Saturday, 28 November 2009
‘My brother will come later, we must wait again till dark.’
‘Thank you, Omar’ Jess said warmly.
‘You are extremely kind’ I added.
‘Not kind. I am always seeing my first born’s face drained of all colour, and that fat pig laughing.’
He left us alone again to fetch some food and water for the crossing to Spain.
‘I hope this brother knows what he’s doing.’
‘We don’t have much choice’ I replied.
‘It’s not too late to get a ferry from Tangier.’
‘We can’t risk it, they could be on to us by now.’
‘We’ve done nothing wrong !’
‘I don’t fancy trying to explain what’s happened.’
Jess lapsed into silence, and I could see that all confidence in our ‘escape’, which sounded like an overly dramatic description, had been lost due to overwhelming tiredness and anxiety. I gazed into the murky distance, attempting to gain some solace from the gentle movement and sound of the waves.
After about an hour Omar returned with some fresh bread, cheese and olives, along with some fruit juice and water. He looked remarkably cheerful and calm, as if we were just a couple of tourists on a day trip from Tangier.
‘Please, don’t worry, my brother knows a quiet place near Algeciras; no patrol there, you can land with no trouble.’
We were both cheered by Omar’s positive attitude, and the food that tasted so wonderful after a long and uncomfortable night. It was not far across to Spain, and I didn’t know whether you could see the other side on a clear day, but it felt as though the gap was wider than the Atlantic.
‘Put your faith in God and the Prophet’ Omar said, with a big smile that showed his crooked and stained teeth.
It was still just about light when Jess woke me hours later from a deep sleep, and I immediately saw the blue fishing boat, which was quite large and not unlike the open fishing cobles at Filey.
‘We’re off soon’ she said, with a faint smile.
I watched Omar talking to his brother, and they were even laughing and joking, which seemed extraordinary in the circumstances. I realised just how large the gulf was between their simple faith and the complicated neurosis of my own troubled mind; despite the murder of his son, Omar had somehow retained so much joy.
‘Come now’ he said.
We walked forward down the gently sloping, warm sand, and his brother just smiled and nodded as we clambered aboard.
‘Thank you so much’ said Jess, but we were already leaving Morocco behind as the powerful engine gained speed.
‘Put your faith in God and the Prophet’ Omar shouted after us.
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Sunday, 22 November 2009
I have a very clear image of the spectacular red sunset slowly colouring the tall tower of the mosque adjacent to the main square as we said goodbye to Marrakech. Despite the long journey ahead we were hopeful that we would soon be bidding farewell to Morocco and Africa as well.
‘Try to get some sleep’ our driver suggested.
‘Which way are we going ?’ I asked.
‘Towards Fez or Meknes, but don’t worry, I know these roads very well.’
Jess had her eyes closed, but I wasn’t sure if she was really getting any rest, and I found it very difficult not to succumb to my neurotic nature. Omar just appeared quietly determined, driving fast where he was able to make uninterrupted progress, and more slowly on the very minor routes. As it became properly dark the outer world became no more than a blur; occasionally we passed through a small town with a shop or cafe open late, but as we got well beyond Marrakech there was not much visible, though still an awareness of the vast Atlas mountains to the east.
I was most fearful about the sea crossing to Spain, and prayed for a calm and clear passage, despite the fact I had no sympathy for most forms of religious worship. Omar had tried to reassure us further by saying that his brother would raise both a Spanish and European Union flag as we approached the other side, but surely there would be many patrols waiting for all those fleeing Africa and hoping for a better life in Europe – so tantalisingly close across the Strait of Gibraltar.
‘What was that ?’ said Jess suddenly.
‘Nothing, just a hole in the road, go back to sleep.’
‘I can’t seem to relax.’
‘I will stop in another hour or so, I must rest for a while’ Omar said.
I did not envy him the many hours of driving; but the bitterness he felt for the man who had killed his first son was literally driving him on through the black Moroccan night. We had unintentionally provided some kind of brutal justice, and the emptiness Omar still felt in his life encouraged him to risk being arrested by helping foreigners to leave the country without the usual forms being filled-in.
