A Noble Djinn
He was sitting on a stool in a corner of the square, or what passed for a square in the confined chaos of the medina. The late morning sun shone over walls of mud brick onto a face that was dignified, almost learned, and he smiled in a benign way at the hum of activity around him, vendors hawking their goods, tourists shuffling through vendor stalls cameras on the ready for every photo opportunity, and ordinary men, women and children making their way through the congestion of the souk.
“As-Salaam-Alaikum,” he said as I approached, a traditional greeting that translates roughly as “peace be with you.”
His complexion was light, lighter than that of the Arab population, but it had an almond tint that suggested mixed race. His hair was dark and curly, almost nappy, I thought, peppered with gray and his beard trimmed. His features were fine, his face thin, his nose long, and his mouth expressive beneath a cultivated brow and strong cheek bones. He could have been Arab, sub-Saharan, or Berber, or all three for all I knew, and since the peoples that had settled northern Africa were of Eurasian descent, it was the kind of face I could have found in almost any community around the Mediterranean.
“Alaikum-As-Salaam,” I replied, the formulaic response that sounds so much better than the ubiquitous “you too,” even in my tortured Arabic.
We were lost, my wife and I. Not desperately lost, mind you. Not call out the French Foreign Legion lost by any stretch of the imagination. Marrakech is not Fes, after all, where a wrong turn among its warren of alleyways, all nine thousand of them if you believe the local guides, can land you smack in the middle of the eighth century. But lost enough in what I’d come to regard as the raw energy of Marrakech to feel a twinge of panic, particularly with the heat of mid-day approaching, and I thought I’d use the time while my wife was browsing the stall of one of the vendors to take directions back to our riad.
“How does one get to the Jaama el Fna from here?” I asked.
It should have been a simple matter to make our way back. The old and venerable city of Marrakech had grown organically since its foundation over a thousand years ago in a hub and spoke pattern. All we had to do was find one of the spokes that ran inward toward the hub, the great square at the center of the medina known for centuries as the Jaama el Fna, Assemblage of the Dead, and, from there, the spoke that ran back out the other side to our accommodations near the Mellah, the quarter of the medina that used to house the city’s Jews before they left Morocco after the last Great War for the Palestine.
But nothing about Morocco is ever simple, we’d learned, after almost the two weeks. In a country whose fables exist as a series of short stories nestled one within another over one thousand and one nights, it can be difficult to determine where one adventure ends and the next begins. Those mud and waddle walls might have been low enough to admit a little light upon our dilemma, but they were too high to block out any possible landmark that might have guided our way, the minaret of the Koutoubia mosque to the south and east, for example, or even the tops of the High Atlas Mountains to the south.
The old man signaled with a hand in the direction we’d been walking and explained in broken English that we should continue along that route to the first lane on the right, follow it until it ends, then left to the next intersection and right from there all the way to the square. His instructions were adequate, his delivery enchanting, and I felt myself taken with his kindness.
I dug into the pocket of my trousers and pulled out a two-dirham coin, about twenty-five cents on the exchange, but the man shook his head, as though I’d offended him. It had been one of the biggest dilemmas of our trip, deciding when to tip and how much. We were accustomed to the practice, of course – who isn’t who calls their home the United States? – but there is always the risk of appearing condescending in that uniquely American way we have of making money the object of every encounter.
We’d been advised we couldn’t photograph anyone in the medina, not without their consent, and often, we’d found after a couple of scenes in the medina of Fez I had little desire to repeat, not without remuneration. And then there was that little matter of Zakat, the Koranic tenet to give alms to the poor. Charity seemed the better part of discretion under the circumstances, even if there was the risk of getting it wrong.
“No want your money,” he said, using the formal Arabic verb, subject, object sentence structure that suggested refinement. “Would ask a question instead.”
I put the money back in my pocket and shrugged with embarrassment. A question? One silly little question? In exchange for directions to Jaama el Fna? No harm in a question, I thought, from a man who just spared me the trouble of wandering the narrow alleyways with no clue whatsoever where I was going, especially after I’d just made an ass of myself by offering him money.
“In Morocco you,” the man asked, “why?”
