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From Summer 2006 [Issue No. 9]




Marrakech Versus (Part 1 of 2) ▪► Laura Jo Hess

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Out of every corner of my eye at any time of day, there is someone pressing his forehead to the ground, praying for forgiveness or hope. So why not tap him on the shoulder, smeh he li, Sidi, and ask, Have you ever loved a place as much as you love it here or have you ever been so disappointed or are you even happy: to my sister in the kitchen. Every day: shwia, a little bit.

So why not write about it, about contradiction in people's faces, in the land, the inherent disappointment you feel as you walk past a wall lined with beggars, their children strewn across their chests in blankets older than your parents. This is Marrakech and there is a world in every brick in the street, a history to every drum circle. I couldn't do anything but write about being here, about being in-between in a land that is constantly in limbo. So what does it mean to stay or to leave; to be in the village or the city; to employ language as silence or vice versa; to be a man or a woman? There is an edge of the world here, in this city, where you can dangle your feet and memorize the people who will pass you by, the number of steps from the park to the mosque and what people look like before they pray. There is such a place in this city and I couldn't feasibly leave the country without becoming part of it, recording it, needing it. This city is a drug. You wake up and you're enveloped by the scents of the fires in the food stalls or the number of times you feel loved just by the woman in the hijab who holds your hand to cross the street. You learn to need this city, this world where you've never been and never will be again, since you can order in Arabic and become a fragment better than the next tourist who couldn't possibly know the meaning of hamdullah, thanking Allah for breath sixteen times a day. So I came to Marrakech and watched my feet move over gravel and I found people who wanted to sit on buckets with me and tell me stories about their lives, their succession. Or they didn't, so I created them, because I am allowing life to a person who may never know such happiness or pain. Does it hurt? Maybe, but maybe not.

It is getting colder in Marrakech and people change with the weather. If it is raining, there will be a man holding an umbrella for you all the way down the street. Or if it's beautiful, there is orange juice and music. Chantal says it's safe to say Morocco is the place she grew up, Morocco with single cigarettes and balconies where you can sit for hours watching palm trees in the winter. Something happened here, she says as she walks in colors to the local café. Something changed don't you see, all said in one breath. Sometimes I smile and nod and sometimes not. Sometimes we order in French but usually Arabic. Sometimes we get bread with our harira, Moroccan soup, and sometimes the tea is three dirham more than the previous day. Sometimes Romby kisses our heads as we enter and sometimes he just sits with us silently, listening to our foreign speech.

So what about creating a love life for the woman in the park? Is it unethical to use the real names of the ordinary people I meet on the curb while eating yogurt? No, because they will never see it and if they do they will not understand and if they do they will only feel beautiful and important because they are important and maybe they've never felt so before.

But oh my God I think I may be drowning here in Morocco and becoming infatuated with things like cobblestones and crooked trees or women in hijabs on mopeds or the SIDA festival in the park where the posters are of a woman's henna-covered hands holding a condom and then some Arabic writing explaining it. I stand there amidst fountains and police officers and hip-hop music from speakers and I attempt to read the words, sounding out the letters. There are boys on the corner rapping to 50 Cent and girls in dance contests thrusting their bodies forward, as if to say, Look here I'm so much stronger than you. Why yes, I never doubted it. You're beautiful and probably brilliant and yet you'll probably never leave the country. But do you really want to? Yes? Well then why, let me ask you why.


Here in Morocco, you can either stay and choose to breathe with your entire body, or you can leave, abandoning everything and the only thing you understand:

To stay is to sit with your feet crossed under your thighs and whistle music through a tin cylinder, propelling snakes to rise from authentic urns sitting at your toes. The tourists think you are beautiful: you in your mustard yellow jilaba and fez cap. You must not understand why they stare. It's because the sharp music hurts their ears and the smoke their eyes. But they are nonetheless amazed. To be here is to thrust your leg onto the lap of a boy and ask him to heal your pain, the prolonged pain in your knee. Or to hear Allah’s name coming from the loudspeaker, the muezzin praying then coughing five times a day. Marrakech is beautiful in the daytime—the square shaped by orange stands and umbrellas: people who understand suffering. To stand behind arcs of dark-haired men and tourists with cameras wrapped over their chests, to watch children dance for small change. The boy in the middle just walks around shaking his shoulders, but he is so beautiful that it works.

This is why the youth here are suffering: walking back and forth over the same sidewalks and slapping hands with the same boys, drinking the same coffee or tea, dreaming of away, anywhere they could make love, drink, not pray so much and still be Muslim. A boy weeps: Before I knew America, I was going to be a sports teacher, spend days teaching kids how to place the ball on their toes. But now, now I'm dreaming of the States, flat land, and opportunities. Take me with you. You watch him watch you tell him it's impossible. He sighs. You touch his shoulder, soon, one day.

Or—you tell him, You could always leave. Begging your way to Tangier, to stand on the port with your hands crossed in front of your body, imagining what the mountains of Spain would feel like under your feet. But do you think you can handle Spain after this, after years of being in a place where women cover their heads and Allah holds your hand as you cross the street? There is no second here, after Allah, but in Spain, there might be. But leaving promises more freedom and the chance to feel alone. Leaving means no winter coats in fall, abandoning the dying voice over the intercom. It won't feel as holy there, but maybe that's what you're going for.

But even the Spanish enclaves are not safe. You are not away yet. The Polisario Front takes over the desert. They've found you, crouching there among the dunes. But you've managed to slip a photographer your phone number; he clutches it in his hands, watching the bus leave with you aboard. You've got no water, no food: We are going to die. But at least the news groups can track your movement, make it into a cover story. My God, Morocco doesn't want you.

