just daydreamin'," I reply.
"Culture shock," pronounces Bogart authoritatively.
"Now, wait a second," I object. "I don't think I am that naive! I have been all over the world..." I recite a dozen examples of things I have experienced in such places as Russia, Egypt, Turkey, Kenya, the Amazon and New York City.
Somewhere in the background, a bunch of cowboy-sounding dudes exclaim: "NEW YORK CITY?"
"Yet on the other hand, you based your decision to visit North Africa on the premise that it would resemble a tourist attraction in southern Florida," notes Bogart wryly. "Maybe you should have read Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky, or seen that movie, instead of Casablanca.
"I did, after this trip is over!" I retort. ( That's the very nice thing about being the author; I can combine timeframes, metaphors, dead movie stars and dialog from the movie into whatever weird logic that suits me).
"Besides," I continue, "I had a fairly good guess before coming here, of what Morocco would look like, smell like and sound like. My preconceptions were not altogether unfavorable, given that I like an adventure to contain elements of authenticity and distinction," I counter. "I may, however, have pre-judged Moroccans themselves as being friendlier than they actually are, based on those we met at EPCOT versus here."
My wife has been reading me passages from a book titled 'Understanding Islam', by Thomas Lippman. It clarifies many aspects of the Moslem culture and history, but doesn't help me much in understanding the barely latent hostility I have felt toward us since our arrival in Morocco.
"Wrong book. Try one that has the word 'Crusades' in the title," advises Bogart. "So basically, if you decide you don't like Morocco, it will be because the Moroccans don't seem to like you?"
Perhaps he is right. If we could ignore the street pests, our remaining impressions of what we have seen and experienced isn't really bad, at all.
For us, almost at once, inside Morocco, the sights had become interesting: women wore very traditional dress, most with scarves and veils. Frequently we passed men riding heavily laden donkeys, and wearing robes with tall pointed hoods that looked exactly like the ones worn by Obi-Won-Kenobi and the little sand people in the first Star Wars movie. Throughout the trip we saw hard-working Berber natives plowing rocky fields behind horses or oxen, seemingly from dawn to dusk, and shepherds tending their flocks of sheep or herds of goats.
The landscape itself was okay, but not particularly enthralling. Much of the country side could have been New Mexico or Arizona, except for the very infrequent camel now and then. The Atlas Mountains were nice, but failed to make a really big impression.
The older cities of Fes, Meknes and Marrakesh provided the real attractions. The street scenes depicted at EPCOT turned out to be very realistic and, in these three cities, particularly, were duplicated and varied over and over. The Medina in Fes was an amazing network of narrow, tumultuous alleys and corridors, bustling with the locals, tourists, and an occasional donkey. The sides of the arteries of the Medina were lined with shops selling brass, leather goods, pottery, oriental carpets and woodwork. Here and there, we also passed Koranic pre-schools clamoring with the singing voices of tiny children. Almost anywhere you look there are interesting archways, mosaics, carved and painted portals, or intricate wall carvings. Marrakesh is one of the better cities to visit. It offers more sights to which Westerners can gain entrance, such as the Tombs of the Sa'adine dynasty's rulers and the impressive Royal Palace. It is also home to the Mamounia, one of the world's finest hotels.
"But you didn't stay there," notes Bogart.
"No," I concede, while at the same time wondering how it is that Bogart can understand the parts that I am writing in italics...
"Look out!" warns Bogart.
Approaching the old square of Marrakesh, the street pests come at us from all directions. Ducking into a shop, we managed to shake most of them. The shop owners are more courteous, and although they are aggressive in showing you merchandise, they don't follow you out when you leave.
The old square of Marrakesh is a crowded open market of snake charmers, leather craftsmen, tricksters, musicians, water vendors in colorful red garb, tourists, pickpockets and "guides."
My intent at the old square is to buy a leather jacket, if the price is right, but in Morocco, price is a difficult thing to determine.
"You're going to have to bargain," Bogart says, "Offer less than half the asking price."
