Sunday, March 21, 2010

Berber Television

After nearly a month of stalling, I've finally gotten around to writing my Morocco post. The underlying cause of my lingering procrastination is the daunting task of capturing a country and a culture in a single entry. But, fueled by a fresh batch of Mabel's empanadas and a guilty writer's conscience, I've heartened to try.

We deplaned in Marrakech early on a Friday afternoon and immediately set out to find our hotel. From the city bus windows we watched the countryside turn from pasture to city, motorcycles and cars whizzing by bearing loads no manufacturer could have predicted. One bicyclist carried so many plastic bottles of varying shapes and colors that he must have been using a periscope to see the road. The sky was a blanket of grey, too light to mean rain but too thick for sunlight to get through. Even with the melancholy overhead, Marrakesh glowed in orange and green contrast. Buildings, sidewalk, dirt- all the color of rusted tin cans. Palm trees, orange trees and other fauna filled the space between, punctuating the pumpkin with shades of jade.

While I was busy taking note of the local color scheme, my companions began to note the local language barrier. Moroccans generally speak two languages, as did all of us students. Unfortunately, they spoke French and Arabic and we spoke Spanish and English. Many wrong turns and exasperated hand gestures late, the group arrived at Hotel Mont Gueliz. Before being taken to our rooms, the hotel staff served us our first glasses of sweet mint tea. I don't even like tea and I could drink an entire pot. After dropping our bags, we started our 30 minute walk to the Souk.

Open air market by day, open air restaurant by night, the souk is the largest of its kind in Morocco and among the largest in all of Africa. Smells of horse carriages and incense reach you before the crowds do as you come upon the square. A kaleidoscope of people moves in every direction - snake charmers next to women doing henna tattoos, baboons on chains next to musicians - and everybody wants you to take their picture. Men with snakes so near to death that they hang limply in their hands will throw them about your neck and demand payment for the novelty photo. The baboons are worse because those that aren't on your shoulder looking miserable and plotting retribution toward their masters are probably picking your pockets. Once you make it through the menagerie, the real fun begins.

Alleyway after alleyway of merchants selling everything from carpets to tea kettles to souvenirs winds in a maze of color and perfumed air. Pause for a moment to admire the wallets made of camel hide and you are assaulted by vendors in every language they know. Which happens to be a lot. Depending on your appearance, they may rattle off "good price, good quality, how much you pay?" in german, english, spanish, arabic, french, and italian. The kicker is that upon your response, they can actually converse with you in any of the above as well. These men aren't common street merchants. They're brilliant salesmen who enjoy a good haggle but will assuredly get the better of any foreigner who enters their domain.

When the sun sets, the souk is transformed as the street performers give way to tables and tents. Steam rises from all directions and the bustle and clang of plates and people reverberates through the plaza. People sit cafeteria style sharing picnic tables and choosing varying kebab and cous cous dishes. Bread the size of your head and coca colas accompany the meal before you're hurried along to make room for the next round of hungry guests. After partaking in all of the above and each purchasing a pair of skants - a combination skirt pant that is tight at the ankles and waist and a mass of material everywhere else, the group retired to the hotel in preparation for an early morning.

Skants on, cameras charged, bellies full of bread, jam and tea, the group boarded a van with our guide, Mohael, an ex-Berber nomad. We set out from the city and slowly but
deliberately began to ascend the Atlas Mountains. Our destination, the Zagora Dunes of the Sahara Desert lay on the other side. On our way out of the city, we passed a number of shanty towns with huts and houses made of wood and tarps. On top of many of them, visible through the smoke of cooking fires below, were television satellites. The blue glow of a TV peeked through the cracks of some of the huts in the early morning darkness. Eight or so hours later, after stopping in a museum dedicated to the movie Gladiator in the city where most of the scenes were filmed, we made it to the town where we'd leave our van and opt for hairier transportation.

