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By Nitasha Kaul
Wanderlust, when fed by occasion and experience, translates into memories in the mind, and for many - myself included - also results in a hoarding of ephemera. The souvenirs of my travels tend not to be fancy objects capable of adding beauty or exciting curiosity by being displayed. I gather scribbled notes and newspapers, pencil sketches and coins, names of shops and people, free maps picked up at travel halts; fragments that recall interactions and remind me of how it felt to be ‘there then’. In a plywood trunk coming apart at the join, there are several fat files marked in blue ballpoint pen.
I pick up the one from some time ago titled ‘Morocco’. It is dated from a few summers before the ‘Arab Spring’ that changed so much in the region. The first thing that falls out of it is a UK landing card. On this small square piece of paper, that is taken very seriously aboard airplanes and at immigration, a child has scrawled, in green ink, a cartoonish little girl with a lion’s head and an arrow pointing to the words: ‘This is Athirah’. Oddly placed in the space next to ‘Nationality’ are three hearts, one shaded darker than the others. Children can afford to ignore even sovereigns if they wish. This little person was a fellow plane passenger on my travel back from Morocco.
Several other sensations come flooding back as I recall that trip to cities with enchanting names: Marrakech, Rabat, Tangier, Casablanca, Fez. I take a delight in pronouncing those words again. A synesthetic, I can almost taste the sounds as they roll off my tongue. Morocco is very well connected by an extensive rail network and I remember how one can easily take the trains from one place to the next. It is as if I am back in those seated carriages again, comparing the sounds that a train makes as it goes over a bridge, through the hills, across the plains, as it speeds up and slows down. Trainspotters probably have records of these, I reflect, as the sequence of that train whistle worked into a song from the movie Pakeezah flashes in my head.
Most of my time in Morocco was spent walking in the cities. Cities with historic monuments, stony ruins, botanical gardens, olive orchards, broad palm-lined boulevards named after the country’s rulers, the broad public squares, and the cornucopia of things laid out in the narrow alleyway shops inside the medinas.
A striking characteristic were the ubiquitous cafes that dotted the pavements. At all hours of the day, men sat in groups around the tables and chairs placed outside these establishments as they talked, sipped tea or coffee, smoked. This conversational cafe culture was a great coming together of the urban space and public sphere, but it was definitely a very gendered male environment. Not just in Morocco, but anywhere, could one imagine any city where women dominated the public sphere of deliberation in such an exclusive way?
Wikipedia could tell you better than any travel memoir what each city is known for. So, I won’t. I will, instead, recall scenes. In Marrakech, the fascinating spectacles every evening in the large and bustling Djmaa-el-Fnaa square where there are hundreds of gaily-lit food stalls, magic tricks, street entertainers and people taking pictures as they come strolling past the minarets of the Koutoubia Mosque. In Casablanca, the grandly sprawling Hasan II mosque which can hold tens of thousands of worshippers, and, of course, a fairly upscale namesake ‘Rick’s Cafe’ that commemorates the Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman movie Casablanca which portrayed the city as a place on the refugee trail during the second world war. In Fez, the furiously pungent tanning alleys of the old quarter or the Medina (tanning being a big industry in the city), and a graveyard near the entrance to the Medina. Among these many gravestones and mounds, sat an ageing painter, patiently brushing the graves with a new coating of white that shone brilliantly in the sun. The graveyard was deserted otherwise, and he was kind enough to let me try my hand at a few strokes; I still have the Jackson Pollock spray paint effect on a pair of red corduroy trousers! In Tangier, the sea, the buildings, the ships, and an inexplicably strange reminiscence of Camus.
And then there was Rabat. The capital city of Morocco, with many wonders (mausoleum, tower, medina, marina) and the quaintly picturesque sea-front where lovers caress in their abayas, whispering softly to each other as they gaze at the sun melting its gold on the horizon. From the top of the hill, one can see the sea waves in a semi-circle at the semaphore platform. There is a lighthouse in the distance. One evening star glitters on the violet-orange canvas of the heavens. And mad birds (swifts? swallows?) make strange sounds as they fly ever so erratically in the skies. How do they manage to fly like that without crashing into each other?
