Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Marrakech, 2007

So I’m all ready to leave the house on my way to Marrakech for the week; the cats have plenty of food and water and clean litter, the openings off the porch that they like to jump down from rather than taking the stairs have been closed off with a cut-up cardboard box. I get my luggage out there and am closing the door on Natalie’s nose when –zip- Bandersnatch leaps out and away.
I’ve got a few extra minutes, but Bander just loves to play chase. She can keep that up all morning. She’ll let you get right up to her before leaping away and around the corner of the house. Or she’ll run up the huge pine in the front yard. Or she’ll squeeze into the under-the-stairs and through the duct to the basement where the mice live. It’s fun!
Bad cat.
Fortunately, this morning she lets me catch her without too much trouble. She makes me miss the bus that would have let me catch the airport shuttle, but there are taxis from the train station and it’s no problem.

I hope this is a fun trip. We’ve got until Saturday morning, so there must be plenty of free time for shopping and exploring. I just hope we avoid endless situations of waiting around at the hotel for some meeting or someone to call for us. The other thing is my boss is here, and he’s bringing his wife and daughter (who’s 4) – it isn’t clear how much they intend to go their own way and how much I’m invited or half-expected to hang around with them. It’s not that I mind going shopping or sight-seeing with Yves-Jean and Edith. That might even be nice if Edith arranges tours while Yves-Jean and I are occupied with our hosts. I don’t mind going around on my own, either, not at all. I just don’t want it to be awkward.
It’s the middle of Ramadan. Makes me wonder what that will mean for lunch. Too bad I didn’t bring any snackage. At the lab, our Afghan technician, Lydia, is observing Ramadan. It’s visibly hard for her to skip lunch when the rest of us are gathering and guessing what’s on for today at the cafeteria and wishing each other Bon Appetit. Even harder is coffee time when somebody has brought croissants. Last week it was the battle of the best home-made pear tarts.
Once Ramadan is over, Lydia promises to catch up on one particular French tradition, that of bringing in goodies to celebrate one’s birthday. We’re all eager to taste her Afghani treats.

Takeoff. How is it I always get stuck with a seat over the wing? It’s not as if the plane is full. I could move back a few rows, though that would require climbing over Yves-Jean, and he’s already got three dossiers full of paper spread out over his tray, his lap, his wife’s tray. Looks like I’m stuck.
I do have a limited view, of a pillowy field of clouds stretching in all directions. It looks nice in the low sun, all shadows and reliefs. No trainspotting through that, or identifying towns and rivers below us. Not really much point in having a window, once the sun is higher and the softness of the morning light turns into hard glare.

We’re off to see N., and her bosses and colleagues. A year ago, N. contacted us in what was apparently a sort of fishing trip looking for a French partner to respond to a franco-moroccan cooperative grant call. She wants to set up a BRCA gene testing lab in Marrakech. The point would be to offer genetic testing for women at risk, only the Moroccans have neither the expertise nor the means to start up such a lab. Nor does the population yet see any need for such testing.
Enter N., who wants to do this, and the CJP, as the mentor. This is right up our alley. Our friends in Tunisia set up their own lab and send us whatever work they have trouble with; our friends in Algeria just send us their samples.
A lab in Rabat, Morocco, is up and running with our help, but there doesn’t seem to be any spirit of cooperation between groups in the same country. It’s like that in Tunisia too: the Tunis group is practically at war with the Monastir faction over who “does” BRCA testing for their country, in spite of the lack of overlap in the regional populations they test. Publication of the “Tunisian” BRCA1 mutations was held up for a year because the groups separately didn’t have enough cases to publish and together couldn’t agree on authorship issues.

N. was in Clermont-Ferrand for a month early this summer, to learn How To Do It. It was hard to believe that this timid, lukewarm woman was the driving force behind the Moroccan side of the collaboration. By mail she controlled everything, even access to her boss, the official director on her side, and was quite firm in her decisions. After a week with us, barely daring to take a stool by the bench, not asking any questions, she announced to me that she was going to go home early. She was so discouraged to see our high-throughput, high-tech, highly-financed operation, she despaired of ever getting anything going at home. Useless to stay and learn things she could never do. It took some convincing to get her to see that you can do a lot with lesser means; that learning how to do the work in principle would serve her under many circumstances. DNA is DNA, after all, it’s only the scale of processing it that needs be adapted. To cut and run so early was just to give up.
So she stayed, but even to the end of her four weeks, N. remained a mystery. She spent her weekends visiting her sister in Paris, so we did not have much social time together. She refused to have lunch with the rest of us in the cafeteria. She would disappear at around 4 in the afternoon, precluding any after-work hanging around. It didn’t help that I was in the process of moving, and had little free time to spare her. I took her out to dinner once, with a couple of friends, but other than that she kept away from us as much as possible. At work, she would sit quietly in a corner all day unless you took her by the hand and insisted she do or watch something. It’s natural enough to tell her to come learn something once or twice, but to have to keep at it, every day, the technicians have their own work to do, they’re not babysitters. N. didn’t even show an interest in her own results. She had arrived with a dozen samples to test; we trained her on her own samples, but still we had to push her at every step to go on. When the sequence was ready she didn’t care to look at it.

