Friday, 15 December 2017

They never forget you

The kindness of the leather repair man

My handbag - of beautiful soft camel leather bought in the Marrakech souks - was coming apart a little at one seam, so I decided to take it along for a stitching job to the general leather repair man, who also doubles up as the shoeshine man. He sits at a street corner next to the news stand and I knew where he was because I had been to see him before with a sandal to repair. And as soon as I began with my painful Arabic - salaam a lekuum and afak, can you fix my bag - he remembered me. He took my bag, looked at what needed to be done and reached for his needle and thread. 

I said I could come back later but no, 'bilati, blati' (wait) he said and offered me a stool next to him, from where I could watch the street life go by.

He sewed away cheerfully and generally tidied up my bag, trimming off odd pieces of thread elsewhere. When he'd finished I asked him how much? But he just smiled and motioned me away. Nothing?! No, no, I could not believe it, but he just smiled at me again. I left something anyway and then we both asked Allah for mutual blessings.

I told a Moroccan friend this lovely story and he said it is quite common for repair men like this to remember you and take to you if you have made an effort in their language. 

I love this type of genuine warmth and generosity that I find in Morocco.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Mouslim! Mouslim!

I have a friend who lives way out in the suburbs of Marrakech and to get there the only option is to take a grand taxi, usually an ancient beige-coloured Mercedes – all taxis in Marrakech are beige, in Essaouira blue and white, and in Rabat white: they go with their city's decor.

A lot of these grand taxis leave from one particular street and if you want to go to Imam Mouslim (which I do, cos my friend lives there), you have to walk into this street into a melée of taxis, bikes and people, and begin to enquire from every driver you see ‘Mouslim?’ … and he will direct you to the part of the street from where Mouslim taxis will depart today.

Once you have found a Mouslim taxi, you have to wait until the car is filled before he goes – four in the back and two in the front next to him – and delicately he will try to ensure that women – as far as possible – are separated from men. NOT a good idea to get inside on a hot summer’s day until the last possible moment as you will bake to death.

‘Mouslim! Mouslim!’ he stands in the street shouting and – once we are all stuffed inside – off  we go – edging past all the other waiting taxis and then out past the King´s new palace, through a gate in the city walls, and on up to the Menara gardens before turning and heading for the airport road and freedom …

Inside, I am gently trying to edge myself into a position where my protuberances are not coming into contact with my neighbour on every turn or braking instance. Always in the back (I have never succeeded in making it to the front), I try and make myself as diminutive as possible, and limit myself to muttered choukrans for change when I hand the money over (it’s 5 dirhams/40p for the journey), and tentative smiles in the directions of my neighbours, who are often quite bulky women wearing thick fleecy-type djellabas, even in the summer and carrying large shopping bags. Sweat pours down … and of course the window winders never work. I can’t even reach my phone to let my friend know I’m coming.

It’s another thing at night. Now workers who have finished their shifts are in a mad hurry to get home, and you must locate your taxi and firmly establish your place in it! And it is DARK.

So one night I am squashed into the outside place in the back by the door, four of us already there, when the door opens again – and not one but TWO young men try to get in on top of me. ‘Amara, amara!’ (it’s full) says the woman next to me as I try desperately not to give way and also to shove them out. Mercifully I also look down at this point … and see that one of them has his hand in my bag. I snatch it away from him, and he backs off, but the woman next to me has seen – ‘hchoma’ (shame) she shrieks at him, then yells at the driver about what has happened.

The whole taxi is convulsed with concern for me. ‘Nti bikher?’ (are you OK) they ask, and they mutter angrily about how things have changed, the medina never used to be like this but now there are thieves all over the place etc etc. The women in the back keep up a non-stop flow of enraged commentary and apologies, despite my repeated ‘makein mushkil’ (no problem) and one offers me water, another a little packet of biscuits. Aw.

By the time I near my stop I have been so flooded with attention that I have not yet paid the driver. So, ‘hna’ (here) I say, and ‘hak’ (take) the money, and I hand over my 5 dirham coin. No, no, madam, he says, we cannot accept your money after such an outrage. And he stops and gets out to open my door (never usually done), helps me out, looks carefully around, and sends me off with an ‘aandek’ (be careful).

