Lightheaded, I swayed precariously on my feet and felt my stomach twist. Through the burning haze of headache and fever I tried to bring the kaleidoscope of persimmons and pomegranates in front of me back into focus. The rush and din of the market had narrowed into a tunnel of confusion and panic. As I closed my eyes the pit in my stomach lurched threateningly upward again. There wasn’t any water in that juice, I thought, scanning the jumble of olive and meat stalls jammed next to each other. I thought the water was safe here! In slow motion I turned to find Gus, his normally tan face now white as a sheet. “We gotta get outta here,” he said, my stomach jumping. Not seeing a trash can my eyes instead settled on a camel butcher across the aisle, an unfortunate victim’s head dangling on a rope with tongue hanging out pathetically. It was only when Gus and I made our way past the dromedary that I realized my congestion had gotten so bad I couldn’t smell. We staggered out of the market into a dusty amphitheater of a square framed by a tall mosque on one end and bathed in hot sun. Kids playing soccer screamed and women wearing headscarves and burkhas shuffled by as the world started to spin. How easy can the most careful plans go awry, the best of intentions unrewarded. How hard it is to trust, let go, and give yourself up to the whims of chance and the rhythms of life.
As Gus and I stood in the pouring rain, having just been unceremoniously expelled from our petit taxi, a small man shuffled over towards us. He was the kind of old that could be anywhere from 40 to 70, with a weathered baseball cap, greasy hair, grizzled scruff, and yellowed patchwork teeth. His traffic control bib flashed in the rain as he drew near. With a resigned acceptance, we readied ourselves to decline yet another offer for a guided tour or some drugs. Reaching us, the man leaned in close, and asked with all seriousness what we were looking for. Before we could reply, he shouted, “beer, joints, everything! Welcome to Tangier!” Such was Morocco, a land of both the ordinary and the unexpected, full of promise and mystique, and above all else an all-knowing sixth sense of predetermined actions, seemingly written in the twinkling desert stars.
Fresh off my first term as a graduate student in international development at Oxford, this trip was my initial foray into the “developing world” since starting school. I saw a stable, solid country, somewhat drab in appearance yet humming along functionally and nicely. The streets were clean, the busses fast, and the highways smooth. Wind turbines dotted our bus ride through the forested Rif Mountains in the north, a new French-financed high speed train line connecting the country’s major cities is set to open soon, and the port of Tangier buzzed with activity. Whether due to the monarchy, the overwhelming presence of Islam, the ban on alcohol or a combination of the three, I never once feared for my safety.
That being said, the effects of a heavily gendered society were readily apparent: male-only cafés lined the streets, and women donning headscarves mostly stayed near the confines of home. On a train from Rabat to Fez we were told by a young Moroccan woman that the vast majority of Moroccans prefer the stability and predictability of a religious autocracy with some muted civil liberties to an Arab Spring revolution leading to uncertainty and possible persecution and terrorism. Though personal expression was almost nonexistent, in all I felt a strong sense of calm and intention everywhere I went. Only time will tell whether this is the truth or just the snap judgment of a first-time visitor.
Within the twisting medinas, endless souks (markets) initially gave off a mild chaos that belied a slow pace of life. The haze and humidity made everything seem just a little bit off, an Instagram filter slightly out of focus that started with the inconsistent language mix of Arabic, French, and Spanish. For me, this lack of sharpness produced a softer, more rounded beauty. People in funky Fez, cheeky Chefchaouen, and tussling Tangier all seemed monotonous in a way, mostly going about the same things in the same way like marionettes on a string. There were few surprises and just a lot of cool doors and the cleanest, cutest stray cats you’ll ever see. There is little culinary variation, with tagines and couscous dishes that are tasty and fortifying but not mind-blowing. Morocco will stay with me as an uncomplicated place with hot sun and nice people.
I read that Moroccans strongly believe in the idea of fate, and the general attitude of the place reflects this for me. An ancient land of Berber mountain folk, worldly adventurers, spies, diplomats, and Beatnik writers, elements of magical realism almost seem to be at play. Amidst the blur of sugary mint tea, sticky dates, and sweet hashish smoke, the call to prayer ripples off gentle desert dunes and craggy, jagged peaks five times a day. Tales of spirits and alchemy seem believable within the soft, unhurried nature of life. Something is always coming for you, and whether a well-timed omelet vendor on the street, a new best friend, or inspiration for future plans to come, that which makes sense will find its way. After the rain clears and the pale pink sunset sets itself behind soft, low hanging clouds, Morocco seems to ask only two things of us: to be open, and to be free.
We awoke our final morning in Tangier to the sound of heavy rain clattering over the rooftops of the medina. Gus (formerly a collegiate runner) immediately set off for a jog. Still early, I tried running the steep hostel steps to scratch my itch, but to no avail. A voice, the same one that torments me with rules, rigidity, guilt, and doubt, that tells me to eat sweets or to kiss the girl, was this time pushing me out the door. Peering outside and feeling a sudden rush I started to run. I ran down the narrow, slippery cobblestones of the medina, dodging covered women and schoolchildren as I went. I ran down underneath the famous Continental Hotel, where Kerouac wrote Desolation Angels. I ran up and down crumbling city walls, leaping and bounding through the rain as I went.
I made my way down to the oceanfront and hopped up on the barrier. The emerald waters crashed onto the black rocks beneath me, framed by the grey, stormy sky filled with soft early morning light. I ran with informal settlements rising sharply up the cliffs to my left and the expanses of the Strait of Gibraltar and the Atlantic Ocean on my right. I ran with recent injuries and more distant demons in my wake and feeling the salty spray of exhilaration ahead. After a while I came to a turn in the road and a proper set of stairs leading down to the beach. As I ran up and down the 37 steps over and over, I thought about what I was training for. Living, corrected the voice. Coming to the top of the steps, I saw a friendly face appear in the mist: it was Gus. I turned to the ocean, now churning in the rain, and smiled, happy. Be open, be free.