Who knows what our visit to her territory will be like. I couldn’t get any kind of schedule out of her. I don’t know what sort of talk she wants me to give nor what sort of audience there will be for it. I don’t know where or when we’re expected to show up tomorrow morning. All I have are directions to our hotel, nothing else.

Arrrr! I can’t believe it. For the first time, I am traveling with my portable computer and I’m all worried about setting it down and walking off without it because I’m not in the habit of being thus encumbered. And here I am settling into the plane from Paris to Marrakech, and there’s my bag, good, there’s my computer kit, good: where’s my jacket? Hanging over a chair at the airport café.
I really liked that jacket. It’s the cool black-on-black one I got on Catalina Island years ago at Tim’s office party excursion. And while I may not need a jacket much in Morocco, coming home Saturday I might get rather shivery.
Arrr! No going back for it now. They put us on a bus to take us to a plane ironically parked at a different gate of the same terminal, so it’s not simple to hop off, go through security, and get back. Bye, jacket.

The clouds stop at the Pyrenees. Beyond, Spain looks very dry and bare. Spain always looks dry and bare from above. At the coast, low clouds and fog are loitering, stacked up against the hills barring them from the interior. It looks like the sea is sloshing over onto the land. Farther south the low cumulous are lined up in rows, like some kind of orderly cotton crop.
A hint of northern Morocco looks much like Spain, red bare dirt, some folded hills with sparse coverage, pines on the upper north slopes, small towns and winding roads. Then the clouds are back and the interior is hidden.

We’re met at the airport be two young doctors whose connections to N., and to breast cancer more generally, aren’t clear. Surely they explain, but like their names, which I do ask them to repeat, it just goes by in a rapid, accented blur. I really hope to have their names down be the end of the trip.
Once we’re settled into the hotel, our host B. Belaabidia, N.’s boss, comes around to welcome us and give us presents of Moroccan pastries, then have us fill out the forms to be reimbursed for the trip, and to lay out the plan for the visit.
We have the rest of today free. She recommends a garden not far from here to visit, and some of the major landmarks. Tomorrow we’ll give our talks and have a discussion with the department, maybe take a tour of the different labs and patient care areas. Friday we’re invited to dinner but otherwise have the day free, then Saturday we go home.
Yes! This is a paid vacation.
I wonder if anyone from our welcome committee will go shopping with me. Just to find the really good places, and to not get too ripped off as foreigners.

The hotel is new, built two years ago, but I can see it may go the way of the fabulous hotel in Algiers, the expensive one that was at once luxurious and run-down, a hotel where they cleaned but never fixed anything.
Here, the bathroom looks great. But the shower door doesn’t keep all the water in, so the whole floor gets wet. The sliding door to the balcony is supposed to lock, but doesn’t. The safe in the closet has no lock at all, and the closet door has one but the bolt is so short all you have to do is pull both doors at once and they open.
Stop nitpicking.
It’s not nitpicking. I’ve got my brand new laptop with me, and nowhere secure to put it.
There’s time to go out for a walk before meeting up with Yves-Jean and Edith for dinner at 6:30. We may not find much open yet at that hour, but with two hours time difference we’ll be hungry. And with little Odèlia along they won’t want to stay up late.

Right off, it’s obvious that Morocco is a much more prosperous place than its Maghrebian brethren in Tunisia and Algeria. It’s far cleaner, for one, and it isn’t afflicted with unfinished-building syndrome. Some blocks are falling into ruin, it’s true, but when they build, at least they finish the job.
This is not to say that Morocco is anything as prosperous as Europe. Cars are on average 20 years old and most people are on motorized bikes and scooters, also rather venerable ones. People are sleeping on park benches and in corners, and begging in the streets.
From the hotel to the main square of this city of some two million people, you just follow the main boulevard. My rough guide says that the city’s upscale shopping is right along here. Um, I don’t see it. There are a couple of shops, and a boutique gallery is advertised next to the large hotel across the street. Not that I’m interested in “upscale shopping” – I’d rather find treasures in the souks. It’s just surprising there isn’t more than a couple of shoe shops and two antique dealers here on the new European tourist row. Marrakech is becoming a popular tourist destination, but it looks, fortunately for me, that it has a ways to go along that road before becoming a homogenized, could be anywhere, kind of place.

In this warm and humid afternoon with the thick smoggy air hanging close to the ground it seems everybody is out on the streets, going somewhere. Cars, buses, trucks, taxis, motorbikes, 2-horse calèches hauling tourists.
In the Medina, the old walled city center, I turn north to go around the perimeter clockwise, with the idea of photographing the old ornate gates in the late sun. Unfortunately, the really pretty gates must be around the other way and I’ll have to get to them later. Right now I’ll just concentrate on getting through this poor, non-tourist section of the Medina. People are packed elbow to motorbike tire, buying their dinners from the fresh foods laid out on carpets on the ground or piled in shopfronts. In an hour they’ll be allowed to eat.

