Morocco Journal 1997

02.06.98 — London

Why Morocco? I’m not sure now, I seemed so sure then. Morocco had always held an intensively magical place in my mind since reading Naked Lunch and Junky. It was just somewhere I had to go, just to see what could possibly have inspired such words and images. Perhaps I should have left it that way. Morocco had become such a mythical place of dangerous imaginings and fluid dreams. Morocco was to me the place where all edges were defined with precision, where all became intense and inverted. No wonder Interzone became such an irrationally real place to me. I dreamed of cramped Medinas filled to their low ceilings with the darkly Noir-ish characters of Burroughs and Bowles, of colonial hotels trapped in the uncertainty of Vichy and populated with the detritus of war torn Europe.

Such was the intensity of my expectations that as the day drew nearer I began to dread the near certainty of my disappointment. Yet I was not disappointed. The Morocco of my dreaming was long gone, but the savage ghosts remained and always will. Sitting in the Tangier Inn, surrounded by the reminders of the Interzone, I chatted long into the night with the modern day detritus of Europe, we shared beers and stories, lives and dreams. Interzone returned to me and time stood very still.

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04.10.97 — Tangier

Twenty four hours of Tangier have passed not uneventfully. The excesses of this crazy city take a while to get used to. After having sand thrown at me by an incredibly persistent six year old on the beach this morning, the intense delights of the Kasbah and the Medina came as an even greater shock. The Tangier Medina contains every conceivable variety of shop and service, all negotiated with practised emotions and confused gestures. Our purchase of the day was an inflatable astronaut — we were delighted. A personal tour of the Kasbah Museum by yet another faux guide gave me a chance to practice my bargaining technique — from 200dr to 30dr in five minutes, we left our man in a little coffee shop at the heart of the Medina just off the Petit Socco.

Café of the day was a beautifully tiled but empty salon in the south east corner of the Medina. I sat and smoked too many cigarettes, which come at 25dr a pack and can be bought anywhere, as for that matter, can anything in Tangier. The city is tiny, but crammed to the sky with smells and sounds to delight and amuse. William Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch in the room above me and finally it is beginning to make sense. The Tangier Inn downstairs is haunted by his presence, I had a drink and a smoke for him.

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06.10.97 — Meknes Medina

After a tortuously long, but pleasantly air-conditioned train journey from Tangier, Meknes at first appeared to mirror the architecture and the atmosphere of suburban Tangier. The walk to the medina proved that first impressions are not always accurate, and the Medina opened before us in an explosion of colour, sound and smell. After walking for 2km without the obligatory guide we were regarded with curiosity and amusement, but without the menace and suspicion of Tangier. Woman are more in evidence here, and have a certain flamboyance and pride in appearance not seen by us before. The Medi style has been replaced by deep blues, purples and yellows, patterns and big suits. Hair is shown by all and barbers and dentists are everywhere. We have not encountered the “uncle’s shop” thing here, and the cotton sheet I bought today was acquired with a friendly banter using my appalling French. The snack food here is a joy to behold, and even Jo has been surprised at my enthusiasm for the street vendors. The Medina proper is a maze of streets, but we were able to trawl at our leisure. Meknes has impressed us such that we feel we have finally arrived in Maroc proper.

08.10.97 — Meknes

Meknes has somewhat transformed our impression of Morocco so far. A haven of polite attitude and menace-free curiosity, hand shaking and conversation pass the day here. No Tangier hard sell, no cracked English invitations of “no obligation” or “hey johnny.” We wandered the Medina for two or three hours, peacefully lost in the suburban hustle and bustle. Children are everywhere and a chorus of “bonjours” and giggles follow us as we walk. Hordes of coloured rucksacks run in all directions, the girls whisper and the boys play football. The importance of a nod of the head, or a well timed handshake is becoming all the more apparent. Last night I had a conversation with the owner of our hotel, whereby it transpired that Tangier is not exactly held in high esteem by other Moroccans. In Meknes we see the same faces again and again, always pleased to see us, always curious why we didn’t come during the tourist season. Making friends is easy here — respect and compassion go a long way — as well as the ubiquitous handshake, of which we could now write a book.

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09.10.97 — Fes

After a relatively quiet arrival in Fes yesterday, our only whole day here has been one of extremes. Our hotel is very nice, the hot water in particular being very welcome. Last night was very good, involving a lovely twilight walk to the gates of the Medina and a visit to the cinema to watch a Jackie Chan movie in French. Today we started well, only to be thwarted at the gates of the Medina. After picking up some very unsavoury characters, who then proceeded to argue over which one would be our guide, we sought sanctuary in a very quiet café to contemplate our itinerary for the day. The guides waited for us and, after half an hour of badgering and hassle, we picked a ten-year old to guide us for 20dr. Loathe as I was to give in, he at least prevented further hassle, even though the tour ended with the obligatory uncle’s shop. Once satisfied with the sights of the Medina, we headed back to the small café where the owner told us he had called the Sûreté to deal with the touts who had hassled us. After a pleasant coffee and a chat with him, Jo decided to take up his offer of a henna foot tattoo at a family house next door.

