"Western Africa 2012" story # 9

The Ziz Gorge, Morocco           June 3, 2012

When I called to "The Girl I'd Tried to Kiss in Morocco," she hung up the phone.
     However, "The Girl I'd Tried to Kiss in Barcelona" recently emailed me. She wished me a wonderful journey, and she said there was something which Catalonians often said about traveling. Paraphrasing a Lluis Llach song (Itaca), she wrote:

"When you are leaving to do your travel to Ithaca, you have to pray for a long trip, full of adventures, full of knowledges, and you will discover a lot of cities full of new things to learn."

As for me, I planned to stay one month in Morocco. I wanted to tour the country and improve my Arabic.
     But, perhaps I was going to get deported first?
     I accidentally wandered into the prince's private neighborhood, in the mountains surrounding the town of Ifrane. The neighborhood was perched on the opposite side of the road from King Mouhamed VI's royal palace. I'd known to stay away from the palace. But, the prince's homes were hidden by forest. The hidden and wealthy nature of the neighborhood reminded me of the military barracks I'd wandered into in Tanzania. Oh, no ...
     The young awkward soldier who'd spotted me apologized, because he'd been ordered to keep me until several authorities arrived. Frightened and calm, I put my fate in their hands. Other military officials arrived, including two men with shadowy eyes who I could've imagined being torturers.
     The military quickly handed me over to the police, though. I was luckily able to tell them I'd been invited to stay at Lucas the University Teacher's home that night. I avoided telling them my bags were hidden in the woods, not far from the prince's homes. That would've caused more suspicion. The police handed me over to Lucas and his Moroccan girlfriend, who both laughed and said my trouble hadn't been serious.
     I'd been scared, though.
     We retrieved my bags. Lucas and his girlfriend Amina were my saviors. Amina even agreed to teach me a Moroccan recipe: chicken tagine. It was ironic that, in this land of hospitality, my first Moroccan meal was going to be cooked by me!
     Amina directed me. This laidback girl had studied in Michigan, so I understood her directions well.
     I cooked my food on the stove in a "tagine": a ceramic saucer with a ceramic cone for its top. The main ingredients included chicken parts, olives, the softened rinds of lemons preserved in sugar and hot water, and potatoes. I gave the chicken a harem of taste, adding spices like chopped ginger, salt and pepper, cardamom and curry, parsley, cilantro, bayleaves, garlic, and cumin. We didn't have saffron - the most expensive spice, because 10,000 flowers were needed to make one pound - so I used a yellow powder to color it.
     We used pouches of fresh bread to pick up and eat the tagine. And it was lovely. Yum! Mmm ... Moroccan food, cooked by Justin. (Amina had helped a bit. But, only because I had to write down what I was doing. Or, in many cases (maybe most cases), what she was doing.) I should've opened a restaurant!