We were strangers in his country, from a land that had turned belief in the Koran into a mortal sin, right up there with voicing opposition to the President’s ban on Muslim immigrants from places he called “shit hole countries.” Those are not sentiments I share, or at least I don’t think I share them, but I suppose I twisted the prejudices of my own culture toward him into an act of hostility toward me. I’d struggled with the intensity of Marrakech after the staid atmosphere of Rabat and the cultured ambiance of Fes. I’d allowed every aggressive gesture, every grimace, every loud voice to take on a sinister motive since we’d arrived, and I suppose it was only natural to flinch with the question, especially when one is seeking directions to a square where the Sultans of old displayed the severed head of their enemies on pikes.
“Understand I would your motivation,” he clarified. “Not your presence.”
So, the old man just wanted to know why I’d chosen Morocco out of all of the marvelous places in the world we could have visited, and I had to chuckle with the way I’d projected my own ignorance onto him. Still, it was a question I don’t ordinarily entertain – why? I’m content to do, not ruminate, and I figure most of my countrymen suffer from that same compulsion. I march my way through life with my eyes on the horizon. And I don’t bother myself with existential questions, not when I’m from a country whose leaders pride themselves on their own “exceptionalism.”
I’m an American, damn it. That’s all anybody needs to know – or not.
And why, indeed, I had to ask myself. Why had we traveled to Morocco, my wife and I? Was it appropriate to share with the man the fact that my wife had decided she had to get me out of the rain of March back home before another bout of seasonally-affected depression set in? Or that her friend had booked the tour, and had asked if we wanted to come along? Or that we’d gotten a smoking deal on air fare, first class at the price of premium economy?
There had to be more to it than that, of that I was certain. Like Morocco is in Africa, for God’s sake, the cradle of humanity. And there were the fables of romance and adventure, one thousand and one nights of them, of rich kingdoms, of powerful Sultans and beautiful princesses, of caravans, barbary pirates, djinns, and treasures of ancient wisdom. I’d read Edith Wharton’s book, On Morocco, before we left, and I’d understood, or thought I had, when she described as “tantalizing” the utter romance of a caravan traversing what she called the barren landscape of red sand and stone in the distance. And there was Paul Bowles’ kif-inspired book, A Sheltering Sky, of death and rebirth in which the female protagonist manages to reinvent herself in the Sahara.
As if Bogie and Ingrid Bergman weren’t enough, or Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, or John Malkovich and Debra Winger, or my personal favorites, Sean Connery and Candice Bergen, more for the story line of their movie, The Wind and the Lion, than Connery’s dashing persona and Bergen’s exquisite beauty. The Beatles made Marrakech one of their pilgrimages, as did Crosby, Stills, and Nash. I could still recite the lyrics of Nash’s song from our collective youth, Marrakesh Express, after all these years, “Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind/had to get away to see what we could find.”
“Curiosity, I guess,” I replied.
“Curious you, about Morocco?”
“I was,” I said until I realized the response would sound arrogant. “I am.”
“Had you expectations?”
The fact of the matter is, nothing about the country had been as I’d expected, beginning almost from the moment we’d landed in Casablanca. The airport was modern and efficient, with all the bells and whistles you find at any self-respecting international airport. The drive from Casablanca to our hotel in Rabat was dark, but the road itself was first class, smooth and well lit, a veritable interstate running north and east from Marrakech, or so the driver had informed me, all the way to Tangier. After a pleasant meal of tuna tartar and Moroccan salads with a more than passable bottle of Moroccan wine, we slept without difficulty in a room that could have passed for a competent four-star hotel in New York City. And in the morning, we awoke to a city that was clean and new, its boulevards wide, its public places white-washed and manicured.
“I don’t know that I had any expectations,” I replied.
There is no desert, I had learned, no barren landscape, not until we had crossed over the Middle Atlas Mountains. There are no fabled kingdoms, though evidence of their past is everywhere, and no djinns, not that I would recognize a djinn unless it popped out of a lantern looking like Barbara Eden. The land from the border with Algeria west to Tangier and then along the coast to Casablanca and inland to Fes and Marrakech is lush and fertile. The Atlas Mountains are taller and more imposing than I’d imagined, the High Atlas as rugged as the High Sierra, and the Sahara on the other side more desolate than Death Valley. The kasbahs of ancient sultanates still exist, but only as so many piles of rubble. The barbary pirates had been subdued by the Portuguese, the Spanish, and the French over a century ago, and if there are still caravans from Tangier to Timbuctoo, I’m certain their passage would be a desperate affair, an exercise in life and death, not adventure.