Nothing is bought or sold in the Medina without at least anywhere from five to ten offers and counter-offers. At first it was fun, like a game. It had taken nearly ten minutes of haggling for my wife to buy a braided leather belt for 40 percent of the original asking price, in Fes, but about a fourth of the cost of a comparable belt anywhere at home.
A 'guide' quickens his step to pace alongside me.
"What you look for?" he asks. "Nice Moroccan carpet? You come, I know very nice shop...No? Okay, I take you to very good store for leather...you buy wife very nice purse, belt?" He lowers his voice, conspiratorially. "Hashish?" he asks.
"No!" I exclaim. "I just want to be left alone!"
He says something in Arabic. I can't understand the words, but the expression on his face translates very clearly. He switches to English. "You look like Russians!" he shouts after us, spitefully.
"Ooh!" says Bogart. "I'll bet that one really stung!"
"He does seem to need a little more practice," I admit.
I am having a hard time getting a decent price for a jacket. Bogart warns me I may be late getting back to the bus.
"Special price for friend of Rick?" I try at one stall.
The shopkeeper gives me a puzzled expression. "You will not find a treasure like this in all Morocco, Monsieur," he tells me, "only 800 dirhans."
Finally, I give up and start back toward the bus.
"That rustic looking jacket with the tapestry woven on the elbows was unique," Bogart says.
My wife had bought a nice jacket in Paris a few years ago. She has never worn it without having at least one person tell her how much they love it. I was hoping to find something neat like that, so that at least, once in a while, someone would tell me how much they like my jacket. ("Oh, this old thing? Yeah, I picked it up in Morocco a few years back.")
"Maybe I should go up a bit more on my offer," I contemplate. I decide quickly to go back for the jacket. I return to the shop and spend about ten more minutes to close the deal. I wind up paying about five dollars more than the agreed upon price, because I use dollars, and the shop-owner uses creative mathematics for determining the conversion to dirhans.
"How much did you pay?", asks Bogie.
"Four hundred eighty," I tell him.
"No, of course not. Dirhans," I say, "About 60 dollars."
Bogart takes the bag from me and sniffs the jacket. He wrinkles his nose and wags his head. "Don't get caught in the rain in that, kid," he says, "You'll wind up smelling like a horse."
"You were the one telling me it was unique," I say.
"Camel dung is also unique," Bogart replies.
My wife and I soon would tire of the haggling for a reasonable price and basically quit trying to buy anything, unless we found a store with fixed prices, already much, much lower than in the "bargain" shops. Even then the prices could sometimes be subject to negotiation. Bargaining is such a way of life in North Africa, that a buyer is looked upon contemptuously if he or she pays the asking price or gives in too easily. It's a game I guess we just found just too foreign to enjoy, despite the "bargains" that could be realized when we stayed the course.
I want a photo with a water vendor. He wants twenty dirhans. I tell him ten only. He insists on twenty. I hold up my hand with a bunch of coins to find a ten dirhan piece. He grabs most of them, before I can react. I figure I have learned a valuable lesson. I could have been holding a hand full of bills. I tell the vendor 'OK,' and have my wife take the picture. Later we find out the film wasn't loaded correctly, and the whole roll is ruined. As the Moroccans would say: "Inshallah."
"Say," says Bogart, as we start back to the bus, "that wife of yours is pretty good-looking. You could probably get a good price if you were wanting to sell her."
We hurry back to the bus, swerving out of the way of more "guides" and a snake charmer thrusting one of the wiggling creatures toward our faces, and gesturing for us to come hold it for a small fee.
Several small boys have surrounded the bus entrance and are vigorously attempting to sell small banjo-like instruments made with turtle shells to anyone who approaches.
"Five dollars! Look! Sir, Look! Five dollars!"
Abdul goes through an exaggerated act of looking at the time on his watch, then showing me the time as I board the bus. As if we hadn't spent an extra forty-five minutes sitting around at the government-run leather factory waiting for Abdul and the bus earlier in the day.
"Yes, but Abdul gets a commission on all the purchases at the shops he arranges for you to visit," explains Bogart, "Kickback is the name of the game here. Didn't you actually watch the movie Casablanca?"