These are the people I like to be with.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

What I learnt about ‘prettyness’ from my new friend Fati

I turn up at my usual sandwich bar for lunch : there is a new girl working there who has noticed me the last three days. She likes that I try to order in Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, and we all have a laugh with my pronunciation. Today she tells me that I am very zwina (pretty) … NO! say I, YOU are very pretty, ‘ana chibaniya ou haiba’ (I am old and ugly). Today I am feeling very weary ...

She laughs and says that I am completely wrong: ‘In Morocco when we say pretty, we mean the eyes, the nose, the expression on the face – we are not worried about the SKIN!’

(They don´t have to be worried about it of course – they all have wonderful skin, the result of hammams and great diet and SUN).

Then she asks me if I have any friends, or any children (!) in Morocco. I say some to the former, and no to the latter. She says that foreigners don´t seem to mix very much with Moroccans and she thinks it’s a shame. She suggests she could be just a shweeeeeeeya (small) friend of mine. Her name is Fatima, she says, but her friends call her Fati and so I can too now.

My takeaway salad arrives (everyone rushing to make sure I have what I need, filling little paper bags with salt and pepper, and a tiny plastic container with harissa sauce, which I like on everything). 

‘Bslema (bye) Fati’, I say, and walk jauntily away down the road thinking that my new young friend has taught me a thing or two now about what ‘pretty’ is. I feel almost confident!

Monday, 8 May 2017

Are good men boring? A Marrakech policeman's view ...

I am sitting in my favourite café – which has recently become even more favourite with the efforts of an attentive new waiter  –  and enjoying a nuss nuss (café au lait)when two smart, dark-clothed men arrive and sit down at the table opposite me. My attention is alerted to them even more when one of them places a pair of handcuffs on the table in front of him.

This gives me my opener into the conversation: ‘Salaam aleikum’, I say peaceably enough, ‘shorta?’ (police)?

They look briefly surprised, then nod and then one of them asks what I do?

‘Ana brrgaga’ (I´m a spy) I reply, because it’s always good for a laugh and an intro – especially with policemen. Again there is a moment of taken-abackness, and then they both laugh and the same one (a cheekier one) says I can help them with their work then …

Between French and Darija we manage some limited discussion on our relative lines of work, where I live, what I am doing there. Then comes the inevitable question: ‘chhal f sa3a’ (how old are you)?’

Ninety-five, I say. No! you only look 65, says the cheeky one. I am crushed. But my new waiter friend in the café rushes to buoy me up: ‘No! you are only 35!’.

You´re a lovely man I say to him, and ‘nta drif bissef’ (you are very polite) too.

He´s a liar, says Mr Cheeky Policeman. ‘But of course you like him because liars are sexy’ …

I find this an interesting thought and say so. ‘It’s TRUE’, he insists. ‘Women don´t like good men – they’re too boring.’

Coming from a policeman I find this a very interesting comment indeed …

And I decide that I am not going to tell them whether I agree with them or not.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Swimming in Marrakech

On a hot day, the idea of a swimming pool is a most attractive one … and there are lots of hot days in this baking city, so I have made it my business to find out where to go.

But it is not easy, for swimming is not cheap here. A lot of people go to la-di-da hotels and agree to a fee of about 30 euro and lunch there in order to have access to their sumptuous poolsides … but in what is rather a clinical, posy environment I often find. There are also fancy clubs right outside the city boasting more attractive surrounds, but these also cost an arm and a leg, not to mention the taxi fare. Or one can go to Oasiria, a huge water wonderland, and ride the churning waves and slide down the shutes with the best of Moroccan children.

But, strangely enough, by the side of the steaming, traffic-filled road to the airport, one has a choice of two more ‘normal’ pools – Myah Bay and Beach Garden. The former is again quite slick, with bodyguards in sunnys and suits at the gate – even if you just want to take a look there, you must leave your water outside that gate. Inside you have a huge infinity pool and very impressive it is too, with stylish black and white sunloungers, healthy looking bronzed types baring their biceps … and rather loud contemporary music blaring from the loudspeakers. But perfectly Ok if you like that type of thing, and don´t mind paying  about 25 euros for the pleasure … still a bit steep in my opinion (although the price seems to fluctuate, depending on how much they need the business I guess … or maybe how much they want the particular customer!)
What the pool looked like on the first visit

However, further down the road you have the Beach Garden. ‘This is more my type of place’, I thought when I entered the first time, following a path through a pleasant garden and turning to find an Olympic-sized pool, complete with lanes and some useful swimmers ploughing up and down. A little café in one corner, some fairly decent changing rooms, and the music bearable.  More cosy than posey, I thought happily.