They are trying to send you home, but you've swallowed your papers, erased your identity, and sent your children into hiding. Spain won't let go of the land. Blame it on nationalism, pride, but people are dying, crying, suffering. You've tried for months to exit this land, taken the dirt between your toes. Now: you've given up. You'll board the plane with the hundreds of other migrants back to Mali, back to Algeria. You'll tap on your door with the back of your fingernail, your wife will answer, and she'll know you've failed. You say nothing. She holds you.

But tourists are confused because they hear the French built up the medina in Marrakech, they created the cloth rooftops and the disappearing food markets, but this is Morocco and those are Moroccans. This is Marrakech and that is a man sitting on cardboard reading palms and he's never even met someone from another country. This is a land where Tangier tastes like Spain to some, and others, it's the heart of the country. Like Paul Bowles and the Beats making it their land, learning the correct way to walk and writing at single desks in dim hotel rooms. Tangier was the creative center and now, now, now they say it's a land of hustlers, a place only for people to hide.


The city is poison. I am telling you this because I must.

Sufjan emerges from the barn dressed in camouflage pants and a flannel shirt. He is barefoot and doused in cologne. He's running after bubbles, crying when they pop, and spinning in circles to Arabic music. I hand him a lollipop and he beams, hiding it in his pocket for later. They'll never teach him to refuse candy from strangers; there is no reason for fear. But I do not pity them for liking it here: with their wheelbarrow and chickens bleeding at the neck, with knit leggings and children entertained only with a plastic bag and a wooden stick on wheels. In the village, they wouldn't understand depression, mostly because it doesn't have reason to exist.

My mother says the eighth-graders are cutting themselves this year. They are so sad, she mumbles across the phone line. In a windowless office in a brick building, she listens to a girl complain about how her boyfriend didn't say hi to her in the hallway or how she isn't invited to the birthday party this weekend. My mother, motionless, thinking Is this really suffering? She remembers about Amina, how I told her she would be a regular kid in the States, crouching in alleyways holding cigarettes between her fingers. She would be cursing at her mother and demanding new clothes and notebooks, complaining when the cable goes out. But here, she's wearing the same sweater set to school for a week, and holding her brother's hand to help him walk. She kisses you every time you leave the room and each time you enter. She'll take your hand and draw henna shapes she's learned from the side of the box or show you how to milk the cow and pick tea leaves from the ground. I've never been somewhere like this, you whisper, wiping your face with the backside of your hand, grinning.

Time passes with you melting against a concrete wall with a pillow behind your shoulders while Amina watches you from the doorway, imagining what reading a book would feel like, knowing she'll always feed the chickens instead. In a few years she'll be chosen for marriage: standing with her head down and her hands crossed over her chest. A woman will point at her, hold her face, study her body and the shape of her eyebrows. Yes, this one. And she'll walk to the arms of a thirty-year-old man. All this while she contemplates how many times she's tried to leave: on the way to school, What if I didn't come back? Herding the sheep, I could disappear.

But: in the city you are bred to fail. You cook pasta in Missouri, but it was grown on a hillside in Italy, or if you are tired, you drive to a restaurant and sit for hours being fed by strangers. My father on Tuesday nights at the Italian restaurant: What a country! That you can enter hungry and leave full. But in the village, you must wake at dawn to knead the bread; the chicken is from the pen and the vegetables from the garden. The oranges are grown in the backyard and the only store is a hanout with laundry detergent and apricot jam. I feel queasy at the sight of a bleeding carcass, and they laugh, asking, How else would we eat?

Let's tell the women about gay marriage and eating disorders. Let's tell them about our suffering, cured by medicine swallowed once a day. If you are sad, just take this pill and you should feel better. But the translator knows this world better than we do. He says the women would feel uncomfortable, and imagine what his father would say. H'shuma, shame on you.

And the drum circles in Marrakech, can we talk about the drum circles? Yes, there are men in drag who think they can imitate the beauty of a woman dancing, but have you ever seen a mother put a tape in a cassette player and take the scarf from her head and tie it around her waist? This is in the village, where Zhor is dancing and grinning while Sufjan runs around her, pantless. This is Zhor who is beaten by her husband, who sleeps with her children on either side of her because she doesn't want to touch her husband unless she has to. In the drum circle a man dresses as a woman and hurls his body back and forth; this is entertainment, seeing a faux woman dancing in public, it isn't done. But in the club there is a woman scantily dressed in a pink halter top and she moves like a flamingo. She dances like a bird. But her stomach is showing and it reminds the bartender of the porn he's been looking at online since he was sixteen. And in the village, please don't tell the women about this. Please god no. Please let that birth control pamphlet floating around be something they found in the trash, something that blew out the window of a passing car, something that got carried here. Don't tell them about it. It isn't worth it.

If this is the village, then what is the city? On the front page of the International Herald Tribune today, Malawi is suffering. Unees Malay, 17, has two children by a seventy-year-old man. Her father sold her in exchange for a cow. I didn't know it was abuse, he tells the reporter, I just needed food, some money. But Unees seems far away from here, from the men with tambourines dressed in bright colors or the women at the souks, saying Hello, in a nasal voice as you walk by, Henna? A Moroccan teenager tells you how her cousin is abroad in Africa: Africa! Then she goes off in her tight jeans and tennis shoes and you stand there, almost motionless, thinking, But this is Africa.

If the city is poison, what is the village? Africa?

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"Marrakech Versus" first appeared in different form online at Toasted Cheese and its first print appearance in Abroad View, the global education magazine for students. 

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