Saturday, March 10, 2007

Remembering Morocco (2)

Our riad doesn't serve breakfast. It is more towards the backpacker end of the market. So we start each day with a quick walk across the Djemma El Fna to one of the caf├ęs with roof terraces looking over the square. We soon settle on a favourite, which has fewer English speaking tourists, metal chairs with cushions and proper (rather than paper) tablecloths. We order the usual 'petit dejeuner', a basket of bread with a pot of butter, a pot of 'confiture' (which is sometimes jam, sometimes marmalade, occasionally honey), very fluffy orange juice and a cafe au lait and sit back in our chairs, enjoying the morning sun, which already feels rather warm, and watching the movement below in the square. Sometimes we read, sometimes I paint but mostly we sit and watch the people go by. Everyone seems very busy doing not very much at all. The snakes charmers gather under their green umbrellas, their white coats and yellow shoes distinct from the old ladies in black who sit armed with henna under their umbrellas. There are five, six, seven men all identically dressed, taking it in turns to sit and play haunting but garish riffs on what appear to be metal recorders, trying to provoke their snakes into moving, whilst others try and draw in people to watch, to photograph and most importantly to pay. The crowds shift and move rather like tides. Circles gather around raconteurs and acrobats. Men lie in the shade of their umbrellas. A group of men with wheelbarrow like carts sleep in them whilst waiting for business. The orange juice sellers call out for business. It is a strangely compelling place, the Djemma El Fna.

And through it runs a road although it is barely delineated, if at all. More scooters, more bikes, horses, donkeys, men pushing wheelbarrows, delivery vans, the occasional 4x4. One man we see has about 20 boxes of 16 eggs piled on the back of his scooter, held on by two bungees. Another man is on a bike carrying an enormous basket of bread between his legs, his knees bent out right to the side, peddling away. One woman appears to be carrying a TV. She is riding on the back of a scooter. There is a certain scooter style - left leg turned out, foot hanging off, more often than not with the left arm carelessly draped towards the back of the bike. Some have small black helmets (straps undone) perched on their heads. Most are wearing cloaks, open backed shoes, plain muted colours. It is not until I visit a hamaam that I see a non tourist woman without a hejab or similar.

The hamaam we visit it not a tourist one. It is further down the street on which our riad is, further into the 'residential' part of the Medina. There are 2 entrances, separate ones for women and men. We go in at the same time, M and I, so that neither has to wait around. I don't get hassled very much when I am walking next to M. But in the ten minutes that I stand outside afterwards, waiting for M, I get watched, stared at and called to more than the rest of the trip put together. I am nervous going in on my own, my French is more limited than M's. But all the French in the world wouldn't have helped me, once inside, as the women in there appear to only speak Arabic. They gesture to me to remove me clothes. I had read that full nakedness is taboo, so I change under my towel. I put on bikini top and bottoms. The women gesture at me to remove the top.

She takes off all her clothes and changes into an enormous pair of knickers. Wearing only bikini bottoms and flip flops, I follow her. We walk through a room which is full of naked ladies, sitting on the floor surrounded by buckets of water. They are chatting and washing, catching up on gossip I cannot understand but recognise by tones, glances and body language. They look at me with detached interest. I am taller, skinnier, whiter and blonder than all of them. But I don't feel awkward, not at that point. I follow the lady assigned to me through to the next room. She fills buckets at a tap and washes down the floor. She gestures and I sit down. She soaps me with brown gooey soap, which I later discover is 'savon noir' and then scrubs me with a mitt, all over, no part left untouched. Behind the ears, inside elbows, ankles, the lot. I feel like my skin is coming off, but also invigorated and as if my blood is circulating better. And then, just as quickly as it started, it is over. She is waving her arms. I can't understand her. I try gesturing. We still can't understand each other. A younger girl is called over. "Parlez-vous francais?" "Un petit peu" "c'est finit". I follow her out into the slightly cooler changing area and she hands me my towel which I had hung just fifteen or so minutes earlier on a peg. I get dry and changed. The atmosphere has shifted. It no longer feels like people are watching me with distracted fascination. I feel an intruder in their private social space, alienated because we cannot communicate with each other. I do not know the customs of a traditional native hamaam and feel that they feel I am rude for waiting until they indicate by gesture what I must do. My bag is handed back to me and she stands there waiting. She is after a tip. But I only have 2 dirham. I hand it over and she tuts. I cannot tell if the amount I gave her was reasonable or whether she was just hoping for more because I am a tourist. An academic thought though, as I have no more money with me. She limps off muttering and I leave, starting to feel claustrophobic, with a general "au reviour". The ladies have returned to their soup making and tea drinking and do not even look up.

9 comments:

achilles said...

I can't believe no one has commented on this post! Thank you for sharing the experience.

I've added you on myspace if you're still myspacing.....

Tom

Anonymous said...

It does sound amazing. Couldn't help but be slighly irritated at your persistent use of the present tense. It made some of it powerful, making the uncomfortable feelings more real, but it got tiring to read after a while. Sorry to sound picky.

Rachel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rachel said...

Thanks for your comments. I appreciate the constructive feedback. I didn't deliberately set out to write in the present tense necessarily, I just found that it came out that way when I started writing, perhaps because I was re-living what I had done. I think the present tense works well for 'travel' style writing, as it seems more current and real, as though the reader is there as well. Will bear your comments in mind though when I get a chance to finish writing about the rest of the trip.

Anonymous said...

I'd have to agree with anonymous...the present tense can be a very powerful tool when telling a story, but its persistant use here is just pretentious.

Anonymous said...

FWIW, the present tense didn't bother me at all. I enjoyed the story.

rachid said...

2 dh that very low. We usually leave at least 20dh for the person that takes care of you in hamam.

rachid said...

2 dh that very low. We usually leave 20-50 dh for the person that takes care of you in hamam

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