I wish I had some change in my pockets, and were less conspicuous with my white skin and western dress. Apparently if you photograph someone, you need their permission, and their permission comes with a tip. The smallest I have is a 100-dirham bill, enough for dinner in a nice restaurant. I can hardly ask for change.
There are so many interesting portraits to take here. Guys selling dried fish. A woman begging with her two children, a spicemonger with a tattooed face colorful as his wares. Even a cat posing among baskets of prickly pears.
I tried to get change along the boulevard close to the hotel, but it was too awkward to buy a handful of ratty postcards for a few dirhams just to break a large bill. I thought I would find a larger tourist shop closer to the main square where I could add a small knicknack to my postcards and make the sale worth it, but there was nothing. Maybe I turned off the main street too soon. Nobody round here but the natives.
And dust. God, there’s dust and gravel and it’s all up in the air in the swirling wind. I keep my sunglasses on in spite of the dim light now that the sky has seriously clouded over, but I keep getting eyefuls just the same. I go scowling down the alleys looking mean, but I’m only trying to keep the grit out of my eyes.

Suddenly among the hordes of people and motorbikes and plastered buildings covered with dust, a green oasis opens up to my left. A garden. Benches, palm trees, jacaranda, hibiscus, old women talking to each other, old men napping, a couple of stray dogs. It’s quiet. Even the swarming dust stops at the gate.
In the street again, some people are fighting the dust in front of their shops by watering the ground. This particular corner of the Medina seems to be devoted to motorbike repair (though given the antiquity of most of the bikes in use, they may just require these shops every few yards all over the city, not just in this neighborhood). The grease monkeys don’t try to battle the blowing dust – it just sticks to the grease anyway, better than water.
For dinner, there is pizza everywhere, at least on the main boulevard and around our hotel. Pizza and tagine. We have tagine and it’s delicious. For me chicken with apricots, for Yves-Jean camel with plums. Odèlia swears she doesn’t like camel.

Wednesday morning it’s time for work. B. picks us up at the hotel to take us out to the new university hospital. She seems to be a very nice person, someone you can really discuss things with. N. always made her out to be some inaccessible ogress. Perhaps she is an inaccessible ogress when you’re not a French bigwig come to visit, and perhaps also an ogress to those below her in the hierarchy. Hard to know.
I learn from B. in the car that N. is no longer working with them. No money to fund her position; B. says N. comes in to work at her whim. It’s like a reproach, to not come in more than that when you have no job. There’s something here I’m not getting. Yves-Jean says later that if they wanted N. on the project, funding would be found for her. He’s right.
In the half-constructed hospital we’re guided to an open wing of barely furnished offices and to a conference room. B. herself has never been to these new facilities. There are no curtains or blinds to dim the abundant sunlight for the slides we’ve prepared, but no matter.
We’re a dozen for the presentations, B. and a surgeon, both in their 50’s, plus a collection of young people including the graduate student who will be on the project, the rest all medical students or new doctors. Most of the younger people are women. They all have scarves but most keep them handy, not covering their hair all the time. After enticing the student ranks to fill the chairs at the table, another big head comes in and they flee to the bleachers like a school of minnows. Two put their scarves over their heads. No casual western protocol here.

After discussing medico-scientific topics, during which the problems of money and know-how on the part of the Moroccans never comes up, we visit with the dean of the medical school. This guy wants to know only about money. How much will it cost and where to get the funds. It’s quite a contrast to the insouciance of the previous group. Getting going is always the hardest part, but they have most of the equipment necessary so it’s really a matter of consumables. A small grant should get them started. 20,000€ should be relatively easy to get. At the very least they can spend just 1000 to make their own DNAs and then send them to us for analysis. Results from our lab will prove to their granting agencies that there are mutations to find, this is a public health issue, there are women to help, and thus get the granting circle started.
This hospital is months away from being open yet, so we tour the old one. It’s a less scary place than the hospital in Algiers, but it’s still a far, far cry from anything you’ll find in the States or France.

Dr. Abassi’s office is the old pathology lab, two rooms piled high with folders and books, a tile workbench running the length of the inner office, sinks recalling the room’s ancient function. Across a central light-well where patients or family members or random people are milling slowly around, the Ob-Gyn wing stretches off to the east.
An archive room is filled to the ceiling with cardboard folders. I can’t tell if the arabic writing on them is legible, but possibly it is not. Anything before 2003 is in deep, inaccessible storage elsewhere and may as well not exist. The room is so crammed they will have difficulty adding 2008. Unless that means rotating out 2003. Medical histories don’t go back very far here.
The rest of the corridor is the ward, with double rooms to each side and 10-bed rooms at the end. Every bed is occupied. The floor in the hallway stinks of urine. The ceilings are high and there’s plenty of light where the curtains are pulled back, and aside from the smell it all looks reasonably clean.

