Monday, September 5, 2011

The Sheltering Sky: “Nothing Dries Sooner Than a Tear”

(Old Moroccan proverb)

Everyone seemed to have rotten, black, and missing front teeth. They were friendly and kept smiling and that’s how I saw they mostly had rotten, black and missing front teeth.

I couldn’t see a lot of the women’s teeth, only their eyes, and often not even.

There were many women dressed from head to ankle in long black fabrics, layer upon layer covering skin, hands, hair, and some that covered the eyes, and with only a marginally thinner veil, so that everything was hidden, nothing to determine soul, being, nor person, and from afar, yet only by daylight, everywhere they were, like some sort of black ninjas with flowing dark veils, strange and anonymous, solitary shapes, gliding through the winding streets and swirling up the dust from around their imagined ankles; and the men stood on broken curbs waiting for meats to grill and smoking out in the dry air.

It was warm then hot, and there were pelicans standing tall on the castle walls.

The light was amber and gold. It softened the skin, and should have made you feel better somehow. It was a photographer’s dream.

Was that our reason to be there? To soften the skin and make us feel better somehow?

As you know we never get it right. But maybe we never meant to get it right.

The stony walls of the ancient city gave out to many different passages with narrow and twisting cobbled streets that crisscrossed to create an unfathomable great giant labyrinth of mainly souks: the biggest in Morocco.

The souks were filled with meat vendors, spice sellers, leather goods, wooden crafts, embroidered scarves and purses, jewelry, silver plates and trays, argan oils, vegetables and flat breads, as well as, hidden round corners, the large wooden doors which formed the entrance to mosques, and always seen were the beggars, sitting on greyish steps with dull eyes, or worse, tired and old or ill, bitter and bleak.

In the early morning hours, as the streets finally emptied, and the sky was wide, and turned from black to dark blue, and under a blanket of stars, we wound our way home until we were happy and lost in found streets, consigning ourselves to some inexplicable world.

We passed the solitary figures of local men, floating eerily home in their flowing white robes with pointy hats as if belonging to the Ku Klux Klan - such white ghostly gowns, glowing translucent against the streaks of pale moonlight, and casting dark strange shadows that stretched long and haunting and mysterious over the paths and brick work of the city.

We would lose our way, then another way, following others home, darkly, against the walls, gone, until dawn, broke again.

And each morning, the cry for prayer echoed across the city, wholesome, glorious, a beauty and wonder, filling all the air, penetrating and divine, and also filled with hope.

The local skinny boys in jeans and t shirts, with bikes and mopeds, gathered, not at school, but on all the corners, and alongside donkeys and fruit sellers, and when you passed the older ones would touch your arm, smiling and showing another missing tooth, and in French or English, would offer to find you another street to take you everywhere, anywhere, and the other ones, and the younger ones, slouching on a stack of dusty bricks, stood and stared, and on all the corners.

The day eased slowly away, and then was night, hot still, and just as busy and filled with noise and smoke.

Crowded, dusty, loud; scooters and bikes only avoided crashing into everything by will of God, never slowing, always honking; the stench of camel and donkey shit mixed with the cooking grilled meats at the curbs, and the pungent petrol fumes that tainted your clothes, and laced a kiss, hung on the air two floors up, and the saffron - often fake, sometimes real, depending on their rich red or yellow dye - and other spices caught your attention, all mingling and rampant, all hanging on the polluted dry air, stagnant and thick from all that, and more, and in particular the stinking rotting and rancid drains.

The donkeys stood painfully about, whipped and beaten to move, whipped and beaten to stand upright, shifting weight from one leg to another; large empty, brown hollow eyes, dead already, long ago, belonging to another place.

Prayers on my lips, to whoever I think, that I’ll never be reincarnated as such to punish me for all of my sins. Jesus died for somebody’s sins, not mine.

Our depression? Anxiety? It’s not so bad I assumed we said.

They wondered why we came, and when they said not, it is exactly how we came.

Again that call for prayer, always, again and again, it’s beauty would resonate high through the warm air, powerful and beautiful, echoes never to forget, gentle and calming, like the light.