“Learn you did?”
The old man’s questions were starting to feel a little tedious. What I’d learned or hadn’t learned is a personal matter, not open to discussion with complete strangers. I consider myself a modern, sophisticated citizen of the world, a seasoned traveler – not easily impressed, and I don’t relish sharing the vulnerability I worked so hard to conceal all my life with anybody but my wife, and then only on rare days.
“Yes, I learned,” I said, “though I’m not sure what.”
The old man shifted his position on his stool, turning his entire body toward me, opening himself up with his posture, and if anything, his smile deepened, from erudite to curious.
“Think hard you must.”
The truth was nothing in my life to that point had prepared me for the beauty of Morocco. My senses were on continuous overload from the sights, sounds, and smells of the culture, from the aroma of tagines of chicken, beef, and lamb slow cooking over open flames, the colors and varieties of local fruits and vegetables and the mountains of spices on sale in the markets, and the chatter of women in their colorful kaftans and men in their djellabas going about their daily routines to the haunting melodies of the call to prayer. To say nothing of the bark of water sellers, snake charmers, fire breathers, dancers, acrobats, musicians and story tellers, and vendors moving their wares through the souks on donkeys and push carts to the shout, “balak, balak,” move out of the way or get run over.
And I was run over as it turned out, on our first full day in the country, though not in the literal sense and not by any mere donkey or push cart.
It happened as we were exploring the gardens of Chellah, the site of a thirteenth century Marinid citadel built on a bluff overlooking the river Bou Regreg. The sweet fragrance of a blossom cracked my facade of studied indifference as we descended cobbled steps down to the mosque, minaret, madrassa, and necropolis at the lower end of the fortress, its invigorating scent penetrating slowly, inevitably into my consciousness. I awakened as from a dream to the mating call of storks, a vaguely Jurassic sound like the rattle of dried bones and the cackle of a crone feeding on fresh water eels in a spring-fed basin until I found myself standing in the derelict mosque.
I’m told the first word in the Koran is “knowledge,” or some variant thereof, and that experience at Chellah was the beginning of my education. There are mysteries in the sensations of this world that transcend reason. That insight took hold beneath the scalloped archways and fluted columns like the wild blossom I saw growing from a mosaic above the archway between the mosque and the madrassa, its petals yellow against the red of the mudbrick and blue and green of the tiles. The seed had been planted, too fragile still to know whether it would thrive in the fallow clay of my own cynicism.
“It has to be the people,” I said.
Our journey had carried us from Rabat east across the coastal plain to Fes, then south through the ante-Atlas, Middle Atlas, and High Atlas Mountains to Mergouza and the Sahara Desert, and from there west along the several hundred kilometers of the Road of One Thousand Kasbahs to Ouarzazate before leading us north again over the High Atlas Mountains finally to Marrakech. The landscape, lush and fertile between Rabat and Fes, turned barren through the mountains and desolate in the desert. At one point in the high desert valleys between the Middle Atlas and High Atlas Mountains, layers of ancient sediment penetrated the hardpack, a reminder that the land that would become Morocco once lay at the bottom of a vast inland sea, the very heart of a global land mass before enormous tectonic forces contrived to separate the continents. It was into this world of formidable deserts, towering mountains, and fertile plains that those first hominids of the species we would one day call homo sapiens wandered three hundred thousand years earlier.
The people who would form the backbone of the modern state of Morocco, a collection of tribes who identify themselves “Berber,” have occupied the region for the better part of two hundred centuries. They built a culture over thousands of years across the breadth of north Africa that could withstand the encroachment of the ancient Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Carthaginians, and the Romans, and closer to our time the Ottomans, the Portuguese, the Spanish, and the French through a form of passive aggression, appearing to assimilate while holding onto their distinctive culture as successive empires dashed themselves against the buttress of the High Atlas Mountains and the desolation of the Sahara Desert.
“Learned of the people?” the old man asked.