The boys selling the turtle shell banjos have not given up despite the fact that no one has shown interest in buying one. Finally, Eduardo, one of the Spaniards from our bus, goes to the bus door and tosses a five or ten dirhan piece to one of the boys. As the bus pulls away, I look back out the window just in time to see the boy who caught Eduardo's coin hurl it away and spit vehemently on the ground in our direction. I still haven't decided, if I more respect his contempt of accepting charity, or if I am bothered by his apparent contempt of us.
I consider Bogart's earlier remark about selling my wife. "Do you think I could get enough for one of those Moroccan rugs like we saw in Fes?" I ask. The women of Fes weave some truly beautiful and high quality Persian-style carpets. They are not cheap by any means, but they can be bought for a bit more than half than a Persian carpet would cost at home.
"Could be," Bogart says. "You want me to ask around?"
"Nah," I said. "She knows Tae Kwon Do. She'd probably get loose and come after me. Things like that couldn't really happen here, could they? I mean, this is the twentieth century."
"You still might find a few takers," Bogart tells me, "but by and large, you both are probably safer here than you would be in Manhattan, or London, or Los Angeles. Most tourists who run into serious problems are out by themselves after dark. Rape is starting to become a problem in the larger cities. The worst you are likely to encounter is someone asking you if they can take liberties with your wife. American women are believed to be incredibly promiscuous, and to sleep around a lot. The old TV shows like Dallas and Dynasty that Moroccan guestworkers see on TV in Germany help promote that kind of image. Be careful after dark, though. A minor incident could turn ugly pretty fast."
"Huh?" asks my wife. "Did you say something?"
"I don't think so," I say. "I was just thinking about how well your Tae Kwon Do has been coming along." I glance around me. The German lady across the bus isle is watching me intently.
"You should wear a hat," she says. "The sun. It is much hotter here."
"Uhmm," I reply. I say witty things like that, sometimes.
"I don't trust these Germans," Bogart says uneasily. "They give me the creeps."
"Stick to the subject," I tell him, "This article is about Morocco, not the Germans."
"Casablanca is in Morocco," Bogie replies, "and there was a lot about the Germans in the movie Casablanca. I should know. Besides your readers might be interested in knowing that there are a lot of German tourists here. They buy everything."
"There are more than twice as many Spanish tourists as Germans," I tell him.
"Who cares?" asks Bogart. "This article is about Morocco, and there weren't any Spaniards in the movie."
"Visitors to Morocco might care," I say. "The Spanish tourists were very friendly, and that has made the tour here nicer, since we're the only Americans."
"There used to be Americans," Bogart tells me, "...several bus loads, but since the problems with Libya there are hardly any."
"Libya looks ominously close on the map," I agree, "but then, this is Africa and things here aren't nearly as close as they appear to be on a map."
(This trip took place before the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. While Morocco did send troops to join the UN coalition against Iraq, there were a few very large pro-Iraq rallies in Morocco's larger cities. Though farther from Iraq than from Spain or France, or even Scandinavia, it may still be a while before American tourists return in number to visit Morocco.)
The public address system crackled, and Abdul starts talking: "Klshdgfia numsufd bejuynbbv KOUTUBIA TOWER llasnmdf sev..."
"What language is that?!" I ask.
"English," replies Bogart, "He's holding the microphone too close to his mouth and his accent is a little thick. You won't be able to understand three-fourths of what he says the whole rest of the trip. Good thing you have a guidebook."
Occasionally, our bus would meet a vehicle coming from the opposite direction. Roads in Morocco were constructed for small vehicles and animal-drawn carts, obviously not with the width of a tour bus (much less two opposing buses) in mind. As the approaching vehicle would draw closer, the driver would edge further out toward the middle of the road. The on-coming vehicle would gradually ease slightly, then finally to the shoulder of the road, and at the last moment the bus driver would slip back into his own lane, leaving a full ten inches or more clearance between vehicles as they passed each other at top speeds. The passengers would tense up every time an on-coming vehicle was spotted in the distance, then heave audible sighs of release with each survived incident.
Soon, however, the bus arrives at our hotel. We had been given a choice, when we signed up for the tour, of staying at either four-star or five-star hotels. Having once been to Egypt, I had deemed it wise to elect the best hotels available to us, and had therefore selected the five-star option.
