Vagabonding Vagabond Blogger – Our Interview with Rolf Potts

If you’ve done or thought about doing any long term travel in the age of the internet, chances are you’ve heard of Rolf Potts.

Rolf was blogging about travel for Salon at the dawn of the 2000’s, but he is best known for the publication of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to Long Term Travel in December of 2002. The book struck a chord with the internet generation and became a runaway hit amongst those who had missed the days of the hippie trail. The book is about taking serious time off from your normal life to discover and experience the world on your own terms. With sections on  financing your travel time,  determining your destination,  adjusting to life on the road and handling travel adversity, the book addresses travel as inner development tool rather than travel as something that you simply do.

In the spirit of Ed Buryn‘s Vagabonding in Europe and North Africa, Potts book captured the imagination of a generation that was finding its way on the internet and wandering what the meaning of life truly was.  Coming right after the dot com bust and on the eve of the financial crisis in the US and Europe, the book fit the bill for filling the gap between living to work and working to live and offered the opportunity to turn your life into your work through travel.

Since then Potts has piloted a fishing boat 900 miles down the Laotian Mekong, hitchhiked across Eastern Europe, traversed Israel on foot, bicycled across Burma, drove a Land Rover across South America, and travelled around the world for six weeks with no luggage or bags of any kind. He has also published a second book Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer and continues to travel around the world between rest stops at his farmhouse in Kansas. Rumor has it that Rolf has something new in the works for 2012 but he is keeping mum about it for now. I caught up with the vagabonding vagabond blogger via email and he kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions for Vagobond readers about life, travel, authenticity and himself.

Vagobond: What were you doing career wise before you started blogging for Salon (before the publication of Vagabonding)?

Rolf Potts: My last job before I transitioned into a full-time writing was teaching English in Korea. It was a key job for me, since in addition to earning me a decent amount of money for travel, it allowed me to live in and get to know an unfamiliar culture for a couple of years. My two years in Busan wasn’t always easy, but it was an essential experience that made me a better traveler down the line.
Before that teaching gig I hadn’t been following a single career path — I worked as a landscaper in Seattle for awhile, and I worked at an outdoor store, selling backpacks and fly-rods, in Kansas. This was all building up to what I really wanted to do — writing — and eventually that happened for me.

Vagobond: My first book was all about living in a van and enjoying time instead of money. I understand your first travels were in a van too. What were some lessons you picked up from living in a van?

Rolf Potts:I think traveling and living out of a van during my first vagabonding trip taught me some essential lessons about minimalism and keeping things simple. Since I was sleeping in the van most nights, I didn’t have a lot of room for extra “stuff”, so all I brought were some clothes and camping gear in a couple of laundry baskets. And even the gear I had in those laundry baskets wasn’t always necessary — I quickly learned that the American road provided me with most everything I needed experientially; my gear played a fairly minor role in my most interesting experiences. This was a lesson I applied while packing for my later backpacking trips across Asia, and even my no-baggage journey around the world in 2010.

Vagobond: In Vagabonding, you wrote about the philosophy of long-term travel – has that changed in the decade since then? How has technology changed your philosophy?

Rolf Potts:I don’t think my philosophy of vagabonding has changed — and in fact I wrote it in such a way that technological and other changes wouldn’t ever alter its core message, which is about keeping things simple and seeking one’s wealth in time and life-xperiences. Those are values that would apply in the 19th century as easily at the 21st. So regardless of what new tools and gadgets arrive to make travel easier, the core principles of vagabonding won’t change much.

One interesting thing about new technology — like social media and smart phones — is that it is making independent travel a lot easier.

More people are doing it now, I think, because it feels a lot safer and easier and more accessible than it used to. The flipside of this is that the conveniences of travel are more and more making travel and extension of home. In many ways we don’t have to psychically leave home” when we travel — we can keep in such close contact with our friends, family, and social networks — and this can diminish the experience of travel to an extent. So much of what is transformative about travel comes from confronting — and working through — being lonely and bored and lost. The less we’re forced to encounter those little challenges as travelers, the more travel tends to become a consumer experience.

Vagobond: Do you see any problems with the massive growth of independent and long-term travel? What about the huge growth of tourism?

Rolf Potts:There will invariably be problems with the growth of any industry, and travel is no exception. There will also be benefits. Indie travelers spend a lot of money in the “mom and pop” economies of faraway places — which is a good thing — but the presence of so many travelers can also strain the local culture and environment. Islands are particularly vulnerable to large influxes of tourists, since scarce resources like water get diverted to tourist needs instead of local ones. I don’t think this means travel should be curtailed to these places — its an important cultural and economic force — but it does mean that destinations should take care in planning tourist

facilities, and travelers should be cognizant of the impacts they bring. In a way I think indie travelers are better equipped than standard vacation tourists to wander in a mindful way, since a vagabonding-style traveler emphasizes going slow and keeping  informed.

Vagobond: I realize I’m supposed to ask you about the best destination, your favorite country or something like that – but instead, what’s your favorite tourist area?

Rolf Potts:Tourist areas tend to disappoint some travelers — at least early on in their vagabonding careers — since the presence of so many tourists at these sites can be depressing and feel less authentic. But over time I’ve come to appreciate the dynamic of these places, each of which are unique to their own culture, even as they host a crush of visitors during high season. New Yorkers may complain about Times Square, but I think it has a great energy, even after having visited it dozens of times. The Champ de Mars area around the Eiffel Tower is always swarming with tourists and trinket vendors, but you’d have to be a pretty cynical soul not to enjoy a bottle of wine and a picnic there on a summer day with friends. Similarly, I found Machu Picchu in Peru to be utterly amazing, despite all the tourists there. So as much as I like getting off the beaten path when I travel, I still like to cultivate appreciation for these tourist areas.

Vagobond: What do you miss when you are on the road?

Rolf Potts:Ever since I got my home in Kansas, one thing I miss most frequently is the view of the prairie from my front deck. I know this might sound like a strange thing to miss, but over the years I’ve found that part of my enjoyment of faraway places extends from my affection for a single place that I know better than any others. When you find a way to attach yourself to a small part of the world, it can energize the way you see and appreciate other parts of the world. I have literally spent years away from my home in Kansas, but having that home gives me perspective and helps me appreciate all the other places I discover and experience in more far-flung parts of the world.

Vagobond: Do you think ‘staged authenticity’ is destroying the authentic travel experience? Is the world being Disneyfied?

Rolf Potts:Interestingly enough, I think there’s something weirdly authentic and satisfying in “staged authenticity,” when local cultures “perform” a more colorful version of their own identity for visiting tourists. Even though it’s this absurd fake charade, it says a lot about how Westerners long for a kind of authenticity they feel they have lost, while at the same time reminding host cultures about certain aspects of their own traditions. Staged authenticity will always exist, to some extent (I’d wager it existed in some form when the ancient Romans visited Egypt), but it transforms in different ways in different places. Some cultures, like the Embera in Panama, have managed to use staged authenticity in the face of tourists not just to empower themselves economically, but to redefine their own sense of identity and pride. It’s a dynamic process, like all aspects of global culture, and no sooner do you mock a thing like “staged authenticity” than you’ll begin to see it in surprising new ways.

Vagobond: Speaking of authentic, how would you recommend that today’s travelers find a more authentic experience in their travels?

Rolf Potts:The world is chock full of authenticity; it is literally everywhere, if one would just slow down and endeavor to experience it. It’s also a phenomenon that has a lot of nuance, and what at first might seem to be inauthentic — an Ethiopian Mursi tribesman wearing Nikes, for example — might end up being a very authentic part of how that culture is living today. So the best advice I can give to travelers is to simply be where you are. Turn off your smart phone, stop chattering with your companions, leave your digital camera in your pack: Stop, look, wait, breathe in; don’t overanalyze. It’s all authentic in its own way.

Vagabond Explorer – Sir Richard Francis Burton

Explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton was quite possibly the greatest vagabond in history. In his lifetime he lived diverse cultures, broke boundaries, and did most of it without much in the way of resources or travel money.

As I listen to the call to prayer outside my window, I can’t help reflecting on the amazing life of Sir Richard Francis Burton. Quite possibly the greatest explorer and adventurer the world has ever known.

Burton was born on the 19th of March, 1821 in England and died at the age of 69 in Austria-Hungary on October 20, 1890. During his life Burton was a writer, explorer, anthropologist, ethnographer, soldier, spy, linguist, and poet.

He is said to have spoken twenty nine languages and was the first European man to go to many places in Asia, Africa,and even to the United States where he infiltrated and exposed the bizarre beliefs and customs of the Mormons in Salt Lake City.
Richard F. Burton Nomad

Why does the call to prayer remind me of him? For one because he was the first European to make the hajj and disguised as an Arab he entered Mecca. For two because Burton was in fact, a Muslim. Third, Burton was the translator of The Thousand and One Nights which is probably the best known collection of stories concerned with Arab and Muslim cultures ever written.

In addition to these achievements he also translated the Kama Sutra and was the first European to see the source of the Nile River. His writings included studies of human behavior, ethnographies, travel writing, books about sexual practices, and more. He was a cofounder of the Anthropological Society of London before most people had any idea what anthropology was (although most still don’t).

To a certain extent, Burton was hated and persecuted for his honesty, his refusal to bend before the man, and the suspicion that rather than having masqueraded as a Muslim, he might have actually been one.
Muslim Richard Burton
Burton always claimed to be a Muslim, but after his death, in an attempt to save her reputation, his wife Isabel published a biography that most believe to be false in which she claimed he was always a strong believer in Christ- like her. She also burned all of his unpublished writings so that her account was the only one which people could turn to. This went specifically against Burton’s wishes, but he probably didn’t care much since he was already dead.

To understand just how many books Burton wrote, how much ground he covered, and how incredible the man was you need only read his fascinating biography.

Ibn Battuta – Moroccan Vagabond

The greatest adventurer of all time for me is the Moroccan vagabond, Ibn Battuta. He not only traveled everywhere in his known world, but he wrote about it in ways that no one before him had. Ibn Battuta’s journey lasted 29 years, so by Moroccan standards, my wife should be understanding of this current journey I’m on.

Ibn Battuta was the only world traveler in Middle Ages and he achieved fame because of he visited every Muslim ruler’s land of his time. He also traveled in China, Sri Lanka, Byzantium (which included huge amounts of Europe, Turkey, and Central Asia) and Russia. He traveled over 75,000 miles in his lifetime. And keep in mind most of this was by foot, camel, or horse. There were no frequent flyer programs then. He traveled like a nomad throughout the world and in the process, he introduced (and is still introducing) the cultures of the world to one another.

Ibn Battuta was a well known traveler who lived according to the slogan ‘never, if possible, cover any road a second time’. He traveled on camel, horse, by boat and on foot. He went as far as he could through every means of land transport. He also traveled to West Africa and visited Timbuktu, Niger, and Mali. He distinctly described the existing political, social and economic conditions, religious matters, and position of women in the nations and regions he visited.

Ibn Battuta Resources
The Adventures of Ibn Battuta
The Travels of Ibn Battuta in the Near East, Asia, and Africa
Traveling Man: The Journeys of Ibn Battuta

He was elected Chief judge of Delhi, and he spent his life as Qadi (chief judge) of Morocco in the city of Fes for twenty three years, meanwhile he also wrote of his travels which at the time included almost everything that was known about the world.

At the age of 21, Ibn Battuta started his travels from Morocco. The main reason for his journey was to go on the Hajj, the long journey to Mecca, like all other Muslims who are required to do the same during their lives if possible. travels of ibn battuta

He traveled for 29 years and covered almost 75,000 miles where he visited 44 modern countries. He faced many dangers and adventures on his way. Bandits attacked him and he nearly drowned in a sinking ship during his travels.

ibn battuta on camelIbn Battuta was born in Morocco in a Muslim family in 1304. He studied Muslim law and in 1325 he left the place to make the journey to Mecca. He was very interested in adventure and world travel. Traveling to Mecca through land and by sea was dangerous. He traveled on land with a donkey at first. Later he joined a caravan with other travelers.

Ibn Battuta was asked to dictate the story of his travels to a scholar by the Sultan of Morocco. Today we are able to read that story in English and the story is called “Rihla-My Travels”.

Cross Dressing Vagabond – Isabelle Eberhardt

Traveling the world used to be a game that only the men played, but as in all fields, brave pioneers broke out of the Victorian conception of women as meek and mild and showed that even the hardest travel makes no distinction among the sexes. Isabelle Eberhardt was one of these extraordinary feminist vagabonds.

Isabelle Eberhardt was a Swiss writer and explorer who lived and traveled widely in North Africa. She is considered to have been an extremely independent individual, who refused normal European ethics and characterization of women. Instead she followed her own path which led her to world travel. Isabelle’s first trip was with her mother to North Africa in 1897. They were trying to set up a new life there on this journey, and during that time they both converted to Islam.

feminist vagabondIsabelle’s half brother Vladimir committed suicide and another brother was married to a French woman whom Eberhardt was not in favor of. From then onwards, she spent her life in Africa, she made Northern Algeria and Morocco her home and became a true desert vagabond. Isabelle was in Tunisia for some time as well. She was frequently disguised as a man and there are many who conjecture that she not only lived as a man but loved women as a man does.

The life and writings of Isabelle Eberhardt:
The Nomad
In the Shadow of Islam
Prisoner of Dunes
The Oblivion Seekers
The Vagabond

female vagabondIsabelle married an Algerian soldier, Slimane Ehnni in 1901. She was known to drink and fight in the hardest of ways. She died in a flash flood in Algeria in 1904. She had rented a house there which was constructed of clay. The house collapsed on Isabelle and her husband during the flood, she saved her husband but she didn’t survive the disaster. She wrote about her travels in several books and the newspapers of France.

Her books and articles include “In the Hot Shadow of Islam”, “Algerian Short Stories” and “The Day Laborers”. She also wrote a novel, Vagabond which was translated into English by Annette Kobak. The journals of Isabelle were recovered from the flash flood, they covered the final four years of her life and now these journals are also available in English.

Isabelle Eberhard was a nomad in Africa but more importantly she explored the limits and boundaries of gender as well as the deserts of Africa and continued her writing during that time. Most of her novels, books and journals on her travels can be found in English, Spanish, French, and German.

Eudoxus of Cyzicus – Extraordinary Navigator Lost at Sea

You know those great musicians who die when they are 27 and live on forever as the greatest even though the musicians who live into their 80’s probably are a whole lot better?

portrait of Eudoxus
While no portraits of Eudoxus of Cyzicus exist, he probably looked something like this Greek man who looks Turkish and is suing a Swedish yogurt company for using his image and saying he looks Turkish. They should have called the yogurt – Eudoxus of Yogurtus Cyzicus.

Eudoxus of Cyzicus wasn’t one of those guys. He was really one of the best, one of the greatest and though the facts are quite obvious and obviously speak for themselves, he has largely been forgotten by history. In fact, if you start a conversation about either Eudoxus or Cyzicus – you are likely to immediately asked Who? What? or Huh?

Who was he?  He was a 2nd century  (B.C.) Greek navigator who tried to circumnavigate Africa about 1700 years before anyone else tried again. By the way, he probably failed since he disappeared along with all of his ships and crew on his 2nd attempt. Of course, maybe he found paradise and decided not to return home.

Cyzicus, by the way is located near the present day Bandirma in Turkey and while there isn’t any evidence to say that it is where the scissors were invented – I like to think it might be true.  The ampitheatre there was considered as one of the seven wonders of the world and was the largest ever built – at least until a larger one was made. The monuments of this great city were carted off to build the Hagia Sophia and later Ottoman monuments. The site is now an uninhabited wet land.Extraordinary Navigator

His career included much more than just his disappearance, however. He made successful voyages to India from the Red Sea for the Egyptian Pharoah-King Ptolemy Euergetes II and loved to party down with the locals (okay, I just added that part in though it could be true.)

He sailed the monsoon system of the Indian Ocean 120 years before the baby Jesus let out his first wail and he was written about by Poseidenius as a hero of yore back when yore was considered to be pre-yore. The story goes that a shipwrecked Indian sailor found his way to Ptolemy’s court and offered to guide a ship to his homeland in turn for passage. Ptolemy thought about it for a second before saying “Get Eudoxus – that guy can sail anything. I think he’s in Cyzicus.”

Much to the surprise of everyone Eudoxus not only accepted the challenge but also came home with a load of herbs, teas, spices, and precious stones.  Needless to say, he was sent back. One story has it that he was in love with Ptolemy’s queen and she returned the feelings – of course, that is a story I just made up because it sounds rather nice. There is no historical record of it – but if it were true, you can imagine why he kept getting sent away on dangerous missions.

ancient navigation astrolabe toolWhile some early historians thought it was all a pack of lies (the whole voyage to India, not just the part I made up), modern scholars are pretty sure he really did make the trips. One reason is that during the 2nd century BC,  Greek and Indian ships plied their trade with one another in ports like the modern Turkish city of Aden. By the year 50 BC there were plenty of Greek and Roman ships sailing the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean.

Of course, if he kept returning to have the King’s queen swooning over him, it was necessary to have more dangerous missions placed before him. Ptolemy next said something like “Why don’t you go West and just keep going…” So, Eudoxus, not one to really understand a hint, got in his ships and went to Spain where he built more ships and set out to go around Africa – something else that no one else had done and something that he probably had no reason to suspect was even possible – so we have to think that maybe some of the herbs from India were smokable and of the sativa variety. Or maybe not.  Here’s a bit from Wikipedia – not the most reliable source but for this story, it probably is worth the weight in gold.

When Eudoxus was returning from his second voyage to India the wind forced him south of the Gulf of Aden and down the coast of Africa for some distance. Somewhere along the coast of East Africa, he found the remains of a ship. Due to its appearance and the story told by the natives, Eudoxus concluded that the ship was from Gades (today’s Cádiz in Spain) and had sailed south around Africa. This inspired him to attempt a circumnavigation of Africa.

Personally, I like the story with Ptolemy’s queen a bit better, but what we know for certain is that he shipwrecked somewhere South of Morocco, probably in modern Mauritania and then spent some time making repairs before once again heading back to Greece where he was told once again to get lost.

So, once again, he  set out to circumnavigate Africa and this time it is presumed that he was lost forever though some, such as Pliny, claim that Eudoxus went all the way around and came home. The truth is probably that he finally got the hint and went and found a queen of his own somewhere.

Papa Vagabond- Ernest Hemingway

When it comes to famous vagabonds, people often forget that respected writers now often had their roots as shiftless vagabonds. Ernest Hemingway is no exception. He was a man of action and an extraordinary vagabond.

Perhaps the most famous vagabond of them all, Vagabond Ernest HemingwayErnest Hemingway , was a well-known American writer, he was born in 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois. He began his career as a news writer in a newspaper office in Kansas City. He joined a volunteer ambulance group in Italian army during First World War. He was wounded while serving at the front and spent his ample time in hospitals. After some time he returned to United States and became a reporter for American and Canadian newspapers. He was sent to Europe again to cover events such as the Greek Revolution.

Hemingway became a member of the group of expelled Americans in Paris, he explained about this in his work The Sun Also Rises
. Another important work of Hemingway which was very successful was A Farewell to Arms
, this was a study about the depression of an American ambulance officer in the war and his performance as a deserter. He traveled to many places like a vagabond for his work and like many other authors he was also considered a world traveler. For the background of his most aggressive novel “The Old Man and The Sea”, he used his experiences as a reporter at the time of civil war in Spain. This is the story about a journey of an old fisherman and his struggle with a fish and sea.

Vagabond HemingwayAlong with traveling, writing Hemingway was a great sportsman, he liked to portray hunters, soldiers and bullfighters. He became deeply involved in the culture of all the places he visited and wrote very clearly about what he saw and experienced. Due to this Hemingway’s history became increasingly associated with the places that he traveled. From the beginning of his life Hemingway traveled more than many people during that time. He traveled like a nomad and this gave him an opportunity to show the aggressive image which he had created for himself. He visited Kenya and Tanganyika in 1933 with his second wife Pauline for the first time. He visited Africa again in 1953 with his last and fourth wife Mary, where he enjoyed another safari. Much of this time can be read about in his short story collection The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

Hemingway in Paris
Personally, I enjoy all of his work, but it is some of his lesser known works such as To Have and Have Not or On Paris that I find to be the best indication of his vagabondness.

Written for the Toronto Star between 1920 and 1924, in On Paris, Hemingway focuses his gaze on Paris. Writing with characteristic verve, he tackles cultural topics in chapters such as Living on $1,000 a Year in Paris, American Bohemians in Paris, and Parisian Boorishness. “The scum of Greenwich Village, New York, has been skimmed off and deposited in large ladles on that section of Paris adjacent to the Café Rotonde. New scum, of course, has risen to take the place of the old, but the oldest scum, the thickest scum and the scummiest scum,” Hemingway wryly observes, “has come across the ocean, somehow, and with its afternoon and evening levees has made the Rotonde the leading Latin Quarter showplace for tourists in search of atmosphere.”

Hemingway ended his life with a shotgun in a log cabin. Some say it was alcoholism, others that he couldn’t stand a life of being older and debilitated. Personally, I think he simply wanted to know what adventures waited on the other side either that or he saw what global tourism was going to become and decided to get out before it fully manifested itself.

This is an excerpt from my book “Vagabonds: Sometimes Getting Lost is the Point” . It’s available as an ebook for kindle or ebook readers. Over the next several months we will be exploring some of these amazing vagabond characters from the past (and present).

Extraordinary Carthaginian Vagabond – Hanno the Navigator

The voyage of Hanno the Navigator 500 BCIn the annals of great explorers, there is one name that is often overlooked – that of the Carthanginian Periplus of Hanno – later known to the Greeks as Hanno the Navigator . Neither a Greek nor a Roman, but a free man of Carthage and perhaps one of the great unheralded navigators the world has ever known.

While the exact dates of his explorations are not certain, historians agree that they took place sometime around the year 500 B.C.E. It was around this time that Hanno left the city of Carthage – for those wondering, Carthage was located approximately where Tunis, Tunisia now sits.

Hanno left Carthage with a fleet of sixty rowing ships for the purpose of colonizing the unknown territories of Northern and Western Africa. With him were an ungodly number of people which counted in somewhere around 30,000!!!! Hanno’s job was to take all of these people and get them set up in colonies in the great unknown areas.

Passing through the Pillars of Hercules (between modern day Gibraltar and Tangiers, Morocco) the fleet set out into the Atlantic Ocean and turned south.

They founded a city called Thumiaterion at approximately modern day Safi, Morocco. From there, having left a number of settlers, he continued Southward to the isle of Cerne – a place much disputed and lost to history but given the voyage of Hanno, probably either Tenerife and the Canary Islands or less likely, Cape Verde. Even more fanciful is the idea that Hanno reached Atlantis…but who knows?

From Cerne, Hanno sailed back to the mainland and found a large river. Judging by the descriptions of the animals and landscape, we can assume that he was in modern day Senegal or perhaps The Gambia.  He encountered not only elephants, reed filled lakes, crocodiles, and hippopotomai, but also hostile natives that drove he and his settlers back to Cerne.

From Cerne, again, Hanno went further south to find a land that was wonderful by day but lit by fires at night.  He rounded the cape of Hespera Keras and encountered a people steeped in mysticism and music. His own mystics (an essential party to any Carthaginian voyage advised leaving quickly) and so they went south again.  This time they reached modern day Guinnea-Bissau and the Isle of Orango upon which they mistook gorillas for a race of hairy men.

Hanno the Navigator - Finder of Gorillas

In its inmost recess was an island similar to that formerly described , which contains in like manner a lake with another island, inhabited by a rude description of people. The females were much more numerous than the males, and had rough skins: our interpreters called them Gorillae. We pursued but could take none of the males; they all escaped to the top of precipices, which they mounted with ease, and threw down stones; we took three of the females, but they made such violent struggles, biting and tearing their captors, that we killed them, and stripped off the skins, which we carried to Carthage: being out of provisions we could go no further.

This is as far as Hanno reached before returning to Carthage with Atlas lions and stories of wonder. He left seven colonies behind (all in modern day Morocco) and presumably returned with much lighter ships. It is no wonder that Hanno became king of the Carthaginians. History knows him as Hanno II of Carthage.
ship of carthageThe voyage of Hanno is much in dispute, in order to come to a greater understanding of it, I’ve referred to many books and online sources, none of which were more helpful than this article which details the fact, the fiction, and the speculation.

I too, am guilty of some speculation but in reading the accounts of Hanno the Navigator, the above description of his voyage feels the most right to me.  One thing that can’t be argued is that the voyage of Hanno was one of the great epic voyages of all time.

Can Hanno the Navigator even be classified as a vagabond? To my mind, the answer is yes – in that a vagabond is anyone who sets out on a voyage of discovery where the unknown is the biggest thing that is known.  But, like everything with Hanno – all is in dispute. We don’t even have an idea what he looked like.

This is an excerpt from my book “Vagabonds: Sometimes Getting Lost is the Point” . It’s available as an ebook for kindle or ebook readers. Over the next several months we will be exploring some of these amazing vagabond characters from the past (and present).

Extraordinary Vagabond – Ed Buryn – Vagabond King

This is an excerpt from my book “Vagabonds: Sometimes Getting Lost is the Point” . It’s available as an ebook for kindle or ebook readers. Over the next several months we will be exploring some of these amazing vagabond characters from the past (and present).

Today, I’m going to be introducing you to  Ed Byrne. You might ask…who? Well, I would say the Ed Buryn is the godfather of vagabonding in the modern age. There are a lot of guys and gals who came before him, but his books from the 1960’s and 1970’s pretty much defined the modern act of vagabonding and have been well known and circulated in the nomadic underground since they were published.
Vagabonding in Europe and North Africa
When I started vagabonding in the late 1990’s my bibles were Ed’s Vagabonding in Europe and North Africa and Vagabonding in America. It’s hard to describe the books without you seeing them, so I recommend you pick them up. They are long out of print but can still be found circulating on Ebay, Amazon, and in used bookstores and thrift shops around North America. At the moment there are two copies of the USA book and one of Europe and North Africa on Amazon, here are the links to them. First come, first serve because I’m not selling my copies!

Vagabonding in America

Here are a couple of alternate titles for the USA book…
Vagabonding in the USA: A Guide for Independent Travelers and Foreign Visitors

Vagabonding in the USA: A Guide for Independent Travel

What makes these books special? The truth is that it is Ed and his way of seeing the world, travel, and life. And just in case you are thinking that Ed is dead and gone, he’s not. In fact, in 2008 he started (but seemed to stop) blogging and you can find his blog at

Ed Buryn- Vagabond King
Here is how he describes himself:

An explorer of diversity and philosopher of possibility, Ed Buryn (that’s me!) has worked as a newspaper delivery boy, aircraft radar operator, electronics technical writer, corporate manager, free-lance photographer; written several vagabonding guidebooks; and designed a major Tarot deck.

My personal mottos are: “I’ve you in eye-view” (as a photographer) and “Ed’d edited it” (as a writer). My books and photographs are explorations of the nature of human experience viewed through the lens of my own. My pics and words have been published in hundreds of books, magazines, and newspapers; and I am a two-time prizewinner in the Nikon International Photo Contest. Writing and performing poetry is a main interest of mine, and I was co-producer of the Nevada City Poets Playhouse for 8 years. Currently I am a full-time, online bookseller working from my home.

I have three grown daughters by three grown mothers and consider fatherhood to be my most important creative achievement. I live quite happily on the edge of Nevada City CA on a former goldmine.

This blog is an experiment in communication. We’ll see how it goes.

As to why Ed has influenced so many vagabonds, just check out this nugget of wisdom from Vagabonding in Europe and North Africa


“It’s up to you, that’s what’s great about being a vagabond. Once you decide that you can be a free agent, then that means you’re really free to go anywhere you like. You’re not dependent on travel agents or anybody else to make arrangements for you. You’re the one who’s going on the trip, so why not do it from the beginning? Plan it yourself; work it out yourself.”

Or this one from Vagabonding in the USA


Travel is not just moving over the earth from one place to another in some kind of conveyance. It’s not about where you’re going or how you’re getting there. It’s not about getting away from it all, at all. In fact, more the opposite … a way of getting to it all. Travel is a metaphor for life, a way of experiencing it more intensely and self-consciously. Traveling is not so much an action as an enlightened state of consciousness, opening you to fresh experience, to fresh looks at the world and yourself in it.

the Vagabond King
What’s Ed doing today? Selling used books online from his 3 acres in Nevada City, California and attending the burning man festival every year. He’s a dedicated Tarot lover and as such, I think it proves that this brotherhood of fools (called vagabonds) come from a long lineage.

Here is another bit from Vagabonding in the USA

“Routines and habits are the Known, protecting us from the Unknown. Habits are also called home. Habits tame the raw wilderness of existence into the civilized comforts of everyday life. Unfortunately, as we all know, habits gradually domesticate all the wildness and energy out of life. So much energy gets bound up in routines and habituated patterns, keeping them alive, that your life goes dead instead. Thus, if you want to discover again the wild side of life, you have to leave “home”; you have to break or dissolve your habits in order to release the energy locked up inside them.”

Long Live the Vagabond King!

Vagabond Architect – Johann Beukes C

This is an excerpt from my book “Vagabonds: Sometimes Getting Lost is the Point” . It’s available as an ebook for kindle or ebook readers. Over the next several months we will be exploring some of these amazing vagabond characters from the past (and present).

Johann BEUKES is from South Africa and worked as an architect for 40 years before deciding to do a lateral move into the travel business. He is a keen learner through TRAVEL experiences and is the CEO of TRAVELinform & TRAVELwithus.  I caught up with him by email earlier this week before he was heading to Germany.

Vagobond: You spent forty years as an architect – while some might say you’ve left that profession behind – it seems to me that you are still designing and building with TRAVELinform –

Johann Beukes: A great architect is not made by way of a brain nearly so much as he is made by way of an enriched heart. An architect-at-heart has to have a soul, a spirit and a passion for people. Exactly the same principles apply to a traveller-at heart.

TRAVELinform is a unique platform where one can share one’s passion for travel: many wonderful human true to life travel stories as well as travel photography to create the specific mood. And a growing family of equally enthusiastic members, sharing their experiences with one another on the social networking forum.

Vagobond: What made you decide to change gears? Can you tell us a bit of the journey that took you from architecture and into travel?

travel to Machu PicchuJohann Beukes: Since my childhood days I had pen friends in Japan, Germany and Canada; at a young age I started with travel- scrapbooking and became engaged with people in different places. My architecture brought me into contact with international architects around the world; thus making my early dreams a reality.

Various joint-replacement operations of most of my major joints forced me to bid my first love, practicing architecture, farewell. Fortunately I initiated a travel agency some 15 years ago; first as a hobby while travelling as an architect to some 80 Countries, which has now turned into a fulltime profession: the privilege of sharing ones travel joys with other people with a similar passion for exploring the unknown.

Vagobond:I’ve heard it said that travel is a series of near misses – can you share a harrowing tale from your travels?

Johann Beukes: As student, I joined a friend from Namibia on a Namib Desert excursion: our vehicle got stuck in the wilderness between kilometres of dunes. Luckily a helicopter search team discovered us after three days without water and food. No wonder it is also known as the Skeleton Coast of Namibia.

A few years ago I went with only the pilot on a ski-plane scenic flight of Mount Denali in Alaska; as keen photographer I convinced the pilot to land at a high altitude on a solitary glacier. With me in my photographic spell, we slightly overstayed our time. The severe cold quickly fixed the skis to the ice. Normally the passenger would move the ski-base while the pilot is accelerating the propeller. This time however, we had to swop roles, due to my disability to assist with the physical manoeuvre. We managed to escape the ice-trap and I almost deserved my wings!

Vagobond: How is TRAVELinform different from the many other travel sites and networks out there? What is your vision for it in the future?

Alaska Johann BeukesJohann Beukes: I think there is no replacement to first-hand experience; anybody browsing through the multitude of country galleries of stories and photos will soon share my passion.
We have two TRAVEL sites i.e. TRAVELinform as a free Travel Information and Social Networking site, and TRAVELwithus, the unique, dedicated consultant-connected Travel, which will be launched during April this year.

On TRAVELinform we do not sell anything; we believe that through this we will eventually build a platform where people will trust our impartiality with no strings attached. Should they be interested in packages and travel-related products, TRAVELwithus will ensure a trust-worthy reputation.

TRAVELinform has the social networking forum, the unique travel stories and photo galleries, Travel-related links, sanction of many a country’s Tourism Boards. It has been visited by viewers, representing some 100 Countries and the average time spent on the site is 5 minutes at a time; indicating the popular interest.

Vagobond: In terms of vision, can you make a few predictions about where travel is heading in the next 5-10 years?

Johann Beukes: I believe that TRAVEL will become the most important industry world-wide; interaction between customer and professional consultant will move away from traditional consultancy selling air-tickets first, followed by other ancillary sales.

All basic commodities like air, car and bed will be done online by more and more, IT generation customers. If your destination knowledge, input and value as Travel Consultant are not omissible, you will soon become extinct.

The sooner the high street agency understands the many challenges online travel agencies are offering, the more secure their future will be.

Vagobond: Travel has changed in some massive ways over our lifetimes- what are some of the positives and negatives you can see in these changes?

Johann Beukes: Customers have become absolute knowledgeable on their Travel expectations and needs. Guessing and selling products without first-hand knowledge and expertise cannot succeed. For this reason consultants should act pro-actively and professionally: providing a service that will address all aspects of personalised travel.

The positive side is that a far wider choice of options of destinations exist; however, on the negative side is the fact that the exclusiveness of destinations will disappear: destinations off the beaten track will unfortunately become less and less available.

Vagobond: Has travel become too easy?

Johann Buekes in Plovdiv, BulgariaJohann Beukes: My honest opinion is that travel has become a hugely complex and high-risk service industry.
Only the real Travel PROFESSIONALS will survive. Through globalisation everybody becomes a traveller in some or other way. It has become very easy to travel today.

Vagobond: What makes great travel writing?

Johann Beukes: Experience the heart of a country through the eyes of ordinary people;
original, warm and descriptive words will enhance, almost like a picture taken at a scene; though it should always be factual correct; add passion to the most simple theme and people will experience travel through your eyes.

Vagobond: What makes a great travel writer?

Johann Beukes:  A passionate honest story teller; look for stories off the beaten track, among ordinary people.

Vagobond: In terms of press trips with Tourism Boards – do you think there is a magic formula for landing them?

Johann Beukes: Personally, I do not have a problem with press trips organised by Tourism Boards to promote their country. As long as the travel writers act as true travellers and not tourists: a Traveller will always shows appreciation and respect the diversity of the travelled world and the different cultures of its people, whereas a tourist demands attention to their personal needs only.

Vagobond: How do you prepare for a trip?

Johann Beukes: My time is always limited and good planning of time spent is therefore crucial. Through my LinkedIn network, make first-hand contact with connections within the country, communicate my ideas and proposed itinerary; clearly define my objectives of experiencing the country as a traveller-at-heart and not as an insensitive tourist. Many of my travel stories are rooted in the origins of ordinary people.

Vagobond: Can you share three travel tips that Vagobond readers may not have heard?

Johann Beukes: Communicate with the taxi-driver, if local, or the receptionist at the hotel and get first hand local tips of quieter times at tourist traps, eating spots supported by locals etc.
Do a proper research on all to do and see well in advance, in order that you can orientate yourself easily once at the destination; time is always limited.
Rather try and stay in the original old town area and enjoy the real atmosphere once all the tourists have left.

Vagobond: As someone who travels a lot, I realize how hard it is to answer questions about best, favourite etc. Still, having seen more than 75 countries – which 3 would you most like to go back and visit?

Johann Beukes:  Three totally different destinations:

Romania; especially Transylvania, due to the interesting culture and history;
Alaska, because of the unequalled scenic beauty of its landscape, from south to north;
Peru, truly a country with wonderful people; although poverty prevails, they assist each other and where the role of the family is very important.

Vagobond: Do you also have a bucket list of places still to visit?

Johann Beukes: High on my list is an exclusive adventure cruise on board the VIC of the Spitsbergen Arctic zone; for its incredible photographic opportunities.
Then I would still want to travel to Tibet, especially the Shigatse and Nyingtri mountainous areas to stay some time and really meditate within the rural regions; maybe do some new travel writing.

and share your travel ideas on

Islamic Aesthetics Unleashed – Asilah, Morocco

Asilah, Morocco
Asilah, Morocco is a great little funky town that hosts a mural festival each year. It’s a gorgeous little town on the Atlantic Coast of Africa. I was going to share about 30 photos of the gorgeous artistic town of Asilah, Morocco when I realized it would be better and allow me to fulfill one of my New Year’s Resolutions (make more videos) if I put them in a video slideshow for you. I hope you enjoy it.

Just 31 km from Tangier. Its ramparts and gateworks remain fully intact. Its history dates back to 1500 B.C., when the Phoenicians used it as a base for trade. The Portuguese conquered the city in 1471, but John III later decided to abandon it because of an economic crisis in 1549. In 1692, the town was taken by the Moroccans under the leadership of Moulay Ismail. Asilah served then as a base for pirates in the 19th and 20th centuries. From 1912-1956 it was part of Spanish Morocco.


Vagobond Travel Museum – A European Wander

Much to my surprise, what I had thought would be a sort of never ending, round the world holiday, had suddenly become mired down in love – mainly because I’d fallen in love with a Moroccan girl with no passport and in order to bring her into my world – I had to get the right papers, find a job, and prove that I could be a good husband.  Not easy when my plan hadn’t included any of these things, I was thousands of miles from home, and I didn’t even really like being in Morocco. I needed time to think. I needed to step away.

My bride to be had told me that I could marry her or that she would understand if I chose the world instead…frankly, things had moved so quickly, that I needed to see if the world still held the same appeal – so I decided to take a few weeks, explore a bit of Europe, visit some friends along the way and clear my head.

This trip was all about deciding whether to continue traveling and leave the girl behind or whether to follow my heart and leave the travel behind – or perhaps to find a way to marry both the girl and the road. In any event, things quickly turned south when all three of my debit cards were shut down because I had yet to learn that banks need to be notified that you will be using ATMs when you are abroad.

This particular trip follows up on leaving Hawaii, taking an Amtrak across the USA, spending my first month in Spain, and then finding love in Morocco. So, there was a lot going on as I tried to figure out what the hell to do next.

Sevilla – The Flower of Spanish Beauty and Culture

The King of Seville and the Barber of Seville

Brussels – Comic Murals, Skate Parks, and Chess Bars



Photo Essay: The Beauty of Doors

There’s something about doors that just make my brain fill with wonder. Like travel, doors always lead to something new and often to something unexpected. Like the story of the Lady or the Tiger or Let’s Make a Deal.
BCN Door
This door in Barcelona seems to lead to a classical place where graffiti monsters rule. Aren’t you curious what lies on the other side?
Bergamo Italy Door
Does this door in Bergamo, Italy actually lead to anywhere? Why is it locked. What’s it hiding? Does it lead to Narnia?
Door to Bordeaux
Is there a French family drinking Bordeaux behind this French door? Can you almost hear the laughter? Oui.
Door in Belgium
This Brussels, Belgium door is altogether more serious. Are there great works of art on the other side or serious EU business going on?
Door in Fez
Couscous perhaps? Maybe a carpet shop? What does your imagination say is behind this door in the Fez Medina?
Cave Door in GrenadaWhat about this door from a cave in San Bernardino above Grenada in Spain. How do the troglodyte gypsies pass their days. Beer, fortune telling, black magic? Or just a card game and some cooking.

Marrakesh Door
Rabbit Hole in Marrakech

Finally this one in the magical city of Marrakesh. Don’t you feel like you are falling in?
Lao Tzu famously said that without opening your door you can see the world and I think that might explain the fascination with travel. We all wonder just what is on the other side of the door and sometimes it’s even more wonderful than we imagine.

Meeting Artisans in the Fez Medina

Fez Medina Fes MoroccoMeeting the Artisans of Fez, Morocco was one of the highlights of my time in Morocco. Much has been written about the Fez, Medina – I’ve even written some of it.  In a nutshell, the Fez Medina is a UNESCO world heritage site, the largest inhabited car-free urban area in the world, the best example of a living medieval Muslim city and a place where you can stay in some amazing hotels,  guest houses, dars and riads.

The Artisans of Fez, Morocco

I was fortunate in being able to take part in something that hasn’t been so extensively written about.  I joined my friend Jessica Stephens (aka ‘The Jess’) on a medina tour that was focused on not only observing but also interacting with, talking to and getting up close and personal with the artisans who do their work and make their home in the Fez medina.

The usual medina tour goes something like this (and it’s good, don’t get me wrong)

“Here is the medina, here is a potters shop, here is the Quarawine Mosque, here is an old funduq, here is an old medrassa, and here are the famous tanneries from five floors up, now we will go to my uncles rug shop…” 

Depending on how much you’ve paid your guide, you will get various levels of sales, various levels of information, and various levels of bullshit (How do you know when a guide is lying? Their lips are moving!)

This tour was different.  Jess and I met with her clients at a cafe in Bathha which sits on the edge of the Fez medina and is very tourist friendly. They were nice, interesting people from Seattle who have traveled all over the world and lived in Vietnam, India, Malaysia and probably a few other places.  One way to tell if a tour is interesting at a glance is to look at who is going on it.  This one was looking tops from the beginning.

Jess went over the details with a map and asked them about anything in particular they wanted to see.  He wanted to see  the tanning process up close and she wanted to just enjoy the architecture since she’s an architect.  I particularly liked Jess’s warnings at the beginning 1) This isn’t a shopping tour so they shouldn’t buy a bunch of things on the way – the guide could take them back later if they desired 2) Don’t walk into an artisanal and just start snapping photos, instead talk with people, let them explain what they do and then – after all of that – take some photos if they want 3) Don’t be afraid to ask questions and interact with people and 4) Watch out for the donkeys (okay, I added that last one myself)

Once the briefing was done we headed down to the not so tourist friendly (but still safe and cool) Bab Rcaif, where we met with the licensed Moroccan medina guide.  Here’s a side note – Jess pays her extra not to take visitors to any of the shops that most guides get commission from when tourists buy things. That’s not only cool for the guests, it’s also cool for the guide because Jess tries to compensate her for the commissions.  There’s a lot of talk about sustainability and fair trade these days, but this is the real deal in action.

Our first stop was to the dyeing street inside the medina. This is an entire derb (small street or alleyway) dedicated to the art of dyeing clothing and material.  We were able to stop and ask questions along the way from the dyers and they showed us the process of the vats, using wool and also aloe vera silk harvested from the mountains.

This old man was the shop steward in one of the dyeries…the map of lines on his face speaks of the travels of Ibn Battuta and more. Here’s something else nice, rather than the guide simply telling us everything – she allowed the artisans themselves to speak and then translated. This might seem like a small thing but it made a huge difference in terms of trust and authenticity.

From there we crossed over the river and went through the metal working and mirror shops.  All along the way, Jess was giving the artisans, the workers and the kids copies of the photos she had snapped on previous expeditions. It’s something that brought smiles of delight to the old and young and made all of us welcome guests along the way.

The metal working area opened up into the Attarine Square – one of the oldest squares in the medina and our lovely guide told us about the history of the migrations from Tunisia and from Andalucia and how they set up on different sides of the river and had a fierce rivalry which caused Fez to become the shining light of the times – home of the first university (The Quarayine University) and also I learned something I hadn’t known – there are 365 mosques in the Fez medina and that is why it is the spiritual capital of Morocco ( of course the guide’s lips were moving as she said it, so you might want to count).

We paused to explore a bit of the square and see the famous library though since it is still a place where students study, we weren’t allowed to go inside. Still, magnificent…

Down another narrow winding passageway and we came across a fellow who works exclusively with bone and horn. He showed us how he heats the bone and horn make it flexible and then he is able to cut around it and create beautiful shapes that can be carved and polished.

Now we were heading to the area where a recent scandal shook the medina. I hadn’t been in town for more than a few days and already I’d heard about it from three different sources. Here is the scandal and the very unfair way it turned out:

A fashion magazine of some sort came and booked a tour with their models of the famous Fessi tanneries.  When they got there, they apparently bribed someone to be allowed to go down in the thick of things despite the fact that they were using an illegal guide and technically aren’t supposed to go down there. Once down there, the models stood in the center and stripped nude! Now, this might not seem so scandalous but remember, this is a conservative Muslim country and these guys working there are among the conservative working class – it was shocking! As a result, the models and the photographers were escorted out but the manager of the tanneries and the guide were both jailed and charged 4000 dirham – which is a huge fine here.  Anyway, we had proper permission and we all kept our clothes on.

Even clothed, the tanneries were still amazingly interesting. I’d always wanted to get down into the pits and see the process and it was incredibly fascinating.  The process goes a bit like this – skins are brought, thrown into the limestone pits (filled with pigeon shit and lime) and soaked for a few days. After this they are thrown onto a huge electric wheel that scapes them along the floor and gets the hair loose. Next a man scrapes the hair from the hides. After that, they are thrown in another pit with more chemical agents. Following that they move to the dying vats (the brown ones) and then they go to be dried, scraped and softened, and finally made into your shoes or bag.

I probably don’t need to say this, but the smell is something you can simply not imagine. It is awful throughout. The guys in the pits looked at us suspiciously as we wandered through, probably wondering if we would take our clothes off or at least ‘Why the hell do they want to come down here?” We walked through the entire process and then blissfully, left the tanneries to head to the carpet weaving area. The weavers rooms didn’t smell bad at all, but then, after the tannery, nothing really could!

The weaver spoke excellent English and gave an demonstration of how to make material. We found out that for silk and cloth, it is generally men who do the weaving but for rugs, that is up to the women (like the women weavers I met in the collective in Rbat al Khair a few months ago).  The scarves and textiles were gorgeous and in a variety of colors but most striking was a deep cobalt blue. The dyes used to be all natural but these days (we had found out on the dyer street- most of them are chemical dyes).

After this we took a car from Rceif to the artisanal  school commissioned by the King of Morocco. In the school we met a master zelij (mosaic tile) craftsman, teaching four apprentices his craft with a massive piece.  We also had the chance to meet and talk with a Moroccan slipper maker and to see a number of the workshops where master artisans are teaching their craft to pupils.  Among the skills being passed on are the making of the oud and Moroccan fiddles, stone work, glass, tile, ceramics, wood working, and much more.

Finally, withe the tour of the artisans of the Fes Medina complete, we all sat down for lunch and took a good rest. This was an awesome tour – I hope that more tours like this that  1) respect the local people 2) interact with the culture 3) create an appreciation for the arts and handicrafts of places – continue to show up.

To book this tour for yourself, you can contact Jessica at her site  Artisanal Affairs to arrange it all for you. She also has a lot more information, some videos of the artisans and a whole lot more at

Not My Morocco – My Life in Morocco by Christopher Damitio

I wrote this back in 2009. I was far too honest. I was far too insensitive. In many cases I had no idea what I was talking about but I talked about it anyway. I can go on about this, but won’t.

All of that being said – it has value. It deserves to be shared. And it’s about time I clean it up and present it in a better form. This is a live rewrite – I ‘m rewriting it as I post it here on which is kind of where a lot of it started in the first place.


Not My Morocco – My Life in Morocco 

by Christopher ‘Vago’ Damitio

Copyright © 2011, 2013, 2020 Vagobond Travel Media, LLC

Published by Vagobond Travel Media, USA.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.


Third Edition

Vagobond Travel Media, LLC.

Dedication & Acknowledgments
This book is for my daughter, Sophia Damitio. It’s the story of how you came to be. You are the apple of my eye and every pain in the ass has been worth it to see you smile and hear you laugh. Now you know why you don’t have a middle name. It’s not my fault.

I am deeply indebted to my wife for not killing me, especially when and if she reads this.  I have changed the names of everyone in her family, other innocent people who were caught up in fucked up situations, and some who just don’t deserve to be named at all.  



If you come into the medina through Bab al-Maquam, walk across the bridge, and go past the Great Mosque of Sefrou you will see a narrow alleyway on the right side. Turn down alleyway and follow its narrow winding path and eventually you will reach a communal water source. You could call it a fountain, but actually, it’s a community tap – a sakaya.