The walls are bare of any decoration, and there is a small cabinet for personal belongings, no other furnishings but beds and now and then a chair. The women are lying down, sleeping or talking quietly or nursing newborns. They are not all here for giving birth, but for various gynecological issues, including, here, breast cancer. They’re dressed in their own pyjamas and gowns or street clothes. They’ve brought their own pillows and extra blankets. Not many are veiled. Some are startled to see a man in their ward other than their doctor, and reach to cover themselves.
There are no IVs, no trays of medical supplies, no monitors, nothing that goes ‘beep’, no phones or tvs or bedside lamps. The women have brought a fair amount of stuff with them, which is sitting on the floor in bags and suitcases and piled in heaps. The 10-bed rooms are so full it’s hard to make your way to the back. I don’t notice where the bathrooms are, and I doubt there’s a shower at all.

Downstairs, the pathology department occupies several rooms, and is properly equipped with microscopes and centrifuges and incubators and all the trappings of a pathology laboratory. But they are lacking in archive space. A room with unspeakable air is filled floor to ceiling with jars of specimens. Because here they often diagnose cancer so late (because the patients just don't come in until they can't possibly help it), the specimens are sometimes huge. Another room, floor to ceiling with slides. Another, empty, waiting.
Nearby is the complex housing the classrooms and other spaces of the medical school. It’s a pretty place, new and clean, with a long central courtyard full of trees and roses and benches where students are studying or chatting. There is no water in the fountains, and several stray cats wander among the dry planters.
At the med school, several rooms are set up as molecular biology labs. Sort of. Nobody actually does anything here. With the setup of the building, they apparently had a good-sized budget for large equipment, and somebody went through a catalog and ordered a bunch of stuff. They have stuff they don’t even know what it’s for, like an apparatus for the first dimension of a 2-D gel (with the apparatus for the second dimension not thought of). They’ve got two PCR machines, great, but not good ones. And they have a one-lane capillary sequencer similar to our 16-lane version. All of this is gathering dust.
What they don’t have is any kind of money at all for consumables. No plasticware, no enzymes, not even basic chemicals. It’s as if they bought a nice car, and they certainly have people keen to learn to drive, but there’s no gas.

I think it’s going to work like this: money will be found, enough to get them extracting their own DNA. I’ll analyze these DNAs, including them in our annual count as if they were French so we’ll be reimbursed for the work, then once we publish some results they’ll be able to point to that success for more significant funding. The grad student will come for a month to learn benchwork, and I will come back to Marrakech to get their lab running once they’re ready for something more complex than DNA extraction. Once there’s some gas to run on.

While B. waits in line at the bank to get our stipend for the trip in cash, Yves-Jean and I relax at a café on the main boulevard. It’s well after 1, maybe almost 2, and we hesitate to have more than a soda because Edith might be waiting for Y-J to have her lunch. We order vanilla orange juice, expecting a shot of flavor added to juice. What we get is orange juice over vanilla ice cream. It’s wonderful.

Back at the hotel I snarf a couple of sweets from my welcome present and head out to wander in Marrakech.
There’s a whole list of things I’d like to find in the souks of the Medina – a good silver bracelet, some cheap metal bangles, Dan’s hats and jacket that he ordered, a small piece of pottery for my collection, a rug, and whatever knicknacks catch my fancy.
Today I enter the Medina at the ‘main’ entrance, where a hundred horses attached in pairs to carriages stand shifting from foot to foot waiting for tourists to hire them. Wow, does it stink of horse piss.

The main square, Jemaa el Fna, is pretty empty just now, though it’s supposed to be the center of Marrakech life. Where are all the promised fruit stands and jugglers and fire-eaters? Heading off the square toward the souks, the first row of shops are all for tourists. I wonder just how many real Moroccans have this ironwork and that ornate mirror in their homes. I wonder how real that image of “typical” Moroccan domestic comfort is. Perhaps it’s exactly real, only I’ll never get into a typical Moroccan home to find out.
I start looking at jewelry, just the cheap gaudy stuff they put out on the street. I do want some, so I’m really looking. I’m not going to buy this, though, and when the kid asks me if I like it I heft what’s in my hand to indicate it’s junk.
So he says do I want to look at real silver, and since yes, I do want to look at real silver, I let myself be led to the shop across the way. The real silver is in locked display cases and they do have some bracelets that would look fabulous on my arm. And thus I am doomed.

It is understood, better by the merchants than by the tourists, that opening a discussion will end in a sale. If you’re not going to buy at some price, DO NOT open your mouth. Don’t ask to see anything. Don’t try anything on. Above all, never ask How much unless you know your own personal answer to the question.
All silver here is sold by weight, as if the craftsmanship that went into making something nice-looking to wear is nothing. My never-let-them-go host weighs my favorite, calculates its price under my eyes but too quickly for me to follow, and shows me the result. I never did get a good look at the scale and I don’t know the going rate per gram anyway. All I have to go on is how much am I willing to part with in order to have it.
We haggle. I take a break and look around at the rest of the 3-storey shop. We haggle some more, and I spend about 70€ on two large, beautiful bracelets, with a free crocheted hat thrown in. It’s way more than I should spend on them, but I’m new at this.