"This is a five-star hotel?" I wonder in amazement. "The Mamounia Hotel is a five-star, the Royal Mansour and the Safir hotels in Casablanca are five-stars, but certainly this must be the four-star choice, since it looks like a two-star."
"Nope," says Bogie, "This is the five-star selection, kid. Just like the other hotels in Fes and Rabat. Maybe they got their five-stars during the Middle Ages, and haven't ever been re-rated. They're not that bad, they're just not what you're accustomed to. You stayed at the Marriott World Center, when you visited EPCOT."
"You really have to judge the value of this trip on the sights left over from prior centuries, don't you?" I ask. "For example, the beautiful old painted ceilings and wall and cornice carvings, the mosaic work, the Fes Medina, the mosque and the old city walls and gates at Meknes. I guess that's what we came to see in Morocco."
"Whine, whine, whine," says Bogart. "You sound like an American tourist. Remember too, kid, that a lot of the other things you have been seeing that have been interesting are as much a current way of life in Morocco as they were hundreds, or thousands of years ago: ...the Berber tribespeople in the mountains and plains plowing their fields behind a horse or pair of oxen, the veiled women, the market places in the Medinas, the snake charmers hustling a few dollars from curious sightseers, the heavily-laden donkeys plodding down the narrow cobblestone alleys shoulder to shoulder with merchants, housewives and tourists...that kind of thing. And if you want just one example of something the modern Morocco has to offer, look to Hassan II's royal palace, or even better, the Mausoleum of King Mohammed V in Rabat. That's as impressive a manmade attraction as any in Europe or the U.S."
"Now, wait a minute here," I say, "when we started this article, it sounded as if you weren't all too keen on Morocco...trapped these past fifty years in the Casablanca movie and all that. Now you seem to be singing a whole new tune. It sounds to me like you haven't made up your mind whether to put Morocco down or to play it up."
"This is your article," Bogie says. "I'm just saying whatever words you put in my mouth. Sounds to me like your problem, not mine."
I hate it when he does that.
We attended a couple of tourist shows in while in Marrakesh. One, at one of the four star hotels was fairly amateurish type presentation, but they had a pretty good belly-dancer as well as a snake charmer with a cobra.
"I could have told you to skip the hotel folkloriques," says Bogart. "You can pay a lot less for a much more authentic setting, and see just as much or more in the old square, here in Marrakesh."
"Some people might not like rubbing that many shoulders, especially since we were hassled in the old square more than anywhere else in Morocco."
"To each, his own," shrugs Bogart. "I guess those people maybe should just go to EPCOT."
"The show we went to at the oasis just on the outskirts of Marrakesh was a pretty good compromise," I countered. "We got to sample several authentic Moroccan dishes, and the setting was fun: large tents with roving group of musicians and regional dancers." (That show was extremely touristy. They play a lot of "Lawrence of Arabia" type music over a sound system all night, offer camel rides, etc., but everyone there seemed to enjoy it a lot, nonetheless. If you take a snooty view of places overrun by tourists, stay away from this show; there are hundreds, and the mood is strictly Hollywood. I think most Americans would like it as much as I did.)
The food during the trip varied; in some hotels and restaurants it was very good, other places it was marginal.
"Gee, that's something you can't say about just about anywhere in the entire universe, now is it?" volunteers Bogart.
My wife and I like spicy foods, Mexican being our favorite. When we ate at the Moroccan restaurant at EPCOT, the meal we had was somewhat spicy and very tasty. But, somehow, we only encountered spicy flavorings once during the trip; most of the time we had tahjine (good, but not particularly spicy), mutton or fish. Swordfish was very inexpensive, sometime under six dollars and tasted great. I likewise always enjoy cous-cous, a dish made from a semolina base and served in a meat and vegetable broth/ste. One of our new Spanish friends refused to taste this, explaining that she would not eat anything in Morocco cut or ground into components she was unable to identify.
We had absolutely no language difficulties. Although I speak no Arabic, I do speak French, which is the second official languag. Also, English was widely spoken everywhere we went. Spanish would have come in handy, given the huge number of Spanish tourists who visit Morocco.
