I thought I had a pretty good handle on the African continent and the Middle East after all these years and therefore assumed that very little could surprise me. But Morocco took my handle and spanked me on the butt. This country does not care about your preconceived notions of beat-generation heydays and hashish or a certain film that put Casablanca on our collective radar and television screens. Rather, Morocco is quite content to wryly defy your spoon-fed expectations at every turn.
On the first night in Marrakech, after wandering the streets in a jet-lag haze, my friend
Stacey and I popped into a small shop in the alley near our Riad hotel. We eyeballed the choices of beverages in the fridge and the selection of snacks while the mellow shopkeeper watched soccer on his tiny old tv. Veering from my usual choice sparkling water, I randomly selected “Citron” soda and a Twix bar and put them on the counter. Stacey placed a can of Coca-Cola and a can of Pringles next to it.
Turning to see our choices, Mr. Shopkeeper broke into a huge grin and suddenly the energy in his sleepy shop turned from Rumpelstiltskin’s lair into the Moulin Rouge. His eyes sparkled and with great ebullience he said, “CITRON!” So, I said, “CITRON!” And then he said it again. And then I did. And so on as if in a call-and-response prayer.
With each repetition, our excitement amped up another notch. I was sure that a buyer of soda and a seller of soda had never reached this kind of elation over “Citron” ever before, nor would they ever again.
But I was wrong. Mr. Shopkeeper and I participated in the same Citron-purchase euphoria the next night as well since I couldn’t possibly pass by his dreary shop without going in to see if the magic was still there. His reaction was bigger than ever and inspired an even bigger one in me. It was like Handel’s Messiah but with an American and a Moroccan calling out the name of a lemon/lime drink with increasing vigor.
And on night number three – our final night in Marrakesh – the Citron Chorus of Ecstasy reached epic proportions. It seemed entirely possible that he and I could march out of the shop onto the stone path and others would come out of their homes to join the sing-song rendition of Citron as if we were recreating “Les Mis” for the new millennium. I imagined that if walked down to the funky old medina, all the snake charmers and street vendors would take up the Great Citron Cause and the world be free of despair and corruption forevermore.
This is exactly what I mean about Morocco defying expectations. I was surprised by the economic despair of the place but even more surprised by the tender ebullience infused into every interaction I had with people. What had I expected? Not any of this. Not any of them.
I drank my Citron soda each night under wool blankets in my cozy but chilly room at our Riad – one of the many Moroccan traditional homes turned hotels, featuring several stories, covered top to bottom in tile, around an Andalusian-style courtyard. It was the perfect place to reboot after long days of exploring every inch of the souq, medina, and kasbah – and dining daily on tajine and harira soup.
By far my favorite part of our Riad was the little room off the courtyard where we took breakfast. Three lovely women brought trays of coffee, juice, and every conceivable French/Moroccan bread option to the little tables surrounded by sofas.
On the last morning of our stay, I went down before the appointed breakfast time and curled up on a sofa to read and write. I got very cold and wanted to ask a woman who came to check on me for a blanket. I did not have the word for “blanket” in French or Arabic, so I tried to pantomime what I needed. Still no luck. She looked perplexed. Finally, I decided to utter the universal word for “I need to be wrapped up in a blanket with love,” which as you all know is the word “mama.”
She beamed and left the room, showing up a minute later with a big blanket which she proceeded to tuck around every inch of my body. Once she was done, she planted a kiss on my right cheek.
“Mama,” I said again. She nodded happily and went off to make coffee over an old stove in the kitchen.
These are the moments that will linger from this trip. Yes, the light in Morocco is like none other I have ever seen. Yes, the architecture is astonishing. Yes, the leather goods and carpets found along the labyrinths of souqs are worth buying. Yes, the Marrakech Express takes you through three different climate zones and landscapes in old world style. Yes, Rick’s Café in Casablanca is pretty damn cool although the edifice was built for tourists long after the film was made. Yes, the Hamman is all that you’d ever want — ladies scrubbing and pummeling you to pieces in rooms so hot you fear for survival. Yes, to all the things you’ve seen and heard from Yves Saint Lauren and Mick Jagger and Paul Bowles and Lonely Planet guidebooks – and especially from my friend Lisa who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco and gave us excellent recommendations, all of which we took.
But the story here is the people. I suppose the story everywhere — at least for me — always comes down a fleeting moment with someone. Like the Egg Lady and Chinese Medicine Man in Seoul, both of whom helped me love that city after 30 years of bad feelings. But what’s unique about Morocco is that the human stories keep revealing themselves — stealing the stage from the Atlas sky and the snaky paths.
I’ll end this story with the person with whom our trip ended – the cab driver who picked
us up at the Casablanca train station. Once we learned that he had been Claire Danes’ driver while she was filming “Homeland” in Casablanca for six months – a detail he discreetly withheld for a while – we hired him to take us all around the city. He was gracious and cautious while delivering us to the second largest mosque in the world (wowza) and the Art Deco buildings from the French occupation. We also hired him to take us to the airport the next day, at which time he showed up in his finest apparel for the 30-minute early morning journey.
It was clear to both Stacey and me that his clothing choice had been out of respect to us and harkened back to his days as a star driver – a time when his finances were no doubt better and he didn’t have to hang out in front of train stations hoping for a fare.
His outfit said more about him and the people of Morocco than I can anything more I can say.
Merci, Mama Morocco. J’taime.
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