And now for the embarrassment. My suspicion of having been had probably shows on my face, but it’s absolutely true that I don’t have 800 dirhams in my pocket. I left the envelope of cash at the hotel; I’ve only got 500 on me. No way I’m using my credit card: any dirhams left on Saturday will be just so much play money once I get on that plane.
So the guy wraps the silver in the hat, hands it to me and says his son here will accompany me to the hotel. No reneging on the deal, no ‘coming back later’. He’s heard that one before.

It’s hot, and it’s a 3km walk back to the hotel so once I get rid of my escort I hide my treasure in my unsecured room and decide to check out the pool on the roof. Pretty enough, but the pool is in the shade and the water is too cold for me. Maurice and I hang out on a lounge chair writing postcards, determined not to be chased away from our relaxing spot by the honeymooners a few chairs away. Eventually it’s time for a shower and a nap before meeting the others for dinner.
MacDonald’s is our meeting point, halfway to the Medina. Edith would like to dine in the Medina rather than the tame tourist places along the boulevard, but it’s too far to go – in particular too far to walk back afterward – with the little one. We end up at the same place Yves-Jean and I had our vanilla-orange at, and the food is great. I have pastilla, which is chicken and almonds and spices wrapped in thin brik pastry and served on a bed of mint. There are orange slices dusted with cinnamon for dessert.

Thursday we have the entire day free. We decide to meet in the main square at 8 pm, at the post office, to have dinner amidst the ‘real’ Marrakech nightlife. So I have just enough companionship but am also free to wander as my whim takes me, and linger writing over boiling mint tea.
I’m out of the hotel as soon as I’ve had my breakfast, with a plan to not take the grand boulevard once again but to pass around the northern tip of the Medina, enter there, and follow the perimeter around to the Jemaa el Fna. That way I’ll see all the gates into the Medina. According to my guide book, some of them are quite impressive. The early start will let me cover plenty of ground before the oppressive smoggy heat of afternoon comes on.
But I immediately get lost. I have a very nice walk through some of the nicer residential neighborhoods, but my map has little detail and it’s hard to catch a glimpse of the tall Khoutoubia mosque to reorient. Plus, there’s another mosque sporting a very similar tower. Finally way down a rare straight street I spy the pockmarked Medina wall. It’s in exactly the wrong direction, but at least I found it.
Finding myself at a southwest corner of the walled city, I decide to go counterclockwise around the prince’s palace and enter by the south gate. I’m flexible.

Oddly for a city so large, of which the walled Medina is the original construction, to the south and west there’s not much. From downtown to countryside in a blink. There’s a huge olive grove and barren open space. It looks like part of this was once, or is, a vast parking lot. Nobody is parked, except for a small group of camels and their handlers waiting to be hired out to tourists.
Here’s the south entrance to the Medina at last. The prince’s palace is closed to the public, I knew, but you can’t get even the least glimpse of it behind adobe walls three stories tall. And don’t try unless you want to get shot.
Here’s the major Muslim cemetery, again surrounded by high adobe walls. As I approach the open gate to look in, a guard gets agitated. I try to explain I’m not going in; I just want to look from here, but looking is not allowed. It’s very pretty in there. Everything is white. The tombs are white marble, the ground is covered in white dust, the visitors are all wearing white. Even the sky is drained of color.

And now the main Medina gate. Huge and ornate, it’s falling into ruin. It looks far nicer in the guidebooks and postcards, taken in just the right light. It is true that storks are nesting on the higher battlements and chimneys. The first nest I thought was a put-on, the stork made of plaster for the tourists, but then it moved, and I started to see all the others. And the droppings.
Nearby are the Saadite tombs, one of the major attractions of the Medina. It’s only 2 € entry, so why not?
One why not is the crowd, but I see they are all attached to their guides, sticking close, and it’s possible with patience to wait for a break between waves to enjoy the lush gardens and elaborate indoor tombs in quiet.
It is a sight to see. The garden is about the size of my yard, half filled in with ordinary graves of notable Muslims, their feet toward Mecca (or is it their heads?). A lone Jewish counselor is placed sideways. Then the sheltered tombs of kings and queens, incredibly elaborate, tiled on the floor and up the walls to ten feet, then sculpted and inlaid plaster rising to the cathedral ceilings. Color everywhere.
Of much interest to a couple of Germans is a tortoise crossing a path to a more promising bed of flowers. They pursue it with their cameras until it is out of sight under a hydrangea. Shucks; it would have been fun to photograph it with Maurice. Tortoise and pink Hare. Probably just as well, it seems disrespectful to come to this solemn and holy place and take joke pictures anyway.

Outside, I’ve just reaffirmed my Stranger status by buying and drinking a bottle of water when I hear my name being called. It’s Yves-Jean. N. has hired a guide to take us around the Medina, if I would like to join them.
Well sure, that would be nice.