The guide books that I had read suggested a demeanor of politeness in dealing with the apparently perennial army of human mosquitoes who plagued us every time we went out by ourselves. We are, after all, guests in their country. Any show of politeness, however, seemed to be taken as a sign of weakness by the locals and appeared in our case only to encourage them.
Another book suggested that you may as hire one because then the others will leave you alone. Somehow this seemed like perpetuating the problem to me, like dealing with terrorists, so we just did our best to ignore them. Nonetheless, I have to admit that, when we had an official guide in the Fes Medina, no one bothered us.
"In Morocco, you'd be best off to watch your temper and resign yourself to the fact that it is all part of a different culture," says Bogart. "The U.S. State Department is virtually impotent to extricate U.S. citizens who are caught up in any sort of entanglements in Morocco. And I'm fresh out of transit papers...gave the last ones to Laszlo and Ilsa."
The official government guides in Morocco wear a medallion that bears an emblem that I think was the "hand of Fatima." Fatima was the Prophet Mohammed's daughter and the symbol is considered a sort of good luck talisman, for warding off the evil eye, etc. Apparently it also wards off the street pests, such as in the Medina at Fes (it is absolutely necessary to have one in that medina, if you ever want to find your way back out).
"Also," offers Bogart, "there is an old trick that some young boys and other unofficial guides use...they will lead you deep into the center of the Medina and then as it begins to get dark, threaten to abandon you unless you pay an additional ransom. It probably isn't a really good place for an American to be wandering around after dark and without a clue as to which is a safe street or corridor and which is not."
We were the only Americans on the tour, which consisted of twenty-six persons; mostly Spaniards and a few Germans. In fact, the only other Americans we met during the seven days in Morocco were NASA specialists there to support a temporary alternate landing site for Hubble satellite space shuttle mission, which had been delayed. When we asked how long one of the NASA employees had been there, he told us, "Oh, about six hundred years." After a week of the street "guides" hassling us, we began to sympathize with him. Even Rabat, which by royal degree is supposed to be free of such hasslers, has a few.
"Maybe you would have fewer such problems if you were to arrive at the sights less conspicuously than by Touri$t Bu$," offers Bogart.
"I'm not so sure," I say. "Even the darker Spaniards, who look outwardly more like the native Moroccans have been having the same problems when they go out walking. One of them told me that he thought Morocco was someplace to visit, but only once."
I suspect that had we known someone from Morocco whom we were visiting, we might have seen a different Morocco, altogether. The places frequented year after year by bus loads of tourists are likely to develop a callused, if not hostile attitude after a while. Some of the most enjoyable and friendly places I have visited in France and Germany, are one that aren't on anyone's tourist itinerary, and even in cities like Paris and Lyon, France, presumably known for a marked coolness to outsiders, I have been welcomed like family when accompanied and introduced by French friends. I am also relatively certain the monarch of Morocco, King Hassan II, views the hassling of tourists as distasteful, as evidenced by the royal decree that partially shelters the capital, Rabat, from this infestation. To allow some latitude, however, it must be considered that the government does have many more pressing matters to deal with than the rescue of tourists who need only say no, and ignore the insults hurled after them. I have to remember, as well, the poor image that I have sometimes received in some our own large American cities, when a park in front of the convention center or city offices are full of several homeless or winos - sleeping on sheets of cardboard or on the grass. This presents a highly unfavorable portrait of our own government's efforts to deal with the homeless or vagrant multitudes. I'm sure I have probably been likewise insulted by American beggars for ignoring their requests for handouts. If the efforts of our own powerful U.S. government, and many charitable agencies and social welfare lobbyists have not been able to produce a better solution in the great cities of the United States, then how can we fault a smaller country like Morocco for a similar problem. It is unfortunate that it is these people: the homeless, the beggars and the shiftless, that cause themselves to be the most visible inhabitants to Western tourists - leaving a fairly blighted image of the Moroccan people. Perhaps this is an image that Europeans and Japanese tourists or business travelers, carry away from Washington D.C., Los Angeles or New York.
