Until Morocco, despite all evidence to the contrary, I believed I was an okay traveller, and reasonably culturally sensitive. I am not. After Morocco, I understood I never had been.
By the third day was I was in free fall, plummeting fast. But from the outset I was a canary, loosed, in a world too big for me.
On the journey from Tangier to Fez there was a square hole, quite large, in the floor of the bus. People standing in the aisle clung onto railing to avoid falling into the hole. Dust engulfed us. The woman next to me fell asleep with her head on the bag on my lap. A young woman, she was obviously exhausted, oblivious. A small amount of something dark and sticky – date juice and saliva? – dribbled from her mouth and stained the jade green cotton of my bag. I felt protective, didn’t want her disturbed. When she woke she was embarrassed.
At a stop midway some passengers bought mint tea at an outdoor stall in the desert. A man in his 30s bought me a Coke – in the classic barley-sugar twist-shaped bottle – and I let him. He spoke good English, was companionable, told me about Fez and invited me to visit his extended family who lived in the mountains. They’d roast a lamb. I worried about entanglements. When we reached Fez, he seemed politely irritated as I shed his company.
In Fez, the hotel I had chosen was beyond luxurious, perched on a crag overlooking the walled city. Its public spaces were filled with contemporary recreations of medieval tessellations. Small water fountains bubbled. In Tangier, I had purchased a djellaba kaftan, lapis lazuli coloured, gaudy and sequined. In a burst of optimistic Orientalism, I wore this to dinner at the 5-star resort restaurant. The well-heeled French clientele averted their eyes, signalling that mix of pity and contempt: the French women wore filmy black cocktail dresses with spaghetti straps. The maître d’ was curious that I was a woman alone, astonished by my outfit. He asked what the words on my key-ring meant. My key-ring had an image of orange flowers and, from memory, the words: “Be happy. Laugh. Love life.” I translated this in my best school-girl French. His expression of astonishment increased.
I couldn’t eat the dish I ordered. It was huge. I didn’t understand chicken pie with sweet pastry, with cinnamon and sugar.
Next morning I rose early and went down to the pool for a swim. The pool was on a parapet offering a remarkable vista, right across Fez. It was deserted, except for a pool attendant, who carried a pool scoop and was cleaning the pool, in a desultory way. The pool attendant waved me towards him and initiated conversation. He gestured for me to get out of the water so he could point out the major landmarks of Fez, in French. When I stood by him, he stepped behind me and enfolded me in his arms, drawing me in towards his body. I stepped away.
At the hotel’s taxi rank, I asked a cab driver to take me to the famous historic mosque I’d identified as being a mandatory cultural visit for an art and history maven. The cab driver informed me I was not permitted to visit this mosque. He, however, could propose other places of interest: a spice shop, where I declined to make any purchases; and a ceramics shop, where the owner told me I really must try harder to haggle, that it destroys the fun when tourists just won’t try, and eventually delegated his son to haggle on my behalf. I left with a dozen fired pottery bowls of varying sizes, most of which broke en route back to London. There was also a carpet emporium, where I failed to resist the one rug I really admired, inevitably the most expensive.
Some time between that afternoon and next morning I lost my watch.
On the third day I decided not to engage with local guides and not to buy anything. Instead, I woke early and walked down the mountainside to the medina. The Fez medina is the oldest intact walled city in Morocco. It’s a time-travel warren of narrow winding alleys and medieval Islamic gateways, or “babs”. Women and small children squat against walls lining the alleys, selling chili and capsicum, coriander and onion, and shrunken, faded oranges. Every so often the alleys open into small tiled squares with a fountain as centrepiece. As I passed by doorways, I could glimpse broken tiles down dark hallways. Some houses had satellite dishes atop.
I got lost. A lot. For a while I despaired of finding my way out of the medina, of re-orienting to my clifftop resort hotel. But I emerged into open space outside the wall, only a sprawling cemetery between me and the cliff, between me and the resort. I like cemeteries, as cultural artefacts. I respect them, too, as I understand “respect”: I recognise them as places where the dead are buried, where loved ones rest, endowed with religious significance. I didn’t think of myself as someone using the cemetery to take a short cut. I saw myself as a sombre visitor, solemnly, purposefully, acknowledging the tombs.
