Bumper Carts

A bustling crowd, persistent salesmen, faux Ray Bans, and a cart coming in hot—the medina is all too familiar now. All it takes is a bump from an elbow to push me into the path of the speeding wooden vehicle. “Sorry,” mutters the man, who is pushing a frail woman in a wheelchair. Although a fellow English speaker, he appears to care very little about what has just taken place. Metal and wood on skin isn’t the greatest feeling: especially when cleanliness isn’t the medina’s best quality. Thankfully a semi-deep scrape is my only “gift” from this unwanted encounter.

Now Natalie and I have two goals: escape the maze-like market and find a clean sink with soap. Locating a sign to direct our travels to the square is our mission. After walking for several minutes with no hope on the horizon, we come to a familiar crossing. Our reward is a sign shaped like an arrow with dull mustard-colored paint. All we have to do now is follow these signs. If only it was that easy: the height at which the signs are hung make them incredibly easy to miss. Tattered brown signs scattered along the way add another level of difficulty to navigation.

By now, five to ten minutes have passed since the first marker. I’m not sure if the two of us could be more lost at this point. None of the stores, streets, or restaurants are ringing a bell. As it turns out, we have made our way to the exact opposite side of where we needed to be. As the sun is preparing to leave the sky, we turn around with a sigh. Side streets now deserted; it’s a race against the clock. Another five minutes pass, bringing us to the crossing at last. Now to figure out where we went wrong. Making our way back, much slower this time, a different sign captures our eyes. Instead of the right previously taken, a left turn was necessary to arrive at the square. Seven minutes is all it takes to reach our destination now that our bearings are correct.

photo by Kevin Thibodeau

photo by Kevin Thibodeau

Finding the café is the new objective. Scanning the rooftops for a familiar terrace, we spot the green wraparound balcony belonging to the café visited by the group yesterday. Natalie, my minor flesh wound, and I push through monkey handlers, snake charmers, juice vendors, and spectators until the granite steps of the café are at our feet. I’m making my way upstairs, walking fast, arm throbbing, and I’m sink-bound. Fresh soap cleanses my gouge. A sense of relief washes over me as the water slowly dissipates down the drain. Sugarless mint tea quenches my dry throat as the sun falls below the brick skyline. Following the fall of the sun, the moon rises once again, setting the stage for the night to come.

—Kevin Thibodeau

Fight Night in Marrakech?

Jemaa el-Fnaa is shrouded in a cloud of smoke and steam from countless eateries and illuminated from the lights within, producing a soft ruby-colored hue. The setting sun contrasts with the dark outlines of the cityscape and paints the sky, changing and eventually vanishing before your eyes. King cobras lie coiled on the cobblestones, swaying their heads ever so slightly to the sound of the charmer’s rhaita. Storytellers form spontaneous al-halqas, story circles, using their words to captivate their audiences. This is the Marrakech of legend.

On our first night in Marrakech, four of us meet up with two friends from Tangier who have made the trek to visit us for the weekend: Tarik and Karim. Our rendezvous is arranged for 9:45 p.m. at the Poste du Maroc. As is customary for the two of them, they keep us waiting, arriving shortly after ten o’clock. Wasting no more time, we begin walking toward the riad they have rented for the weekend. That’s when Tarik explains what we are in store for.

photo by Nikita Naumowicz

photo by Nikita Naumowicz

“Just so you guys know,” he informs us, almost too nonchalantly, “there’s a huge drunk man that followed us through the medina on our way to meet you. He started yelling at us and pushing us around—getting real physical with us.”

“So there’s a good chance we are going to be in a fight,” Karim chimes in. “Be ready.”

Having never been in a legitimate fight, this is something I don’t exactly care to hear. I’ve had some pretty intense hand-to-hand bouts with my brother but none really classify as a fistfight. My mind begins racing and my heartbeat quickens. I imagine what the altercation will be like: six of us versus one of him. I try to connect with my inner Jason Bourne and choreograph my moves in my head. Muscles tighten as we continue to approach the medina entrance. Just then Tarik tells us his plan.

“Okay guys, so if he comes up to us again, we are going to flat-out brawl with this guy. We need to team up and just beat his ass. And it’s all good because I’ve got a secret weapon.”

