The guy in the fez was getting aggressive and, more worryingly, so was his monkey.
I’d just snapped my boyfriend standing next to him awkwardly while he playfully gave him his fez to wear while his monkey strummed a banjo. As soon as the camera shutter clicked the guy’s face fell. “200 dirhams,” he demanded. We’d spent less than that on lunch; there was no way he was getting that just for a photo – I’d rather delete it.
He insisted and grabbed my wrist forcefully. I could see his Berber friend marching over dragging a ferret on a lead behind him. The group of women sat near us carried on with their cries of “henna, henna” not even flinching at his harsh abruptness.
I’d experienced the vigorous sales techniques of the Djeema El Fna over the past two days, but he was going too far. I’d learnt just saying ‘no’ isn’t enough in Marrakesh, your body and actions have to say it too. I thrust 100 dirhams into his hand – more than enough – and we walked off defiant, but scared. I daren’t look behind me.
The Argana Restaurant
We strode past the ruins of the Argana Restaurant. It’d only been four days since the nail bomb explosion in Marrakech’s main square where 17 people had died. Walking towards it was a stark physical reminder of the fear and panic the Marrakeshis had been through in the past few days. Tourists and locals photographed the policemen guarding the flower tributes, but I didn’t want any photos. To me, the looming wreckage was the source of the now aggressive and desperate atmosphere in the square.
We were in the south of Morocco, in Agadir, when the bomb had gone off and we questioned whether to come at all, but we didn’t want to let them get the better of us.
Back to the roof garden
We silently and subconsciously made our way back to our hostel, both going over the threatening man’s actions in our heads. I couldn’t help but feel angry – why was he so rude to us when Marrakech needs all the tourists it can get right now?
Following the labyrinthine paths we found our quiet street and the big door we’d been so dubious of when we arrived. We had to ring to enter and the mild, kind and good-looking owner let us in. He quietly set to work making us some mint tea while we climbed the five flights of stairs to the roof terrace. It was a palatial nirvana compared to the atmosphere and midday heat of the souks – ahh, sweet, cool safety.
From here you could soak up the jostling, cajoling and pressure of the souks without actually having to navigate them. We lay exhausted on the sofas just feeling the steady breeze as it moved through the rooftop tent. I lay face down staring at the stained carpet wondering how long it’d been there while drifting in and out of sleep.
I stirred to the sweet smell of smoke. The hostel owner had joined us with the tea and a spliff. He had his laptop open in front of him on YouTube and he and my boyfriend were deep in conversation.
“They don’t like the tourists. They’re against the Western influences they bring to the city – the alcohol, the clothes, the disrespect for religion,” he explained while casually tapping his smoke on the makeshift ashtray.
“The man who built the Argana restaurant also built a Minaret behind it – he knew certain powerful people wouldn’t be happy with the tourist attraction, he thought a Minaret would protect it from any damage. Not so.”
He carried on: “I heard a loud bang downstairs and ran up here. I could see the black smoke rising over the city.”
Osama Bin Laden
My boyfriend saw I was awake: “Kamal here just said Bin Laden’s dead.”
Kamal played me the video of President Obama on YouTube, announcing that a ‘targeted operation’ had bought his men to Bin Laden in Pakistan and they’d killed him. I didn’t know if Kamal would see this as progress. He shook his head and inhaled the smoke, while tapping at the keyboard for more video reactions and evidence – as yet, they didn’t know where the body was.
“The bomb in Argana was the first attack in Marrakech,” he went on. “Meknes has been attacked before and Casablanca many times, but by attacking us here, where all the tourists come, they’re giving us a strong and symbolic message. They want control and they’re scared of what they can’t control. I’ve had many cancellations in the past few days – how is that helping the Marrakech people?”
I didn’t know what to say. We were silent. He looked down and switched to some Bob Marley – it was then I noticed all the posters and paraphernalia. Everyone loves him here; my boyfriend’s dreads had attracted many ‘Bob Marley’ shout outs from the souk owners as we shopped. ‘Kamal’ wasn’t like the rest of the knock off Dolce & Gabbana wearing men looming in doorways though. He wore the famous John Lennon ‘New York City’ t-shirt, Ray-Bans, jeans and flip flops to run the riad with his brother.
“They’re stupid. The West hates Muslims now. They think Muslims are all extremists and terrorists. My wife is from America. I was interrogated for days before the American government would let me marry her. They asked so many questions.”
I was shocked – “Interrogate you how?”
“I had to know her favourite colour, food, drink, ambitions, family members, whether she was right or left handed, even what she did for her 7th birthday. They wouldn’t believe an American woman would want to marry an African man for love.”
To see him speak so fluidly and passionately about his country, city and wife while thumbing a picture of his wife from his pocket broke my heart.
A simple love story
“We met in Chefchaouen while she was on holiday and fell in love.”
That didn’t surprise me, he looked like a model and behind the sadness in his eyes they were bright and intelligent. He seemed a fun loving guy who had no fun anymore to love. He passed the smoke around and carried on.
“She came into my restaurant and was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. Of course it was real love, but the American government thought it was for the passport, not for her.”
“So, where is she now?” I asked.
“She’s in America finishing her studies – I’m saving to go out and see her. We’ll have to be together in Morocco, but we want to travel the world first… Of course, my religion and my skin make that difficult…”
We were silent. I was thinking about how simple the love between me and my boyfriend is compared to Kamal’s. Living without beloved because the government have decreed your love isn’t real must be horrific. My boyfriend is from Khartoum and is Muslim – he went to NYC at 18 with white friends and he was the one who was unnecessarily interrogated and traumatised at the airport.
“The death of Osama is the beginning of something new,” Kamal said with as happy a sigh as he could.
I was still lying on the sofa staring at the carpet, while Bob Marley blasted out from the tinny laptop speakers. I couldn’t look up to see what my boyfriend was doing – I didn’t want him to see me upset.
The fact I wasn’t sure how Kamal would react to the death of Obama blatantly reveals my ignorance too though. I felt ashamed of my Western media indoctrinated mind – of course he’d be happy about it.
All Kamal wants is to be with his wife, but he’s a Muslim, and since 9/11 all Muslims are supposedly evil extremists who can’t be trusted on aeroplanes. He’s just another innocent victim.
The importance of tourism and education
And so was the man with the monkey in the square. I’d been so angry with him an hour ago, now I just felt sorry for him. If I could tell the square was a lot emptier than normal, he knew it too. No tourists means no work and no work means no money to provide for his family. The raggedy children begging in the square must be a constant reminder of what happens then.
Places like Tangier in Morocco depend on tourism to survive.
The 15 tourists and two locals sentenced to death as they drank their restaurant-brewed morning mint tea in Marrakech just added to the horrendous innocent victim death count. Education, open minds, understanding and respect is the only way to end this war that may have started with those at the top, but has quickly trickled down to affect the millions at the bottom. But if the education is given by insolent, small-minded, egotistical idiots, what hope is there?