Africa! It was my first visit to Ange’s native land, and she was joyful and excited to be back on the continental soil she was born. She shared special moments of connection with strangers we met in Morocco when they shared their African roots.
Our driver from the airport, a Berber man informed us about the cultural and racial tensions that underlie Moroccan society. The Berber are the indigenous people of Morocco who have been on the land for tens of thousands of years, people who according to him have their rights constantly threatened by the Arabic people. He said he was involved in Berber rights, and that he believed in respecting all religions and cultures. I did not miss how his voice became more aggressive when he insisted that the Arabic people were not so. Ange was savvy and insistent on injecting into the conversation the possibility that not all Arabic people were close-minded.
We booked into Casa del Sol, a riad in the heart of the Medina. The Medina is the ancient walled city of Marrakech that is considered sacred. No alcohol, dance clubs or typically Western restaurants are allowed inside. The riad’s caretaker, Hassan, was lovely, and we were grateful to have a safe haven to call home for three days. After our first couple of hours in the main bazaar, I was aghast, astonished and awed in a bad way about how skilled and ruthless people are in stealing or grabbing your attention. The street food solicitors are young men who have memorized western meme lines, "hey homie!" "chica bonita!" They shout at you, block your line of walking and grab your arm. Men clink coins to sell cigarettes. Women call out and tell you their name and make you promise to return for henna tattoos. If you say maybe, some are audacious enough to call you a liar. Baboons and snake charmers set up shop in the main square. Their eyes dart from person to person as they search for a twinkle of interest to pounce on. If you are not careful you will find a monkey in your arms or a snake around your shoulders followed by demands for the equivalent of 20 Euros. Every 5 meters there are sad, weathered looking men, women and children as young as four who beg for your attention and then harass you until you pay them to go away. You have to avoid eye contact at all times. I let Ange do most of the talking. I don't respond at all, and after the first day I wore sunglasses even at night. I felt a mixture of fear, curiosity, and wonder. Was this place always this way? With slick, tricky ways to persuade and disrespect?
The extremes are exponential. We were here during Ramadan and tens of thousands prayed together and read the holy Quran daily. It is a mandatory month for the Muslim people to refrain, fasting from 4am to 9pm and abstaining from sin. Yet the men selling freshly squeezed orange juice from rows of stands in the Medina swore at us when we ignored their calls to stop by, the modern ice cream shop in the city had an American music video singing, "jump that pussy, that pussy, that pussy, that pussy..." (the euphemistic kitten in the video doing nothing to disguise the message), and we were hard pressed to interact with and find a Moroccan woman who would speak with us, let alone be interviewed. We did however, after being turned down numerous times, secure an interview with Nabil, a 22-year-old Moroccan with roots in Saharan Africa. Ange was brilliant in asking the young guy soliciting us to try his recommended restaurant if he or anyone he knew would be interested in helping us with our Ph.D research. He said maybe and to find him after our meal. We followed his instructions and were led upstairs to an office full of tourists in negotiation for desert camel rides and guided tours to the Atlas Mountains. I wasn’t sure if we were going to be harassed into buying a tour or if there was someone genuinely interested in helping us out. Much to my surprise the gentleman we met was excited to hear about our project and studies and proclaimed, “We don’t do things for reward in Marrakech! That’s not how we are.” After we explained the project, we were led to another more comfortable room with a large red leather sofa where Nabil was ushered in by his friends. All of the men worked for a travel agency and seemed to enjoy the experience of being on camera and sharing their views on love, passion and peak experience. Their kindness and gentle, respectful manner was in stark contrast to some others we had come across in the Medina.
We’ll be honest. Marrakech left us rattled. Although Ange had spent three enriching weeks here six years ago, the atmosphere was different this time. For sure there is goodness here – and flourishing, such as in the reggae café, Mama Afrika, managed by welcoming, accepting, Rastafarian Moroccans. But we understand the feral cats of the Medina. They scuttle nervously through the souks avoiding human contact, skittish, on high alert. If they are smart and quick they learn to navigate this maze and survive. They become surprised by small kindnesses, but thirsty for it. In the end we experienced enough beautiful moments and great people for Marrakech to redeem itself in our hearts and minds but the truth is, as we touched down in the south of France, we were jittery.
A local doctor described Marseille as “the naughty child of France”. She is frequently rebellious and fiercely independent, an energy brought to life during a deafening electric thunderstorm on our second night. While the port is lovely, filled with yachts and surrounded by replica Dali sculptures, this European Culture Capital for 2013 is also littered with debris, abandoned construction zones and ever-present graffiti. We were told that despite money pouring in, ostensibly to develop cultural venues and programs in the city, poverty and corruption abound. However, if you are willing to commit, Marseille rewards you with unexpected beauty like the rocky coastal hideaway of Calanque. To reach this azure cove among the white limestone cliffs you need to brave two sticky bus rides, but the transition to a 4km hike through forest and down to the water is made more exhilarating by the contrast. Plunging into the Med while watching local university kids and their dogs jump off the cliffs was the R&R we desperately needed.
Marseille is alive with a myriad of co-existing cultures that provide this city with its undeniable flavor. We interviewed a pigtailed Anglo-French film writer who spoke about her passion for the creative process and the peak experience of seeing her first film on screen. She chooses to live between London and Marseille, extracting the best from both worlds. The diversity of and between the cities appears to feed her perspective on life and her ability to describe the human experience in all its complexity. She spoke of the judgment that she sometimes feels in France and explained that in London she feels more free. In London you can be whoever you want to be. The story was slightly different for our second interviewee, Morad, a medical doctor who also shuttles between London and Marseille with his English partner. As we drank red wine and Morad smoked cigarettes, he talked about “the art of wasting time” – of enjoying a four-hour coffee, of sleeping for three hours. His passion is aperitif…sharing delicacies and vino with friends in the late afternoon. Morad finds aperitif translates in Marseille but is somewhat of an anathema in bustling London where the thought of wasting time is rather unpalatable. We took a page from Morad’s book for the next part of the journey, visiting renowned vineyards in Chateauneuf du Pape and Chablis, as we wound our way softly through sunflower fields. We are seeing that travel teaches you much about others but more about your self – we can feel ourselves extending, expanding and growing with each new encounter. Any way that we see the world is simply a way, one way, with a kaleidoscope of perspectives available to us.
Our final days in Paris were hurried, as we wished for more time to waste in the halls of the Louvre and the cafes of the Latin Quarter. True to the themes emerging from our interviews, our peak experiences over the last 60 days have typically followed intense, often challenging days, while our passions are nurtured in the slow, timeless moments that may be too rare in our modern world.