Marrakesh, Old Town
Everyone seemed to have rotten, black, and missing front teeth. They were friendly and kept smiling and that’s how I saw they mostly had rotten, black and missing front teeth.
I couldn’t see a lot of the women’s teeth, only their eyes, and often not even. There were many women dressed from head to ankle, in long black fabrics, with layer upon layer covering skin, hands, hair, and some that covered the eyes, and with only a marginally thinner veil, so that everything was hidden, nothing to determine soul, being, nor person. From afar, yet only by daylight, everywhere they were – like some sort of black ninjas with flowing dark veils – strange and anonymous, solitary shapes, gliding through the winding streets, and swirling the dust from around their imagined ankles. While the men stood on broken curbs, waiting for meats to grill, and smoking out in the dry air.
It was warm then hot, and there were pelicans standing tall on the castle walls.
The light was amber and gold. It softened the skin and should have made us feel better somehow. Was that our reason to be there? To soften the skin and make us feel better somehow?
The stone walls of the ancient city gave way to many different passages, narrow and twisting, cobbled streets that crisscrossed in an unfathomable, giant labyrinth of mainly souks. The souks were filled with meat vendors, spices sellers, stalls with vegetables and flat breads, argon oils, leather and wood crafts, jewellery, purses, beads, embroidered scarves, hand stitched clothes, silver plates, spoons and trays. And everywhere, in large wooden doors, the entrances to many hidden mosques, were the beggars, sitting on grey steps, with dull eyes, tired and old.
In the early morning hours, the streets finally emptied, and the sky wide, turned from black to dark blue. Under a blanket of stars we would wound our way home, happy and lost, consigning ourselves to some inexplicable world.
We passed the solitary figures of local men, floating eerily home in white, flowing robes, and their strange white pointy hats – ghostly gowns, glowing translucent against the pale moonlight, and casting dark, strange, shadows that stretched long and haunting, mysteriously, over the brick work of the city.
Then, each morning, the cry for prayer echoed across the town, wholesome, glorious, filling all of the air, penetrating and divine, filled with hope.
The local skinny boys in jeans and t-shirts, with bikes and mopeds, gathered, not at school, but on all the corners, alongside donkeys and fruit sellers, and when you passed, the older ones would touch your arm, smiling and showing another missing tooth, and in French or English, offer to find another street to take you everywhere, anywhere. The younger ones, slouched on stacks of dusty bricks, and stood and stared.
It was hot and still. Then the day filled with noise and smoke.
Crowded, dusty, loud; scooters and bikes only avoided crashing into everything by will of God, never slowing, always honking. The stench of donkey and camel shit mixed with the cooking, grilled meats at the curbs, and the pungent petrol fumes that tainted your clothes, and laced a kiss, hung on the air two floors up, and the saffron and spices –often fake, sometimes real, depending on their rich red or yellow dye – caught your attention, yet all those smells, mingling and rampant, all hanging on the polluted dry air, stagnant and thick from all that, and more, and in particular the stinking, rotting, and rancid drains.
The donkeys barely stood, whipped and beaten to move, whipped and beaten to stand upright, shifting weight, one leg to another, large empty, brown hollow eyes, belonging to another place.
And more grey beggars in dirty alleys, with missing fingers as well as teeth, and bundles of kids screaming out. Their eyes half closed, blinded by sunlight. Until, soon, from behind, the narrow streets and buildings would shade them, almost, from the baking sun.
Yet, again, that call for prayer – again and again – its beauty would resonate high through the warm air, powerful echoes, gentle and calming, like the light.
They wondered why we came, and when they said not, it is exactly how we came.
Each night at the main square, DJemaa El Fna, the busiest square in all of Africa, there was a loud cacophony, a bustling. It was a musical, shouting, yelling crowd! I was there; pushing past young girls, not even five, that grabbed your arms for henna tattoos, and small grubby boys that carved wooden chess pieces at your feet. The smoke rose high against the cobalt sky. In strode tall white and grey horses, gallant and impeding, and there were the snake charmers, banjo players, nut merchants, monkeys and some tricksters too.
