Moroccan Chirps

Morocco. All it conjured when my partner booked flights for a surprise birthday present last November was hash: ‘Moroccan black’ was a term bandied about officiously by shits who’d never been there. That, and mountains. A mate of mine thought it was in South America. So there was much to discover in eleven days there—hash and mountains included.

On our first evening in Marrakech, my partner Seila and I are lost down some side-alley, and by chance meet an exceedingly friendly fellow, like so many in Morocco. Neither standing behind a stall nor wielding Ralph Lauren counterfeits, I judge his eager sociability to be genuine, and accept his invitation to his place for tea. His name is Abdul. Notwithstanding Abdul’s niceness, I’m slightly on guard, being led down a pitch-black alleyway by the first man on the street that hasn’t harried to sell me something. This suspicion melts the instant we enter his home, to the sound of young chirping children and sight of his charming wife, Nahla, in the kitchenette at the far end of the room. The walls are geometrically mosaicked, as is the Islamic style, and two bank sofas frame a small table in the middle of the room. We chat choppily with my third-rate French, Abdul’s English (taught him by an American posted with the Moroccan Army for which Abdul served) and lots of silly-looking but helpful hand gestures. Long story short: after spending a wonderful evening together complete with Moroccan tea, tagine and tokes, we take a liking to each other and Abdul kindly offers to take us to “les montagnes!”—the mountains east of Marrakech, to meet Nahla’s side of the family in a small village. We gladly accept.

The backdrop out of Marrakech affords snowcapped mountainscape, the immediate scenery just desert, sand and rock. Driving to the village, a couple hours east of the city, we pass unfinished projects, similarly morose to those at home, but all shades of the same colour; pale wooden scaffolds wrapped around dusty bricks set in sand, not a high-vis in sight.

We stop off in a small market en route to nab some meat and veg for the lunchtime tagine. The heat’s blistering, but the locals are sporting black bomber jackets and jeans. I feel like it must just be me. My Celtic ancestry would have a week’s worth of sunshine per person per year, from which they’d probably flee to save their reddening hides. My skin scorches; the Moroccans’ are wrapped in the warmest of my winter wears.

The butcher’s bare hands wrestle down a skinned pig, which are hooked upturned and gutted, before heaving a cleaver through a limb. Butchers are (relatively) sterile affairs back home, much less blood and far fewer flies—the smell here is offputtingly rancid. We nab that, then some vegetables at a stall; a few handfuls each of snap peas, potatoes and carrots, amounting to twenty-odd dirham, or about €2. Feeding your guests and family for less than two quid. I can’t buy a cuppa for that in Brighton.

A lonely eeyore just outside the village

Making our way to the village, a stone track leads us around and away from small mountains, large hills, some of which look like heaps of refuse, with the jagged rocks jutting out of red sand, sparse shoots of green interspersed. The odd lonely cactus sits about. On our approach to the monochromic village, the cacti multiply. They’ve seemingly fig-shaped fruit growing amongst their spikes. Spotting more the far side of a fence, made from a thicket of dry thorns, I ask if and why they’re being farmed; our friend Abdul’s surprised that I haven’t tried any, it’s supposedly sweet, despite the spiteful spikes.

We visit his in-laws. We’re greeted at the door by a thin man—Pa-in-law—wearing a brown kufi hat over his bald head, a thin brown djellaba over a loose beige shirt and brown trousers, with beaten leather sandals on his feet. He greets us warmly, shaking my hand gently, patting his heart thereafter. The two huts inside the modest compound are windowless and inside neatly maintained. The Ma-in-law emerges from one, looking a little bewildered at me, and then at Abdul, as if to say, ‘whom are you bowling up into my home with now, Abdul?’ She wears thick trousers and socks underneath her thin, purple djellaba and sandals; her headscarf she wears loosely over her thick, black hair. Sweating profusely in my thin shirt and loose trouser, I wipe my hand before she shakes it gently. Abdul speaks in his harsh and hasty Arabic, shaking the plastic bag full of veg and (also sweaty) meat. She speaks to him in a much softer Arabic, which makes me feel at ease; though attempting to discern the content of a conversation from its foreign form of enunciation is always dodgy; Latvians can sound like they’re angry when happy, Norwegians dismissive when interested. Ma-in-law takes the bag and turns to enter one hut, whilst Seila, Abdul and I enter another—the living room/hut.