On the verge where town ends and desert begins, Mohael brought us to our camels. We each picked a beast and began to mount them. My camel was a cream colored dromedary who I affectionately dubbed Herbert. With only a sweatshirt and a toothbrush in a satchel hung from his "saddle", I climbed onto kneeling Herbert. At the command of one of our two Berber nomad escorts, his back-end lurched upwards and I nearly ate a mouthful of coarse white camel hair. His front followed next and fully righted, we stood nearly ten feet tall. Herbert turned his lanky neck and regarded me dubiously with one big dark eye. I tried to look as un-annoying as possible while recalling stories of camels spitting and biting off the fingers of their caretakers. Herbert, apparently content with his charge, blinked his massive eyelashes and swung his gigantic head back around.

Nine camels strung together in two lines began to traipse across the sand dunes. Intoxicated by our incredible situation, we sang Aladin's "Arabian Nights" from the backs of our camels as we followed our Berber guides into the desert. Soon after we began our trek, the sun began to set. The lights of the village obscured by distance and sand dunes, we had the light of a 3/4 moon to see by. Even with the white glow, it became harder and harder to see more than a camel or two ahead and we wondered how our guides had any idea where they were going. After an hour and a half undulating on Herbert's back, I recalled another tale I'd heard about camels: they're incredibly uncomfortable to ride for long distances. I can now attest to that. In fact, I'm not altogether sure how men ride them at all. After an hour and a half I was more than ready to cry uncle. Lucky for me and due to the uncanny expertise of our Berbers, we finally saw light in the distance.

We left our camels outside a ring of tents and followed our Berbers into the biggest one. As the flap opened to admit us, we were bathed in light and the smell of cooking food. Seated on cushions around a circular table with other tourists, we were served mint tea again. "Berber whiskey", one of our guides called it. Next came a steaming tajin, or bowl of chicken, potatoes and vegetables for the table to share. After we had eaten, a few 20-something Berber men came into the tent with drums and hand cymbals. Eventually, the entire tent was dancing to the thumping and clashing of the instruments.

Once the music had ended and most of the travelers had retired to their tents for the night, only our group and a handful of young Berbers remained. Seated next to our guide on a cushion, I ventured a question. "Where are the women?" I asked. Uneasy with my question, "not here" was my curt reply. Mental note taken: don't talk girls with patriarchal nomads. The mood stayed light, though and soon they asked if we would like to join them to watch shooting stars on the dunes. The men laid carpets out on top of a dune and sat boy-girl with us in a very 15-years-olds at a movie theater sort of way. They asked our boys if they were sure that they weren't tired. "Don't you want to go back to the tent?" they'd joke in an innocent way. Sand whipping about in the night wind, they helped us fashion head scarves and veils from our neck scarves. As we watched stars shoot across a speckled sky, one Berber pointed his finger. "Berber television" he said with a smile.

That night we slept five and four on bedrolls in our tents with only one candle and camera glow to last us until morning. Hearing wild dogs barking in the distance, I woke as the sky was turning a dawn grey. I sought out Herbert and pet his massive head as I watched the hues of orange and pink come and go in the morning sky. The Berbers eventually woke the camp and called us into the big tent for a slice of bread and a cup of tea before sending us back to the village. Soreness compounded from the night before but sad to part ways, saying goodbye to Herbert and our guides was bittersweet. We took the same journey back over the mountain, passing again from desert to foothill to snow covered peaks and back down the other side and into Marrakech. Skants smelling of camel, we were glad to return to our hotel for a shower and a bed, ready to head back to España the next morning.

All in all, I fell in love with Morocco and the Berbers, Marrakech and the people. But, were I a man, I would love it even more. The male dominated society has little effect on women tourists as long as your respectful, but the Berber man's brusque answer in the tent reminded me that women in Morocco don't walk about freely like I do. Even as a tourist, I noticed that although I was the best haggler out of our group of girls, I received only a portion of the recognition and deference that my male companions were shown in the souk. The food, the music, the life in general is beautiful and I can't wait to return someday, but it's unfortunate that I could never live there and feel the same way.

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