The Road to Morocco or La Route å la Maroc or El Shaardth ila Maghreib
It is June 8th when I have my breakdown. Eight days after leaving Chicago. Eleven more weeks until going on from Morocco. Almost seven months until I head home from Egypt.
It is two days after my birthday.
The breakdown isn’t a big deal, except that it is. Except that it involves locking myself in the bathroom and lying on the floor. At least the bathroom has a lock.
I call home. My parents don’t believe I’ve contracted a deathly illness in just one week and need to come back. I am not very convincing.
But I’ve never missed home in my life and the sickness is crippling. The illness is called silence.
I revert to being a small child, because people speak to me in small sentences.
I become silent and introverted. My thoughts, at least, are in English, until they betray me too.
I shrink away from men because I do not know how to control their sleaziness here.
I am not clever in another language.
“Yes, I love French girls. They are delicious.”
I am in a taxi in Marrakech.
“I’m not French,” I say.
“Yes, I love girls. I need to find one. I search for one.” He grabs my hand and begins patting my leg. “I, how do you say?” He switches to English, “I love you.” Back to French, “You are alone?”
“No, I’m with…my uncle.”
“Ah, You are not married yes? You are single?”
“Oh, look! We’re here!”
Paul. La Notre. Patisserie de Souissi. These bakeries are famed for their French artistry. Upper class women clamor for them to cater events. The mother of the mansion is upset. The caterer treated her like she doesn’t have money. She has money. Upper class Moroccan children attend private schools, with French names and guarded doors. Admittance in L’Ecole Française or the American School is sought after, eventually leading to University in Paris, Canada or Jacksonville, Florida. The majority of women employ one to three maids in their house. These maids cook, clean, take care of children and answer to bells. The majority of women work as such maids.
My position is somewhere in between. My only job is to teach the wealthy family English. I have little authority with the children, though slightly more with the maids. I have been ordered to speak English, so the kids can practice. They practice their insults in French instead.
They practice covering my door handle in toothpaste, too.
One of the Arabic maids speaks French nearly as badly as I do. This is the only way of finding my constantly disappearing clothes.
“ I can’t find a bunch of my underwear,” I say.
“What color is it?” she asks.
I don’t know what to say to this. She brings me a pair of jeans.
“No, No.” I point to underwear.
We go through my room, picking things up.
“Is this it?” She asks.
The next day she brings me two pairs that she found. I don’t think I will see the rest.
We repeat with books, shorts, computer cables.
I am taking Arabic classes at the Center for Cross Cultural Learning. My teacher is an intense Marxist. He uses class to explain, in great detail, his concerns with present day Morocco.
On the first day I make the mistake of asking how one would say “the boss of the company thinks that they need to move to a new building”.
“Why?” he says. “Why are you so disturbed and so disturbing me? You can not think that way, you must stop, yes? You understand there are not things that can just be translated, because it gives no sense to me then what you said. You are thinking American and American does not work, no? We have a phrase in Arabic…” something I don’t understand “… and this gives no sense in American, you see what I mean? This, this is the Power of Language.” He writes POWER on the board. “That is what I know. I do not know everything. I am not Allah. I am just trying to share what I know and you share too, because I want to learn. You see what I mean?”
My classmate nods.
The next day we ask if there is a rule for when to use “that” in describing things.
My teacher sighs. “No, no rule. You must feel the language, yes? OK, you see?”
My classmate suggests that “that” is only used with definite nouns.
“Oh,” he says. “Ok, yes.”
On the third day of class, my classmate wants to know how to tell the gender of words we don’t know.
“Ok, yes, yes. In Arabic, you know, there are two genders and everything must have one. But it is not like I am a man, ok? And you are a woman. No. We have a word in Arabic, you see, and it means mountain and it can be either gender, yes? And not everyone knows this, most just say masculine. I only know this because it came in my third year of study and that is what I know and I’m trying to share. This is a compromise, you see? Yes? All of language is a Compromise.” He writes COMPROMISE on the board. “This is a pen because we agree, but we could call it anything, you see what I mean?”
The rhetorical question is lost on him. We pause after each as he waits for my classmate to nod or agree or exclaim “Absolutely!” If she couldn’t find it in her to be continually amazed, we would sit forever in a tiled room, in a former palace, waiting.
Tampons are non-existent on grocery store shelves.
“We’re virgins here,” say two girls, 23 and 24, by way of explanation.
The boys are not.
