Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Beni Mellal, Morocco/Ouzoud, Morocco/Fez, Morocco

One of the things which I found disappointing as I travelled through Morocco was my inability to get away from the dreaded "tourist track." Often it seemed enough like the whole country was one big tourist track, in which as any sort of Westerner you would play a defined role as the "walking wallet" to be shaken down by hustlers, shopkeepers, and anyone else with whom you entered into some sort of tourist relationship. And this, of course, breeds lots of stereotyping both ways, as Moroccans see Westerners as rude and a little obtuse while Westerners believe that all Moroccans are untrustworthy people just waiting for a chance to cheat someone. This leads to the creation of some very intense social boundaries in which no matter what you do - even if you live with a host family - your social role will be defined primarily by your nationality and Moroccans not interested in your money will tend to ignore you. This makes forming relationships more difficult than in less touristed places like Irbid and Aleppo.

However, near the very end of my trip, I did finally stumble across a place where I was probably one of the only foreigners some of these people would talk to. I wanted to spend time in the High Atlas, but had to make it back to Fez in time to pick up the suitcase which I had left with my roommate. Thus, I spent two nights called Beni Mellal, which seems to be the Moroccan equivalent of Wichita in that it's an incredibly boring transportation hub nestled partly on the lowest slopes of the northernmost High Atlas a few hours south of Fez.

Like Casablanca, Beni Mellal has experienced rapid growth, but it seems to have handled things better, as no shantytowns were in evidence. The thing I remember most about it is the constant hustle and bustle, as huge crowds moved continually on the sidewalks along the the very modern Muhammad V Street, with its gas stations, banks, and cafes where, unlike in other cities, the men in them tended to play what looked like very intense card games more than watch the news and just talk. There was also a medina, equally busy, and with a selection of goods that did not include the usual tourist fare of Fez, Marrakesh, and elsewhere. Between the two was a huge square where a temporary stage and risers had been set up as if for an outdoor concert of some kind; all that happened when I was there however was a huge throng of people gathering on benches and in the open spaces to eat ice cream and talk eagerly over the day's gossip. Somehow the entire place had a sort of pop music feel to it that had different '80's songs running through my head the entire time I was there.

That is not to say there were no problems - you still saw a large number of people with limps from illnesses or accidents where they could not get the best medical treatment, and here and there you still saw beggars with their hand out for alms. People actually gave them money, too, for in mainstream, non-touristy society generosity and hospitality are more the orders of the day than profit and loss, and giving money to each other is just part of society. This was true even in such spicy places as Casablanca, where one of the beggars whom we ignored outside the cafe entered to have some immediately fork over a few dirhams in a scene that made me wonder whether Westerners look especially greedy for being the richest ones around and keeping it all for ourselves. (This was actually first pointed out to be by one of my friends, and while I dislike posting people's names even for credit purposes, this seems a good time to acknowledge people like my roommate, the German foreign service guy, souther guy, the computer programmer, the girl from New York, the girl who had lived in Kuwait, the Bostonian professor, the Floridian professor, and many others who contributed many insights and observations to my Moroccan experience.)

Being off the tourist track has both advantages and disadvantages. The greatest advantage is that people don't have a set program for dealing with Westerners, and when you ask an old guy in Arabic for directions he's liable to be really surprised by it and filled with friendly curiosity about what this foreigner is doing in Beni Mellal. I also met a couple of people who knew some English, though they said they had trouble understanding my accent as they were used to British English. Fortunately between this and some MSA speakers I was able to get around linguistically, though not always culturally, for in a place like this you realize just how many little things are different between countries that you never think about. When I went to get some ice cream I order a 5-dirham bowl, and when asked what kind said "chocolate" while pointing toward it. She then put in a scoop of chocolate and asked again. I repeated chocolate. She repeated her question. As this continued another person became involved, who eventually said something to her that must have been to just give me all chocolate, because she proceeded to do that. Apparently the idea that someone might want only one kind of ice cream was relatively incomprehensible here, and I realized in just how many ways people in Fez and elsewhere had gotten used to dealing with foreigners.

The drive from Beni Mellal into the mountains was by grand taxi, an aged Mercedes into which they crammed six passengers and a driver making a short hop between cities and small towns in the area. Along the road north of the mountains you see the rich farmland that make this area so prosperous, with fields of olive trees especially noteworthy. Once in the mountains, however, you're in a different sort of country, with winding roads where the driver has to honk all the time to help avoid collisions around the blind turns. The mountains are also important to the Moroccan economy, for it is in them that the rivers which water the land below have their sources before they go crashing from the heights, on the way providing the country with a potent source of hydroelectric power generated in power plants found in the foothills from which wires fan out in all directions. The most important of these is Bin el-Ouidane Dam, guarded by a military outpost on one end and with an armed guard standing halfway across along the road built atop it. This dam also creates a large artificial lake in the mountains