He pulled off the road somewhere near Azrou, south east of Meknes, and offered a flask of coffee and some biscuits.
‘You are very kind’ said Jess wearily.
‘That policeman was very bad; I will get you home safely.’
It was almost as if he was planning to drive us all the way to York, which might have impressed friends and family – taking a Mercedes taxi the entire route from Morocco to England. He went off for a cigarette, leaving the two of us alone, with hardly a clue as to our location in the featureless landscape of darkness.
‘I love you Jess.’
Monday, 16 November 2009
I thought about the modest garden at the Treasurer’s House in York, where the fountain wasn’t always working, though England didn’t normally have such high temperatures to contend with. If only we had been back there already, it wouldn’t have mattered if it had been pissing down with rain, because we would have felt safe behind those walls.
The main square of Marrakech was a few miles distant, but in the daytime it was not the lively pantomime of every bustling evening, where a shy English person might feel intimidated by all the unfamiliar and thrilling activity.
‘Will we make it back ?’ Jess asked.
‘I trust Omar; but I’m most worried about crossing to Spain in a fishing boat. I just hope the sea is calm, and we’re not arrested along with all the other refugees trying to escape Africa.’
‘I wonder what happened to his son ?’
‘Sounds like he was just another unfortunate victim of that bloody policeman.’
Jess went for a look round the Museum of Islamic Art, which formed part of the garden, but I preferred to remain outside in the shade. There were quite a few tourists, but it was by no means busy, which allowed one to be mostly undisturbed in contemplation, forgetting about the harsh realities that lay beyond the small oasis.
It was only midday, and it felt like a long time until Omar would collect us from the riad, as though time had come to a standstill, and we would always be trapped in a strange country of both beauty and pain. I laughed to myself, thinking about all the newspaper adverts saying that Morocco was a country that ‘nurtured the soul’, which you couldn’t argue with if all one’s time was spent in surroundings like the Jardin Majorelle.
‘There’s some wonderful jewellery in there.’
‘I know such things are not your cup of tea.’
‘It’s not that, I’m just so happy sitting in this tranquil garden.’
‘I think we will get back.’
‘What’s the worst that can happen ?’
Wednesday, 11 November 2009
‘They have found the policeman’ he said, without messing about.
‘I’m sorry ?’
I felt an overwhelming sense of panic, and was glad Jess was back in our room.
‘He killed my eldest son. I can help you.’
‘It wasn’t deliberate when I hit him, he was attacking....’
‘I know, that man was not good.’
‘We need to get back to England.’
‘I have a brother near Tangier, a fisherman, he can help.’
‘But isn’t it nearly four-hundred miles, how will we get there ?’
‘We will go in the car, I will come for you tonight.’
‘Can he really take us to Spain ?’
‘I will come at eight, be ready.’
Omar sounded completely at ease about the whole enterprise, but it seemed highly likely we would be stopped on the road north, trying to leave Morocco, or by a patrol boat in the Strait of Gibraltar.
Jess was surprisingly upbeat when I told her, as if this plan to hoodwink the authorities and escape the country was some kind of elaborate party game. She was also reassured in a strange way by hearing of the death of Omar’s son, which proved that this policeman deserved to meet a violent end himself.
‘He’s coming at eight, that means we have some more time to explore.’
‘We need to keep a low profile.’
‘Did Omar say if the police had linked his death to us ?’
‘Not yet, but they’re bound to consider all the people who stayed at our hotel in Taroudannt.’
‘I’ve always wanted to visit the Jardin Majorelle’ Jess said with enthusiasm.
‘I suppose that is out of the way, if we’re careful.’
‘Can we go in a calēche ? I prefer horses to cars.’
It was good to see some brightness back in her eyes; Omar had at least given us some hope, despite the serious challenges ahead.
