Holed up with the Police in Ouarzazate
The gun holstered to his belt poked me in the ribs every time he shifted weight. Not that he could help it. Packed four across into the back of a share taxi, we flew along the mountain curves on our way to Marrakech. Two where piled in the front seat. A woman from Jersey with her Moroccan husband. They both stared despondently out the window as the driver banged on his ill-tempered tape player. I craned my neck as far as comfort would let me and watched the scenes go by. It was your typical Moroccan scene.
Earthen coloured houses with their Technicolor doors, dried red riverbeds surrounded by terraced gardens wandered by. The green of the valley floor led up to giant rock outcroppings and then eventually to the snow capped mountain tops. This of course was coupled with the usual foot traffic on the roads. Children, who looked far too young to be walking unaccompanied, tramped by. Old men seemed to meander with no particular destination in mind. Young woman carrying baskets filled with herbs balanced on top of their heads trudged. There where middle aged couples, painted in nutral toned jellabas and the Berbers, known for their bright clothes and bold geometric patterns, sat at their shops tending their wares.
Those too old to walk baked in the sun. Sitting on dilapidated stairs, plastic chairs or simple mounds of dirt and sand they watched the world go by. There where the men, of course, waiting out the day by drinking tea, sitting outside the sparse cafes along the road. A lucky few sat on blankets in the grass surrounded by picnics. Those even luckier had found spots in the shade. We roared on. Passing the lakes so blue I blinked twice to make sure they where real, palmeries and the occasional donkey or camel.
I was coming from the town of Ouarzazate. A quiet spot three hours south of Marrakech. Famous for the movie business that thrived there and the Oscar Production Studios right outside of town. Other then that it was mostly known for getting tourists hitched with local tour companies. It was a city confused on where the centre of its town was.
One might think it was near the ancient Kasbah. Although much of it in decay, enough had been rebuilt to form a genuine tourist stop. Around it where restaurants with pictures of movie stars that had stopped in for a look. There where the three- and four-star hotels nearby, shops and even a playground. But the area around the Kasbah seemed just a little to close to the local neighbourhoods to constitute a real centre.
Further in town where the majority of shops. There where some for locals, selling household items. Other stores where for tourists, selling Moroccan kitsch. Nearby was an almost too logically laid out souq. The only thing saving its implied mystery where the chicken, rabbit and sheep heads places squarely on the counters of the butcher shops. That and a few dark back alleys, although they mostly led to cosmetic boutiques, they looked enough like the stuff of lore and legend. Near the souq was a large square and that might just have been the centre of town had it not been surrounded by construction on three sides.
Ouarzazate was the kind of place where sand met the concrete, often mixing the two together confusingly. A place where most people spent a night or two, where ferret was sold as a delicacy and nobody knew quite where to park the grand tourist buses that pulled in daily. I had never intended to get to know this town so intimately. I too had the plan of working Ouarzazate as a one night rest stop on the way further south and onto the back of a camel. I had even picked out a name for the camel I would meet, Spitty.
Spitty and I, we would roam the desert together, in a group of course, but I had the perfect romantic Saharan dream laid out for myself. Apparently different plans had been made for me.
It all happened on the bus ride there. The mountain lanes where narrow and the cliffs surrounding them steep. I was a bit nervous, I will admit. I tended to suck in my breath at every blind corner and nervously twiddled my thumbs as cars passed us on hills with break-neck speed. I was the tourist I hate. I hardly cared. Then as we where going around a particularly steep turn a truck came roaring at us. The bus swerved, I noted the cliff, I heard a loud POP and the people on the bus, including me, let out fearful gasps. I, believing this was the end, turned to my seatmate in horror to say my final goodbyes. He looked at me and laughed. Apparently he rode this route a lot.
“Ahh we are all going to die,” he said in French. I shook my head.
“Ahhh” he murmured “Arabee?” (The common way of asking if you spoke Arabic in Morocco was to simply ask “Arabee”. It didn’t convolute the sentence if the person in question didn’t actually know.)
“Ehya, barif Arabee,” (yes, I speak Arabic) I replied.