That was my impression on my inspection visit. So, the next time I went there in earnest – a stinking hot day and I had to cool down. Couldn’t wait to get in that water. Took a taxi along that churning road, risked my life crossing it, and paid my 100 dirham (10 euros) to the delight of the gatekeeper, who had been crestfallen when I did not go in the first time, offering me tea and begging me to stay.

I turned that same corner on that steaming hot day and … the pool was full of, but full of, and surrounded by, the youth of Marrakech. And when I say the youth, I mean of the 16-21 variety. They were everywhere and they were mostly masculine. They preened and they dived and they divebombed and they splashed. There were a few young women – maybe three in bikinis, the rest in burkinis (very elegant actually).

I emerged from the changing room in my Speedo and a tee-shirt and a towel and walked timidly through groups of young men but hey, they weren´t going to take any notice of me anyway. So now the question was where am I going to leave my stuff? I approached a young man who was not preening at that particular moment, or covered in headphones, or staring at his phone; I asked him in my best Arabic  if I could leave my bag there (it was all of three words – ‘ mika dyali hna’ – literally, ‘my bag here’?). He looked disdainful, pained by my poor attempt in Darija, and faintly nodded. I took my towel and t-shirt off, left my hat on top as a marker and  quickly dived in before anyone could spot me in my shrinking Speedo.

There were too many people in the pool to do lengths and so I chose a relatively free space – where I could also keep an eye on my hat – and crossed the width.  A few of these and I started getting into my stride … thump up and down, up and down. I noticed people clearing out of the way after a bit as I came crashing through … and then a little while after that I noticed something else: some representatives of the Marrakech youth had begun to race with me!

This really began to be fun as, growing up in Kenya, I had a privileged swimming existence and a definite advantage over these boys – in style if not speed. Swimming is the only sport I have ever been any good at, and now we raced!

I will not say I won every time, but I think I did myself proud. And when I decided enough was enough, I noticed I commanded just a tiny bit more attention than before …

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

What is that shiny red bus doing in the old medina?

It is a spring morning in Marrakech and I am sitting having my breakfast and reading my mails, while outside the usual maelstrom of traffic goes by in one continuous madness of honks and neighs and motorbike roars and bicycles and donkeys and taxis and old ALSA beige-coloured buses.

Yes, beige-coloured, in keeping with the taxis of Marrakech - if you go to the blue-and-white town of Essaouira, the taxis are blue and white, if you go to white imperial Rabat, the taxis are white - and so on and so on, one gets the picture and all is colour-coded and matching and soothing and as it should be.

The bus, with beige taxi reflected in its windows
But this morning for some reason I look up and there through the door to that crazy outside world I see a very new and very modern and very shiny RED bus. It does not look right at all.

It makes me a little sad about my beloved Marrakech. 'They' have already wrecked the old Mellah area, turning it into a vast open square with a very modern traffic system and neat, sanitised shops running around the edges. There are other developments afoot all over the medina. What will it become?

I step outside into the street to take in the enormity of this new monstrosity. It is a 'bendy' bus, with a rubberised concertina-like arrangement in the middle to help its extra length to bend around roundabouts and difficult turns. They tried these out in London and they didn't work amidst all that traffic. I am not sure how it will bend here around horses and caleches, and donkeys and carts and thousands upon thousands of motorbikes with families on top. They will all be stopped, I think sadly.

But as I watch I see that the normal world of Marrakech begin to pass by regardless ... and all the elements of this world are just the same and they take absolutely no notice at all of the shiny monster. It is just as if it isn't there. First comes a man rushing by with two large wheat sacks on his shoulders. Then some ponies tugging on a caleche. Then motorbikes scream by. And the red bus just sits there. Maybe it is more frightened of the rest of the traffic than the rest of the traffic is of it!

For it seems that the old Marrakech always re-asserts itself - after all, it has been assaulted by tourism since the Fifties ... and still so much is just the same. Enter the souks and you enter a world you are unlikely to see anywhere else in the world (especially now that the souks of Syria have been destroyed). Oh there is Fez of course - but Fez is ALL souks. Fez has nothing of the mad mixture of Marrakech ... and that madness is what makes Marrakech and, it seems, it will always do so. Incha'allah.