Rock the Casbah (Cont’d)

Douglas and I stayed put in our hotel the next day waiting for the antibiotics to take effect. We only had two days left on our car rental, but it didn’t make sense to rush because we would have to pull over every half hour to find a bathroom if we left too soon. My symptoms had abated sufficiently by the second day that we checked out, although I still wasn’t nearly 100%. We were interested in visiting a casbah and asked the young man at reception for a recommendation. We pulled out our map and he showed us where to find a large and well preserved casbah just off the road to Marrakesh.

The word casbah has two meanings: it can refer to a citadel, or to the central part of a town. We were stopping at an example of the former. Casbahs consist of several buildings surrounded by large, fortified walls. They served the same function in medieval Morocco as castles did in medieval Europe – they were home to the local leader and provided residents with a place to gather for trade and socialization, as well as protection from the menace of invading armies. Basically they are fortresses made of dirt and stone, and one can find countless examples of them scattered throughout North Africa. The casbah’s function changed through the centuries as peace came to the region, and they now act as small walled communities. Douglas and I had first heard of casbahs in The Clash song Rock the Casbah, but we were mostly excited to visit one because our guide book suggested they were a must see in Morocco. 

We drove on a highway for over an hour before we hit the two lane road that would take us to the casbah. Sand storms are common occurrences in the desert, and our guide book suggested that one should always be prepared as they can whip up at any moment. Douglas consequently wore a bandana around his neck and I a scarf around mine to pull up and use as masks should the need arise. We had only been on the smaller road for a matter of minutes when the landscape in front of us was suddenly engulfed in a raging vortex of sand. Douglas needed to keep his hands on the wheel so I quickly pulled his bandana up over his mouth and nose, tying it high enough in the back to cover his ears while leaving his eyes unobscured. I had barely gotten my own scarf in place before we plunged into the dark chaos of the storm. 

Most Canadians know how it feels to drive in whiteout conditions – the disorienting loss of visual contact with the road which leads to an ever increasing state of fear. Driving in a sand storm feels just like that, but with a few extra terrifying elements thrown in. First is the bone-jarring sound of everything the wind has picked up from the desert floor being relentlessly hurled against the metal exterior of your car, and next is the creeping suspicion that you are about to suffocate from the massive amount of dust which has filtered into the interior of your car. All you can do is close your mouth, take shallow breaths through your nose, and keep your steering wheel steady. I’m not sure how long we drove through that choking, cacophonous, blinding nightmare, but eventually we came out the other side to see a large and quite beautiful casbah looming up on our left. 

We gratefully pulled onto the hard packed dirt at the foot of the casbah’s walls and jumped out of the car, yanking off our masks and coughing uncontrollably. Presently a wiry young man approached us with a bucket of water and a ladle which he put down at my feet saying, “Please – help yourself.” I immediately used water from the ladle to rinse out my eyes before handing it over to Douglas who promptly did the same thing. We then shook out out scarves, wet them in the bucket, and used them to clean dirt out of our nostrils and ears. We swished water around in our mouths, spitting out the grit lodged between our teeth and the dust which coated our tongues. We were so intent on cleaning off the residue of the storm that it was some time before we finally took in the odd appearance of the man who’d brought us the water in the first place.

Most people in our line of vision were wearing traditional Moroccan clothing – the men in djellabas (full body dress-like garments with tall, pointy hoods) with the women in long-sleeved floor length dresses and head scarves. The men all wore brown leather sandals, while the women sported black flats. The young man in front of us, on the other hand, was wearing blue jeans, a black Harley Davidson t-shirt, and dazzling white high top sneakers with the laces undone. His hair was even more shocking than his outfit because it was the same style and colour as that of the lead singer from the British pop band A Flock of Seagulls. Take a look at the video for I Ran and you’ll understand how incongruous his hairdo was in that setting. He said his name was Mohammed, but everyone called him Mo. There was no doubt in my mind that he wanted everyone to call him that, but I rather suspected that no one did. Douglas and I encountered countless characters like Mo throughout our travels. These are people so enamoured with western culture that they do everything in their power to emulate it, turning their backs on their national clothing, language, and customs in a desperate bid to be cool. Mo insisted on acting as our guide in the casbah, showing us off to the locals as if his stature increased just by being with us. He protested when we offered to pay him for his services at the end of the tour, but we only had to insist a little bit before he capitulated. Mo was up on a lot of current Western pop music but somehow had never heard of the song Rock the Casbah, so we took down his name and address and promised to send him a tape. I wish I could say we made good on our word, but we lost that piece of paper somewhere in our travels.

