Memories of Morocco

Sometime in the spring of 2008, I can’t exactly remember when, I found myself in Spanish port of Almería. I was standing on the ramparts of its Moorish castle and looking out at the harbour below. The ferry that was to take me across to Morocco sat motionless in its still waters. It, with me on it, was going to set sail later that evening. I had just hitched a ride from Granada that morning but my journey had started long before that. It had started in a state of deep depression.

After finishing university the previous summer, I had fallen into the bleak reality of life with no job and no prospects of getting one. The economic crisis of 2007 had hit and my lofty ideas of what I should do with my life were no match for these hard times. I was directionless. In desperation, I had forced an idea upon myself. I’d make my way down through France and Spain, where I’d board this overnight ferry to Melilla on the North African coast. From there, I’d make my way through Morocco. That was the entirety of my plan. Fate would be my guide, I reassured myself.

Throughout that whole morning, I watched as the insides of the ferry slowly filled up with cargo. Beyond it, the Mediterranean Sea glistened. On the other side of it was the whole continent of Africa and I could feel its presence. I felt overwhelmed its immensity. Sitting on those ramparts, I became painfully aware that I had no one waiting for me. I had never felt so alone.

The view from Almeria’s castle with the ferry berthed in the harbour.


The crossing

The sun was setting as I sat down against the damp metal shell of the ferry’s upper deck. We were leaving the harbour now with loud periodic blasts of the its horn. Seagulls were flying overhead. The warmth of the day had gone but I told myself I’d go back inside once the Spanish coast had disappeared from view. So I hunkered down against the cold, wet, wind of the oncoming night.

Slowly the deck filled with men, who, one after another, began rolling out prayer mats. I hadn’t expected this to happen. I watched as the men began to pray with bowed heads and palms stretched out towards the darkening, salty sky. The faint murmurings of their softly spoken prayers reached my ears on the open sea wind. The rhythmical sound of Arabic enveloped me in wonder as the men knelt and prostrated on this deck high above the waves.

I kept watching as one by one, the men finished their prayers and rolled up their mats. They then began sitting together in groups of three or four dotted around the deck. The low humming of discreet conversations began to rise up from each group as they took out bits of food and began to eat.

I was shivering by this point; night had fallen and I could no longer see the Spanish coast on the horizon behind us. I was about to go back inside when a man from a nearby group called me over.

Surprised, for I hadn’t spoken to anyone all day, I stumbled across the rolling deck and sat down. We didn’t share a common language so our basic hand gestures and mimes went interspersed with silence. Yet these men were sharing their meal with me and that felt like more than enough.

As we ate, different men joined the group whilst others got up and left. At some point, a man slightly older than I was sat down next to me. In French and with a booming smile, he began talking to me as if we were long lost friends. It certainly felt that way.

His name was Saïd. He told me how he was on his way to his hometown of Oujda for a family celebration. I had never heard of this town on Morocco’s eastern border with Algeria before. Yet I clung onto its name, to its mere existence. Out of the depths of the unknown looming out in front of me, something began to materialise — Oujda.

Saïd and I spoke for so long that soon we were the only ones left on the open deck. He told me all about his life as a Frenchman of Moroccan origin and I listened, sensing the in-betweenness of the sea we were now crossing. He became my guide through the dark night until its dampness forced us back inside to seek a place to sleep.

Inside, neon lights were on but everywhere people were sleeping in bundles on the floor. The corridors and gangways were almost impassible. Whole families were grouped together, sound asleep. Only Saïd and I were still up. We stepped over them and around them until we found enough room to lie down ourselves.

As I was making my best attempts to get comfortable, Saïd looked over to me.

“Hey, if you want, you can catch a ride with me to Oujda tomorrow. My friend will be picking me up so it’s not a problem. I’ll show you around.”

I smiled back at him, nodded, and despite the cold hard floor and bright neon light, I drifted off into sleep.

* * *

I was awoken what felt like moments later by crowds of people stepping over me. I could hear the tinny P.A. system mix with mothers herding their children together. We had arrived.

I looked over to where Saïd had laid down and froze when I saw that he was gone. My heart began pounding as I grasped for my bag and coat, and stood up amongst the moving crowd. I didn’t know what to do. My eyes darted across the deck as I scanned each face, hoping to see one I recognised. Had I really misread Saïd?

Before I knew it, the deck had emptied and I walked around a little more, dejected. That is when sprawled over a couple of seats, I found Saïd, his sleepy face still half covered by his jacket. He opened his weary eyes and looked up at me.

“You alright?” he asked.

On the drive to Oujda with Saïd (right) and his friend Mohammed. The two friends hadn’t seen each other for some time and spent the entire time laughing and sharing stories.