Later, we’d sit high up in a cool cafe, and below the crowds curled, snake-like, around one another, alive and frenetic, following the smoke trails from the meat vendors or the light displays, intense and feverish.“No problem, for you, no problem, no problem,” resounded from the square, followed without exception with a problem; but seemingly we had all night, all week, all year.
They served us herbal tea on golden trays, and we kissed high up and under the moon.
Above, the sky was melting like black oil, and pitted with stars that in comparison seemed icy cold. Far below, this terrifyingly poor but friendly world surged in hectic currents, and a desperation I could no longer try to gather.
In the distance, loomed the cold dark shadowy forms of The Atlas Mountains; smudged by darkness, yet definite, solid, their high peaks frosted white, and only the vast desert between.
We stayed in a small riad named El Sagaya on Rue El Gza in the old Medina, with pretty bright blue mosaics, hand woven rugs, a crazy black spaniel dog, and a small brown turtle. We’d take coffee each morning as the great orange sun would rise, and over the rooftops with broken satellites, discarded furniture, lines of washing and a myriad of dust beaten rugs, we’d set our eyes on the mountains, cool, steady, in the distance, and still covered in snow.
Most people spend five days here, I was told, but we checked in for the month. Maybe that was a mistake. Maybe that was the plan. I will never remember now. There was beauty and mystic and the people were kind. I remember that. Then, it all got too much. I mean the smells, the dust, the missing teeth, the women in black cloaks with no eyes or skin or hair, the men with pointy hats, the cooking meats, the hanging gutted bloody pigs, the chickens with their throats rung, the stench of sewer and drains, the souk sellers, the tourists, the begging, the bartering, the need.
I was slipping into the grasping hands of an unknown city, being pulled under, or pushed along, nowhere to stop and think and breathe – stifling, smothering, gasping for air, my mind faltering down strange black tunnels, shifting and slanting, downwards in spirals of dark then white light.
My eyes would sting and my nose would run. I’d throw open our wooden shutters, and then bound them up again. I tried to block out the noise and let in only the light.
I begged that we leave, if only for one day. On the news, Libya was burning to the ground.
Outside the walls of the old town, and past the King’s Palace, with it’s coral walks and golden gates and colorful flags, was the new town.
We stood in a large empty square, spanning on one side with wide sun parched parks, and on the other side large glass fronted department stores. In the middle, pink terraces, gold statues and clear, white fountains, glistened silently, peaceful, in the lush midday sun. A light, determined breeze prickled the back of our necks.
It was then, in the square, as if a cloud passed swiftly over the sun, a sudden change in energy emerged, like that before a storm.
Swarms of men came with deafening drones of mopeds and motorcycles. Then hundreds more, like thick clouds of flies – buzzing, blinding, accelerating, surging, massing – filling the square, women too, with coloured head scarves, carrying large banners, and with horns blaring, shouting, yelling. The throngs clung everywhere and hoarded the square. One heaving crowd with one message that demanded change:
“Down with Autocracy!”
“The People want to change the constitution!”
The smell of gasoline fused with the heat, sweat, and the insistent chants of the crowd. As the protest gathered, we were forced into its midst, then hemmed out to the sides of the square. The banners and slogans were demanding education reform, better health services, economic opportunity, help to cope with the rising cost of living, democracy. Onlookers climbed high onto lamp posts and recorded the rally with mobile phones, linking to social media.
The square heaved and groaned with the weight of the demonstrators, and it pushed in all directions, yet ultimately, it became snared like a wild animal; a living beast, lashing out, unwavering under the smell of burning metal and exhaust fumes. The motorcycles flashed urgently and roared all around, trapped in space and heat, rearing like wild horses in the crowd.