The car was running badly when we pulled into the small town where we stayed that night, and while it did start the following morning, it would only run for about 10 seconds before shutting off again. We managed to get it to a local garage where I explained the problem to the  mechanic. I suggested, in my very broken French, that perhaps sand had gotten into the engine and was gumming up the works. The man looked under the hood, made a calming gesture with his hands as if to say everything was going to be fine, and then motioned for us to sit in the chairs against the far wall to wait for the work to be finished. In less than half an hour the mechanic waved us to him and turned over the car’s engine which now purred like a kitten. Douglas shook his hand and took out his wallet to pay. The mechanic then quoted a price so outrageous that Douglas and I were both stunned into silence.

Douglas shook his head in shock and disbelief, indicating that he had no intention of paying that much for what had obviously been a simple and quick repair. The mechanic remained adamant. He took the keys out of the ignition and clasped them in his fist, signalling that he would not hand them over until his price was met. Just then an older gentleman and a teenage boy came out of the office in the back of the garage. There was a definite resemblance between these two and the mechanic which led me to believe I was looking at three generations of the same family. They walked up to where we were standing and the older man and the mechanic had a conversation in Arabic. The old man then nudged the boy who said to Douglas in French something along the lines of the price being firm. I looked at the older man and said in halting French that we couldn’t afford that. The old man simply ignored me and continued staring daggers at Douglas. 

It was immediately clear that he was not going to listen to anything I had to say unless it originated from Douglas’s mouth. I guess it was beneath him to deal with a woman. The bargaining now became torturous: Douglas spoke to me in English, then I translated his message into French and conveyed it to the teenager who then passed it on to the old man in Arabic before translating his response back to me in French which I then relayed to Douglas in English. After a while Douglas started to get cheeky. He knew he didn’t have to tell me what to say – I was well aware how haggling worked – so he decided to have some fun and began rhyming off silly non sequiturs. He would stare at the old man with a stern expression on his face and wave his arms angrily in the air while saying things like “Cap’n Crunch is so the best cereal.”, or “I wonder if the actress who played Marcia Brady ever got married.” I was still very weakened from my illness which made cobbling together the right phrases from my grade 9 French extremely difficult and taxing, and now I had the added burden of having to keep a straight face thrown in. Eventually I got the price down to a reasonable amount, although I’m sure we still paid much more than a local would have. Douglas had a good laugh about his antics as we drove away but I was not amused, having found the entire experience insulting and mentally exhausting.

We managed to get the car back to Marrakesh on time by recklessly speeding the whole way. The lady at the rental place kindly came outside after we had settled our bill and showed us where to stand to catch a bus to the train station. Douglas and I thanked her and then humped our bags over to the stop and prepared to wait. We had arrived in Morocco at the end of Ramadan, the holy month during which Muslims don’t eat from sunrise to sunset. The guide book had assured us that most Moroccans didn’t expect tourists to observe the fast, and we had certainly found that to be true in the two weeks we’d been in their country. Restaurants happily served us during the day, and the family in Rabat had made sure there was something for us to eat at breakfast even though they never joined in the meal. 

This day was Eid, the end of the fast, and it traditionally culminates in a communal celebration and feast when the sun goes down. Douglas and I looked forward to joining in the party when we arrived at our destination, a small town on the Atlantic coast called Essaouira. The bus finally arrived but it was so full that we had to stand. It was well past lunchtime, so Douglas pulled out a bag of dried apricots for us to munch on until we could get an actual meal. No sooner had he popped one into his mouth than the man sitting in front of him punched him in the stomach with such force that the apricot shot out, ricocheted off the window, and landed on the floor. Douglas doubled over in pain while his irate assailant, who was now directly at eye level, repeatedly yelled “Ramadan!” in his face. A few people around gave nods of approval, but most of them turned away, preferring not to get involved. I grabbed the apricots and stowed them in my bag, made sure Douglas was okay, and then the two of us remained silent until we disembarked at the train station. It was a tense ride, and we were both grateful to make it off the bus without further incident.

We had already decided that we wanted to stay in Essaouira for several days, both because we were tired from travelling and because I needed rest to fully recover from my bout of dysentery. The guide book informed us that people on the coast often rented out apartments for a week at a time, so we booked into one of those. It was a cosy place with a small working kitchen, a large bed, a separate seating area, and an en suite bathroom. The toilets in Morocco, and in most of the Islamic world, are completely different from ours. There is no seat or bowl, rather it is simply a hole in the floor topped by a ceramic plate with the outline of two large feet at the front. You simply place your feet on the forms provided and squat over the hole to do your business. This design works fine when you are strong and well, but I learned the hard way that it leaves much to be desired when you are weak and ill. Also no toilet paper is provided, rather there is a spigot in the wall beside the hole and you use water to wash yourself when you are done. The tap is always on the left side because one is expected to use the left hand in this process, as people traditionally use their right hands when sharing food. 