"Are you sure then, that this article is a fair representation of Morocco?" asks Bogart.
At this point, Bogart slaps me sharply up side the head! Luckily, because he is a 'mirage', I hardly feel a thing.
"You dolt!" he exclaims. "Of course it isn't!"
"I would like to point out that the word 'dolt' is not at all in character with the terminology that Humphrey Bogart would actually use," I accuse.
Suddenly, Claude Rains materializes next to Bogart. He is wearing a French Gendarme's uniform. "You dolt!" he exclaims, He slaps me with a glove and disappears.
"Somebody needed to say it!" says Bogart, regarding me sternly. "It is impossible to gain a fair representation of a country, of its people and its culture during a simple ten-day bus tour!
"Sorry," I apologize.
It is only upon reflection that I recall the hard-working Berber farmers in the plains and mountains of Morocco, and their children who enthusiastically waved at the passing buses. And then there were a couple of young women in Fes at a carpet shop, who despite the fact that they had been working at break neck speed upon their weaving loom, took time to pull my wife closer, and guide her fingers in adding a knot to the carpet, smiling shyly and uttering very hushed instructions in Arabic. I even recall an elderly Arab gentleman berating one of the street pests who was dogging us in Tangier, possibly for presenting such a poor image of his city? Or for pursuing such practices at a time when most good Muslims were just returning from Friday worship? Since we were visiting during Ramadan, many of the more devout would have been at home awaiting sunset to break their fast.
"Are you done?" asks Bogart. "Eighty percent of the population of Morocco is age eighteen or under," he says, "and seventy percent cannot read or write. Can you imagine your reaction to a U.S. city similarly populated? So far at least, there is nothing that even resembles gang violence in Morocco, although the home and cultural environment ought to lend itself more to that kind of thing more than say, Los Angeles? I mean, no available work, no available education, no available welfare."
"Tangier hasn't exactly had an exemplary reputation, even compared to Los Angeles," I answer, "...but I get your point."
Late one evening in Fes, when we went with some Spaniards for Mint Tea at a local "bar," we drew only mild attention from the heavy post-Ramadan crowds on the streets. At the "bar" we drew stares for a few minutes due to the presence of the female members of our party.
"There's never any Moroccan dames in any public cafe like this," explains Bogart. "It wouldn't be considered proper. Sort of like the all men's clubs in Great Britain, only it's a socio-political-religious thing, here."
None of the young Moroccans spoke to us from the nearby tables, and the waiter only spoke to confirm our order of eight Mint Teas, the "official" drink of Morocco.
"I hope my jokes didn't offend anyone," says Bogart as we were leaving, "I'll admit, that one about the camels and the veils may have been in poor taste."
"That was not a nice thing to say. The veils are a part of their culture and represent modesty and tradition," I reply; "A so-called joke like that might seem innocently funny to a few people, but not to someone who wants to promote cultural tolerance and mutual understanding. When traditions go back centuries, those who practice the traditions revere them and take an extremely dim view of open disrespect for them... especially when it is their home and you are a not altogether welcome guest. Besides, we saw a few of the younger Moroccan women in western style garments and they looked very normal. Thanks to your commentary, it is probably best that I never show my face in Morocco again."
"Well, that is certainly a shame," Bogart replies. "Maybe you could wear a veil."
Seriously, that kind of 'joking' could cause you no end of trouble in a place like Morocco. Enough Moroccans seem to understand English that what might start out as extremely 'poor taste' could end up as extremely 'poor odds' of survival. At best, it only enforces the already bad image that many other nationalities have of Americans.
"Sorry," says Bogart, "It was supposed to be an innocent joke, not a racial or chauvinistic slur."
"Can I get on with the story, now?" I entreat.
"Has it got a wow finish?" asks Bogart.
"I don't know the finish yet," I tell him.
"Well, go on, tell it, maybe one will come to you as you go along." he answers.
American women are likely to feel a bit strange in Morocco. Moslem women have very subordinate roles in Morocco, as in much of the Arab world. I don't simply mean they don't get the good jobs or as much pay, I mean that they are not allowed to sit in a public café, or argue with a Moslem male.