I’d been carrying around an impression of the people from the moment I’d boarded the Royal Air Maroc flight from Amsterdam to Casablanca. The flight crew wore the same uniforms one would expect to see on an international flight, parade-style for the men, military in every respect right down to the barred cuffs and epaulets on the shoulders, and business suits for the women, cut so close to their figures I wondered how they managed to breathe. They issued the same greetings I was accustomed to hearing, allowing of course for vagaries of translation. They went through the same pre-flight safety briefing before we launched and delivered the same in-flight service.
Everything about the flight, quite literally everything, was the same, except that it wasn’t. I noticed an unsettling absence of formality among the flight crew, the usual spit and polish of carriers in the United States that can get you booted from a jet these days if you’re not wary. I wasn’t worried about the safety or security of our flight. That much was given, but I couldn’t get over the impression that our flight crew was going through the motions. It was like they couldn’t be bothered with protocol except for the expectations of the passengers, and I detected a certain amusement with our need for protocol beneath their carefully orchestrated charade.
“I learned of Moroccan people,” I said. “Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say I learned from them.”
A few days after my experience in the Chellah, we found ourselves in an encampment of semi-nomads on the road south of Rabat through the Middle Atlas Mountains. The men were tending their flocks, but the women, two of them, invited us into one of their tents. The interior was lit by a single incandescent light bulb hung from the mast pole and powered, we were told, by a small solar panel mounted on the southern exposure of the tent. A wood fire burned in a makeshift oven constructed of cinderblock and a repurposed automobile grill serving as the cooking element. Rugs hung on the walls and laid over the ground kept the room bright and comfortable, if not outright cozy.
We couldn’t have been more different, the members of our little group and our hosts. We were the intrepid westerners, my companions and I, the modern equivalent of those Victorian-era crusaders taking a paternal – read colonial – interest in the aboriginals, and these women were too busy with the responsibilities the season had thrust upon them to pay us much attention. And, still, I couldn’t recall a single instant when either of them bristled with impatience or rejected our questions – how old are you, do your kids go to school, are you Amazon Prime members, and how do you manage without a Starbucks around the corner – as naïve and intrusive as they might have been. If anything, they seemed to regard us with a sort of good-natured indulgence, as though they couldn’t fathom these busy people willing to venture forth from their tour bus to ask their busy little questions.
My interest piqued when one of the women, the younger one of the two, explained the circumstances of her marriage. Her husband, she told us, used to drive goats each summer through her village, a place she informed us was a seven day walk south and east from where we found them. This went on for years as the young woman grew from childhood to adolescence, never once speaking with the man who would become her husband-to-be. Then, one summer, the man showed up at their home to ask her father for her hand in marriage.
I never did learn to my satisfaction whether arranged marriage is still practiced in Morocco. I suspect in some parts of the country it is, and even where it isn’t, I was assured that, in Morocco, the father takes a primary role in selection of a husband for his daughters. Any father, no matter his ethnicity, would want his precious little girl married to a man who can take care of her, and he’s not going to give her up to a young man he has reason to believe can or will not. Except in Morocco, the daughter has little choice if her father refuses the offer of marriage, or accepts it for that matter, but to go along.
This woman was lovely, the kind you might expect to see in the board room of any Fortune 500 company, but for the matter of her dress, a head scarf and layers of brightly colored clothing selected, I was certain, for their insulating properties. She appeared strong and healthy, with attractive features and a clear complexion to go with a native intelligence that radiated from her hazel eyes. As the father of a daughter about her age, I couldn’t help putting myself in her father’s shoes. How could any man give this young woman away to a goat herder who would keep her in a tent a seven day walk from home, I had to ask myself, even if he does have a light bulb in his tent powered by a solar panel? But give her away he did, obviously, pleased I suppose with his choice, especially when the grandchildren I saw clinging to his daughter’s legs started to arrive.
“They all seem so happy.”
I don’t know that happy was exactly the emotion I’d detected. Contented might have been a better description, but that wasn’t entirely accurate either. Their lives are just so bloody difficult. But it wasn’t resignation either.
I should have walked away right then, but I could see that my wife was concluding the transaction she’d been negotiating with the vendor, and the old man seemed to be driving at a question that had been bothering me for the past several days, since that moment in the Chellah. Something like what is it I seem to be missing from my white-bread American existence?
“Not happy, the people of your country?” he asked.
