Thirty years ago, in May 1983, I traveled to Morocco. A friend from college was working for the Peace Corps, and it was an opportunity to visit. I was blissfully unaware of how different a place it would be. And to this day, I have never been anywhere more exotic.
Royal Air Maroc took me from Boston to Fez and I stepped off the plane into scorching heat. As soon as I looked around me, I was grateful I’d packed a couple of long cotton skirts.
The children in Fez wanted to touch me – well, after all, I had white skin (quickly turning pink) and yellow hair. I was either magic good or magic bad. When I smiled and held out coins, I was magic good. But when I spoke, they ran away screaming.
I was independent at 24, and when my friend attended to his duties during the day, I intended to walk around the area by myself. I’d memorized the way back to the place where we stayed (take a left at the stubby tree, straight past the pissoir, turn right where the beggar leans against the wall). And yet, the first time I attempted a walk, I was surrounded. Men approached and buzzed around me like gnats. They wanted to practice their English, they wanted to buy me a coffee. They did not understand the word “no.”
We took a bus out to the oasis. It was full of people and animals. Yes, animals. Chickens, roosters, even a goat, I think. All in crates tied to the roof of the bus. Oh, and when I lowered the window for some fresh air, I was admonished in Arabic by an old man seated in front of me. My friend explained that if I opened the window, the old man believed his soul would fly out. So all the windows remained shut for the trip.
At the oasis, everyone stared at me, from the young Moroccans lounging by the pool to the old men in djellabas standing like sentinels along the perimeter. I was the “Nazarene,” or Christian.
I remember the hole in the floor that was our toilet and the lizard that occupied the bathing room.
We bought a chicken at the open market and I turned away while it was slaughtered. Later, we carried it home, unwrapped it from its paper shroud and put it in a pot. We had to cover it with oil and vinegar because Fatima wouldn’t cook it until the next day and there was no refrigerator.
The smell of the tannery is still with me.
I remember the guy who sold beautiful rugs. Because he assumed I was a wealthy American, he brought me upstairs, where girls as young as eight or nine stood for hours weaving intricate patterns. He served sweet mint tea and unrolled carpet after carpet, even after I made it clear I wasn’t buying.
The medina was filled with one mesmerizing display after another. This guy hammered brass circles into gorgeous platters and trays. Another man sold blue pottery. I wasn’t adept at bargaining, but you have to bargain, so my friend did it for me. I was supposed to bargain to save him from embarrassment. After all, there were other tourists around. In the end, I picked up a few lovely small olive bowls and a decorative tajine. And today, I will make couscous for dinner.