And again the grey beggars would sit in the dirty alleys, with missing fingers as well as teeth, and bundles of kids would scream out, their eyes half closed, blinded in sun light, until from behind, the ashen buildings and narrow streets would shade them, almost, from the baking sun.

Each night at the main square, DJemaa El Fna, the busiest square in all of Africa, there was a loud cacophony, a bustling; it was a musical, shouting, yelling crowd. We were there! Pushing through amid the young girls, not even five, that grabbed your arms for henna tattoos, and small grubby boys that carved wooden chess pieces at your feet. There, the smoke rose high against the cobalt sky, and in strode tall white and grey horses, gallant and impeding, and then there were the snake charmers, banjo players, nut merchants, monkeys and some tricksters too.

Later we’d sit high up in a cool cafe and below the crowds curled snake like, round one another, alive and frenetic, following the smoke trails from the meat vendors and food stalls or the light displays, intense and feverish.

Above the sky was melting like black oil and was pitted with stars that seemed in comparison icy cold, dead light, and far below, this terrifyingly poor, but friendly world, surged in hectic currents, and a desperation that we could no longer try to gather.

In the distance, loomed the cold dark shadowy forms of The Atlas Mountains; smudged by darkness, yet definite, solid and ebony, and their high peaks frosted white, only the vast desert between.

“No problem, for you, no problem, no problem…” resounded from the square, and always followed, without exception, by some problem, but which then wasn’t a great problem we were assured: we had apparently all day, all night, all week, all year.

For some, a lifetime; death came too soon for some.

How long to implicate change I wonder?

For us, no problem…. yet Death came too soon for some.

We stayed in a small Riad named El Sagaya on Rue El Gza in the old Medina, with pretty bright blue mosaics, hand woven rugs, a crazy black spaniel dog, and a small brown turtle.

This was the paradise we sought from anxiety and nerves.

At the Riad we would take coffee each morning as the great orange sun would rise, and across the rooftops with broken satellites, discarded rubbish, broken furniture, and the lines of washing and myriads of dust beaten rugs hanging out to dry, we’d set our eyes on the mountains, cool and steady, in the distance and still covered in snow.

Later in the day, as the sun was much higher and overhead, and us hidden and out of sight, we would remove scarves and long skirts that covered shoulders and legs, and lay out in the heat until our skin turned golden brown then dark like the colour of mud.

Most people spend 5 days here I was told but we checked in for the month. Maybe that was a mistake. Maybe that was the plan. I will never remember now.

There is beauty and mystic and the people are kind. I remember that.

But then it all got too much, for me anyway, I mean the smells, the dust, the missing teeth, the women in black cloaks with no eyes or skin or hair, the men with pointy hats, the cooking meats, the hanging gutted bloody pigs, and chickens with their throats rung, the stench of sewer and drains, the souk sellers, the tourists, the begging, the bartering, the need.

I was slipping into the grasping hands of a whole unknown city, being pulled down, or pushed along, nowhere to stop and think and breathe; my head would falter down strange black tunnels, stifling, smothering, gasping for air, shifting and slanting, downwards in spirals of dark and white light.

My eyes would sting and my nose would run. I’d throw open our wooden shutters, and then bound them up again. I tried to block out the noise and let in only the light.

I begged we left the walls of the old town, past the castle, The King’s Palace, with it’s coral walks and golden gates, and colorful flags, leading onto the new town.

The Arab world in North Africa was changing as we knew it, revolution in Tahrir square in Cairo had been successful, dictators removed, thousands sought to defeat and challenge and expose corruption in their systems, rebuild anew.

How much time to implicate change I wonder?

We stood in the new town; a large empty square, spanning on one side with wide sun parched parks, and on the other side large glass fronted department stores, and in the middle pink terraces, gold statues and clear white fountains, all glistening silently, peacefully in the lush midday sun.

It was then that Libya was burning to the ground*

And here, there was a light, determined breeze that prickled the back of our necks. And it was then, in the square, as if a cloud passed swiftly over the sun, a sudden change in energy emerged, like that before a storm.

