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Cats And Gates: First Impressions of the Dark Continent

MOROCCO | Saturday, 23 February 2013 | Views [569]

There are two things I remember about my visit last year to the little fishing port of Cassis in Southern France.  The first, is the beauty, peace, quiet, and warmth of the December sun.  Is that more than one thing, already ?  As they are all environmental, I think they count as one.  The second is the little old man in the square and his cat.  

In my travels, I’ve seen hundreds of old men, and thousands of cats, then why should I remember this particular odd couple?  Simple answer, I spoke to him.  As the cat and man strolled placidly together into the square and sat down, I found it curious and I had to ask.  Was this just a random coincidence, of man and animal having the same course on this given day, or was this a man being followed by his cat?  His answer, when I asked him if that was his cat and if the cat were accompanying him on his walk, “it’s his right”, the man said.  All of three words, and I still remember it today.  

From these few words, so much can be said about the complex French mentality, the psychology of the old man, and the differences between our own ways of thinking. None of which could be found in a guide book.  That is traveling, in its essence.  A trip is not just packing your bags and going somewhere.  In my experience, true travel is both a physical, as well as a psychological voyage into the heart of “the other” and the most memorable travel experiences happen when we encounter and engage the world we traveled so far to see.  Sitting inside the sterilized world of an all inclusive beach resort, or being herded like cattle on a European Group Tour will always fall short when viewed in this way.

I have fostered this revelation of engagement, so obvious but so easy to ignore, on every trip that I have taken since.  And into Morocco, it also traveled with me.

As we crossed the strait of Gibraltar from Spain, and approached the Northern tip of Africa, the sensation of new and unknown adventures loomed as large as the continent before me.  Known  for centuries by western civilizations as the “dark continent”, it appeared to me as a strange world full of mystery and a splash of scary, for what could that reference to darkness portend?  In fact, I already know that it meant, “unknown” or “as yet unexplored”, but one cannot so easily get over the deeply rooted connection between “dark” and “dangerous”.

As children, we believe our parents that there aren’t monsters in the dark corners of our rooms or under our beds, that is, as long as the lights are still on.  Once the lights go off, their soothing words are quickly swallowed by the shadows.   As adults ,we know there is probably nothing to fear in the darkness of our own backyards, or in some shadowy alleyway, but that doesn’t help much either when we are alone in the night.  The mind is like that, and if we cant see it, then we fear it.   The world thought of Africa like that, for a long time, and that trepidation lives on in the imagination of the modern westerner to this day.

Once I set foot on land and found very little “darkness” in the bright African sun, it was as if my bedside lamp had been switched on, scaring away the ghouls that I had imagined into existence.  But as we walked away from the port and through the fortified walls of the old city, I was keenly aware that there was so much that I did not understand, and our next move was uncertain.  This is coming from an experienced traveler, who can confidently and quickly unravel the mysteries of any European city or village.

Inside these walls, I saw very few signs of a familiar world.  Women with varying degrees of covered bodies from simple headscarves to total occultation, men wearing long cloaks with pointed hoods, vendors selling things I could not identify, speaking a language I could not even begin to decipher, going into buildings that I could not classify.  Was it a school, a home, a place of worship, a restaurant, a community center, or some “dark” place?  None of my previously amassed travel data seemed to be of much use here.    

As our time was to be limited in this port town, we hired a guide.  His tour routine became clearly evident to me, and though kind-hearted and generous, it was obviously not designed for my style of travel.  “Come here” he said guiding me through the opulent rooms of the Continental hotel, “this here Humphrey Bogart make movie for Casablanca, sit, I do your photograph”.  Around the next street, “here house of famous American movie star, many tourist like to make picture”.  I declined politely, by saying “la’a Shokran”, no thank you.  “Ahhhh, You speak Arabic?” He asked excitedly, “Shwiya” I responded, a little.  In fact, “a little” is a gross exaggeration.  “A little”, means that maybe you have an Arabic cousin or you spent a few months learning the language, what I had was much less than a little.  But I dont know how to say, “almost nothing”.  

 I had about ten words, and most of them learned on the 40 minute ferry ride across the strait.  But 10 words, in any language, mean much more than their combined meaning, even if you could actually link them all into a coherent sentence, which I could not.  What they symbolize, if the word “mean” is inadequate, is simple “I am not your average tourist, Im here to know you, not just to pass through and be gone.”  I certainly cannot say all of that in Arabic, Japanese, Greek, or Turkish, but I have expressed it in all of those languages at one time or another.  Ahmed’s response to my 2 word utterance was instant, and rewarded with a strong slap on the back and a friendly pinch on the cheek.  Just like that, no more American tourist.  

Now he was curious about me, and the mood changed from a hurried tour of pointing and photo opportunities, into a conversation.   As we walked, I started riddling Ahmed with questions, a technique that since childhood has proved the best way to dispel any variety of darkness, yes, even a darkness as vast as a continent.  “What is that man doing?”  “Where is she going” “Why is he dressed like that?”  “ What do they do in there?”  And on and on..  My questions were answered and met with questions of his own, and this world began to make sense.  The information he had provided as “guide” was useful, from a mere framework perspective, but that could have been taken from any guide book.  There was more meaning in his smiles and warmth, than any tourist material could ever convey.  I asked him if it was true that my first name had significance in the Muslim religion as one of the doors by which people pass into the Koranic paradise.  He didnt know, and though he said he had studied the Koran, there are those who knew it better than him. Later in the day, Ahmed excitedly returned to me after a quick street-corner chat with a cloaked figure, with the news that I was right.   His friend the Imam had confirmed that “Raiyaan” was not only one of the seven gates, but the most important, the gate of glory.  We both got a good laugh, and like the old man with the cat in Cassis, Ahmed’s cheek pinching and back-slapping will be the memory that emerged with me from the gates of the walled city of Tanger.    

Tags: africa, arabic, cats, gates, guide, morocco, tanger, tangiers


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