Most people living here don’t have their own faucets and so they get water from the fountain, gather there, gossip there, and get to know each other there. You will pass a small hanut (store). It’s more like a closet than a store and the store keeper sits inside this closet with a half door separating him from the world that walks by. The shelves of his closet-store are lined with candies, sugar, Tide detergent (pronounced  teed here) , Dannon (dah-noon) yogurt, and other essentials of the Moroccan household. He has a talfaza (TV) inside. It usually shows Bollywood films or football matches. Young men without jobs hang around the hanut while women and kids hang out around the tap. There is a definite division of the sexes in Morocco. Sometimes there is crossover, sometimes there is not.

The women wear standard housewife uniforms of colorful pajamas with aprons. Some of them wear hijab (veil), some don’t. This after all is the casbah (fortified area), which I have been told is the seediest and most dangerous part of the medina (old city). My Moroccan friend even asked me if he could leave his money and phone in my house when he had to go home late one evening. He was worried about going through my neighborhood alone at night. It made me feel nervous about where I’ve chosen to live.

I’ve written other books, but I don’t know if I can write this book. I don’t know what this book is about. I’m sitting here, in this small apartment I’ve rented in the heart of one of Morocco’s oldest medinas. I don’t have a clue what I’m doing here. I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t know what I want. As the Gnawa music beats it’s rhythm from the CD merchant’s cart on the bridge of the Oued Aggai which rushes by outside my window, I hear children of the family living above me playing in the stairwell. My Darija isn’t good enough to know what they are saying, but they are kids, so I can guess.

Part of what made me rent this apartment was the white noise of the river. The other part was I needed a place I could call my own in this country which is most certainly in no way mine. Equal parts. This apartment offers a lot of what I wanted in a home. It’s in a car free area. Fruit and vegetable merchants are an easy walk away. I have a neighbor who speaks English. A Welsh woman named Jessica who has integrated herself into the casbah quite nicely. She has paved the way for me to live here without too much attention.

The men and teen boys wear jeans and dark jackets. Their hair is cut short and the younger guys like to sport what I call a mini-mohawk with one inch of hair combed to the top in a cock’s comb. They talk in dark doorways, play cards on the stoops, and look at me curiously as I walk by. If they look hard enough, I give them a “Salaam a leykum”, Peace upon you, to which I usually get a “Wa leykum Salaam” in return, and upon you be peace. If they don’t return my greeting, my nerves kick up a notch.

I’m told by my English speaking Moroccan friends this is the quarter where prostitutes and druggies live. Jessica tells me they are wrong. The prostitutes and druggies are thickest in the old Jewish quarter, the mellah. I feel no more threatened by anyone here than anywhere else in Morocco. I get no more come hither looks than I get everywhere else. I get lots of those looks. I am the dream of every long-suffering Moroccan girl. A ticket out of the country to a different life they’ve seen on TV and are certain I hold the keys to. Ha ha, if only they knew.

I never managed to figure out what locks my keys open. I’m a self-imposed exile from the U.S.A. who was unable or unwilling to achieve the American dream. I’ve never figured out which. I tried my hand at dozens of jobs in a half dozen states and never found what I was looking for. Finally, after achieving a degree I paid for with loans I will probably never be able to pay back, I decided it was time to leave. I hadn’t found what I was looking for.

My keys opened no locks for me in the U.S.A.

I don’t know if I wanted to find a mate, a career, or a home but none of them turned up and I am left wondering what my life would be like if one or all of them had. A part of me claims the real reason I’m here is because I don’t want to work, I don’t want to commit, I don’t want to put in the effort to have those things. Maybe that part of me is right, but I’m not sure. I’m not sure about anything except I am here, in Morocco, a country I knew nothing about when I arrived. It’s not my country. It’s not my Morocco.

I’d never heard of Paul Bowles and had no idea William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac were influenced by coming to this place. I had heard of Tangier and Marrakesh, but I didn’t know what country they were in. I thought Tangier was in Mexico and Marrakech was in India. Neither one seemed like they were in Africa. Africa was filled with black people, not Arabs. I had watched Kate Winslet in Hideous Kinky, but had no idea it was set in a country just 30 minutes by ferry from Spain. I thought it was India. I’d eaten couscous and watched Casablanca but couldn’t have told you couscous was the national dish of Morocco. I couldn’t have pointed to Casablanca on a map. I probably would have pointed to somewhere in the Middle East. At best I would have pointed to Algeria or Libya.. I arrived here without a guidebook. I hadn’t done any research about Morocco. I came here blind..

And now it is home. If you find it strange, I can’t begin to express how much stranger I find it. Somehow I have a fiancee and from her, I have a whole extended family of shepherds, hanut keepers, pajama wearing women, and mini-mohawk wearing boys. Too easily I was able to land a job at a prestigious English school in Fez, the cultural capital of this strange country, and while I’m not sure it will work out, everyone is very impressed I am working there.

I’ve started making money through blogging workshops for ex-pats in Fez and it looks like I will be able to do consulting and website building. My prices are too low, I undervalued myself, but perhaps it will lead to some demand and then I can raise my prices. Like everything else, this just happened. I can explain the process to you, but I can’t make sense of it.

Now, you know the reason why I’m not sure I can write this book. I’m not sure what I am writing about. I’m not sure why I’m writing it. I’m not sure how I am here or what I intend to do here. I hope you see my dilemma and I hope it will give you some patience as you read this. If I should happen to drift from one place to another without seeming rhyme or reason it is because I am finding my way. I am not so much lost as baffled at how I ended up here and what lies ahead…I invite you to join me on this very strange journey.

Christopher ‘Vago’ Damitio

Casbah of Sefrou, Morocco

December 2009

Not My American Dream

I’ve never liked or believed in the American Dream. From the time I was old enough to have thoughts, my thoughts drifted towards questions philosophical rather than practical.

This is one of those points I am forced off point as Gnawa musicians from Fez have parked themselves outside my door and are beating their drums like mad-men in the hope Jessica, my Welsh neighbor, will come outside and invite them in for tea. Maybe they’ve heard I’m here and are hoping for me to invite them. It’s a fascinating idea, but not likely to happen. I have put myself in for the night. Jessica isn’t home and her dogs are barking like mad as the Gnawa guys beat their drums. If I were Burroughs or Kerouac, I would go out, invite them in, smoke some hash with them, we would all suck each other’s dicks, and it would be a crazy party. At the very least, I would make a strong connection to color my entire Moroccan life in a different light. That’s not me though. Not now anyway. I’m more of the Dostoyevsky type, hiding in the basement hunched over a typewriter and not seeing anyone.

After a year of living out of a suitcase, I have a place I can lock the door and I’m not willing to open it yet. I’ve learned one thing disappears faster than money. Privacy. If you open the door, you can never close it. This is especially true in Morocco where people like the Gnawa guys will show up unannounced and simply make music outside your flat. If you are home, they will come in and make themselves at home.

Moroccan hospitality is expected, not offered. When you go to someone’s house, you don’t knock on the door, you stand a stone’s throw away and shout the name of the person you are looking for. Or you stand in the street beating your drums until someone comes out and lets you in. I don’t want anyone in right now. Not even the girl I’m supposed to marry. Although, if she were outside I would let her in. Maybe. Letting the Gnawas in and smoking dope sounds more fun.

My main hesitation is language. I can read body language but without being able to express opinions, have conversations, or delve into philosophical issues, it’s impossible for me to enjoy the company of Moroccans. This might be the major source of my doubts with my fiance. Her English is superb but she is a talker and not a listener and makes conversation a one-way street. I wonder if she will ever actually know me. Somehow I doubt it. I don’t think she could understand the real me.

I can force her to listen, but she doesn’t digest and recontribute towards an actual conversation where both of us learn and grow. Instead she wants to snuggle, kiss, and rest. That’s not horrible, to have a cute little Arab woman who wants to cuddle all the time, but my mind needs stimulation too. And from her, it’s not getting it. Even as a hired translator she fails to keep me involved. The few times I’ve asked her to translate conversations she began telling long stories or complaining to the person she was supposed to be translating – when I would ask what was being said, she said “Oh, we’re talking about vegetables/the weather/someone we know.” At which point, I gave up asking her to translate. I was hoping to give her a profession, but that’s not my job nor my purpose.

Back to the American Dream. I’ve always known I am destined to die and so it’s never made much sense to work hard for a bunch of things which can’t go with me. That’s what the dream is, right? You work hard and spend your time on this planet doing things you don’t want to be doing and then you get to have things you want. That’s the dream, right? Then you die.

Sacrifice your time, a limited quantity, for things which the universe has in abundance. The things aren’t going anywhere, but you certainly are. You don’t know when or where but you will die. Your body will become just one more thing which will decompose and become other things like all the rest of the things.

The bigger question, to me, has always revolved around whether we are more than a body. If we are, what exactly are we? I’ve never believed when our bodies die, we die with them. In other words, I am unable to disbelieve in what can best be described as souls. For those paying attention, note the intentional use of the double negative. Your high school English teacher might tell you what I just wrote translates as “I believe in souls” but that’s a pile of horse crap. I neither believe nor disbelieve in souls. Instead, I am simply saying despite there not being thing-ish evidence for souls, I am not convinced they don’t exist.

I am convinced dead people don’t need stuff from this world. Whether there is life after physical death or not, it seems an immense waste of time to spend life doing things we don’t want to be doing. Unless they somehow contribute to the life we may or may not have after this one is over.

I think staring at a stream or looking up at the clouds is a better way to spend my time than shuffling papers for a brokerage or playing music which doesn’t speak to me. If you can find a career you love as much as I love looking at clouds, I’m happy for you. Go for it. So far though, I can’t say I have.

Writing is another way I spend my time looking up at the clouds. Writing and making films both feel like time well spent, unless I’m writing sales copy and making shitty films. Unfortunately, you can’t be a DJ who plays the music he likes all the time and if you are leading a tour group you can’t simply stop the group and say, “This is a wonderful spot and I think we should stay here for a few hours.”

Not unless you own the business. Not unless you don’t care what your business does financially. I’ve never been in those positions because they are filled by guys who wasted the best twenty years of their lives getting into those positions. Or they are filled by the unappreciative children of rich people who haven’t lived enough life to know how to enjoy it. I think those people are harnessed by their experience and upbringing. They don’t take advantage of their situations as they should for full enjoyment. They’re like natural healers who go to Western Medical school – soon they start prescribing drugs.

Are you following me? Is this worth your time to read or would it be better if I went out and invited the Gnawa guys inside? I haven’t learned what the Gnawa guys are all about yet. It’s a form of music supposed to ward off evil spirits. Medicine for the mind and soul. It’s played to protect you from the influence of beings such as Aisha Kondisha. The Gnawa guys wear colorful robes with cowrie shells and brass thingamagigs on them. They are blacker than most Moroccans. I’m not sure why. They beat their drums and ask for coins in the medina. That’s all I know.

Jessica told me how she met them. One day she was leaving Fez and they asked her for coins. She invited them to come up to her house for a party. She paid for them to play, brought them to Sefrou, and had her party. Now they come back on their own. She said when she comes home people say to her “Hey, the Gnawa guys were here today.” I’ll say it to her tomorrow. Or tonight. It depends on if she stands outside my door and screams “Vago!” when she gets back home.


I Dream of Djinni

Djinn are something between angels, demons, and ghosts. They are a separate species of intelligent beings Allah created who aren’t visible to us. They have free will like we do and they too will be judged at the big end of the world courtroom. As a result, they can be good, bad, or indifferent. I haven’t quite worked out the details on them, but so says Qu’ran.

Among Moroccans, there are many stories of their societies. They function just as we do with marriages, kings, and entertainment. It would seem we are visible to some of them, but not all. In the same way, they are visible to some of us, but not all of us. It must get distracting. Moroccans say they live in empty houses, drain pipes, and water places. My little apartment must be full of them.

I don’t mind. The sound of the water soothes my soul and if there are spirits here, they seem to be good. I’ve resisted the suggestion to slaughter a sheep, goat, or black chicken and pour the blood down the drains to clear out the djinn and make them leave. After all, they were here before I was and I’m not feeling any negativity from them. Every time I say my house is full of djinn it makes me crave a gin and tonic, or twenty. Morocco is a Muslim country and as such, it isn’t exactly a drinking place. I know I can get booze here, but I haven’t quite worked it out yet.

This is probably a good thing for me as I’ve had a real love/hate relationship with booze in the past. I miss being able to have a few drinks with new friends and use the booze to get over ourselves. I’ve noticed people here often find themselves at a loss as to how to interact with others. I’ve been to parties where the men sat and looked at each other. It made me cognizant of social lubricant as a very good thing. Of course, every time I see some Arab staggering down the street after having visited the one bar in town, I am reminded good things can go bad quickly. Unlike more fundamentalist countries, there is drinking allowed in Morocco, but it’s not something unacceptable for most people. It’s an act against God.

If I were having a few beers, I would have invited the Gnawa guys in to join me and then gone carousing with them in the old medina. Who knows? The worst mistakes I’ve made in life have involved alcohol but so have many of my favorite experiences. It’s probably better to be sober for a while. At least until I speak enough Darija to get myself out of trouble.

Coming to Morocco

I ended up here easily enough. I borrowed enough federal money to survive while I got an education about filmmaking, people, and culture and then I skipped out of my country without paying the bill in December of 2008. Paying the loans back would have involved getting some sort of job. Hard to find a job with the entire financial system collapsing. Finding a job good enough to pay my loans would have made me more miserable than sitting in this house full of djinn and listening to the waterfalls outside my window.

I got tired of working for other people very early in life. In 2001, after watching the USA become a flag waving country of white hypocrites I moved to Hawaii. I worked in tourism, lived in the jungle, lived in vans, and eventually rented a place of my own. I met a girl, fell hard for her, and after several years of relationship – I still wanted to impress her so I enrolled at the University of Hawaii. I borrowed government money to live and pay for my education. The relationship ended but I finished the degree with more borrowed government money. At one point, I actually intended to pay it back.

Meanwhile my government spent trillions on wars which didn’t make anyone happy and trillions bailing out banks and huge corporations that made sketchy business decisions. They were too big to fail. I’m too small to be noticed. I don’t feel a bit bad about not intending to pay them back unless it works out to be convenient for me. In fact, I feel like the government should pay a lot more people to be happy by paying for them to live in Hawaii and take classes. Instead they waste huge amounts building bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, starting wars, and occupying foreign countries. My country spent trillions to buy insurance and automotive companies bankrupted through bad management. They paid the trillions to people who already have more money than they need. It’s incredibly stupid. I am a better investment than wars and corporate bailouts even with my declaration I won’t repay unless it’s convenient. At least I might pay back the money someday. But then again, maybe I won’t since I know where it will be spent anyway.

That’s it. I milked the system and then decided to split. I visited American cities I was curious about on mainland America, said my goodbyes to friends and family, and then bought the cheapest ticket to Europe I could find. I intended to do the classic self-exiled writer thing (actually Turkey was where I wanted to go) but then I ended up here, in Morocco, sitting in a sky blue apartment listening to persistent Gnawa musicians who don’t seem like they will go away even though they’ve been drumming for over an hour in an empty alleyway.

In Europe, I drank, fucked, and bummed around. I came to Morocco for a week and somehow nine months later, I’m in this apartment listening to the Gnawa guys outside as I write this. Morocco is the haven of the true exile and somehow it has become my home. I am starting to think falling in love was a trick of the universe to get me to establish myself here. I’m not happy to be in Morocco because this country seems, at times, to be entirely fucked in a completely different way than the country I left. At least here, I can afford to live without spending forty or more hours a week doing something I hate. Besides, there is always something interesting happening in the casbah even if it’s just the neighbors screaming at each other, as Arab women seem to do frequently.

Here’s how I came to Morocco. Tarifa is reportedly the Hawaii of Spain, but in February it is cold and rainy and the guest house I meant to stay in was closed for the season. As I looked for someplace to stay I came near the port and saw a ticket agency open. I bought a ticket for 37 Euro and knew I must be crazy. The ferry left fifteen minutes later.

A half-hour later we landed in Africa. On board the ferry, a customs agent stamped my passport and then we debarked with no formality. I walked off wearing my brown fedora and dozens of taxi drivers swarmed me. I didn’t have any money. I had an ATM card. I hoped there would be an ATM machine in Tangier, Morocco. I walked in the direction I thought the ATMs might be, found one and used it. It was a curious walk as I wondered what I would do if I couldn’t find an ATM. I would have just kept walking. No going backwards. It’s a weakness of mine. I withdrew 300 dirham. I didn’t know what would get me. I didn’t know the exchange rate.

A persistent taxi driver convinced me to let him take me to the train station. I didn’t understand the amount he requested and being tired and used to the honesty of Spaniards (who seemed to never even consider cheating me), I handed him 100 dirham. He gave me back 50. I knew I was being gouged, but I let it be. It was about $7 for a short cab ride across town. Too much. Fuck it. Having no idea of the value and realizing the language was totally different than the intermediate modern standard Arabic I spoke, I didn’t want to start with an argument over seven bucks. It could have been a dollar or fifty.

At the train station I waited four hours for the train to Fez. I’d decided to get away from Tangier since a Polish guy I’d met in Spain told me he’d been robbed there. I changed my last ten Gibraltar Pounds for another 130 dirham and sat studying the Moroccan Arabic Phrasebook I’d picked up in Gibraltar. I met a heavy, middle-aged Moroccan woman in a hijab (head-scarf). She was married to a Spaniard but he wasn’t with her. We spoke in semi-fluent Vagonese for about an hour (part Arabic, part Spanish, part French, part English= Vagonese – my language).

We were joined by a fashionably dressed Moroccan man from Rabat who conversed with us in stiff English. He informed us he was wealthy. He was no threat to me and quite attractive to the lady married to the Spaniard. When I went to use the restroom, a beggar-like woman demanded a dirham when I came out, she was sitting there like an attendant, so I gave her one. I still wasn’t sure what the exchange rate was. It didn’t seem like I should have to pay for the toilet inside the train station. I hated being so obviously a foreigner and already I was beginning to miss blending into Spain and the friends I’d made there. I had come to love Spain. Spain is a very lovable place.

When the train arrived, my two companions went to first class and I went to second. They suggested I join them in first, but I’ve always felt taking the cheap seats before I ride the expensive ones is a good way to experience a country (it was a difference of about $4). On the train, I met an old man named Mohammad who was from Sidi Kacim. I knew the name of the town because it was where I had to change trains at midnight. He was a gentle old farmer with a snake charmer’s voice and he warned me to be very careful in Fez.

“You’re very obviously a new foreigner here,” he said. “They’ll eat you.”

He gave me his number and invited me to visit him in Sidi Kacim. He offered to show me non-tourist Morocco. He winked as he told me he had four daughters who weren’t married. He assured me  I would enjoy meeting them. I’m sure he saw money when he looked at me. I unfairly saw him as a crafty guy who wanted me to marry one of his daughters. It may have been true, but I would later learn that Moroccan hospitality is deep and genuine – there may be self-interest in it, but there are no strings attached. I’d only just arrived, so I said I would visit another time.

Moroccan trains are confusing. The stations aren’t clearly marked at night so I dared not go to sleep even though I had hours ahead of me. The speakers didn’t work for the station announcements and the signs seemed to be in the dark areas where you couldn’t read them. I sat and watched the darkness roll by occasionally broken by run down Arab tenements and distant blue white lights of houses. I wondered what it would look like in the daytime.

Arriving in Fez, it was well past 2 am and I was exhausted. As I walked out the gate I saw the guard motion to a young man in a yellow-jacket as I walked into a busy parking lot. The yellow-jacket bee-lined towards me. I blamed it on the fedora, but I’m sure even without it, I looked like fresh meat.

I tried to disengage politely, but he wouldn’t give up. He had mentioned a hotel when he was trying to guess where I was staying (impossible since I didn’t know) and so I told the first taxi driver I encountered to take me there. Maison Bleu. I didn’t know at the time, but it was the most expensive hotel in Fez. It was also closed for renovations. Shit. The taxi driver dumped me off and drove away. I nervously stared down the deserted streets of Batha where he had dropped me. I don’t know how I missed the Batha Hotel right in front of me, but somehow I just didn’t see it. Welcome to Morocco.

Imagine yourself in a very foreign environment, shadowy looking men move through the streets, and you have no idea how to communicate with anyone. You haven’t slept in more than 24 hours and culture shock is hitting hard. You might have an idea of what I was feeling if you can imagine all of that. Thoughts of terrorism, beheading, and holy war filled my mind. I was certain a gang of mujaheddin would jump out of some abandoned riad (big house with a central courtyard), and the next anyone would hear of me was when CNN showed the tape of a foolish American who was being used as a sacrifice to make a point in the conflicts my country was embroiled in.

A car pulled up slowly to where I stood. I tried to figure out my next course of action. A friendly voice said in English “Wow, that’s a coincidence to see you again. What are you doing in this neighborhood, it’s very dangerous at this time of the night.” I couldn’t help thinking of the Cheech and Chong movie where a guy says “Hey, you need to buy a watch.” To which they reply, “No man, we have watches.” And then the guy says “Well your watches must be broken cause you don’t know the time. It’s night time and night time ain’t no time to be in this here neighborhood.”

It was Yellow-Jacket, the English speaking guy from the train station. He was in the car with his friend. I felt like I had been set up. ‘Do what they least expect’ – my mind was still working. I got in his car and asked them to take me to a cheap guesthouse. Yellow-Jacket took me to ‘his uncle’s’ guest house, an amazing palace of a place. They dragged the manager out of bed and he showed me an incredible room. It was magnificent.

“How much?” I asked.

It was 7000 dirham for the night, around $800 dollars! I would have paid it if I were a rich guy, just because I was exhausted, but at this point I only had 230 dirham since I hadn’t been to an ATM, had paid for my train ticket with my debit card, and then paid 20 dirham for the taxi to the medina. It was too much luxury for me to enjoy by myself with the fountains and plaster and decorations. Silk pillows and king sized bed. I told them my financial situation. I was making stupid moves.

Yellow-jacket took me to another guesthouse which also seemed to be closed for the season. We climbed in through a window. They had me fill out a registration card, I paid the modest price of 230 dirham, and they left. I’d convinced them it was all the money I had (which it was) and so I actually got a decent place where I was the sole guest – even if I did suspect I was trespassing. It had only cost me all the money I had. In the car, they had tried to interest me in buying carpets and reselling them.

“You can buy twenty carpets tomorrow and then go back to Spain and sell them for 500% profit,” he told me. I told them we could talk about it the next day. I was alone in an empty guest house in Morocco. It was closed. I was sleeping somewhere illegally. I guessed when I didn’t want to participate in his business ideas, things might go from bad to worse with Yellow-Jacket.

But, I had to sleep. The morning call to prayer was blasting by this time but didn’t stop me from catching a very necessary three hours of shut eye. I woke at 8 am, brushed my teeth, jammed my hat into my bag, put on a black robber beanie and black t-shirt, and beat feet from what was probably an expensive night of illegal habitation. I wanted nothing more to do with those guys.

In hindsight, I think yellow-jacket was a regular guy trying to make a few bucks off a tourist, but at the time and in the state I was in, I felt incredibly vulnerable and in terrible danger. He was around 20-years-old and spoke English well enough he must have spent considerable time with foreigners. I doubt he ever killed them but certainly he profited from their ignorance. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he studied at the American English School where I would later work. (The fabulous hotel room, by the way, was 250 Euro per night, not the ‘1st Price’ of 700 Euro they quoted me – my 230 dirham hotel room actually cost 450 dirham, so I did get a bargain – even though I was staying illegally.)

By 8:30 am I was out the window with my two bags and walking back up towards the train station. Having no cash for taxis, it took me an hour and a half of walking to find an ATM. Next, I found an internet cafe in which I learned as much as I could about Fez from the web.

At the bank machine, I withdrew five-hundred dirham and then I found an honest taxi driver who used the meter. He told me what the minimum fares for day and night are and offered to get me some very high quality hashish. I politely declined and he dropped me at the youth hostel. I was stoked. This was back when I used to love hostels. I was excited to get in on the safety of scheduled tours, maps, excursions to other areas, and safaris in the Sahara.

It wasn’t meant to be…unfortunately, they were full. The manager suggested I look at the hotels on the next street. I found one dingy place for 70 dirham but most were 200-500 per night. I wanted to pay less. I chanced upon a cafe with WiFi and set off for Bab Bou Jalud (Blue Gate).I would find plenty of cheap guesthouses catering to budget minded foreigners and the safety which comes from being in a tourist area. I was heading to the Hotel Cascade for 80 dirham per night.

Several cab drivers refused to take me to Bab Bou Jalud for reasons I couldn’t understand, but finally I found one who agreed for twice the fare it would have been with the meter. I saw lots of non-Moroccan guests at the hotel. The manager told me they were full.

Next door I found a shoe-box hotel called the Hotel Mauritania. The room was also 80 dirham but far less comfortable than those at Hotel Cascade had looked. I booked for one night, dropped off my things, and wandered around the narrow alleys and crowded souks of the ancient Fez Medina. I got lost, found my way back, and closed the door to my room. I can’t tell you how nice it was to not be dragging around my bags. I carried only a shoulder bag and a carry on size wheelie bag, but it was still too much to be wandering around with while avoiding donkeys and robbers.

The souks of Fez are filled with craftsmen making leather, metal goods, rugs, and everything else. Donkeys crowd the narrow ways. They are the sole means of moving goods from one area to the next. The sight of donkeys carrying cases of Coke is something which never looks commonplace. Shops selling pirated CD’s sit next to shops selling live chickens, camel heads, and bloody lamb hanging from meat hooks.

The beanie, a week of beard growth, and my overall state of dirtiness helped to mask me a little from the touts. As I sat eating a chicken tajine, an aggressive fellow got in my face and demanded money in Arabic and then French, he began to get violently aggressive. An older man shooed him off. I sat and ate my chicken tajine along with fruit salad, tea and a coke. The price was 90 dirham. About $10 – which was about what a meal would cost in the USA but without the ambiance. It’s the normal price for tourists at Bab Bou Jeloud, but about twice what any Moroccan would ever pay.


My Moroccan ‘Wife’

I’m not married yet as I write this, not according to any official or religious documentation but it certainly feels like I’m married – owned, obligated, indentured. We wear rings, we introduce each other as ‘my husband’ or ‘my wife’ and everyone we know assumes we are officially married. Sometimes it troubles me and other times it is a comfort.

The traditionalist views of Moroccan people mean we aren’t able to live together. Again, sometimes this troubles me and other times it’s a comfort. I like having the time to be myself in my casbah crash-pad, but like I said before, it’s nice to have a cute woman who wants to snuggle with me all the time too. There are always pluses and minuses.

How did we meet?

In Europe and the U.S.A, I used a website called Couchsurfing to meet strangers and sleep in their homes. Couchsurfing is a fantastic way to make great new friends and learn about the places they live. I was learning from an insider’s perspective. I decided to give it a shot in Morocco.

I sent out several ‘couch requests’ to hosts listed as being in Fez. I received only one reply. It was from a girl in Fez-Sefrou. I didn’t realize Fez is a state as well as a city. Sefrou is a city  28 kilometers south of th city of Fez. She said I should meet her at the bus station. I’d seen a bus station near the Fez medina and went there thinking it was the one she was speaking of, after all, how many could there be?

I called her and she asked me to put any Moroccan near me on the phone. I was standing next to a guy selling fish, so I handed the fish monger the payphone and she told him to send me off to the Sefrou taxi. He didn’t speak English but he took me outside, stuck me in a taxi, and sent me on my way. The taxi he put me in was a petit taxi (local taxi). It took me to the grande taxi (intercity taxi) where I crowded in with six strangers, paid ten dirham and was on my way to Sefrou. I thought it was across town, but we left town and began driving into the mountains.

I’d come to Morocco hoping to escape the blistering cold I’d found in Europe and North America, but it was incredibly cold in Morocco too. I later found it was the coldest winter in 35 years. Lucky me. Sefrou is fairly high up in the Middle Atlas Mountains and when I arrived an hour later, I found a telephone shop, bought a SIM card, called my host, and she told me she would meet me at the gate of the Sefrou medina.

I watched for someone who fit the picture from her couchsurfing profile. She looked like a Hindi princess in the photo. Nobody came. I waited as the rain came down in sheets. Finally a tiny little Muslim girl, less than five feet tall, wearing high-heeled black boots, and a brightly colored hijab appeared. I didn’t recognize her but I thought to myself “God, I hope the cute little Muslim chick is her.” She walked up to me and with a huge smile said “Hey Man, I’ve been waiting to meet you!” It was raining, but her smile contained enough sunshine to brighten any day.

I should point out Couchsurfing isn’t a dating site, but it often leads to romance because guests pick hosts they share interests with. I admit it, I tended to pick hosts I found attractive if given a choice. I knew enough about Arab culture to know that the chances of a cute little Muslim chick in a hijab and me hooking up were zero.

There was another couch surfer coming and together we looked for him. He was an Italian man named Claudio. We couldn’t find him. My host, Hanane, took me to her family’s house, introduced me to her sisters and mother, and then went back to find him by herself. Her sisters greeted me with European style kisses on the cheeks. The house was cold and we all sat around a brazier with blankets draped over us as we tried to stay warm. Her mother was a roundish woman who smiled and welcomed me in Darija, Moroccan Arabic. She looked like a countryside Berber woman. Hanane’s sisters spoke French. Zara was earthy and rustic and Salma was a 20-year old beauty in stylish clothes. She was so flirty!

The Azaoui family lived in the industrial district on the south side of Sefrou. Their house stood alone in a field surrounded by textile manufacturing plants. It was a blocky concrete building with a sheep pen made of rusted old box springs. It had a squat toilet with no running water. Salma snuggled against me and charmed me with her funny French accent until Hanane returned with Claudio. He was a tall, dark, and handsome Italian man. At this point, all of Salma’s flirtations moved to him. I admit, I was jealous since Salma was the beauty of the family, but I was also relieved because I didn’t want to get my head cut off when I’d only just arrived..

We drank incredibly sweet mint tea. I had never tasted such a sugary drink. Ever.

Their mother, Mama Ghita (said like Rita but with a French ‘r’), served a huge plate of stewed chicken and vegetables over hand rolled couscous. We washed our hands and ate the food using only right hands, since in Arab culture, the left is used to clean yourself after using the toilet.

We shared a communal dish. It was me, Claudio, the three girls, their father Nasir, Mama Ghita, their eldest brother Mohammad (who had a wandering eye), the youngest brother Zacharia who wore a red Marlboro racing jacket, and Mohammad’s six-year-old son.

To eat couscous with vegetables and chicken in the Moroccan style, everyone eats from the same big clay dish. One picks up the couscous and bounces it in the hand until it forms a ball, then you plop it into your mouth. It’s a simple looking trick that I would never master. The vegetables are eaten first, with the couscous. Underneath, the djaj (chicken) waits as a special treat. It is broken into bits by the father or mother and shared around.

After eating, there was more tea and then the women cleared the mess. I tried to help, but was pushed down onto a sofa. As an American, it’s hard for me to sit when people are cleaning. Especially when I am the subject of such gracious hospitality from strangers, but I understood it was proper for me to remain seated and so I did. But only after Zara shoved me back to my seat when I tried to take the plates to the kitchen. Hanane sat across from me, Zara sat next to me and we shared a blanket, Salma shared a blanket with Claudio. I was surprised by the affection of these girls, especially in front of their parents. I hadn’t expected that. I hadn’t thought I was even allowed to talk to single Muslim girls in Morocco let alone share a blanket with one.

Hanane taught us a song in Arabic. The words were “Hanane tahalouise, Hanane dour a ley.”

The song, I found out later, is a Berber marriage song and means something like “Hanane is the treasure and I am going to take Hanane.” Claudio wouldn’t sing but I was happy to sing as all the women laughed and trilled. It was fun. I wonder if it was Berber magic.

Claudio and I each intended to stay for three days. We were stranded by the rain and at the insistence of the family, Claudio stayed for a week and I stayed for nine days. During the time we were there, Claudio and Salma were frequently under a blanket together while Hanane and I practiced Arabic or had conversations in English about life in Morocco. She was an English teacher and her mastery of the language was astounding. She sounded American! I’ve no idea what was happening under those blankets, but certainly even if nothing was going on, I never would have thought it acceptable in an Arab household. Salma had been previously married to a ‘bad man’ and was in the process of a divorce while Hanane and Zara were both unmarried. So, like I said, I’ve no idea what was happening. Whatever it was, I admit I was envious of those giggles.

We were all sad when Claudio “made his escape” from the Azaoui house. He and I had become good friends. We’d both been given Arabic names by Mama Ghita. They say in Morocco if you stay for three days you are a guest but after you are part of the family. Claudio said to me “Come on, we have to escape, this family is crazy!” He was right, but I didn’t listen. I had fallen in love with the Azaoui family. I’d always dreamed of having a warm family with shared meals, everyone interacting with one another, and living close to one another.

Before Claudio left, I was working on the internet using Hanane’s computer. It was in the room she shared with Salma. We had many conversations while I was there and the more I came to know her, the more I found myself appreciating this tiny twenty-five year old shepherd’s daughter for her ambition, drive, intelligence, and wit.

On day, I told her “If you knew what I was thinking of doing, you would be shocked.”

“If you’re thinking of doing something, you should stop thinking and just do it.” She thought I was talking about travel and adventures. I wasn’t thinking of those things. I was thinking of her.

So I kissed her. She hadn’t expected that! To my surprise, she didn’t slap me or yell at me. Instead, she kissed me back! We both knew I was leaving, a relationship was impossible, and yet, through all of our conversations, I had grown to love and admire this little woman. I loved that she was first in her family to gain a University degree, that she fended off the attacks of men twice her size as she walked home in the dark (even though she was tiny), and I loved the way she laughed and made jokes about everything.

At the moment we kissed, the call to prayer sounded. In fact, three times when we kissed through the day, the call to prayer sounded and Hanane told me this was a sign of God’s blessing. I knew I shouldn’t be kissing her neck, her eyes, her lips, but my body was powerless to resist this beautiful woman. Her spell had been cast over me.

That night, I barely slept as I lay there thinking of her. I thought of the impossibility of a future with her. IT really was impossible. In the morning, I told her I was leaving. A part of me wanted to stay or take her with me. I told her I could spend the rest of my life with her and be very happy. She had told me it was very difficult to get a visa for Moroccan people to leave Morocco. I knew I didn’t want to stay in Morocco forever, even though it almost fit what I had written I was looking for. I could live on less than $300 a month, there were olive trees, no alcohol – which is a good thing (since booze and me have a tricky relationship), and the people were wonderful once you passed them seeing you as an opportunity to start a carpet business.

And so I was torn between two very different desires. A very sudden opportunity to spend the rest of my life with a beautiful woman willing to be everything to me or the desire to run from the responsibilities all of this would bring with it. I feared I wouldn’t be able to meet the expectations she and her family had. I had barely enough to survive with just myself to take care of.

When it was time for me to leave, she looked in my eyes and said “Love is now or never. You may never get a second chance. When you get in taxi and are riding away, you will know you are leaving something precious behind.”

As I opened the taxi door, I knew she was right. I stayed.

A part of me still says I was a fool for not leaving at that moment. Silly emotional man. A part of me still looks at Hanane and sees the woman of my dreams. Regardless of how this works out, I was not a fool for staying. If I had left, I would have spent the rest of my life confirmed in the knowledge I had left treasure in the desert and wondering how I might get it back.

The wisdom of her words kept me with her until a few days later when I realized she had been quoting a pop song.  I felt like the biggest dope in the world. A fucking pop song. What was I doing in Morocco cuddling and kissing a shepherd’s daughter who quoted sappy love songs to me as if the words were her own words? I needed to hit the road again. So I did.


Love or The World

I voyaged to Rabat, Casablanca, and Marrakesh. I met travelers from many countries doing the kinds of exciting things I had thought I would be doing. Biking across Africa, hitching around Morocco, or simply having a Morocco experience in the exotic Jmma al Fna square in Marrakesh.

I visited ancient ruins, stayed in hostels, drank beer in Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca, and wandered around cities still seemingly living in the 7th century. None of it was very enjoyable. The only joy I felt was when I received a text message from Hanane or when I called to tell her I was thinking of her. And so I left the circus of Marrakesh and returned to Sefrou.

As I get older, I’ve realized I am a bit obsessive-compulsive. Once I get something in my mind, it just stays there and doesn’t go away. Somewhere, I got this very 1925 Hollywood idea of romance in my head and it made my life difficult. I obsessed over one thing more than any other. Love. In Hanane, I had found someone who was my match in this. Every one second I spent obsessed over the future of this life with a girl I’d known for nine days, she spent two seconds on. We were made for each other. A flawed and mis-matched set.

It was insane. I had no job, very little money, and no idea what I was doing. My family and friends were convinced I had lost my mind. They were right. Within a week of returning to her, I asked her if she would marry me. I spent 2500 dirham on a ring and another 500 dirham on the necessities for a ‘small’ engagement party. It was more like what I had pictured my wedding costing. I paid 600 dirham to get her a passport and never mind the money was flying out of my bank account and there was no source to replenish it. We looked online to see what it would take for us to marry and I began to have some serious regrets about what I had done. The intricacies of international marriage go beyond cultural misunderstandings. The biggest barrier is government. How did the people of our world ever give up such simple things as the right to marry who they want without having to wade through a quagmire of bureaucratic red tape?

Moroccan bureaucracy is a dark, sticky swamp of endless stamps, translations, and official permissions. Add to this the challenges of a foreigner from the United States marrying a Muslim Moroccan girl and you get a horrifying mess. I needed to officially convert to Islam, get police clearance from the United States and Morocco, prove my residence, prove my work and income, prove my singleness, and prove it all in Arabic, French, and English. I needed to travel to Rabat, Casablanca, and Fez. I needed to take a trip back to the United States to get paperwork I hadn’t brought with me. I needed to provide photos, birth certificates, identity cards, and more. That was just me.

Hanane had to provide the same documents AND prove she was still virgin with a doctor’s exam. Not only does the Moroccan government want to know you are filling out the forms, they also want to ensure the bride has her hymen. I have no idea what they would do if she didn’t have it. It was one thing we didn’t need to worry about.

The internet was littered with horror stories of failed attempts between Western men and Moroccan women. The process between Western women and Moroccan men also looked difficult, but it was easier. Western women didn’t have to convert, prove virginity, or prove they could support a husband. Moroccan men acted like I was stealing something which belonged to them, like redneck racists in the USA objecting to a white woman marrying a black man. Everywhere we went she was verbally abused by shiftless Moroccan youth in the streets because she was walking with me. Everything started to seem to me like a big, expensive, impossible mistake.

I should have just kept moving on and found someone else, somewhere else, where there wasn’t as much bureaucracy involved in the process of loving someone and wanting to have a life with them but I loved Hanane. I needed documents I left in the United States. I needed documents I couldn’t provide since I was a homeless, jobless, vagabond on his way to somewhere he didn’t know. I had decided to be a person who existed moving from place to place without visible means of income and here I was in the one place where I was expected to provide visible means of everything. I felt fucked. Our relationship was fucked and my vagabonding plans were fucked because I had spent so much. Falling in love took the joy out of free booting.

So I packed up my things and left again. I told her I would be back, but I wasn’t sure of it. Even though we had taken some nice day trips together, made friends together, and fallen in love, I wasn’t too sure I wanted to come back. I had convinced my family and friends I was making the right decision, but I hadn’t actually convinced myself. I was hoping to leave and find some little fling. Some mini-love affair which would make me forget her or numb my feelings enough so I could find a life in a place not so difficult to adjust to. It was how all my relationships in the past had ended. Leave one life behind and reinvent myself for another.

Carrying both my bags, I took the train back to Tangier, took the ferry back to Tarifa, and at least partially intended to never return. I went to Valencia, I went to Portugal, I went to Paris, Bordeaux, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Milan. I was looking for something to take my little fiancee off my brain, something to numb my love, something to save me from this fate I had laid out for myself.

I panhandled in Paris, got drunk in Porto, walked the streets of Milan, and visited a beautiful friend I had traveled with in Southeast Asia. I had nice experiences, I made new friends, I spent half of the money I had left and yet, I couldn’t get her out of my mind. The women I met never measured up to the memory of my Hanane. Frankly, it pissed me off.

All the joy and excitement I’d felt in travel before going to Morocco was gone. One place was no different from another. And along the way, even though I tried to forget her, I couldn’t. I was lonely in crowds, sad amidst revelry, and when I could have screwed some European girl or North American traveler, I just couldn’t become excited about it. It was depressing.

A month into it, I gave up. I flew back to Fez and Hanane met me at the airport. I felt defeated and happy at the same time. How the fuck could I do this? Especially since now I had spent most of the money I’d hoarded for travel?

I got back in time for her birthday and suggested a small trip around Morocco. My fears and doubts consumed me as we drummed with Hanane’s Berber friends in the Sahara. Was she just using me to get papers and money? Was couchsurfing just a way to land a husband for her? I started to wonder if she and her sisters brought couch surfers to their bedroom for money and thrills…even though I knew it wasn’t true. I had lived with them and knew they were good, decent women. I was losing my mind. Was I simply a tool she was using to escape the hellish life of a woman in Morocco?

Our trip was a disaster composed of me filled with doubts, her getting sick, and then as a coup-de-gras discovering despite being engaged, it was against the law to stay in the same hotel room in Ouarzazate, Marrakesh, or anywhere else we had intended to visit. Only with the Sahara Berbers were we allowed to co-habitate. Elsewhere, the clerks treated her like a prostitute. Over and over, it brought her to tears. It was a miserable trip.

We came back to Sefrou early. A friend from Hawaii told me he had a kayaking job for me. It was in Alaska and I could earn $15,000 working over the summer. Like the desperate idiot I was, I told him I would take it and spent the rest of my travel hoard to buy a discounted round trip ticket from Ireland back to North America’s East coast. I needed to figure out how to get to Dublin and then would figure out a way to get to Alaska from New York.

I found a cheap flight from Casablanca to Madrid. I overdrew my bank account to buy a round trip ticket from Madrid to Frankfurt and then a cheap fare from Frankfurt to Dublin via Ryan Air. In Frankfurt, I stayed with an English girl who took me on nice walks through the forest and shared her flat while I waited for my flight to Dublin. In Dublin, I spent two days in a quaint hostel populated by belligerent lesbians and a very drunk Czech ex-secret policeman who tried to borrow my non-existent money to start an import business in Ireland. There are carpet sellers everywhere.

Canadian Customs ran me through the ringer. The job in Alaska had been taken by someone else and there was no need for me to go to Alaska. A sweetheart of a Canadian girl put me up for a few days in Quebec City. She didn’t mind sharing her wine and feeding me while I tried to figure out what to do next. By the time I left, I had $4 Canadian to travel across the entire North American continent. I made it in 10 days sleeping in piles of dirt and abandoned campers as I went. My rides were generous and often fed me. In Sudbury, Ontario my ride turned into my host as I stayed for three days, made friends, and got drunk. They said they only picked me up because they liked my fedora, so the hat isn’t all bad juju.

Part of the reason I made it across Canada so quickly is because my host, agreed to drive me from Sudbury to Winnipeg. I drove part of the way with her playing DJ and navigator. Part of the deal was me teaching her to drive the car she’d just bought. By the time she dropped me off, she was a good driver.

From Winnipeg I caught a ride with a nurse to Calgary and then a retired forest ranger drove me through the Canadian Rockies and took the time to take me to his favorite spots for hikes and wildlife viewing. Bears, coyotes, Banff, Lake Louise, and the magnificent wilds of North America. My homeland sings to my soul.

Once in Vancouver, I caught the bus to the Peace Arch border crossing, walked across the US/Canadian border and called my friend in Bellingham, Washington. He picked me up and I stayed with him for a few days while I figured out my next move. My father offered me a job in Big Bear Lake where I had spent most of my young childhood.. I knew it was a mistake, but with no other option, I agreed.

We had been in many conflicts over the years. Mainly because he was ashamed of my life and my writing. He’s never understood why I continue to write even though I’ve never made much money at it. Once the subject of my writing came up, I figured things would get ugly. I was right. To be fair, I’m not an easy person to have as an employee. There’s a reason why I was a complete fuck up until I made corporal in the Marines and it’s because I’m good at leading, but not the best of followers. I don’t respond to criticism very well and I like to do things my own way. I knew things were not going great with my dad, but was surprised when he showed up at 7am one morning, gave me a final paycheck, and told me to get out. day. No notice. No time to arrange transport. No time to figure out where I was going. Just, get out.

I was hurt, offended, and screwed. This had been my last best chance to earn enough money to grease the bureaucratic wheels so Hanane and I could have a life together. Strangers treated me better than my father had. I had never been so abused by an employer, let alone kicked out of where I was staying. In one blow he ended the relationship and took away my chances of easily building a life in Morocco. I would just have to do it the hard way.

It’s funny, but the harder the universe (or bureaucracy) tries to deny me something – the harder I fight to get it. Just like I’d convinced everyone else that I was making the right move without convincing myself, I was now fighting to swim upstream without actually knowing that was where I wanted to go. I’m like a dog that doesn’t want to come in until you close the door.


Going Back to Morocco

I packed my clothes in my bag, got on the bicycle I’d bought for $10, threw the rest of my things in my father’s dumpster, and coasted down the 7000 foot mountains to the desert below. I bounced from a childhood friend’s house, to my uncle’s, to friend’s in San Diego, and then caught a flight to my brother’s in Utah where I spent the rest of the time before my flight back to Morocco. I was trying to earn money through blogging and website development but it wasn’t working. The internet is not a get rich quick scheme. It takes time. I sold my blog for $1500. That combined with the $1800 I had earned working for my Dad meant I by the time I got back to Morocco, I would have slightly more than I’d had before I was told about the kayak job.

I flew from Dublin to Brussels and from Brussels to Fez. I’d promised Hanane I would bring her a digital camera -I got her that, clothes, and chocolates. Zara had gotten engaged to a Belgian man while I was away and Mohammad’s wife was ready to give birth to their second child. And here I was, the indigent future son-in-law staying in the hectic Azaoui house with the new Belgian son-in-law to be, a pregnant sister-in-law, and a large Arab family. It made me insane.

I hated the Belgian fiancee. He was fat, demanding, and I could tell by looking at him that he was cruel. I also resented the fact that Hanane’s older sister had met and gotten engaged to another foreigner. In a way, it degraded our engagement, it brought back those doubts that maybe I was just an escape plan to Hanane and her family, and by scheduling their wedding ahead of ours – they were stealing our glory.

I rented a small apartment in the casbah of Sefrou, managed to get Hanane and I both jobs at the American English School in Fez, officially converted to Islam for 300 dirham. Both of my bank debit cards got locked even though I had told both banks I would be coming back to Morocco. Banks don’t like seeing activity from Africa on your statement.

I didn’t know when (or if) I would get paid by the school because I didn’t have the proper paperwork at my job. As to marriage, it seemed as impossible as it ever had. But in Morocco, they say inchallah – if God wills it, it will happen.


The Flood is Coming

As I lay on my old ratty double mattress and tried to go to sleep, I couldn’t help feeling like maybe something was wrong. The medina was so quiet at midnight and the sound of the water was so soothing, I felt something I couldn’t quite understand. It was the beginning of anxiety.

It wasn’t the burner in my kitchen. When I screwed the burner into the top of the big blue gas-bottle it leaked noticeably but when I put some soap on the threads, the leak was almost stopped. Then I tweaked the cheap aluminum thing a bit and even my lighter could find no escaping gas. The problem wasn’t the butane gas, the problem would be the explosion. The problem wasn’t my squat toilet and the open hole leading to the sewer either, even though there was no water filled bowl to act as a buffer to the stench in my tiny, unventilated bathroom. And the fact I didn’t have a shower or bathtub and instead washed myself with hot water from a broken aluminum kettle had nothing to do with it either. This was something else. Internal anxiety.