Suddenly swarms of men came with the deafening drones of mopeds and motorcycles, then hundreds more, like thick clouds of flies, buzzing, blinding, accelerating, surging, massing and filling the square, women too with coloured head scarves, those carrying large banners, and those with horns blaring, shouting, yelling, and the throngs clung everywhere to the streets and hoarded the square; one heaving crowd with one message that demanded change: “Down with Autocracy” “The People want to change the constitution”

The smell of gasoline fused with the heat, sweat and the insistent chants of a resolute crowd. We were forced from each side of the protest into it’s midst, and then hemmed to the sides of the square, while other onlookers climbed up the many lamp posts and recorded the rally with mobile phones, and linking to twitter and Facebook.

The banners and slogans later we read were demanding education reform, better health services, economic opportunity, help to cope with the rising cost of living, democracy.

The square heaved and groaned with the weight of the demonstrators, pushing in all directions, yet ultimately snared like a wild animal, a living beast, lashing out, unwavering under the smell of burning metal and exhaust fumes, and the motorcycles flashed urgently and roared all around trapped in space and heat, rearing like wild horses in the crowd.

It was recorded that all across the country the protests in every city were peaceful. And it was probably true. There was certainly no police or authoritarian intervention.

For it was just moments after - as the initial protestors began to push out the bottom right corner of the square with their rush of mopeds and humming engines, that more crowds of young males poured in from the top right corner of the square brandishing bats and bottles - when the violence came.

An abrupt moment as exhilaration turns automatically and inexplicably to fear and panic. The instant knowledge of grave danger, the change of mood, the alertness of senses, the smell of sweat, thinner, like ammonium and vinegar.

People screeched for us to run, and people ran, they ran fast, everyone knowing at once, shouting, warning us, gathering us through the panic, shrieking to take cover.

We were being pulled into one of the buildings on the left of the square as security men locked the doors, and reopened to let in the last, and just in time, everyone shouting out, and then quickly locking them again, ushering everyone to huddle, packed into the back of the restaurant and away from the windows.

It was dark and then a hushed silence as we huddled, but not for long.

The continual battering of the glass began. A constant loud and terrifying pelting down on glass, as windows were attacked, thrashed down and breaking, mobs carrying baseball bats, throwing chairs and bricks, and large cement pots, setting fire to cars, a repeated torrent of violence that rained upon the windows and sent streams of shattered glass across the floors and tables, as we remained trapped and frightened at the back.

A small boy, beside me, his head ran with blood, as others grabbed at fire extinguishers, and people, many tourists or well dressed Moroccans with large frightened eyes, cowering at the back where there were no windows and no way out, spoke in panic of petrol bombs and fire, and some picked up heavy objects in defense should the mob get in.

It was difficult to stay calm, and my skin was cold and damp. I was shaking and my stomach felt weak like it may give out as I clung onto Wolf.

We wanted another way out, but there was none, and we were told we would be safer here than on the streets.

“The king owns MacDonald’s” we were told they heard some shout…
And the absurdity of taking cover in the closest building, which I now realized was the Macdonald’s, was not lost one me, but only added to the general sense of fear and danger.

A country with civil unrest, a country although relatively modern compared to it’s neighbouring countries, but where poverty breeds unrest due to the disproportionate and corrupt distribution of wealth; a country that is protesting; but now this.

The reality made me sick and needing to get out. I’d happily set it light myself I thought.

I had to get out. And when we did, finally, we ran to the back streets, legs weak, and hair damp, and everywhere we ran, all the shop fronts had been destroyed, all smashed and shattered to nothing but glass and rubble, and my knees shook violently all the way home.

At the bus station, near the ancient walls of the old town, the cars blazed and then were left to burn into blackened shells.

The protests happened across Morocco, leaving five charcoal bodies found later in a burnt out bank in Rabat.

Nobody at home we spoke to knew about the protests, or the aftermath, but it was all up there on Facebook pages for the world to see and it was named as “The 20th Fevrier Movements For Change.” The Interior Minister later estimated a 37,000 people gathered across the country.