This was the good bit. We finally had a chance to talk directly, albeit through him, to some artists, and get some film of them in action. The family were incredibly friendly and we were served tea whilst the women prepared Jo’s feet. The whole process took 3 hours and was a joy. We learned of the education here, particularly towards women who only go for a couple of years before joining family life, and of their thoughts and suspicions of the west. Everyone here is on the make, the only difference seems to be in degrees of hassle and the manner of the sell. Westerners are seen as a commodity here, we are needed for nothing else. My experiences and aspirations for Fes have been tarnished by a dozen idiots — including one guy who almost got us run over and another who invited us to a restaurant, tried to sell us some hash and asked to borrow 200dr, all in the space of five minutes. I will try to remember the good bits, particularly the children of the family and the giggles of the young henna artist as she worked.

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11.10.97 — Midelt and the High Atlas

The drive form Fes to Midelt was wonderful and cost us about £13 each for a three and a half hour drive. Our driver was of the smiling innocent type, trustworthy and pleasant company. The Hotel Atlas in Midelt gave us a lovely rooftop room, complete with our own outside toilet and patio for 60dr a night. Apart from a deeply distressing carpet encounter, the first night in Midelt was awe inspiring. We are surrounded by Martian landscapes, the red rocks and gorges brutal in the extreme. Today, after meeting a man called Kamel, we visited the abandoned mines to the north-east of the town. I was able to take some beautiful super8 of the numerous gorges, canyons, rivers, caves and mine workings. For four hours we relaxed and simply took in the amazing landscape around us. the whole afternoon cost us £6 each and was a bargain. We met a bunch of Kamel’s friends by the mine, all drunk and shooting bottles with a gun, with whom we sang Bob Marley songs and talked of animation. I also had my first taste of Moroccan hash, very smooth and perfect for the afternoon’s adventure.

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13.10.97 — Rich and the High Atlas

The last few days have involved a strange cast of characters — from the obnoxious carpet salesman in Midelt, to the treasonous geology student who gave us the wonderful and unexpected tour of the mines, to the disillusioned and depressed German eco-hippies with their cynicism and paranoia looking for a perfect world that will never exist, to the Berber philosophy student whose defining characteristic is that he is possibly the only Moroccan who doesn’t smoke dope. For all the money grabbing and cynical Moroccans we have met, so many have made it a pleasure and an adventure. Leaving Midelt today, with our ever hopeful green solar panel salesman, I felt that we could finally connect with both the land and the people. The more relaxed mountain Berber attitude has freed our senses and to them we are merely a curiosity — the exacting Muslim attitude of the north has given way to a powerfully simple attitude to life here. Sitting on the roof, watching the stars, talking of America and cigarettes, the mountains and the sand surround us. We are on another planet.

14.10.97 — Rich and the High Atlas

Our second day in the frontierstown of Rich has been amazing. After spending two hours hiring bikes — they had to be assembled in a slash and burn fashion for us — we set off for the foothills of the Atlas mountains. We rode along the banks of the Ziz and, after crossing by way of a tiny bridge, trawled through sleepy Berber villages. A stop at an amazing ruined Kasbah led to a wonderful few hours with a friend of Omar’s, a Berber man who is getting married in a week. We drank tea and ate fresh dates, before a meal of bread and stew with pomegranates for dessert. After sleeping for an hour of the midday heat, we were on the track again, passing brightly dressed Berber wives on donkeys and children asking for stilus. Eventually we reached the lush surroundings of the Homate spring with its crystal clear pool and turtles. The whole day, with its beautiful vistas and positively X-files sunset, has been worth the plane fare in itself. We have found Maroc.

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15.10.97 — Azrou and Khenifra

Travel Maroc style — I’m sitting in a grand taxi while Jo and our French speaking taxi driver try in vain to contact the Hotel de Thermos. Azrou was a tranquil delight which ill prepared prepared us for the cat fight preceding the buttock clenching ride through the mountains to Khenifra. We are trying, possibly in vain, to get to the lush pastures of Oulmes. It’s dark and we are at last 70km away, and I’ve never felt so excited. I feel I am becoming part of this crazy country — I’m on to the noir cigarette sans filter so it can’t get worse

17.10.97 — Oulmes and Rabat

Oulmes was interesting. After the drive, the hotel was a three star joy and stuck in a fifties time-warp. We had entered “The Shining.” The countryside was beautiful but could not compare to the High Atlas and Rich. I became ill on the first day and subsequently have little in the way of memories other than the quality of the porcelain. The boss of Sidi Ali Maroc gave us a generous lift to Rabat for nothing and we once more entered the maelstrom. Rabat itself was provincial and noisy and warrants no more mention save the eager net-heads we met.