It was a feeling in my guts. Not a hunch, because I had no clue what it meant. Not a specific worry or concern because all of my worries and concerns weeped out as I walked down streets crowded with olive skinned youth in sporty pirated Dolce & Gabbana clothing. My worries sat with me as I smoked cigarettes and looked out my window at the shadow of a thousand years of nights came before the one in front of me.

The concern could only be one thing. Woman trouble was rising like a downstream creek after a mountain flash flood. I sensed it coming. I felt it near. I didn’t have a life preserver to keep me above the branches and detritus about to come washing over me. Water suddenly stops in a stream because something up the river has created a temporary dam and is going to come smashing down any moment. It would bring a wall of unstoppable liquid force with it.

Hanane was about to explode like a 20-kiloton nuclear device and I was stuck like Polynesian villagers on a U.S. Navy ship forced to watch helplessly while their world was lit up in a ball of fire and destruction. The Bikini Island Effect.

I hoped I was wrong. I wondered if her friend told her I drank a beer at Jessica’s when he came by. Oh boy. In truth, I thought about ending it frequently. There were certain incompatibilities between she and I which made me think, more and more, it was a mistake. She drove me crazy with her desire to be the center of attention, her constant need for affection, and her inability to listen half as much as she talked. I put things off until January or February. I enjoyed not being around her during my days more than I missed her. I grew tired of being on constant alert when I was with her. Everything was forbidden to her and thus everything was forbidden to me by proxy.

It would have been a relief if she found someone else and ended things with me, but it would have broken my heart. I would have felt lonely and at the same time had more access to friends and culture in the expat community. I would have been relieved of more responsibility than I wanted and I would have been devastated. I loved her, I just didn’t think I loved her as much as she needed to be loved. I don’t think I’m capable of it.

I smoked another cigarette and let the white noise of the Oued Aggai lull me into whatever sleep I could find on my ancient box spring mattress in my ancient crash pad.


Expat Life

Perhaps it was fear of marriage and commitment which made me look for reasons to escape the relationship. I was led by dual fears, the fear of losing her and finding myself with no holds in this strange society and the fear of keeping her and being held in this strange society. Like a charioteer controlling two wild horses, I sought to make those fears pull me in opposite directions and thus pull me straight ahead. I was creating a life for myself in Morocco, I wasn’t sure what the outcome of that would be.

I began to notice strange things about Morocco. Despite the male dominated culture, there seemed to be more female expatriates than male. Many were women in relationships with Moroccan men, but a good number, like my neighbor Jessica, were ultra-liberated single women who chose to live in a society where men dominate. There were very few expat men who were not homosexuals. There were a few. An Englishman who moved here with his English wife, an Englishman who bought a guest house. There were Peace Corps volunteers, but since they were temporary, I wasn’t sure they counted. The male teachers at the American English School a mixed bunch.

There was a little gay American dancer. There was a Christian guy and his wife and a few that I didn’t know. Finally, the director of the Center, Saul Gerbil, a creepy pale American who reminded me of John Malkovich just before he murdered you. He lived alone, never ate at home, and was certainly gay but in a very asexual way. He gave me the willies with his slimy fish handshakes, but he was a big player in the Fez expat community. He was a friend I needed to have.

I met a fair number of the Fez expats and they were all older than I expected. Late 40’s to 70’s, well enough off to have bought riads in the old medina and with enough resources to restore them. They were mostly rooted in their Englishness, Australianness, or what have you. My circles didn’t cross with French or Spanish speakers and so I met few of them – which is a shame.

In Sefrou, there was Jessica, me, a few French, some Egyptians, and an older American Jewish woman married to a Moroccan. Jessica was the only expat I met out of them all.

I was back a month and found a job, started giving blogging workshops to the Fez expats, found a house, furnished it, and continued searching for my place in Sefrou society. What interested me were the older Moroccans. I wanted to dig into who they are discover their histories. I wanted to record the stories of Sefrou, the people, the folklore, the legends, and the mythology. It seemed a worthy goal. I began to do a bit of research and discovered that the famed anthropoligists Clifford and Hilda Geertz had already done the work I was considering in Sefrou. I’d landed in an anthrpologically explored zone.

I dove into learning about Morocco. I started with Tuhami, Portrait of a Moroccan by Vincent Crapanzano. It was disappointing but interesting. It didn’t give me the insight I was hoping to find about the people or the place. It was the life history of an illiterate tile worker in Meknes who was wrapped up in a world of saints and djinn. He believed himself to be possessed by Aisha Kondisha, a Djinni who won’t allow her followers to marry. I found the following passage to be illuminating:

This mode of social organization gives the individual more flexibility, more freedom even, in the management of his social relations than he might have in a more corporate organization. It renders his social life more personable- cloying, even to the Westerner- and subject to greater scheming, intriguing, and manipulation. Each and every individual one encounters is of potential benefit, either directly or as an intermediary (wasita) and must be bound into a relationship through an act- a gift, a favor, a gesture of hospitality, a greeting even, or the expression of concern- demands reciprocation.

The mode of social organization he spoke of was people bound together by favors. I do you a favor and you are more likely to do someone I know a favor or someone who knows someone you know is more likely to do you a favor. It explained so much. For example, the seemingly pointless greetings which go on for ever. They translate to more or less as

Hi, I wish you well.

Hi. I wish you well too.

No problems?

No problems. Thank God.

No problems with your mom?

No problems with my mom. Thank God. You, no problems?

Nope, no problems. Thank God.

Yeah, Thank God.

Your Mom and family are okay?

Yes, no problems. Thank God..Your uncle is well.

Yes he is well. Thank God. How is your wife?

She is well. Thank God. God is great. How is your husband?

He is well. Thank God. How are your children?

They are well. Thank God. And yours….

This can go on for five minutes or more and is all designed to show that you are worthy of future favors because you care so much. No one feels comfortable to give real information because Moroccans are generally distrustful of what other Moroccans will do with information they are given. Hanane summed this up with a story from her high school where the teacher told how Napoleon came to Egypt, studied the people, and then he left because they were too powerful to conquer. Later, he came back and converted to Islam so he could learn how to control them. Then, when he had the information, he conquered Egypt and the Arab world. “Knowledge is power,” the teacher said.

I laughed at the story. Napoleon wasn’t Muslim. But some research revealed it was possible. The official French newspaper at the time said he had converted and taken the name Ali Napoleon Bonaparte. Shortly after he outlawed usury (charging interest on loans) which the Qu’ran forbid. I don’t know if the story was true or not but it provided an interesting glimpse into Moroccan thought. Hanane used it to explain to why people never actually say “My father is ill” or “I’m unemployed and worried about money” or “My niece just won the American lottery and is going to move to Florida”. It reveals the psychology of Sefrouis and Moroccans.

There is a strong belief in The Evil Eye. Despite Hanane being intelligent and educated, I was unable to convince her that people being jealous or envious can’t cause you physical harm. The Evil Eye rests on the belief that when good things are happening for you, someone will be jealous and envious. Their jealousy and envy will cause you misfortune because it will draw efrites and djinn who like to cause mischief and trouble for people.

In Hawaii people call it ‘crabs in a bucket’. If you put crabs in a bucket, those at the bottom will latch onto those at the top in an effort to pull themselves up and thus pull others down, so in Hawaii, when you are doing well, you hide it. In Morocco, superstitious powers are added to the envy and jealousy of those less successful. Djinn and the evil eye are mentioned in the Qu’ran. It’s an argument you can’t argue against with a true believer. When I tried to explain it as a metaphor, I ran into walls. Walls as thick as the gray concrete walls of the Medina.

Traditionally, in Morocco. One keeps the outside of the house dingy, drab, and in a state of general disrepair while the inside can be decked out in a rich and luxurious fashion. Inside you can be richer than a nobleman or rich pasha, but outside, you better not show it. It is a society where the only people you see flaunting their wealth are those who are succeeding so much they don’t worry about those below. Another reason for this, could be if you show you have something, everyone will want a piece of it. The notion of Arab hospitality and charity requires you share if someone asks. I am thankful to be free of this particular compulsion. I am deluding myself because I, like everyone else who has something, prefer to not flaunt it so I don’t have to say no when I am asked to give it, lend it, or let someone handle it. Certainly I will build big ugly walls around my palace if I ever have one.

This is the tack I took on writing this. Not a purely personal narrative of my journey to build a life but also trying to understand and come to terms with Morocco and Moroccans. I would try to find windows into the past history of Sefrou while I learned to navigate the society. I decided to create an anthropological study combined with a personal narrative of my own journey of discovery. Morocco is a melting pot of Berber, Arab, French, and expatriate cultures. My own expat experience is no less relevant.

Wikipedia offered a nice bit about Moroccan culture which I’ve discovered is true:

Morocco is a country of multi-ethnic groups with a rich culture and civilization. Through Moroccan history, Morocco hosted many people in addition to the indigenous Berbers, coming from both East (Phoenicians, Jews, and Arabs), South (Moors and Sub-Saharan Africans) and North (Romans and Vandals). All of which have had an impact on the social structure of Morocco. It conceived many forms of beliefs, from paganism, Judaism, Christianity, to Islam.

According to the CIA Fact Book, 42% of the population acknowledge a Berber identity while the truth is, the number is closer to 80%. The other 20% are strictly Arabs. 99% of the population is Muslim.

Moroccan Islam is different from mainstream Islam in it has a high emphasis on saints who act as intermediaries to God. There is an element of paganism in Moroccan Islam, though Moroccans would deny this, but as one walks through the forest one sees pieces of cloth tied to trees which are an effort to bind the assistance of dead saints or djinn in helping to overcome illness, bad fortune, or love issues. The saints are, apparently, not nomadic and take up residence in specific locales where they stay for long periods.

Aside from the street/sport chic fashions previously mentioned, Morocco does have a typical style. These range from the djellaba, the hooded gown worn by both men and women to the kaftan, a non hooded and slightly fancier gown worn by the women. Footwear consists of heelless leather slippers, traditionally in yellow for men and sometimes with upwardly curling toes. Lower class men tend to wear worn, second, or third hand suit coats and trousers. Men sometimes wear small knit hats and the more traditional women wear hijabs. For younger women, the hijab is often absent. I have heard from several women wearing a hijab prevents one from being hired for the better jobs and limits one to a sub-serviant roles. As a result of this, I tried to convince Hanane to discard her hijab but with only a small measure of success. She is resilient and adaptable though intractable in her beliefs, such as her belief in the evil eye and her desire to ‘tease’ women and girls who see us together.

To me, these things fly in each others face since she is ‘inviting’ the evil eye through creating jealousy and envy (it amazes me anyone would be envious of a fiancee such as I who has no money and only average looks.)

The uneducated women and housewives typically wear brightly colored pajamas and an apron. Since they didn’t leave the house two decades ago, this was sufficient and comfortable but today, they do leave the house so it is not uncommon to go to the market and see loads of older women walking around in their pajamas. This seems to be a local adaptation of a foreign introduction. I’ve grown used to it, but still, seeing a 50 year old housewife in clown-like Chinese pajamas walking through a muddy vegetable souk strikes me as bizarre. In fact it is quite normal here. More bizarre perhaps is it seems to be becoming quite normal to me.

The process of acculturation in action. I walk through thousand year old archways and think nothing of it, buy eggs from a farmer on a cart for 80 centimes each and think nothing of it. I ride in 1970s Mercedes with five other passengers and the driver, all of whom have varying degrees of sweaty/stinkiness and think nothing of it as chaabi music blares on a tinny stereo. We all sweat more because the taxi drivers hide the handles to the windows because the windows are either broken or the passengers will steal the handles. It all starts to seem normal.

Just as living in a concentration camp eventually started to feel normal to those who survived them and prison becomes home to habitual offenders, often leading them to commit more crimes once they are out so they can return ‘home’. I’m at home in Morocco.

Born Again Virgin

My fiancee is a virgin until marriage. As a result, I’m a born again virgin and it sucks. Marrying a virgin was never something important to me. I never even thought it was possible, but for Hanane, anything else would be hshuma – shame filled.

Lately I’ve had dreams of a lot of different women. A few nights ago it was a blond white woman who I felt incredibly in love with. I don’t remember much more. Last night it was a more complex dream in which there was an Asian woman, she was beautiful and there was no doubt I loved her. She was a virgin too and while there was some complication in my attempt to steal her, I knew I had to and so I did. There was a white dog which was somehow connected with her virginity and also a smaller white dog that wasn’t. I was reminded of the Goddess Madame Pele who is said to have two white dogs and also of Aisha Kondisha who is said to appear to men in their dreams.

Somehow I managed to steal this woman and she lay on a stone slab of a bed, I turned her around so she faced the other direction and at some point we walked with the dogs and I thought to myself “Crap, how did I end up with two dogs?” Obviously this last is a result of spending time with my neighbor Jessica who has two dogs. They are quite sweet but still royal pains in the ass.

There is no shortage of interpretations of these dreams and feelings. I am having serious second thoughts about committing myself to a life with Hanane. I’ve been in the process of distancing myself from her since I came back. She will have none of it though and won’t let go. I could tell her I was sleeping with other women and she would be hurt but consent to forgive me – or kill me. If I want out, there is no easy way aside from leaving.

My toilet has been an interesting journey of discovery. It is a ‘Turkish’ toilet. In other words, it is an open hole in the ground with two raised places where you place your feet. To use it you squat, drop your business in the hole, fill up a bucket, and dump it in to flush. Since my bathroom is in the center of the house, there is no ventilation for it and the open hole to the sewer sits there. No matter how many buckets you drop down the hole, you still get a stench. I keep the door closed, but would prefer not to smell the sewer every time I use the toilet.

Jessica pointed out the hole creates a place rats can come up into your house. The solution is to get a plug that goes in the hole. Berbers use a liter water bottle filled up with water. They invert it and drop it in the hole. There are concrete plugs one can buy which have a handle. You remove it to use the toilet and put it back on when you are done. I intended to buy one of those, but the hardware man thought I wanted a plunger. I left empty handed.

I asked at the American English School what the plug is called but no one knew. One girl suggested I buy plaster, put some plastic bags in the hole, fill it with plaster, and put a handle in. It was a good idea. I decided to do it. When I went to the DIY store, I realized I didn’t know what to call plaster and again, the clerk didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. Miming plaster is not easy in a language where it is called something totally different and you don’t know the name. So I came home, feeling defeated again.

I remembered there was a bag of something or other under my kitchen sink. It might be concrete left over from repairs the landlord made before I moved in. I had no idea if it was but figured I would give it a try. There was a brown powder, a red powder, and a gray powder. I mixed all three in a plastic bag and then realized if I just set it in the toilet it would fall into the toilet, so I pushed a piece of cardboard (the box of Tide laundry detergent) into the hole and then set the plastic bag on top of that. I put a bent piece of metal into it for a handle and let it sit all night. It hardened up but remained crumbly, I hoped it would harden more and become usable, but my suspicion was that when I used it, it would break apart like a dirt clod. I would have to go buy a Sidi Ali water bottle to plug up the hole.

Amazingly enough, the toilet plug seemed to work after just a day of drying in the sun. It was crumbly and I doubted it would last very long, but I had a plug. I felt like I had made a major accomplishment.


Malik the Djinn

I started telling Hanane stories about an efrite who lives in my house. He is blue, like my walls. He has seven heads, has lived in the area for seven-hundred-years and has a girlfriend named Llala Mella. His name is Malik. I told her he asked me to make the plug for him because there is another efrite who lives in the toilet and a red plug was the only way to keep him away from Llala Mella.

Malik doesn’t like this other efrite and is surprised and fascinated by me because he has never met anyone like me. I am the first foreigner to live in this particular spot and I have some quirky beliefs. Like my belief that all efrites aren’t bad. Malik seems alright to me, so I won’t be killing any chickens and pouring their blood down the drains to get rid of him. He tells me, in fact, the method doesn’t work anyway. It only makes him invisible to those who don’t wish to see him. It’s hard enough to see him anyway because he blends into the blue walls so well. The seven heads all speak different languages and the ten hands and feet are constantly doing their own thing. Fidgeting madly.

Hanane isn’t amused. She won’t hear the stories. They scare her. She won’t stay in the house by herself now if I need to go buy milk or tea at the hanut.

We’re both teaching classes on Friday evenings at the American Language Center in Fez. We have two classes each and finish at about 9 pm then have an hour commute back to Sefrou. The problem arises because the taxi stand near the school closes at about 7 pm. We have to catch a petit taxi to the ‘Atlas‘ neighborhood gas station known as ‘Bomba‘. This costs us 10-15 dirham. I would prefer not to spend it but that’s not the issue.

The problem is Bomba is controlled by some mafia type illegal cab drivers who use unsafe vehicles and make things difficult. It’s a bit of a rough neighborhood to begin with. Up to this point, it has only been a minor problem as we would simply wait for a regular grand taxi to arrive, pay the 10 dirham each and then go. Usually a 10-30 minute wait. We deal with rude comments since we are a mixed couple, lots of stares, and telling the cowboy taxi men we don’t want to get in their illegal taxis.

Friday, we arrived at Bomba at about 9:15 and were told the price went up. The price often goes up later in the night but at this time, it shouldn’t. The regular taxi left and a large number of illegal taxis occupied the spots where regular taxis could pull up. We were harassed by the cowboys and told to pay 15 to ride in illegal cabs Hanane said were not safe so I refused again. We stood there for two hours. Private vehicles pulled up to offer rides to us and the other 14 or so passengers waiting but were immediately surrounded by eight big guys and told to move on, a couple of times the cars were loaded and then the big guys made everyone get out and the drivers leave.

A man who knows Hanane’s brother pulled up and did the same. He seemed to know the taxi guys. He got out of his car, smoked with some of the big guys, and then loaded his car with passengers. Hanane wanted to get in but I decided we should wait. As soon as his car was full, the big guys made everyone get out and told him he could only take two. He left with no one in his car.

Twenty minutes after this, a regular taxi pulled up and a number of us began to load up. This time the big guys chased off a legal taxi driver. He made us all get out and drove off with his car empty. I lost my temper and started calling the big guys mother fuckers which was stupid. I’m sure they understood. We had been there two hours. Hanane’s brother’s friend returned and one of the big guys asked if we wanted to ride in his car. It was time to get out of there. We loaded up and left. It was the most comfortable ride I’ve had from Fez so far. The friend asked if I was scared of the big guys. I misundersood and thought he was asking if I was scared of his driving so I said no. I said no because the music was good and his car wasn’t crowded. The big guys, they scared the crap out of me.

I told him he had a ‘sayara azib’. I meant amazing car but instead I said he had a weird car. It was a bit broken down, older and not too remarkable, but good enough. We all three laughed but it wasn’t until later Hanane told me my mistake. I’m glad he wasn’t offended because I had no chance to correct myself. He charged us less than a normal fare. I am overcharged so often, it’s a nice when the universe evens things out.

I told the director of the American English School about the problems we were having but he didn’t care. It wasn’t safe. I was willing to do it alone, but with Hanane it was too much to deal with. She was terrified and it set me on edge and made me ready to explode. I told one of the Moroccan teachers about the taxi situation. He said Moroccans have lost any sense of moral responsibility and decency. He told a story about waiting at a taxi stand the day before with a young pregnant woman and how people pushed ahead of her even though she had been waiting longer and was pregnant. He got in a shouting match with a driver and he ended up getting the woman into a cab.

There were a number of well educated, cultivated, and very likable Moroccans I met at the American English School. University professors who were earning extra money working as English teachers. Many of them were Hanane’s teachers when she attended University. At the breaks we have great conversations about politics, history, mythology, anthropology, and contemporary Moroccan society and issues.

The teachers fell into a couple of categories. Foreigners from England, Australia, Canada, and the USA, Moroccan women, and Moroccan men. The Moroccan men smoked, wore suits to work, and ranged from arrogant to progressive and friendly. The Moroccan women were either very Muslim or not very Muslim. The very Muslim variety were friendly, didn’t seem interested in controlling their classes, and maintain their distance. When I offered to shake one’s hand, she said “I’m sorry,I touch no man but my husband, instead I put my hand to my heart when we meet and part.” Fair enough, but somewhat disturbing to have this level of orthodoxy from a woman who is a University professor. The not very Muslim women wore Western clothes, no hijab, and seem much more open to ideas and conversations.

The foreigners were a mixed lot. English guys, a Canadian Hindi man, a friendly Australian woman, an uptight American woman, a middle aged Canadian behemoth of a woman with bleach blond hair, a young American couple, a couple of mid-life American guys, and a British-Pakistani woman. She was 30 years old, wandered into the school wearing her backpack, smoked, was Muslim but didn’t wear a hijab, and had one of the more enjoyable English accents I heard there. Hanane was quite jealous of her. When I asked how she came to Morocco she said she was following her destiny. No doubt an agent of Aisha Kandisha. Hanane was right to be jealous.I continued to have doubts about our future. She sensed it and asked me if I still wanted to marry her. I told her the truth which was a terrible idea.

I continued to blog and work at making money online. One project “” climbed to the first page of the Google search results in a few weeks for my chosen keyword “Morocco Blogs”. It was a small success that gave me hope. I had no idea how to monetize it, but I suspected advertising and perhaps this book I’m writing could be a part, but then again, who knows what the future holds?

I was down to $800 and $500 of that was in locked bank accounts. My pay from the school was less than I expected when it came but it was enough to live on and pay my rent. The adventure continued.


Tales of the Jews in Old Sefrou

I invited Hanane and her sister over for lunch. Then I invited my neighbors Jessica and her right hand helper-man Ahmed. Our friend Yassine came as well. Hanane and Salma cooked a beautiful fish tajine and we had nice discussions, food, and tea. It was sweet of Hanane and Salma to cook lunch and they did a magnificent job. After lunch I asked Ahmed about Sefrou and the history of the casbah since he lived in it for his entire life.

Hanane interrupted and side-tracked the story to such an extent Ahmed got up and left. The bits I was able to glean were that there used to be ten water wheels on the Oued Aggai and the population of Sefrou was 50% Jewish. Ahmed said when he was a boy only a quarter of the population was Muslim. Different from now when it is closer to 99.9%. Back then, Moroocco was still French North Africa and there were about 25% Christians, 25% Muslim and 50% Jewish in Sefrou. He said Jews and Muslims dressed the same and it was hard to tell the difference between them since everyone wore djellabas, slippers, and kaftans. The French wore European clothes and were easy to tell apart.

He started to tell how the Jews would take walks on Saturdays and then Hanane interrupted to tell us it was okay for Muslims to eat with Jews because they have the same prohibition on pork and things must be kosher which is basically halal, but that it wasn’t okay to eat from the same dishes as the Christians. Interesting…but I wanted to hear Ahmed’s story.

Instead, this was where the stories stopped because it led to discovering that Jessica had lived in Israel and has many Jewish friends. I asked about the Saturday walks, but Hanane interrupted to explain the word Yahoudi (Jewish in Darija) comes from the word dead because Moroccans believe at one point all the Jewish men had been killed by Muslims and the women begged the prophet (Mohammad) to allow them to sleep with their dead husbands. He allowed them to have sex with the corpses and the next morning they were all pregnant. Hanane explained matter of factly that it was the reason why Jews trace their ancestry through the women. She went on to say Jews were rich and white because they were allowed to see the prophets face and Muslims were brown and poor because Muslims had only seen below the neck of the prophet. She was just getting started…I tried to stop her, I swear I tried.

She continued that because the Yahoudi women slept with dead men all Jews now have a very offensive odor they cover up with creams or perfumes (but can’t hide). The smell of the dead. Jessica was totally offended but kept herself calm.

“Oh, come on, you can’t be serious…” she said.

At this point, Hanane’s friend Yassine piped in with the unbelievably innocent and completely serious “No, it’s true, my mom told me.”

I was speechless. Ahmed got up and left when he saw Jesica getting upset, and we both sat there stunned that we were hearing these things from University educated friends with generally open minds. Hanane and Yassine had both recently met a Jewish couple from Israel and I asked if they had smelled anything.

“They covered it well,” Hanane admitted. Neither one of them had noticed a smell of death about the Israelis. I made up a story (which I stole from an episode of Little House on the Prarie) about how the people in my childhood town had believed Jews have horns and wore yalmalkas and Muslims are always covered in clothing because they have tails. It was a lie, but a lie meant to show folk beliefs are often misinformed and even ignorant. They both nodded until I got to the part about Muslims having tails.

(I want to point out here that these are both smart, educated people and from the future I can tell you that both have learned that these and many other beliefs they were taught growing up were false – my point in recounting it isn’t to shame them – it’s to point out that even the best educated among us have our cultural and educational blind spots.)

I was becoming more and more annoyed with my little woman. She got jealous when I helped a woman in the casbah carry water to her home earlier in the day. She said “I know these Moroccan women better than anyone. First they will get you to carry water and then things will lead to other things and then you will have sex with them.”

She was unable to believe I could control myself with the toothless woman I helped. She thought my willingness to help carry a bucket meant I wanted to fuck some poor woman without running water. When I teased her about it, hshuma kicked in, the sense of Moroccan shame. You can’t tease someone the way we do in the West. Especially in front of other people. Hanane went in my bedroom, locked the door, and refused to come out. I ignored her like I would ignore a spoiled child. Finally she came out and I tried to explain how in Western cultures, we often tease those we have affection for. It was days before she forgave me. She was so often like a petulant child. It was those times I had the biggest doubts about whether our relationship could ever work out.

Later that day, I walked her home. Then I went to sleep, knowing I had hurt her and at the same time, I admit to feeling a sense of satisfaction because I’d pushed her away. I knew the sense of hshuma would never allow a Moroccan Arab to admit adultery even if it had happened. They would die before admitting it. I wondered if she would ever two-time me. If she did, I would never find out unless I caught her in the act. The thought comforted me more than it disturbed me. It allowed me to accept what is for what is. Can that possibly make any sense?

I woke up at 3 am with a huge hemorrhoid on my anus. If I were Moroccan, I would have believed it was an instant punishment from God for doubting my woman’s fidelity or that she had prayed it on me. I knew I deserved the discomfort I felt through the rest of the week. I’d never had a hemorrhoid before. I have much more sympathy for people who get them now, I hoped it was the only one I ever felt. It kept me awake and made life unbearable for days.

In the morning, my anus punished by God for my fears, I set off to Hanane’s house to apologize. In my country virgins are harder to find than the unicorns they ride on because most girls lose their virginity when they are 16 or younger. There are a handful of young men have ‘had’ virgins and the rest of us have only heard of them. It’s not a lie. As I said before, it’s never been something that mattered to me. Among my friends, I only know a couple who have ever deflowered a girl. I’ve heard plenty of stories of guys who almost had a virgin, but like Bigfoot, somehow it just doesn’t happen. Especially when you consider once you pass the age of 18 in the USA, almost all the virgins are illegal. My point in all of this virgin talk is that my fiancee didn’t have experience in relationships, dating, or much of anything else. She was very much like a fourteen or fifteen year old girl.

I told her about my hemorrhoid and I was certain it was punishment and wouldn’t heal until she forgave me. Surprisingly it disappeared about the time she did forgive me. More Berber magic.

I wondered if I should have left the hurt alone and ended things. I don’t think so. She’s not perfect, and certainly neither am I. I just wonder if we can co-exist in a good way. Can I deal with her boundless energy and at the same time with her infinite desire to sleep and rest? Can she deal with all the pain I’m bound to cause? Because ultimately, that’s one thing I’ve learned from all my relationships. I always manage to hurt the women who love me. I manage to hurt them with my words, my actions, and my emotions. If they could read my mind or know my thoughts or absent actions, it would hurt them even more. I don’t know why they let me do it.

I’m not a particularly gifted lover, not the nicest, not the most rational, certainly not even close to being comfortable economically. I’m not rich and there are plenty of other flaws surrounding and within me. Yet, I always seem to have these incredibly sweet and loving, beautiful, intelligent women who are willing to put up with even the worst of what I can dish out, and that’s some nasty dishing – never physical mind you, but that’s not where real pain comes from. There must be something about me I am unable to see. Or maybe there’s something I don’t value which women put a higher value on…I’m grateful and at the same time bothered they put up with it. It being me at my worst.


Reading Morocco

Jessica lent me a couple of books and I tore through them. I read my first Paul Bowles book. The Sheltering Sky. It’s the story of a young American couple who come to French North Africa to build a new life post World War II. Their marriage is falling apart. He sleeps with an Arab prostitute, she sleeps with their friend, they head to far flung Sahara towns. He dies, she becomes the almost stereotypical white captive and loses her mind living in a harem as the fifth wife of a camel trader.

Of course, five wives are too many. The Qu’ran says four is the limit. One will drive you mad, two will fight each other, three will all attack you, and four will divide into teams who fight each other and thus keep each other occupied so you can spend your time in the cafe. Something like that.

Bowles’ writing is brilliant. He uses words in a way which awes me. His anthropomorphous descriptions of the desert, the sky, the buildings, and everyday objects contrasts to his objectifying of people who are not central to the story. He does it in such a way the only humans you are actually concerned with are the two protagonists. Supporting characters are fleshed out as objects devoid of personality. It is the landscape and the sense of place that are the lead actors. Perhaps most captivating in The Sheltering Sky was the living sense of betrayal.

Bowles manages to avoid the extreme orientalist mode of many writers as he writes about North Africa. The natives are people like other people and it is the foreigners who are the oddities. He makes them more oriental, meaning different, than those who live in the vast landscape he brings to life. For example, in one scene, a cook pins a bug under his knife before taking his earnings to a whore house. In another, a hotel owner becomes outraged when he is accused of theft and it fits into the rhythm of the landscape. Not so the Australian thief who is fucking his mother or the French commander who unwittingly kills a young woman guilty of infanticide. These people jar against the grain of the place, they are so completely foreign as to make one wince. Maybe this is simply because I am here and the different has become the normal for me.

At least more so than it ever was before. Enough so I recognized every Arabic or Darija word used in the novel which delighted me to no end. Somehow, I read this dense 350 page novel in less than 24 hours despite going to the internet cafe, visiting Hanane’s, and watching a film on my laptop. I didn’t consume it, it consumed me.

I’m not entirely comfortable here. I went into the pharmacy to find some hemorrhoid relief medicine (apparently I’m not forgiven, after all) and was ready to say to the pharmacist “Andi habooba f’t3asik which translates roughly as “I have a pimple on my asshole” but as soon as the attractive young woman working there moved to the counter, I couldn’t do it. I left without anything, so my ass is still bringing me some intense discomfort.

Being a stranger in a strange land, I often have no idea what is going on. At the moment there is bedlam coming from upstairs and I can’t tell if it is grief, joy, a football match on the TV, or just the normal sounds of people. One guy is yelling in a somewhat regular way and there seems to be the sobbing of children and the wailing of women, the wails of at least one child sound as if they are hurt or being punished but the regular shouts of the man continue and I have no idea what it is all about. Frankly, I don’t want to be dragged into anything. My immediate suspicion based on the number of unattended children and incredibly ancient looking women who congregate down in this small corner of the casbah is someone is dead, but just as likely it’s someone telling a story or the young guys in the alley are playing cards again and simultaneously a child has been punished or skinned their knee. There is no way to tell short of stepping out into the madness and frankly, even when I do that, I usually can’t find out what is going on. That’s the way it is here. The young guys were playing their card game again today and as I passed I asked if they would show me how to play. They tried to show it to me but I didn’t understand it. It seemed like they called out the name of a card and then flipped the rest rapidly until the named card appeared. There was a dirham on the ground and I had no idea how they could tell who won or who lost. They were quite friendly and wanted me to try, but I never play games I don’t understand.

Somehow I’ve never forgotten about the time in Memphis when a friendly pool hustler managed to get my entire paycheck before I knew what was happening. I’m not even positive I agreed to bet, but his big white smile in his big black face kept the same easy-going expression the whole time. When I left I had the strange feeling he had helped me even as I knew he had just ripped me off. When it is time to gamble with those who seem innocent, I know it’s time for me to hit the road.

There’s a sweet little girl of about five who always greets me with a big smile outside my apartment. Today she destroyed the charm when out of her mouth spilled the word falooz, Moroccan for money, as she pulled my hand and tried to lead me somewhere – probably the hanoot to buy her some candy. It shattered the vision of innocence I had of her, I pushed her hand away and said goodbye. I’m a lot like a hollow watermelon in no matter how hard the locals suck, they won’t be able to get any juice. Once they realize it, I suspect a lot of doors will close and the sugary smiles will cease. That’s fine with me.

Dreams of Trespass was vignettes of life growing up in a 1940s Fez harem. In this case, harem is a group of related women who live in the same house under the authority of men and who don’t have the freedom to go out. Very few cases of plural wives and none of the exotic orientalism of slaves and concubines as one would find in stories of Turkey or Arabia. Not too different from the Azaoui household when the men go to the Souk on Wednesday nights. Women telling stories, singing, and dreaming of becoming independent. It provided me some insight into the historical significance of the hamman to women in Morocco and also into the modern day version. Of course, things are considerably different now since women are free to discard the hijab, take jobs, and, in most cases, are no longer confined to their homes.

I gave the book to Hanane to read since I thought she needed to gain more of a historical perspective on women’s liberation. I was surprised when she told me since she has discarded her hijab, she has found a sense of liberation that was missing from her life before. She said when she was wearing the hijab, she felt confined and unable to go certain places, to laugh in the streets, or to express her opinions freely. It wasn’t easy to get her to stop wearing it every time she went in public, but with a little pressure she is almost always without it now. It helped when we got the jobs at the American English School, since most of the young women there are hijabless. I told her at the beginning if she wore the hijab she probably wouldn’t get the job.

Job or hijab. I think it was a lie, but I hated to see her locked into being a subservient person in this society. Frankly, it has made things easier in terms of our going out together too as Muslim men who see us are less likely to think I am stealing a pure woman and more likely to think I am with one of the liberated woman whom most of them think of as ‘bitches’. The meaning of ‘bitch’ here in Morocco is another fascinating story. In Morocco, if a woman is a bitch it means she is someone who engages freely in sex, is flirtatious, probably smokes, maybe drinks, and overall leads a scandalous life. It’s roughly equivalent to slut. Not a prostitute, but not far from one.

I asked Hanane why women shouldn’t smoke. Honestly, I don’t think she has ever actually considered the why. Her answer was that only men smoke and if a woman smokes than she is a ‘bitch’. She said it was haram and I asked her if it was forbidden in the Q’uran and she said, no except for the edict saying we should not use intoxicating substances or harm our bodies. I asked if it wasn’t haram for men and she thought for a moment and then changed the subject. I’m not trying to get her to smoke, but I’m trying to encourage the process of asking why and at the same time attempting to brew a sense of justice in her.

I hate to sound like a colonialist, but if you have something an Arab can use, they will find a reason to borrow it. This is especially true with money but crosses over in just about every other way, even to your name as a situation with Hanane’s friend recently illustrated. Without my knowledge, he was emailing people to promote his tourist business using my name! It was innocent. I know that because when he got a response he forwarded it to me proudly and asked me to continue to keep in contact with them. I didn’t quite flip out, but I put a stop to it (I think) and told him if it continued it would be the end of our friendship.

The Wilder Shores of Love by Lesley Branch is composed of four essays about women who came to the Arab world in pursuit of freedom from Victorian England and fell in love with men and Arab lands. The first essay has me thinking a lot. The woman in question doesn’t fall in love with an Arab but with a man who typified the Arab world to Victorian England. Sir Richard Francis Burton, the greatest explorer of his age. He was more or less an Arab in his thinking, many say, and to be his wife, Elizabeth had to take on a curiously subservient and docile role.

She had to endure long separations, offer support from afar and take care of him when he returned, often sick and broken. She is far less interesting to me than Burton himself who undoubtedly engaged in sexual escapades everywhere he went, probably with both women and men. The book tends to discount that, but it is all speculation since when he died, his wife burned all of his journals and papers. Being of a similar type, I expect he lived to travel and escape from the confines of his society and even after marrying he still had a need to escape from the micro-society of his wife’s company. I can only hope I can be as successful in my explorations and my escapes. It gives me hope that perhaps a life with Hanane is possible although we live in a very different age than the one the Burtons were in.

Reading of someone who resonates so clearly in my soul, it is exhilarating to find parallels. Burton was inspired by Sufism. He was actually a Sufi master. He was the first westerner to perform the Hajj as a Muslim, and certainly he was a Muslim though he was prevented from claiming such clearly by the confines of his time. He found the headwaters of the Nile, explored the Great Lakes of Africa, ventured into South America, and even penetrated Salt Lake City as a Mormon! He developed a method for learning language in two months, spoke 42 languages, studied primates and primate language, and was a fellow of the British Anthropological Society.

I first encountered him as a footnote in history and more thoroughly as a character on another world in Philip Jose Farmers Riverworld series. I was a great admirer of his character at 12-years-old when I read the books, but had no clue the real man actually eclipsed the fabulous stories Farmer spun. The parallels are few, but a fascination with language, a need to escape, a fascination with primates and Anthropology, finding truth in Islam and Sufism (but without claiming them as the sole truth), and travels to Arab lands, and Salt Lake City. They are few, but still, they are thrilling. Especially since he was also a writer whose output was gigantic. I am but a shadow of such a man, but even to be a shadow is an honor.

I found a used book souq (market) near the American English School. It sits under a bridge and is crammed with old used books, mostly in French but a couple hundred English novels or textbooks hidden here and there. I didn’t find any great treasures but it was a nice diversion. I did find a Philip K. Dick pulp novel called Galactic Pot Healer and discovered a couple books covering Moroccan cultural history. The book souq is in a tin roofed shantytown and there are probably a couple thousand books in English. Most of them are textbooks or photocopies cast off by university students studying English. I wish I read French or Arabic better. The book dealers charge too much, a minimum of a dollar each for books missing pages, photocopied, or with broken spines. The guy with the best selection won’t haggle at all.

I finished The Wilder Shores of Love. It was the stories of four nineteenth century European women who loved Arab cocks. No particularly great insights into Arab thought or the Arab world. Also a story of Sir Richard Francis Burton who probably loved Arab cocks as much as the women did.

Another Paul Bowles book “The Spider’s House” is all about Fez during the time when Moroccans rose against the French. It was a good book though Bowles evenhandedly hates everyone but himself. Maybe that was part of its charm for me. Bowles obviously thinks women are the cause of most problems for men because they are so confused about what they want they don’t know it themselves but have to be shown. He mocks the rich, the English, tourists, and definitely the French. He is disdainful of the Nationalists and of the peasants who are caught in the struggle. He looks down his nose at the poor and at the bourgeoisie Moroccans. And yet, he manages to capture what it is which makes Morocco what it is. He reflects not only the landscape but the people as well. His two protagonists, a Moroccan boy and an American expat writer are both sympathetic but in entirely different ways. Bowles wants Morocco to be a place which doesn’t change and yet, change is a part of what makes this country what it is. The fusion of Berber and Arab, the fusion of Moroccan and French, the fusion of East and West. It’s a country of people who talk on their cellphones while riding their donkeys or drive a BMW with a witches charms hanging from the rear view mirror. They lie to your face and then give you the shirt from their backs. They smile and then they kill you. Bowles captures how maddening it can be to think you finally understand it only to have something brand new invalidate everything you thought you suddenly understood.

The Riffian by Carlton Coon, an anthropologist here before the first world war who made friends with a Rif Berber and later wrote this book about him and his culture. It was a fun read with plenty of anthropological detail thrown in. Nothing I hadn’t seen or read of before and so it probably didn’t strike me as exotic as it might have struck one completely unfamiliar with Moroccan culture. What did strike me was the antagonism between Berbers and Arabs. It was written in a light-hearted tone as the Riffian joins the French army to steal rifles from the French for a Berber blood feud and then ends up going to France to fight the Germans but instead kills the French and then returns to Fez where he kills an Arab who is sleeping with a prostitute the Riffian loves. A large part of the story revolves around Rif Berbers being blue-eyed and blonde-haired. The Riffian is often not recognized as a Moroccan. I often see what look like European kids with blonde or red hair and blue eyes in Sefrou. This story pointed out what I am most likely seeing are Berbers though they may be children of mixed ancestry as well. The French as well as the Arabs have left lasting changes in he culture of Morocco and in the blood of the Moroccan people. Funny to think the original Moroccans would probably be indistinguishable from Americans or British.


Earning a Living

I sit in the uncomfortable plastic chairs of the cyber-cafe and try to figure out how the hell I am going to get money. No word from Saul Gerbil, the director of the school about ending Hanane’s Friday night class or providing us with a place to stay on Friday nights in Fez. I’m afraid I’ll win and have no work at all. It’s easy to win when you have the hanged man’s perspective and the world appears upside down to you. Not having a job is a winning proposition to me usually, but at the moment, I want to get the foreign residency card. I want to get some money so we can move forward with this marriage thing.

I’ve self-published Liminal Travel, the book I thought might make me famous to a universal silence. No one cares. I sent out some email today asking friends and family to read it and let me know what they think – but it seems I’m too far away to bother with. I’ve created press releases online, and made some Twitter and Facebook announcements. So far it has been downloaded by five people. That wouldn’t be terrible if I was charging for it. I’m not. It’s free.

Apparently an email address is more than people are willing to pay for my travel and life secrets. Meanwhile I continue to make less than a dollar on many days. In truth, it probably averages out to making $4 a day even if I don’t do much. Between the blogging workshops and teaching, it comes out to that. That’s counting my chickens early though. I’ve gotten no paycheck from the English school yet.

If my figures are right I am making 50% of 142 dirham/ hour because I’m a ‘teacher in training’. I work twenty-seven hours per month so it should be 1890 dirham. Enough to pay my rent and survive here, With the blogging workshop I have made another 250 dirham. In November, I should earn about $400 U.S. It’s a good thing I live in the third world of the 7th-century because that’s enough to have a decent life here. I’ve got to subtract the 240 dirham for the commute, the 700 for rent, about a hundred for utilities, I’ll be left with less than 2000 dirham to survive. There won’t be any luxurious spending going on in Dar al Djinn (the name I’ve given my casbah crashpad – House of Spirits). I should turn it into a speak easy. Now there is a way to make life interesting and dangerous. I wonder if I would end up dead or in prison first…

It’s amazing I can live on so little money and have everything I need. I have my own space, electricity, food, and the sound of running water going by outside to lull me to sleep.

I just finished another Morocco related book. This one was called The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah, an Afghan Brit who bought an ancient house in Casablanca and spent a year remodeling it while he learned to deal with Moroccans, Moroccan Culture, and a house full of djinn who wanted him to leave.

The book confirmed many of the ins and outs of this land and its people.

Never pay anyone before the job is done.

Things which are started never get finished before a dozen other things are started and never get finished. Moroccans are the most gifted craftsmen in the world but would prefer to do shoddy work and drink tea than create something magnificent.

There is no getting around the world of the spirits. Intense superstition goes along with Islam here, and I am better adapted to all of this than most foreigners can ever be.

When you open the door once, you have to close it a thousand times. It’s a shame. I’d like to make friends here, become part of this community, do things for the people I see every day; but I won’t because I don’t want them to know they can get anything from me because if they learn that, it will never stop. I will put myself in the position of having to say no ten-thousand times. The fact is, I’m lousy at that. I feel cheap and miserly and soon I have given away what I can’t rightly afford to give away in the first place.

There was one particularly nice section of the The Caliph’s House where he sees a beggar being given the choicest pieces of fruit and vegetables by venders in a souk. He asks why they give her the best they have. The merchant reply “Just because a person is begging doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the best.”

It’s something I see again and again here in Morocco, the poorest often give away the best they have to those even more poor than themselves. Families impoverish themselves hosting and entertaining those who have come to visit. In another section of the book Shah gave his workers space in his house when their own houses were destroyed by development. Within a short time, his workers beg him to let them move back into the shantytown because their families and friends are making them poorer than ever by visiting their upgraded new digs. The guests are eating and drinking them out of house and home. From my experience living with the Azaouis, I know this is true. Guests are entertained lavishly. I am not trapped by that tradition. I go by the Ben Franklin adage, guests and fish smell horrid after three days.

The Caliph’s House was a fun book written with tongue in cheek which allowed Shah to make fun of Moroccans and how they fall in love over the internet or in the frozen pea section of a grocery store. He teases those who drop chickens down a well for Aisha Kondisha and end up poisoning everyone who drinks the water, but also mocks American dreamers who come to Morocco to fall in love with women they danced with for five minutes. He pokes fun at those who travel around the world to watch Casablanca in every country it plays in with dreams of creating a Casablanca theme park and he makes fun of British Afghan writers who move to Morocco and get run over by the passive aggressive Moroccan culture dozens of times before realizing sometimes you have to kill a goat to prove you are the man in charge. Tahir Shah demonstrates he has been learning and paying attention.The story is interwoven with the fabric of Moroccan life in all of its tragedy and glory.

Morocco is a mess. There is no doubt about it. I don’t think this country can be saved from consuming itself in twenty years. I am so conscious of the fact I live in a kingdom of gross inequality that it fills me with amazement there is not open rebellion.The King is everywhere. I see billboards of the King. I see his portraits in shops. I see his face on the money. I’m an admirer of what he has been trying to do, huge infrastructure projects that carve new highways across the landscape upon which schools and hospitals are built, but he is obscenely wealthy with the wealth of Morocco. The king is trying to fix things, but I’m not sure they can be fixed. I’m not sure they can be fixed while there is still a monarchy.

The biggest problem in Morocco is Inshallah. If God Wills It. People in Morocco have allowed this to supplant their will, to take away their drive, to destroy their internal fortitude. They have become pieces of paper lying on the street waiting for a wind to raise them up in clouds of dust. Worst of all, they don’t like to read. I think this is what I don’t like about the cafes. There is never someone reading a book in a Moroccan cafe. They sit and watch life pass by on the streets as if the streets are a television connected to one of the millions of satellite dishes atop every building in the country. While reading might seem a passive activity, it is not, television and sitting in cafes for days on end, on the other hand, are the ultimate in passivity.

Books provide experience because they happen inside of us. These past few days I’ve drank in the lessons of The Sheltering Sky and The Caliph’s House. The experience of these books has caused me to have new eyes as I see the hijabbed girls in the cyber-cafe chatting on MSN with men they hope to marry from other countries.. Each “Bonjour, Monsieur” I hear from touts in the streets takes me back to French occupied North Africa and a time when most European here would likely have been French. My own experience in hearing about djinn, the evil eye, and the trials of trying to get anything done here suddenly fit into a wider body of work. I have a broader understanding from reading. I am not learning in a vacuum which contains only me.I am one of a handful who not only come here, but attempt to internalize this place and make it a part of who we are.

Someone once told me, the test of knowledge is whether you can pass it to someone else. If you cannot, then you don’t know it. I suppose, in some way, this book is the test of what I think I know. A self test to see if I do know what I think I know. I’m sure, in the future, I will read this and find that I made a lot of mistakes in the writing of it. If you, the reader, are also aware of these mistakes, just know that I am learning as I go along. Perhaps I shouldn’t write, but then, really, I must.


Sidi Blogs

Somehow I became the go-to guy for blogging in the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Sidi means Sir or Mr and is a term of respect. It’s funny to be called Sidi Blogs. Today was the last day of my first blogging workshop series. There were two attendees out of eight. They’re busy people, or maybe I’ve already taught them what they needed to know. Everyone is anxious for another session and I’m getting calls from strangers now. I’m sure there are Moroccan experts but I’m the guy the expats are all turning to. It’s cool to be a big frog in a small pond when just a while ago I was a tadpole in the ocean. With any luck it will lead to me making some money consulting. I plan for there to be future blogging workshops. is getting a steady stream of traffic. It’s progress. Liminal Travel has been downloaded by 20 people, mostly family and friends. I failed to build any buzz for it. It’s too early to tell if anyone likes it or not. has less than 100 visits per day but is growing in the search rankings. My email list is growing but I’m not sure what to do with it. I am on the path towards success. I think.

In terms of actual employment, my job at the American English School is secure though I did not succeed in resolving the Friday nights issue. The director knows how to say no, he took me to lunch at one of the nicest restaurants in Fez, Maison Blanche. I’m sure it was on the American English School expense account, but still, it was appreciated. I don’t get to go to nice restaurants and have non-Moroccan meals very often anymore. He offered a menu of ridiculous solutions.

