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Morocco, Land of Ambiguity





The sun was pummeling me. On my shoulders and on the back of my skull. When Moroccans catch the sniffles, they say "The cold hit me." On this particular afternoon in Sidi Bennour, as I wandered from street to street, that bully Sol took no mercy, and as my fragile frame absorbed each blow, I could feel the scorn from the sun, the mocking and scorn, and not just from celestial bodies, but Arab bodies as well, from behind their piles of watermelon and cactus carts, straw hats and tooth-ish grins going "What is this white guy doing wandering around here in the middle of the afternoon?"


What I was doing was looking for a damned pair of socks. Eventually, I found a guy selling piles of used clothes. There appeared to be no order to the mess, so I just asked him if he sold any packages of socks. Hell, I didn't know. I've witnessed butchers selling toothbrushes on the side. Anyway, I might as well have asked the man if he had any poisonous snakes for sale. He couldn't even tell me where exactly I could buy socks in town, except maybe by going down the road "a long ways" and looking around in some shops down there.


Classic Moroccan. Send a poor fellow down the road. Glad to be out of the sun and semi-curious as to his clothing selection, I perused some t-shirts in a pile near the front of the store. After I was satisfied that they were all stained with sweat and/or assorted tajine sauces, I thanked the man and headed back into the ring.


At a loss, I ducked into a hanut and got a cold drink and a nasty pastry for the equivalent of 80 cents. It didn't make me feel any better about my failure. All I could do on my walk back to Evan and Carly's house was notice the feet of every Moroccan I saw. Every one of them were sandal-clad.


Later in the afternoon, Lizzy and I had a mission: find a place that could print a file from a USB drive. For the kids, naturally.


After trekking through half the city and receiving contradictory directions from a legion of assorted street-peddlers, pedestrians, and restaurateurs, we finally found a place. Only took about 45 minutes. Pretty good time for Morocco.


But we weren't done. Now we needed to find a photocopier.


It was on this important leg of the journey that I spotted them - clean, white, cotton gems, neatly packaged. I snatched them up, the thrill of victory coursing up the back of my neck and pooling behind my ears. Into the tiny storefront, I took stock of the situation: one man behind the counter, top 4 buttons unfastened, smacks of early 80s porn star. One man in front of the counter, rascally smile, fat but muscular, carrying two crutches.


I trot out all of the usual niceties. 


"Hello. Is everything good? How are you? Are you fine? Thank God. God bless you. How much are these socks?"


"30 dirham."


Lizzy was not impressed, and she'd be damned before she let me pay that much for socks. After some minor commotion and a strong assurance that we were not tourists, she took me by the arm and started to drag me out of the store while I shot an apologetic look at the porn star.


The patron and/or friend (you can never be sure if people in shops are there to shop or to be social) tried to reason with us: socks are rare in Morocco. They are always pricey. Finally, the man came down: 25 dirhams. Good enough for me. Desperation cares little for a pretty bargain.


The man held my socks ransom and demanded of me my reason for being so far from any tourist spot. Lizzy and I rehearsed our all-familiar lines about volunteering and Dar Chababing and so forth, and the two men, visibly impressed, set about trying to win us over with their kindness.


The owner would not let me have my socks until I heard him out about all variety of benefits of prayer and fasting and converting to Islam. After much polite nodding and no agreement on my part, he decided it was time to show me the Muslim channel on his little t.v. Meanwhile, the man in crutches was working on Lizzy. She had apparently spotted some lotion or hair gel or something in a squeeze bottle, and our new friend was offering to purchase the item for her. She of course adamantly refused, but the gentleman matched and trumped her stubbornness. The mul hanut refused his friend's money, however, effectively giving away his merchandise. Then, they asked if there was anything else we'd like from the store.


"No, but thank you very much."


"Come have tea with us then!"


What could we do but acquiesce? After all, they had just purchased a bottle of product and showed us the religion channel on their t.v.


Fortunately, in Morocco, there are never more than four shops in a row unbroken by a cafe. A hop, skip, and a jump later, we were sitting in a cafe, the four of us, being served mint tea. Yunus, the patron-socialite, told us about his work: president of an Association for the handicapped. He even had his registration card to prove it. "Do you know the mudir here? How interesting! What a nice card this is! Thanks for the tea!"


And then trouble stood up across the room and made his way over, red-faced, passion in his eyes. He abruptly approached Yunus and the storekeeper. The vein popping out of his head matched his accusing finger, sometimes pointing at Lizzy, sometimes pointing at Yunus, always accompanied by some furious rant.


Not satisfied with yelling at us, he proceeded to air his grievance to all others in the cafe, and at one point I thought he was going to grab the garson by the collar and clock him for letting things be as they were.


Lizzy and I tried to make sense of the confusion. Is this guy really so worked up because there is a woman in the cafe? This was the obvious interpretation, for such a thing is hardly ever seen in this part of the country. I was becoming furious. Watching the fool spout off to somebody by the bathroom (all the while still pointing at Lizzy), I felt my control leaving me. I wanted to get up and confront the man. I wanted to give him a minty mouthful of my tea.


Then the man looked at me and addressed me personally. He said, "Pay attention! Pay attention! He tries to fool you with his bad legs. He wants to steal from your friend! He's a thief!"


My brain backed up, flipped around, and rebooted.


"Lizzy, he's saying this guy sitting next to you is not to be trusted. He says the guy wants to rob us."


"What! ...Do you think what he says has any merit?"


"...I don't know."


It occurred to me then that the two men who brought us there were acting rather strangely in response to this vociferous cafe-dweller. After the initial verbal assault, Yunus promptly rose from his seat and visited the bathroom. Afterwards, hardly a word was spoken between them and us. We left with all our money and a pocketfuls of confusion besides.


Nothing is clear in Morocco. When you think you've nailed a situation, it shifts from under you. Nearly everything that happens happens indirectly; the good Muslim professes to follow the straight path (Nishan), but in their actions, Arabs are about as straight as Oscar Wilde.


Was this man crazy? Was he simply trying to find a way to expel the woman from the man's domain? Was it prejudice against Yunus, against the handicapped? Or were these men really untrustworthy?


Devil take them, for all I care. For that night I lay in a hammock on the roof, above Yunus and the porn star and the man jacked up on caffeine, and I think to myself, "None of that made much sense, but some day I'll look back on this and make some kind of meaning out of it, fit it into some kind of comprehensible mold, something tight and cogent and maybe even socially poignant. And I have new socks"


And maybe that's what Morocco is for us: two years worth of confusing experiences ripe for the reinventing, reimagining, reinterpreting. And I guess that wouldn't be so bad.
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