"Western Africa 2012" story # 12

Essaouira, Morocco           July 5, 2012

Every summer, the charming town of Essaouira hosted the Gnawa Music Festival. Most upper-middle-class Moroccans, and all hippy dreadlocked Moroccans, could be seen there.
     A pedestrian street in the old medina passed beneath one arched gateway after another. The crowd here swelled, but the image of these endless archways pleased me. A speedy wind chilled us, and it made the ocean outside the medina so cold that I once said to a fellow swimming American: "It feels like we're in Canada, not Morocco."
     On the beach, and on stages elsewhere, elderly dark-skinned Moroccans played somber and repetitive beats on handheld drums, low-pitched sounds that nearly put me into an Islamic trance. Some men "clack-clacked" finger cymbals made of iron, to speed up the beat, while a "hajhuj" (three-stringed guitar made of wood and camel skin) played a grumpy solo.
     The young guys from Casablanca whom I hung out with led me away from the stages to a corner of the castle-wall-enclosed medina. Here, the medina's stone floor climbed to a plateau. We could see over the medina wall to where waves beat against rocks in the sea. Splashed by mist, we sat down so Anis from Casablanca could play his guitar with fellow musicians. These musicians included a guy whose dreadlocks were pinned over his head, whose face had been oranged and reddened and browned by the sun, who looked so stoned he seemed in the clouds.
     Anis and another Moroccan free-styled on guitar. This second guitarist sang powerfully in English. Two petite dreadlocked guys blew through "hals" - Moroccan didgeridoos that sounded like voice-boxes. "Bow ... bob ... ba ba ... bow ... mrrow." The very stoned guy somehow woke up to sing to the music, round Arabic sounds that came to him naturally, through his long dirty goatee. "Oh b-yea-uh! ... Lah buh-lah-ka!" Occasionally, he smiled.
     The other non-musicians and I repeated, "O yeah Sindi-yah!" (I would later be told that Sindiya was the name of a person who'd turned into a ghost. Many gnawa songs were about such legends.) Occasionally, we sang longer parts: "Oh Sindiyallah lam-a-lay-uh mak-alai-uh ..." This was the musical highlight of the festival for me.
     Another time, a group of guys free-styled on drums outside of a carpet shop. A crowd gathered to listen. The crowd was forced to make room, though, when an old merchant came through pushing a cart of vegetables. Without letting go of his cart, the small man stopped advancing, smiled, and began worming his body to the music. After a minute, and without looking at anyone, he left. That was the funniest moment of the festival!

Another surprising moment came when I was awoken in the morning by the sound of a big, constipated cow. "Gnawrr!" I looked outside of my tent to see ... a big (constipated?) camel!
     He turned his head to look at me. His knobby-kneed, bumpy-backed body looked so asymmetrical. Yet, his head seemed to be made of three perfect walnut shells: his two gentle eyes and his likeable snout. There were many camels, often lined up and following one another, in this sand dune forest at the end of Essaouira. I invited eight guys from Casablanca and one hitchhiking Spanish girl to camp here, too - just in case the camels attacked.

It was soon after I'd attended the festival that I began hitchhiking across the Sahara Desert. The desert stretched for 1200 miles (2000 km) to the south, across Morocco and Mauritania.
     Every time I'd neared the desert to this point, I'd been driven away by the heat. But, the long road south stayed close to the ocean, which should've kept it cooler. And it was paved the whole way. I wore shorts and sandals and carried a lot of water. I hoped I'd make it!
     Orangeish dirt and occasional shrubs made up the first 400 kilometers of desert, which folded and bent and lifted us up atop a mountain. A Senegalese man named Amsa drove me in a spacious Audi. We passed towns with names like Tiznit, Guelmim, and Tan-Tan. We were actually a bit inland here, and the smothering air reached 43.5 degrees Celsius (110 Fahrenheit). Fortunately for me, Amsa's car had air-conditioning.
     Police blocked our way, often. They checked our documents and papers. Sometimes, they held us up, wanting bribes. Didn't we want to give them money for a coffee? The people of Senegal were known for their generosity!
     No, we didn't.
     Amsa said, the police saw an African with a white man and figured we had money. Being with me, he was losing time. He wanted to get to Senegal so he could sell this Audi, fly back to Europe, buy another used car, and start the journey again. "Je voulais faire du bien, mais ..." He'd wanted to help me, but ... He was going to drop me off soon, before passing many more police roadblocks.
     The desert became dark, as our road returned to the coast. The sea breeze kept temperatures at 23 Celsius (73 Fahrenheit). Perfect. Amsa drove 90 mph.
     We listened to eleven-minute-long Senegalese songs. One man sang about orphans; with a sentimentally moaning voice, he called the mother's name: "Ali baba!"
     Drums like garbage can lids and sweetly ringing guitar strings were struck with wooden batons and plucked, only barely, sporadically but quickly enough to keep me rocking.
     A woman named Fatou Gueye sang with a goofy childish voice. Similar voices contributed, creating a chorus like the Muppet Babies. Sweet coconut percussion and twinkling shell guitar chimed in. I felt amazing.
     Amsa dropped me off near coastal Tarfaya. This was perfect. I could sleep in the loose orange Saharan sand that felt so cool around my feet. I could listen to the ocean waves. In the morning, I could go into Tarfaya to view the museum of Antoine de St. Exupiery, the French writer who'd been stationed here as a pilot for the French postal service. This was a Saharan dream come true. And I was tired ...
     But, what was this!? A small bag of Amsa's had gotten hooked to my bag? And he'd already driven off. What was in it? All the papers for the Audi! Oh, no. I had to help Amsa!
     I could've tried to hitchhike after him, but it was unsure I'd find him. So, I went to the police in Tarfaya and had them call ahead to the next city, 100 kilometers away. The police located Amsa and made him drive back to Tarfaya to pick up his papers. Meanwhile, the police in Tarfaya forebade me from sleeping oustide in their jurisdiction, because they were worried about my safety. They ordered Amsa to take me with him to the next city, Laayoune.
     When I got in Amsa's car the second time, I thought the sleep-deprived African might kill me.
     But, soon, we were laughing about how stupid the police were for ordering us to do things that didn't make sense. Ha ha!
     Crack! Oops, what was that? Amsa and I looked at the floor near my feet, where I'd just broken one of his fancy headlight covers.