"Like that confrontation you saw in the Medina in Fes," says Bogart.
Several men were loudly berating a woman who had accosted a man who had for some unknown reason slapped her child. Our Arab guide in the Medina had explained to my inquiry that Moslem women are supposed to be "too shy to fight with a Moslem man."
"The confrontation was not about whether the child should have been slapped but rather about the woman having berated the man for having done so," notes Bogart.
Out of deference to local customs and decorum, my wife never wore shorts or sleeveless tops or anything which that might be considered risqué by local standards. In fact, even I kept to slacks or jeans, as did nearly every Westerner we saw, despite temperatures that would normally suggest shorts. We did see one or two girls in Fes wearing short-shorts and halter tops speaking in some language other than English, and I suppose these few exceptions could be sufficient to form the "rule" in some minds. Quite a few French women also brought their custom of topless sunbathing to the hotel poolsides, but the only Moroccans who were privy to such sights were the hotel waiters. I suspect neither the sunbathers nor the waiters consider this practice to be quite as public a disregard for local mores, since the pools are secluded behind the hotels, flanked by fences and shrubs.
I have enjoyed visits to other Middle Eastern countries more than Morocco, but if you happen to be in the south of Spain (something that I can recommend) and you have some time to spare, Morocco is worth the visit. It wouldn't be without value for every American to visit a country like Morocco once in his or her lifetime. It would provide a very useful perspective of many of life's finer points, a profound sense of appreciation for luxuries we often take for granted, and a better understanding both of how fortunate we Americans are, and of the different cultures of the world we share.
"Oh, beautiful, forspacious skies..." sings Bogart.
"Forspacious?" I ask.
Morocco is an experience. The bargaining for prices, the street pests, the evident disdain for Westerners, etc. are all part of the experience. It is even possible that part of Morocco's appeal comes from an image of hovering on the border between respectability and disrepute. To truly experience any country is to encounter its 'bad' points along with its good points. The unpleasantries are only momentary, while the experiences last a lifetime. In a not entirely insignificant way, who we are, can be much affected by the places we have lived and visited. It's hard to relate to the less fortunate, if your entire image of them is based on a standard that defines poverty as meaning one car, no VCR, and renting rather than owning. The price of this vacation was undoubtedly more than many of the Moroccans make in a lifetime, yet here I was bartering for a better price on items that were already half as expensive as at home. The amount I saved may have fed a Moroccan family for a month. It's not as hard to earn the "Ugly American" image as we might believe. A long time ago I decided that going to places like Morocco help you realize more clearly 'where you're coming from.'
Aboard the ferry from Ceuta to Algeciras, Spain, our Spanish guide, Paco, sidled up to my wife and I. "So, what did you think of your trip to Morocco?" he asked.
"It's a long story," I reply.
Later, the same evening, I am having a drink in the piano bar at our hotel in Torremolinos, on Spain's Costa Del Sol...
"Well," I say to Bogart, "I guess this is farewell. The Morocco trip is history now, and you were just along because of your part in Casablanca."
"I hate farewell scenes," replies Bogart.
I sit down at the piano and play a few bars from 'As Time Goes By'.
"Nice tune, kid," remarks Bogart. "Especially since you don't play the piano."
"From the movie," I answer.
"It depresses me." says Bogart. "Anyway, you'd better get going. If that plane leaves the ground and you're not on it, you'll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life..."
"Tell me about it." I say, "Huh?, wait a minute! What plane? I've got a Eurail pass. I'm catching the night train out of Malaga to Madrid."
"Never mind," he says, "Here's looking at you, kid."
(Michael Marcotte is a globe-trotting computer systems manager in Oklahoma, with an over-active imagination. He tries very hard not to typify a "racist, ugly American," but found it more difficult than usual during his trip to Morocco. Apologies to all Moroccans and persons of Arabic origin who do not fit the images portrayed in this article. Humphrey Bogart died in 1957, so it was especially nice of him to make an encore appearance with Mr. Marcotte in this article).
Last Updated 04/26/98.© PPSA Consulting All rights reserved by author. Reprinted with permission.