First he said I should buy a car. He has that rich guy myopia that afflicts so much of the world. How the fuck am I supposed to buy a car when I don’t have any money? I explained that money was an issue and said we could stay in one of the houses the school maintains for foreign students. He refused. He said he wouldn’t change Hanane’s schedule and if we didn’t like that we could find a different place to work. I will have to find a different solution.

His next suggestion was to hire a private car. Prick. He’s probably one of those guys who hears about starving people and says “Why don’t they just buy some food?” He suggested we get a hotel (because if we can’t afford a private car or buying a new car, certainly we can afford to pay for a hotel once a week on half-pay). Ridiculous to talk with him. We are a mixed couple and not yet married, it’s an impossibility for us to get one hotel room, we would have to get two. He’s a smart guy, but living in his own world.

We will have to find some other solution. At worst, we ride in illegal taxis and pay the extra fare. He actually pointed out that we still come out ahead since we are getting paid more than the taxis will cost – that’s boss logic coming from an expense account point of view. After paying for taxis, our salary will be mostly gone. So, in the end, I failed.

The lunch was delicious though. It was the only meal I ate on that day and it cost more than everything I had eaten in the past two weeks. It was about 300 dirham or $45 per person which isn’t astronomical in dollars, but for me was way more extravagant than I’ve enjoyed since I left Hawaii. When you consider the fact that it was 1/6 of my total net worth, that might put things in perspective. It was a very modern place with ice-cold water, wonderful bread, and an attentive staff. I had the lunch special of sauteed vegetables, fillet of sole, and an extraordinary salad. The fish was tender though a little undercooked. The flavor made up for the raw bits which stuck to the bone. The vegetables were cooked in a too much oil, but again, were very flavorful with a touch of argan oil. The salad was perfect. A 10 for 10. Broccoli florets steamed just enough to bring out the best in flavor but not enough so they lost their crispness. For dessert, Saul Gerbil had a fruit plate and I had the crème brulee. It was not a perfect crème brulee. The custard was too curdled and the carmelized top was not thick enough. It was served in true Moroccan sweet tooth style with a small cup of lychee and kiwi fruit salad on one side, a cup of vanilla ice cream on the other, and peanut brittle garnishing the plate. Sometimes less is more. This felt like they brought me the entire dessert menu. The after lunch coffee was served with fresh from the oven chocolate chip mini-muffins. This is how Morocco’s wealthy eat.

It’s a good boss tactic to give something at the same time you refuse to grant a request. At the end of the meal, he also asked me to take over the school’s blog without pay. I refused to do it for free and he agreed to pay me to train the school’s tech guy how to create a website, how to maintain it, and how to make it work as a ‘community service’.

Finally, he asked me to create a film club at the school. Once again, this was suggested as a freebie, a friendly suggestion for a new hobby. No thank you. I made it clear that my time wasn’t free and he seemed to accept that. Saul Gerbil has a ‘we’ll see’ approach, but since it was he who brought the idea up, it is likely to happen. It would be a nice situation to get paid to run a film club. It could potentially lead to a film making class. I miss making films at university.

After lunch, we returned to the school and I turned in my residence permit paperwork again (it was sent back with a request for more documentation twice before). This time I am hopeful it will be enough to get my carte de sejour (residency identity card). It seems certain we will get paid, though I’m not sure how much or exactly when.

Back in Sefrou, my original birth certificate and diploma arrived in the mail along with my re-issued debit cards. It was a good mail day because I was about to completely run out of money, but the re-issued bank cards gave me access to my savings.

If it wasn’t the best crème brulee I’d ever had, it was certainly the best I’d had in Morocco. Maybe it was the best crème brulee in Morocco.


The American English School

The American English School is in a beautiful building set amidst lovely gardens. It’s a nice place to sit and relax. As I looked at my Moroccan students, it felt good to be there. They’re good kids. Mostly from upper class families who give a shit about their futures. That’s why they’re in a private school learning to speak English in addition to the French and Arabic most of them already speak. These kids have a shot to do great things. Many of them have been to five or six countries already, some of them have cars, and most if not all of them will go to college and have professional careers.

They’re lives couldn’t be more different than the kids who live in the casbah. The kids in the casbah run around like wild indians and their parents don’t give a rat’s ass about most of them. They play in sewage, don’t go to school, and if they are lucky they can look forward to one of two lives. Being a laborer or a criminal if they are boys and being the wives of laborers or criminals if they are girls. I would guess most of them have never left Sefrou, let alone Morocco. None of them have cars though one or two of the smarter criminal boys might have scooters or bicycles. If one kid in a hundred goes to university from here, it will be a miracle.

A little while ago, a pack of young kids got a hold of some styrofoam packing and they were breaking it up noisily outside my door. It was like someone beating on drums, which, as you might recall, I know the sound of quite well. I went outside and chased them away from the little cul-de-sac I live in and of course, there were no parents anywhere. Probably a case of the parents saying “Go outside and get out of here. Go bother the gaori (foreigner).”

Back to the American English School. I like it but am bothered more and more by the Massa like attitude of the director and the colonial behavior of the long established teachers. I’ve been fairly obsequious so far with the lead teachers I am co-teaching with but finally I reached my limit. Both women I have been teaching with, an American and a Moroccan, drove me insane. I think the American is going through a divorce with her Moroccan husband and taking out her animosity towards her husband on me and any other man she comes in contact with. She’s nice but she has issues.

As far as I could tell, the American had seen herself becoming older and uglier and moved to Morocco where she married a handome young Moroccan man. The same situation plays out again and again. The Moroccan guys rarely marry for love, they marry for money and a chance to get a better life. They keep their girlfriends, take as much as they can, and use the women like sugar-mamas. If a woman who does that wants to keep her man, she needs to be willing to be degraded, used, and treated like shit because her looks won’t get far once she reaches fifty. And she shouldn’t take it out on me.

I taught a great session today but she chastised me and said I needed to learn the grammar better. She told me she would recommend to Saul Gerbil that I co-teach and receive half-pay for another term. This from a woman who answers questions about grammar with “Because it is the way it is done”. I can answer like without more training thank you.

I haven’t learned anything from these two teachers – and neither have most of their students. They were in the way of me learning more from the students, because after all, it was the students I needed to learn from: what questions they ask, what behaviors I needed to learn how to control, and what things they had problems with. Later, when Saul Gerbil said I might have to co-teach for another semester, I flipped my lid. I told him the school might need to find a few more teachers. I found a job offer in Indonesia which seemed to offer an escape from many situations.

The next day, he told me I probably wouldn’t be co-teaching after all and not to worry about it. I worried about it because the Moroccan female teacher told students ghosts ‘inhibit‘ a house and then argued with me when I told her during a break that ghosts usually ‘inhabit’ a house. The American was both smug and condescending to me and her students. Did I mention, junior co-teachers earn half salary? And senior co-teachers earn a bonus?

We still had problems getting home from the American English School on Friday nights. Four Fridays in a row, there was no transport. No bus, no cars, no taxis, and once we had to hitch hike. After four weeks of this, I got in a minor scuffle when we tried cramming into a taxi with all the other human beings become animals fighting over limited seats in those few taxis actually working. No blood, no fists, just a lot of “Fuck you!” and a bit of shoving- I wanted to smash the guys face in. We got the taxi and left him behind and even though I waited for the next taxi to clobber him, he wasn’t in it.

Near the end of the term, Saul Gerbil wanted to meet and ‘touch bases’. with Hanane and me. I asked what it was about and he was vague, which is his ball-less way. On our way to the center, a black cat ran across the street and even though I attempted to avoid letting it cross our path, it ducked into a hedge and there was no way to avoid it.

We showed up on time, he showed up an hour late because a new teacher had gone crazy (literally he lost his mind) and had to be taken to the hospital. As we talked, he refused to come to any point despite my repeated attempts to get him to tell us why we were meeting. Finally, I cornered him “Should we plan on working here next semester, Saul?” This forced him to point, but not enough.

He spoke of a lack of precision in Hanane’s English and told me he had heard less than perfect reports regarding my understanding of how to teach grammar. Hanane, by the way, speaks more precisely and clearly than most of the Moroccan teachers at the school. He wanted to fire us. I think what stopped him was the teacher he’d hired to replace me, had gone bat-shit crazy and had to be locked up in a Moroccan looney bin before being sent back to the USA. He’d brought us there to fire us – I was sure of it. I pushed him to get to the point. It was maddening. I could almost see the gears working in his bald head as he considered all the possibilities against new evidence. He was stalling. If you want to fire me, fire me. Don’t just expect me to sit there while you think it over.

I launched into an attack on the two female teachers I’d been working with. Was it fair? Nope. Did it work? Sort of. I revealed the ‘..because that’s the way it’s done’ methodology and told how the Moroccan teacher only let me teach fifteen minutes despite the fact I was supposed to teach half of each hour long class. I complained about the way she threw a healthy dose of Islam into every one of her lessons – a violation of school policy. I spoke highly of the other teachers including the one male teacher I co-taught with. I think my high regard for him contrasted the lack of skill of the other two. Saul Gerbil told me the male teacher had also expressed hesitations about my ability to teach (which I later found out was a blatant lie). I laid out the dirty laundry of those who had attempted to crucify me and Saul Gerbil’s tune changed a bit. He seemed to have made up his mind. He began to back-peddle.

He said that since I had not been totally to blame for the problems I encountered in the women’s classes he would arrange for me to teach on my own for most classed but to co-teach one class with the schools best teacher trainer. I felt a surge of energy. This was a victory. I had a job that would provide a full-time wage.

That’s when he fucked me. “There is a job for you next semester, but there isn’t one for Hanane.” Hanane didn’t realize he had just fired her. She was happily munching French fries and waiting to hear about her next semester of classes.

“So, I have to co-teach again next semester? That’s okay.” She was trying to be kind, responsive, and understanding of his suggestions. She thought she still had a job.

“Ummm, well, if you’d like to take our teacher training course, we certainly have room for you in that and we will cover some of the cost.” Ball-less mother-fucker. He meant she could pay to take classes. She still didn’t understand when he got up to leave. It was up to me to tell her. I probably should have quit right there, but I needed the job. I needed the money, the carte-de-sejour, the attestation-du-travail (proof of work), and he knew it. I needed all of that if I were going to manage to marry Hanane. Without it, it would be ten times more difficult.

He left me to tell her she had been fired. When he left the table, she was actually happy and excited. She thought we’d won. I had to tell her. She was totally heart-broken. I saw it and felt it. She stayed stoic while we found taxis and made our way back to Sefrou. She threw up under a tree at the taxi stand and began to cry silently. For her, the job had been the greatest accomplishment in her life. More than graduating university, more than earning her teacher certificate. She was successful and working in the same school as her teachers! But now, she’d been told she wasn’t good enough. It was earth-shattering.

In truth, she was as good as any of the Moroccan teachers I’d spoken with. In trying to figure things out, a teacher I was friendly with told me that her being fired was probably a result of several outlying factors. She didn’t have a Master’s Degree but all the other Moroccan teachers did. In the world of status and hsuma, she was degrading the other Moroccan teachers and their degrees by being there. In this deeply hierarchical society, she posed a threat to those with higher degrees by climbing through the glass ceiling without one. Second, it was a way to ‘put me in my place’. His words, not mine.

Hanane did make some errors, as any non-Native speaker will from time to time. None of her errors were worse, in my opinion, as the self righteous hijab wearing teacher’s misuse of inhibit for inhabit. By the way, that teacher has a Doctorate in English and teaches at the University where she is the head of the English department.

Frankly, I wanted to tell him to shove the job up his pedophilic asshole, but if I quit, I wouldn’t get the paperwork I needed for our marriage. Hanane didn’t return to the school to finish out her co-teaching classes. She was ashamed and heart-broken. She cried for three days.

I accepted my deal with the devil. I was given one regular class and one co-teaching class for the next semester. I would run a movie discussion group and a culture discussion group. I would receive regular wages for everything but the co-teaching class.

I felt like I’d just been forced to watch someone beat my wife and then thank them for their generosity. I would eventually respond, but that came later. For now, I just held all the resentment and anger inside.

The Sheep Souk

Teaching had been going well and the Friday night taxi rides got better. Without Hanane, everything in Morocco is easier and less stressful. I had to hitch a ride home a few times or paid twenty-five dirham but generally, it was more comfortable than a taxi.

Hanane and I went to Fez to meet with some Polish guys who had contacted me on couchsurfing. They’d had a bad experience couchsurfing in Marrakech wanted to surf my couch in Fez. I told them I didn’t live in Fez and they opted not to come to Sefrou. They still wanted to meet for advice on what to do and where to go. They showed up a day early and called me, so Hanane and I went down to meet them and help them out as best we could. They wanted to know a cheap hotel, where to catch the bus, where to go at night, and how to keep from being ripped off again. I did my best to help them. They turned to me for help because they were freaked out by everything in the country..

When we walked up, they were sitting on the bench with the Ronald McDonald statue and one of them looked quite a bit like the clown he was next to. He was about fifty, round faced, smiling, missing some teeth, and wore jeans held up by rainbow suspenders. I sent them to Bab Bou Jeloud and recommended the Cascade Hotel just inside the gate as a cheap, backpacker friendly option. We managed to get them into a taxi even though there were more people crowded around the taxi stand near McDonalds than I had ever seen before.

Aside from that, we weren’t able to help them much. I figured the popular backpacker spots would be able to provide them with information about getting the bus to the airport, nightlife, and more. These guys seemed incredibly inept at travel as they didn’t even have any dirham on them after a full week of being in the country, just Euros. They had no map or guidebook, which I usually admired, but in this case, they needed one. Somehow they were wondering around Morocco and found me to ask advice in a city I don’t live in. I helped as much as I could.

Fez looked and felt….cleaner than usual. Hanane said it was because the King has taken up his summer residence in Fez. It’s nice to be the King and have everyone clean up the garbage when you come to town. Too bad it means he never gets to see how it really looks when he’s somewhere else.

Back in Sefrou, I agreed, against my better judgment, to stay the night at Hanane’s family’s house. It was against my better judgment because I never sleep well there. The workers start loading rocks into metal truck beds next door at 3 am and the wool stuffed bed is lumpy and uncomfortable. There are always people coming in and out, there is perpetual noise, Hanane cuddles like a limpet and I start to feel like I’m not allowed to move. Eventually I would break free but then I felt bad for sleeping with my back to her.

Her brother asked if I would wake early the next morning and make runs with the family jalopy to the agricultural souk and back. Shuttling sheep, Mama Ghita, and supplies. I said yes, but frankly, I knew I would be exhausted after working Friday night, waking up early Saturday morning, working Saturday and then coming back to Sefrou to sleep in a lumpy wool bed with a limpet.

By the time we ate couscous with raisins – it was already midnight. Later than I like to eat – ever. I tried to skip dinner, but it’s just not allowed at her parent’s house. She came to wake me first, I told her I wanted to sleep, then her sister came, and finally her mom. She dragged me from bed to eat. We were up for another hour or so and then I couldn’t sleep because I kept thinking it was time for me to wake up and then at 3 am the rocks started to go into the truck bed and then at 5:00 am I got up and by the time I got on my shoes and went to the door at 5:04 am, Mohammad was driving away without me since without telling me, they’d decided it would be better if I were to sleep! It would have been nice to know.

Her mom smiled and told me to go back to sleep which is usually impossible for me but since I was exhausted, I managed to drift off. I woke an hour later with Mama Ghita rattling away about something in Darija and Hanane refusing to translate. She wanted Hanane to get up and help with housework and was complaining about how I’d slept through helping with the sheep. Her mom left but came back ten minutes later telling her to help in Mohammad’s hanut. Hanane began complaining to me which definitively ended my sleep. She was tired of helping Mohammad when Mohammad didn’t help anyone but himself. I thought she was saying she was tired of helping me understand Darija not she was tired of helping in the hanut and in the house. It was one of countless misunderstandings. Misunderstanding or not, I was pissed and tired. I got up and told her I would never stay there again. I put on my shoes and told her if I was going to wake up to help at 5 am to help her family, then somebody better be willing to make me some god damn coffee, since if I were at my own house I would be making it for myself. And that was that.

Then Mohammad came back and now we loaded the sheep. Four plump dirty yellow sheep. Two big rams and two fat ewes in the back of Mohammad’s car and I drove us to the sheep market.

The biggest holiday of the Muslim year is al-Eid. It’s the holiday which commemorates Ibrahim (Abraham to Christians and Jews) being asked to slaughter his son Ishmael (but Issac to the Jews and Christians) and God letting him off the hook by letting him slaughter a ram instead of his son.

It’s a time of family and food. Every family in Morocco (and in most of the Arab world) slaughters a sheep. It’s a mother-fucking blood-bath. Everyone in Morocco waits until the King kills his sheep and then the blood letting and Bismillah’s begin. The sheep have been fattened and given a special diet. In the market, some of the sheep had been cleaned, but most were the same dirty yellow or brown as the Azaoui family’s. There were thousands of sheep in the market and through the day, thousands of Arab and Berber men bought and sold sheep and goats. The sheep we took to the market were about 1500 dirham each, which translates to about $200. It seemed like a lot of money for a sheep to me. They were neither the most expensive nor the cheapest of them.

They didn’t sell. However, that’s not to say the Azaoui family didn’t make any money. Hanane’s dad has a small coffee and tea business set up in a roll door warehouse space. He sets up four burners and ten low tables and he slings tea, coffee, bread, boiled eggs, pastries, fried fish, and cigarettes to everyone there to buy and sell. I’ve no idea how many cups, how many cigarettes or how many fish they sold today, but I’m guessing they made about the price of a sheep. Maybe two. I don’t know.

I saw one fist fight during the day, but there were others. A little guy punched a big guy in the head over 50 dirham. Tempers flare. There were plenty of goats for sale too. Goats are cheaper and poorer families slaughter them instead of sheep. I’d rather eat goat, it tastes better.

It’s funny to watch people trying to drag their sheep home. The sheep don’t cooperate. One way Berber and Arab men do it, is disturbing and funny while being effective at the same time. They lift the rear legs and put them around their waist. Then, they walk the sheep ahead of them like a wheel barrow. It’s disturbing because it looks like they are fucking the sheep. Like everywhere there are sheep, there are plenty of stories of men fucking sheep in Morocco and like everywhere, some of them are certainly true.

I got back to the Azaoui house around 1:30, had a small continuation fight with Hanane over my morning coffee. After that, she massaged my head and we had lunch. Food and the massage made things better. I left and went back to my house so I could sleep. I could feel in my throat I was getting sick. I hoped it was just the sheep shit dust and the too many cheap cigarettes I smoked at the big sheep souk, but it was a cold.


The Problem is Me

Hanane’s not stupid. She knows there are problems. She said “I know if there is a problem with this relationship, it is you.” She’s right of course. The problem is me. She said she knows I think about what it would be like to marry a girl from a country where the visa was not such a problem, where marriage was not such a problem, where things weren’t so difficult and different as they are between she and I. She told me there are lots of men who look at her and wish she were theirs. I told her she is right. I told her she is with me because those men are mechanics, laborers, or men who aren’t going anywhere. She wouldn’t leave me for some Moroccan guy with no education but if some rich Moroccan came along and woo’ed her, I think I’d be single again.

She told me her friend’s father asked her if she trusts me and ‘people’ have asked her if she thinks I will toss her aside now that I am on my own two feet. ‘People’ think I am unstable and unsatisfied and keep telling her I’m as good as gone. She asked me what’s wrong with me and poured her heart out. I told her in every relationship, one person always loves the other more but the relationship changes and the roles switch. I told her she loves me more than I love her. She gave me the chance to end things, but I didn’t want to end things, but I’m tired of this marriage or nothing situation. What happened to dating first? Not in an Islamic country.

I needed time to stabilize my life, time to figure things out, and I told her that. She said “Well then, it’s best you take your things and go.” Then she fell down in my arms weeping. I didn’t think she was bluffing, but was relieved she had crumbled. It’s true, I don’t want to end things, but if they should end, I’ll be fine. I know that. I would drink, fuck a few random chicks, eventually find someone who fit nicely with whatever my life turns out to be, and then eventually I would die. I don’t feel compelled to have children at this point, I don’t feel compelled to be married, I don’t feel compelled to do much of anything. I want to write, read books, find ways to make money, do some fun things with money, including making more money, and exist. If she can’t be a part of that, then so be it.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I have a sweet little woman who loves me, wants to marry me, have my children, and share her life with me and I’m not sure I want any of it. I don’t know what I want. I’m almost 38 years old, that’s old in this country, to be single and unmarried. Of course in my country, it’s getting up there too, but not as uncommon. I’ve been engaged three times, but never married. No children anyone has told me about and probably none I haven’t heard about either.

At this moment, I’m simply happy to have a house I can lock the door in. I’m happy to have a job that finally paid me. I doubled my net worth today. Fairly pitiful. 3400 dirham doubled my net worth. That’s $453 for a month’s worth of working about 10 hours a week. Admittedly, not much work. It comes to about $15 an hour in a place where my rent is only about $100. That included the 1000 dirham bonus for Eid. Still, that’s top notch. I have more buying power than I’ve ever had anywhere – it’s just that there’s nothing to buy but sheep. I earned 5 months rent in a month of working one day a week. I’ve never before earned a months rent in a single day’s work.

It’s the equivalent of earning $1000 in an eight hour day in Hawaii. Of course, I’m not in Hawaii, but this place has it’s own wonders and advantages even though I miss seeing the beach, swimming, surfing, having friends, cafes, restaurants, grocery stores, live music, bars, and hiking in the rainforest. In terms of economic survival, I’ve put myself in a much better situation.

And, I’ve put Hanane in a better situation. Her check from the school was largest paycheck she has ever received. I’ve gotten her a passport, laptop, a camera, a nice engagement ring, and (however briefly) a job at the prestigious American English School which can still go on her resume. I got one of the senior teachers to write her an amazing letter of reference. She has the possibility to travel the world, get American Citizenship, meet more people, and have more opportunities because of her relationship with me. Maybe it’s naive, but I don’t think those things have anything to do with her love for me. All of those ‘people’ seem to be conveniently ignoring quite a lot in material improvement.

I wanted to help her family but didn’t want to just give them my paycheck. I talked about it with Hanane and we came up with a nice project to provide food and income for them. A rabbit breeding project for her mom. I still sometimes give her mom money or bring groceries, but the rabbits are something that have the potential to do some lasting good. More on that later.

As noted before, I attempted to take Hanane on a tour of some of the highlights of her country with disastrous results to our psyches and my wallet. In a material sense, I don’t feel as if I have taken more than I’ve given. In an emotional sense, perhaps I have, but I’m not sure I can do anything about that. I’m a man who has decided he doesn’t need his father. I wasn’t happy with the relationship with my mother and so I broke it and rebuilt it into something I could live with. I’ve left relationships with other family members behind because they were relationships of inequality. I don’t like those kinds of relationships.

I love Hanane and think it is possible she and I can have a life together if she provides me the space to develop the other relationships I need, which she is ill suited to fulfill. I need intellectual stimulation, I need a certain degree of reckless danger, I need passionate kissing in front of strangers, I need the ability to periodically pick up and go. I’m not an easy man to be in a relationship with. I’ve told her that.

Time will tell. Frankly, part of the problem is the lack of sex. I see nice looking women and think about fucking them, but it’s a little like seeing delicious food when you aren’t allowed to eat. You think it looks or smells good, but you know you can’t have it. That’s how I feel. Hanane puts herself on a platter in front of me and I think wow, I’m starving, but she looks good enough to wait for. I don’t know if it is diet, mental, or what. My suspicion is it is mental. The invisible pilot is now engaged in the process of creating security of home, employment, and health. Unfortunately, I have to ignore my sexual desires. I want to start seeing some big money progress in my life. I’m tired of having nothing. I’m tired of being a born again virgin.


The Journey is about the People

The past few days have been fun even though I am again sick with the Belgian flu, probably H1N1.

Two days ago, my first couch surfers arrived. Two sisters from Australia. They are in their late early 50s, one a grandmother, one single. They were the kind of travelers I admire and love. They arrived in Sefrou with one small bag between them, big smiles, no Darija, and a willingness to experience everything. They left Australia in March and have been traveling since. They’ve been through Malaysia, Turkey, Vietnam, China, Mongolia, Russia, Holland, England, and a dozen other countries. They have no set itinerary and are going by the seat of their pants. Their favorite place thus far was Mongolia where they arrived during the National Games. Weeks of Mongolian archery, horse racing across the steppes, and wrestling. Their stories of watching ponies die meters from the finish line of a 30 kilometer race and seeing wrestlers doing strange dances before and after matches are the kind of tales which make one want to travel and see the world.

They were lovely guests and during their time in my house, they didn’t once complain about my lack of hot water, the dark squat toilet, or the fact they were trapped in my house unless I went out with them. Of course, we went out a lot. On the first night we had the meatball sandwiches at a local cafe and then wandered home through the dark medina. We had lots of laughs and Hanane forgave me for all my doubts when I bought her a small cactus as a present.

The next day they slept late and I made myself coffee, sat on the roof, wrote in my journal, and prepared a simple breakfast of scrambled eggs and bread for them when they woke up. Hanane joined us and we went for a grand tour of Sefrou, visiting the artisan house where a local wood-carver has made a bicycle complete with working gears out of wood. Knobby tires, the spokes, and the derailleur all carved from wood. He is even going to carve a chain for it. Amazing.

We walked to the waterfall (locally called the Cascade) where I was surprised to find American tourists who had come on a small tour from Fez. Sefrou has been discovered. On the way to the cascade we stopped and wandered into a small fortified village neither Hanane or I had ever been in. It was a miniature medina probably dating from sometime around the year 800. Life inside is about as authentic as Moroccan life gets. It was about the same as the casbah. A mini city. I live here, but I’m a resident tourist, though people are starting to know me.

From the cascade we went to what may be a Roman aqueduct and hiked through the area of the troglodytes, or cave dwellers. Most of the caves were bulldozed and filled in after the last king became angry at Sefrou. I’ve not yet discovered what Sefrou did to deserve it, but people tell me he put a curse on Sefrou, closed the Army base (the main source of revenue for the town since the Jews all left in the 1950s), and forced all the troglodytes to move from their caves to Sefrou town. This was part of the forced relocation of the Berber people which has been underway since the French left.

Historically, it is the nomadic and free thinking Berbers who have rebelled in Morocco and so getting these people to move into towns and become Arabized with standardized Islam and the poverty of city life was a good way to eliminate a threat to the monarchy. There has been a lot of controversy over legislation which made it illegal for Amazigh to name their children non-Muslim names. It’s a shame since it was the blossom of Berber culture which conquered much of Europe, ushered in the enlightenment, and created some of the most beautiful palaces the world has ever known. I like the stories which claim Berbers, who after all are a blue-eyed and light skinned people, are the long lost descendents of Atlantis. They along with the Basques of Spain. This means there was a land mass sat outside the Mediterranean in the Atlantic. It makes sense to me.

Most of the cave dwellers have been forced into Sefrou along with nomads from throughout the Middle Atlas. Forced to leave their traditional skills and way of life behind, they have become the urban poor who live in the meanest of conditions. In other words, they are my neighbors. The tattoo-faced old women slugging buckets of water, the thin faced men, and the young women in Chinese pajamas.

There are still some who live in caves and as we passed through their regions yesterday, most were spinning silk thread into thicker silk thread in order to make the silk buttons for fancy djellabas. The process involves stretching long lines of thread for fifty feet and then using a machine to twist it together. There are electric or hand cranked machines. This is the main occupation of the people in my neighborhood and as I walk through the casbah, I have to be careful not to walk into their working webs of many colors.

We trespassed onto the former army base and Hanane showed us the nondescript graves of Jewish and Christian (French) soldiers. She was nervous visiting the graveyards, not just because of ghosts, but also because of the danger of being chased off by the caretaker. I wanted to walk the road through the old army base but she wouldn’t go. She cut across a ravine to meet us on the other side. We walked towards the abandoned looking army barracks where two scurvy looking dogs began to bark at us. I kept walking forward then an equally scurvy Moroccan man in dirty Army fatigues came out of one of the ramshackle buildings and asked what we were doing. I told him we were heading to the saint’s monument (a short distance away) and he seemed satisfied, threw a pine cone at the diseased looking dogs, and complained about our disturbing him at whatever it was he was doing in the half collapsed, broken windowed, no doored, old building he had emerged from.

I asked if he was in the army. He said yes, smiled with both his teeth, and shooed us away. He didn’t noticed Hanane running across the ravine in a bright white scarf until we were a fair pace down the road. He began yelling at her, then he looked at us. I waved in a friendly way and kept walking. After a minute he retreated back into his makeshift guard shack with his gruesome dogs.

The monument was the next stop. Like everywhere else in Morocco, I haven’t been able to learn a single cohesive story about what the place is, who is buried there, or why people make pilgrimages there. It’s safe to say it’s an important place since it sits in the highest point in Sefrou, is meticulously maintained, and has a steady stream of visitors.

It is the grave of Sidi Ibrahim Bin something or other. He is the patron saint of the insane. In Moroccan Sufism, he is the intermediary between crazy people and Allah. Saints seem to exist in the same world as the djinn and efrite, but there is a distinction though I don’t particularly grasp it. We climbed to the monument, rested, took in the view of Sefrou below, and when I went to buy us some water from the hanut around the corner, one young man from a group of three Arab boys followed me while the other two triangulated themselves around Hanane and the Australians.

He was surprised when I was greeted by a friend’s mother, uncle, and the other two men who have shops there. I saw the look on his face as he lit a smoke. He was surprised at seeing me speak with  people in Darija. I wasn’t particularly worried about leaving the girls alone since Hanane is small but fierce with words and the Australian women were big enough to thrash the two skinny Arabs. When I came back from the hanut, the guy who had followed me gave a signal to his friends that looked something like a panicked “Abort, Abort, Abort!” and his friends moved away from their triangulated spots with looks of relief on their faces.

Hanane wouldn’t let me go into the saints tomb on other visits because she was scared I would become possessed by djinn and things of the other worlds, but this time I insisted. I was surprised when she gave in and said “Then we’ll all go in together!”

I actually wanted to go by myself and pointed out that the Aussies weren’t Muslim and shouldn’t go in. She ignored me and dragged them along, against their will and mine. We all lumbered into the tomb and it felt like a violation all the way through. I ventured into the actual burial place where I snapped one quick picture of the beautiful carved ceiling. The people there were none too happy about a bunch of infidels coming in and complained to Hanane about it. A shit storm about to come lashing out of her so I started speaking in Darija, told them I’m Muslim, apologized for the intrusion, put some coins in the donation box and everything got better in a hurry.

People in Sefrou are so amazed a white guy can be a Muslim that anything can be forgiven. Hanane cussed all the way down the hill about ‘those fucking hypocrite people begging for coins but you gave them their three fucking dirham and now they’re happy.’

I should confess, while Hanane has certainly altered me, I have altered her. I am unapologetic about the fact I have a filthy mouth. I cuss like a homeless hobo, a Marine, a fisherman, a trucker’s son, and a tramp. I am all of those things. I do however, feel bad about Hanane rapidly picking up on my speech patterns and my sweet, virginal, devout Muslim fiancee now cussing like an angry madam. It worries me sometimes because she hasn’t learned discretion. She is so sweet everyone forgives her transgressions beyond good taste but it might cause problems in the future.

We bought a chicken, had it slaughtered ,and then bought the vegetables for a nice tagine. At the house, Hanane taught the girls how to cook an authentic Moroccan tajine. It was a relaxing night of tea, hot chocolate, mandarin oranges, and pomegranates. Hanane told her mom two foreign women were staying at my house and that made it okay for her to stay the night for the first time. It was nice to sleep with her in my bed for once.

I enjoy teasing her with stories of djinn and efrites. Since my house was empty, I’m a single guy, and water is plentiful nearby it’s something she worries about. She fell asleep as I told her a the story of a miller with a water wheel in the Oued Aggai. He found a silver bug with blue wings and it granted his wish of a child but he was supposed to sacrifice it. His will was not strong enough, the child demanded it and then because of the child’s faith they were able to slaughter a sheep instead. Of course, the implication was the blue winged bug was my house djinn, Malik.

In the night, Hanane had a dream she woke up and she saw a young woman djinni sitting in the corner of my room looking at her intently. Hanane was very frightened by this and when the djinni noticed this, she caused herself to disappear since she didn’t have any bad intention. This told Hanane it wasn’t a bad djinni and she could stop worrying.


A Thanksgiving Celebration

It’s Thanksgiving and I think I’m starting to see what the overall theme of this book is. It’s difficult because I am living it as I write it but this book is about the journey towards marriage to Hanane and whether it will happen or not. Ultimately, what happens in this book determines whether I stay in Morocco or whether I go. Along the way, I am learning about this country and it’s people. Natives, expats, Berbers, Arabs, and tourists. One thing is for certain, however this book turns out, I won’t call it My Morocco.I refuse to take ownership of this fucked up country. It’s the King’s Morocco, not mine.

I had been invited to an American only Thanksgiving dinner sponsored by the American English School. I’d been looking forward to this dinner since I knew it would be posh, I intended to drink a little wine, and I anticipated getting to know my fellow Americans from the American English School. Saul Gerbil took us to Maison Blanche and ordered a nice dry white wine as the soup was served.

It was a luscious pumpkin cream soup with tiny bits of cured duck in it. There were eight of us there and midway through the first course my phone rang. I grabbed it to silence the ringer but accidentally refused the call. I saw it was Hanane calling. I imagined her being dragged into a dark alley and raped, being robbed, desperately using her last seconds to call me.

I got up, excused myself, tried to call her, texted her, tried to call her again, and again and again, and got nothing in reply. The rest of the meal I tried to remain calm while my imagination ran away. I could do nothing since I didn’t know where she was. I began gulping a bit too much wine in my nervous state. The food was good. Roast duck done to perfection. A strange purple rice dish. Tempura vegetables. Green beans. The bizarre giant prawn stuck in two roasted slices of eggplant didn’t work for me at all. There was nice ice cream and little chocolate cake filled with hot melted chocolate.

I noticed the food and tried to notice the conversation, but my mind was mostly wondering if I had hung up on my woman as she called me for help. I felt myself getting tipsy even as I heard Saul Gerbil tell the story of his mom robbing a bank- with a gun- and serving time in prison. It was a story that almost made him likeable. The oddball Canadian behemoth was with us. She was creepy. The other teachers weren’t exactly likeable but I probably shouldn’t have told the story of how I had once accidentally been an accomplice in a liquor store robbery. No arrests were made.

Finally, after the meal was done, when I was on my way back to Sefrou, I got a text from Hanane. She was home and fine. Nothing to worry about. Her phone’s battery had died. It was a relief, but I was annoyed she managed to ruin the dinner for me without having done anything. The sense of preoccupation was an unwelcome guest in my consciousness. When I had told her about the ‘American only’ Thanksgiving she had denounced it as racism and went on a tirade about what a mother-fucker the director of the center was. Her phone running out of recharge, her battery dying, and other communication problems continue to be a source of anxiety and tension for me.

I was acutely aware of smelling of booze. The ride home was hot and crowded. I picked up a bottle of decent red table wine from the bottle shop in Sefrou, meandered through the crowded Medina watching respectable people secure their valuables before venturing into the asshole to bellybutton crowd, smoked a little hash with a friendly junk dealer/rug merchant, and then bought a pack of smokes, and holed up in my house where no one could see or condemn me for being mildly intoxicated and stoned.


Doomsday for Sheep

Within thirty minutes of coming to my house, Hanane has the ability to make every dish in the house dirty. She had come over, cooked lunch, and dirtied up my very tidy kitchen. Now she was napping, so I washed them all, made coffee, and sat down to study Darija and hopefully find some zen-like state. I like things tidy and I was in an unreasonable state of agitation with her. So at that point I was feeling like maybe things woudn’t work out anyway.

It was al-Eid and the Oued Aggai was running red with the blood of all the sheep that had already been killed upstream. We had to go to her parents place where I met two more of her older brothers for the first time. I liked them both. Nice guys and it’s hard to mesh with the stories of Hanane’s youth where they stole her money, stole her phone, and beat her. Given those stories, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they would have been a couple of thugs who wanted to kill me. They were mellow though. One married to a jumbo sized Arab woman with a four month old son. The other married to a regular looking Moroccan woman, who was pregnant with their first child.

Together with their father, we killed three sheep. We dressed them out by skinning and pulling all the organs out. Then the women cleaned the organs and we all sat down to eat sheep liver, sheep lungs, sheep heart, and sheep intestines. On the roof, Mama Ghita cooked everything. The rest of the family was there too. This was the Moroccan Thanksgiving.

To kill the sheep, it is led to the place where it dies. It is held down and the head of the household or another qualified individual says the small prayer “Bismillah rahman rahim”. A sharp knife is used to sever the head halfway in one or two cuts at which point the sheep is let go, flops around a bit, and bleeds to death. In the case of the Azaoui sheep, the first one was filled with life and managed to stand up three times and fall back down even with most of it’s head severed from it’s body. It took a good five minutes for it to finally expire. The second and third sheep died much faster.

After this, we dragged the sheep (one at a time) into the courtyard where the rest of the head and the two front legs(at the knees) were severed from the body. A hole was cut on the inside of the right rear leg and a sharp stick was poked in separating the skin from the flesh. A tire pump or the mouth is used to fill the animal with air. The air separates the skin from the flesh further. Two of us then held the rear legs up while a knife was used to cut the skin away from the anus and then to bisect the skin around the rear legs up to the knee. The skin is then peeled back and using fairly dull knives, pulled from the flesh so a tube of flesh on the outside and sheep wool on the inside is finally pulled free of the body by pushing with the fist, pushing with the feet, and pulling with the hands as the sheep is hung up from the rear legs.

I saw flesh tubes of wool in abundance piled up like so much firewood on the street corners. My guess is buyers would take the skins to tanneries to be turned into leather..

After the animals were skinned we carefully removed the stomachs, intestines, hearts, livers, lungs, and other organs. Inside the gut cavity was also a cowl of fat which was carefully removed and hung to dry on the clothes line. This thin layer of fat was later cut with scissors and wrapped around the organ meats and barbecued on the rooftop. The heads and forefeet were immediately tossed on the fire and roasted to be eaten as delicacies later. The horns of the sheep were removed with a big dull cleaver and I was surprised to see there is actually an outer casing or shell made up of a material not dissimilar to of fingernails which covers the inner bone of the horns. I’m not entirely certain what became of the testicles and cocks of the animals, though I suspect we either ate them or they will be saved and eaten later.

After the chest cavity was empty, the dogs were fed the few bits the humans didn’t want. The chickens ate the contents of the stomachs, and disturbingly, one of the brothers washed the anus of the sheep and then blew into it, thus ejecting the fecal matter which remained. In a moment of not thinking, I laughed loudly at this since it actually made a farting sound. No one else laughed. For the second and third sheep, I contained myself.

The youngest son blew up at something and ran away from home again. Stupid boy, he ran away before eating. Eat first, then go. I joined the family in the living room for tea and cookies. The eldest brother decided to walk with me to my house in the casbah. Maybe it was because he wants to be friends, maybe it was because he wanted to see where I live, maybe it was because he wanted to get a gist of my intentions., or maybe he just wanted to get away from his family for a while. Probably all of the above. He borrowed money to buy a pack of smokes but then surprised me when he paid me back  when he got change for a hundred dirham at a tele-boutique.

Honor killing is of course still alive, but relatively rare in Morocco. I thought if he attacked me I would be able to take him but it was a ridiculous paranoid worry. No honor had been hurt and he was a mellow peaceful dude. We ate oranges and looked out the window at the Oued Aggai. The blood had all washed away by this time.

Winter had come. No rain, but there was a difference in the cold.


Orientalist Dreams

I had a dream in which I was transported to a magical city which was an exact replica of a city in this world. With me were two women. I loved one of them, but I don’t remember being with her in the dream very much. We entered the gates and were given a carpet which transported us into the heart of the city. With me was the second woman who lived in the magical city’s replica. She was amazed and told me of this neighborhood or street or a park existed in her city she was amazed to see in the city we were in. I didn’t love her. But I grew fond of her company as she was a pleasant and charming companion. With us was a man who I don’t remember very well now that the dream has passed.

We were going to a grand building where we were to meet the woman I loved but when we arrived we were informed by the doorman, who was not of this world, that we couldn’t park our carpet in front of it because we didn’t have the proper authorization. After much insistence on my part, the doorman, if man he was, agreed to take the vehicle back to the gate and get the proper permits during which time we could stroll in the city and see the sights of it.

We climbed a series of steps onto a large flat terrace looking out over a massive lake in which all number of boats and nautical craft could be seen from merchant ships to working vessels. Off to the East, I could see no end to the lake and no land in sight. It was obvious we were on an island or at least at the end of a great peninsula. I asked about the end of the lake to the East and was told it had no end for a great while for it met with the Baltic Sea. I believe it was the man whom I do not clearly recall who gave this information. While we waited I found my arm was around the shoulders of my short haired, blonde companion and I found myself not at all sad to not be in the company of the woman whom I perhaps loved as I had found myself instead in the very pleasant company of a woman whom I was beginning to love.

It was a nice dream. In this waking world I find more and more the philosophy of Islam meshes well with my own peculiar set of beliefs. Before I knew of Djinn, I explained to friends how we coexist in a world filled with people great in size. Their movements and decisions often pushed us to go in one direction or another. I described them as the marshmallow people since their pushes were not necessarily hard, more like gentle nudges causing us to choose one thing over another without our being aware of it. I am surprised (but not too surprised) to learn this is nearly the explanation of the Djinn. They act as forces in our world without knowing it. I have become aware of them and am but a novice in realms of the spiritual world, but it seems likely there exist those amongst the djinn who are unaware of us, and those who are aware. There are beings who seek to gain something from either side who utilize their knowledge for their own ends. The intent of either good and bad is possible.

God, Allah is the sum totality of all of reality. Is. The Qur’an says Allah split asunder and created all life from water. I also believe Mohammad was a prophet from God and the Qur’an is a message from God to us. I just don’t believe Mohammad was the last prophet and I don’t believe the Qur’an is not distorted by man, be it Mohammad or those who have followed. However, I do believe we can find the truth if we refuse to worship or obey religious authorities and instead make our own hearts the only authority on recognizing Allah’s truth. In the Qur’an it says Judgment Day will be the day reality is revealed in it’s totality. On that day, all of the many worlds will be gone and only God will remain, since all is God. All which is not God will be revealed as illusion. To seek after religious knowledge is beneficial to the soul and to the life after this one. Allah likes those who are seeking the truth. Of course, I like this, because I am a seeker.

Sometimes I feel so completely out of sync with when I am. I am an explorer and adventurer constantly looking for new experience. I want to write about these things, but sometimes it seems like there isn’t anything left to write about. Others have detailed the ethnography, the language, the peculiarities of social functions, the inner lives, the sex lives. All of these things have been thoroughly explored and documented before. I realize culture is not static. It changes over time and I’m not certain the culture around me today is the same one others have described.

Things are changing rapidly and while I would have loved to be able to live in Morocco at a time when there weren’t mounds of plastic rubbish everywhere one looks, when the men and women wore traditional clothing rather than cast off or pirated Western clothes, and when handicrafts and artisan-ship were given more respect and priority, those times are gone. Today’s Morocco is a very different place.It is, however, no less authentic and unique.

Traditional clothes, if they are worn at all, are worn only when one is celebrating. On special occasions. Djellabas and slippers have become costumes for the antiquated in the society where they originated. Much like hula skirts in Hawaii. Hand made rugs have been replaced by plastic mats, Chinese manufactured goods which are mass produced and imported and wooden furniture is considered less desirable than plastic or particle board pre-fab garbage which breaks and can’t be repaired like the old wooden stuff. It all ends up in the ever growing piles of plastic rubbish which no one can use.

The place I live in once conformed with the definition of a Muslim paradise. The description as I have read it in English translations of the Qur’an is a garden under which many rivers flow. An accurate description of the Sefrou of the past, described by Moulay Idriss II as ‘The Garden of Morocco’ where numerous rivers bubble from under the limestone mountains and run under the streets providing bounteous irrigation from an invisible source. A place which once was home to great orchards of cherry trees, olive trees, fig trees, and more. Most of them have been cut down to make room for poorly constructed concrete apartment buildings. The trees have been incinerated to heat water for the many hammams. One could almost forgive the cutting of cherry trees to make furniture, but they are used to heat water and make room for ugly, inefficient housing.

The heating process could easily be handled in the summer time by solar water heaters on the thousands of flat rooftop terraces, but it is not. The garbage filling the streams is mostly manufactured in the United States, Germany, and China. Sefrou is a garden ruined. The degradation of paradise continues with pine forests cleared from mountains. The mountains are graded, crushed, and shipped away as gravel. The end result will be the exposure of the underground streams, the sullying of them, the drying up of the land as it is covered with concrete and pavement, and the onset of extreme poverty, disease, and pollution. The only employers who will come will be industrial manufacturers looking for a place with lax environmental regulation and a population so desperate for work they will sacrifice health and prosperity to slave away in unsafe factories for a few dollars a day.

Perhaps, this place hasn’t been written about. Most people here (including me) do not have hot water. Most people in the casbah don’t have water in their homes at all. In terms of industry, there is not much potential in Sefrou. The land around Sefrou has all been cleared and built upon which means the days of the shepherd are numbered. I don’t think there will be more than one generation to follow the present one, meaning men like Hanane’s father. None of his sons are interested in being shepherds. It was encouraging in the Souk to see a handful of men in their 20’s who were in charge of sheep. Perhaps ten out of a hundred. Thus dies a way of life.

It is not just the shepherds. In the medina there are men who make wooden plows, they are old, they have no apprentices. The same is true for the tinsmiths who make tin teapots, the blacksmiths, and other artisans. The young men work as auto mechanics, they work in construction, they sell modern western clothes or cellphones, they work in tourism, or (most frequently) they don’t work at all. A generation of loafers and hustlers. Unemployment is well over 50% among young men. Middle aged men fill the ranks of tailors, furniture makers, hanut owners, vegetable sellers, taxi drivers, plumbers, electricians, and plasterers. There are quite a few young men in the last building trades though they are not learning a craft so much as how to labor and slap a cinder block building together.

The quality of general work one finds is fairly low, but in the next generation, it will be even lower as a result of lower quality building materials, haphazard training, and the death of craftsmanship. A natural consequence will be the loss of the majority of the jobs are now filled, whether they will be replaced with other jobs is doubtful at best. If they are replaced with jobs in tourism, industrial production, or the trades – the current way of life is going to disappear. That which is disappearing is not being replaced by anything of cultural substance.

The women of Morocco have a different future. The old ones are housewives, the middle aged are teachers or housewives, the young ones work in teleboutiques or cyber cafes until they become housewives. This is the life cycle for the majority. The young are students who dream more of becoming wives and mothers than of becoming anything else. They wear hijabs until they are teens at which point they either shrug them off and begin wearing western fashions or they continue on the path of the subservient women of the past to find husbands among the uneducated lower classes, begat more children, and follow the same cycle but in worsened conditions. Alternatively, they look for husbands from other countries and break free of their culture. They leave it to those who are unable to leave to progress and thus it does not. A brain drain.

The role of the internet and cellphones is interesting. Hopeful young women chat in cyber-cafes via Skype with men they hope will rescue them. They text message these men after a relationship is established. They sneak away from their families and take trips to Tetuan, Marrakech, and Casablanca on the dimes of the successful young men are wooing them. It remains to be seen if the young men are looking for wives or simply for sexual playthings. This is dating in the Moroccan world.

I am sure some are looking for wives but like young men everywhere, most are looking for sex. As to virginity, every man in this society wants to marry a virgin. And yet, like young men everywhere, they will do whatever they can to get sex with the girls they know. Of course, they don’t want to marry the ones who lose their virginity before marriage. Those girls are left with few options. I am certain even if the young men themselves didn’t care, their mother’s would and marriage would be an impossibility. The reason is the shame (hshuma) it would bring to the family when the mother of the groom could not proudly show the blood stained rag of the nuptials to the wedding party. The blood indicates the pureness of the woman and the masculinity of the man. It is barbaric.