And it is nice.
We head straight for the tombs, and this time I get all the commentary because it isn’t in Spanish or Dutch. The 16th century rulers, the Muslims facing Mecca, the Jew buried crossways, the women apart. I see a lot less, because now it really is crowded and there are no breaks between groups, but it’s interesting.
Then on to a palace. Dating from the 19th century, it looks like it might be much older simply because the architecture hadn’t changed. Two fireplaces had been added by the French, but otherwise it was all open rooms facing courtyard gardens, benches previously covered with cushions. Light from the sky. Heat from wool carpets and shawls. Coolness from thick walls and shade and strategically placed doors. Every surface is decorated, from the mosaic floors to the carved and painted ceilings.

Next, the souks. We are taken to learn about carpets, but also to buy carpets. Seated comfortably on a bank of cushions, the shopowner has his boys roll out carpet after carpet, explaining their virtues, the traditions, the dyes used. At the end of a good thirty carpets he wants to know which ones we’ll take. No question of whether we actually want to buy a carpet – if we’re in the shop it’s understood we’re here to buy. Um... I thought I was on a tour...
He does have some nice items, and with our guide and N. along we’re not likely to get too ripped off. It’s a quality shop, and it’s time for me to choose my rug if I’m getting one at all. They bring us tea, though with it still Ramadan only we Europeans are served. We’re invited to take off our shoes and walk on the carpets. Like at home. Come.
The proprietor has got a gorgeous red carpet out, one with no annoying design, just waves of hand-dyed red. I’m sold the moment I sink my toes into it.
I know that if I ask how much he wants for it, I’m committed to giving a counteroffer I must stick to if he agrees. I can afford 500€, tops. I figure this one, with no complicated design, can’t be out of range.
Numbers are not spoken aloud in the nice shops. On his big calculator he types out 26,000 dirhams as the price he would normally charge tourists. But seeing as we’re here with local friends, he’ll cut that in half. For friends, and for Ramadan, which works out to about 1200 €. Gulp.
Edith wants a carpet too, a kilim with lots of orange colors and complex patterning, so they pull out and fold away carpet after carpet. They pull out plain red wool ones for me, too, in different sizes.
Edith finds what she likes, but Yves-Jean is not convinced. He doesn’t really want a carpet at all, which is a good thing for negotiating because he won’t come down from 500 for the relatively cheaper cotton kilim. They go off to pay, leaving me with my beautiful red wool berber. I point to a smaller one, and off we go.
The shop owner wants a number, any number. Whatever I can, he says, when I correct his impression that we are all doctors. Not me; I’m a poor goodhearted scientist. I’m embarrassed to say. He wants to know. I say 500 (being too shy to go lower and give myself bargaining room – the carpet really does seem worth 800 or so, for its size and what I’ve seen elsewhere). 500 pains him. It is too low. We discuss. I offer 600 and I know that is all I can do. He says I can pay on my credit card, spread it out – I say sure but that still means paying. His number creeps down. I stand firm.
600€ it is. They wrap it up in a bundle I can check directly on the plane and deliver it to the hotel. I feel strange – at once like I’ve spent far too much and also that I got a really good deal. Did I? Both are possible.

If you don’t want to buy, you’ve got to just never open your mouth. Not even once.
Next stop is next door, a huge cavern full of dusty, junky stuff, mostly metalwork. Edith wants a traditional silver teapot, and eventually finds one to her liking.
If we visit the souk one shop at a time, we’ll be here till New Year’s. But now we walk quickly through them. Our guide walks more quickly than Odèlia can manage, and he often has to wait for us. It would be too easy to lose him in the crowds if he weren’t so tall and so brightly clad in a yellow djellaba.

We’re headed for the spice quarter, where upstairs at a ‘pharmacy’ we’re given a private sales pitch for diverse local products. Quick shoulder massage 2€, all products 3-for-2, special for Ramadan. We buy, but not very much, not knowing how many more shops are on the tour. I get 35-spice mix for tagines, and a bottle of some strange nut oil for salads that smells a lot like hazelnut but not quite. No cosmetics or medicinal products, thank you.
Then a little more walking and explaining and we’re dropped off at the hotel around 2. It was really nice of N. to organize this for us, and very lucky to have found me at random in the Medina. She says she thought B. had something planned for us today, or she would have contacted us earlier. As it was, only Yves-Jean’s wanting to work for an hour before going out in the morning saved her from missing us entirely.
She’d so much like to invite us to her home, but she can’t do that with her husband away on the Haj. I suspect that it’s specifically Yves-Jean she can’t invite to her home: I don’t think it’s against any rule for her to have women over. Society here would stop if women couldn’t visit.
I lighten my bag, scarf some more sweets and drink plenty of water, then go right back out to shop in the souks for cheap stuff and Dan’s hats.

I’m wandering around not finding hats when one of the innumerable would-be guides asks me what I’m looking for. If I tell him, I’ll have hired him to guide me, so I almost blow it off like all the others but what the heck, it’ll only cost me a euro.
We’re not in the covered souks, but on the edge where shops are more scattered. He leads me off down a residential side street toward the main square where all the shopping is. Then down a couple more quiet residential streets. I stop to photograph a doorway and a cat, and he keeps asking me what do I want, what do I want. In a couple of places he turns away from what looks like a wider street, saying it’s closed that way. Knowing how these people value their privacy and consider tourists wandering into their personal space a real affront, I follow him down another disaffected alleyway. That’s all there is in the Medina, alleys. Even so, it looks like my “guide” doesn’t know the area any better than I do.

