In 1998 on the night before Marrakech, I had a dream that I awoke in a splendorous Arab city with orange walls and castles, with a mesa and cliffs at one end and hills that looked like dunes at the other. There was an old man in a head scarf, taller than the walls.
When the train rolled into Marrakech I was overwhelmed by how much the landscape and the colors looked like my dream that I had a sense of foreboding. The similarities were eerie. We passed through a palm forest near the city, just north of town, and that was in my dream too. I felt like I was moving headlong into the end of days, but I also felt victorious, like being there was winning the lottery.
A contradiction to me, Morocco either riveted or unnerved me, seldom stirring anything in-between. The early foundations of algebra — an Arabic word — comes from this part of the world, as well as zenith and nadir — the high and the low. The morning call to prayer was at 3:30 and blasted into my hotel from a nearby minaret. The muezzin cleared his throat first, through a distorted speaker system, like he was going to cough something up and spit it down on us. On the street, I got hassled by touts trying to sell hotel rooms. They swore at me in several languages. One of them kept turning around to wag his tongue at me, their version of the finger, while I motioned for him to come back and told him I’d kick his ass. I’m lucky that I didn’t get hurt.
But the market was alive. The main plaza, Djemaa El-Fna or the square of the dead. A former capital, Marrakech it is still a nexus where the Sahara meets the Mediterranean. In the afternoon I saw a boxing match, snake charmers with real cobras, acrobats, dancers, monkeys, a mangy baby baboon driven to insanity on a short chain, chameleons and small turtles in little cages, a dentist set up in the parking lot with a table, old pliers and a pile of teeth.
A street performer guzzled hot water out of a teapot. Shirtless, with billowing gold pants and a long twirled mustache, he laid on a bed of nails while I stood shoulder to shoulder with a crowd of Berbers and Arabs. Smoke from the food stalls ringed the inside of the square, while people, bicycles, cars, mopeds, and horse drawn carriages mixed with music, talking, drums, and car horns. Energetic, noisy, annoying, magical. Get me out of here, I thought. I never want to leave. I am so lucky to see this.
Most of the birds took flight at dusk, flocks of tiny wings swirling in the fading light. Egrets and storks moved from palm to palm with big sleepy flaps of their wings. In the evening when the sun was gone, I got a henna tattoo. As the woman drew a scorpion on my arm, she held it still and I wanted her to take me home. She said henna was lucky and should last three or four weeks, but it washed off in the shower that night and made me feel cursed. Two days later I got another one, a ring of geometric designs around my arm. A kid used a syringe to drop the henna on my skin like she was decorating a cake. Her mom took the money and stood next to us, watching from behind a veil, head to toe in shiny fabric.
I met an old Berber nomad from Zagora, originally from a town bordering the Algerian Sahara. He sold medicinal potions, herbs and magical charms. One evening we talked in what little French I could remember. He told me about snow in the desert, and I imagined ice crystals and sand reflecting pieces of moonlight. I found him in the square the next day and bought some souvenirs from him, four cartas, brass bullet-shaped lucky necklaces on black string, gifts for my brothers.
We sat together on a carpet laid out over a tarp. One of his friends walked up, a man with a long one piece shirt and a sinister pointed hood. I knew no Arabic at the time, but understood that he was asking who I was. The old man said something to the effect that it was okay, he made an introduction and the friend sat down. Soon another guy arrived, and the same thing happened. Finally, a third guy showed up, looked at me sitting next to the old man and started to ask who I was and his two friends interrupted loudly with something to the effect of don’t worry about it, he’s alright, and he sat down. When a fourth arrived, everyone abruptly told him not to worry about it, and this time we all laughed and the new guy didn’t know what was so funny.
When I got up to leave, the old man asked for my pen. I always walked around with one clipped to the front of my T-shirt, in case I needed to write something down. I asked him why he wanted it.
“Pour la victoire,” he said. For the victory.
“Pour vous,” I said. For you.
Each afternoon, a group of birds briefly visited the courtyard of the Hotel de France, where I stayed, and sang to one another inside the bright blue walls. When they left it was so quiet my ears rang.
From the roof of my hotel I had a sweeping view. The outside of the buildings were orange, but the inside courtyards were pink or blue or white, cool places to spend time out of the blazing sun. I saw three guys play cards, gambling with little piles of money, and two of them rolled out little carpets when the call to prayer blared over the loudspeakers. The other one sat and smoked. As the sun went down I watched the palms, birds, and minarets in outline against the Atlas Mountains. The egrets flew between the thousands of small birds darting around. I had been annoyed all afternoon by touts trying to sell hotel rooms, by pushy salesman trying to get me to buy carpets or tea sets. But with the rooftop view I got the jackpot feeling again. The high and the low, victory is both. Adventure is both.
On my last day, I went through the Djemaa El-Fna to the medina to buy some dates and bread for breakfast. On my way back I stopped to talk to the old man who sold me the souvenirs. He was wearing the pen that I gave him. He shook my hand and handed me another of the cartas, holding up a brass magic bullet on a dark string.
“Pour vous,” he said.
“Pour la victoire?” I asked.
“Oui,” he said, “pour la victoire.”