The second police roadblock at the entrance to Laayoune gave Amsa the hardest time yet. "Something isn't scanned ... or faxed ... right," the police said unclearly, of Amsa's papers. I slept that night in a field of dirt.
     Two days later, I hitchhiked near Laayoune Port in what were basically sandstorm conditions.
     Wind raced at the walled-in town at Laayoune Port. Heaps of orange sand piled up against the wall. A bulldozer and truck came to remove some of this sand so the town wouldn't get buried.
     Next to where I stood, orange sand swam across the highway like flat ghosts. It gathered on my bags. It sprayed in my eyes and face. I stood upon a pile of sand. This elevated my head enough to avoid most of the flying sand.
     A religious truck-driver stopped for me. Named Abuhafs Libdy, he wore a navy skull cap, a white flowing robe, and a beard. He called Osama Bin Laden, his "brother".
     He said the Muslim greeting, "As-salaam Allaykam", meant security, freedom. "Islam" meant peace. He said no true Muslim would perpetrate the attacks of 9-11. He told me, instead, "Les juifs sont dangereux!" (The Jews are dangerous!) He said Al-Qaeda were programmed by Jews.
     -- Flashback: The previous day, in Laayoune, a philosophical Muslim had invited me into his house for a meal and conversation.
     -- Young Moncef Doudou thought Jews had caused the economic crisis. He wondered why they'd been given Palestine for their new country, not somewhere - for example - in the United States? He suspected Jews, and the United States, were against Muslims. He loved his Muslim brothers and didn't hate non-Muslims.
     -- He said Jesus was a true prophet. (And prophets could never be killed.) But, God sent new prophets and new religions for changing times. Moncef believed the Koran was divinely inspired, because it had been written so beautifully in Arabic.
     -- He believed a global war was to take place. And the anti-Christ would appear. The anti-Christ would perform amazing tricks. The Jews would believe he's the Messiah. But, Jesus - or a Muslim - would triumphantly kill the anti-Christ.
     -- I asked Moncef, who appreciated my questions: But, if Islam was a religion of peace, why did anyone have to kill anyone? --
     I wanted to ask Abuhafs Libdy what he thought the Jews stood to gain by programming Al-Qaeda. I said:
     "Pourquoi les juifs sont si mechants?" (Why are the Jews so mean?) We laughed. I enjoyed talking to the religious Muslims, even if I didn't always agree with them.
     Abuhafs and I rode through a desert pale and flat and empty. Every time I opened his truck door, the wind nearly whipped it off. He dropped me off 150 kilometers down the road, in Bujdour.
     Here, the hot swirling wind blew about 100 kilometers an hour. But, there wasn't much loose sand to bother me. I didn't manage to catch another ride this day.
     I walked out into a field, hopeful I wouldn't step on any landmines. I slept behind a rock in my sleeping bag. I turned my face away from the wind.
     By morning, the sand in my eyes had been filtered into a dry and scraping ball. Brushing the many snarls out of my long hair, I got a foggy headache. And the last time I'd looked in the mirror, I saw my blue eyes peeking out of a scary red face as lifeless as the moon. Cool.
     I wondered: Was I ever going to make it through this desert?
     To be continued ...

Modern Oddyseus.

Thanks to Mouhamed; Ahmed; Mouhamed, his mother, & his wife; Hamed, Mouhamed Cheikh, & Ali; Ishmael; Mustafa; Jamal; Ali; Mehdi Simou & Ishane; Amsa; Sa'ad; Amsa, again; Moncef Doudou; Mohammed; Abuhafs Libdy; and Zouyad for rides!
Much thanks to Mehdi Simou for his hospitality!

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