Friday, 6 November 2009
The transformation from the outer world to an inner space of serenity and luxury was extraordinary, and we were quickly made welcome with some chilled fruit juice. The layout was very similar to the riad in Essaouira, with a central courtyard open to the sky and several floors with balconies overlooking a modest fountain.
We had been given more or less the whole first floor of the beautifully renovated building, and there was no sign of other guests, though they were perhaps out exploring the city.
‘Let’s try and get a little rest Jess, we can go out later.’
‘We need to think about getting out of this bloody country.’
‘I know, it’s just that I’m not keen on the airport option, the security was so tight there.’
Jess lay on the vast bed and turned to face the wall, while I just sat looking at the vines and creepers spilling like a green waterfall over the marble balcony. I wasn’t really sure what to do, it seemed likely that the police would catch-up with us sooner or later, and I didn’t fancy explaining how bottling the policeman had been the only way of saving my lady.
I stripped-off and went into the large shower that was more like a substantial room in itself, and it felt good to wash away all the sweat and muck of our journey through the mountains. Omar had been a very friendly and helpful chap and seemed happy with his modest profession, driving tourists in that old, immaculately presented Mercedes.
After a couple of peaceful hours we set off for the Djemaa el-Fna, the huge main square, all the time trying to steer clear of any men in uniform. It felt quite easy to lose yourself in the crowds, and also to get seriously lost, as all we had was a very basic hand-drawn map from the riad owner.
It was around seven in the evening and the souk was still very busy; my eyes were drawn to a stall of multi-coloured handmade sweets, which were almost totally covered in black flies. I thought about the mostly orderly and hygienic market at home, but this kind of thing didn’t seem to concern any of the locals here.
Jess would normally have been enthusiastically exploring the endless variety of stalls and shops, but was unsurprisingly unable to shake-off the terrifying experience of the night before. We came to a small square where there were many caged lizards, rodents and birds, which I started to look at more closely, but then noticed that Jess was already walking ahead and out of reach.
I caught up with her not far from the entrance to the Djemaa el-Fna, which was buzzing with all kinds of activity and music. There were many tables with temporary seating serving-up food for locals and tourists, and the mixture of smells, smoke and noise was intoxicating and almost frightening. It was the lack of order and reserve, as we would understand it in England, which was so disturbing and also alluring.
Jess was standing near a snake charmer, and she didn’t even flinch when one of his assistant’s put a large cobra round her neck, though it made my heart skip a beat just watching. I gave the man a few dirhams and we continued our stroll, trying not to bump into people or be flattened by others.
‘Can we just get some food ? I’m starving.’
‘Of course, let’s go into one of these places high above the square’ I replied.
‘I don’t care where, I’m going to collapse soon.’
We chose somewhere more or less at random, which was serving both local and international food; we could have done with an alcoholic drink, but as with Taroudannt such options appeared to be extremely limited, except at the hotels. Our table had a fantastic view of all the human theatre being enacted in the noisy arena below, though Jess was still very quiet.
‘We will get home, won’t we ?’ she said eventually.
Tuesday, 3 November 2009
Everything had seemed so normal at breakfast, except for the fact there was a dead policeman concealed in the building; we ate a little and said our goodbyes to the owner, who wished us a lovely trip through the mountains to Marrakech. I couldn’t lose the image of the bottle crashing down on the copper’s skull, but surely anybody else would have done the same if their beloved was being attacked ? It was also highly likely that this man had murdered the Aussie girl, which meant we had actually saved the Moroccan justice system some time and money.
At first it was hard to appreciate the increasingly dramatic scenery and the extraordinary views back over the Souss plain towards Taroudannt. Omar told us that the French colonialists had constructed the road through the mountains, an amazing feat of engineering in itself.
‘I’m starting to feel sick’ said Jess.
‘It’s not surprising with all these twists and turns; I’ll ask him to stop.’
Omar was happy to pull over and light a cigarette, while we gazed back to the indistinct shape of Taroudannt, which brought a small sense of encouragement as it disappeared more and more in the distance. All being well his body would not be found until we’d been home for at least a few days; yet there was always the worry somebody might look into the shaft out of curiosity, or perhaps the annual maintenance inspection was due ? No, Morocco wasn’t the kind of country where they had regular inspections, except for the police road blocks of course.
