„I will give you a city tour – for free.“
“Are you sure you’re Moroccan?”
Salmane’s laughter was lost in the wind as we rode away from Jemaa el-Fnaa on his motorbike. He was still elated about having it back. A few days ago the police had stopped him at an intersection because he was riding without a helmet (a helmet on a motorcyclist in Marrakesh is about as rare as a sighting of Khidr, the green saint of Islam, in broad daylight). He thought he would get away with a warning, but the policeman told him to get of his bike, wrote something on an official piece of paper and handed it to him. “This is now your motorbike.”
Getting the bike back turned out to be a real odyssey. The fine of 300 dirham (a hefty fine for a student) had to be paid at the Royal Treasury, where a large number of people, some demonstratively dangling their motorbike helmets from their hands, were queuing for similar offenses. When Salmane’s turn came the clerk stood up, shut her window and said she was going for lunch. While we were waiting an incensed man almost single-handedly started a small revolution, shouting for a good ten minutes at another clerk who gave a good as he got. To the ears of the uninitiated even loving words sound like a quarrel when spoken in Arabic, while an actual quarrel has something of a storm and a deluge about it. But the man was smiling in between his bouts of anger. Two trips to impressively forbidding police stations to get the receipt stamped followed. Salmane’s brother, a taciturn doctor, picked us up in his car and drove us there.
Salmane had mentioned him and that he had studied hadiths, the sayings attributed to the Prophet, in Saudi Arabia, so I was expecting a rather conservative and perhaps combative man, but he was clean shaven, sparse with his words and relatively unremarkable in appearance and simply didn’t seem to know how to deal with my presence. Then again, he had taken a “lunch break” from work to drive his youngest brother from a police station to the next, so any added distractions were probably best ignored.
Having the necessary papers in hand he was sent off – with an uncertain goal. Apparently there were three places where confiscated motorbikes were brought and he didn’t know where his bike was and neither did the clerk who had stamped his form.
His brother dropped us in front of a nondescript gate and drove off. There was a tiny window, barred with rusted iron and behind it loomed the face of an elderly man, screwed up in a permanent Piss-Off setting. He took the papers and turned out to be friendlier and quicker than his appearance suggested. While he worked over the papers, another trio of bike seekers arrived, greeting us with boisterous noises.
“Do you like my body?” asked one of them, strong, tall young guy, quite out of the blue. I was momentarily puzzled by the question as he went through one or two half-hearted poses to show it off.
“He’s a body-builder!” shouted one of his friends and shook my hand. Never mind, we laughed and chatted a bit in a mixture of French and English. They, like most younger men, preferred English to “the language of the protectorate.”
Then the rusted gates swung open, interrupting us. Salmane and I were admitted with another double-check of his papers and the trio that had arrived after us submitted theirs to a check from the gatekeeper.
We entered and before us lay a wasteland of confiscated bikes. All size and shapes (most shapes exactly the same as Salmane’s bike, unfortunately, which seemed to be a popular model) filled the yard, haphazardly put together in rows and bundles with those at the far end looking like they would never be reclaimed by anyone. It seemed like a post-apocalyptic traffic jam after a catastrophe that had wiped all motorcyclists from the face of the earth.
I looked over at the keepers, expecting them to produce some kind of paper on which the location of Salmane’s bike would be marked. Instead they lazily waved in the direction of one of the corners. Nobody had any clue where the bike could be.
Salmane and I looked at each other for a moment, shrugged and went off to look for the bike. The only signs denoting anything at all were chalk-markings on the seat, showing the date when the bike was confiscated. Another clue was that Salmane had had to remove the pedal chain a few days ago, so we were looking for a bike confiscated on a certain date, missing a chain.
This particular Moroccan-Austrian detective duo did walk all over the grounds, but eventually came across the correct bike. Salmane rubbed at the markings, but they wouldn’t come off. So he pushed the bike out, had a quick, light row with the guys at the gate who weren’t sure he had filled everything out, but then we were off, once more complete and motorized.
The city belonged to Salmane again and he would show it to me.
He spoke while we were riding along the roads of the city. “What are those holes for? The wall has holes – what are they for? You can guess.” Along with his bike he had regained his stentorian, school-masterly nature.
I looked at the wall surrounding the city and studied the holes. “Pigeons or birds?”
“No! Look where we are. What is out there to protect against?”
Exasperated with his pupil, he said, “No, the wind. The holes are because of the wind from the desert. It is very strong and it would blow over the wall, that’s why they made holes. No pigeons or birds – if that is what tour guides tell you, they are lying.”