The cellphone is a mark of adulthood in Morocco. It is a virtual requirement for courtship and the building of a relationship. If cellphones were to disappear, there would be a drastic shift in the ways young people come to know one another since it would then require the involvement of parents in the young couples being able to come face to face to get to know one another.



I have become aware of a sense within myself of holding back from making myself comfortable or at home so if I need to, I can flee. Despite my furniture and necessities, I find myself unwilling to spend the required amounts to make myself more comfortable in my house. There are certain things I need if I am to be confined here on days such as today when the weather is unpleasant. The weather has changed.

First came a strong wind from the west which brought a cold chill with it on the day of Eid. While the skies were still blue during Eid, I could feel things were about to change. On the morning following Eid I did laundry in my sink and hung it to dry on my rooftop terrace before heading to Hanane’s for lunch. She had invited me the day before and texted me several reminders. I pulled my laundry down before I left since the winds had picked up and I was afraid my laundry would blow free of the lines and disappear. It was mostly dry, a benefit of the winds blowing through it.

Most of the shops were still closed for the holiday but a certain type of street vendor was present in plenty. I could not tell if they were buying or selling, but on every corner there were men with piles of inside out sheepskins still holding the dried flesh of the sheep which had died the day before. I arrived at the Azaoui house and was quickly dragged away by Mohammad to help with his car. When we returned I was asked to sit and drink tea by Hanane’s father and his two friends. Finally I went into the house to find Hanane. She had, four hours earlier, said she was going to hammam. I was surprised she wasn’t back since it was she who had asked I come for lunch.

Upstairs, I found the rabbits with no food and desperate thirsty. I felt certain they would die before long. The rabbits could be a thriving enterprise but their cage had not been cleaned since I cleaned it the week prior. They did not merit enough importance to be given water or food even though there was a hose on the roof and I’d bought the food for them. I fed and watered them and then lunch was ready. Hanane was still not back. She and I have had problems before involving her not being where she says she will be. She has no sense of time, nor a sense of my time.

I was bothered by being invited to lunch and then her not bothering to be there. I am ‘new’ to her brothers, so I was subjected to the incessant ‘kul, kul, kul’ or ‘eat, eat, eat’ even when my mouth was full and more food was in my hand. I was re-taught things I have long since learned. It was not an enjoyable lunch. It was innards. The organ meat was well prepared and the second course of mutton shank was quite tasty but I felt like I’d been invited and then stood up.

Following lunch, I was cornered by her brother and we began to harvest olives from the tree in the courtyard. After twenty minutes more, Hanane reappeared and asked me if I had missed her as if everything in the world was fine. I said “No, not really.” And I kept picking olives. After a few minutes, I climbed down from the tree, noted the winds had increased, the sky had turned gray, and I decided to leave. I went to see Hanane. I told her I was disappointed she still knows me so little she would invite me to lunch and not be there.

I told her if she hadn’t figured out standing me up for lunch would make me unhappy, then she was setting herself us both up for a miserable life. She offered excuses. Why it had taken longer to leave the hammam, why the hammam had taken longer, and kept making excuses but I cut her off and offered them for her since I have heard them all before.

I asked her if she had bothered to read any of the books I’d written (I’d given her copies of them all), knowing the answer was no. Then I asked her if she didn’t think that was fucked up. I think that’s fucked up. She didn’t even try to read them. My work. My life. My story. She wants to marry me but won’t look at my art? She won’t take the time to find out who I really am? Ultimately, that means that she deserves any surprises she gets along the way. I’ve been brutally honest about who I am in my books. I told her this. I told her if she wanted to know who she was marrying, she should read them. She didn’t bother. It told me that it didn’t matter to her who she was marrying. I could be fat, mean, and retarded like her sister’s Belgian fiancee – it wouldn’t matter.

Something fundamental changed in the way I saw our relationship that day. I knew that I didn’t matter. I should have walked away but I’d made a commitment. I’d convinced everyone I was making the right choice. Something wouldn’t let me walk away forever.

I told her I was going to head to the Sahara for a few days and she wasn’t welcome to come along. I didn’t want to see her. I found myself despising her for inviting me for lunch, standing me up, and not having the decency to even care who I was before we bound our lives together. If she had read my books, she might have discovered she didn’t want to marry me. She might have discovered who she planned to marry. She didn’t care. That was the life we were in store for.

I told her to spend some time reading my books. I told her she should try to figure out who I am before we made any further marriage plans. I volunteered to take the blame if she decided she didn’t want to go through with it after she read my books. I told her I would take all the hshuma which might come from her ending things. I told her each time she told me something and did the opposite it was like killing a little bit of love I have for her. If she wanted me to love her, she needed to figure me out. Then I left.

It was starting to rain. The long awaited storm had arrived. I made it home and spent the evening studying darija and drinking tea. In the night I was cold despite my heavy pile of blankets.

In the morning, the Oued Aggai flowed brown rather than red with sheep blood and it was almost as if the sacrifice of all those sheep opened up the floodgates of heaven to bring the much needed rain to this thirsty land.

Hanane again invited me for lunch with her family but I refused the invitation. I’ve no desire to be told to eat more or pushed to eat more rapidly. I have no desire to venture out in these cold rains coming from ashen skies. I am content to sit in my cold apartment and discover what I need to do to make it a place to while away the days of this winter which has just arrived.

I need another rug or carpet, another blanket or two, more pillows, a heater perhaps, sketchbook, paints, glue, scissors. I want more books, speakers, a nice chair, candles and incense, and a guitar or fiddle. Maybe both.

I am obviously fed up with my Moroccan relationship. I chose to just stay in the casbah and not do much of anything. Around 3 pm, Jessica invited me for tea and pie. I gladly accepted. I joined Jessica and her friend Miriam, an American Peace Corps Volunteer from the countryside. We watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? Miriam brought wine and cooked us all a lovely dinner.

The company of English and American women was a nice change. We spent a nice evening comparing notes on life in Morocco. It’s nice to share frustrations with people who actually understand them.

The next day, I made it my mission to buy a sweater and a blanket.

When I opened my door, I realized it was the first of the month because my landlord, Ali, was standing there in his Sunday best. I brought him in and gave him the rent and the deposit I had put off my first month. I probably could have put him off indefinitely for the deposit since he had no idea why I was giving it to him. Hopefully he thought it was an extra month’s rent, which is what it is, after all. I subtracted the 100 dirham I had to pay in back utilities. He was happy to have me give him 1300 dirham, I think. I’m 99% certain it was my landlord, but not quite 100%.

I continued avoiding Hanane. She knew it. She offered to bring me soup and I declined saying I had a lot of work to do. I was content to have the day to wander around Sefrou, find the things I wanted to buy, and enjoy Morocco without the stress of her being with me. Near Bab al Makam, I passed an annoying glue sniffer and he latched onto me as a foreigner. Mounir, a slimy, illegal guide who wouldn’t leave me alone. I nearly got rid of him, but his other junkie buddy joined us, Mustapha. Blood sucking energy vampires that wouldn’t let go.

I was edgy and disturbed as they trailed me and pinned me bwtween them. I broke away and made a beeline into the macadam (sort of like neighborhood police) office. I definitely prefer the police to the junkies. They’re always very friendly. I gave one of them some help with his English. I think I am on good terms with them but it’s hard to know for certain.

The glue sniffers made me leave the area where I had thought I might buy a sweater and instead I headed down to what I call the garage sale square. It’s a vacant lot where people lay out and sell their junk. The weather was bad and it was vacant. The holiday continued and two out of every three shops were still closed. Morocco is a fucking mess.

I visited a couple of second hand clothing shops outside the medina walls. I found an Italian wool sweater, mint green and no holes for thirty dirham. I’m sure Hanane will tell me I should have paid ten, but I did my best. I asked the price, they said forty, I said twenty, they dropped it to thirty. Good enough. It’s a good sweater for $4. God knows I need it, even though the weather cleared, it was still cold, colder than it had been.

I wanted another blanket and had been pricing them during the day. Starting price ranged from 100-250 for the big minky synthetic ones. One vendor dropped his price to eighty when I left but when I came back his shop was closed for afternoon prayers. I went to a nearby shop and managed to get the price from 250 down to 100. I thought I had the price to 80 but then I made the mistake of pulling out a 200 dirham note and the price went to 100 unless I bought two. I wanted two, but I resented the hike so I ended up getting it for 100. I was pissed at being out-bargained again, and my idiocy in pulling out a 200 dirham note, and so I only bought one. I’m glad I bought it as it is getting cold. I will be glad of it tonight.

Later I took a walk and near Bab al Makam I ran into Muneer. This time he was with Mohammad, the other illegal guide I’d been running into a lot. All of those guys put out dangerous creepy vibes but Mohammad, at least, seems to not be a junkie though when I offered to send him tourists he quoted the outrageous price of 400 dirham for an illegal tour. I didn’t want to hang out with those guys at all, but stood and talked for a while until they started suggesting we all go in on a bottle of whiskey for 40 dirham each.

I told them I don’t drink because I’m Muslim, a flat out lie because I’m a terrible Muslim and I do drink, but I’d rather not start drinking with the junkies. The only drinking I’ve done in Sefrou has either been with Jessica or alone in my house. I hope Ahmed, Jessica’s old man Friday keeps his mouth shut about me drinking wine.

Sefrou has started to feel oppressive. I broke away from the false guides and immediately ran into Hanane’s brother and his friend. He wanted to go to my house, but I didn’t want to have company. It may have been rude since he is almost my brother-in-law, but so be it. I didn’t want company.

From there, since I had to lie and say I wasn’t going to my house, I visited the set-price food store outside the medina walls. I bought mozzarella and tuna, then I got some bread in the medina, and went home to make a pot of tea and have a grilled tuna, mozzarella, and tomato sandwich for dinner. It was delicious. The rest of my day was spent making lesson plans for the weekend classes, studying Darija, and trying to figure out what it is exactly I am doing here. Maybe I should run away quickly.


It’s Not Me

Hanane was as confused as I was, judging by the accusatory and cryptic text messages she periodically sent to me. In the alleys of the casbah, the youth were gambling and making lots of noise again. I had no desire to spend time among them. I had no desire to spend time with any Moroccan people. This included and was probably a result of Hanane, the girl I was supposed to marry. It included her family and friends.

I wondered if my world was falling apart or if it was just a case of culture shock?

It was a strange day. I met with Hanane and she looked beautiful. She was wearing the dress I brought her from Italy, had on nice makeup, and was wearing the boots and coat she wore on the first day we met. We met at the fruit salad shop and I started to tell her my fears and concerns. She listened. She listened, she talked, she had a conversation with me about it. It was nice.

Then we walked into the mountains and we talked more. She asked if I loved her and I told her I love the potential of what I see in her. It’s true. Shortly before this she was telling me her hopes, what she wants to be, what she sees herself as, and what is holding her back. Mostly it was her country, her family, and her culture. And that was when she asked if I love her.

I was honest. I told her I’ve been in enough relationships to know what I like and what I don’t. I told her I don’t love that she doesn’t read books and doesn’t have new ideas to discuss, I told her I don’t love that she can’t seem to travel without getting sick. I told her the woman I want to spend my life with is part collaborator, part lover, part cheerleader to encourage me in my endeavors, part independent and artistic, and open minded enough to have conversations about anything including the fact Islam might be fucked up, the Qur’an might be wrong, and family might not have the best interests of people at heart. And then I told her I see the potential for all those things in her, and have since I met her.

All of that is the reason I wanted to marry her in the first place but I don’t know if I have the strength to be the sole agent of change. Should I even be trying to mold her into something she is not already?  I sometimes wonder if she is simply telling me what I want to hear. I suspect it. I more than suspect it. The idea of marrying her before she is the woman she claims to want to be – freaks me the fuck out since if she doesn’t become that person, I’m married to someone I don’t want to be married to. I need her to be who she wants to be but if that’s not who she is describing then I end up married to a woman who doesn’t give me what I need and leaves me in a position where I spend the rest of my life punishing her for not being what she told me she was and being miserable because I can’t leave.

I told her what my Belgian friend had suggested to me when I told him my doubts. He said “You were a Marine for four years and hated it. Why not think of this as the same kind of commitment and give yourself permission to get out when your commitment is done?” I don’t think he expected that I would tell her. It was a stupid idea to tell her and it was all mine. I told her I would be willing to marry her for five years and then to reevaluate and if we weren’t making each other happy we should then part. I feel like I can do that, I can commit to five years, until she is 31 and I’m 43.

There was silence. She looked into my face and told me ‘I hate you’. She said ‘fuck you’ over and over. She called me a fat motherfucker. She was letting loose, she was more attractive than I’d seen her in a long time. Totally pissed off and out of control.

In a short time she was calling me crazy and then we were sitting on the hillside talking about how fucked up religion is. We were having a real conversation.  Okay, I admit, I was on the side of religion is fucked up and she was on the side of religion deserves respect and in the process as I said fucking god and fucking prophets and brought up how the Q’uran says it is okay for a man to beat his wife, she slapped me in the face. I thought she was offended that I said  the bit about the Q’uran giving the green light to wife beating, but no, it was because I had said fucking god and fucking prophet.

And then she kissed me. Then she asked if I wanted to marry her. I said I wanted to marry the right woman, if she can be her and then we went back to her mom’s house where all the women in her family were putting on henna. Hanane forgot the henna girl speaks English and said some things in front of her that weren’t exactly things to be said in front of a henna girl who speaks English. The henna girl is attractive and flirty and seemingly even keeled and normal. Do they all seem normal until you are bound to them?

And I wonder, has Hanane hated me all along? Because hatred felt more like love than all the sappy sweetness I usually get, it made me think maybe there is a chance she can become the woman she has always told me she is, deep down inside but oppressed by her family and culture. She’s right, I’m a crazy man. I’ve never tried to hide from her. She hates me for sure, but she also loves me – which is why she hates me. I get that.

And this crazy man suddenly feels like a five-year commitment is much more reasonable than a lifetime commitment to a girl who hasn’t yet become who she thinks she might be. If things should not work out how we both dream, life together is miserable, and nothing is making us happy – I can leave, divorce, separate, or abandon her. I’ve told her my fears and what I am willing to do. She’s accepted this proposal from this crazy man because of whatever it is she thinks this marriage and relationship will bring her, love, citizenship, sophistication, freedom, respect from her peers, a chance to take care of her parents, whatever. I’ve told her I’m not a good match for anyone and will probably hurt her and make her miserable. I’ve bared it all. So, sure, why not. Let’s bring it on. Let’s get married.


The Cobbler of Sefrou and other Stories

I have missed out on some interesting observations of the Moroccan life which goes on around me. A few things, however, do come to mind.

Yesterday I was walking through the casbah when a familiar face caught my eye. It was Mohammad the Cobbler, whom I met back in March of 2009 when I needed my shoes fixed and wasn’t planning on staying forever (which, by the way, I’m still not).

I set out on my journey with just one pair of shoes. A pair of Johnston and Murphy, Italian leather, hand-made brown dress shoes. I picked them up in Hawaii for $5 at the goodwill but they retail for about $600. They were in perfect new condition when I got them. Damn nice shoes.

In the USA, I had my shoes shined in various cities. Boston, New York, San Francisco, and without a doubt, the best shoe shine in the USA came from San Francisco, Boston ranked second, and New York came in a distant third. In Spain and Gibraltar, I didn’t find a shoe shine, and though I took care of my shoes, the wear and tear of 5000 miles started to show on them. By the time I arrived in Morocco, the upper had started to separate from the soul and I was using shoe epoxy I had bought in Granada to hold them together. The heel started to come off and the epoxy again saved the day. While there are numerous shoe shine guys in Morocco and lots of cobblers, I opted to go it alone with the epoxy.

Then I met Hanane and bought a nice pair of leather loafers for around 100 dirham ($10). When I left Sefrou, I left my trusty old shoes behind. Hanane told me she would drop them at a cobbler to be repaired. Her family makes a fuss over many things and one of them was me not having slippers to walk around when I’m in their house, so I’d bought a pair of slippers in Marrakesh too. When I came back from Marrakech, Hanane told me the shoes were at the cobbler. She said they had been there five days.

Nothing had been done. She said that to get the shoes repaired, we would have to stand there and harang Mohammad the cobbler until he completed the work. Indeed, there was a crowd around his stall doing just that. My shoes had been ignored because those other people had been there yelling at him to fix their shoes. He said it would take a half hour and we could come back. I didn’t want to stand there for a half hour. So we left.

A week later, we went back. There was a larger crowd around the stall than before. Mohammad said he had been sick and closed his shop for four days. After working our way to the front, we managed to get Mohammad and his oafish son to start working on my shoes (because he hadn’t found a ½ hour to do so during the previous week) but then a very huge Moroccan man came up and was angrily shouting. His shoes were worked on. His shoes were moved up the line. A shrewish woman began harping so much no one minded he moved her shoes to the front of the line so she would go away. The big man had had his shoes there for a month, so even without his size, I was understanding of his wanting his shoes done first and as to the shrew, well, she was absolutely awful and no price was too high to get her to leave.

We stood there in the rain for an hour with a constantly changing cast of Moroccan characters coming and going, berating and joking and despite the fact we were both cold and both have colds and we would have preferred to be somewhere else, it was impossible to be upset with Mohammad who is quite the comedian.

His jokes kept everyone laughing enough so we didn’t form a lynch mob. There were a huge collection of shoes sitting on shelves in his shop, presumably from customers who have either died before having their shoes fixed or just given up on them. In the hour we were there, I learned quite a bit about how to fix shoes, by the time my shoes were done, I might know enough to open up a competing business across the street. At the least, I could open a cafe for his customers to sit, eat, and wait in, though, unless they stand at the door and constantly harangue, the work wouldn’t get done, so maybe it isn’t a reasonable idea.

At the end of an hour, we had to leave, but by this point the cobbler had undone my epoxy work on the front of the shoes, he then, badly glued the fronts back on with what I presume to be actual shoe glue, and told me to come back the next day. I told Hanane I wanted to take the shoes somewhere else but she insisted we continue with Mohammad since we had started with him.

I didn’t mind as it was the closest thing to local entertainment I had seen in Sefrou. I was looking forward to going back and going through it all again. It was funny. Most Moroccans don’t go to bars, don’t go to restaurants because they would rather eat at home, don’t go bowling, don’t have plays or theatre, don’t go to school functions, and don’t really do anything for entertainment. Hence there aren’t many restaurants, especially of the types we have in the west where you go in, sit, order, hang out with friends, etc. The cafe’s aren’t equivalent to coffee shops since they are places where men sit, smoke, and stare outward at the world. The choice of coffee is a single shot espresso or espresso with milk. Movie theaters are few and far between and when you find them are empty, stinky, cold, and creepy. There are a very few arcades and pool halls, but these are places you find trouble, warped tables, and games that were broken in the 1980’s but somehow have been cobbled together here. The hammam is a social gathering place, but how often can you go to the public bath without being weird. There aren’t stores with aisles you can wander down, no window shopping, and no malls to wander in. Instead, you go to the door, tell the shop owner what you want, and they retrieve it for you. Or they decide you’d be better with something else and ignore what you’ve requested. You can wander in the souks and in the old medina and drink in the smell of rotting sheep guts, rotting vegetables, trash which hasn’t been collected in weeks, and smelly fish water melted from the iced fish brought in. Still, even with the smells, it’s a crowded street with no window shopping unless you want to buy something.

So, yes, I felt anticipation to watch Mohammad the Cobbler work on frustrated Moroccan’s shoes, bags, and leather goods again. Hanane’s brother Mohammad decided to join me two days later when I went to see the cobbler again. My shoes were in exactly the same spot they were in when I’d left two days ago. As soon as we left, the work stopped. Amazingly predictable but still astounding.

Mohammad (Hanane’s brother) speaks some bastardized French, and I speak some high-school French, so when he and I wander around together we have conversations which are probably about two entirely different things. He seems like a good guy, but I can’t help feeling like he would be selling me a carpet if he only knew the right shop. One difficult thing to get used to is the physical affection between people of the same sex here, much different than in the USA. Mohammad one year older than I, happily married with a son and another child on the way repeatedly tries to hold my hand while we stroll. I feel like a teenage girl discouraging a persistant and unwanted boy with a crush on her. He won’t give up so I relent to stroll arm in arm with him. This is fairly normal in the Arab world, but though I try to deal with it, I just can’t accept it. I tried to explain the reasons I don’t like holding hands with him but none of them worked until I said it distracts me from seeing dangerous cars which might run me down and it prevents me from nabbing thieves who are trying to pick my pockets.

I am sure there is crime aplenty in Morocco, but I think the average Moroccan is much more concerned with being stolen from than the odds warrant. Nearly all of the Moroccans I have met (with a few notable exceptions) are more likely to add a few dirham to your pocket when you aren’t looking than to take them. So it is a people who are always expecting to be robbed, but are not likely to rob you themselves. When I first arrived in Sefrou, the warnings of Hanane and her family made me neurotic, but at this point, I am still aware, but not quite as paranoid as they are.

So, Mohammad, my soon to be brother-in-law, and I visited Mohammad the cobbler, and what I think the cobbler said to me was:

“Your wife is a homicidal maniac. Thank you for not bringing her back. She threatened to kill me, my son, and my family and to burn down my shop unless you got your shoes back today.”

He was joking, I think, but the truth is already on that day she said she would kill me five times after we had only been awake for a half hour. In an average day she says she will kill me at least 30 times, so no doubt she also told the cobbler she would kill him. She also said if my shoes weren’t like new, she would destroy his shop, but she was joking, I think. The girl I love is insane…just as she has to be for me to love her.

It took 15 minutes to finish my shoes. Not perfect, but good enough and when I asked how much, the cobbler said, whatever you think is best! I offered him twenty dirham expecting him to ask for more but instead he asked me for less and the grand total was about $2.

Nine months later, in the casbah, Mohammad the cobbler seemed overjoyed to see me and I must admit, I feel much more enthusiasm in these re-meetings than I would if I were to run into someone I had met in a shop in Seattle or Honolulu. Mohammad asked what I was doing in the casbah and my Arabic was getting good enough to understood the question. He was surprised when I said I lived there. I asked in turn, after the usual five minutes of formal greetings in which we asked about family, asked about health, asked about the weather, gave God credit for both good and bad.

His grandparents lived in the narrow alleys of the casbah, not far from me. This was not extraordinary as the number of people who live there is bizarrely huge. Of course there are me and Jessica, then there is Ahmed who lives in a house with about fifteen people. Upstairs from him are about fifteen others. Upstairs from me are two men, two women, and about six kids. The doorway to the left of mine leads to a series of apartments which Ahmed told us is inhabited by at least eight women with at least four children each and probably eight husbands, so that’s another forty-eight. Keep in mind this tally so far, at a staggering ninety people is represented by only four doors at the end of an alley is less than six feet wide. Our section of the casbah is thirty-feet-long and there is another section at the end which is roughly fifty-feet. So, counting Said, the hanut-man, and all the kids and families there are at least another one hundred and thirty odd people in our section. It explains why there are always new faces walking this eighty feet of alley which is home to at least two hundred and fifty people.

Mohammad the Cobbler is not one of them, but his grandmother and grandfather are. He asked me to come visit them. I had nothing else to do, so I agreed. He knocked on a big wooden door painted the color of Sefrou, pale green. A dour middle-aged woman opened and we walked past six closed interior doors to a corner apartment the size of my salon, about twenty by fifteen feet. This was the end of life for two ancient people. They would die here. Not today, but when they died, this would be where it would happen.

The apartment was cold and furnished with two low cushions on low wooden pallets. The uncomfortable but multi-functional norm for a Moroccan household. The mattresses were about six inches high and piled high with blankets. A big blue butane gas bottle with a cooking attachment screwed into its top sat in one corner. The only other piece of furnishing was a battered old wooden cabinet with glass doors. It was painted the same green as the doors. There were assorted pots, cooking utensils, and plastic tubs, buckets, and a few piles of old clothes.

His grandmother looked to be about three hundred years old and was bent over almost double from severely advanced scoliosis of the spine. There was no doubt a huge amount of degeneration and calcium deficiency were the cause. I had seen her before but never had the opportunity to see her face in the casbah since it was a foot off the ground and facing downward as she walked. She was called Lala Radio by the fake-armani clad youth of the casbah in reference to being shaped like a radio ariel bent in half. She asked Mohammad to help her to drag a large plastic tub out to the shared central courtyard so she could do laundry. My Darija was not good enough to follow all which went between them, but it seemed to me the cobbler was apologizing to me and saying this is the way with old people in Morocco. I think she was asking for help, he was refusing, and then apologizing to me for it.

He pointed my attention to one of the pallets where a similarly ancient man was lying under a pile of heavy blankets and breathing coarsely. The old man seemed to be knocking on deaths door with his ragged breathing. He didn’t have the energy to open his eyes. Mohammad shook him a little, gave him a tender kiss on the forehead, and covered him back up. Despite the neutral observer side of my brain, I was disturbed to stay there and force this old woman to cook for us so I made the excuse I needed to prepare lessons and made my escape.

Something like one in every four of the apartments in the casbah is similarly occupied. Perhaps it is owned by the people but more likely it is not. They don’t have money and so they don’t pay rent. I recently discovered it is much the norm here. Some of the tenants haven’t paid rent in three years. It’s not that the landlords are kind-hearted so much as it is better to have someone living in these wretched apartments than to have them empty and squatted in. A large number of younger casbah residents haven’t paid rent in at least six months and utilities are always on the verge of being shut down. When I moved in, my utilities hadn’t been paid for seven months and I was surprised at the high bills until I realized they were backed up.

More and more, I have these small encounters with people who are increasingly becoming aware I am not just a tourist or visitor but someone who lives here. I am not actively seeking friendships because I want to have as good a command of the language as possible before I start interacting with people on a regular basis. I am studying a lot and my vocabulary is becoming larger but now I need to start focusing on sentence building and pronunciation.

On the same day I ran into Mohammad the cobbler, I also ran into the guys who play cards and was greeted like a long lost friend or relative by several of them as well. Just this evening I was walking home from Hanane’s and ran into the sister of my friend . She was very happy to see me and asked I come to visit her house soon. She’s a nice girl and I’d like to, but the problem is tongues wag and the last thing I want is a scandal just because I want to make friends with a Moroccan girl. It’s not allowed for me to be friends with women or girls. It’s something I already hate because I don’t really like the men here.

I paid a visit to the garage sale corner and sat talking with the carpet man who now has a small women’s clothing stall there. He had a sheet of paper on which he was picking horses to bet on, presumably on the internet and we talked about what he would do if he won a lot of money. He would buy a house…and a wife. He’s a bit unbalanced but he seems to be a decent guy. He introduced me to his friend who he told me sleeps in alleys, eats garbage, and is completely crazy, but who everyone likes. I forgot the man’s name, but indeed, he seemed to be a likable bum.

Jessica invited Hanane and I over to eat steamed goat which Ahmed was cooking. It’s an odd relationship between those two. He is her old man Friday as he cooks her breakfast, walks her dogs, makes her evening meals, and cleans her house. In return, she pays his rent, gives him some spending money, gives him the run of her house, and does things for him like buying him a goat for Eid. He is a domestic servant, but the relationship is more complex than that. They are best friends in a symbiotic relationship and a bit like an old married couple. I asked her whether it is intrusive to have Ahmed show up when her not quite a boyfriend stays overnight and she said Ahmed usually figures it out and she will sometimes find breakfast in a started but then left all of a sudden state.

We went to her place and before too long we were joined by Jessica’s friend, an oud player. He said he manages to play Jimi Hendrix on the ancient instrument and seemed like a nice guy. Later, I was to learn, he is a bit of a slimeball as well as a macadam (official). I wouldn’t have guessed it since he was drinking wine with us all. It’s not illegal to drink wine, but for most people, it’s considered immoral. He, Jessica, and I were the only ones drinking. It was the first time I’ve drank alcohol in front of Hanane. She was surprised and nervous about it.

The six of us ate the apricot and goat tajine Ahmed made. It was delicious. Hanane and Ahmed sang old Arabic songs. The rest of us joined in, but they were the main act. Hanane has an incredible voice when she sings in Arabic. I love to listen to her, for a while. The problem, as usual though, is when she starts, she has a hard time knowing when to stop. There was no room for conversation any longer. No room for anything but her performance. I finally managed to get her to stop by asking a lot of questions about her family.

When her grandfather married her grandmother, the girl was only twelve. When he went work, she would sneak out of the house to play with the other little girls. Hanane’s dad had one brother and two sisters. I think they were all from the same mother but his mother had three husbands who she either survived or killed. One son from the first husband (Hanane’s dad), one son from the next husband (who passed away) and two daughters from the last. Her uncle was married to a woman and they had a son, whom I’ve met and like. Then, the aunt died and the uncle married his dead wife’s sister and had two more sons. So, Hanane’s cousin has half-brothers who are also his cousins. Then his father died and the mother of Jamal’s brother’s ran away leaving all three boys with the two aunts who had each been married three times, as their mother had been, but had begat no children of their own. So the two aunts had the brother’s estate and children and then one of them suddenly produced a child, without ever having been pregnant (or married). No one is certain where her ‘daughter’ came from, but the girl was introduced as the new ‘sister’ to the three orphaned boys and is to be given an equal share of whatever it is they will get and apparently, this is a source of some bitterness within the family.

On Hanane’s mother’s side things are even more confusing and my recall is more hazy. There were eight brothers and sisters. One brother had ten children, went to Spain, got rich, got passports for all his kids, bought a car, and then died in an accident. Then there is Aisha, who is the mother of Mohammad’s wife (this is Hanane’s brother Mohammad). So, he is married to his first cousin. She has (I think) two sisters and two brothers. There is another maternal aunt with a bunch of kids, and another uncle with two wives and something like twenty children. Hanane said this uncle is good for nothing but fucking. Since this only accounts for five of the eight children there must be others. I’m happy to report Nasir and Mama Ghita are not related so Hanane’s genes are probably not too clustered with problems. Her father comes from Oujda near the Algerian border to the East and her mother comes from Sidi Slimane to the West. Whew. I need to chart out Hanane’s family tree. I think we figured out she has forty-eight first cousins. I have twelve.

If I were to have a child they would have six first cousins on my side and five on Hanane’s side, so far. Somehow I don’t think they will have anywhere near as many as Hanane. Times have changed.

As I walked Hanane from the casbah to her mother’s house, it felt quite dangerous with lots of young guys giving glowering looks over their slicked back hair and leather jackets as we walked the gauntlet of them in the narrow alleys. Like 1950’s greasers. I came back and drank more wine with Jessica and Ahmed. We were joined by the funny lady from the casbah who I helped carry a bucket of water. She is a round, toothless thing of around twenty eight years old who has a nice spirit. Fatima, I think her name is…not surprisingly since everyone here is named either Fatima or Khadija.


The Evil Eye Strikes

Hanane and I squabbled constantly. It was impossible to have discussions with her. Somehow she managed to create dramatic situations that would suck the joy out of events and joys that had nothing to do with her. I realize I was to blame for letting her family drama affect me, but it was hard not to when living in a Sefrou vacuum.

I met with the Fez ex-pats one Saturday to have Japanese food. I ended up spending about $40 but it was worth it as the food and the wine were great. The attendees were me, an Australian, and a lot of British people. Jessica, Alice, Maya, David and Sally, and a liberated Moroccan woman named Raja. We ate and told stories. The highlight of the day was David telling me a story over coffee and opening a packet of sugar then putting the torn packet top in the ashtray, then probably because of the wine, he poured all the sugar in the ashtray too. He’s a funny guy with some funny stories, not the least of which was having a heart attack deep in the medina and having to be evacuated on a donkey. The alleys of the Fez medina are too narrow for cars or ambulances. The donkey carried him to the ambulance at the gate. He once got on a plane and was seated next to a man with the same first and last name as him. None of the flight crew could figure out why there weren’t enough seats until he and the same named guy pointed out they were both booked for the same seat. Aside from that, most of the talk was about furniture, Moroccan house restoration, and other things which interest me very little.

Hanane, meanwhile, was suffering a string of bad luck worthy enough to make me consider the possibility of the evil eye being a real phenomenon. On the day I went to Fez for Japanese, her brother Mohammad wasn’t anywhere near his hanut (as usual) so the task fell to his mother to mind the shop. She, in turn, needed to go to the souk so she assigned the task off on Hanane. Hanane has often complained that Mohammad uses his whole family to run the hanut but does nothing to help the family. This includes paying them for their time with money or food and so, and I’m quite proud of her for it, Hanane said no.

The problem is when the people who live in her neighborhood stand outside the house yelling out “a-Mohammad!” or “a-Mama Ghita!”. When they did that, she yelled back there was no one there to cover the shop and they should go away. The problem began when she decided she would like to have some hot chocolate.

First she went out to get chocolate and while there she assisted one woman, then she realized there was no milk and went back out to get milk. At this point, a neighborhood lout-about asked her to give him a cigarette. She told him he should pay and he asked her to give it to him on credit. She said no and he began cussing at her, God only knows what foul things came out of his mouth. She didn’t tell me this part, but I’m sure what came out of her mouth in response was as bad or worse. I know her, she is a freaking harpy and can’t be stopped. Next he threatened to kill her. I’m sure she said more. Next he threatened to kill and rape her sisters. I’m sure she responded. Next he began groping himself.

Her sister Zara, who is quite fierce too, came out and joined in the fray. This took his glue sniffing rage to new levels. As, I’ve previously pointed out, the drug of choice for the no goods is usually huffing aerosol glue and it causes serious mental problems. During this whole thing, Hanane’s 17-year-old brother stood by saying and doing nothing while his sisters were verbally abused. At the least, he should have shut those girls down, sent them inside, and sent the guy on his way – but I don’t have older sisters so maybe that was impossible. The girls managed to drive the gluehead off without physical violence. For normal people, that would be the end, but Zara turned on the younger brother. I’m sure she smacked him and said words as fierce as those she’d used to drive off the glue head. So, then, the 17-year old picked up a knife in the kitchen and said he was going after the glue head. It was all bluff and they stopped him without too much trouble.

About this time Mama Ghita returned from the market and when she heard about the situation she decided to go tell the boy’s mother. Along the way, she encountered the boy and scolded him. He completely freaked out when she began scolding him and screamed that he would kill Zara, Salma, and Hanane if he found them alone. Then he picked up a large rock and smashed it into Mama Ghita’s head. Somehow she made it home with her head gushing blood. Mohammad took her to the hospital. She had a lump bigger than a fist coming from her head. They filed a police report and the police found the boy but then let him go with a warning, probably because he has no money to pay bribes anyway.

I found out about all of this when I returned from a very pleasant lunch in Fez. I took a big stick and went looking for the guy over several hours, but by then, he had lit out for the hills and was nowhere to be found. A week later, Mama Ghita still had a huge lump on her skull. She seemed rattled. She said no one has ever assaulted her before.

The next day, Hanane came to my house for dinner and while she was gone, someone stole 600 dirham from her room. It was the last of her teacher pay from the American English School. That’s a lot of money in Morocco. She left it in the room she shares with her sister Salma. Salma had stolen little things from her before (like candy bars I’d bought her) and always locked her own things up like a good thief always does – a guilty conscience is the most careful. Hanane thought it was a cousin who had once stolen a scarf from her. They were the two in the house when the money disappeared. Her father wouldn’t have stolen it, her mother wouldn’t have stolen it, Zara wouldn’t have stolen it, and it’s doubtful that anyone else would have found it tucked into a book next to her bed. Possibly, one of the kids who come in from time to time. My money is on the girl who bought new pajamas for both her and Hanane the next day. The girl who stole the chocolate. We’ll never know. She bought new pajamas on the very day Hanane’s money was stolen and out of sympathy (or was it guilt?) she also bought a pair of pajamas for Hanane.

Salma is a bit rotten, like I am. She is a liar, a cheat, a manipulator, and a hustler all of which means she is actually fun to be around, but in terms of character or morals, she can’t stand next to Hanane. Hanane is by far the sweetest and most moral woman I’ve known. Unfortunately, that makes her rigid and self-righteous too. And yes, I am convinced.

Zara’s shit-head fiancé from Belgium has returned. They are desperate to marry and escape Morocco. I’m not sure, but I suspect she has paid all of their marriage expenses from her own pocket and thus, she needs money but I would never suspect her of stealing in a million years. The angry younger brother might take it, but he wouldn’t open a book to find it. The pregnant wife of the older brother has a husband with no money and it would be understandable if she stole it, but again, I don’t think it very likely. A pregnant woman in Morocco has too much concern over how her actions might affect her child.

And of course there is the little nephew. He is small but devious. He is sweet but has an evil side. He goes everywhere in the house. As can be seen, it could have been anyone. She left it in a book next to her bed. Or, and I have to admit that it is possible, she lost it and forgot where she put it. She is that scatter-brained. I find it much more likely it was stolen. Funny how much I love these people – they are already my own family.

All of this, plus our fights, plus the loss of her job, plus the barriers that were landing in front of us for marriage. It would have been easy to believe Hanane was a victim of the evil eye.


Driving Ms. Zara

I needed to stay at the Azaoui house because in the early morning, I needed to drive Mohammad’s car to Casablanca to pick up Zara’s fiance. I hoped the suspension of the car was strong enough to hold his weight. At 5 am. the next morning, Mohammad, Zara, and I set out.

I should point out, again, Mohammad speaks bastardized French which I sometimes pretend to understand and Zara has no English skills to speak of. Mohammad is a terrible driver and he scared the hell out of me from Sefrou to Fez. I taught him to drive in one afternoon and he refused further lessons telling me “I’ve got it. No problem.”

It was nice to take the driver seat. None of us knew how to get to the highway which leads to Casablanca. Mohammad paid a taxi driver to lead us. My driving skills matched the taxi driver’s. He used all of his skills to make it the fastest possible twenty dirham he’d earned in a week.

Once on the highway, all my chauffeur experience came to the fore as I bobbed and weaved through traffic on the way to Rabat like it was 3 pm in Honolulu. In other words, there was a lot of traffic and I beat it. At 8 am I wanted some coffee and asked Zara for some. She understood, but she brushed me off, but I knew there was a basket of food and a thermos of coffee in the back with her and I wanted coffee. There are no drive through restaurants on the road to Casablanca or I would have just bought a cup. I was driving, it was early, and I wanted some coffee.

I threw as good a tantrum about it as I could while I drove through traffic, used my limited darija, and tried to explain that I didn’t want coffee later, I wanted it now. Right fucking now. After that, the coffee was poured and slices of Mama Ghita’s cake were also shoved at me. It drives me crazy but with Arabs, sometimes it seems you have to demand things and do it in a loud voice. There is no such thing as being nice, asking politely, or ‘suggesting’. Try that and you will be forced to wait for whenever it is convenient for them or someone comes along and demands something. I was sitting in the driver seat and I was tired of being nice and run over because of it. Totally tired of it. No pun intended.

Driving in Morocco is crazy but American drivers are a lot more aggressive about it than Moroccans are. This might be due due to the inchallah factor, Moroccans are used to being shit on and Americans each think they are God’s chosen one. All said, I was amazed to see no accidents since safe following distance is an unknown concept, not three car lengths but instead as close as you can get. Tailgating is the norm.

They told me we were going to the airport. I assumed it was an early flight and that was why we left so fucking early. Upon reaching Casablanca, I followed the signs to the airport. All hell broke loose as they pointed that I should go the wrong direction. I’d been told we were going to the airport, so I was driving to the airport. I tried to explain the airport lies about 50 km beyond Casa so they wouldn’t freak out when I drove past Casablanca which was what I was doing. The road split and one way led to Casablanca and the other led to the Mohammad V Airport. They seemed to understand what I was saying, but I’d noticed reading road signs, even in Arabic wasn’t a skill they were good at.

As we passed the main Casablanca exit they freaked out saying I was taking them to Marrakech. It was the way to Marrakech and the way to the airport. Zara demanded I stop, on the busiest freeway in Morocco. I refused. She wanted me to pull an extremely dangerou U-turn in the median, which had a big ditch in it anyway. I refused. I tried my best to get them to see the smaller signs which said Mohammad V Airport, but they only saw Marrakech.

No luck, only “Hada trek a Marrakech!” There was so much loud Arabic yelling in the car that I could no longer think. I was driving in heavy traffic and in a car filled with two screaming Arabs who sounded like ten cats in a dryer.

Finally, they made me understand. They didn’t want to go to the airport. This was hard for me to understand because it was the whole purpose of the trip. I was trying very hard to understand but still I wouldn’t pull over or do an illegal U-turn on the busy freeway. My caution was justified by the may cops I saw sitting in the median as we went, but my Darija skills failed in explaining it was illegal and unsafe.

I had to endure Zara’s caterwauling from the back seat until we reached a pull-out where I got out of the drivers seat and forced Mohammad, against his will, to drive again. I was ready to kill them both and there was no way I could drive in those conditions for a second longer.

I don’t know if Mohammad driving in Casablanca was as terrifying for them as it was for me, but I’m sure I will have nightmares about it until the day I die. The poor guy was doing his best but he missed the turn-off and Zara made him pull over and go in reverse down the busy highway for 500 yards back to the exit. I knew we were going to die, but thanks to the flexibility of other Moroccan drivers, we didn’t.

Of course I didn’t imagine we had woken up at 5 am so we could watch T.V. at their brother’s house in Ain Saruda, a slum of Mohammadia. How the hell did they expect me to go to their brother’s house if I’ve never been there? Especially if no one bothered to tell me and instead they said we were going to the airport?

We found the house in a trash filled slum. Per usual, the insides of the shanty town were incredibly nice, but the slum. Wow. It was, and I mean this literally, a garbage dump. The surrounding three acres contained enough trash to fill an entire Hawai’i landfill. No exaggeration. Once again, the brother showed himself to be a nice guy I would happily sit around a bum fire with. He talked about money incessantly and did his best to pressure me into spending mine…on him, but I didn’t. They convinced me to drive again but I only did it because if it were Mohammad, all the passengers would surely be dead before we reached the airport.

No one else seemed to notice the trash. This is a latent Moroccan talent. I did, but kept quiet about it. I doubt the sarcasm in saying ‘blasa zweena‘ or ‘beautiful place’ was noted. We met the grandmother of the slum who was the loveliest old crone I’d yet met. I tried to take a nap in the car, but was unable because I was subjected to very insistent Moroccan hospitality. I slept about 15 minutes during which I heard lots of prayers being said which didn’t help me sleep since I also kept hearing ‘Mirikan’ about every twenty or thirty words. What the hell were they praying about me for? The brother introduced me to the crone and all his neighbors as “Yahoudi” which means Jew, or so I thought. Later I found out he was saying Xuydi which means my brother…To me, it sounded like he kept saying “Hey, look at this Jew.” It was disconcerting, but it turned out he was saying ‘Look at my brother.”

Giving up on the nap, we drank sugary tea and watched a terrible Steven Baldwin movie on their TV before walking into the medina of Ain Haruda to load up on groceries to fill the brother’s larder. There was lots of discussion I took part in without understanding before we set out to the airport. Just in case you forgot, I never knew we were coming to his house in the first place. They say in Morocco the camel driver has his plans and the camel has his, well in this case I was the camel, for future reference that’s ‘jamal‘ in Darija.

I was driving again. I was fairly certain none of my three passengers had ever been to an airport. The youngest brother waited outside because he had a big knife in his coat and didn’t want to go through security. We went in. We were very early. We could have waited until noon to leave Sefrou and been there on time. I tried to explain international customs can take hours but Zara was increasingly worried her big man wasn’t coming. Mohammad was, well, he was Mohammad. I too thought Zara’s jumbo fiance’ might not come. I hadn’t met him, but had heard he was a very big man.

He did arrive, however. Suddenly I found great compassion for Zara because he brought his daughter. She is ten and must weigh two-hundred pounds. I figured him for a four hundred-pounder at least.

When I was thirteen I lived in hell. It was called Myrtle Creek, Oregon and there were more retarded and autistic people on that particular school bus than there had a right to be. As I think about it, there was a ‘home’ they all lived in, so they were probably abandoned ‘special’ kids. They always smelled like soap and earwax. The two-hundred-pound ten-year-old daughter had the same smell. I’m probably a fucker for even admitting it, but I don’t want to be around ‘special’ people. It makes me uncomfortable. Like crazy people or people with drug addled brains, they are unpredictable. I don’t like to be around unpredictable people.

It made sense why this jumbo-fuck fell in love on the internet with an earthy Moroccan girl from a poor family. He had a ‘special’ daughter who needed to be taken care of for as long as she lived. It made me want to vomit that he had just avoided hiring a cook and a caretaker, plus (presumably) also gotten a sex toy by agreeing to marry this Moroccan girl. What’s love got to do with it? Nothing. She wanted a pass out of hell and he wanted a slave. And thus, the source of my sudden sympathy. I hoped Zara would get what she needed from this guy who survived on he and his daughter’s disability from the Belgian government. Maybe they loved each other. Who am I to say? These were just my thoughts as I saw him. Frankly, I didn’t like the guy from the first instant. I’d had my concerns about Zara paying for so much and now it all made sense. His kid was ‘special’. I hoped this wouldn’t end with her locked in a Belgian basement somewhere being starved, raped, and beaten.

From that moment on, my own future marriage and relationship was made less by this unholy union. I was marrying for love, respect, honor, and responsibility. I could have married a beautiful woman from any country in the world, including my own. I’ve never been unable to get dates or find someone to call my girlfriend. I chose a difficult path, agreed to convert to a religion for love, and had nothing but honorable and good intentions. And then I saw this family giving away their eldest daughter to this piece of shit situation. They put more effort into that marriage than they did into my own. His conversion was a joke, his love was a joke, his ability to take care of her was a joke. He was marrying for a nursemaid, cook, and vagina – something he would never find in Belgium. I wanted to warn everyone, but in talking with Hanane later, I realized it would do no good.

From the airport we made one brief stop at a gas station where we added another brother to our seriously weight strained vehicle. Then we all went back to the shantytown at Ain Haruda where the grandmother of the slum made some of the best mutton and prunes to ever be served. The two brothers were smoking the latest arrrival’s cigarettes at a frantic pace. I felt guilty and bought him a new pack. What the hell is wrong with me?

On the drive from the airport we passed a horrific traffic accident. One corpse (presumably) lying in a bloody pool on the road where he had flown out of the grand taxi. Other passengers were unmoving in the taxi which seemed to have wrapped itself around a pile of rocks. People don’t wear seat belts in Morocco. I think they were all dead. Seven people gone just like that because of one driving mistake. On the drive back to Sefrou the conditions were terrible and we saw another accident where two more had died. The road from Fez to Sefrou was in the worst conditions I’d ever seen it. For the past year, they’d been upgrading the road which meant it was often torn up, never had marked lanes, and frequently lanes from opposing directions shared one lane. We saw no accidents, but entering Sefrou we hydroplaned fifty yards in a terrifying last bit of driving. We arrived back at the Azaoui house where we ate and then slept. On this night, Hanane’s bed was for the ‘special’ girl and Salma. Hanane and I slept in the salon. So, yeah…I slept at her parent’s house again.



I’m a curse on the sad women love me, as is obviously apparent. As one ex told me “The good parts are really good but…” Yes, I Know. At least I’m not looking for a cheap full time nanny, cook, and nurse. I do love Hanane. At least as much as I am capable of loving any one woman. On the subject of my ex girlfriend, Hanane is incredibly jealous of her.

The first visit from a friend from outside of Morocco went off like a bunch of glass mixed in with a dog’s food. Nothing about it went well. She was an old friend from travels in 2001 in Southeast Asia who I’ll call Bunny. I was looking forward to seeing someone, anyone, from the outside ‘normal’ world. In 2001, Bunny had been one of the most independent, sexy, and confident women I had ever met. She was cool, savvy, and intelligent. She was liberal and open minded. I visited her for three days in 2009 and it was a nice reunion though she was very stressed out from relationships and work. In 2009 she seemed lost and adrift in life. She also seemed to be aging rather badly, smoked a lot, and drank like a fish. She was doing that back in 2001 when we were both 29 years old too, but somehow it just didn’t seem to be working for her at 37.

