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Into the Sandstorm

Into the Sandstorm

MOROCCO | Monday, 20 February 2017 | Views [660]

It was still raining the next morning. The blue and white town piled into the fog-blackened mountains, and reminded me of a Himalayan hill station. I walked to the square and ordered breakfast from a hilariously inaccurate menu that offered, for example, 'toust and fried egys'.

I took a last look at the bright blue Medina and set off for the bus station. I quickly got lost, and found myself wandering around the concrete outskirts, looking down into the green valleys of the Rif, and panicking. Eventually I got there, saved only by locals who pointed me in the right direction in garbled Spanish, French and English. I then had to find a cash machine, which necessitated rushing 75% back the way I came. It was humid, the air was full of the smell of grilling meat, and I was approached at least 17 times with, for example,

"¡Hola amigo!"

"My fren, where you are from?"

"You want buy marijuana?"

I had decided to move on, to somewhere where there would by no tourists, no touts. Thus I bought a ticket to Meknes. When I got back to the bus station, the drivers on the forecourt told me that there was no 1pm bus to Meknes. It left at 12.30, I'd better hurry. Confused, I went to see the man who had sold me the ticket.

"My fren! This is ticket to Fes! There no are busses direct to Meknes..."

Furious, I bought a ticket from another company, and, just in time, jumped on the 12.30 bus.

As I caught my breath we rolled out of the town into the lush, sweeping valleys. A swarm of traders got on at the roadside. There wasn't room for them; they crammed themselves onto the back bench and crouched on the floor. The conductor came and wrangled money out of them as we corckscrewed along mountain roads.

Past dry rivers and scrubby hillsides. A faraway mosque, a dirt track where stooping women carried heavy loads on their backs. Through Ouezzane, another sprawling concrete town that spilled up the hillside like a splash of grey paint. Most of the traders got off here, but more people got on. The middle-aged man next to me chivalrously ceded his place to a young woman in a headscarf. She wore a red skirt and black leather trousers, and never removed her thick coat, even when the sun came out and it became hot. She was a little older than me. A strand of black hair escaped from her veil. She talked into her iPhone for most of the journey; I understood 'WhatsApp message'.

The landscape became flatter, drier, stonier. I squinted in the strong sun. Someone behind me was playing kebab-shop music. We drew up in a dust-coloured town on the plain; the driver called out a guttural place-name. I asked him how long we would be here. 15 minutes, he told me. I ordered mint tea in a smoky roadside cafe, and drank it quickly. "Pas encore le temps... un pétit-déjeuner ici", the waiter said to me in non-sensical French as I made to rush back to the bus. In the end it was more than 45 minutes before we were back on the road.

Through dry, hilly wastes. So hot. The woman leant over me, said something in Arabic, and drew the curtains. The bright disc of the sun glared through the thin blue fabric. I saw irrigated rows of plants (what grows here?), and squat, sun-faded buildings. A mosque, a crowd standing idly on a brown, dusty flat. I jotted down one word: 'Africa'. 

Another low concrete town rose in shades of red out of the black plain. I heard shouts of 'Meknes', so I got off. The woman moved and spoke her only words to me: "vas-y."

I was directed onto another bus (thanking the heavens as I did so that I had learned French. Here in the Moroccan Atlas it saved my bacon). Into shady valleys, where sprase green plants clung to red hillsides. We wound in the setting sun through this golden and red Islamic landscape, slowly filling with shadow.

A walled city appeared on a sandy cliff, both flushed red. By the time we had wound our way up to it, the desert below was sinking into purple. I stepped off on a ringroad, as the city began to light up, and green pinpricks of light appeared in the lavender gloom below. I approached the wall of the old city, and stepped through a Moorish gate...

Into Mughal India. I skirted the wall, under archway after archway, down rough stone alleys dimly lit with orange lanterns, many covered with a roof so low I could barely pass. To the side, pitch dark defiles, mosques, again that rising and falling Qu'ranic song. A crush of people at a shop, everywhere glittering tiles and swirling Arabic engravings.

I found my hotel at length. Inside it was silent, and grander than the others. The woman didn't seem to be expecting me, though I had a reservation. She showed me a seat in French, and made a series of phone calls. I heard her stumbling over my name. After she showed me to my room I stepped back out in search of food.

Now it was Afghanistan: winding, dusty and dim. Here, deep in the sand, tradition's hold was stronger. I saw the first niqabs of my trip. There were so many madrassas, no restaurants... No 'my fren, where you are from' here, though I was eyed with curiosity, as the only European in the streets. A passing youth tried out his French on me: "Je m'appelle!"

I was soon lost. An old man asked if he could help me. He was a French teacher, he said. On his way to evening prayer he showed me to a place on a main street where I was able to find sustenance, and he didn't ask for any money. Singlehandedly he sent my opinion of Morocco skyrocketing.

Obviously I got lost again on the way back. I found men playing music in doorways, a pack horse struggling down an alley, a vast square bounded by stark white fortifications where the remains of the day's market stood, wailing music blasting from a cassette stall.

Eventually I found my way back to the quiet, elegant hotel. I showered, read, and went to bed early, and then some ear-splitting American tourists arrived and broke the spell.

Breakfast was some strawberries, bread, and strange cake in a corner of the central courtyard. I left and wandered around the town for a while. In daylight I could see the desert colours of the streets, and the caverns where men wove, chiselled, grilled meat. The smoky, potholed, impenetrable market and the beggars. It was humid; I sensed a storm brewing. The people were far kinder here: no-one harassed me, only asked if I was lost. Admittedly I was shepherded into a carpet emporium at one point, though seasoned as I now am, I managed to talk my way out within a few minutes. As I left, I saw, with not inconsiderable schadenfreude, some of the loud Americans from the hotel being led in...

I tried to locate the tomb of Moulay Ismail - a great, cruel king who kept the country free from the expanding Ottoman Empire, and drove the Europeans from all Morocco except Ceuta and Melilla. He remained elusive, however. I would not have been allowed to enter anyway, infidel as I am.

Time was running short now. I made my way to the station and boarded a train to Rabat, homewards.

The train boiled for a couple of hours through the green and barren chessboard of the Atlas. We stopped at Kénitra; as we idled I watched a small boy scale the station wall with the help of his friends, and an old man stop to admonish them. Two very beautiful women got on and sat opposite me. Here, in the sea breeze, tradition's grip had lessened again - their hair was uncovered and they wore pink lipstick. I couldn't take my eyes off them.

The sea, though, remained invisible. We passed Salé and crossed the Bou Regreg, faintly Mohammedan Blue.

It was overcast when I stepped off. I had only a glimpse of a white, humid city, and a still further glimpse of sea.

Rabat.  

Tags: atlas, islamic world, maghreb, meknes, morocco, rabat

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