‘Shall we get going ?’
‘I’m fine now’ said Jess weakly.
‘It’ll be exciting to see Marrakech’ I said, without really believing the optimistic sound of my voice.
There was very little other traffic about as most people wanting to travel between Taroudannt and Marrakech would use the main road, not a never-ending coil of pot-holed tarmac with terrifying drops at the side. Omar kept pointing out features of interest, and told us about growing-up in the foothills of the High Atlas.
We stopped again at La Belle Vue Hotel for some coffee, situated at two thousand one hundred metres above sea level; it seemed a very long time since we had been by the sea in Essaouira, and it felt like our travels had all been some kind of bizarre dream, fast turning into a nightmare. Jess wandered into the decaying red van abandoned at the roadside, covered in many stickers and signs associated with Moroccan car rallies. She appeared completely out of it, in another world, as if she would have been happy for the van to suddenly break free and crash over the cliff edge.
‘We’d better get on’ I said.
She didn’t reply, but eventually started walking back to the white Mercedes taxi.
As our journey continued beyond the highest point we heard thunder in the distance and Omar confirmed there might be a storm coming up the valley. The landscape became more reminiscent of the Himalayan foothills I’d seen on TV, and occasionally we passed small villages that were comprised of a few ramshackle ‘bungalows’ clinging to the green mountainside. After all the dryness of the plains I hadn’t expected this sudden change to the heavy rain that was now battering our vehicle, and wondered just how severe the weather must be in winter.
Though I was keen to reach Marrakech as soon as possible, Omar insisted on a small diversion to the spectacular mosque at Tin Mal, which is quite rare in being open to non-Muslims. There was a remarkable tranquillity in the empty, roofless interior, and Omar pointed-out some owls hiding in the crumbling stonework high above us. Many of the archways were in very good repair for a building constructed in the twelfth century, and some still beautifully decorated, despite being open to the elements.
‘Are you OK, Jess ?’
‘I feel very tired.’
‘It won’t be too long till we get to our hotel; Omar has recommended a riad not far from the main square, which should be more private than the Ibis we’d booked. I think it’s a good idea to stay somewhere not on our planned itinerary.’
We were soon back on the road to Marrakech, with Omar happily humming a tune to himself as we drove through the splendid scenery.
‘My wife is Fati’ he told us suddenly.
‘You still love her though ?!’
I felt Jess’s elbow in my ribs, which was usually an indication I’d said the wrong thing.
‘How many children have you got ?’ I asked, trying to move the conversation on.
‘Two, a girl and boy.’
After a few more miles we came to an unexpected traffic jam, which we soon realised had been caused by the storm and subsequent landslide, leaving the narrow road completely blocked.
‘This is the last thing we need’ muttered Jess.
‘Only thirty minutes to wait, this always happen’ Omar said cheerfully.
I got out and walked along the wet and muddy road in the direction of the collapse, where a snow plough was already working to restore a flat and safe surface. All the excitement made me forget about any worries as I marvelled at the power of nature unleashed, which was particularly striking as the only fresh water we’d seen before in Morocco had been at the oasis.
The thirty minutes promised by Omar was actually two hours before we got beyond the obstruction and resumed our drive to Marrakech; we were soon passing a large reservoir, then heading past enormous snow peaks.
‘Richard Branson Virgin have hotel up there’ Omar informed us.
‘He seems to have property everywhere’ I replied.
‘Very nice hotel’ added Omar.
The road from the mountains into Marrakech was far pleasanter than the one we’d taken to Essaouira on our arrival, which had been almost like driving through a rubbish dump. This approach to the city was a much more orderly one of wide tree-lined avenues, though it was not without a number of construction projects, mostly featuring some kind of golf resort.
‘I take you right into medina, very near hotel.’
‘Thank you Omar, we’re exhausted.’
‘Mountains are beautiful, yes ?’