The Souk

I tried for the tanneries of the red city the day before, wandering around the souk in one hundred and four degree heat. The alleys thinned out until no more Westerners could be seen.

I kept seeing the face of the guy who pointed me to my destination. He seemed to be walking around me, sometimes fifteen paces ahead, then twenty behind. He wasn’t alone—coordination is so much easier due to cellphone magic. Suddenly I felt like the only chicken in the shop.

My little finger told me I was walking into a trap—the web is thick with tales of tannery scams—so I re-thought my strategy.

The bunch of mint in my right hand did little to disguise the evil smell. I was just inside the walls of old Marrakech, looking at a honeycomb of tanning wells. This time, I’d used a cab—we came into the medina from the northwest through the Bab Aylan. The guy who gave (well, loaned) me the mint was a middle-aged Moroccan whose dental work would probably require divine intervention—his gums were pale blue, as if the strong dyes had etched themselves forever into his smile.

The image doesn't do justice to the abominable smell of ammonia, used to peel hair from the animal hides.

The image doesn’t do justice to the abominable smell of ammonia, used to peel hair from the animal hides.

The circular vats receive dromedary, cow, goat, and sheep hides, together with a heady mixture of pigeon poop—the ammonia the supply. Pigeons are a popular part of the local diet, and the pigeon farms that are scattered in the countryside produce copious quantities of bird shit, which finds a ready market in the tanning industry.

Later on in the leather assembly line, mimosa is used as a cleansing agent. I didn’t inquire about the effluents from this industry but they are undoubtedly a sewage engineer’s dream—as the old joke goes: it may be shit to you, but it’s my bread and butter.

After the attack in Nice, prices plummeted for Arab tourism. Somewhere with low prices and no tourists? Ideal! I had no particular concerns about Morocco—it’s the quintessential police state, and anyhow, the terrorists are all in Europe. Don’t get confused with the tannery tale—in North Africa, robbing foreigners is a pastime, killing them is a capital crime.

I watched a fair bit of the Al Jazeera news channel—in Arabic, of course. Not that I could understand much, but the imagery and body language suffice. The videos aren’t prudish about blood, or the cadavers of babies being pried out of bomb sites.

After a couple of hours watching world news, Gulf-style, Arab hatred for the West is obvious.  As is Sunni-Shia, Kurd-Turk, and a bunch of other permutations. The point is this isn’t news of Beyonce’s latest leap, Trump’s hair, and California wild fires, interspersed with fifteen seconds of terror attacks in France.

This is back to back explosions, bombings, maimings, and killings, complete with women’s wailing worthy of the Lion of the Desert. There is no break in the action, no light-hearted clip of the Mid-Eastern date seller who rescued that cute baby goat stuck in the Argan tree. OMG!

After a good dose of this channel, it’s clear why the grass roots in the Middle East applaud the attacks in France or Germany—to them, it’s just retribution. The desperately poor, illiterate, and jobless people live as they did hundreds of years ago—they know their rulers will do nothing to alleviate their lot, just as it always has been.

And on a regular basis, for reasons they don’t understand, the heavens open, not with the welcome sweetness of rain, but with fire and brimstone, delivered by Mig, Mirage, or F-15. Tormentors, as the FBI would say, both foreign and domestic.

Lunch by the river? Er... in the river.

Lunch by the river? Er… in the river.

In all the clips of war, for as long as I can recall, there are always Mercedes sedans, indestructibly transporting the populace as it attempts to escape the blind wrath of ordnance.

In the Atlas, taxis remain untouched by the finger of civilization. Decrepit diesel Mercs march on—the legendary 240D seven-seater, three in the front, four in the back. I saw the evil vehicles in their dozens, body parts scattered about their sub-frame, welded into compliance—but the engine, a veteran of millions of miles in the Moroccan sands, ticks on.

Safe transportation is key in the more unconventional spots—you always choose the older taxi drivers—they’ve survived. Out of maybe thirty rides, I only saw two meters fitted in vehicles, whether petit taxi or grand taxi—a bizarre distinction in itself. Both meters proudly displayed six zeros, but one of them only showed the bottom halves—presumably screen-burn.

Mr. Abdelah was my driver for the longer forays, and the man who unlocked the golden route to the tanneries. We drove to the Atlas, about halfway up the mountain. He invariably reacted to the insane antics of fellow drivers with a phlegmatic il est fou.

He was justly proud of his Korean vehicle, and heaped praise on the king for instituting a policy of eliminating the killer Mercs—the government will pay eighty-thousand dirhams (over eight thousand bucks) to remove your thirty- or forty-year old panzer from the road, and replace it with a nice new Renault, or an Asian car. And yet… there are many 240D and 300D owners who resist.

As you hit the narrow road that twists along the snowmelt stream, and begin to cross the Berber villages, a whole new country appears before you—tribal people, a different language. The mountains rise up, and at the last town on the road, forty-three families make their living taking people up the Atlas.

Not even the Mercs can handle the route—by now we’re down to the cat-cat Berber, from the French word quatre—the only 4X4 that can make those grades is the ubiquitous and long-suffering donkey.

My guide, thin and wiry as a mountain goat, bad teeth and a soccer shirt celebrating the Spanish world cup victory in South Africa, points to the mountain face. Thin rubber pipes meander like lianas toward town. “The villagers did this,” he proudly explains. Two different water sources, for agriculture and domestic use. To me, it’s just another indictment of a government that won’t help its people.

Basic sanitation is nonexistent, waste goes straight into the mountain stream. Every village downstream, and there are plenty, adds to the load. Down the escarpment, terraces have been built where sofas and armchairs have been placed—there are rows and rows of these informal restaurants along the riverbank.

The ‘esplanade’ consists of plastic chairs and tables placed in the river, where patrons sit, eating the inevitable tajines, their tired feet cooling in the water. The equivalent of a kids playground has been built with large round boulders to create a small weir, behind which the children splash and shout.

Back in old Marrakech, the Jemaa el Fnaa, where everything has a price, lights up at nightfall. This is the biggest square in Africa, the last trading post before you start on the long trail south to Mauritania, the Guineas, and the Congo.

Oh, and I was just kidding about the terror. In 2011, someone who watched too much Al Jazeera left a bomb in  a tourist restaurant in Jemaa el Fnaa and killed seventeen people.

If the locals got him, they’ll have made it eighteen. Without tourism, there is no economy here, only despair.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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