“Yes, yes sure but I should practice my English” he said back. That was fine by me since Moroccan Arabic was quite a re-education into what I thought was a decent comprehension of the language.
Apparently his name was Aissam and he was coming back from his brothers wedding in Fez. He introduced me to his family on board. Mustapha, his brother (although not the recently married one) was sitting in the seat in front of him and Mustapha’s wife, Wafa, was across the way chatting with her friend Sarah. After the proper introductions and the mumblings of “Amerakeeya” went though the bus, Aissam began to give me a rundown of the “too much quiet city” we where on our way to.
They asked where I was staying and I told them the Hotel Amlal. “What are you doing tomorrow?” Wafa asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said, “maybe going to Zagora”. Wafa shook her head. “La” (no) she said, “you can come have the lunch with us, Aissam can pick you up at your hotel if you want. As you want of course.” I agreed. The rest of the ride was a flurry of pictures and a trading of stories on family. “Do you like Nancy?” Aissam asked.
“Who is Nancy?” I said, mentally going through American celebrities I knew. They didn’t mean Nancy Sinatra did they? Nancy Reagan? I looked over at the group and they where all staring back at me as if I had just taken a bite out of a live pig in front of them.
“Nancy, Nancy Ajram!!” Wafa said excitedly. “Aissam give her your phone”. Aissam took out his phone and fiddled around until a Real Player came on the screen. A woman, who looked Syrian, came dancing out of a circus scene.
“That is Nancy” he said pointedly. “She is Lebanese, near Syria, so watch.” The woman sung at me as we pulled into the bus station and we all piled in a cab so they could see me “safely to my hotel.” We drove down the dark quiet streets and passed the banks, teleboutiques and police station. Aissam pointed out the window, “This is my occupation” he said.
“Police officer?” I stared at him wide eyed. But he was so easy going! So relaxed! Police officers are supposed to be stone faced right? This was a monarchy…was I consorting with “The Man”?
“Ahh me too,” Mustapha chimed from the front seat.
“You too!” I said, voice conveying more disbelief then it probably should have. I wasn’t smuggling hash, and I wasn’t carrying paraphernalia, but just being around the police makes me nervous. We got to the hotel and they helped me to the front desk. “See you tomorrow around eleven,” they smiled and said.
I went to my room and wondered just how I had gotten mixed up with a family of policemen in Ouarzazate. “Mi vida loca” I mumbled to myself. If only I had any idea of what was to come…
The next day Aissam picked me up as planned. We went to the Kasbah first, and then back to the family apartment. I will say this, I have felt vulnerable many times walking in Morocco. But you don’t feel much safer then when you’re strolling down the street with a plain clothed police escort.
At the apartment, the food was just about ready. I was greeted with the customary one kiss on your left cheek and two on your right from Wafa and a friendly “Allo” from Mustapha. We ate, talked about my plans and their family. Halfway through lunch Aissam
left the table but nobody paid any attention so I didn’t either. Ten minutes later with my potatoes perched precariously on my thin strip of bread and halfway to my open mouth I looked up to see a policeman in front of me. I spilled the potatoes on my lap and Wafa got up to get me a napkin. “Scared of the police?” he laughed, “I’m going to work now, but stay here, they can help you back to your hotel later,” and off he went to duty.
A couple hours later, after Wafa had gotten done drilling me on the cost of undergarments in the US and Mustapha had shown me all the satellite TV channels, I was yawning. I told them I should probably go back to the hotel and they both firmly shook their heads. “No, tonight you should stay here. It is safer and not expensive like that hotel”, Wafa said. I refused three times as I had been properly taught was Arab etiquette. Still they both insisted so finally I reasoned my clothes where at the hotel. “We will go help you get them” Mustapha said.
“All of them?”
“Yes, you can…if you like… you should stay here until you go.” I was touched
“But my room I still have to pay for. I should stay there just for tonight.”
“Not a problem”, said Mustapha, “I will go with you.”
Apparently, it pays and saves you money to know policeman in a place like Morocco. The hotel, even though it was 9 p.m., did not charge me for the night and I promptly moved into the family apartment.
