The words fingered into the dust of the battered little Renault van in front of my taxi in from the airport suggested this was going to be a very different place from Algiers. Not that I go around looking for differences. In fact the reverse is true. But “Lord of the Rings” above an exhaust belching smoke was as fine an indicator as any that this would be a different city.
On the surface it is less French though of course that pedigree is in your face all the time. But it’s more crass commercial, and reflects a wider European and African influence. It seems it can’t quite make up its mind as to what it is. There are streets out in the suburbs that are not unlike some I walked in Riyadh, reflecting the desire for Western branded luxury, whether that is in the cars that are driven or the shops promoting top end goods, though unlike Riyadh they retain the sexcentric advertising. Saudi can be, no it is, a country of extremes but I never minded their focus on modesty, even if it was token in so many respects.
It is of course a city that has been in the public mind and imagination forever – well, at least since 1942 – so there is a plague on you as you walk the streets. The usual watch touts, desperate eyed carpet salesmen, leather jacketed men that run off any number of “hellos” in as many languages as they can muster ( I speak none of them of course – one persistent fellow tried ‘Are you Greek?, Italian? Portuguese? Russian? English? German? French? and Bulgarian? (really?) to the look of non comprehension on my face) as they try and lure you into their little shops of shoes and knock off jeans and sports attire and so on and so on. But we all know them well and they are not altogether unexpected. Algerians, not used to any tourist traffic at all, allow you to swim through them to the point where I almost felt like a local for all the attention I didn’t receive. And that is a blessing. You feel as if you are seeing the real town.
If you push deep into the Medina you get a similar feeling. Sure you are a little unexpected, but the deeper you go the more the locals just let you swim among them. Get past the first three or four layers of lanes and you find yourself away from the stalls set up to sell to tourists and lost among the markets which support the local community. And here there is a great and inspiring humanity that seethes and pulses with life. I am reminded of the Muslim Quarter in Xian. Go so far down into that place and the residents just accept you are there, don’t press you for anything and allow you watch, and to even participate. The Casbah has a similar quality. It’s people living their lives out in front of you. Children recite the alphabet, their chorusing voices lifting out of a closed off classroom somewhere. A trio of cats sit and attentively watch the butcher on the other side of their tiny lane. So close they can taste it. A toddler picks up scraps of noodles from out of the dirt – a passing matron under her hijab scolds him and he spits it out before she waddles on. Handfuls of shrimp are baled out of a small cart and loaded into the bags of elderly women who seem excited at the catch. A teenage girl haggles a bundle of mint then buys some cardoman. A woman sells apples by the half – all cored for you but looking a bit shabby for the handling. Olives by the small mountain, garlic by the usual bag, potatoes and tomatos, pumpkin and cabbage, ox tongues, live chickens chopped into buffalo wings in front of you (it’s a peculiarly American magic that) lemons and lime, oranges and of course mandarins by the truck load. The sun is warm on my back and the lane is alive and bustling and the best I can describe it is like a beehive. That’s it. A beehive that is never ceasing busy, alive in its own warmth and giving off a background hum of life and vibrancy. I stop in a doorway and listen and hear the hum of the place.
Across the way, and out side the walls of the Medina is the Café de France. The bad habit of smoking in eating places persists in these places (though I was relieved to discover it is no longer allowed on French public transport – that TGV trip I did twenty years ago filled me with enough smoke to last a life time) but that French thing of sitting on the sidewalk and watching the passing parade is alive and well. I take a coffee and sit in the doorway where the smoke from my fellows is drawn off past me and do my own watching. I stay off the pavement as the touts and beggars will hit you up out there. The beehive analogy falls over when looking at the individual rather than the collective. I wonder, as I did in Algiers, what everyone is doing. So many sit around here just gazing and sipping coffee. Out on the street I see faces on the street I have seen earlier. Men doing pedestrian laps. Men standing in doorways watching. Men sitting in coffee shops by themselves gazing into the street. No worker bees here at all.
I will give them this though – they are all connected. They all seem to know each other. It might be a city of four million people but there are a lot of folk here who call out to each other, slap each others backs in greeting, slide palms over palms and embrace even if only fleetingly before moving on. The same as in Algiers. But the smoke drives me out in the end, friendly place or not.
I return to the Medina. It has a strange attraction. And a costly one – in relative terms at least. I buy some shirts and jewelry. In each case I resist the touts and push down deep into places I have not seen before. I fall into conversation with a man lingering outside his mosque and we share life stories. Eventually I ask him what he does. ‘Oh, I have a store.’ He keeps chatting about Perth and Brisbane and Ard–ah-laide and the people he has met from those places. Eventually he invites me to see his store. I have had plenty of opportunity to evade him so I can hardly decline, especially since I asked him what he did for a living. We have a delightful time until prayers are called. And of course he sells me a shirt. Not quite the Moroccan thing I had in mind but good enough. He is dark eyed, sparkly friendly and completely endearing. We get on fabulously and share a joke or two. In the depths of the Medina I find a friend missing a couple of teeth, needs a shave, is poor in my terms but rich in his friendliness and warmth. The airfare alone is worth these connections and he uplifts me with his friendly humanity and humour.
The mint tea is outstanding and the first sip into my mouth revitalises me. Hot and sweet. The smell of mint still takes me back to the river in Otago where it would grow wild under the willows. That is along way from Casablanca I think, in more ways than just geography. What a lot of distance in experience and understanding. I am fortunate to have been able to span it. But there are roots there too that I see in a place like this. Is that part of the answer for the Genie of Fez – that we desire a place in which to put roots? The question is, ‘How do we put roots down?’ It’s not just by being resident in a place. That most certainly is not the answer. The silver teapot proves an Aladdin’s vase for somehow it yields two glasses of hot tea and I am doubly refreshed. And refreshed again in the evening when I am drawn back into the Medina which is a rambunctious cauldron of market activity. Every corner I turn around offers a lane of activity as far as I can see. I hate giving up lane openings without exploring down them but there are only so many hours in the day. But swimming in this humanity is a great tonic and Wordsworth floats to mind as I make my way.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed–and gazed–but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
William needed a Medina when he was down!