Pa-in-law slides off his sandals at the door, quickly drapes a rug over the concrete floor, bare as the walls and ceiling, and places small pillows thereon for each of us. He nabs a tiny wooden table from the corner of the room, placing it before us. I can’t for the life of me cross my legs in comfort; primary school assemblies were for me what SERE training is to the SEALS. I prop myself awkwardly up against the wall, whilst Abdul immediately gets about rolling another spliff, perhaps the fifth of the morning. Despite it being windowless and the day’s heat without breeze, the living-hut was surprisingly cool and well illuminated.

Ma-in-law returns, sliding off her sandals at the door, with the Moroccan rite and staple—tea—before slipping them back on to rush off again. Moroccan tea is as gratefully drunk as it is incessantly served. Moroccans are competitively eager to cram hospitality into each conceivable momentary crevice, the primary means by which they do this is heating water in a teapot, straining green tea and spearmint leaves therein, adding a fistful of sugar and serving it with and without food. Pa-in-law pours a pale tea into my glass, opens the pot and pours the glassful back into it, repeating a couple of times as the tea darkens. It’s undeniably delicious but, for some palates at least, sickeningly sweet by the half-dozenth of the day.

Abdul crumbles some blonde hash from Chefchaouen into his palm, mixing it with the tobacco teased from a cigarette, before putting a smoking paper on top; he places his other palm on top of that and expertly flips over the mix into the paper. He rolls up ‘un joint,’ pronounced in his raspy French, ‘uh joowah.’ French spoke in Maghrebi dialect sounds so cool. Moroccan tea drank with un joint tastes so good.

Ma-in-law, sandals off, comes bearing two loaves of freshly baked flatbread, olive oil and black honey—sandles on and she’s off again. Pa breaks bread on my behalf, passing me a chunk; Seila declines, for she’s gluten intolerant. This he can’t, and no Moroccan did, understand. I embellish her attempt at explaining that she can’t eat it with some graphic gesticulation—it’ll go straight through her!—sometimes the language barrier’s a blessing. The bread is crusty and warm. The olive oil is by far and away the best I’m yet to try, made from the olives picked off the trees out back. The black honey, thick, rich and smoky, vies for my attention.

Ma-in-law, sandals off and in, returns with two freshly boiled eggs and some seasalt; she looks a little concernedly at Seila, sitting still besides Abdul and I ravenously indulging our munchies, placing them before her; sandals on and out. The eggs are abnormally delicious and healthy looking, never have I seen or tasted an egg like it: a thin skin of egg-white covering a deep orangey-yellow yolk, which forms the majority of the egg. The one bite wasn’t enough, despite the loaf of bread at my lap and tagine en route.

Pa-in-law, Abdul tells me, is a farmer and has been tending his ‘animaux.’ I ask about his animals. The conversation is necessarily mediated between Abdul and I, in his broken English and my scrappy French. He is at least as stoned as I am, sometimes plainly neglecting his translational duties, so one must persist. Pa keeps chickens and goats, tending the latter out in the searing sun, I notice without a bead of sweat upon his bony brow, making me aware of how mine perspires so freely in the coolest shade he has to offer.

Pa-in-law, Abdul and Yours Truly eating some tagine.

Ma-in-law, sandals off, comes bearing a decanter and a bowl. She places the pot underneath our hands, pouring the water over so we can clean them before our meal. I feel a little uncomfortable, I feel it pretends to deferral. She clears the table of the teapot. Sandles on: she’s off again.