We raced past the gates of the new palace and out towards the richer quarters, always outside the walls of the medina. The roads were wide here, and quite empty of cars.
“I will tell you about the city and the people who founded and made it.” Salmane, you must know, has a prodigious memory. He learned the Qu’ran by heart when he was a child and repeatedly demonstrated it to me, reciting the subsequent lines whenever we heard a recitation on TV or on a radio in a shop or a car. In addition he was a great storyteller, understanding the power of images and conviction. One of the first things we had talked about was how the story of Joseph and his brothers was different in the Bible and the Qu’ran (not at all, by the way), ending up re-telling the story to each other, filling in half-remembered details and scenes.
I have never found much use for the Bible, to be truthful, but here it struck me for the first time how useful a tool of communication it is. Through the eyes and words of Salmane those stories became alive again. I’m not going to say that centuries of misunderstandings between Muslims and Christians vanished (and since I’m no Christian it would be a misleading analogy) because we sat and talked about a shared story, but I realized how far communication, shared knowledge and the ability to tell stories go in establishing mutual understanding. We could have talked about a movie or food in the same way, but because our experiences in those matters were probably very different we ended up talking about this ancient story.
But there were more stories, dreams and visions. Islamic history is full of them. Hashish and opium have always been favoured pastimes. Rulers dreamed grand and decadent dreams and warlords nourished themselves on a harsher diet of curved steel, hard saddles and desert winds. Those are stories that are best told when in movement – the motorcycle ride was exhilarating.
Two rival rulers, one a soft and rich man fond of poetry, the other a hardened and crafty warrior. A story about the first: One evening, in his garden, he sat on a bench and was musing about affairs of the day when he spied his wife on a balcony. He was struck by her beauty and wanted to watch her unnoticed, so he hid. She seemed rapturous, watching something in the garden. He followed her gaze and saw that she was watching the slave girls, all swathed in white except for their naked brown soles, as they were going to the well to get water. It was evening and the sun was setting behind the well, so she would see their silhouettes and would watch with great pleasure how their naked feet touched the clay path. The ruler remembered this. Unknown to his wife he ordered to have another part of the palace built, with a golden well in the direction of the setting sun and a balcony of jewels and wrought metal, exotic flowers lining a path that was all made of musk. The well was to be filled with the whitest milk and for more than a year the ruler sent out men to search for the slave girls with the most beautiful feet, which were to be garlanded with pearls. After two years he had created an apotheosis of the scene that his favoured wife loved and he gently tied a scarf around her head, covering her eyes and led her into this new dream that he had made…
Later he made a deal with the warlord, only to be betrayed, watch his soldiers routed and be chased from the city. But the image of his dedication is what remains, certainly embellished, but also making everything else meaningless. Softness and harshness, always side by side. The soft naked soles gliding over musk and the boots of soldiers trampling the earth.
We drove past the walls like the wind it was meant to keep out, along wide and almost empty streets, looking at the gates. It was through one of those gates that we drove and immediately we were swallowed up by a mass of people. It was a market in one of the poorer parts of the city. The word bric-a-brac very accurately conveys the shape of the produce sold here.
People were throwing words and goods at each other and everything seemed so makeshift that a gust of wind could dissolve them all, stands and people alike.
We scrambled through them and into the narrow streets of the Mellah, the Jewish quarter and poorest part of the old city.
“This is the Mellah. If you come here at night, you do not value your life very much,” advised Salmane as he took a turn. Another motorcyclist came towards us and we nearly rammed each other. Dust and pieces of stone flew from a wall as we scratched it, not with our feet or shoulders, but the back part of the motorcycle.
“Neither during the day, I guess,” we both mumbled, hoping the other one would not hear. Then louder: “Are you alright?”
The motorcycle and its riders were unharmed. We continued through the narrow streets, cautious for a minute, then making robes flap in our wake again. The Mellah is not just a remnant of the past, nor is it a ghetto. The historical relationship between Jews and Muslims in Morocco is not an easy one and the apartments in the Mellah are among the worst and most dilapidated in the old city. Drugs like kiff are as readily available here as anywhere else and it can only be the poverty and perhaps a spectre of the past that causes the bad reputation. On a later visit I was to meet a Moroccan Jew who worked as a performer on Jemaa el Fnaa, but this time my impressions remained fleeting as we crossed the quarter on the bike and shot out through another gate back into the flow of beige taxis and towards the outskirts where Salmane lived.