The next week I learned how to do Moroccan laundry, which was fantastic since my own clothes hadn’t been washed since Spain. I tried, in vain, to learn how to cook Moroccan dishes. Wafa and I spend the afternoons watching Arab soap operas and she made it her personal mission to teach me belly dancing. Moroccan-style of course, nothing like that silly Saudi style. She also dressed me up in her clothing, jellabas and all and decorated me in kohl eyeliner and perfumes. She then proceeded to take me walking around the town nightly. That was actually one of the loveliest times in Ouarzazate. We would walk past kids playing futbol and wander around the lit up Kasbah. We would go into shops for coffee and tea and eat cookies. I even got used to saluting Aissam and Mustapha as they would leave for work every day, dressed up royally as the king’s policeman.
After about a week or so of this luxury I told them how lovely it was to be there, but I should continue south to Zagora. They agreed but only if I returned and only if I let Aissam take me. After all, they reasoned, it would be easier and cheaper with him around. I agreed and the next day we drove south.
Now I consider myself fairly hard to rattle. I have stayed calm in many a difficult situation in my life, but that drive was about the scariest experience of my life. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous, or what I saw of the blur that passed by my window at 120mph. There is no speed limit outside of towns in Morocco and though most drive around 60 or 75mph, Aissam preferred to think of himself as the Mario Andretti of Morocco. Eventually I convinced him that going that fast could damage my uterus and for the sake of the health of my future children he needed to slow it down to 90 and he did. But the drive, normally 3 hours, only took an hour and a half.
We reached the dusty little town. It reminded me a lot of Ouarzazate but with more camels. We walked around, visited stores, fed the stray cats and drove fifteen minutes out to Tinfou to play in the dunes. On the way back to Zagora proper the car got stuck in sand drifts. We tried, in vain, to free the car but sand apparently makes a good trap.
Thankfully, as the Sahara is a pretty crappy place to get caught baking in the open, we soon attracted a rather large group of people. Every one of them pitched in using tried and true methods to unsticking vehicles. Eventually we got the car out of the pit we had created. Gave a million “Barakalofiks” (thank you’s) and we where off, sleepy and ready to be done with the days sun.
“Did you want to still ride a camel,” Aissam yawned at me.
“No, seems passe lately, anyway I am too tired”
“If you want we can pull over,” Aissam said.
“And sleep in the car, it would be too hot.”
“No we use the blanket and sleep in the palms.”
“Oh. Are there scorpions and snakes?”
So we stopped and pulled out the blanket. I surveyed the area for rocks. I heard scorpions and snakes liked to crawl under those. Eventually I found a decent spot and we lay down under the trees and fell asleep. When we woke up it was nighttime and the stars had come out in full effect. Miles from towns and the only light coming from stray cars passing by, you could count every constellation. It was the world with the electricity shut off. The world finally quiet. We drank water, pulled on sweaters, and sat a while in silence before making our way back to the car. Driving back the smells of citrus and flowers drifted in and out of the car and mixing with the constant smell of earth. We listened to Nancy Ajram lament about her greatest love. I had learned the words to most of her songs by now and happily sang along gazing at the mountain sides lit up in the moonlight. It was beautiful, just beautiful.
The next 2 and a half weeks I lived there in Ouarzazate and got to know Morocco I had missed out on before. The family, accommodating my wanderlust, would take me…always by a car arranged through a friend…to the Todra and Dades Gorge as well as Ait Ben Houddou and several lakes in the area. On the way to the third week, when I was contemplating staying there forever, Aissam and Mustapha got called to duty in Marrakech. The king was coming to town and they needed all the police they could get. I started to thank them for such a lovely time when Wafa stopped me.
“You don’t want to come with us?” she looked hurt.
“Come to Marrakech, sure, but where would I stay?”
“With our family, Aissam and Mustapha’s father lives there with his other brother, wife, and younger sister. We could go from there to the Cascades de Ozoud and even Essouaria for the day.” She seemed to have it all planned out. I made sure I wasn’t imposing on their family in Marrakech and then, the next day, crammed into the hot dusty taxi, Aissam, his gun holstered to his belt, myself, Wafa and Mustapha headed north for Marrakech.