He reaches into his pocket and rummages around for what I assume will be some brass knuckles or at least a sharp knife. As his hand begins to withdraw from the depths of his pocket, I see the glint of a metal object in the dim light. When he finally reveals his “secret weapon,” it doesn’t quite have that intimidating and pugnacious aura we were expecting.

“We are going to be just fine,” Tarik says. “I’ve got a fork.”

After a few nervous turns through the shady medina, we meet a policeman and his dog, who escort us safely to the riad. Our night-time antagonist is nowhere to be seen, and that’s alright with me.

—Nicholas Bolognia

Unexpected Attention

Djemaa el Fnaa; photo by Hannah Buckley

Djemaa el Fnaa; photo by Hannah Buckley

My friends and I were sitting in a small café in Djemaa el Fnaa, a crowded square in Marrakech. We had chosen a convenient table on the outer perimeter, already set to accommodate a meal for four. We were surrounded by people who were visiting Morocco from all over the world. Sounds of drums and singing filled the air around us. While we scanned the menu, we were approached by a young girl who looked to be about six or seven years old. In her hands she held a small plate of homemade pastries. She was staring at us with her glossy brown eyes, but we hid our faces behind our menus as if doing so would make her disappear. Her presence was undeniable. It felt so wrong to be shamefully hiding from a little girl behind a piece of laminated cardstock.

She inferred from our silence that we did not want any of her pastries, accepted defeat, and retreated back to her plastic lime-green stool. There sat a baking sheet full of pastries covered with clear plastic wrap. As she walked away from her post to find her next potential customer, a group of four boys, about the same age as she was, approached her supply. Two of them started to beg empty-handed, trying to acquire a donation of a few dirhams from the various tourists mingling around in the area, while one munched on a pastry for himself.

After being approached by several people, from all stages of life, selling watches, cigarettes, pastries, and tissues, my friends and I had had enough. We moved our seats to the inside of the open-air café and pushed two plastic tables together. Our waiter seemed to understand our frustration—he nodded his head and gave us a reassuring smile as he set a ketchup bottle on the table.

Now that we were under the safety of the café’s roof, I thought we had escaped the incessant begging. But this was the case only until a white and black cat appeared from beneath our table. She sat upright on the tiled floor next to me, then wrapped her long tail around the front of her body, covering her paws as if they were cold and needed to be blanketed. Her green eyes looked up at me, begging for a single crumb. She watched me as I finished my meal, until an employee noticed the extra guest. The woman kicked out her leg toward the cat and spoke something in Arabic that gave me the impression that this cat was a regular visitor. The cat ran outside to escape the angry woman, but returned shortly after, sneaking around the legs of our chairs and settling down to play with some backpack strings. There seemed to be nowhere to escape the attention of cats and humans alike—even in the smallest of cafés.

—Hannah Buckley

Jamaa el Fnaa

photo by Nicholas Bolognia

photo by Nicholas Bolognia

Billows of steam are rising from the food tents below, but you are still higher than their reaches. Comparatively the steam from your mint tea seems larger, closer to your face as you consider and reconsider drinking the still boiling water. Up here on this rooftop café the hectic square is dulled and the picturesque version of Jamaa el Fnaa is amplified. Just ten or fifteen minutes earlier you were bumbling around the open-aired center for vendors and entertainment trying to stay in tune; the drums were coming from within your head; people either staring with questionable intent or brushing past like you were an inconvenience; smells of horse manure and spicy sweets mixing pungently; wicked cackling, monkeys and snakes being forced upon you; and constantly hands outstretched, grappling for change. Marrakech is the rebel kin of Tangier: a complete assault on the senses, a provocation for that nauseating heightened feeling, like an overdose of caffeine or a squandering head-buzz. It is an overstimulation. Now, actually risen above the chaos, you are settled. The noises have muffled into a softer music, transient lulls being swept over your cheeks with the light wind. The setting sun casts a desert pink over the sky and the erect mosque is now cloaked from behind, a nightly ritual of appreciation. In the center of the square are the vendors’ tents, exclusively clad in a Tuscan red, each glowing from the fires and lighting within, the exact degree of translucence seen in the webs of your fingers when covering a flashlight. Pulsing beneath is a unique energy, one that could sweep you up and make you dance alongside the drummers or release a belly-shaking laugh at the antics of the animated story tellers encircled in their private al-halqas, but you much prefer to catch the slowed-down, diluted ripples lapping the edge of this rooftop balcony.

—Nikita Naumowicz