Morocco has three distinct climates, four “official” languages, no one knows how many Berber tribes and fourteen royal palaces. In 1776, it was the first country to officially recognize the United States of America. Children, no older than ten, know this fact. In the last round of European Union expansion, Morocco/Maroc/Maghreib applied to be admitted. It was denied. Morocco is included on the yearly Human Rights Watch list. It doesn’t look like it. Not in the North. In 1999, the Western Sahara was officially made the southern-most part of Morocco. UN peacekeepers have not yet left the area. Crime statistics for the country are difficult to uncover. Bars cover all the windows of permanent houses. Locked gates and guards are the norm in middle and upper class sections of the European modeled cities. A bus ride costs three dirhams, a taxi about twenty, a tart eight to twelve. The street exchange rate is ten dirhams to the dollar or Euro. A bad deal for the Euro. The capital, Rabat, houses the only ice-skating rink, in the bottom of MegaMall, which can be skated on for eighty dirhams. Eighty dirhams is more than the monthly average income. No one speaks the same language. Spanish is spoken on the North Coast, French in all the cities, Dirija or Moroccan Arabic on the streets, Classical Arabic on the news and Berber in the mountains. The King, Mohammed VI, has been on a mission, advocating for English as the fourth language for most Moroccans. “Mohammed VI, Who is he really?” is the headline of a magazine in the stands. When the royal family is in residence the gates and fences of the palace are covered and draped in red and green cloth. No one is allowed to walk in front of the entrance.
My classmate is from Arizona. We are walking the streets in Essaouira, on the coast. The streets are covered in garbage thrown out of windows or left lying in the middle of the road. Yellow puddles between stones are exactly what they look like.
She is trying to argue me out of “germ theory”, which is of course “just a theory”. Her argument consists of “It doesn’t seem like they get a lot sicker here.”
Malaria, typhoid and fecal matter diseases are on my side. Mosquitoes breed in garbage, as do rats. The Black Plague backs me up on this one.
“Gravity’s a theory too,” I joke.
“Oh, I stopped believing in that awhile ago.”
The nine small children (cousins, relatives, sons and daughters) watch bad TV, horrible, awful, red-neck, trash television. Talk shows, disease of the week movies, rap videos and cheap horror films soundtrack life in the mansion.
One night, after The Punisher DVD has been misplaced, the channel is turned instead to Crocodile! Like everything else, Crocodile! is an American made-for-TV movie dubbed into French.
After the shifty-eyed sheriff is eaten by the ten-foot Crocodile! leaping out of the water and accidentally lighting the boat on fire, the hero, the girl and the sidekick struggle to shore. The shamed sidekick, then, attempts to manfully wrestle the crocodile, who, in response, throws up a previously eaten friend. Whole. And still alive. This friend shakes himself, picks off what are presumed to be digestive remains of other less fortunate characters and the credits roll.
I am standing in the supermarket. I don’t know why.
The father of the mansion and I had a whole conversation. I need a swimsuit. Mine fell apart. I don’t want a bikini. I should go to the store Marjane. This conversation has landed me in the supermarket.
“You need the cream, yes?” he asks.
A Tuesday afternoon I come to the office to meet him after lunch. We have had a whole conversation about this.
“Karim’s in Paris,” his secretary says.
“No, that’s Thursday,” I say. “He said to meet him here today.”
Tuesday and Thursday, it turns out, are easy days to confuse.
I have returned from a trip to the desert. The father comes to pick me up that evening from the aunt’s. It is a full hour of eavesdropping on French conversation before I pick up that we are going to the beach house. It isn’t until we’re in the car that I begin to suspect we might be headed there immediately.
“Are we going to the beach house now?” I ask.
“I don’t have any stuff.”
“Why not?” He is shocked.
“No one told me we were going anywhere.”
“Where is it?”
“At the house.”
“Oh.” There’s a pause. “Well, I don’t have a key to the house.”
I am sure there’s been a misunderstanding. “You don’t have a key to your house?”
They say travel changes you. They say you should welcome the change. But I do not like who I am changing into.
A book on the library shelf tells me that personality is anchored in culture. It tells me to welcome what Morocco brings. But I am only disappointed in the weakness of my personality, which now drifts aimlessly without America to guide it. But I am only disgusted with my disappointment.
I give myself a month, make it through a month. Weeks pass in which monuments all start to look the same, beaches like beaches anywhere and the silence, the oppressive silence of foreign languages, deafens me. I read. I try to do crosswords, to cling to vocabulary, but I can’t.
A month passes. I wait for something to tell me what to do, what decision to make.
And the inevitable hand of fate comes, not in the form of an illness sending me home, but bureaucracy. My paperwork for the fall trip to Egypt has been misplaced, messed up. I can spend hours on the phone and the computer to fix this mistake or I can accept it, ride it back to the US, back to college. And it won’t be my fault. The return home won’t reflect a weakness in character, a need for stability, but a problem beyond my control.
I am weak. I take the free ride.
It is June 27th when I make my decision. Seven weeks left in Morocco. Seven weeks until I’m back. At home.