What could I say about the people of my own country? Happy doesn’t describe us, nor does contented. Angry, perhaps. Afraid, almost certainly. Driven is more like it. Driven to cling to the baubles we possess and to acquire the baubles we don’t, especially when somebody we know has managed to possess them.
All I could do was shrug.
“Islam,” the old man prompted me. The word was uttered as a statement, but I understood it as a question. As in, have you considered the therapeutic value of Islam or something like that?
I knew just enough about Islam to be dangerous. It is one of the three great monotheistic religions, along with Christianity and Judaism, to trace their origin back to Abraham. And in their common origin, there seemed from my limited understanding to be more to connect than divide them.
Granted, Muslims don’t believe that Jesus is the son of God, but that doesn’t seem sufficient to justify antagonism if you’re Christian. Jews don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah, either, and Christians seem to think of Jews as God’s chosen people. Muslims accept Jesus as a prophet, right up there with Adam, Noah and Abraham and a handful of other Biblical figures, and that’s a hell of a lot better than the way Jews regard Jesus or Christians regard the Prophet Mohammed for that matter. The differences are artificial at best, more a matter of practice than substance. All three emphasize works and surrender to the will of God as the hallmarks of a righteous life, even if Christians in my circle have given up the emphasis on works for an obsession on the act of love and who is doing it and the Protestant work ethic has supplanted the will of God with the invisible hand of commerce.
I am prepared to believe that Islam is the only monotheistic religion committed to the well-being of its adherents, not just some foggy notion of salvation in some promised afterlife for the souls of people who toe the line in this life. The Prophet Mohammed may very well have stumbled upon the roots of happiness, or authentic well-being as positive psychologists of our day have taken to calling it, with his emphasis on generosity, gratitude, and a regimen of daily prayer together with the brutal discipline of Ramadan.
“Perhaps,” I said.
And still there was something to the old man’s question. His interest in me was a testament to the fact. Where in the world I inhabit would anyone attach so much importance to the motivations, expectations, and observations of a man he had only just met, quite literally, on the streets?
“Explain,” the old man replied.
I was more inclined to look for reasons other than religion, and there were so many from which to choose. Like a sense of place, for example, something to which no American who is not indigenous can understand. A culture that has existed for thousands of years through the ups and downs of civilization. Monuments to the past littering the landscape that remind you that prosperity is transient. An emphasis on family, one generation to the next, that makes the investment in place and culture personal. Or an economy driven in large part by subsistence, and a way of life so difficult that it makes pining for things you don’t possess an extravagance.
I have traveled in other lands that can lay claim to the same unnerving hospitality, Greece, Sicily and Turkey, in particular. And, as coincidence would have it, all of them have had experience with Islam – for better or worse depending upon whom you ask. All have been blessed with a strong sense of place, cultures that have thrived for thousands of years through periodic invasions, inspiring monuments to the past, and landscapes so harsh that personal ambition can feel at times like an indulgence.
“I can’t,” I confessed.
The most I was prepared to say is there is little reason to worry about what you have or don’t have when life is so uncertain, particularly when you believe that everything, literally everything, is subject to the will of an implacable God. The generosity of the people and their sincere acceptance of strangers in their midst seemed enough to make up the difference. That and sensuality, that combination of delights that can captivate a man born in the heartland of America and raised on the spiritual equivalent of Wonder Bread with the potential of the senses. A religion that enables such beauty is deserving of respect.
“Remain you will, lost.”
At that instant, I felt my wife’s hand upon my shoulder.
“Did somebody say something about lost?” she asked as she stepped up beside me.
“This gentleman here is helping me with directions to the Jaama el Fna,” I replied.
She smiled at the old man, and it was one of those smiles only a woman can offer, full of nurture and compassion and respect all wrapped up in one lovely expression of gratitude.
The old man placed a hand over his heart and nodded.
“A most precious gift, lady, your smile.”
I thanked the man and gathered my wife to make our way back.
“It’s odd,” I told her as we turned, “to think I had to come all the way to Morocco to find myself lost.”
“But you do know how to get back, right?” my wife asked.
The old man chuckled behind us.
“In sha Allah,” I heard him say, if God wills it.
Mike Bates is a former corporate attorney, recently retired to put some context back into his life. His work has appeared in Journals as diverse as Mobius, The Journal of Social Change, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Gadfly Online. He lives with his wife and dog on the north Oregon coast.
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