Bunny arrived at Fez-Sais airport and I picked her up with Mohammad’s car. She was terrified of Morocco because she’d read Lonely Planet‘s overwhelmingly negative advice to solo female travelers. She was freaked out before she stepped off the plane. Hanane was having trouble accepting a female friend would stay and travel a bit of Morocco with me. To make her feel better, I exaggerated about how tall, how big an ass, and how emotionally fucked up Bunny was. She didn’t like it, but after that, she seemed more willing to accept it. She decided not to come to the airport and instead went to a henna party and got her hair done. Her brother and his friend came with me.

We picked Bunny up and made our way back That’s when things went out of control. When Hanane saw her, a fit of epic Moroccan jealousy broke out. Within Bunny’s hearing she said to me “What the fuck? You told me she was old hag with a big ass and I’m not letting you have one solitary second alone with her!” Bunny had posed for Playboy when she was younger. She’s gorgeous even at her worst. Extreme cattiness with barely sheathed claws flashing. This was no good. In truth, Bunny did look better than she had when I visited, but Hanane’s reaction made me want to get away from Hanane.

I warned her this was my friend and if she continued to be bitchy toward her it would create problems where none existed – between us. And so the girls got henna on their hands and eight days of hell began for me.

We all went to the medina in Fez the next day. We woke up and I started to feel like an unwelcome person in my own house. Bunny was venting. She’d developed an aging white woman’s hatred for men and she made nothing simple over the next eight days. Hanane meanwhile went through intolerable bouts of insecurity and Moroccan female nastiness towards Bunny which, since I was in the position of being the host and responsible for the well being of my friend put me in a difficult position.

This was not easier in the Medina. Bunny began spending money like she were the wealthiest person on the planet. Where I bought a small coin purse for five dirham she bought twenty. She bought a leather poof cushion and then Hanane was looking at them longingly and pleaded until I bought her one. We wandered around until it got dark, bought things I never would have bought, and the whole time I was trying to keep both of them safe and out of trouble. Not easy in the medina at even the best of times.

Bunny and I left the next day for Tangier, then for Sebta, a city belongs to Spain but is in Morocco, then to Tetuan, then to Chefchauen, and then back to Fez. I needed to renew my visa and Sebta (Ceuta) was the place to do it. Initially, Hanane was supposed to come, but she’d been so awful to Bunny and so demanding that I buy her things that I didn’t want her to. I needed a break and I didn’t want to be anywhere near her. I wanted to have a travel adventure with my friend instead of dealing with my pain in the ass fiancé.

Hanane doesn’t travel particularly well and the weather was awful – so, thankfully, she stayed home. She accompanied us to the taxi stands. We wanted food for the train and the two of them began buying kilos of fruit, multiple bottles of water, kilos of figs, and making purchases like we were going all the way across Africa with no chance for food or water along the way. Bunny asked me to carry her bottled water, which caused Hanane to bitch about the fact I always made her carry her own bag, so I sort of had to refuse. Never mind that I usually ended up carrying Hanane’s or her families bags or parcels at least part of the way on any trip. Finally, I managed to get Hanane in a taxi headed to her mom’s house and I got Bunny to stop buying further unnecessary provisions. I got us to the train station in Fez.

Over the next five days of Bunny demanded I translate everything everyone was saying even though I was struggling just to understand and be understood in Darija. The greatest positive thing about this trip was being able to improve my Darija and French.

At the train station in Fez, I arranged tickets. I got us on the right train. It was the most pleasant part of the trip. Six hours of shooting the shit with an old friend in first class on a northbound train in Africa. Off the train, I soon realized I didn’t want to spend any more time with her.

Bunny started interfering in my attempts to communicate. She would shake the hated Lonely Planet under their noses and use her flashlight to make demands. We were a ten minute walk from a decent hotel but she wanted a taxi. The driver she picked told his friend how he would like to fuck her. I understood and said “Let’s get a different cab”. She ignored me and got in.

What could I do? Punch the guy? Get in an argument? Tell her? I was fucked in so many ways that I just gave in.

The car went past the hotel we were looking for and I made the driver stop. It was the first they heard me speak Darija. We got out. The driver at first refused payment from embarrassment and then accepted ten dirham from me when I insisted. I’d shamed him by understanding and ignoring him. It was the best I could do.

The Biarritz Hotel was a run down old place with a beautiful grand staircase and a great view of the muddy shore and the collapsing customs house. Tangier has a great crusty feel to it even though the Moroccan government spent billions trying to improve it. They want to get away from memories which linger on from the days when William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin bought drugs and sexual favors from teenage boys in the 1950s and 60s. Now there is a tourist strip and a tourist medina and everything else which comes from trying to lure travelers from Europe and America, but there is something utterly seedy about Tangier still. Tangier abides and I must admit I love it.

We took a stroll through the medina, past the open air seafood joints, and in the process I met several of the locals. Interesting conversations in Darija about the history of the old city walls, the dangers of the night, and the days when we would have been targets. I wanted to eat dinner at a small stall in the medina. It was filled with locals and producing delicious smells but Bunny was dreaming of a nice seafood dish at one of the port side restaurants she’d read about in Lonely Planet. It was too much work to dissuade her. We ended up spending 150 dirham for the worst tajine I’d tasted in Morocco. Bland fish with a tasteless sauce and so many bones it was a miracle we didn’t choke on them. The upside was the young guys running the place were thrilled to be flirting with Bunny. They kept talking about her huge tits. I laughed at it. She had huge tits, it was true.

A burnt out African guy of forty-two came along and since he was not a native Arabic speaker and neither was I, the guys at the place got a huge hoot out of us conversing in our mutually bad Darija. All along they were wondering if they could steal this gorgeous chick from me and by all means, they were welcome to. The African and I switched languages to his equally bad English and he told us about how he came to Morocco twenty-five years before. He had been a shoe shine boy and asked clients to take off their shoes. Then, he ran away with them. The shoes not the customers.

“If they don’t shine their shoes themselves before they leave home, then I will shine them at my home and sell them to someone else.”

These days the African makes his livelihood selling hashish instead. It looked like his profits went in the pockets of his dealer.

A beggar asked Bunny if she was finished – she thought he was a waiter or busboy. Then he took her half finished dish to a nearby bench to finish it. That’s just the way it is in Morocco.

Over dinner she said  “Just so you know, I don’t find you at all attractive.If you think anything is going to happen, it’s not going to.” This as we sat talking and laughing with the Moroccan guys and the African shoe shine guy. “Well, that’s good to know,” I responded. The feeling was very mutual.

The next morning, rain was coming down in buckets. We both soaked to the bone wandering the Medina. The sewer lids floated off and the rain and sewer water were flowing six inches deep down every street. I saw a drowned rat a foot long. The Moroccan shopkeepers were smart enough to stay home rather than opening their shops.

The train ride had been magical – a reunion with a dear friend. Things had quickly gone downhill afterward, like the sewage flowing through the streets.

I met a long bearded madman who was dancing in the rain. I would have loved to befriend him and dance with him but he scared the crap out of Bunny. The madman was walking through the rain screaming out “Allah Akbar” and when he saw Bunny he said to her “Don’t be scared, God has brought you here for a reason and we are blessed because we finally have rain. Don’t worry. Allah Akbar.” I instantly loved the raving lunatic, but Bunny insisted we get away from him. We dragged our swamped selves into the safety of a cafe.

The cafe was run by an Englishman and his Syrian wife. Hummus, tabouli, felafel, and other delicious stuff. Expensive but delicious and the one meal in all our travels which was actually worth the price we paid for it. They also served real lattes! The couple told us how tourism has changed with the recession. How tourists would not come in and ask for half a sandwich, complain about the prices, and never tip. They bought the building, restored it to beauty, and when the economy collapsed, they couldn’t find a buyer for it at any price. They planned to close it. Morocco was eating them up and they dreamed of returning to Damascus. He said he bought antiques he was told were priceless but then when he tried to sell them, he was told by the same dealers they were worthless. He recommended we visit the American Legation and the room there which was dedicated to the writer Paul Bowles, Tangier’s most celebrated American ex-pat.

It was nice to be able to touch his Bowles’ suitcases for some reason and even nicer to sit in a dry place with warm heaters. It was a beautiful old building filled with beautiful old things but neither of us had much interest since we were both soaked to the bone. I was walking around on expensive Moroccan rugs in water-filled shoes. We spent time in the Bowles Room but it was another room which we had the most fun in. Miniature dioramas of famous Moroccan victories in battle, one against an invading Portuguese Army and another 12 years later using the seized Portuguese weapons against an army of black Africans from the south. We took lots of pictures of the dioramas. I didn’t take a picture of the suitcases. I wish I would have. I don’t know why.

We caught a taxi to Fnidiq near Sebta and then a twenty dirham taxi to the Spanish frontier. The taxi ride to Fnidiq via Casa Saghira was the best way to get to Sebta from Tangier. Many others (including Bunny’s Lonely Planet) said it was not possible. Crossing into Sebta was easy. It was a stunning change of scenery since it was December 21st. We were no longer in Muslimland but firmly back in the realm of Jesus lovers near the blessed commercial holiday. Lights, trees, music, glass fronted stores, santas, reindeer, and snowmen. We’d crossed the border into Christmas in Spain.

We took a bus into the city, sat in a tapas bar and drank beers. I would have been fine sitting there all evening but Bunny was wet and bitchy so we got a room in a nearby cheap hotel, Pension La Bohemia.

The prices in Sebta were shocking after Morocco. 35 Euros for a double room instead of 120 dirham (12 Euros). Food was equally expensive. We made a deal, she paid for the room and for the first beers and then I paid for dinner in an over priced tourist restaurant. I had truffle-fed pork chops and a beer.

She’d been someone I idolized at one point in my life. At this point in our trip, we couldn’t stand each other.

In the morning, I woke up early to explore Sebta by myself. It’s a charming Spanish City on a beautiful Mediterranean Peninsula jutting towards Europe from Africa. The streets are hilly and curved and the place feels more Spanish than many parts of Spain. I enjoyed a coffee and got a pack of cigarettes before going back to face Bunny. She was starting to wake upon my return so I sat in the lobby reading to avoid her, to avoid seeing her change, and to avoid her asking me to leave so she could fart in private. By the time she was ready we were both trying to pretend everything was alright and our friendship was still undamaged.

In the cafe, she ordered the most expensive thing on the menu and I ordered the cheapest. I was quite happy to put my portion down on the table before she could insist we split the bill.

There was no more than five minutes that would elapse before she would tell me that she needed to buy something, eat something, or use the toilet. These desires were consistently expressed as complaints. Sometimes she complained about all three at once. At the border we were checked for bird flu before we were let back across the frontier. She met a Dutch man whose wife had been videotaping the border and then had been arrested by the Moroccans. The Moroccan borders are nothing to mess with.

We saw a young Moroccan guy trying to sneak across into Sebta. He was severely beat by four police officers and then (presumably) thrown in jail. Morocco is not an easy nice place.

Upon re-entering Morocco, we went to the grand taxi stand and the first guy to see us tried to usher us into the taxi. Twenty Euro each to Tetuan. That was about 34 Euro too much. I haggled with him a bit and would have probably found us a safer and better ride but almost immediately Bunny began with her harsh questioning – of me – while I was negotiating. “How much does he want? Where is he going? Are we going with him? What’s the price? Should I get in? Let’s find another. Let’s get in this one. He seems nice.” She wouldn’t shut up. Mentally, I just said “Fuck it.” I didn’t like the driver but I haggled hard and got the price ten dirham lower than the standard fare in Bunny’s Lonely Planet. I knew there would be trouble. When he started to kick his other passengers out of the car, I knew it with more certainty. He and his friend shoved one man who didn’t want to get out onto the ground. Meanwhile, Bunny was demanding to know what was happening as the man was thrown to the ground and kicked. Our taxi man laughed and shoved the poor dude away. “Oh, they’re just playing,” Bunny said. In fact, they weren’t. Again, I said ‘Fuck it’.

All the way to Tetuan I listened to the taxi man brag and bluster. He was Riffian, he told me. Riffian’s love to fight and fuck, he said. He’d had many foreign women, he bragged looking at Bunny in the mirror. “Do you like the men of the Rif?” he asked her. I hoped Bunny would shut up. Of course, she couldn’t and she started asking me what the guy was saying while simultaneously telling me her opinion he was a nice and funny man and she had a good feeling about him. I can honestly say I’ve never had a good feeling about a taxi man lounging outside of a border crossing. I don’t think good guys do that.

Arriving in Tetuan, he demanded more money. I refused. He said he wouldn’t take us to the bus station. I told him to stop the car. He refused. He began to yell something at me in Riffian Berber. I had no idea. I don’t speak Riffian Berber. I cussed at him in Swahili which caused everyone to start to look a little concerned since suddenly no one knew what the hell I was saying. I asked to be let out several times and he refused. Another passenger needed to stop and I leapt out of the cab, said ‘Come on’ to Bunny and grabbed our things from the trunk. She wanted to stay in the cab, but I didn’t give her time. The driver was screaming for more money but I darted into traffic and crossed to the other side of the street. The bus station wasn’t far. The signs pointed us right there. I have no idea where he might have taken us.

I walked into the safety of the CTM station. Once again, Bunny was off to the toilet and so I bought the bus tickets. The bus left 15 minutes later. On the bus she was sullen and moody.

The ride to Chefchauen was the nicest part of the trip since the train. She refused to talk to me and I was able to see the vast and uncommon beauty of the Rif Mountains. The Rif was flooded and I saw roads washed out, cars washed into streams, and a land so beautiful and raw I suddenly understood why Morocco is a place of dreams. After four hours we arrived in Chefchauen. Bunny needed a bank to change her Euro to dirham.

On the way to the bank we were offered hashish a dozen times. The Hotel Andalus was the guest house I chose. It boasted a fireplace and a book exchange. I inquired about two single rooms, since we were well past sharing a room by this point. The clerk was a young man with a twisted limp and a scraggly beard. With his round John Lennon glasses, he reminded me of friends from Bellingham, Washington. In fact, Chefchauen had much the same feel as Bellingham despite the notable outward differences.

Chefchauen was a haven for refugees from Spain after the reconquest of the Moorish lands by the Spanish. Many of those refugees were Jews who were persecuted under the Spanish but safe in Morocco. Later Jewish refugees fled the Nazis in Europe. In honor of those refugees, virtually the entire city is painted blue, the traditional color of the Jews. This happened in the 1930s and has become the trademark of the place. It has a feel of outdoorsiness, hippy ethic, and back to earth. It made me feel refreshed and at home.

Bunny wanted to eat. I found a deep medina restaurant where I had a tasty tajine and Bunny had kifta. She treated me to the meal, which was a peace offering, I think. I went back to the Hotel Andalous while she went to the hammam around the corner. I was thankful I was unable to go since it wasn’t a mixed hammam. I asked the desk clerk how much she should pay, but she payed double despite knowing. Moroccans are good at getting money out of foreigners. Meanwhile I wandered the medina, made several new Moroccan friends, and drank coffee in a cafe filled with nothing but men. For once, I didn’t miss female company in the cafe..

I found a family run artisanal shop where I bought a thick wooly Chefchauen sweater. My final price was about 130 dirham. After buying the sweater, I watched television and drank too much mint tea with the family before I set off for the hotel.

Bunny wasn’t back and I went to the hammer to make sure she was alright. The ladies at the door of the hammam told me she was still inside and they would escort her home. I got a shave and haircut from a sweet gay barber named Abdel Kadr. Gay barbers always give the best haircuts so I was happy to find him. Of course, as any Moroccan will tell you, there are no gay men in Morocco, so he must have just been an effeminate man. There is no act of trust so great as to be shaved by a stranger with a straight razor. Abdel Kadr was of such a sweet nature I wasn’t worried even as he held the blade to my throat.

Back at the hotel and I found Bunny safe and sound. She was lounging in front of the fire with several guests and the manager. These were great companions and we spent the remainder of the evening talking of books, travels, and stories. We played chess and told ghost stories. It was a perfect traveling evening and reminded me of the times we had traveled together before.

In the morning we went looking for a merchant called ‘Hatman’. He’s a famous icon who makes knit socks and hats. We hiked to a flooded cascade and then hiking back she was groped and propositioned by a random Moroccan man. It wasn’t the first time she had been propositioned by strangers on our trip, but it was the first time that she noticed.

We sat in a small cafe for mint tea and happened upon an interesting Frenchman. He was slightly older than me, smelled of patchouli, and had been wandering in the mountains for some time. It was his twenty-fifth trip to Morocco over the past twenty years. There was something odd about the Frenchman, perhaps he was a drug smuggler, but I felt no threat from him. In fact, we felt a strong bond of kinship and brotherhood. We both have O-negative blood. A rarity.

At this point we took leave of the Frenchman and returned to another night of stories, fire, and chess. I won by the skin of my teeth against the Welsh ranger who I played against. We told riddles by the fireplace and sometime in the evening the power failed. I was disappointed to realize this probably meant no hot shower in the morning.

I woke and found the power restored but the water cut off completely. At the station, we found flooding. Tetuan to Chefchauen was closed and flooded out. This meant our bus would be delayed or not coming at all. I found an ‘indy’ bus for fifty dirham each and bought tickets. Bunny protested but I ignored her. It was the only way out. A tourist couple also thus stranded did the same. Bunny carped all the way to the bus and once on the bus…she lost her shit.

The bus interior smelled of mold and some of the seats were wet and stinky. It was our only option. Indy buses stop frequently, beggers come on board, and they are often wet, stinky, and crowded. I saw Bunny becoming more agitated and out of control as the bus filled and made its way slowly through the scattered communities of the Rif.

The other tourists were relaxed and making the best of things. Bunny became further agitated as the bus became more full. At a stop where a number of people (most of whom were a foreign tour group taking the best and only option out of Chefchauen) disembarked,a slew of desperately poor Moroccans boarded. One of them, quite reasonably, asked for the empty seat next to her. She refused. Then a child beggar began to kiss her hand and beg for money.

Her culture shock exploded. “No!” The waif scampered away. Shortly after this she turned to me“I don’t think I can stay on this bus very much longer, I want to get off at the next stop.”

I tried to explain the situation to her “I can navigate this country better than 90% of the foreigners you will meet here. This bus is the only option we have of getting to Fez right now. If you want to get off the bus, I can’t stop you, but it’s a mistake if you do.”

To my surprise, she began to cry. She was totally overwhelmed.

“When we get to Meknes, we’ll get off the bus and take the train to Fez.” This soothed her. I wasn’t sure we were going to Meknes but I stuck with it. The tourist couple who had joined us on the bus checked their guidebook and decided to stay with us. Bunny went into headphone land. I was glad, because a few minutes later the tourist girl pointed out we were going to go right by Meknes. Bunny didn’t need to know that.

The rest of the trip consisted of me lying to her every ten minutes to keep her from storming off the bus into some worse situation. After eight hours we arrived in Fez. I took us straight to the Sefrou taxi stand. We narrowly avoided missing the last taxi of the evening. Two glue sniffers were fighting at the snack stand and I got her in the taxi before they could approach her. Our driver climbed in and I smelled wine on his breath. We had the scariest ride to Sefrou I’ve yet had – in a taxi. He was a terrible drunk driver weaving all over the road.

Getting home I had no desire to rush to the Azoui house where the jumbo Belgian and his daughter were staying. Hanane’s brother’s wife and their new daughter were also in residence. Bunny wanted alcohol. She was a freaking mess. I put her in my house and took a brisk walk to the bottle shop where I bought some beers to drink away the hardships of the journey. I called Hanane and she insisted on coming over immediately. She made a tajine, told jokes, and helped us both to decompress.

Hanane suggested that in the morning Bunny join her on a trip to hammam. She had been waiting all week to take Bunny there. I seconded suggestion and looked forward to having my house for a few hours so I could wash my clothes, relax, and decompress.

In the morning, Bunny broke the plans with Hanane. I wasn’t sure what to do with her so I suggested that we leave for the airport very early because of traffic. At the airport, I pulled into the drop off point, pulled out her bag, mumbled something about hating good byes and prepared to leave. She had an abundance of time left before her flight. It turns out the traffic had been even lighter than usual.


My 38th

For my 38th Birthday, we went to Marjane, the Moroccan Walmart. I was happily planning to buy things for my house, presents for Hanane, and things for her family. Not big things, but things they didn’t have and could use. Like a mirror that wasn’t broken.

There’s a lot of disconnects between Moroccan and American cultures. One example is that there really isn’t a gift giving culture in Morocco. Another is that as American’s we generally don’t like to put people in a position where they have to say no to a request (unless we are used car or insurance salesmen). Another is the way we show gratitude and I’m not quite sure what to call it but moderation/humility might work. An example would be when someone gives us something, we don’t ask for more, more, more or when a plate of treats is presented, we don’t take as many as will fit in our pockets.

These are lessons we learn as children but most Moroccan’s don’t ever get the opportunity to learn these lessons.

I bought myself some chocolate cereal and peanut butter. A luxurious treat. Hanane dragged me by the arm. “Oh, come look at this.” “I really need this.” “My sister would really like that.” “My brother loves this kind of bread.” I admit that I was offended that my bride to be hadn’t even wished me Happy Birthday. So, I bought myself cereal, peanut butter, and a small semi-automatic washing machine so I could stop washing my clothes by hand. The washing machine was a plastic cube the size of a small microwave that swirled clothes around. No spin-dry cycle. I still had to rinse and ring by hand.

My 38th is starting and  I still wonder if the girl I’m supposed to marry is someone I can live with. By the time we got back, I simply wanted her to leave. There were no presents and no party planned so  I told her the best gift for me would be to provide me with some time alone. It’s my birthday, now go away. That’s what I wanted to say.

But, I’m American and we don’t say direct things like that because we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. We beat around the bush, we give hints, we try to say things gently. So I said things like “Hey, I’d really love some alone time to decompress.” “I usually like to spend time alone on my birthday so I can write and reflect on the previous year.” – Pretty direct. Much more direct than I would have been with an American girlfriend. She just wouldn’t take the hint.

I do everything I can to be civilized and polite when I deal with Moroccans. I struggle to not offend. I try so hard to make things pleasant and then…I lose my shit. I explode. I go completely out the other end of the building.

She managed to ignore my polite hints until I finally exploded. I vented about how every time she came over all the dishes were clean but every time she left they were all dirty, I vented about how she takes things from the place I put them and doesn’t put them back, I vented about how every time I buy her something she asks for something more, I vented about how that action takes the joy out of buying her anything, I vented about the fact that it was my birthday and nobody thought about saying Happy Birthday let alone gave me a god-damn present. Even when I asked for some time alone, I wasn’t allowed to have that. I blew up and then, as always happens when I blow up, I felt like a turd. That was my birthday present, feeling like a turd.

She still didn’t get it. She still wouldn’t leave. She went in the kitchen and washed the dishes – a first. She put things where they needed to be to make me happy. I thought she would leave after that but she sat down like she had no intention of going anywhere. I finally said “Come on, you’re going home. I need time alone.” I walked her to a taxi.

Then I bought myself a violin. I deserved more than feeling like a turd and having to blow my top. The violin set me back just 500 dirham, about 200 less than the initial price. This came out to about $75 U.S. I would have probably paid more if I knew the bough, the case, the rosin, and the violin were all included in the package. I bargained hard and I think the price may have been a set price, but I’ve become fairly good at bargaining and sometimes my stubbornness and inability to effectively understand worked in my favor. Not to mention being friendly and letting people know I lived in the casbah, probably helped. It sounded nice as I played on my rooftop looking at the trash filled river flowing below me. There is something magical about the violin with its association with an insane Roman Emperor, magical gypsy vardos, and hobo peddlers playing for their supper. To my own ear, the music I made was surprisingly good but I can’t vouch for the ears of any others. I felt like Nero but instead of watching Rome burn, I went downstairs and figured out how to use my new semi-automatic washing machine.


Aasura- Festival of Fire and Water

At 8 pm, I needed a rest and decided to go to bed. That’s when the noise started. As I had walked Hanane to the taxi,, she had said something about it being a holiday, but it seemed every day is some sort of religious holiday in Morocco. A saint’s birthday, a religious holiday, a holiday of Moroccan importance, or some imported holiday.

I only wanted to spend my day alone and then have a nice night’s sleep. I went to bed and the bedlam began. First, it was just kids with cheap drums in the stairwell. I didn’t want to go out and tell them to shut up, I figured their dad should do that, so I got up, picked up the violin and started to make the most annoying and loud sounds possible. Soon, I heard the dad upstairs yelling at the kids to go somewhere else. I would have pretended to not understand or not opened my door if he’d yelled at me. Anyway, my plan worked and quieted the noise but then I started to hear a more adult sounding drumming. It came from out my window, next to the river, drums and singing and I grabbed my cast off Peace Corps Moroccan Culture Guide to find what this holiday was about. I found it was the most interesting holiday of all.

It was Aasura, the tenth day of the Muslim New Year. It’s a day which involves bonfires, magic, giving toys to children, and ritual bathing. It  is a magical and holy day. Some people fast voluntarily. In the past, in Morocco, it was a time when people wore costumes and masks and spoke in disguised whispers so as not to be recognized. It was a night of abandon and excess where fire rituals and dark magic were practiced. As I listened to the drums and heard the singing, I wanted to go out.

If you’re in Morocco on the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram, you are sure to hear drums banging and see gangs of happy children rushing through the streets and alleyways with new toys generally used to make music and noise. This is just a part of the celebration of Ashura (which comes from the word ‘ten’ in Arabic since it’s the 10th day of the first month on the Muslim calendar. Some call it the Islamic New Year, but it’s more than that. It’s a celebration of light and life, death and renewal, light and dark. For the past few years, it has been celebrated in November and December but since the Islamic calendar is lunar, each year it is ten or eleven days earlier (on the Gregorian calendar) than the year before.

In most of the Arab world, Ashura is a time to remember the death of Hussein for the Shi’a and a day for celebrating the liberation of Moses from Egypt for the Sunni. For both it is a day of solemn fasting and prayers. The same is true in Morocco, but the shamanism and Judaism that Moroccan Islam was born in have reshaped the holiday into something more.

In Morocco, Ashura is a day that celebrates life. It is a day when people throw water on one another after a night of bonfires and singing. Ashura is the day when the myth of Baba Aichour is celebrated. Baba Aichour is the Moroccan Santa Claus, and so, Ashura is almost like Christmas for children in Morocco. For days before and after the holy day, kids form makeshift bands to play celebratory songs on drums made of wood, pottery, and sheepskin. They travel through the streets performing for candy and coins. The noise reaches a crescendo on the night of the ninth day of Muharram when bonfires are lit in vacant lots and neighbors gather to share food and tea.

In the poorer areas, people will light branches and wander through the streets chanting songs reserved for this holiday and at the neighborhood bonfires, you will often see people jumping over the flames in an effort to burn away evil spirits or free themselves of curses.

This is considered to be the most auspicious time of the year to say your prayers. Fortune tellers called ‘shawaafa’ do a booming business during this time as young people try to understand their destiny and capture the love of their lives. Some go further and engage the help of witch doctors ‘afikih’ that work with djinn and magic. Some seek to cast spells and others to be free of them. The ‘afikih’ can help with both.

The morning of Ashura is often begun with a cold bath or shower which some say is the origin of the water throwing. Other’s hold that it is a celebration of the parting of the Red Sea. Either way, in desert areas it is common for men and women to sprinkle water on tents, plants, and each other whilst saying their prayers. In some areas, Ashura is called ZamZam day. ZamZam is the name of the well in Mecca that Muslims believe God created for Hagar and Ismael, the wife and son whom Abraham abandoned in the desert.

While the adults fast, the children are given chocolates or small toys, and as the sun goes down, the entire family will gather to break the fast together. There are some traditional meals for Ashura – among them sheep’s tail, liver, dried meat, and couscous.

The holiday extends into the next day, since tradition says that any profit made during the 11th day of Muharram will not be blessed by God. The 11th day is called the day of waste and usury and with all of the businesses closed, it’s a handy way to extend the celebration for one more day.

The Berbers have a different name for each of the three days of Zamzam: The first day is “Bou Isnayen” the second, “Bou Imerwasen” and the third is, “Bou Imrazen.” These are translated as “the day of throwing water,” “the day of repayment,” and finally “the day of fight.” On any one of these days, if water is thrown at a person, they have the right to throw stones back.

The day after Aasura, I woke, bathed, and called Hanane to find out if she had done anything interesting. She told me Ashura had been celebrated heavily when she was a child, but now her family didn’t do anything for these types of holidays. Aside from fires and drumming in my neighborhood (which ended at 10 pm) I heard little about anything happening anywhere for Ashura. A few days later I spoke with Peace Corps Volunteers from out in the country who told me nothing happened where she was. In fact, of everyone I spoke with, it was only in my very poor neighborhood anything happened. I took it as an auspicious sign my birthday was on such a day and the first day after was one where I could wash and begin my 38th year with a bathing ritual. So I took a trip to the hammam.

A New Year in Morocco

The next few days were blissful – both with Hanane and in the time I was able to spend alone. Her house was no longer an enjoyable place for me to visit filled as it was with French speaking Belgians who grunted while eating and crying newborn babies with frantic new moms.

Hanane and I took a short walk to the forest and found pieces of a large earthenware urn which I put in my bag. I later glued them together. The next day we went back and found more pieces. All told we were able to reconstruct about 80% of it using super glue. It wasn’t terribly old, given that most of the pieces were on the surface, but still it felt like some sort of a project. It looked like something ancient from a museum. Who knows for certain? Maybe it was.

Paychecks from the American English School were delayed for two weeks because the secretary was the only one with access to the checks and she was on vacation! Moroccan systems often work like that – even when they’re run by uptight American’s like Saul Gerbil. I had some money but hated using my debit cards to withdraw American cash as Moroccan money since Morocco currency is like monopoly money and can’t be used to buy anything outside of Morocco. It was better just to use the money I earned in Morocco.

New Years Eve involved a strange party in the casbah. Jessica returned from England and invited  many to celebrate with her. Among those who came were Moroccan prostitutes, a band of young guys from Sefrou who played incredible music and slammed gin shots rather than drinking gin and tonics as the rest of us did. They were quickly out of control and Hanane was quickly freaked out. She’d never been in a situation with either drunk guys or prostitutes before. She wanted to leave at 10 pm just when things were getting interesting.

“All of these women are bitches (prostitutes) and all these fucking guys are drinking and smoking hash. Everyone in Sefrou will think I am one of them if they hear I was here. My mom would kill you if she knew you had brought me here.” From my perspective it was a pretty tame evening. For her, it was like visiting hell and she was afraid it would taint her for life. I convinced her that leaving a New Years party before midnight was like…well, it just wasn’t done.

At midnight, she was incredibly cute in announcing “Just two minutes to go” to everyone and then “One more minute” and then “Happy New Year.” She’d never celebrated New Year’s before. It was the sweetest New Years kiss I’d ever had. I loved the girl more than I’d ever loved anyone. She deserved all of my love and more. We left at 12:01. She dragged me out the door before I could say goodbye to anyone.

A few days later, I picked up my check from the American English School. The Christmas bonus another teacher had said everyone received wasn’t part of my pay. In addition, I had been given a pay cut without anyone bothering to tell me about it. My taxi broke down on the way back to Sefrou and while I thought I might walk, another taxi picked us up. My check came to less than $200! Saul Gerbil, the weasel dick director is a mother-fucker, strike that, father-fucker..

I paid Mohammad the tailor 20 dirham to fix my shoulder bag and bought an old Moroccan knife at the edge of the casbah for 50 dirham. I am thinking of doing a bit of volunteer English teaching but not sure I want to deal with Moroccans more than I already have to. Fuck the American English School…

I was quite content to sit in my house. I’ve always enjoyed my time alone. I love solitude. Time alone is spent writing, watching films, creating art, thinking, exercising, or meditating. I did suffer from a certain kind of loneliness in Morocco though, of having friends from my own culture who could sympathize, advise, plot, plan, and scheme with. I missed having intellectual discussions cause and effect, future and past, culture and behavior. Jessica was wonderful, but she had a life. She was building her own dreams and didn’t have time for new projects or spending days on the piss. We were the only two foreigners in Sefrou and things were complicated enough with my fiancee and her family without all the Sefroui tongues wagging. As to the other American’s or Brits at the school, we were from different planets. One was a missionary, several were gay, others came from privileged backgrounds, others were just too fucked up to want to be around. Funny enough, I probably fell into that last category with most of them.

I was not isolated. Not by any means. I often had to find ways to have time away from people, but the people around me were not people who I wanted to spend time with. Jessica was a great friend though I constantly had to remind myself not to share everything with her. Things like my relationship stress with Hanane, my fears, doubts, and the dreams I seemed to be losing. It’s not that Jessica was untrustworthy in any way, but I am old enough to recognize that the person you share all your secrets with usually is or becomes the person you love the most. I didn’t need that kind of complication in my only Western friendship. I love Jess but I didn’t want to complicate that love with romance and neither did she.

Hanane drove me a little more insane every day. She made it impossible to focus on anything other than her. I couldn’t share my hopes, fears, or dreams with her because she just didn’t understand what I was talking about. Her English was fine, but her brain and worldview were wired completely different than my own. We fought over cultural misunderstandings which led to a lack of trust. A few examples will suffice.. Hanane told me she wore her engagement ring all the time, but especially whenever she went out. Being Moroccan, what she meant was she wears it most of the time but not when she goes to hammam, not when she is shopping in the souk, and not when she has to teach late classes at the Asma school. It was no problem for her to say all the time, but for me, that’s an outright lie. I was at her house before she was leaving to teach a student at his home and asked why she wasn’t wearing the ring. She told me if she would be coming back at night, she usually didn’t wear the ring for fear someone would steal it. This was reasonable but to me said ‘She’s a liar’ and ‘You can’t trust her. She’s probably lying about everything.’ It hurt me. It broke my heart, to be honest. It made me question everything she had ever told me. I wondered what else wasn’t true. I didn’t flip out. I became sad and when she asked what was wrong, I tried to explain it to her. That made her feel bad. She began to cry and at that point, I was pretty sure she didn’t understand why I was upset in the first place. In fact, very quickly the entire focus had gone from me being upset to her being upset.

The next day she brought food to my house. I no longer felt I could trust her and I couldn’t even explain why things which don’t bother a Moroccan bother me enormously. Moroccans lie all the time. It is completely acceptable to lie for Moroccans. They will change reality right in front of your face without a moment’s thought. They accept it from each other. Reality is fluid, not fixed. It’s shameful to be caught in a lie, so people pretend not to see them. Being called out on a lie is worse than lying. More than the lie or the act that was lied about to begin with. Hshuma. To me, on the other hand, a lie is indicative of greater lies, bigger deceptions, and ultimately of betrayal. That’s my past experience and culture poisoning my present. All of that being said, I understood why she didn’t want to wear the ring, and yet it broke my heart to catch her blatantly lying to me about it.

Another incident involved the way her family (and perhaps all Moroccans) think about housework and chores. They let all the dishes pile up in the kitchen and don’t bother washing anything until everything is dirty. Same goes for laundry which accounts for the massive heaps of laundry at the Azaoui house at all times. Since it’s much more difficult to find the time to do a room full of laundry than a small basket full. I’ve seen this pattern repeated with all chores, with the work of artisans and craftsmen, and with every facet of daily life I’ve observed in Morocco.

It’s an impossible way to live for me since I have accustomed myself to living in cars, living in tiny apartments, living from a backpack, and living on boats. When a dish is dirty, you wash the dish. When you cook, you clean up as you go along. When there is a load of laundry, you wash it. You don’t spit on the floor so you don’t have to clean the floor every day. You take off your shoes at the door to keep the sheep shit off the floor.

You can imagine the clash of cultures as Hanane tried to make my house her own. Every time she visited every dish became dirty (yes and this bothered me enough to mention it this many times). I wonder if she ever wondered “I wonder how these are always clean and put away when I get here? That’s so strange!” There was no sense of maybe I shouldn’t make these clothes dirty so I don’t have to wash them, no sense of ‘if I keep the floor clean I won’t have to wash it’. Finally, after months of this, I exploded again. She was making me crazy in my refuge. She was destroying the one place I was finding peace of mind. I told her if she made something dirty, she should clean it immediately. If she took something from a specific place, she should put it back in place when she was done with it, directly after, not later. She made progress for the next three days and then it was as if I had never said anything at all. I don’t know if this is a Moroccan way or a Hanane way, but three days is the limit and then things return to how they were before and if I bring it up, she looks confused as if we’ve never spoken of it before.

I’m not entirely sure she understands the concept of why I do things the way I do them. She will only do things the way I want her to until she thinks I have forgotten about it. At least that’s what I think is happening. Maybe Moroccan’s forget after three days. I don’t. I notice that in her fights with her family. They won’t speak for three days or will only say awful things about each other, but after three days, everything is hunky-dory.

So, that’s my social life. In truth, I would much rather have no conversation than to have the same conversation I have in Darija over and over and over again. My vocabulary is growing, my listening comprehension is growing, my ability to speak and be understood is growing, but I’m not even close to the point I can have actual meaningful conversation and while this sounds terrible as I write it, I’m not certain there is such a thing as meaningful conversation in Darija. It’s not as if you can question Islam or the Q’uran, you can’t talk about politics because the King is not questionable, you can’t discuss books since not very many people read books and you can’t discuss the future since Moroccan Muslims for the most part have an acceptance of the present and the future is ‘maktub’ is ‘it is written’ and will either happen or not happen according to the wishes of God, Insha’allah. As for everything else, well it comes down to water cooler talk as far as I can tell. Moroccans gossip, tell jokes, talk about television, and talk about the weather. Those are the conversations I hear.

So, in sense, I found myself lonely in Morocco. I also found myself very poor and wandering if there was a way out of my poverty. My internet dreams yielded little. It would take time and an internet connection in my home, I found myself always rushing to use the internet in cyber cafes because I was on a meter. I didn’t take time to write articles, read about new ways to make money, or actively promote my books and sites. The American English School was a dream deferred. The money was supposed to be coming but $200 for a month’s work wasn’t going to cut it. There was always something coming later, later, later. As much as I hated she was fired, it was a relief not to have Hanane working there with me. I was able to have conversations with other teachers, use the internet there, and get home much easier without having to worry about her being harassed or bothered. She demanded so much of my attention while she was there that there was no time for anything but her when we were both at the school. I had to hitch to work the other day and couldn’t have done that with her. I needed to subtract 300 dirham from my check for taxi expenses….make that $160 for a month of work.

The father of one of my students gave me a ride back to Sefrou one night. He was a nice man and he emphasized how being a good Muslim means making life better for all other people. I liked that. He grew up in Fez in the 1970’s and as we drove told me about playing soccer in the streets, the orchards which had been replaced by concrete blockhouses, how he used to steal fruit from the orchards of rich Europeans, and he reminisced about the one Moroccan who lived among the Europeans, a constable named Ali. He said Moroccans used to be more sincere, helpful, and there was a quality of life back then which is gone today. He described the fields, the public bakery where his family used to take their loaves, the local hammam, and football matches between neighborhoods in a stadium now long gone. He pointed out a park which used to be a European cemetery and when I asked what happened to all the bodies he looked puzzled and said “I don’t know.” He went to college in the 1970s and spoke about the dreams he and the other students had dreamed and how Morocco had stolen them.

It was cold again in Sefrou. Really cold. I thought it would snow soon. I had no hot water and no heat. Life was interesting in this regard.


The -est

Arab culture is particularly wearisome as the constant attention to God and Islam make the blasphemy which takes place just as constantly much more unbearable and annoying. The lying, the cheating, the petty feuding, and the constant self-deception which comes when living amidst Islam grates upon me. Hypocrisy which can only be matched by the capitalism of the communist Chinese or the affected world-concern of the self-concerned Americans. Certainly, I show myself to be a lover of just about no one, but still Japan seems a culture which at least has some inherent value to it. Of course, just as certainly, it holds its own hypocrisy.

I found myself loving Hanane more and more and realizing I didn’t want to have a life without her, rather, I wanted to have a life with her. There is a difference. I found myself missing her in the evenings when she was not in my apartment. I found myself thinking how nice it would be to take her away and go somewhere where we could have a private and enjoyable life together. When I fantasize about this ideal life it includes both snow-covered mountains and warm ocean beaches.I don’t know if there is a shred of possibility to my dreams unless I somehow manage to become well enough situated to have two homes. The idea of returning to the United States created a huge distaste in my mouth. The attempted bombing on Christmas Day of 2009 was enough to set the venom running in my American veins again. My countrymen are tightening borders, making immigration harder, and the spreading fear inducing rhetoric. I see it coming hard and strong from the television talking heads.

Ideally, I could have the forests and wilderness of Washington and the beaches and rainforest of Hawaii. A beautiful piece of land far enough away from neighbors they wouldn’t come over and ask to borrow anything on a whim but close enough to all the comforts of Western Civilization so I could easily buy an electric blanket or get a high speed internet connection. A place with plentiful raw materials, space to garden, and farm animals. Maybe Indonesia is the best bet, though I think if I get there I will find it too crowded and difficult in ways I can’t imagine. For the moment, my only option is to stay in Morocco, keep working at the American English School, get my teaching credentials up to speed, get married, and start working on getting Hanane a visa to the USA. Perhaps, she will eventually want citizenship.

From the USA we could have a chance to work in Japan or South America. In Japan there are snow covered mountains and warm beaches both and the Philippines, Hawaii, and the USA are not as far away as from anywhere else. Then there is Canada, China, Indonesia, and everywhere else. Anywhere but Sefrou.

I’ve recently come to terms with the fact every American is conditioned to think they are the greatest and most important person in the world and I am no exception. Knowing I am programmed to think myself so important helps to humble me and makes it easier to remind myself I’m not as important as my childhood conditioned ego tries to make me out to be. I’m not the greatest writer of my generation, I’m not an important spiritual or social innovator, I’m not anything other than a guy who is living just like the seven billion other people trying to figure out why the hell they are here. I’m not the next great scientist, philosopher, or entrepreneur. I won’t ever be the President of a country or the father of a nation, I’ll never be a war hero kids read about in books, I’m not the greatest surfer to ever learn at the age of thirty, not the greatest adventurer, nor anything else -est for matter. I’m just ‘a’ 38 year old guy. I’m adaptable, don’t like too much responsibility, and at the same time don’t like anyone to have authority over me. It makes me not a very good employee. Perhaps it also makes me not a very good partner, boyfriend, husband, etc though with any luck I can get over part of my particular personality. It seems I’ve wanted so desperately to figure out what I am the -est at I’ve jumped from one thing to another without ever giving myself the chance to be better at anything.

Hell, I’m not even the American-est person in Sefrou since all the Peace Corps Volunteers are much more American than me. I need to get over this compulsion, it’s why Americans are ruining the world. Of course, I’m not sure what to do with all of this. I suppose the thing to do is to keep teaching, keep blogging, keep writing, keep learning Darija, French, and Arabic, keep playing my violin, keep working on marrying Hanane, and keep trying to become better than I currently am. That’s enough of my navel gazing for a while.


Cold in Sefrou

It’s cold in Sefrou. My feet are cold. I have neither hot water nor heat. I went to Fez today for a birthday gathering at Cafe Clock. It was worth the hour or so I spent there. Four Peace Corps Volunteers including a visiting boyfriend of one volunteer who seemed lost. He works temp jobs in San Francisco and didn’t seem to have very much to say about anything. I tossed out the Eugene V. Debbs quote ‘Behind every great fortune lies a great crime’ and raised the hackles of a retired American business woman who joined the Peace Corps to give back some of what she’d taken. I knew it would set her off. She’s a nice woman and I’m an asshole.

I ate an over priced tart and left. I wandered into the medina and was totally unmolested, not even ‘bonjoured’. I must look Berber these days or else I look so fucking poor they don’t waste their time on me. I returned to Sefrou and ate leftover Spaghetti. I allowed my feet to become far too cold. It’s time to crawl under my six blankets.

I paid a month’s rent yesterday to buy a mobile internet connection and it’s slow as a 1995 AOL dialup. Suddenly, I realize I didn’t need the connection. I don’t need anything.

Hanane is sweet and I should treasure her for giving me at least one reason to stay alive. I only want money because it will help to while away the time until I actually die. I shouldn’t fear death at all as life is the true torture. I exist…and so what? Big fucking deal. Flies exist and we kill them all the time and guess what, it doesn’t matter. That’s the big secret…it doesn’t matter. None of it. Jesus, I hope I can keep it secret from Hanane. Thank God she has her faith. It’s the only thing that can possibly make this life bearable – without out, there really isn’t any point.

The drums are going outside again. I stepped out to invite the Gnawas in this time, but it was a bunch of thirteen and fourteen-year-old young guys banging drums and singing. Looks like fun, but since I’m a guy who never even felt comfortable in hippie drum circles, the idea of joining them when I can’t drum very well and don’t know the songs they are singing doesn’t appeal to me much. Like hell I’m inviting a bunch of kids into my apartment either. All evening I’ve been feeling same fatalism. It’s nice. Nothing matters at all. Fuck it. It’s just a matter of dying and when it happens, I can be thankful for it. In the meantime, there’s no reason to be concerned about the taxi, about the street food, about the guy who seemed to be following me through the medina, or about anything at all. I taught my class today, the co-teacher said it was fine and frankly, I don’t give a flying fuck one way or the other. It is only when we want things we suffer. All praise the Buddha for that nugget of wisdom.

I sold a blog for $50 today. Two days ago I sold another for $25. I bought them for $12 each. Now that I think about it, I put a lot of work into them after buying them, so maybe I lost on the deal. Money is tight, but not any tighter than it always been for me. Things are normal. I’m cold and I’m depressed.

I finished last week feeling good about my classes and had six people show up for the movie club I’ve set up. Since whether it stays a paid gig or not depends on people showing up, that’s a good thing. Life at the American English School is decent. I am going to Agadir for the big American English School conference in the beginning of February in Agadir. Free trips rule.

Life in Sefrou is incredibly dull. Hanane is great. The worst part about her is me. We had an enjoyable weekend. Her mom, she, and I went to Sanhaja, a small mountain town near Sefrou. We hiked, and talked with people.. Later we watched a movie where a wife caught her husband masturbating. Hanane became very serious and said “Promise me you’ll never do that” and of course, I told her I do it all the time. That didn’t go over well. It’s haram in Islam. No beating your meat if you’re a Muslim. Hell is going to be very full of masturbators if we all have to answer to the Muslim God. Life is going to be very dull if I have to live by my wife’s standards. Not even allowed to jerk off.

But we got over my masturbation at last. I think she convinced herself I was lying. I tried to escape from the Azaoui house about noon, got held up until two, put Hanane in a taxi and sent her to a workshop on English, but then it was canceled so she ended up coming to my house. I felt somewhat upset over the loss of all daylight to do my wash, read, write, and actually accomplish something. We had a fight and she cried. I’m a dick. She said she was scared I was going to beat her and I told her I never will. Then I put her in a cab and sent her home. I went to the alcohol shop, bought five beers, and now I’m too drunk to write anything of any worth. Just these cold ruminations in Sefrou. Probably better. Yeah, hell is going to be crowded.

Life here continues to amaze me. Not because it is amazing but because I have become used to it. I cram into a grand taxi with five other passengers and ride thirty kilometers to Fez each day. Usually sitting on the lap, or nearly so, of some stranger who may stink, be covered in filth, or look like some incredibly clean holy person in a perfectly white djellaba. I walk here and there, down streets where I am gazed at and looked at as if I am from another planet. And it all seems so normal. And it’s not. Only rarely do I pause to think “Wow, this is strange. I’m sitting in a shepherds house in the Middle Atlas mountains eating couscous with a half dozen people who I can hardly talk to,” or “I’m sitting in a classroom discussing feminism with a bunch of Muslim teenagers.” I am living in a house which is probably 500 years old near a fountain where all of my neighbors get their water. It’s all so bizarre when I stop to think about it. I live in a fucking kingdom. That’s an odd one too. I mean, there is one guy who was born in the right place to the right parents and he has absolute authority over everything and everyone around me. I live in a place where there is a king who can do whatever he wants to do. He can pull people off the street and skin them for fun and no one would be able to stop him. Bizarre. Scary.