21.10.97 — Safi Medina

Safi has been a joy after the obligatory pollution of Rabat. The journey here was long and tiring but not unpleasant, we knew we had reached Safi as the smell of the sardine factory hit our nostrils. The Hotel Majestic is a bit smelly and fly ridden, but clean and ridiculously cheap. The souq here is calm and not hassly apart from the odd “hey eeengleesh” which we have learned to ignore. The pottery souq in the Medina was full of garish shmuck and not worth a look, but the shops in the potters quarter are fun and there is some nice detailed decoration going on, if not much in the way of form. Whilst touring the workshops and kilns the rain started to hit hard, leading to a frenzy of activity and shouts as they tried to cover the pots and fire a kiln at the same time. This was handy, as our assistance at this point made us some new friends. I was able to film the kiln firing and we are returning tomorrow to watch it being opened. The quality of the work is so-so, but the processes are ancient and fascinating. We watched a thrower, sitting at his buried wheel, throw with a confidence and second sight that would make an English potter weep tears of embarrassment. A good day.

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22.10.97 — Safi and Essaouira

Unfortunately we were unable to see the kiln opened as it was not cool enough, but we were instead able to talk to the head of ceramics at the museum who showed us some good Berber pots and introduced us to some interesting people. The trip to Essaouira was long but enjoyable and the hotel is a mish mash of surfers, travellers and hippies. We have a beautiful terrace room, basic but somehow relaxing and just what the doctor ordered. The town itself is beautiful and exciting and I even managed to get an English paper.

23.10.97 — Essaouira

After losing Jo I met a Berber acrobat, chilling out here for a few days. He introduced me to his potion mixing friend who provided me with vast amounts of information on Moroccan magic as well as many stories. I bought a couple of spells and a couple of potions for my digestion. I feel I have really found the inspiration for the work, and will do some research when I get back to England.

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24.10.97 — Essaouira and Imlil

We spent the morning in Essaouira, shopping in the cavernous Silver souq. I finally found what I was looking for — a small tube container for Sue. One of the silver merchants was a genuine priest and wrote a short prayer for me to Sue which he then sealed inside the container. Our friend Mohammed got the price from 600dr to 300dr by pleading with the man. The bus trip to Marrakesh was bouncy but funny as the Berber women smiled and talked to us and the chickens clucked under the seats. Marrakesh to Asni was crowded but easy, leaving the final Asni to Imlil section. For this we were forced, as it was past ten o’clock, to take a Berber truck for 100dr. The journey through the mountain pass was wild and rough and worth every penny. The cold hit us and we shivered with excitement. From Imlil you can see all the stars, the nights are crystal clear and punctuated only by the sound of singing. The Berbers here are very chilled and friendly. On arriving at the hotel we met a couple of Belgians and a German, all good fun and very like us. We have found the perfect place for our last three days.

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25.10.97 — Imlil and the High Atlas

Our walk today took us high above Imlil and around to the south of the village. As we rounded the corner at 2500m we had a startling view of Jbel Toubkal in the distance, snow capped and mysterious between the other mountains. At 4000m it is too much for us, although we have had many offers to take us — worrying as I only have trainers and would probably die in the process. There are a lot of cowboys here. Imlil is another Rich, a frontier village populated by strange locals and odd travellers. In the evening we cooked a meal with the Belgian couple and discovered that some Belgians have a great sense of humour. We ate under the stars and I smoked the last of the pot. During the day we had lunch by a huge waterfall and wandered through the villages with the local children. The houses are everywhere on the hills, built into the rock behind. At night the lights can be seen all around. Beautiful.

25.10.97 — Imlil and the High Atlas

Another chill day in the mountains. Imlil is impossibly quiet and I will miss the sun setting over the mountains, the crystal clear view of the stars, the clouds settling around the summit of Toubkal, the moonlit coffees. This was the perfect place to sit and swallow all that we had before we hit the madness of Marrakech for the last time. We are cooking a meal with some freshly picked mint and watercress, on the roof with the black mountains around us. The dudes are watching football and I am thinking of London.

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27.10.97 — Imlil and Marrakech

An early start for the berber trucks led to disappointment and frustration not only for us, but also the locals. The group of English private school girls up the road grabbed all the trucks for the day, leaving numerous spaces and some very angry locals. For us an inconvenience, for them a livelihood. A stroke of luck and we had a free lift to Marrakech with a family of Moroccans. Marrakech is madness personified. I am sitting in the Café de France with the people, noise, smells, fumes, gossip, lunatics, cars, tourists and I love it.

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