As I watched the random flight of birds in the sky, the Kasbah was behind me, there were graveyards to the left of me, graveyards to the right of me; circled by roads and neon lights. The reflections of people in the wet sands were tiny black dots gradually merging into the gathering night. The breeze was steady, holding. Like my state of mind. There was a cluster of colourful flags and a small tractor-crane that continually dropped large rough rocks into the sea; for a pier? an embankment?
Past the sight of ships at sea, in the old town, somewhere between stores selling meat patties and the biscuit shops with the warm smell of serrated dough from small furnaces, there was a Moroccan seller of juices. He pressed fresh orange juice and eagerly conversed about Raj Kapoor movies which he had seen and was very fond of. ‘Awaara Hoon’, he knew the song. On travels, it is a very small, and also a very big world.
Many other scenes flash before the mind’s eye. The green-roofed mosque of the picture-perfect town of Moulay Idriss and the vivid Roman ruins of Volubilis. The many madmen wandering about the port towns (do madmen gather at ports and near ships at the edge of the sea, in the way that cripples congregate at religious establishments?), the singers reciting beautifully and mournfully at graves in a mausoleum, the red and pink hibiscus at the Jardin d’Essai, wild flowers in bloom pushing through the iron rails of a closed park, the fabulous ruins with the young college picnickers and the many sleeping cats at the Chellah necropolis.
Not everything was sanguine though. In each of the cities, one walked past the extensive walls of the palaces; the pavements beside these high and solid structures seemed to stretch endlessly, and one wondered what world of the rulers lay inside. In Rabat one evening, I chanced upon a crowd, not far from a McDonalds and a railway station. A man lay collapsed on the ground. It was a while before I could find anyone who would be able to speak in English and translate the cause of the commotion. At last, a conversation was possible with an old man wearing a black sweater underneath his coat and teeth heavily stained by tobacco, and a bald, berber and rather histrionic younger man.
There had been a May Day protest previously during which the police had imprisoned leftists and fined them millions of dirhams. That day, some time afterwards, they had held a solidarity protest in the name of human rights but this action was forbidden and they were beaten and dispersed, one man had even sustained a fracture. The injured who were taken to hospital were refused treatment, and money was demanded for treating them. It sounded grim.
What did these radical progressives believe? Morocco is politically backward. There is low political consciousness and high poverty. People live like tribes and all the political parties are pro-state. The so-called left is mostly social democrats, all pro-state. Islamists are also pro-state. Saudi Arabian finances have affected some of the political landscape especially from the 1970s onwards. “Morocco is an anachronistic society - the problem is not the individual or the King being good or bad, but the system, which is absolutist”. The men I spoke to were immensely interested in “modernity”, in wanting to have a modernity “which will gradually come”.
When I asked one of them if their protest would be reported in the media, they said, not in Moroccan news, maybe in Euro news or Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabia or in news in Spain or France. Both these men, in spite of their ages being different, were quite nostalgic about the Soviet Union. I learnt that the McDonalds near us was once a Soviet Cultural Centre. There was a cinema and a library in that cultural centre where they had watched Russian movies (“how good they were”) and read books. The older man lamented how it is all gone now. Now the US has won everywhere, China is communist but the same. Everything (politics, people, government) is zigzagging to the right - he indicated with his hands - extremely long slender fingers. We spoke of how parties all over Europe are moving to the right. The younger man was very sad about France.
As I left the scene, I thought of the Soviet influence in India prior to the 1990s. I mused over the fate of the illegal children spawned by the USSR all over the world, especially in the third world. Like them. Like Us.
Sometimes, I imagine myself still standing at the Sidi Kacem train station, on platform number 2, waiting for the train to Fez, staring at the electricity wires overhead that look like the taut strings of an invisible guitar suspended in the sky, and wondering, what does it mean, after all, to be an individual (hermeneutically, logistically, culturally, narratively, phenomenologically, psychologically, politically)? How does one live on the promises of democracy and the pitfalls of capitalism? Then, the train arrives, with a tiannamennnnn sound, and the reverie is disrupted.