My destination in the mountains was the Cascades d'Ouzoud, Morocco's largest waterfall, where three streams tumble over 300 feet striking as they fall occasional ledges of rock which create new, smaller falls before all the water collects in a pool at the bottom and the river resumes its northward course toward the plains. Here there is perhaps the most expressive mix of touristy and normal cultural elements I found. Going left from the place where I got out of the taxi, you found a path with some carved stairs leading to the bottom of the falls. This was lined with souvenir stall and restaurants, some of which wanted an outrageous $1 for a glass of orange juice. Here there were also a lot of campsites, as backpackers and trekkers had set up shop there for a night or two, exploring the trails which led to either a canyon or a Berber village depending on your fancy.

At the same time, however, there were plenty of signs that to some people this was just home. At one point along the trail I saw four girls perhaps 5-8 years of age wearing headscarves so brightly covered that from a distance I thought they were patch of flowers. This was partly because they were all leaning down over the ledge, where they were attempting using bread to lure a Barbary ape who seemed quite content to hang off his tree in the shade. Along the river further up were two kids of about 13 filling two large plastic water jugs hanging on either side of a donkey. I saw them later, one walking the donkey, the other happily riding it, as they made their way to the village of Ouzoud, which had only one street with a policeman walking up and down it and a chicken hurriedly crossing it.

Off to the right from where I started you were mainly in the locals' territory. Along the streams were several pools where people were swimming or otherwise relaxing. There were some professional guides offering their services, but these were easily brushed off. This was also a place for grazing animals, as I discovered when in my eagerness to see the path ahead of me I became one of an increasingly small percentage of Americans to have almost tripped over a sheep. He (or she) was one of a flock by the side of the road under the custody of two women in later middle age, one of whom looked a lot like my Aunt Joyce.

I've often wondered what shepherds actually did while the sheep were grazing, and in their case it seemed to be a bit of talking and people-watching, as from their vantage point you had a decent view of the path leading to the bottom of the falls and all the cafes and campsites along it. While I was around, one of them decided to take her sheep back to wherever they went. This was apparently hard work, very similar to trying to coordinate a project involving a large number of college faculty. The woman would bang a stick along the side of the road, and the sheep would follow for a ways, but then all the sudden they would stop, and she'd have to stop, too, and start banging it in front of her, rubbing what must have been a sore back as she did so. Then sometimes the sheep would all decide to go off in a different direction, or sometimes one sheep would just decide to stop or wander off on his own; this is where the woman was aided by a small girl of about five who would when necessary beat the sheep from behind with a small tree branch.

Eventually I moved past them, the little girl waved, and the woman smiled and said something to me I didn't understand but which was probably a greeting. Just as with Marrakesh and Essaouira, my time in the mountains was being cut far too short, and only on some future trip would I be able to take in the many fascinating peaks and valleys they had to offer. But I do remember one more encounter I had, I'm pretty sure it was when I had first gotten there. A young man perhaps just under 20 who was walking along spoke to me in English, and asked me questions about where I was from and that sort of thing. Figuring this was the local version of a hustler I started mentally figuring out how to lose him, when he uttered the simple sentence "Welcome to our waterfall" before heading up the path toward the village.

The simplicity of that sentence, so human yet conveying a sense of hospitality too easily buried in all the turmoil of the major tourist centers, stayed with me as I caught a grand taxi back to Ouzoud, and later on the bus back to Fez. There, I spent one last evening saying farewell to my friends (one result of this trip was that I resolved to try to socialize more in Madison, always a tough task in grad school) and made a final jaunt through the medina to pick up a couple of last-minute items for people back home. Then, with my other suitcase in tow, I set out to make the short jaunt from the villa to my hotel, but it took longer than expected as so many people I hadn't realized thought that much about me realized I was leaving and wanted to wish me well, from the photocopy guy at ALIF to the owner of the restaurant where I ate my first and many of my subsequent meals in Fez.

In all this I realized a point I had been missing the past few days. In the broad scheme of things, it may be inevitable that Westerners will look at Moroccans and see only Moroccans, and that Moroccans will look at Westerners and see only Westerners. But it is more than possible for a single Westerner and a single Moroccan to look at each other and see a human being like themselves, part of the same world though from the other side of it, and having the same sorts of basic human feelings, failings, and virtues. Thus, I was in an optimistic mood the next morning when, arriving early at the bus station, I sat in the cafe, ordered an orange juice, and began hacking my way through an annoyingly tough passage of Baladhuri. When it was time to go, I was in for a surprise: The cafe owner refused to take my money, and said that while I was studying another patron had asked to pay my bill before leaving and so I was fine. And so it was that I found myself humming a lively version of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" as I made my way to my bus and toward home.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home