And yet, despite all of that, I carry on as if there is nothing strange in my life. I continue to make progress towards getting married to Hanane. I continue to make pots of tea on my bomb-like blue gas stove, and I wear the same clothes for a week at a time because it isn’t sunny and I only have three pairs of pants and don’t want to take them out of commission by washing them. I have lost track of what is normal as the bizarre has become my normal. My feet are continuously cold, and I don’t mean as a metaphor. When the going gets weird the weird turn pro. I’m a fucking pro.

Hanane is great. I’m lucky to have her. If I keep telling myself that, I might convince myself of it. My doubts and fears are withering away, though they linger as I wonder if she is possibly too good to be true. I don’t think so. She has problems. She’s not perfect. And yet, for me, she might be. I love her. She makes me happy and I do my best to make her happy.. We fight, we have misunderstandings, and we hurt each others feelings, but we come through it and end up happy. I want to be a provider. I want to be able to give her everything she wants, but I’m not sure I will be able to. I think she knows that. I hope so.

I try. I’ve been working on my blogging projects day and night and have turned from a website only a handful of people knew about into one everyone looking at anything about Morocco on the internet knows about. I am currently running the Best of Morocco Blogs contest and this innovation has made it the most visited English site in Morocco, at least while the contest runs. I nominated every blog I thought would get any traffic. I put up polls in five categories leaving room for new nominations. Every blog in English speaking Morocco sent me as much of their traffic as they could. I made it to Lonely Planet, some international news, and plenty of Facebook and Twitter mentions. I’m amazed no one bothered to ask “Who is this guy to be doing this?” It was vanity I think. They all want to be the best. And in the process, they’ve made my site the best.

It would be nice if I were smart enough to figure how to use that to put money in my pocket. I’m trying to use every angle I have learned to monetize this traffic. I’ve put in plenty of advertising ops, sponsorship ops, amazon books, a donation button, and more. I’m pushing it. I’m using every monetization source I can find. I’ve had business cards made up and am planning a blogging camp/workshop which I will charge a nice price for. I’m getting between 400-4000 visits a day. It’s good traffic. Not great, but it will get better. I’m going to start covering Moroccan blogs in French and Arabic. I’ve asked Hanane to do some translation. I need help if this is going to work. I can’t do it alone.

I’m working as much as I can at the American English School. I am teaching classes plus doing a Friday film discussion and a conversation class once a week. I’m spending little except to buy the internet access and to get the business cards. I bought business cards for Hanane’s tutoring “Best English” and have been helping her to set up English classes at the dar shabab (youth house) and the Sefrou Orphanage. I have high hopes and moderate expectations. Her cards were advance pay for the translations she agreed to do.

Yesterday, Hanane competed in a singing competition at the local conservatory. She didn’t win, but I was proud to see her on stage. I am still studying Darija and trying to weave a rug out of plastic garbage bags. Someone needs to do something with the plastic bags, they are a blight on the landscape. I smoke too much and don’t eat the way I like. I need to exercise more. Things are happening. I need to keep this momentum going.

Imperial Meknes

Hanane and I took a day trip to Meknes. Meknes was fun although there is still something unpleasant in traveling with Hanane. She says it is a result of our not being married and her being worried about us getting into trouble, but what if it remains the same after we are married? It’s not very fun to travel with her. That would be like punishment to marry someone I hated traveling with.

It was a nice day. We took a taxi to Fez, took the train to Meknes, walked through the streets, got coffee, and explored. I wanted to go to Volubulis but as soon as some asshole gave us a high price, she became offended and upset. Maybe they didn’t used to quote high prices to her, but she’s with a foreigner everyone thinks is rich now. She needs to get over it. I told her it would be difficult, but she no longer wanted to go after he tried to ‘rob her’.

We took a taxi to Moulay Idriss. Muslims only are allowed in the Sufi tomb of Moulay Idris and the guys at the edge stopped me. I was fine not going in, but Hanane flew into a rage and berated them because I’m a Muslim and they backed off. I would have been fine not going in, but it was interesting. We visited the tomb and put coins in a box to buy some of the saints Baraka.

We did some minor shopping, by which I mean Hanane said “Please buy me this little clay jug and matching cup” and I didn’t want to be a jerk and say no. We took a taxi back to Meknes where we ate chicken at the ‘Chicken Palace’. It was delicious, roasted chicken with a ginger sauce which made my taste buds happier than they’ve been in a long time. Moroccan food often tastes bland to me but this absolutely sang. There was a French circus in Meknes. Hanane didn’t want to go (I’m not sure why) but I insisted. I wanted to take her to her first circus. By my standards it wasn’t a very good circus. The balancing act fell off his balance wire which was only about six feet off the ground, the elephant was old and miserable when a bratty little French circus kid made it lie down and then danced on it in his white sneakers. I wanted the poor old elephant to smash him. The clowns were annoying, the plate spinner broke as many plates as he spun, and the tigers looked like they had either had all their teeth pulled or were so old they had fallen out.

Hanane was thrilled with it. She is odd though. Her favorite moment was when the plates began to break, she decided to start counting loudly to see how long they took to fall off. I’m not sure what she was doing, why she was counting out loud, or whether there was a point of success but she laughed loudly when he failed. It was a fun, though odd and unexpected treat.

The train was delayed. Hanane became a little too imperative and imperial in the way she was speaking to me and ordering me about. She was too tired and too bossy to be good company. It would have been a perfectly fine situation with a companion who was pleasant. She wasn’t being pleasant at all. I became annoyed. By the time we reached Fez it was almost midnight. We got the only illegal taxi but not without her starting an argument with the only ride in town over the five dirham extra he was asking. I told her to shut up and paid him.

I went to sleep with another day of travel with the girl I’m engaged to turned from enjoyable to miserable by the time it was through.


The Moroccan Teachers Conference

The American English School Conference was held in Agadir, a strangely western beach town where you don’t hear the call to prayer and you are more likely to see fat German tourists drinking beer than to see Moroccans praying.

The conference presentations were soft and dull, most of the Moroccan teachers spoke far worse English than Hanane (which again raised the question of why she was fired), It gave me a chance to forgive some of the foreign teachers Saul Gerbil blamed for letting her go. A British missionary Sunday-school type teacher with a posh accent told me he had nothing to do with Hanane being fired. He said he had recommended her highly. The Moroccan co-teacher said the same and went so far as to write her a letter of recommendation. It was Saul Gerbil and the Moroccan teachers she didn’t co-teach with who made the decision .

The American English School paid for a few nice dinners. It was funny how the hijabbed women teachers all traveled together in a cluster. I’m always so amazed to find the innocence of these Muslim girls. One of them told me her great joy in life is tickling her brothers and teasing her father with her cold hands on his neck while he works on his computer. It was a conversation about the great joys in life. Wow.

Saul Gerbil was as creepy and weird as ever. If I had small children I wouldn’t let them sit on his lap. There was more boozing among the Moroccan male teachers than I expected and while I didn’t get the chance to surf or swim in the ocean, there were a couple of swims in the pool and some sunbathing on the last day we were there. It was nice to drink beers in public, eat decent western food, and share conversation beyond weather, family, and gossip. Most of the teachers could disappear and I wouldn’t notice. I imagine it is the same for them with me.

On the first night I was back in Sefrou, Hanane had a dream she was at a pool and a woman she described as “Indian or Pakistani with a long braid of hair, skinny, and beautiful” who said “You are my enemy He is mine.” The woman then tried to drown Hanane in the pool.

She heard me say in my sleep “I love you” and wondered who I was talking to. I didn’t remember the dream, but I wondered who I was talking to.

Hanane is an incredibly sweet and loving girl who certainly deserves better than me. Maybe this is the way it always is though. I’ve never been so good at keeping things internal as other people are. Hanane noticed my far off looks and commented on them. I feigned ignorance, but I remember her face perfectly.



I managed to make a few hundred dollars with blogs and blog consulting in the first months of 2010. I hoped to improve with time. The big mistake I’d made in the past was to scrap everything when I should have kept it all live and active. I wouldn’t make that mistake again. Money came from a few sources I didn’t expect but from none of the sources I previously banked on. My reputation shocks me as I hear it. The master of blogging. The guy who knows everything about the web and websites. I didn’t argue, but it wasn’t true. I was learning as I went along.

Marriage was coming closer. She told me I was all she has ever had and all she could ever want. Again, I didn’t argue. I thought it was possible I could set up a business that could support us with the many threads I was weaving together. If my plans came to fruition, it might all work. I hoped so. I’ll need it. I’ll need to have some money to escape someday.

Morocco Blog awards wrapped up and while I didn’t make any money through them, certainly they were successful. They brought more than 30,000 visitors to my site, got international press attention, and established me as a top blogger- at least in Morocco. It was a start.

Hanane and I signed a sort of peace accord and I hoped it would hold. We would attempt to get married in March and then the adventure would begin. I had serious doubts about how it would be for us to live together all the time. She still drove me crazy but I wanted her to be happy. I made a few purchases to make my life more comfortable and soothe my consumer boredom in Morocco. I bought a big beautiful old teapot and a nice little one, a brass hammam bowl, and a brass plate for 100 dirham. I bought a small Belgian runner rug for 50 dirham and a small desk for another 100 dirham. It was a nice improvement. The small desk wasn’t a work of genius craftsmanship but it was perfect for what I wanted to do.

The plan was to leave at some point after marriage. I felt as if I had seen enough of Morocco after the first few months. While it is a beautiful place, I’m not crazy about the religiosity, the power structure, the bureaucracy, or the general 7th century way of life. I’d like to be somewhere where I can purchase maple syrup, drink a beer, and have a swim at the beach without feeling like I’m from another planet. I’d bring Hanane with me and she would obviously bring her culture. I just didn’t know how long I could keep my mind surrounded by the bullshit that defines life in Morocco.

In terms of Islam, I was making Islam my own or perhaps making my own Islam. I found the Qu’ran to be an incredible source of inspiration. Mohammad did his work well. The first command of the Qur’an is “Read” and then it explains that unless a man travels and sees the people of the world, he won’t be able to understand the words of God. The commands of the Qu’ran are reasonable and good. Remember God at least five times a day, treat each other well, and respect your relationships with family and neighbors. Don’t be a racist, accept you can’t understand God, and take care of those less fortunate than you. While I’m no Qu’ranic scholar, it doesn’t take a genius to see the way Islam is practiced in Morocco and elsewhere is generally a far cry from what the prophet intended. He and his descendents are worshiped as near deities and ignorant men the world over use this book of wisdom to oppress those less fortunate than themselves. It seemed to me, most of this problem could be eliminated by getting rid of the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet as recorded by those who claim to have known him, or reported by those who claim to have known those who claim to have known him. Hadith was written about 300 years after the Prophet’s death.

Like all religion, it is a muddled up mess. Every time Hanane wrapped herself up in a blanket to pray, I was bothered. If she had been doing it because she was cold, I would not have been bothered. God invented neither blankets nor clothes and we all came into this world naked and will leave it the same way.


A Moroccan Valentines

I wanted to take a trip out of Sefrou with my sweetheart for Valentines. This was made difficult by the fact that we weren’t married, weren’t allowed to share hotel rooms, and couldn’t even kiss in public. There is no public kissing in Morocco. Sometimes it’s even edited from imported TV shows. Families shut off the TV if it is not edited out.

I was in contact with the foreign owner of a guesthouse in Moulay Idris and got ‘special permission’ for us to stay without the marriage certificate which police actually check for when couples stay somewhere. We were booked into separate rooms but assured there would be no problem if one of them wasn’t used. It was a two for the price of one deal. Ridiculous but necessary.

The day before Valentines, Hanane and I grabbed our overnight bags and set out on a further exploration of Moulay Idriss, Volubulis, and Meknes.

The owner wouldn’t be there, but she assured me her manager would give us no ‘marriage’ problems. It was a two-hour journey to Moulay Idriss from Sefrou. Total cost, about $10. The guest house lay through the main square, past the mausoleum, and through the colorful medina.. The manager, met us at the door. He asked if we were married and then looked at us with disapproval when I told him we weren’t, but since his boss had told him we were to be allowed to stay, he could say nothing.

Still, he felt the need to tell Hanane in Darija that what we were doing was illegal and he didn’t approve. He already knew we weren’t married when he asked – he just wanted this opportunity. Self righteous prick. Once again, a trip in Morocco was off to a bullshit start because of some interfering douchebag’s so-called morality. I found out later he had a foreign girlfriend who he had traveled and stayed with in Morocco. I also found out that he later complained to the owner about how immoral it was to let us have a room together when we weren’t married!

We had the entire guest house to ourselves except for the Moroccan douche who lurked and watched us closely as if his job were to make sure there were no pre-marriage hanky-panky. The house was gorgeous, the product of three years of intensive renovation and decorating. Hot showers, decorative lighting, and a feeling of warmth and home I often found missing from guesthouses in Morocco. A rooftop terrace offered stunning views of Moulay Idriss and Volubulis. The salon was well stocked with comfy chairs, sofas, and plenty of English language books. There were also up to date copies of Newsweek and Time which I found to be comforting even if I didn’t get the chance to read them while we were there. She had done a great job of making her guest house feel like home – in a western way while still honoring it’s location in Morocco.

We hired a guide who walked us through the medina and shared with the history, festivals, and traditions of Moulay Idriss. In addition to knowing virtually everything about his town, he told us of Volubulis, lesser known Roman ruins, scenic views, beautiful cascades, and summer horseback trips. I hoped to return when we had more time.We visited the only round minaret in Morocco, explored the history of Moulay Idriss, and had a picnic lunch on a mountainside trail overlooking Volubulis. We saw beautiful nature, pastoral scenes, and epic views of the Roman ruins as we approached.

Since coming to Morocco a year before, I’d wanted to visit Volubulis. Hanane had never been there either. Volubilis has the best preserved ruins in this part of North Africa. In 1997 the site was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In antiquity, it was an important Roman town situated near the westernmost border of Roman conquests. It was built on the site of a previous Carthaginian settlement starting in the third century BC. That settlement sat atop an earlier neolithic habitation. Volubilis was the administrative center of the province in Roman Africa called Mauritania Tingitana. The fertile lands of the province produced grain and olive oil, which were exported to Rome, contributing to the province’s wealth and prosperity. Another export from the region was the Atlas Lion, famous for eating Christians at the Colosseum in Rome.

The Romans evacuated most of Morocco at the end of the 3rd century AD but, unlike some other Roman cities, Volubilis was not abandoned. It remained inhabited until it was destroyed by an earthquake in the late fourth century. It was reoccupied in the sixth century and later coins found in the ruins which show it was occupied under the Abbasid dynasty.

Moulay (saint) Idris I arrived in 788 when the town was controlled by the Awraba tribe. He was a descendant of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet and was declared provincial imam shortly after arriving. Within three years he consolidated his hold on the area, founded the first settlement at Fez, and started minting coins. He died in 791, leaving a pregnant Awraba wife, Kenza, and his faithful slave, Rashid, who acted as regent until the Idris II was old enough to take over. Under Idriss II, the court departed for Fez, leaving the Awraba in control of the town.

Volubilis’ structures were damaged by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. The town was abandoned after the quake and in the 18th century much of the marble was taken for constructions in nearby Meknes and the town of Moulay Idris. In 1915, archaeological excavation was begun at Volubulis by the French. This continued into the 1920s and beyond. Extensive remains of the Roman town were uncovered. More than two-thousand excavations revealed the headquarters of Moulay Idris I just below the walls of the Roman town.

Our trek took us along a rural mountain road where we encountered fascinating rock structures, caves, and numerous sheep and shepherds. As we entered Volubulis, there were a few tourists, but not many. There was a Chinese tour group which caused Hanane to burst into laughter. Whenever Hanane hears Chinese language it’s as if someone is tickling her. I don’t think they knew it was the reason. Afther they left there were five people wandering the ancient city – including the two of us.

The ruins themselves are remarkably preserved. After 2000 years, the excavated mosaics floors looked no more than twenty-years-old. Numerous columns, arches, and walls were still standing. As we wandered amongst the ruins we tried to imagine what life had been like for those who had lived there. There was no security other than the occasional rope blocking access to those who wished to walk on the mosaic floors. The rope didn’t deter those who wanted to walk on it – the Chinese had been standing on it when we arrived. It’s amazing to me such an important site should be so laxly guarded. If we had wanted to we could have pulled up an entire mosaic and left with it. I wonder how many times this has happened?

Outside the ancient city, local vendors sell artifacts to those who wish to buy them. I’m sure they were a mixture of real and fakes. We wandered through the ruins until dark. As the light of the sunset bathed the ruins, I had an eerie sense we were somehow transported back to those ancient times. In terms of modern transport, we had a long walk back since any taxis which had been there, had long since vanished.

Back at the guest house, we sat on the patio drinking hot chocolate and trying to enjoy our time together. It should have been easy but was made difficult by the hovering manager who seemed intent on keeping an eye on us until it was time to go to bed. He glared at us as we went into one room.

We slept soundly and the heater in our room kept us toasty and warm. In the morning we went upstairs for coffee and found a beautiful Moroccan breakfast waiting for us. Fresh coffee, extraordinary tea (not your usual mint tea but including fresh herbs from the surrounding countryside!) breads, pastries, fresh butter straight from the cow, and the most delicious goat cheese I’d tasted in Morocco. Far too soon, our Valentines weekend in Moulay Idris was over. We hated saying goodbye to the house but were happy to be away from the douchebag manager.

We had enjoyed ourselves greatly in Moulay Idriss and Volubulis. While we were there Hanane brought up our forthcoming trip to Meknes again and again but just for one reason. She wasn’t interested in the imperial history, the buildings, the art…she was only interested in the Chicken Palace. As much as I’d enjoyed eating there, Hanane had loved it more. She actually considered skipping meals so she could eat more when we got there. Meknes, however, has much more than just the Chicken Palace.

Before heading to the Chicken Palace, we strolled through the old medina which dates back to the 8th century. The city was founded by a tribe of Berbers called the Ait Miknasa but was taken over by the Almoravid Dynasty in the 9th century. The city expanded with mosques, madrasas (Qu’ranic schools), and funduqs (traveler hotels) until the 16th century when it as made the imperial capital of Morocco by Sultan Moulay Ismail. In addition to his palace, he built a special prison for Christian sailors captured at sea, gardens, monuments, and the largest stables of the ancient Moroccan world.

Hedim Square is similar to Jmma el Fna in Marrakesh but without the circus atmosphere or the touts. There were merchants selling hats, fake Adidas, djellabas, blankets, and trinkets. The square itself is beautiful and we were approached by exactly zero touts! Meknes is the most laid back of the imperial cities (Fez, Meknes, Marrakech, and Rabat). The Dar Jamai museum is housed in an old riad on the square. It houses a beautiful collection of Moroccan handicrafts. The architecture, gardens, and displays were beautiful, but the restoration work on the riad seemed to have been done by second rate apprentices. Ugly concrete patches slapped on beautiful zellij and mosaic floors unevenly re-tiled. Hopefully in the future, all of this will be restored to the quality of work it deserves.

Next we got lost in the medina. Well, we tried. It’s not like Fez where you can wander around 22,000 streets and alleys for days. Hanane didn’t like the idea but when I explained we could catch a taxi from wherever we ended up back to the train station, she realized it didn’t matter and willingly set our with me. This is why it’s nice to travel with only one small bag. Freedom. Hanane likes to know where she is and what time it is. I don’t care about either.  It doesn’t matter if there is nothing to do and nowhere to be. She is opposite of me in so many ways.

Entering the medina we saw a French family being told by a shop keeper that the attraction they were looking for was closed at which point they started to shop. Leaving them behind, ten minutes later we found what they had been looking for, the Mederasa Bou Ininia…and it was open. Nice shop keeper trick! “Oh, I’m sorry, it’s closed today, but look at these very nice handicrafts!”

It was a beautiful Qur’anic school until the 1950’s. I’m sure there are young men today who are very thankful they aren’t being locked in the tiny cubicles each day so they can memorize suras. If they aren’t grateful, they should be. The locks on the outside of the doors tell the story clearly. From the roof of the school we had wide-open views of the medina and the city’s famed hundred mosques. Leaving, we took random turn after random turn and encountered donkeys, woodworking, and an entire rummage sale street souk of used goods.

After a good long wander, we emerged where we had entered the medina from. When Hanane expressed her surprise about not being lost, I winked at her. Next we took a carriage ride through the imperial grounds. My princess deserved the treatment. Horse and carriage please, no donkeys pulling us this time.

Our first stop was the tomb of Moulay Ismail. it was filled with Chinese tourists. Hanane giggled every time they spoke. Funny to be laughing in a tomb. Moulay Ismail was the father of today’s Morocco. He was the first ‘modern’ Moroccan sultan. He had 500 wives, a thousand children, 60,000 slaves, and 20,000 horses. Some geneticists say he is represented in the genes of every living Moroccan. His tomb was beautiful.

Our next stop was the granaries and stables of Moulay Ismail. Heri es-Souani. Big, grand, impressive, and boring. It was a very big stone barn. From the barn the carriage took us past the slave quarters, the very beautiful Agdal Basin, past the Jewish quarter of Meknes (the Jewish quarter in Morocco is always referred to as the mellah, which means place of salt. Presumably this is because the Jews were salt merchants.) Our carriage driver pointed to an old woman and said, “Look, she is a real Jew!” He wasn’t making a joke. She looked like every other old Moroccan and I seriously doubt she was actually Jewish. He drove us back to the very impressive Bab Mansour, the main gate across from the entrance to the old Medina which was built from the marble of Volubulis.

Next we visited the Chicken Palace and the Ice Cream Palace. It was a day filled with palaces. We got to the train station in time to catch the train, then caught a long distance taxi, then the walked across the cobble stone road, into the medina, through the narrow derbs, over the stone bridge which crossed the  Oued Aggai, and finally arrived safely back in the casbah of Sefrou.

Bruce Lee and My Film Club

Bruce Lee in Morocco? One of my favorite couchsurfers while I lived in the casbah was a Canadian Chinese man named Bruce Lee. Bruce had read my couchsurfing profile, knew I was in Sefrou and not in Fez, and kindly offered to scour some used book stores in Canada for a couple of books I had been wanting to read but couldn’t find in Morocco. He arrived during a week when I was busy with consulting projects, teaching, and rushing around to get marriage paperwork. The taxis were striking so I had been crashing with teaching colleagues in Fez all week since the grand taxis to Sefrou were not running.

Bruce brought the end of the strike with him. He was glad to drop the extra weight of Henry Miller’s Plexus and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time out of his bag. I was stoked to get two books I’d been wanting to read and hadn’t found in Morocco. We set off for Sefrou, giving Bruce his first experience of being crammed into a grand taxi with six other people. We rustled up a vegetable stew and some mint tea in my place and sat up talking about travel and life until it was time to go to sleep.

In the morning we trekked up to the Azaoui house and dragged Hanane and Salma out of bed to hike through the foothills near Sefrou. It was Hanane and my usual route. Up to the monument, past the cascade, up to the water source and then back to the medina. I had to go back to Fez to host the Friday movie club and Bruce joined the Azaouis for Friday couscous. When I returned I found he’d escaped them and was relaxing in the casbah. He was stoked to have enjoyed Mama Ghita’s world famous couscous but he found Moroccan hospitality a bit overwhelming.

Bruce’s next host was our friend Hassan down in the Sahara. Bruce had also met up with a girl Hanane had met in Tangier. He was surfing with people who knew people he had surfed with. While we were walking in the Sefrou medina, a shop keeper noticed he was Chinese.

“Hey, you Jackie Chan? Ni hao.”

Bruce laughed. “Dude, you have no idea how close you are!” Bruce Lee was a cool dude. I tried to marry him off to Salma but he was on his way to see the world. Smart man. We shared a taxi (with five other people) to Fez where I had my weekly movie club.

I decided to show a terrible movie to the film club students at the American English School. Part of it was because these were spoiled rich kids, but there was more to it. The movie I’m Gonna Git You Sucka is a parody of the black exploitation films of the 1970s. From the get go, this film had no chance to be good. There is something compelling about blacksploitation films themselves, but to make a parody of them? Not a chance. Writer and director, Keenan Wayans, cast himself as the star, and also decided to make the film campy. In every way, the film is a disaster. In fact, it’s more than a disaster, it’s offensive.

The film has one redeeming quality. Comedian Chris Rock is a genius. The reason I showed the film was because racism is presented in such an overt way it enables sensitive issues to be talked about without needing to resort to the type of coded language Americans in particular usually use. For example, when neighborhood Olympics take place one of the events is a race where the boys and girls carry televisions while running from dogs. Frankly, what this is saying is white Americans have a perspective all young black men who live in the ghetto are thieves, criminals, and worse. So, in a sense, this film opens up a discussion.

I wanted to get Moroccan students discussing racism in Morocco.

Rght after the film when a female student said,”I don’t think this film is fair to black people.”

She was under the impression the film had been made by a white director and missed the idea it was a spoof. It wasn’t the first time I’d run into this kind of totally unexpected understanding.

My wife’s father had asked me if Avatar was a real planet and when we watched science fiction films on the Moroccan networks I had become used to the family saying with disgust “That’s not real!” Most of the students understood it was a spoof but it opened the door to talking about what a spoof is, what camp is, and why Keenan Wayans might have wanted to make the film in the first place. Then, we bridged into talking about racism in Morocco.

The students were polarized into two groups: those who claimed racism does not exist in Morocco and those who asserted it does. The more affluent students claimed racism doesn’t exist in Morocco. Their argument was since all Moroccans are Muslims, there can be no racism because the Qur’an says all Muslims should be treated the same. They ignored the non-Muslims in Morocco, because to them, they didn’t count as Moroccans. Non-Muslims in Morocco are either Jews, Europeans, or sub-Saharan Africans who are much blacker than most Arab Moroccans. They are often Christians.

The students in the other camp pointed out African immigrants from Senegal are discriminated against. Those who live in the Sahara and are darker find it harder to get work when they leave the desert areas, and in Morocco, light skin is considered a sign of beauty and affluence.

They made their point. There is racism based on skin color in Morocco.

The students all believed racism is not as severe in Morocco as in the United States. Their main reason was because Islam forbids racism. Several students pointed out that in Morocco, discrimination tends more towards linguistic discrimination with language being a major focus of class and privilege in roughly the following order from those with the most privilege to the least: French and English, Arabic, Amazigh (Berber) languages, and finally African tribal languages.

It wasn’t the only film I had used to delve into taboo issues. I decided to address two issues are prevalent in Moroccan society: Piracy (of goods) and Magic. To get at these subjects, I showed Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter. Morocco has a long history of piracy, both the swashbuckling kind which used to take place from the Barbary Priate lairs in Sale to the modern kind where you see Moroccan kids walking around in fake Adidas, Nikes, Diesel, Dolce and Gabbana, and Georgio Armani clothes and shoes.

The students weren’t interested in talking about piracy on the ocean. Most of them had never been taught about the Sale pirates in school. I don’t know what they teach in Moroccan schools, but it doesn’t seem to be Moroccan history. The students wanted to talk about pirated goods. I asked if they could recognize if goods were real or pirated. They said it was easy. I asked how they could tell the difference and the answer was the price. If it was expensive, it was real, if not, it was not. I tried to argue maybe the pirates simply made some more expensive but they were sure there was no difference in the quality. It was only the price. If it has a tag and is expensive, it is real, they assured me. If it doesn’t, it isn’t. I couldn’t convince them. It made me think I should start selling pirated goods for expensive prices to the school’s students. We talked about DVD piracy. You can find the latest movies in Morocco for a Euro each (10 dirham.) They didn’t seem bothered by piracy of any kind. In fact, they liked it.

For Harry Potter we had a large turnout. To my surprise, the students weren’t impressed by the film or the story. One of their big complaints was that it wasn’t realistic. This was a strange complaint from my perspective but as mentioned above, I have heard similar complaints from Moroccans when watching films that require a suspension of disbelief. In general, the Moroccan’s I’ve spoken with about films tend to like things which fit into their worldview. I showed the film so we could have a discussion about Moroccan magic. It’s a very taboo subject. People simply don’t talk about it with an outsider like me. I’m not entirely sure why.

The discussion after Harry Potter was magnificent. Morocco is a place steeped in magic and mystery. From worries about the evil eye, to stories of djinn and demons, to neighborhood witches who dole out expensive potions to those seeking love or fortune. When I asked about magic like that in the film, the students pointed out that there was no mention of Allah or Qu’ran in the film and for that reason, none of it was ‘real’ magic.

They pointed out that the kind of magic Harry and his friends do is considered black magic and in Morocco is usually associated with those who have ‘sold their souls’ or are working with djinn. They never invoked Allah so they were obviously involved with saitan (demons).

Only one student among twenty-two said he didn’t believe in magic. When he said that, the other twenty-one laid into him mercilessly over the fact magic is mentioned in the Qur’an. One student said the miracles of Moses were magic, but another said that since the miracles came from Allah this was not possible, i.e. magic is bad and Allah is good. Miracles are not magic.

When I asked them to define what a wizard or magician is, the students told me that in Morocco it is usually a man (ebrou or fihk) who charges women money to fix relationship problems. I pictured Dr. Phil and stiffled my giggle. The amazing part to me, as always, was that in Morocco people can be so incredibly pragmatic and realistic (that film was too fake) and at the same time so superstitious and ruled by supernatural belief (the lady down the street gave me the evil eye, there’s a djinn in your drain, Aisha Kondisha possesses him, don’t whistle indoors because it draws djinn, and don’t imitate donkey sounds because it brings death…)

They liked the film, but they wished it would have been more realistic. I’m sure if Harry and his friends had been shown praying or reciting sura before their magic, it would have made a very different impact on these students and on Moroccans in general.


The Ugliest Rug in Morocco

I looked at all the garbage piled up in various places and seeing as I had accumulated a thousand or more plastic grocery bags under my kitchen sink I decided to do something with them. You get plastic bags with everything in Morocco. They go out filled with the garbage, people pick through them, and then they blow all over the place. This beautiful country looks like a multicolored plastic garbage dump.

So I decided to start playing with plastic bags. I braided them into some decent cordage, I started weaving with them and then I figured, what the hell, I’ll weave a rug out of them. I cobbled together a loom from some broken wood, bought some twine to thread it with, and started experimenting with weaving a rug. I’d made a rug in 7th grade but really had no idea how to go about it. My loom was about three feet square. I ran 20 pieces of twine up and down it and I started crumbling bags, tearing bags into strips, and doing whatever I could to see what worked.

The aim was to figure out a way to turn trash into treasure and to clear the landscape of the plastic bags. I figured if people could make useful things from garbage, then it would cease being garbage, it would get collected, and nature would start to look natural again.

It seemed possible.

It took me months to complete my first try. Certainly I’m not a weaver and I have no training or knowledge of how to do this, I just did it, as I do most things. The result, which I proudly presented to Hanane’s mom, is without a doubt the ugliest rug to ever be made in Morocco. My skills and technique improved as I went, but it was such a monstrosity in terms of design that I nearly threw it away. Hanane stopped me and said I should give it to her mom. To my surprise, it seemed to be appreciated as something to wash things on outside. So, I called it success. (Three years later they are still using it!)

Marriage in Morocco

There are very few things I hate more than bureaucratic paperwork.

I only had a few days left to get all the marriage paperwork I needed so we could finally get the pashas, viziers, and petty sultans who work in the Moroccan bureaucracy to let us finally be married. If I didn’t get everything done before mid-April, all of our papers would expire and we’d have to start again.

I’d planned on getting all the paperwork done during the term but since I was teaching a class every day, there was no chance to take the necessary trips to Casablanca and Rabat to get what we needed. A ton of unexpected blockages had kept us from getting married:

-the Alaska job got taken while I was on the way

-the unexpected firing and evicting from my father for no apparent reason

-me not having a valid ID such as a driver’s license with me aside from my passport

-and even though I was only working 10 hours a week, the fact I had to work every day

I felt like a bum for continually telling my sweetheart and her family we would do it soon, later, after, etc. So, even though the school break was only a few days between terms, I was determined we would get all the documents we needed.

The list of documents I needed in order to marry Hanane changed according to which Moroccan official we spoke with but it was approximately this:

-U.S. certified copy of passport

-U.S. certified capacity to marry + official translation in Arabic

-U.S. certified birth certificate + official translation in Arabic

-Declaration of Employment

-Copy of Work Contract

-Certified copy of rental contract

-Medical certificate

-American Police Record from State of last residence + official translation in Arabic

-Moroccan Police Record

-Notarized statement of my conversion to Islam

-Statement indicating my intent to marry + official translation in Arabic

-An unidentified number of passport photos (between 3 to 10)

Plus three certified copies of everything above in French and Arabic.

Keep in mind, these documents aren’t free. Everyone chargess something including the U.S. Consulate. It’s $30 per copy for certified copies of passport, $30 per copy for a sheet which says I’ve never married, etc. Hawaii charged $15 for a police record which wouldn’t have been accepted because it has no stamps on it and Moroccan officials love stamps (but fortunately, they love money more). So, since Friday was a holy day, the weekends are weekends, and class assignments would happen Tuesday, I didn’t have much time.

I’d been making copies and certifying things through the term. I needed the ‘capacity to marry’, a certified copy of my passport, and notarization through the ministry of foreigners (in French by the way, Bureau of Strangers– I’m a stranger…stranger than most, probably.) I graded final exams and then Hanane and I woke at 3 am to catch a 4 am bus from Sefrou to Casablanca. It got us there at about 10 am. We went to the U.S. consulate and were told to come back at 1:30 even though the website said 10 am and the guy I called (who answered with a simple “Hello”) said 2:30. We napped in a park in polluted Casa, looked at the amazing disparity or wealth, and drank expensive orange juice (Hanane found a hair in it) at a cafe near the consulate.

At the consulate, I filled out the form, paid the fee with an inflated dollar to dirham rate (8.7 to 1 vs 7.4 to 1) and then we caught the train to Rabat to get my U.S. certified documents certified by Moroccan officials. We got there twenty minutes too late so we booked into the Hosteling International Hostel where we were molested by bedbugs while all the hostelers went out drinking. We ate a terrible dinner, but both of us fell in love with Rabat and it’s cosmopolitan airs. It’s a nice city to be in. Later we were awakened by the return of drunk backpackers, but hey, isn’t that what hostels are about?

The next day we went to the Bureau of Strangers, they took my documents and told us to come back at noon, so we went to the Ministry of Stamping Papers and waded past about thirty guys who offered to do us big services for a small fee, but we refused them all. Once we were inside we found a sign which said they weren’t responsible for people who were ripped off by the guys outside offering to do big favors, since they were all crooks. I ignore everyone who offers anything until they sit behind a desk and then I ignore those guys if I can, so no problem.

Getting our papers stamped was 20 dirham for each, though the guys outside were offering to help for just a few hundred…a good racket. Then to the Roman Necropolis they call Chellah to relax in flower gardens. It was as lovely as I remembered it. Plus, as a bonus, Friday is free entry day for Moroccans! So it was half price for us.

From there back to the Bureau of Strangers (I can’t say that enough) where they had my paperwork. We arrived just before everyone leaves for couscous. And with that, we had all the necessary papers (we thought so anyway, because no one knows for sure until the judge comes) and so we caught the train back to Fez, but not before eating some pizza in Rabat. Delicious. There aren’t real restaurants in Sefrou. We also ate ice cream cones and I have to admit Hanane eating pink ice cream while wearing pink shoes, a pink sweatshirt, and pink earrings, was more than cute. There aren’t ice cream parlors in Sefrou either, so it was a nice treat seeing the cuteness and eating the ice cream.

On the train we met an Italian guy who looked just like every man in my family. He told me I look like every person in his Northern Italian family. The Damitio’s are French going back to at least the 1500’s but I’ve heard there are Damitio’s in Italy too, so maybe we are Italian by descent from France, if not by nature. From Fez, we caught the thirty minute taxi to Sefrou, and basked in the glory of having all our papers.

Next step? Translation and family court.

The official translator was closed for the weekend. After translation we would have to go to the family court where they usually tell people to go get other papers from some other distant places, after that, the aldul (an Islamic judge) certifies that we are married Muslim people, and after that, well, we would have to wait and see. There are some things I love about Morocco, but the bureaucracy is not one of them.

This was the initial list we were given when we first decided to get married. It consisted of about thirty-five documents of which I had zero at that point. The list made Hanane cry. Here was what I had gathered:

Identity card – my Hawaii drivers license had expired several months earlier

Passport and most recent entry visa – I had this and only this.

Proof of income – I had no job

Original Certified birth certificate less than 90 days old

Attestation de travail – proof of a job. I didn’t have a job.

Work contract – more proof of a job

Police record less than 90 days old from state most recently resided in

Police record from the Ministry of strangers in Rabat

Proof of residence – I had no residence

Rental contract signed and notarized – again, I had no residence

9 passport photos

Medical certificate by Sefrou doctor

Affidavit of eligibility to marry- consul certified

Affidavit of nationality – consul certified

Consul certified copy of passport

Police check and validation by Sefrou police

Conversion to Islam, signed, stamped, and paid.

Translations of all of the above

For Hanane (the female Moroccan bride to be)

Medical certificate proving virginity

Sworn affidavit of consent and eligibility to marry by two adult male family members

Identity card

Police check and validation by Sefrou police

Character reference from local constabulary

9 photos

Yeah…it was hell and seemed impossible. The problem was in Morocco and the Muslim world, you can’t just live together. There aren’t any boyfriend and girlfriend situations. You can be single or you can be engaged in which case you are allowed to see each other with chaperones. Or you can be married in which case you are allowed the rights of marriage such as traveling together, staying in the same house or hotel room together, and not being judged by every person who sees you, and being able to explore if you are compatible. I’m going to be honest here – what I was working so hard for was the right to date Hanane – in Morocco, you have to be married to date.

An unmarried/unengaged woman in Morocco is considered to be a whore or a spinster. There’s no such thing as a liberated woman. Widow’s get a pass. Young girl’s get a pass. Everyone else is judged. It’s a fucked up and ignorant viewpoint which pervades the entire society from top to bottom.

I admit it, I dragged my feet because I wanted a year to decide if I wanted to marry or not, but honestly, I’m not sure I could have gotten things any quicker than I did if I had been going at it gangbusters. In the process of getting the documents I was required more than once to stretch the truth, throw tantrums, beg, and plead. And let’s not forget handing over cash.

It took four trips to Fez and nearly two weeks to get the translations because of holidays. He refused to translate my police record from Hawaii because it had an electronic stamp on it. It said I had no police record but it had to be in Arabic by an official translator. I finally convinced him to translate it anyway (wink, wink) and we took the papers to the family court judge who pointed out the translator had transcribed my last name, Damitio, into Arabic differently than the aldul who affirmed I had become Muslim. I had to go back to the translator.

The judge wanted an official government Hawaii stamp on my Hawaii criminal record but after three visits where I explained the number on the paper was an electronic stamp to be checked on the internet so the paper could be verified, he finally accepted it. It literally took thirty hours of sitting in the courthouse waiting to see the judge over four days to convince him. The visits with him took no more than 15 minutes each. We needed another translation of the declaration of my being a Muslim. Back to Fez, back to the translator, back to Sefrou, back to the courthouse, back to the family court judge.

We returned to the judge and waited four hours to see him again and then he read the translation and said the criminal record wouldn’t work after all. Hanane begged and he told us to wait four more hours, finally he came back and said, okay, he’d accept it. With his signature we were able to submit the papers to the clerk who told us to wait another day for approval. After that, we submitted the file to a separate clerk who wrote sealed letters to the constabulary and the police. We delivered these to the officials which entailed seven hours of waiting and were told the papers would be ready the next day. Four days later the papers were delivered with us spending about three hours each day waiting to be told they weren’t ready yet.

With these papers we went back to the family court and delivered them to another clerk. The process should have been done, except the aldul’s had gone on strike, so we had to wait four more days for their strike to end so they could give us the certified folder to deliver to the family court judge. Lots of waiting in the court house and the aldul’s office to make this process work and finally the fuckers came off strike and we got the folder and took it to the court. We waited three more hours, paid 600 dirham for a stamp, and then waited two more hours for the judge to sign off on the papers. The judge came out after two hours and told us to wait. Finally we got impatient and went to his office and he told us we would need to come back the next day since by the time he had gotten around to our file, everyone else in the courthouse had gone home.

The stress of this entire process caused us to fight like a couple of cats with their tales tied together and strung over a clothesline. I wanted to push for everything but Hanane wanted to be patient, to wait, to let them walk all over us and usually what happened was I had to fight and cuss and push her in order to get her to fight and push them even a little. Over a year of preparation and after gathering all the necessary papers we had been waiting for three weeks for signatures. How many people have just given up on love and marriage in Morocco because of how fucked up the system is? I know people who gave up, some had the resources to go to other countries to be married, some relationships died under the pressure, and some…well, this one at least, seemed to still be moving forward.

Maybe it was the universe telling us to give up but my nature is that the more something is denied me, the more I follow through with determination. I am mission oriented. I would not give up on the mission.

We went back to see the judge the next day, but he had gone on vacation. We had to wait three days for him to get back from his holiday. I wanted to shoot myself but not until I’d gone postal and killed every person in the family courthouse. I didn’t have a gun and in truth, I’m not suicidal or homicidal.

On April 6th, 2010, Hanane and I went to the court and asked the clerk about the status of our file. He told us the judge had signed it. It didn’t seem possible. We went to the registrar, got the file, and the permission slip the judge had written for us to be married. After this, we went to her parents house, gathered her father from the fields where he was tending the sheep, and the three of us took a taxi ride to the aldul.

The aldul filled out the forms, casually asked us if we had any conditions (Hanane’s was we remain Muslim and mine was she be nice. She asked if that included not killing me and I pointed out nice people don’t kill! – she agreed, but hesitantly….)

The aldul filled out the forms and at 12:12 he told us “Okay, you’re married.” Since her father and the aldol (Islamic judge)  were there I couldn’t kiss the bride. All I could do was kiss my father-in-laws cheeks. “You may now kiss the father of the bride!”

Actually, he didn’t even say that. There was nothing, no vows, no kiss, no ring exchange, no nothing. Just some dusty guy in a dirty office signing a pile of papers. It was a contract between two people with a witness signed by a judge.

I’d never really imagined myself getting married so I didn’t have some fantasy about what it would be like but this was definitely not how I would have imagined it.

We went back to my in-laws house and ate chicken and potatoes for lunch. There was some light congratulations but not like I would have expected, I mean, we’d just gotten married.


Moroccan Wedding Ceremonies

I have to say, as I write this, it’s still a little odd to think “I’m married.”

Hanane is my wife!

I don’t know exactly what I expected from this thing called marriage, but it’s better than whatever it was we were doing before. It’s a little hard to describe, but there isn’t a big change, our relationship is the same, our friendship is the same. I haven’t changed the way I dress, I didn’t get taller, and my hair didn’t suddenly all turn gray but I do seem a bit balder on top than I was a year ago. No big earth shaking things.

But maybe it is earth shaking. Maybe it is life changing. Maybe things actually are completely different. I just know it’s nice to wake up and have her there. It’s nice to know no one can say she can’t be or to be worried about being arrested for being a couple. It’s nice to let people judge and not worry about them being right or wrong. It’s nice to find myself being a bit more patient as I come to realize Hanane is my wife and we’ll spend a long, long time together.

It’s odd to suddenly include someone else in my almost constant escape plans from wherever I might be (luckily she is tiny and almost fits in my pocket), it’s odd to need to think about providing food and shelter for someone else (but she is tiny and doesn’t eat much or need a big house), and it’s odd to think of being responsible for the material, emotional, and overall happiness of someone else (but she does the same for me and that deal should make it worth it.)

It’s all so odd and yet, it’s comforting, it’s good. It feels so much better than I’ve felt in such a long time.

Mission accomplished. We beat the system that tried to hold us back.

When I see her tiny flower covered shoes at the door, it makes me happy. When she giggles and laughs, it makes me happy. When she holds up a big fucking knife and threatens to kill me, it makes me happy. She’s definitely joking…I think.

I’ve found the right girl for me. We both got lucky….

I’ve never liked weddings anyway. I skipped my best friend’s wedding (sorry Mike), I tried to get out of going to my sister’s wedding, I’ve avoided weddings almost as much as I’ve avoided funerals. I hate them. I don’t like the music, I don’t like the food, I don’t like most of the people at them, and I don’t like the expense, the gift registries, or the non-personal nature of them in general. Still, I’ve always taken part in them by buying gifts (and usually sending them) or if I had to, attending.

I can say without a doubt, the only thing I hate more than weddings in general are Moroccan weddings. In particular, Sefroui weddings. This presents a slight problem as I’ve just recently become married to a Moroccan. We’re working through that as we plan our wedding (in Morocco, first comes the marriage and then the wedding), as I will explain in a second, but first let me give an example of a Moroccan wedding, since I’ve just attended one.

Hanane’s sister just wedded her jumbo husband.

I’m not sure why, but they scheduled their wedding before we had the chance to schedule ours. I feel like they stole our thunder. Maybe it’s because it’s her older sister. In any event, we got our paperwork through and a week later they got theirs through. Then they announced their wedding date.

The Moroccan wedding is a painfully drawn out affair of at least three days. In the weeks before the wedding there was a flurry of activity as Hanane’s parents and siblings prepared thousands of cookies and sweets, bought dresses, and did an enormous amount of work. Thankfully, I was able to shield Hanane from becoming a kitchen slave thanks to our own recent marriage. Her sisters and mother were upset with her over it, but she was relieved to escape from it. She did her part, but since she was no longer living in the house – she escaped most of it. We stayed with her parents for a few nights so Hanane could work with everyone else and help prepare for the wedding. This was okay as I am fond of her parents and the siblings who live at their house. I’d rather be at my house, but it was necessary.

The morning after, I had to work in Fez and so I woke up and headed to the grand taxi without the benefit of my usual couple of hours of waking and adjusting with coffee, taking a morning shit, and not having to talk to anyone (Hanane sleeps late). I’m a grumpy fucker without some time to let my bowels relax and Moroccan morning jibber-jabber with people in the constant salaam a leycum, leycum a salaam, la bas, la bas, la basalik, hamdilah, hnya shweeya, blah blah jibber jabber seems utterly pointless. It serves to interrupt every conversation, project, or bit of work you attempt to do here. Or your coffee and your morning dump.

That night I came back and repeated the big taxi ride followed by the small taxi accompanied by edgy hunger as we were staying at the parental house again because it was the henna night for the women. Again a midnight dinner and no chance to grade papers. Not only is there the application of henna but the stereo is turned up to the highest level so the sounds are distorted. As with an engagement, the bride is immobilized and everyone else dances and has fun. It’s for the women, but since I’m a member of the family and a foreigner, I somehow got to dance and have fun too. This part was actually the most fun part. I loved dancing with Hanane’s mom, dad, and all the kids though the music hurt my head, I was incredibly hungry, and I knew I had to wake up early for my 12 hour hell day teaching Moroccan tweens. I tried to get out of it and just go home, but they wouldn’t let me.

The next day, it was another commute to Fez by cramped grand taxi in the morning. Since some cousins and her brother and his wife had all come to visit, we slept in the salon where we got to hear the muffled sounds of humping all night, the baby crying, and the usual yelling from neighbors. There were loud demands for Hanane help find things (after we’d gone to sleep, mind you), and more, total sleep time for me….about an hour.

After 12 hours teaching classes, a small taxi to a big taxi to a small taxi to Sefrou where I arrived at about 9:30 pm hoping I had missed most of the wedding. No such luck. The bride hadn’t even returned from the beauty salon yet. I was hungry and tired and you won’t be surprised to know I was incredibly grumpy too. Most of the guests were sitting in the olive press warehouse next door. I tried to find a place to take a catnap and each time I started to doze a relative or new guest would wander in and wake me up in order to salaam a leykum and ask me questions I either didn’t understand or pretended not to understand. Hanane was in full slave mode making candy sachets, doing every woman’s makeup, and in general getting treated like a scullery maid by the guests. She was also called every time Zara’s gargantuan 11-year old special-needs step daughter would run amuk.