I was not seen this way by others. A man visiting a grave, with several other men, became agitated, angry, at the sight of me wandering. Perhaps I trod on graves inadvertently. Perhaps I simply should not have been there. The angry man yelled at me, kept yelling, then pursued me. I became frightened. As I picked up pace, then tried to run, I stumbled on the kerbsides of graves. I was scared.
Another man, all in white, with a white turban, stepped in front of the angry man and blocked his pursuit. The man in white spoke to the angry man in a calming voice, creating space for me to make my getaway. I scrambled through the graves until I reached the far side. My progress was panicked, not dignified nor respectful.
By the time I reached the gates of the hotel I was somewhat calmer. As I turned towards the hotel entrance yet another man, tall, in a djellaba, called out to me, “You can’t get through that way.”
I was intrigued. Again, I stopped.
“You can’t get there that way,” the man said, hastening to my side. “You have to go around. Here, let me show you.”
I let him escort me around the high outer wall of the hotel. I soon gathered he assumed I was searching out the fourteenth century graveyard, which, he informed me, lay down a steep drop on the far side of the resort, shadowed by the hotel. It was a site of interest to tourists, he said, due to its association with the Crusaders. As the ninth and final Crusade ended late thirteenth century, I was confused: did he mean the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula?
Whatever its associations, the Crusader graveyard was a dangerous place. In fact, Moussa (as he introduced himself) advised tourists against visiting. The site was frequented by cut-purses, and cut-throats. It was secluded, entirely hidden from view. A bad place.
We by this time were secluded, hidden from view. I had misgivings. Moussa took pity.
“You are a kind person,” he opined. “A good person. You should not be visiting these places. You should not put yourself at risk like this.”
He looked grim. Tall, handsome. A plausible avenging angel. He loomed over me.
Moussa offered me some tanned leather goods to purchase. His family ran a leather tanning business, quite possibly the one I’d visited the previous afternoon, where the young guide who spoke five languages fluently had grilled me on how to emigrate to Australia. Older male employees at the tanning business had drawn me aside and asked me what we’d spoken about. I told them he wanted to visit Australia (“You do realise that airfare cost is five years income for me?” the young man had said). The old men look amused and annoyed. “He is mischievous, that one,” they told me. “Always pestering Japanese women tourists. Don’t listen to him.”
I chose from Moussa’s backpack a teal-stained bag with moccasin stitching. I fumbled for coin. You don’t have to buy anything, he said.
Moussa told me he lived in the Berber village immediately behind the 5-star resort. When the resort owners were approved planning permission, they pressured the Moroccan government to bulldoze the existing village. It was unsightly, they’d argued. Squalid. Not a good look to attract upmarket tourists. So instead, a showcase village had been built. Its facades were perfect, exactly the right exotic note. But there was no sanitation, no running water, no electricity, no school.
As we prepared to part, still hidden from sight by a rock over-hang that almost formed a cave, Moussa gestured to my empty plastic water bottle.
“Can I have that?” he asked. “In my village, where we have no running water, we are short on water containers. We can re-use that.”
I nodded and gave it to him.
When I got back to the hotel my earrings were not there. I made phone calls to truncate my Moroccan visit, cancelling the Marrakesh stay. The nearest flight back to London was from Casablanca, which meant my return ticket from Tangier was, as the airport employee told me, “inutile”. Overladen with luggage (mostly pottery), drained by the stifling airport departure lobby heat, I tore that ticket up. Afterwards it took me months to get an Air Maroc refund without the physical ticket as evidence.
At Casablanca airport I heard overhead announcements in French advising that my flight was delayed. I was caught in a scrum of men pressing the Customer Service desk for information. Some of the men groped me. The air was heavy with sweat and stench. My French was adequate to the occasion.
I understood viscerally that I am no traveller. As I took my seat on the plane, I felt limp with relief. A young girl sat next to me. She was bright eyed and beautiful, thirteen years old. She was returning to Manchester with her parents after a visit to relatives in the Atlas Mountains, where she’d met the cousin who later in the year she’d marry.
“It will be a big marriage!” she enthused. “Lots of people, lots of food! Dancing and music! And my husband is so handsome. He is 15. I like him very much!”
She looked at me, her thin face lit up, her almond eyes star-like.
It never crossed my mind to report our conversation to UK Social Services.