It is true the protests were peaceful, there was no police or military intervention. It was just moments after – as the initial protestors began to push out of the bottom right corner of the square, with their rush of mopeds and humming engines, and more crowds of young males poured in from the top corner, brandishing bats and bottles – that the violence came.
An abrupt moment as exhilaration turned automatically and inexplicably to fear. The instant knowledge of grave danger, the change of mood, the alertness of senses, the thinner air, the smell of sweat, ammonia, in the crowd. People screeched for us to run, and people ran – they ran fast. Everyone knew at once. Shouting, warning, through the panic, shrieking to take cover.
We were pulled into one of the buildings on the left of the square. Security men locked the doors, and reopened to let in the last, quickly locking again, ushering everyone to huddle, packed into the back of the restaurant, away from the windows.
It was dark, then a hushed silence fell as we huddled – but not for long. The continual battering of the glass soon began. A constant loud and terrifying pelting down on glass.
Windows were attacked, thrashed and breaking; mobs carrying baseball bats, threw chairs and bricks, and large cement pots, set fire to cars. The repeated torrent of violence drummed upon the windows, and sent streams of shattering glass across the floors and tables, and as we were trapped and frightened at the back.
A small boy beside me – his head ran with blood. Others grabbed at fire extinguishers, and people, tourists or well dressed Moroccans with large frightened eyes, cowered where there were no windows and no way out, and spoke in panic of petrol bombs and fire. Some picked up heavy objects in defence should the mob get in.
It was difficult to stay calm; my skin was cold and damp. I was shaking, my stomach felt weak. I held a cloth to the brow of the small boy beside me. I had to get out.
As soon as there was a small lull in the sound of violence, despite the warnings I would be safer inside, I ran, turning fast onto the back streets and away from the square. My legs were empty, my hair wet. Everywhere I ran, all the shop fronts had been destroyed, all smashed and shattered, nothing but glass and rubble. At the bus station, near the ancient walls of the old town, the cars blazed, burning now into blackened shells.
Once at the riad, shaking still, I see from a flashing blue TV screen, the protests happened all across Morocco – leaving five charcoal bodies, later found, in a burnt out bank in Rabat.
Soon we took north to the mountains, to Setti Fatma, where Berbers were resting under 100-year-old oak trees. We climbed the mountains up to the seven waterfalls, and at last, the air felt clean and fresh, and the water hard and icy. Still, they had managed to put some souks, all the way up there, and my lover bought me a green stone necklace.
We watched it shine like emerald in the sun.
Finally, as the United Nations declared war on neighbouring Libya, the taxi driver dropped us at Menara International Airport in his large shinny BMW. I asked about the protests and riots, and he told us, waving his tanned and hairy arms, “It’s all wrong, the people love their king! It’s not true, none of it, it is lies, people here are uneducated and ignorant, we love King Mohammed, he has done amazing things for us!”
His large Rolex watch shone in the last rays of the opulent Moroccan sun.
The last beggar, slumped against the reddening wall, nursing a dirty faced child with ringlets of dust in her hair, caught my eye, but she would not stretch out her hand, for law with penalty of jail decreed she must not upset the king, nor us – the tourists.
I recalled one last time how we sat high up in a cool cafe, watching below as the crowds curled snake-like, around one another, alive and frenetic, following the smoke trails from more meat vendors or the light displays, intense and feverish. I recalled how they served us herbal tea on small gold trays, and how we kissed high up and under the moon.
A bomb exploded there a month later, blasting through the café, ripping through the square, bringing the place down to mortar and dust. Amidst the screams and tears of people, happy perhaps in a moment, dead the next, the ones left behind learned how to mourn, how to go on.
For us, death did not come then. I boarded a plane with my few belongings, my anxiety, and some wine, and flew to Sweden and made a film
*an old Moroccan proverb
Joanna Pickering is an actress, traveller, and activist. Her writing has been featured in Louder Than War, Bellacaledonia, and Backstage. The photos of Morocco are hers.