Tajine is a delicious traditional Moroccan stew which is served at dinner with couscous. The ingredients in the stew may change, but the spicing is always the same. Douglas and I were rather tired of tajine by the time we got to Essaouira, and were excited at the idea of making something different in our cute kitchen. We decided on spaghetti with meat sauce and garlic bread as our inaugural meal, and headed into the souk (market) to buy the ingredients. I went to get the tomatoes, garlic, and onions from a vegetable stall while Douglas headed off to find butter and, if possible, some kind of cheese. I was just finishing my transaction with the green grocer when I heard an argument break out down the street. I headed in the direction of the noise and before long could distinguish Douglas’s voice in the mix. I began running and soon came to the group of people who had gathered to witness the confrontation.

I forced my way to the front of the crowd to find two men angrily shoving Douglas back and forth while yelling at him in Arabic. I pushed past them to get to his side and asked what was happening. He told me that he had simply asked for butter when these two men had exploded. I then turned to the men and said “Parlez vous Francais?” It turned out one of them did, so I asked him what the problem was. He responded that Douglas had insulted them by trying to buy alcohol. The souks in Moroccan cities are generally situated in the medina, an exclusively Muslim and therefore dry part of town. Even mentioning booze in the medina is a real affront. I turned back to Douglas and asked what he had said, and he again insisted that he had only requested butter. Knowing how terrible he was with foreign words and accents, I then asked him to repeat what he had said word for word. “You know, bière. I asked for bière.” Buerre is the French word for butter, while bière is the French word for beer. Douglas had inadvertently offended the vendors with his atrocious pronunciation. I explained to them what he had meant to say and they both laughed heartily when the cause of the misunderstanding became clear. They were so amused by Douglas’s terrible French and the ridiculous mix-up it had created that they insisted we have the butter for free. We thanked them, hurried home with all our ingredients, and made our much anticipated spaghetti dinner. Unfortunately it turned out that the only container we had for preparing the sauce was a clay tajine pot which was so imbued with tajine spices that everything cooked in it ended up tasting exactly like tajine. We were sorely disappointed.

Essaouira is famous for a large, decrepit sand castle at the end of its beach. Legend has it that this dilapidated structure was the inspiration for Jimi Hendrix’s song Castles made of Sand. No one seems absolutely sure whether or not this is true, but the local vendors have certainly made the most out of this story. The web page for the town starts with the phrase, “Experience the laid back, hippy charm of Morocco’s historic coastal town of Essaouira.” There is Jimi Hendrix paraphernalia and clothing in the local souk, and one can stop at the Jimi Hendrix Café for a cup of mint tea. Douglas and I walked down the beach to the castle ruin one day, and it looks exactly as you would imagine – like an enlarged version of a child’s sand castle dissolving in the oncoming tide at the end of a beach day. 

Seeing as Essaouira touts itself as a “hippy” town, Douglas thought it would be a good idea to get some hashish there. The drug laws in Morocco are incredibly strict, and the punishment for breaking these laws is famously harsh. The movie Midnight Express documents the true story of one American’s harrowing experience in a Moroccan prison. With that movie in mind, I strongly recommended against buying drugs, but Douglas insisted everything would be fine. I don’t know how he found the guy, but just a day after he’d made his decision a young man who introduced himself as Jarman showed up at our door with a good sized chunk of hash. Douglas paid him for the drugs and as he left Jarman invited us to his house for dinner the following night to meet his family. I was really angry at Douglas for exposing us to such risk and very hesitant to attend, but as usual he bullied me into bowing to his will. Dinner at Jarman’s turned out to be delicious and we were never busted for the hash, but that didn’t excuse the extremely stupid chance Douglas had taken with my freedom and well-being against my will. I was extremely upset about this incident for some time but kept my feelings to myself, essentially because I was afraid of my husband and that’s just how my marriage went.

The Morocco I visited in 1989 was a vibrant and interesting country, but with a palpable undercurrent of violence and anger coursing just beneath the surface. It was also, like many Islamic nations, incredibly misogynistic. I will not visit there again, but I am grateful to have experienced it as a young woman.

4 thoughts on “Rock the Casbah (Cont’d)

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, and as for having a good memory, it is mostly a blessing but can sometimes be a bit of a curse. I’m grateful that as I get older mostly the interesting, pleasant, and instructive stuff remains, and not so much the nasty bits.


  1. Yet another intriguing adventure shared! Thank you!
    I have always been fascinated by the idea of visiting a casbah and now, thanks to your detailed description, feel like I have been to one!


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