Open your ears

I was sat at one of several big round tables, each piled high with lamb, vegetables and couscous at their centre. Saïd was sat next to me but other than him, I knew no one. All of the guests were men — I later learnt that women and children were prohibited from entering the ceremonial tent—and most were middle-aged or older. They were all members of Saïd’s extended family and friends and they were here to celebrate a new birth.

As the evening wore on, Saïd became more and more engrossed in his friends’ stories that at some point he stopped translating for me. I didn’t mind. Everything happening around me captivated me.

I observed how the men ate the food — communally, with each helping themselves to what they desired from the big platter. I noticed they were always humble in what they took. I listened, mesmerised, to the deep gutteral sound of Arabic and smiled when it was punctuated by the laughter of men who were enjoying each others’ company. I felt like a little boy again, allowed to join the men’s table for the first time.

At one point, after what must have been a particularly amusing anecdote, Saïd turned to me. Pointing his finger up to the atmosphere above our heads, he said,

“Open your ears.”

I knew exactly what he meant. Understanding would come in time, I just had to be patient.

Street vendors in Oujda, eastern Morocco.

The town with blue walls

I was lost in the maze of the blue walled houses that make up Chefchaouen, a village high up in the Rif Mountains of northern Morocco. The beating sun and my heavy bag were weighing me down yet I couldn’t stop walking. Around every corner, men who seemed high themselves were trying to sell me all kinds of drugs.

A long bus ride through this cannabis producing part of the country had fuelled my paranoid state. I had spent the majority of it trying to get a swindler to lose interest in me, or more accurately, my money. His insincerity had repulsed me, especially after the warmth of Oujda. The experience had left me shaken.

I had heard that the Rif Mountains were touristic but I didn’t know this was in big part due to the cannabis fields that dotted the landscape. I hadn’t expected the rawness that an illegal drug trade produces.

The place scared me, and for now, I was utterly blind to its beauty. Its blue walls just reminded me of some bad trip. All I wanted was to find a room for the night and get away from the madness. I needed to catch my breath.

A free-spirited guy I met in Chefchaouen, Christophe and I ended up travelling together for while. Here he is in front one of the blue walled houses that make the town famous.

Barren landscapes

I opened my blurry eyes to see an old man kneeling down next to me, gently tapping me on the shoulder. It took all my energy to keep him in focus. He was slight of frame, typical of the men from the Atlas Mountains, and his face was wrinkled and beaten by the arid air. He was wearing a dark brown fez and a greying goatee punctuated his chin. Despite the dizzying sun, his overcoat of thick wool betrayed the high altitude we were at. I imagine he was a shepherd bringing his goats down from the barren mountains to the lake to drink.

He asked me what was wrong. I told him that I was fine, that I was only weak with a stomach virus, but that I was fine. Between my stumbling words, I felt myself sink back into a daze, unable to sustain attention. He touched my forehead with the palm of his hand and in the roughness of his skin, I felt the tenderness of a healer.

I sensed that I owed this old man an explanation, that I had to prove to him I wasn’t alone to the world. I pointed over to the lake just beyond the shade I had laid under and told him that my friends were there swimming. They knew that I was here, that I was okay.

I don’t know if this convinced him but he placed his hand back on my shoulder and instructed me to drink a local remedy. I could find it back in the village.

“It’s black like tar and you must drink it with Coca-Cola,” he told me. “Drink it and it will restore your strengths.”

I nodded and closed my eyes. When I opened them again, the old man had left, leaving me to rest under the cool shade of the trees.

Old taxi

Several days later, Christophe and I went our separate ways. We had met back in Chefchaouen and had travelled for the last days together. He had been a great travel companion but it was now time to move on. His was a free-spirited philosophy and he was a child of the universe. I could sense his path was calling him.

So we said a brief goodbye and he took a bus to someplace and I took a battered taxi. I was heading down the mountain to the old city of Fes, where my flight was going to take me home a few days later.

Looking out at the passing landscapes, my mind began to wander as music crackled from the radio. I thought back to why I had embarked on this trip. I remembered how lost I had felt. The silence of the driver reminded me that once I’d get back home, I’d still have no idea what to do or where to turn to. Back to square one.

Yet I felt that something small but profound had shifted within me. In my own small way, this journey had forced me to place my trust in people I’d meet along the way. It had been a huge leap of faith and that change I was feeling was my reward. My courage had given me this beautiful gift.

Christophe and I hitched a ride somewhere in the Atlas Mountains just as the sun was setting.

So, if ever you’re in a similar position to the one I was in as I stood on those ramparts in Almería, don’t turn around and go home. Have faith in people, even if you don’t know or understand them just yet. Understanding will come with patience, I promise you. But above all, trust the process. Build up the courage and get on that ship that is about to set sail.

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