At an opening to a covered passage he makes it known that he wants to show me a riad, a garden. Perhaps that’s what he’s been looking for. I know these small gardens are green oases in the dusty city and they’re mostly private. It would be a real treat to get a picture of one.
At the turn in the passage, my guide turns on me suddenly, bumping up against me in a clumsy way. It’s shocking he would touch me. Then he steps back, hand behind his back as if holding a knife he doesn’t want to have to threaten me openly with, and demands money.
Startled and afraid not of any pretended knife but of his strength (the posture is just too ridiculous for there to be a real knife), I give him the small bill I keep handy in my pocket. He demands more, crouching and gesturing like he might lunge and stab me even though I saw his empty hands. I say firmly ‘No’. He keeps demanding and making threatening gestures but I start shouting No. NO. NO.
People are near. We haven’t seen many, but they are all around. Right upstairs, and on the other side of the wall, and around the corner. People are everywhere. NO! The guy flees.
I turn two corners and I’m in an open, sun-filled square filled with merchants, among them a number of hat sellers squatting on their heels among their wares.

What an idiot. I know better than to accept to be led down deserted streets by a stranger. He was risking a lot for five bucks, though. The police take any aggression of tourists very seriously. The reputation of Marrakech as a tourist destination depends on it, along with a good and growing chunk of the economy. Getting taken for a ride here is common, but being attacked is not.

The hats are disappointing. Dan wants bright ones, but the only bright ones with multiple colors have stupid llama motifs all around. Llamas?? The only hats I’ve seen the local people wear are either white or beige, rarely with a design in light blue. Men’s fashion in Marrakech these days is very subdued. Nothing flashy. Colorful hats like Dan wants are hard to find: the bright flashy jacket he saw on the internet simply does not exist. Men in the streets are wearing either jeans and t-shirts, pants and shirts like you’d find anywhere in the world, or plain kaftans or djellabas in neutral colors.
Sorry, Dan.

I do get a collection of hats. I do find hats in gaudy colors, but they’re made of nasty, scratchy wool. Crocheted cotton hats I buy in twos and threes; the ones said to be handmade are more expensive, but the machine-made ones contain too much acrylic yarn.
Bargaining becomes more fun as I get the hang of it. You just have to be serious about walking away instead of caving in to a higher price, even if the merchant does get mad -or appears to. They will always come down to something you’re willing to pay. By the end of the day I regret not starting my bids even lower. What are they going to do? Say no? Let them – the next shop over has exactly the same merchandise for sale.

At 6 I sit down for tea. My bag is getting quite heavy. There’s just enough time to make it back to the hotel and back to drop it off, but what’s the point in that. I watch people go by and write in my journal until it’s time to meet Edith and Yves-Jean for dinner.
It’s threatening rain and putting on a fair lightening show, so we scrap our idea of eating at one of the stands set up in the square and go for a covered terrace overlooking the Jemaa el Fna instead. Traditional food, good, cheap, not excessive piles of it. One thing we’ve kept seeing on menus is avocado juice. That seems too bizarre, so we try one. It’s like an avocado smoothie, mostly milk, true avocado taste. But why? We don’t mind it, but nobody really likes it either.

Friday. I try again to go around the Medina and see all the gates. Only, the Medina is a big place, and only the area to the south and west, where I’ve already been, is at all nice. The northern peninsula is very run-down and ratty and not used to tourists at all. When I enter, what shops there are are just starting to think of opening, though there are people out and about. I feel very conspicuous as I walk down the narrow streets. Like a voyeur, which in a way I am.
Going around the outside of the wall, the neighborhood was just too nasty and smelly, so I try to go around the inside, only the streets don’t do that. Along the wall it’s built up, with cul de sacs and walled-off areas and mosques where people stare at me like a suspected terrorist for getting near.
So I give up on that, and head south more or less at random. Twice, young men try to ‘help’ me find my way. They want to know what I’m looking for, where I’m heading, where I’m from. They refuse to accept this is none of their business. They tell me come this way, leading. I turn another. They get angry that I do not want their ‘services’. When I will not tell them what I am looking for, they decide for me that I want to see the coppersmith, or the leatherworkers. I say no, no, I am just looking around. I am not lost.

Really, that’s all I want to do, look around and see what it’s like here. And I would be happy to stop and chat with someone who doesn’t see me as a mark, but that’s not these guys.
I stumble into the touristy zone, where the Marrakech Museum is open.
Open? We were told yesterday that all the monuments and museums would be closed today, the last day of Ramadan. That was the reason given why, when N. arrived unannounced at the hotel yesterday with the guide and his van, that they could not come back the next day when we would all be there.