I thanked Lucas for his hospitality and charged Amina 50 dirham for the meal I'd cooked her, and headed further south.
     Descending from the forested heights of Ifrane, I entered an arid region. Few plants offered shade, in this land between the Middle Atlas and High Atlas Mountains. It was hot. I was surprised to find a seemingly prosperous town here. The several-stories-tall buildings were the colors of sunburnt rocks, and they crowded together randomly like a kid's pile of blocks. As it was a mystery to me how and why people could live here, I felt foreign and uncomfortable.
     Eating olives and peanuts beside a mosque calmed me down. And I hitchhiked onward, continuing in the direction of the Sahara Desert. I reached my destination for the day: the Ziz Gorge.
     Silty blue aqua water trickled through, becoming deep enough for me to swim in places. Cinnamon red rock stretched out from the water and then straight up to canyon walls that burst through the Earth like chicken bones. An arid wind caused my tongue to stick to my throat and dried out my nostrils. Bushes full of pink flowers with loopy petals brought life to the gorge, and smelled of cherry ice cream.
     People lived here too, in places. They'd used what water flew past to irrigate the shore for agricultural purposes. Olive trees and crops and shade-providing trees interrupted the desolation, in a jungle of shaggy green.
     Walking, I came across one hospitable man who promptly invited me to his sister's wedding. Since I could still only communicate with Moroccans in French, I told Ezahid: "Oui, monsieur. Merci!"
     Ezahid's large home was a single-story square made of pale earth, with white or periwinkle borders giving color to its door and windows. In a room full of soft couches and two tables, I and a dozen other men were served an afternoon meal. We ate three courses: a chicken tagine, a beef-and-figs dish, and watermelon. We ate from communal dishes, using bread instead of silverware.
     The wedding was to take place that night. I spent the afternoon introducing myself to and trying to find a common language with the women of Ezahid's family. Except for the children who included a pretty fifteen-year-old Omayma, all the women had their heads covered. Omayma inquired if I was married. And then the other women tried to convert me to Islam.
     The sun eventually went down behind a canyon wall. The Ziz Gorge cooled down. About a hundred guests arrived. We ate some more. And then the wedding began:
     Ezahid's family walked down the road, banging tambourine-like drums and singing. The groom's family sang and walked towards them, in the night.
     Four young men wore maroon-and-yellow costumes that included capes and handsome brimless caps.
     The petite nineteen-year-old bride, Hadeejah, wore a white dress with a band around her waist, and a tiara in her hair. She sat in a box, and the four young men picked up this box and carried it on their shoulders or sometimes their heads. A stereo in Ezahid's home played music.
     The seated bride smiled so happily. She raised her hands like paws and opened and closed them, sprinkling us with imaginary flowers. A henna tattoo of orange flowers swirled around her hands and wrists. The female guests gobbled, "Lai-la-lai-la-lai", to show they were happy, or to express sympathy for turkeys.
     The men carrying the bride moved in sync to the music, opening and closing their capes like bats. They rocked the bride back and forth as if they were waves in an ocean.
     The bride exited the box, possibly sea-sick. Hamid the Groom got in. An expressionless man with a small moustache, he seemed to be in his late 30s. This small man wore a suit and tie. At one point, the boys carrying him lowered the box. He stood and danced, flicking his fingers up and down in the air and wiggling his hips.
     The wedding deejay played long songs, mostly without vocals. Sittars twanged and violins screeched and wooden drums clomp-clomp-clomped. The Arabic jams seemed quicker, the Berber jams smoother.
     When dancing, the female guests kept their upper bodies still while their hips bounced around. The women wore their brightest robes and headcoverings. One woman and her friend wore baby blue and pink, respectively, with white cotton belts around their hips. One beautiful, fluffy-black-haired angel didn't have her head covered; she wore a silk, red-and-silver dress with decorative nets dangling from her sleeves and waist.
     Unfortunately for me, the dance floor - and the rest of the wedding - were almost 100% segregated by gender.
     Outside beneath the stars, enjoying the party, Ezahid and I talked. This slim thirty-one-year-old had always invited travelers into his home. He was the type of guy, he said, that if he had a cup of water and there were fifteen people around, he'd split the water into fifteen tiny portions and share.
     A few years ago, a German woman had stayed at Ezahid's place. She came back and stayed a month. She asked curly-haired Ezahid to move to Germany with her. He said yes, and now they were married. Ezahid was only in the Ziz Gorge for his sister's wedding. He knew how it felt to be a foreigner.
     Standing on the dance floor, he asked: Was I going to dance with him now? Or later?
     After all, the mens' side of the dance floor was the much more active side. (We were mostly dressed like slobs, though.)
     Some young men held their arms out as if on crosses, and they smoothly danced together almost chest-to-chest. Many guys held hands.
     A tall guy had a masculine "gut" (big belly) and wore a baseball cap. He moved all parts of his body daintily, flaunting, sticking his butt out, smiling.
     An older guy in a baseball cap, with a moustache but few teeth, clapped his hands, kicked his feet up, hopped quickly. He told me to let my hair down and swing it around, while dancing.
     A fat gray-haired man in a business suit and glasses, who lived in Paris, surprised me by getting up and kicking his feet, bouncing around the floor.
     A short young man straddled an imaginary horse, to become even lower. He put his arms behind his back, on his head, and moved his body in many different ways simultaneously.
     Of course I told Ezahid I'd dance with him now. The music was good. I tried not to hold any guy's hand for too long, though. And I drew the line at swinging my hair around!
     Ezahid stretched his arms out over his head, stuck his butt out, flapped his hands like a ballerina. He was happy.
     What a gentle guy.
     What a strange (and interesting) culture.

Happy, too ...
The Modern Oddyseus.

Thanks to Nassar; Mouhamed & his wife; Hassan & his wife; Brahim; and Hamou & Omar for rides!
Much thanks to Lucas; and Ezahid, Fatima, Hamid, Hafeed, Hamsa, Samira, etc. for the places to stay!

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