Three hours later, the bride arrived. After a short time we were all told to go to the warehouse for dinner, but a problem developed. The essential Moroccan wedding kaftan dress rentals never showed up since they were booked at another wedding and were running late. Let me explain. The Moroccan wedding requires a few things, a huge dinner hall, rented plastic tables and chairs with fancy gold and silver cloth covers, rented decorations, a big pair of thrones, blaring music, mountains of food, and secondary to all of this are the bride and groom. The bride changes into four different kaftans through the evening, most families rent the dresses along with the hall, the tables, chairs, table covers, chair covers, thrones, wall coverings, sound equipment, and ornaments. It’s a specialized and lucrative Moroccan business. This particular event took place in a big concrete olive press warehouse which looks like it is straight out of a slasher movie or a Soviet torture drama. They did a nice job of sprucing it up with all the Sefroui wedding equipment but the stained concrete walls still shone through.

During the time I was trying to nap, the guests, mostly old women in their nicest kaftans who had been invited by other old women who were, in turn, actually invited by the bride (or the bride’s mother), sat at tables as the music blared too loud for anyone to talk. The dress renter wasn’t answering her phone and the bride was freaking out. Meanwhile, half the people at the tables got to eat, while those of us on the other side considered running across the room to snatch a chicken to gnaw on. Finally around two hours later, the food appeared on our side of the room. It wasn’t the most delicious version of olive roast chicken or prune roasted mutton I’d had in Morocco, but it was cooked in extreme bulk. It’s hard to make things perfect when you are making a hundred of them. Still, it was good considering the mass of food and the 100 square foot kitchen it was made in.

Directly after eating, the dresses showed up and I admit, the entrance of the bride was spectacular. Certainly the most beautiful part of the day. She arrived in a car and six guys in big white cloaks surrounded the car and opened their capes so no one could see her. She got out and stepped into a palanquin. Four of the guys carried her while doing an amazing amount of dancing and acrobatics at the same time. A band with six foot bugles and spectacular percussion followed the procession. Poor Zara looked serene and beautiful as a princess while everyone crowded around the dancing guys carrying her. From the crown to the palanquin to the escort to the music, she was a princess. This wonderful and spectacular part lasted ten-minutes and then they lowered her so she and her god-awful Belgian husband could ascend the big thrones overlooking the olive press warehouse dance floor.

From this point on, the bride and groom sat with stony faces and observed everyone else having fun. There was constant dancing and getting pictures with newlyweds. For four hours their only movement was Zara moving to the house to change kaftans. Meanwhile everyone else danced or watched the dancers while the sound system blared contemporary Moroccan music at mega decibel volume through blown speakers. Outside, groups of young men smoked kif while inside, the women stared and resented each other for beauty, husbands, or whatever else they might have not had but someone else did. My ears rang more than they do naturally. I suffer from tinnitus and this made it worse.

Young guys brought cookies, the Belgian daughter kept getting into mischief and dragging my wife away to help her, and finally after trying to get Hanane to escape with me for hours, I dragged her away just before dawn so we could sleep. The house was crowded with people, loud conversations, and Hanane’s brother had the nerve to demand she wash his baby’s dirty diapers while his wife stood next to him. I was ready to smack him, but Hanane laid into him verbally. She’s a married woman now and doesn’t have to be anyone’s slave…thank God she knows it.

I dreamed about a fantasy wedding in the Sahara with just a few people. A wedding where we would  enjoy it too instead of just creating a party for everyone else to enjoy. Every woman there demanded an invitation to our wedding and protested when Hanane told them we were thinking of going to Turkey, the Sahara, or elsewhere. The party is what they all love and they want the next girl to suffer being the bride just as they had to suffer themselves.

As I said though, the bride did get her ten minutes of fame. I want Hanane to get hers too, but I want her to enjoy the rest of the wedding too. I refuse to go to another olive warehouse party even if it is our wedding. I think Hanane is growing on the idea of the Sahara, nomad tents, and moonlight kisses among the dunes.

I don’t want to hate my own wedding. I don’t want to remember it as a day of hell. Maybe I’m a selfish prick for not appreciating the traditional wedding customs of my beautiful Moroccan bride. After all, one has to honor the community one lives in right? One needs to respect and honor the customs that have been handed down through the ages right?

I suppose it would be selfish of me to not insist upon the following traditional customs (please note my sarcasm):

I should encourage Hanane to work her ass off for every female relative or friend who gets married and spend days making herself exhausted and miserable and then tell her to shut up about it when she complains to me about it, that’s the traditional way a Moroccan husband would deal with it.

I should force her to wear the veil again since she is a married woman and showing any skin or hair is just encouragement to being harassed and pestered. Besides it will bring shame upon me, according to tradition and custom. In fact, custom and tradition demand if I catch her looking at, talking to, or god forbid touching a man who is not her brother or father, I should beat her and possibly publicly humiliate or kill her.

Speaking of beating, a Moroccan friend told me according to custom I should give her a good beating on our wedding night to set things straight about how our life will be together. Sounds like a good idea, right? I mean, if I don’t follow the custom, she might not think I love her enough.

On the wedding night, we mustn’t ignore the time honored tradition of my mother and uncle waiting outside the nuptial chambers for me to finish ‘deflowering her’, I’ll be sure to give the rag with her virginal blood on it to my mother so she can parade it around amongst the relatives and show what a stallion her son is. Of course, if there’s no blood than the marriage will be null and void according to custom and she and her family will have to endure a lifetime of shame from the loving community around them. And besides which – we are already married, we just haven’t had a wedding.

Since the wedding is women’s work, I will be sure to just sit back as my new brother-in-law did and watch as all the women work themselves into exhaustion. As he put it “It’s women’s work, so no problem. For me, it’s easy.” Also I appreciate the fact he made his bride foot most of the bill for the wedding since it was her show.

Speaking of expenses, since we are a multi-cultural family now, I suppose I can insist my father- in-law pay for all of the expenses of the wedding as happens in the west, sure, he’s a shepherd and as a teacher, I make a decent living, but it’s his responsibility as a person to honor the customs of my country. In keeping with that, we’ll be sure to have plenty of booze in the western tradition so all the guests can get good and liquored up, those who choose to honor Islam can abstain.

Since it’s shameful to display any affection there will be no kissing the bride (this is truly the custom, what a shame if someone were to see you expressing love with a kiss in public on your wedding day!)

I realize by not honoring the time honored tradition of having a blaring stereo or having our wedding reception in a warehouse with garbage in the corners, I will be depriving my bride of the sense of community she desires.

Also we will be sure to have the customary kif smokers and all the leeching neighbors from 300 miles come and make demands upon her mother’s hospitality. They deserve it after all. When guests come to visit in Morocco, they don’t bring gifts, they don’t contribute to the household, and they don’t help out, they just sit around making demands for the most part. Ask any Moroccan and they will tell you and it’s a time honored tradition everyone looks forward to reciprocating (of course there are exceptions.)

We’ll be sure to invite all the people in the neighborhood and who I’ve heard so many nasty things about. To not invite them would be shameful and of course they will bring their relatives too. Like the mother of the guy who smashed Mama Ghita’s head with a rock. And the rocker too, of course. Seriously, if you don’t invite everyone you know to the wedding, it’s a public shame for the family.Sounds great right? Why don’t we re-institute the time tested tradition of female circumcision while we’re at it!

(Okay, my sarcasm is done now.)

What a bunch of horse crap. Every woman and every man should be able to feel special on their wedding day. I’ve always dreamed of going alone into the woods with my bride, laying down a broomstick and jumping over it while holding hands. No guests, no priest, no cake, no $1000 wedding gowns, no tuxedos, no guest list, no gift index, no nothing but me and my sweetheart.

Hanane has always dreamed of something more and she’s going to get it but I refuse to repeat this particular pattern.

Marriage is a constant state of compromise and multi-cultural marriage is even more so. I want my lady to feel like the most important person in the world on her day. I want her to remember the moments of our wedding as some of the most joyful of our life. Note – I said our life. That means me too, the selfish guy. The selfish guy that’s paying, the selfish guy that’s planning, the selfish guy that’s trying to find the sweetest compromise which adds up to something more than the utterly common. The selfish guy who hates to see his mother in law exhausted, the selfish guy who listens to his wife complain about things she shouldn’t have to complain about but is forced to because of custom, the selfish guy who encouraged his wife to take off the veil, the selfish guy who doesn’t want to take away her father’s cigarette money, the selfish guy who is working his ass off each day so we can have a special wedding, have a honeymoon in Turkey, and have a standard of living beyond what my bride has ever had.

The selfish guy who didn’t even get to find out that the small dinner to announce the engagement was a full on party, the selfish guy who paid a dowry, who put on a big marriage papers are signed party, who constantly deals with living in a culture which is still so foreign it seems completely retarded.

I understand it well enough now to know, it actually is retarded.

I’ve been told every Moroccan bride looks miserable at her wedding. I can see why. Every Moroccan groom is miserable too, I’m sure. The men’s section at a Moroccan wedding or engagement party is filled with miserable male guests. All men but the young kif smokers disappear promptly after the food is served. It’s no secret. My wife knows, you know, and I know.

Since I’m a big fucking jerk, I’m going to make sure Hanane and I have a beautiful, magical, and romantic wedding. If we are the only ones who like it, that’s fine by me.


I don’t want to be some nobody teacher in a nobody town. I don’t want to be some childless guy who always wonders whether he would have been a good dad. I don’t want to be in this position of being the foreigner with no friends. I want to have an exquisite life.

I want to swim in the ocean, lie on the beach, hike in the jungle, eat spicy noodles, and curl up with the love of my life each night. I want to ride camels through the desert, sit around fires with nomads,and learn to play traditional songs on drums and guitar. I want to build a cabin, a windmill, and a waterwheel and watch my kids play in streams. I want to write books, kayak on smooth waters, and change the lives of people.

I don’t want to be a failure. I’m afraid I already am.

Zara and the jumbo man flew to Belgium to begin whatever their life is. I was relieved to have them gone. To sit with the jumbo man and hear his labored breathing, to hear the pig sounds as he eats, to see his big jolly daughter, all of it has made me sick. All of it contributed to the first 10 days of my married life not being great. Their marriage stole some of the life from ours. They married for a visa and an escape from Morocco.

I am afraid I fucked up. I am afraid I was wrong all along. I thought Hanane was a girl who hated her family and wanted to leave it behind. I thought she was a girl who loved to read books. I thought she was a girl who would be able to become nomadic with me and create a family with traditions of our own. I was wrong. She’s none of those things.

She never will be free of her family and never wants to be. In the year I’ve known her, I haven’t seen her read a single book despite how much she has told me she loves books and reading. She most likely won’t be able to handle being nomadic or departing from her family, traditions, and culture.

Yeah, I fucked up but it’s too late to cry over it. Besides, I do love her. She is the sweetest. All my fantasies of rescuing Cinderella were just that though, fantasies. My fantasies of moving from place to place to place with not much in the way of possessions or responsibilities were fantasies too. Ah well, this is real life. This is my wife. I’m in it now. I have a wedding to plan. I can at least make that exquisite.

We weren’t able to plan our wedding because we had no idea when it would finally be approved. The whole idea of having a wedding like her sister’s was repulsive to me so from the get-go. I wanted to do things differently. A wedding in Turkey, a wedding in the Sahara, a wedding in Fez, anywhere but in that god-damn ugly olive press warehouse surrounded by garbage and having to see those same kiffed out boys ogling my bride.

I convinced Hanane that she deserved something more, but I didn’t reckon on the power of her family to deny that. What the fairy tales don’t tell you is Cinderella spent her life defending her wicked step-sisters and step-mother. Cinderella was convinced her step-mother only loved and trusted her to do the chores. She always tried to think of them first…and of course, that’s the problem.

Our wedding plans were a battle. I found myself fighting her entire family to give her a wedding that was special. She was on their side and yet, when she was away from them, she realized what she wanted and it was to not to be under their control.There was the battle of the bureaucracy then came the wedding planning war.

Hanane wanted a wedding. I told her she could have one anywhere except Sefrou. She told me it was for her family more than anything and I caved and said okay and agreed to give her the money to make a small wedding party and bring her immediate family. We were happy.

Her mom and aunts started telling her what I gave her wasn’t enough. Hanane wasn’t planning her wedding anymore but instead her mom and her aunts were having their planning disrupted. They had already planned an expensive party for themselves and their friends.

I asked her to close her eyes and visualize her wedding. Who was there, what did it look like, what had she dreamed of? She saw a beach and no one there, then the sea and no one there except me. Finally, she said in a tent near her families house was what she had dreamed of as a little girl. Not a lot of people, delicious food, a band, dancing, and beautiful clothes. In short, not what her family was pressuring her to have. They wanted us to have something neither of us wanted. It was clear.

We decided to get a big Berber tent and have the wedding on the roof of her parents house. We would invite a maximum of fifty people. Her family, friends, and neighbors, and of course if any of my family wanted to come from North America. I vetoed the blown out speakers. Live music or no music. Suddenly we were both happy and excited about our wedding again.

Her family rejected our plan. Her mom said it was hshuma to not invite every person within a mile and allow them all to bring their friends since that was the tradition. She said the neighbors not invited would throw rocks at us. She refused. She told Hanane if she wanted to have that wedding she could do it somewhere else and expect no help. Previously we had decided to have our wedding in the Sahara but her aunts had mocked her for wanting to do something different. That was when we decided on the tent plan. It was rejected too.

Hanane was convinced we had to have the wedding their way or have no wedding at all. She was crying, angry, and confused. This was our wedding, not her family’s.

“We’re having our wedding in the Sahara and if they don’t like it, too bad. I will pay expenses for your immediate family but if anyone else wants to come they have to pay their own way.”

She told me she wouldn’t help with the wedding just like her mom had refused to help her. I called our Bedouin friend Assou to make arrangements. I arranged food, accommodation, a camel trek, and a Berber nomad wedding with live music. I arranged and paid for ten people plus ourselves. Anyone else would have to pay their own way. That was the end of the discussion. It needed to be my decision. Otherwise it was neither of our decision.

Her father couldn’t find someone to mind his sheep – I don’t think he wanted to leave his house empty. Her mom agreed to go but only after we begged. I’d thought the ten would be her parents, her sister, her brother and his wife and two kids, and maybe her aunts or some of her close friends. Instead it was her mom, her sister, her sister’s boyfriend, her sister-in-law with two kids, and two American teachers from the American English School who asked to come along. And us…that was it.

Salma and the boyfriend disappeared just about the time the bus started boarding and when I asked where they had gone, I was told they went to buy chicken for the trip. Salma drives me nuts. She is always the last one on the bus, she disappears when it’s time to go, and rarely thinks of anyone but herself. I hadn’t explained there were assigned seats on this kind of bus and everyone sat where they wanted to. It caused all kinds of problems and left me and Hanane sitting in seats that weren’t ours and dreading that we would have to argue with whomever got on the bus at the next stop and held the tickets for our seats.

There was some arguing over seats at the next stop but we managed to work it all out and we arrived in al-Rissani at about 7 am. The Berber who was supposed to meet us was a no show. The womenfolk acted like they had been dumped in the center of the Sahara with no food or water. They were weeping and making demands. They were treating Hanane with disrespect.

Finally, our ride showed up and we joined Assou’s family.  We were welcomed with warmth and generosity. We sat in the shade of his mother’s yard drinking camel milk and eating dates. The house we were staying in was a beautiful mud and straw brick house filled with Berber rugs, cushions, and the all the amenities we could desire. We relaxed, had tea, and all went to our respective rooms to have a small rest after the ten hour overnight bus ride and the oppressive heat of the desert.

Our room had a large window, a big shower, and huge comfortable bed. All of the rooms were nice, but we had the nicest, as we should have. We walked in the desert and befriended a couple of Berber boys, we bought several incredible fossils which all boys carry and try to sell to tourists there, and we drank water from a desert well. We played soccer for about 10 minutes against the boys. There was no score, but I would say the Moroccan kids defeated us.

Hanane and I didn’t have a lot of money to spend, but I told her to pick out a pair of earrings in a desert souvenir shop and she also found a pink scarf she liked. Meanwhile, the sister-in-law was shopping for expensive carpets and the boyfriend bought two expensive presents for Salma. The sister-in-law demanded Hanane buy her kids souvenirs. When Hanane refused, she told her son “Hanane is too cheap to buy you something. Go outside.” Then she continued shopping and bought herself an expensive carpet.

No one offered to buy Hanane anything and in case you think I’m forgetting the wedding gifts, I’m not. There were no wedding gifts. I think it was because we weren’t doing a traditional Sefrou wedding and they were pissed off about it, but I really don’t know. It bothered me. I admit it. No one in her family or mine ever gave us a wedding gift. There were no gifts of cash or toasters or food. No one offered to pay for anything or do anything. We were the ones getting married and we were expected to provide for everyone. I would have been fine with that if that was how it went for other people – but no, that seemed to be just for us. I guess they spent all their money buying presents for her sister’s wedding to the fat Belgian two months earlier.

In the evening, Assou’s sisters came with the traditional Nomad wedding garments and they dressed Hanane and I. Hanane’s garb was a white gown with silver jewelry that was heavy enough to kill with. Her hair and makeup were done with care. A final touch was a Berber woven cloth bag which they placed over her head and tied with a ribbon. I was wrapped up in Djellaba and turban so only my eyes were showing. None of our ‘guests’ bothered to change out of their pajamas or street clothes, no one dressed up nice for our wedding except for the lovely Bedouins and ourselves. We were led outside to the courtyard where we sat on comfortable cushions while Berber musicians played desert music for our pleasure.

In a traditional Berber wedding, the bride has her head covered for three days and the bride and groom sit in desert tents during this time while there is henna, music, dancing, and feasting. Thankfully, our bagged time was reduced to about 45 minutes at which point Hanane had the bag removed from her head, I was un-wrapped, and then we danced and sang. The music and dancing were spectacular. The Berber’s treated us as their own family while Hanane’s family acted like they were someplace they didn’t want to be. It was weird and I didn’t understand it.

Inside we sat behind a table lit with candles, Hanane and I had brought cookies which are usually made and distributed by the family in both Arab and Berber weddings and we distributed tea and cookies to everyone. The music and dancing lasted about an hour and then Hanane and I retired to our room. The first part of our wedding was beautiful and wonderful, exotic and exciting….despite the fact her family had acted like a bunch of entitled and inconvenienced jerks. In our room, we laughed at the fact we would have enjoyed it more if none of them had been there.

In the morning, we visited a Gnawa village and enjoyed more music and dancing. The Gnawa were profuse and sincere in their congratulations to us when they learned we had just been married. I finally learned the origin of the Gnawa. They are the descendents of black African slaves who brought their traditions with them from the South. Their folk music evolved into that for which Morocco is most famous. It is the original trance music and often used for ecstatic ritual and dance because of it’s heavy bass and rhythm. We played their instruments, rested on their cushions, talked with the Gnawa musicians and soaked in the amazing ambiance and culture.

Along the way we saw Berber boys with fennec foxes standing beside the road and holding them up for tourists to stop and take pictures of. Hanane was in love with the cute little desert foxes and wanted one to take home, but I suspected they made lousy pets.

In al-Rissani we visited the medina, wandered the souks, and had Berber pizza for lunch. Berber pizza is bread baked in a sand fire pit and filled with meat, onions, and spices. Delicious.

When Assou returned, he asked me to drive to avoid the tourist police. I was glad to speed through the desert in his little car. I miss driving. Hanane wanted to buy some silver jewelry so Assou took us to a tourist shop called Maison Taureg. The owner, named Mohammad, of course, asked Hanane if she wanted to see carpets. She said no, but she had just come in with three Americans so he asked again. Not wishing to be rude, she said yes.

I knew she was in for the pushy carpet selling experience that Americans get subjected to but Moroccans don’t usually have to deal with. From one it grew to three and then he was like a machine and wouldn’t stop. He must’ve showed her fifty carpets. Hanane had never been treated like a stupid American tourist before and as she heard the ridiculous prices she became angrier and angrier. The rug merchant wouldn’t stop. Finally when I saw she had had enough, I began somewhat aggressively interviewing the rug merchant with every question I could think of about himself, his family, life in the desert, where he has traveled, music, and more. He tried to continue selling, but of course, my time as a stock broker and a journalist made me an unstoppable force in dominating a conversation with question upon question. As long as I am asking someone questions, I am in control. He didn’t have a chance and soon he gave up and suggested we look at the jewelry.

Back at Assou’s, there was a henna party for Hanane and then when it was approaching dark we mounted camels and rode in caravan out into the moonlit Sahara Desert. It was perfect except for the idiot boyfriend who thought we needed some Moroccan disco to fill the silence of the desert. He blared music on his cellphone. Never mind enjoying the quiet of the desert. The Bedouins were every bit as annoyed as me.

Finally,I told him to shut it off. I tried to be polite but couldn’t get through and became decidedly impolite. Hanane’s sister became angry with me – she griped until Hanane was angry with me, then her mom was mad at me. The sister-n-law was always seemingly mad at me. We rode through the quiet and beautiful desert and everyone was mad at me. I didn’t care. The Bedouins weren’t mad at me.

We arrived at the oasis and the Bedouins set about making us dinner and tea. As we sat drinking tea, the sister-in-law complained that it wasn’t a traditional Arab wedding while Hanane’s sister and the boyfriend glared at me because I’d made them shut off the annoying music. Hanane and her mom had softened a bit and were in awe of the extraordinary stars, the firelight, and where we were.

The guides brought out small tables and soon the tajines the nomad guides made for us and the serenity of being away from civilization made everyone forget they were mad about me making him sit off his phone.

After dinner, Hanane and I crawled into our tent to go to sleep. I woke before anyone and left the camp to enjoy some solitude with the sunrise. I’m always an early riser and I love that it gives me time to escape from everyone else. There were two large dunes and I knew they were the best places to see the sunrise. At this point there was no one stirring except me and a distant solitary nomad figure who had just begun climbing the biggest dune.

I found a perfect vantage point for the sunrise and watched the Sahara stretching for miles all around me. I chanted and meditated and prayed. I heard nothing but the wind and the sand. My sarong was wrapped around my face to protect it from the sand. I let all the pieces of my emotions fall into their proper places. I watched as the sun shyly placed it’s fingers on the tops of the distant dunes and then slowly pulled her head into the day. The sun to me is female, I don’t know why. Shadows began to form and the desert came alive. As I began the climb down, I saw Hanane emerge from the tent. I called to her. We kissed as the warmth of the morning replaced the cool of the night in preparation for the heat of the day. We ran down the dunes with my sarong flying between us like a banner and laughed like children while looking at each other with love.

Back in the camp we put on our final set of wedding clothes. A white western wedding gown my mother had sent for her and a black and gray striped Djellaba and slippers Hanane had bought for me. My dream of seeing my bride in her gown sitting astride a camel had come true. We quietly exchanged vows in the sand dunes, smiled into each others eyes, and kissed in front of the world. This, was the wedding we had dreamed about together.

The ride back was beautiful. The dunes awoke and the desert life prepared for the scorching hot temperatures that would soon arrive. It was wonderful to turn and share smiles with my wife as we rode sure footed camels through the sands of the Sahara with our trusted nomad friends. I am certain God forgives me for wishing a bottomless sand pit would open underneath most of the other members of our caravan. If he doesn’t forgive me for that, I doubt my other sins will keep me from hell.

I love Mama Ghita, but for some reason, she thought it was acceptable that when we got back Hanane should have to wash her (Mama Ghita’s) dirty underclothes. When I found this going on, I was livid. I told her she should be ashamed of herself, which is no small thing for a new son in law to do in Arab culture. I demanded an apology which she only gave when it looked like I was not going to stop demanding it. At times, it felt like her family was trying their best to ruin things. I really didn’t understand it. Not even a little. I still don’t understand.

Our wedding in the Sahara was magical. I hope someday they remember it and realize just how magical it was.


A Terrible Homecoming

Arriving home, Hanane and I kissed, smiled, and went to sleep. A few hours later, the behemoth Canadian teacher knocked on the door and told me she had been fired from the American English School. She said they wanted to fire me too, but they hadn’t been able to reach me on the phone. I don’t know why she told me that. No one had told her that. She made it up. I didn’t know that until later though.

Later that day, I took Hanane to her first stadium concert at the Fez Feztival of Sacred Music. It was supposed to be Ben Harper, but Ben Harper cancelled because of a skate-boarding accident. Instead turned out to be the Malian musicians Djelimady String Theory and Amadou and Miriam. It was wonderful and fun. We ran into one of my worst behaving students from the previous term. A spoiled rich girl who constantly chatted in class and never did her homework.

“I wrote on the evaluation they should fire you!” the little bitch said.

I didn’t like the feeling I suddenly had. I hadn’t done anything worthy of being fired and it was coming on the heels of my wedding. That night, I wrote in laptop journal that if I were fired, I would do everything I could to destroy the reputation of the American English School and it’s director Saul Gerbil. I was upset and venting in the privacy of my journal but I was about to learn a big lesson.

I was keeping a journal on my laptop. It was where I wrote notes and thoughts  about the wedding, Morocco, and life. I sometimes used my journal to compose blog posts about Morocco. I was excited to share my wedding with my blog readers. I copied and pasted my notes into the blog.

It turned out, I hadn’t been fired and I wasn’t going to be fired. I went to work and everything was fine. There were no plans to fire me. I met with Saul Gerbil and started to feel very good about everything. It had actually been my best semester at the school and things were going very well.

I had posted six stories about our wedding and the last one contained that bit about me destroying and taking revenge  on Saul Gerbil and the school unless I got a decent severance package. Everything had been so busy that I didn’t proof read and left that part on my post. When I was checking stats on the posts later, I saw that “American English School+Vago+Gerbil” was a trending search. I could picture Saul Gerbil on his iPhone. Fuck.

I tried to delete it and minimize the damage, but since my wedding story had been syndicated on Lonely Planet, Facebook, and a couple other places, it was too late. I hadn’t realized how many people in Morocco and abroad were regularly reading my blog. There were a lot. Teachers, administrators, parents, students, and friends all began calling Saul to find out what it was about.

When I saw the American English School secretaries showing each other the pages, I knew it was over. I began looking for new teaching jobs in Turkey or Indonesia two minutes later.

Saul Gerbil got calls from students, parents, his boss, and the other teachers. The Moroccan teachers in particular were awful, they stopped returning my salaam a leycums and spread the news of the site like wildfire. It went viral, but not in a way I wanted.

Saul Gerbil called me for a meeting and had no choice but to be unrepentant. I had already said it and I decided to own it even if I knew the likely consequences. I made demands. I wanted a severance package or I would follow through on my threats. In point of fact, I’d meant it. The American English School websites were hosted on my domains and hosting, I pointed out how widely read my blog was. I requested a compensation package and a resignation rather than being fired. I had painted myself in a corner and there was no way out but using the paintbrush.

I was told if I resigned, I would get a severance bonus. Saul Gerbil wrote me a letter that wasn’t a recommendation, but at least was an honest listing of what I had done while at the American English School and left out my big fuck up.

Saul Gerbil made some veiled threats about future jobs and my status in the country. He was angry and much more powerful than me. I was convinced it would be simplest and best for my newly married life to move on. Hanane was pissed. Her sense of Moroccan shame had been overloaded. She had dealt with being fired but now I had just shamed her further. We had our first massive fights in the following week. I was ashamed of my own stupidity but she kept rubbing it in further.

I was over being in Morocco and teaching at the American English School so I can’t say I was terribly disappointed but it was a stupid way to end things. The whole point of staying in Morocco had been so I could get my marriage settled. It was settled.

I chased after freelance writing work online and managed to find a half dozen small scale writing gigs and turned a couple of them into ongoing work. I didn’t have to feel completely stressed out about not having a regular income. My blogging work was paying as much as I was earning at the school.

My severance package put me in the position of having an extra month off with pay. Not a bad way to plot out the future. I bought tickets to Turkey for the 23rd of July. We would have our two week honeymoon and and while we were there, I would scout the country as a place to work and live. I set up a couple of interviews with English schools for while we were there.

During the month between our wedding and our honeymoon, we took a trip Tangiers with an English friend of mine. We stayed in a beach house at Playa Blanca. I’d build a website for the owner of the house a few months before. It suddenly felt like I was heading towards the life I wanted to live.

Hanane asked me to stop blogging about her family because the Belgian had seen his wedding pictures online and been upset about it. It seemed prudent. After all, I’m not alone in this world any longer and it seemed my indiscriminate honesty was causing a lot of trouble. I stopped blogging about her family and focused on writing this book.

Hanane really should have read my books before marrying me. I gave her a year. She has no one but herself to blame.

Leaving Morocco

Back in 2003, I thought I could become a millionaire by 2010. In 2010 I was barely a thousandaire. I earned my living as a freelance writer and it was a lot of work. My eyes and my fingers hurt. Hanane didn’t seem to understand that I had to work to pay our bills. I think she was still telling herself that I was secretly rich. I’d never told her that but I think she convinced herself of it at some point.

When I told her I was thinking of taking a job in Turkey or Indonesia and might need to go for three months or so without her, she didn’t seem bothered. She said she’d stay at her mom’s house. I was hoping for a different reaction, but no, she seemed happy about it. I think I wanted her to be sad that I had to leave. To beg me to stay. None of that happened.

I guess I should feel lucky about it. I was trying to do the best thing for both of us. I wanted to travel. I wanted to experience new things. I wanted to get out of Morocco. I wanted to make some money. I wanted to do better than hiding from my student loans. I wanted to succeed. I was almost the same age as my friend, Jeff Sugarman, when he had a heart attack and died in his shower. I smoked too much even if it was only ten cigarettes a day. I ate too much. I didn’t exercise. I was unhappy. I bought some beer and wine when Hanane stayed with her mom. I got drunk but it wasn’t fun.

I tried to talk about life decisions with Hanane, but it didn’t work like that. In our relationship. If I didn’t make the decision, then the decision was being made by her mom. I really thought I was marrying a partner, but I’d married a dependent. I had to decide where to live or we would live with her mom in Sefrou.

Where was the best place for us? I still had no desire to return to the USA. I didn’t want to stay in Morocco. An Indonesian school wanted me to decide right away on a job they’d offered, but I wanted to go to Turkey first. I supposed I could say yes and then make an excuse as to why it wouldn’t work. There were no clear answers.

We left for Turkey on the 24th of July and stayed until August 9th. I arranged a job interview in the city of Manisa, Turkey.We would have to see what happened.

I took the job in Manisa and to my surprise, Hanane connected with the administrator (over a hairbrush) and landed a job with the same school. We came back to Morocco and spent our last few days there at her parents house where I was eaten alive by fleas from the sheep. It was Ramadan and it wasn’t difficult to fast though I found myself thirsty towards the end of the very hot days. A 14-day maple syrup cleansing fast is difficult, fasting from sunup to sunrise is easy.

I returned to Turkey to set up house and get us established. Hanane followed a month later. She wanted to spend the rest of Ramadan with her family and I couldn’t wait to get away. Ramadan needs to be revised and Muslims should have to shut the television and stereos off for the entire month. As it is, the evening break-fast is followed by television which I think causes everyone to miss the point of community which Ramadan should be about. That’s just me though.

At the Azaoui house the whole family talked to Zara in Belgium every day on the laptop I gave Hanane. Zara was miserable and her jumbo husband was mistreating her. I wished it was otherwise but it was no big surprise. That’s what you get when you marry a stranger for a visa. We all get what we deserve. As for me, I’m not sure what I’ve got or what I deserve.

I bought Hanane’s plane tickets and our meagre possessions fell into the eager hands of her family. I was slightly bitter about this as we hadn’t been given wedding presents. It wasn’t the presents I wanted, it was the fact Zara and the Belgian were given loads of presents which were shipped off to Belgium and we weren’t given anything. I consider our marriage legitimate, but I’m not sure Hanane’s family ever will because we didn’t have the olive warehouse wedding party.

We fight and I seem to have developed intermittent explosive disorder. It only happens with Hanane. She manages to short circuit my brain by changing whatever we might be trying to resolve into something that is impossible to resolve. I don’t know exactly how. I say “Please put the lighter back” and she says “I do” and then I point to where she left it in the other room and she says “I didn’t put it there” and I say “I saw you” and she says “No you didn’t” (but I really did) and then we are arguing about whether I saw her put the lighter in the other room when she lit incense with it and the whole point of putting it back is lost as she says “I know what I did and didn’t do”.  It’s the same with anything and everything. When I asked her to marry me her family had seemed really surprised. Her mom had laughed and said something like “She’s crazy but that’s great.” I was starting to understand what she had meant.

I got in a fight in the vegetable souk because she was picking up and examining every head of lettuce and the seller told her to just pick one and stop touching them all. She flipped out on him and called him some names, he responded by calling her some names, which I took offense to. Soon he and I were shoving each other and I would have punched him if a bunch of Moroccans hadn’t of grabbed us both and held us apart. The number of such incidences I had to deal with started to go up and I had to rethink the arguments I’d been pulled into when I was with her before. There was one common element to all of them. I never had such issues when I was by myself.

I’m looking forward to a month apart. I was looking forward to a month in Turkey by myself. Ramadan in Morocco is much more boring than Morocco at other times. I think Hanane is looking forward to being at her mom’s again. A part of me wondered if she would manage not to come when it was time for her to fly solo to Turkey.

On a funny note, my residence card (carte de sejour) came through the day before we left for Turkey. It took six months to get processed so it was only good for another six months I wouldn’t be in Morocco to use it. I can’t conceive of me ever wanting to stay longer than three months in Morocco in the future, so I won’t have to go through the process again.

I took care of a few bureaucratic things on my own before I left and since Hanane wasn’t there to become insulted and refuse to translate for me, things went much easier. People are patient when they are dealing with only me and my limited Arabic and French skills. Sometimes I wonder what the hell I’ve gotten myself into. All the time actually.

I wasn’t sorry to leave Morocco. I didn’t understand why anyone would willingly stay there if they didn’t have to. Those foreigners who choose to live in the medina in Fez are a big mystery to me. I’ve heard for the gay guys it used to be a paradise because there are lots of handsome young guys who have no way to get money and don’t consider it homosexuality if they are doing it for money. My gay friends tell me that the police have clamped down on that sort of activity in recent years.

I’m most definitely not in love with this place. Me leaving Morocco is a good place to end this particular narrative.

I left.


Or so I thought….

It wasn’t the end. Hanane came to Turkey, we both worked at an English school. We fought like cats and dogs. We were totally incompatible. I bought her a ticket back to Morocco. Once she was back, I was going to end things … we were too different to live together.

Then we found out she was pregnant. Her visa was set to expire and I’d already bought her a ticket back to Morocco. The school in Manisa told her that she couldn’t take leave for birth. Ultimately, she wanted to give birth near her mom and her family. It was near Christmas, I pressed the point because she was pregnant and wanted to be near her family. She wanted to be someplace where she understood what the doctors were saying to her and she wanted to learn to be a mother in her own mother country. I told the school that if they wouldn’t give her leave, they would have to fire me as well. I wasn’t nearly as important as I thought I was – they fired me and evicted us both from the apartment we’d rented from the school.

So we returned to Morocco. She was pregnant. I can’t think of any other reason I would have come back.

We named our daughter after the Aya Sofya in Istanbul. The name means saint of wisdom in Greek, but the Moroccan authorities cited the law against giving Berber names and wouldn’t let us name her after a church even if it was a mosque and now is a secular monument. So we named her the Moroccan government approved Sophia which is a beautiful name. It means wisdom in Greek. No middle name. She can pick what she wants and one option is Aya.

When she was born, I attacked the bureaucratic paperwork and got her American citizenship with a consular birth abroad. I decided that I didn’t want her to grow up in Morocco. I didn’t want her to be treated like a second class citizen because she was female. I wanted her to have all of the opportunities that being American and growing up in America give to you.

I would have to get Hanane citizenship too, but that was much more difficult. I was back on the bureaucratic Ferris wheel. It would take time and in the meantime – we would need to live in Morocco.

I miss Turkey. I want to go back but things there seem to be heading into a dangerous situation. Syria next door is blowing up. The world is in chaos. Erdogan, the leader of Turkey seems like a despot to me. So, it’s time to find a way to take my family to America. In the meantime, here we are in an apartment filled with furniture and not too distant from the Azaoui house in Sefrou. What in the world have I gotten myself into and am I ever going to manage to escape this country?

Seriously- it’s not my Morocco.

Sefrou, Morocco

December 15, 2011



The process to get Hanane a green card was not easy but it was easier than getting permission for us to marry from the Moroccan government. My blogging business exploded and I began earning a seriously good living. This lasted until the beginning of 2013 when Google decided that blogging was cutting into their advertising business and began punishing blogs and the advertisers who direct advertised on them. My income dropped from almost $10k a month to less than $1000 almost overnight. My blog went from 20,000 readers per day to less than 1500 and continued dropping. I’d paid off a little of my student loans but had put a small nest egg away. To be honest, I was living pretty extravagantly because I didn’t expect it to stop. We had a nice TV, an on demand water-heater, and nice furniture. While we waited, I had a nice trip every three months to renew my visa. Egypt, Turkey, London, Greece, and more.

On the Thanksgiving after Sophia had been born, I booked us a flight to Paris but we were unable to get approval for her visa in the month before it left unless we took out a $15000 bond on Hanane. Europeans were scared that Moroccans would overstay their visa to fast forward immigration. It’s very difficult for poor Moroccans to travel anywhere. I ended up taking the trip by myself.

Finally, right on time, the U.S. Government approved Hanane’s green card. I booked a flight for our little family on Emirates for April 16, 2013. Since we would be stopping in Dubai, I also booked a three day layover staying at the Atlantis Hotel with a desert safari. As one last insult to the human-ness of Moroccans, the UAE refused to let Hanane leave the airport unless she had a return flight to Morocco. Never mind that she had a green card and a flight to the USA – they insisted. It was too late to get a refund. We managed to get a flight for the next day and only had to spend one night in the airport. We got on the plane and flew from Dubai to San Francisco.

On April 17th, 2013 we landed in a country that was most definitely not my America.

AK-47s and the Smoke that Thunders – Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls

Exclusive for Vagobond by Carl Grooms

Vctoria Falls, Zimbabwe © 2011 Carlton Grooms
© 2011 Carlton Grooms

You feel the rumble in the earth before you hear it. You see wisps of mist rise high into the sky as if a forest fire has commenced. As you draw closer your ears begin to pick up the roar, you feel it in your soul. The locals call it the Smoke that Thunders. You have arrived at Victoria Falls, one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World.

The falls are a UNESCO World Heritage site that straddles the boarders of Zambia and Zimbabwe. Here the Zambezi river drops almost 400 feet across a 1 mile wide face into a remarkably small cut in the earth, making it the largest falls in the world. The attraction is part of two national park systems. Mosi-ao-Tunya (translated to the Smoke that Thunders) National Park in Zambia and Victoria Falls National Park in Zimbabwe.

I awoke before the sun, on my first day. Eager to capture the falls in good light from the Zimbabwe side, I hired a taxi to fetch me and get me to the entry prior to opening. The silence enveloped us as we sat in the dark, waiting. I began to question my safety. Alone, with a strange driver, holding over $15,000 in camera gear could prove to be a poor idea. Young men walking past, AK-47’s on their shoulders, interrupted the silence. They were on their way to relieve the night shift guarding the border and bridge to Zambia. I’m starting to imagine the headlines that the western press will print when they find my body later today. Undeterred I await the arrival of the park attendant to let me in.

The Zimbabwe side of the falls is far more developed than the Zambian side. However, with the political strife and humanitarian crimes being brought upon the population by Robert Mugabe, their leader (in no sense of the word), hotel occupancy is low. The Zambia side has record occupancy and capital investment in facilities is up. An argument could be made that the falls are just as beautiful from that the other side, but I want to photograph them coming straight at me. So I’ve come to Zimbabwe.

Victoria Falls at Sunrise
Victoria Falls at Sunrise © 2011 Carlton Grooms

This is the second journey of my life to this region of the world. I grew up in Lusaka, Zambia 450 miles and a 12 hour drive north, in the mid-80’s. This was during the civil war that turned Rhodesia into Zimbabwe and during apartheid in South Africa. The ‘freedom’ fighter, Robert Mugabe lived in exile in my Lusaka neighborhood. Too bad he survived to release so much human tragedy upon his people. When I lived here the first time, we couldn’t come to the falls because of the war. Today, my first, I’ve come to photograph for my book, “Portraits of Our World”. The book is meant to build schools for the poor children in this region of Africa. The perceived risk sitting on this border today is worth it.

Perhaps the idea that this trip is allegedly risky is the point. I do not believe it is. The people of Zimbabwe are very warm and hospitable. They are often delighted to have you. The preponderance of the crime that occurs in this region is related to economics, motivated by the need to eat and feed one’s family. The Mugabe regime itself will not hassle you, as you bring hard currency and commerce. The hotels are at low capacity, meaning great rates. Now is a good time to visit.

The Vic Falls lookout area is not all that large. Big enough only to face the main body of the falls, it is easily walked carrying whatever gear you decide to bring. In reality you will be left surprised that there isn’t more too it. As you pay your small entry fee and move through the gates you are greeted with a spectacular rain forest made possible by the water spray of the falls. You will see mahogany trees, ferns, palms and various vines that you cannot see anywhere else in the area.

The Smoke That Thunders
The Smoke That thunders © 2011 Carlton Grooms

As you emerge on the other side your senses are inundated. The roar resonates at a bass level that you feel in your bones. Depending on the wind and time of year, you may not be able to readily see the falls because of the great mist it generates. The resulting, and always present, rainbow serves as the crowning jewel. Keep moving along the face and you will eventually find the perfect spot.

For the true adventurer you can hire a helicopter to fly up over the falls. We did this and were able to capture the most amazing images as you can see here. Don’t spend your entire time behind the camera. It is too easy to be caught up in capturing your surroundings and forget to actually enjoy the experience yourself.

There are a number of things you can do in the area to further enjoy the destination when you are done with the falls. White water rafting on the Zambezi is very popular. The river is very violent be forewarned. Don’t miss the chance to sample wild game meat. My favorite is the The Boma Restaurant, located at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. The $50 charge per person is worth it. Note that Zimbabwe no longer has it’s own currency. They rely on the US Dollar, South African Rand, Botswana Pula and the Euro instead.

In order to more fully appreciate my adventure I departed Zimbabwe via the bridge over the Zambezi to cross into Zambia. With loaded backpacks, together with my wife and children (11 and 12 at the time) we made the crossing. After stamping our passports upon departure, the border guard let us across the barrier.

Vctoria Falls Zimbabwe
Victoria Falls Aerial Shot of Bridge © 2011 Carlton Grooms

We crossed the bridge, a one mile long no man’s land between the countries. We had a surreal feeling as we walked towards the Zambian side, their armed border guards looking on. We were readily welcomed, cleared through and on our way.

Traveling is a matter of pushing all your senses beyond the daily norm. New people and cultures, new food, new smells, even new fears. Sometimes the fears are unfounded which allows you to open your eyes a little wider and gather the courage to head off to another life changing destination that is mistakenly avoided by the masses. Sometimes your new reality simply serves to open your mind to the world you live in daily. Either way, a journey to Victoria Falls can be much more than simply visiting the Smoke that Thunders.

Carlton GroomsCarl Grooms is the editor of the island focused travel blog, Coastlines & Tan Lines. He produced his latest book, “Portraits of Our World” after a one year trip around the world. He is the founder of Conch Republic Bikinis, as well as a former Naval Aviator. Carl led the business development of all Hong Kong Disney hotels and restaurants for Walt Disney Attractions. At last count Carl has visited 52 countries. He has run with the Bulls in Pamplona, braved the highest bungee jump in the world in South Africa and is an ultra-marathon runner. He holds an MBA from the Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania.

Moroccan Transport

Donkey FesI feel like I have traveled around enough in Morocco at this point to write a small piece on how transport works here. In a nutshell, it works, but only in the most loosely defined sense of the word.

In my initial traveling around Morocco, I thought that maybe as a foreigner I just wasn’t getting it and that if I were a local or had the knowledge of a local, I would find how it worked, well, thanks to Hanane, I have discovered how it works and that as a foreigner with no guide book and no clue, I was doing just as well or better than just about everyone else. The exceptions are those who have private cars.

: I haven’t flown in Morocco yet, but assume it is more organized than other forms of transport. Although I checked online and it seems that flights are actually fairly intermittent and not tightly scheduled at all.

Trains Trains are definitely the best way to travel in Morocco. The only problem is that you can’t go everywhere on trains. In fact, you can go roughly from Tangiers to Rabat to Casablanca to Marrakech to Meknes to Fes and to Tangiers and that is about it. The stops are not often marked clearly, the trains make major stops that last less than 30 seconds at times, and you are often required to change trains in obscure locations without any clear indicator. The conductors are not very helpful. First class is less hectic than second class and not too much more money. the stations are generally clean but still you will be hit up for cash by anyone who recognizes you as a foreigner and is the type of person that hits foreigners up for cash.

Buses There are local buses that you get a ticket from the guy on the bus on and the more efficient long transport buses. Again, no clearly defined stops, no real help from the drivers, sometimes you have to pay for baggage going underneath, sometimes you don’t. The bus times and schedules are not at all clear, rarely or not posted, and even if you have a seat assigned, you can expect to find someone in it and then you just find another seat. The more local style buses will sell more tickets than seats and while they don’t seat people on the roof, Hanane and I rode on a blanket covered gearbox next to the driver that wasn’t too uncomfortable but required everyone exiting the bus to climb over us. Next to us was a guy on a stool, a guy hanging out the door, and the driver smoking while he blared tinny Moroccan music. This was about an hours ride. Oddly romantic except for the baggy pants kid in the Palestinian scarf who kept flinging unwanted comments towards us. When we got off the bus in Fes, Hanane ripped him a new one and he meekly apologized and went on his way. There is more to this story, but you will have to hear it over coffee with me someday…
Anyway, buses are scheduled badly and few and far between, overcrowded, and pretty fun…watch your bags close and be careful not to miss your stop.

Grand Taxis These are by far the craziest means of transport in Morocco. These are Mercedes sedans that provide the main means of transport between small Moroccan towns. Different colors for different regions. Fares range from 5-20 dirhams and typically this is how they work. The drivers converge with their cars in a station and the people come to go, when there are 6 passengers, the driver gets them all in the car and like sardines you journey to your destination, bit it 10, 20, or 100 miles away. Sometimes, there are more passengers than taxis and when this happens, if a taxi comes in, passengers swarm and chase after it and try to be the first to pull the passengers out so they can take the seat. While I didn’t see anyone get thrown on the ground yet, I am sure it happens, I am also sure that fist fights break out over these. So if you are in a grand taxi and you come into a station and forty people start chasing and swarming your taxi, don’t worry, they just want a lift out of that town. The grand taxi stations are generally dirty mud filled lots with dirty men and dirty little shops surrounding. Not the nicest places but necessary. No schedules, no set times, and sometimes the location of the grand taxi ‘stations’ changes without notice. Very efficient. Usually pretty honest about the set prices, but its best to watch what they charge the locals and then just hand then the correct change.

Petit taxis These are the main means of local transport. I think they are yellow in Sefrou, Red in Fez, Blue in Rabat, Green in Casablanca, and maybe Red in Marrakech…actually, I’m sure I screwed up the colors, but each city has its own color. Short fare should be anywhere between 4 and 15 dirhams but a meter is the best way to go though not available in smaller places. A set fare beforehand is a good idea. If the robbers in Tangiers or Fez get a hold of you expect them to tell you 20-50 dirhams for a short ride and be prepared to tell them to go fuck themselves. Easier is just demand a meter in these places. Drivers are generally good guys though. Typical is for man to get in the front and women in the back, but then other people might get in your taxi, this is supposed to lower your fare, but if you don’t speak Moroccan will only lower theirs.
In summary, you are damn lucky if you manage to get anywhere at all in any amount of time. Enjoy.
Originally published 3/10/09

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