In Marrakesh, the Moroccans insisted it had only been peaceful, and it was true that the police had not being present at any point that I saw (unlike in later riots to come that would cause 60,000 to protest against the death of Kamal Amari caused by police brutality), not even when the looting and violence began, but how could no other tourist know about it unless they had been likewise trapped like us?

I’ll tell you why:
Inside 5 star spas, custom built, with cracks almost hidden, huge complexes gated and locked by tall walls, lined along the top with sharp shards of glass, stranded, just off highways, out in the deserts, where people, some people, could escape and lavish riches upon riches, soak in large pools and spas set at the foot of The Atlas mountains, soak in argan oil massages and slip into leather slippers and silk gowns, or buy silver and gold while watching girls dance with studded bellies and glitter on their skirts, were Scandinavians, Germans, Brits alike, all that mattered was a winter sun.

In the city, inside large walled security guarded night clubs, housing scantily clad women and high paid strippers, were rich Americans sipping £200 bottles of champagne, and under palm trees and jazz the western world could dance into the small easy hours.

How long to implicate change I wonder?

In it’s depravity and unfairness, it made me worse, and soon we took north to Setti Fatma, where there were Berbers resting under 100 year old Oak trees, and there we climbed the mountains up to the seven waterfalls, where finally the air felt clean and fresh, and the water hard and icy.

Still they had managed to put some souks, all the way up there, and Wolf bought me a green stone necklace and we watched it shine like emerald in the sun.

"How’s your anxiety coming along?" He asked.
“Just fine,” I said.
“Your depression?”
“Couldn’t be better,” he said.

And the next morning, when the air was still cool, the mountains where afar and where they’d always been, and still capped in snow, he brought out a small box, and over strange French pancakes and bitter coffee, he whispered “T’Il death do us part”
“T’il death do us part” I said
Does death come quick? We asked one another.
Death did come then, but not, for us.

As the United Nations declared war on Libya, the taxi driver dropped us at Menara International Airport in his large shinny BMW. I asked about the protests and riots, and he told us waving his tanned and hairy arms, “It’s all wrong, the people love their king!”
“It’s not true, none of it, it is lies, people here are uneducated and ignorant, we love King Mohammed, he has done amazing things for us!”
His large Rolex watch shone in the last rays we’d see of the opulent Moroccan sun, and the last beggar, slumped against the reddening wall, carrying a young small child with a dirty face and ringlets of dust in her hair, caught my eye, but she did not stretch out her hand, for law with penalty of jail decrees she must not upset the king, and thus not us, the tourists.

How long to implicate change I wonder?

“T’il death do us part” I whispered to Wolf, and then seemingly challenged Wolf to death…
Does death come quick we asked one another?

For some quicker than others, he said.

Then we recalled one last time how we sat high up in a cool cafe, watching below as the crowds curled snake like, around one another, alive and frenetic, following the smoke trails from more meat vendors and food stalls or the light displays, intense and feverish.

How above the sky was melting like black oil and was pitted with stars that seemed in comparison icy cold, dead light, and far below, this terrifyingly poor, but friendly world, surged in hectic currents, a desperation that we could no longer try to gather.

For some, they never left that café – the popular café where we remember sitting as they served Couscous and Tajines and herbal tea on small gold trays and how we kissed high up and under the moon.

A bomb exploding a month or so later, blasting through the café, ripping through the square, bringing the place down to mortar and dust, amidst the screams and tears of the people, happy perhaps in a moment, dead the next, and the ones left behind learning how to mourn, and how to go on, or not, until there time would come.

Rest in peace, we say, away from this distraught and conflicting world.

In the distance, were the cold dark shadowy forms of The Atlas Mountains; smudged by darkness, yet definite, solid and ebony, and their high peaks frosted with white, and the vast desert all that was between.

For us, death did not come then, and we boarded our plane with our belongings and my anxiety and some wine and flew to Malmo and made a film.

*Since time of writing Libya is still burning to the ground
*Since time of writing, King Mohammed VI announced on July 1st a series of constitutional reform passed through a national referendum in the first steps of change being implicated for it’s people

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