Yes, it’s open. Everything is open. People are lined up to go in the Bahia Palace we toured yesterday. I come across the Badii Palace, a huge ruin, and explore it for 1 €. It’s peaceful and bare, with a dozen storks nesting on the higher remaining ramparts.
Back in the souks, fully open by noon, I’d like to find an inexpensive scarf or two. Mostly I love to wander in this great bazaar, and having a goal makes it more fun.
Looking at scarves I’m confronted again with the petty dishonesty of people from the Maghreb. The guy swears all his stock is made in Morocco. He doesn’t bother to claim it’s made by hand, but at least it is made locally. I pick out a blue cotton wrap and am about to bid 10 dirhams when I notice the Made in China tag. Now, I don’t actually mind that the thing is made in China. It’s a nice sarong and the price will be right. So I point out the tag and say ‘hey, this says made in China’.
Oh no. No, no no. All made in Morocco.
I show him the tag. Made. In. China. Fabriqué en Chine.
When the guy continues to deny that any item made anywhere else than in Morocco, and now by hand at that, could ever, ever be in his shop, I laugh and toss the length of fabric at him before going on my way.

Eventually I decide on a much nicer scarf in shades of red and orange, and make my lowest bid yet. Percentagewise, not in absolute numbers. The guy wants 160. I offer 50. Maybe I could have gone lower, but that’s only a couple bucks as it is. It’s a scarf. It isn’t worth more. 150 from the young merchant under the eye of an older man, perhaps his father, certainly his boss.
One hundred.
He has to confer. He looks nervous. He can see, or the older man can, that I’ve ceased to be a pushover. We conclude at 65.
It’s a pretty scarf, and a large one. I hope it’s warm enough to replace the jacket I lost changing planes in Paris, at least long enough to get me home. I consider buying a leather jacket from one of the great many leatherworkers, but I don’t have the energy for it and I really should stop spending. I have a good leather jacket already.

Even after stopping for a leisurely lunch (alas, only tourist places open in this holy season) and mint tea I’m still very tired. Better hike back to the hotel (only 4 km) and shower (no hot water this morning and my hair is getting far too nasty in this polluted air to go to dinner at Professor and Director Belaabidia’s house tonight), and then just rest.
I slightly regret not detouring to the fabulous Marjorelle Garden, but it’s just too much effort in the oppressive afternoon heat. Besides it might be closed for the holiday supposedly going on today.
An afternoon of relaxation is in order. Not that I’ve been exactly hard at work all week, but it’s been a nonstop few days with all that walking.

Dinner is our taste of Moroccan luxury. I was hoping for dinner at her house, as I thought she indicated in the invitation, but B. and her husband Omar take us out to The Red House, a restaurant/hotel in the rich residential district I got lost in on Thursday. I almost stopped then to photograph the ornate mosaic and carved plasterwork façade, set in its well-watered and shady garden.
Inside it’s equally opulent. In the foyer they have a bar set up with all sorts of liqueurs, letting us know right off that whatever non-Muslim libations we wish to partake of, we have only to say so.
The main dining area has thick carpets on the mosaic floor, mosaics on every wall in a colorful and repeating geometric starburst and rosette pattern, then above seven feet or so, like in many places, just high enough to be out of reach, it’s the carved white plaster in traditional designs up to the high ceiling that is entirely covered in sculpted and painted wood. There is color and intricate design on every surface. The tables and chairs are western, in deference to creaky western limbs, but I see an alcove decorated differently, with poufs and couches, unfortunately finished with heavy red velvet draperies too garish to be nice.

Over a delicious dinner I learn a little more about N., and it’s clear why she’s no longer really part of the team. Well, she could be part of it if she would only come be part of it. That’s the problem; she doesn’t work as a team member. She keeps entirely to herself. In her time with us, we put this down to shyness and being a stranger quite out of her depth. Apparently she’s always like that.
She’s kept the information about this collaboration as much to herself as possible. When she got back from her month-long stay with us, she went home and stayed there. She never told me that her position at the university had not gone through, so I didn’t know I needed another contact person. She never made any kind of report to B. or the rest of the young students and doctors that participate in the breast cancer project in Marrakech. It was only after much harassment that she finally presented some of her experience, and that on Monday, just one day before our arrival.
I don’t get this girl, and neither does B.. What is clear is that this collaboration will go exactly nowhere if we try to keep her in the center of it. As of now, B. and I will just communicate directly.

Saturday it’s time to leave. Between a growing sore throat and the filling of the hotel (which makes for an awful racket as the too-tightly fitting doors have to be slammed shut, making shot-like bangs echoing up and down the tiled spaces), I sleep poorly. The morning being overcast doesn’t help at all, failing to cue me in that the morning is well on. When I finally boot my computer –an elaborate clock once I finished my slides days ago- I’m shocked to find I’ve got 54 minutes to get done in the bathroom, have breakfast, and check out.
Then the day is just boring transit. Wait here, wait there. I spend my last dirhams on packets of Moroccan sweets to share at work. What’s fun on the trip back is flying over Spain and recognizing not meerly Madrid but sights that I have visited there and the intersection near my hotel from 2002. Hey, I’ve been there!

Till next time,

No comments: