Saturday, May 08, 2010

New Year’s in North Africa

Leaving the dunes of the Sahara, we took a more easterly road back towards the Atlas, passing through hundreds of miles of arid land before reaching the momentarily lush Draa Valley. Flanked by red, white and cream striped hills, we took a short walk through the mesh of little tilled fields shaded by date palm. On departing, comedy ensued as Dave took the wheel. A close-shave, a shout of "pull-over" and a joke or two later Dave relinquished control.
The most spectacular part of the journey was saved until last. Climbing to higher ground we flanked a huge canyon, strewn out of brown-rugged rock. In the most shaded recesses, a puddle or two of water were all that bore evidence to the scar's culprit. Goats and their herder clung to the steep near side. The full moon hovered on the horizon as the last night of the decade fell.
On we plowed to the city of Ouarzazate, where we hoped to find some fiesta to see out the naughties.

Bon Anneé Morocco
The night really started when Ramsay arrived back from his hammam (bath) "experience" with Aziz. Few things have made me laugh more than the terrified, vacant look which hung on Ramsay’s cleanly scrubbed face. Anything that does that to an army man has to be interesting.

Knowing it was coming, I had been winding him up for a couple of days. It had been a truly unique experience for me a couple of years ago and I left him nervous as to what surprises could be at hand on entering those scorching men-only steam rooms. The answer, being scrubbed until your skin peels off, stretched and massaged by a huge barely-clad Moroccan man, while gasping for air in the close, vapour filled atmosphere. I had never felt so clean as when I emerged from the hammam, a sentiment Ramsay shared with his now baby-bum smooth face. Ramsay described it as a life changing experience and, for all his pale demeanour on returning, it was evident that he enjoyed it!

Time to tuck into the remainder of the beers which had accompanied us into the desert and back and psyche ourselves up for an unknown party venue of whatever type might be available in a North African desert town.

“Bob” was our chaperon for the night, starting at a strange bar/club which was approximately 90% men accompanied by limited atmosphere. Despite a couple of people strutting their stuff, the place had a weird feel of no-one quite knowing what they are doing. Clearly a percentage did not frequent bars and others were only their to impress. A distinct lack of comfortable charged vibe. We moved on…

Drink in hand we raced through the streets of Ouarzazate desperately trying to find a place that would (a) let us in, (b) not be bad and/or (c) if (b) was not possible then at least somewhere interesting. Despite some race-car driving from Bob and mad dashes to various closed or full places we celebrated the coming of the new decade in a car park. Still a nice moment.
Not the scene from our car park
With little remaining hope we managed to scratch together what dirham we had and obtained entry to a dark basement dance-floor. A good choice indeed. Our expectations were flipped wrong side up and satisfyingly blown away.

Good music, vibe and females in a mid-desert Moroccan club. OK, most of them were prostitutes - the unsubtle pimps removed any shadow of doubt with their greedy manipulation - but not all. I got the impression that many of the blokes splashing around cash were returning from France to see their family and friends. We spend so much time obsessing over how immigration is changing our safe little Western European countries but rarely consider the effect in the other direction – empty towns and reverse cultural influence on return.

Back to the ladies. Unless you have travelled in a country where many women are covered up and kept out of your way, it is hard to convey the interest of a place where females are out in the open, being sexual beings. For some it seemed unnatural, like this was their first time in such a club. The confidence of others showed it was there new way of life in a changing Morocco. The blokes were similarly split between tongue hanging-outers and too cool for school. The world is converging.
Snakes and Sweat
Once we had made it back over the Atlas by windy country roads, we had the pleasure of staying with Aziz and his young family.
After an evening dominated by a huge tagine, we awoke to trek the undulating hills surrounding his village. A beautiful place stuck in a past age. Shepherds tend their flocks, farmers plough their fields with beasts of burden and manual labour deepens the local quarry.
Long rambling conversations with Dave are rudely interrupted by an agitated viper. Rasping along with purpose, Aziz jumps after it brandishing a large stone. Crash on its back. Mightily pissed off it writhes fiercely, looking for something to pierce. I jump back. Another stone, another smashed vertebrae. I pick up a stone and with less skill or force land a further blow. Aziz with a huge grin goes to pick up the snake and offers it in our direction. Not funny. "Don’t you bloody dare!!" comes out my mouth and Aziz puts the snake back down with a big grin. A bit of adrenaline for the day.
The snakes been Aziz'ed!
As a just reward we go the local hammam, get skinned by a big Moroccan man and sizzled. I think you can be too clean. As on my last visit, a unique and rather terrifying experience.
As we head back to Marrakech I consider how everyone seemed to know everyone in this place. Wonderful hospitality and generosity. I feel humbled.
Discussions and thoughts

As this short Moroccan trip went on and I got more of a feel for the politics, we had some pretty interesting and thought provoking conversations with locals. For instance, on Israel. It was so interesting to hear Moroccans detail to me how the BBC is a puppet of the Jewish state. Strange, because most of my Jewish friends claim the BBC is pro-Arab. Can’t people please make up their mind which way it is biased!
They start 'em young on politics in Morocco.....
Later we moved on to the topic of women and what arose was a feeling of tension. Modernisation is slamming into a very traditional country. Once they are married, women are constrained to the home. They have their distinct role and it definitely does not involve doing the sort of things those ladies were doing in the club. I just wonder how bumpy the transitional path will be between these two different and clashing worlds.
Racially it is even more complicated. A co-existence of four tribes, all mixed up with the legacy of French colonial times. While in public locals expressed how well the Berber, Touareg, Arabs and Bedouin co-existed, in private there were references to high tension. The Arabs and the all mighty King hold on to power with a thirsty grip. Other are left with to make a life from the scraps.

My final night in Marrakech showed in all its glitz the juxtaposition of this diverging society. Everyone in jeans at a packed McDonalds. Guys and girls checking each other out on the street corners. Flashy lights and a "British Pub" that beyond selling alcohol had nothing in common with either Britain or a pub. This can not and does not easily co-exist with the very traditional country that surrounds it. Parts of the old town have barely changed for centuries.
A rich elite are leading a consumerist Western lifestyle. It is in your face and can’t but create tension with the majority squeezed out of the political system. A place of real potential, but little link to the masses.

In the recent past one person described Morocco to me as the progressive hope of the Arabic world, another as the next Yemen. To reconcile these two potential futures is beyond me.

Much to think about over a final cup of Arabic tea aside Djemaa el Fna.
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