She’s back in a heartbeat with a tagine. For those who are ignorant as I was, a tagine is actually the Maghrebi name for the dish in which the meal is cooked, like a balti. She places the searing dish on the table, lifts off the cone-shaped lid allowing the steam to billow out invitingly from underneath, revealing and reacquainting us with the spruced and sizzling meat and veg. Ma doesn’t sit to eat with us, she slips on her sandals and makes off again. Waiting for Pa or Abdul to dig in, for how to do so without cutlery was, at least in my frame of mind, a little perplexing. I don’t have to wait long, as Abdul tears a strip of bread, dips one side of it amongst the vegetables, cooked and steamed in and by their juices, pinches an amount, upturns the bread and eats it. I don’t wait a moment longer myself, but Pa still somehow manages to enthuse me to eat. The duty of the guest to oblige being fussed over is as pressing as the duty of the host. Seila asks for and is fetched a small plate and spoon with which to eat the tagine, it not occurring to Ma or Pa that it might prove inedible without bread. I’m continuously proffered meat by Pa, nudging it toward my corner of the tagine with his bread; not eating meat at all often, and having gorged on bread beforehand, it’s a struggle to eat much (more), as tasty as it is. Delicious simplicity; meat, veg, spice, tagine, fire, serve. When I indicate that I can’t eat a bite more—again, one must persist—Pa and Abdul make for the meat that, I now realise, they were abstaining from eating on my account. I realise I may’ve indulged my obligation qua guest too eagerly, but no matter.

Ma-in-law, in and out and in and out, clears the table, washes our hands, makes us tea, then finally sits with us. In this time Abdul has, of course, rolled un joint. Pa-in-law needs to shepherd his goats to graze up and about the mountain, in the midday sun, and offers us to sleep in the living-hut. It’s now heating up a little, teeming with flies and unventilated of tobacco smoke. I thank him profusely, and he shuffles out the door. Feeling additionally doped in my food coma, Abdul asks me to lie down, ‘S’allonger! Existe!’ Exiiiste—that’s the spirit.

We chill for a bit, sheltering from the midday heat, chatting with Ma when Abdul’s understanding and effort aligns and allows. He neglects to translate the odd question to Ma, yet nods, smiling his big toothless smile, his brown and bloodshot eyes looking somewhat engaged, lying back on the pillow taking long draws on le joint. Then he jerks his head back into my gaze, saying, ‘Qoui?’, and we try again.

We ‘existe’, blazing to stave away the day’s blaze, before going on a walk around the village. Abdul knows everybody in the village and is wont to introduce us. They are achingly hospitable and the women cannot fuss enough, though the village has seemingly conspired to rot my remaining teeth with their sugar-soup tea, which I can’t stop drinking anyway. We take tea at a cousin of Nahla’s in a very modest hut; inside there are another relative’s children; it’s all very communal. They stare at me as one would an ogre; my smiles and “Salaam’s” seem to scare more than sooth them. His cousin’s a midget who’s unmarried in her late twenties—tardy by their wedding watches. But Abdul has been a’matchmaking and found found her a vertical match back in Marrakech who she’s eager to hear of and will be meeting at some point in the near future. Abdul’s beaming, giving some dosh to keep them going, saying that he’ll have to get them a dish for the TV next time he visits. The tea is giving me a hypo, the bread a baby-belly and le never-ending joints property in Sark. We get up to have more of a mooch about the village.

The village viewed during our ascent of the modest montagne

Save for the cactus, a few planted olive trees and some smatterings of green shrubbery, the place really looks like so many shades of the same colour, and stunning and serene as such. We stomp and sweat through the tilled but unfarmed land toward a small mountain. Abdul wards me off a villager’s land, as I accidentally trespass over a very neat but almost imperceptible border of stones. It doesn’t take long to hike for the tiny village to become unassuming, a darker shade swept by a brush on a monochromic canvass, one of many melting into the deserted distance. The mountain’s barely relieved by a breeze, I want to take my sweat sodden shirt off but I know I’ll flash fry. We reach the modest summit to some beautiful views each side. Abdul perches atop a rock and pulls a much smaller rock of the same colour from, I note to my surprise, his sock, before he crumbles it to make yet un autre joint.

Yours Truly amongst the cacti

The only noise to be heard is the stone beneath our feet and  breeze about our ears. We spot a couple wild mountain goat—wild’s the word!—quite literally clilffhanging in the distance. We see tamer mountain goat being herded about the slope of a neighbouring mountain by two berobed figures in the distance, no doubt known personally to Abdul. I find an unlikely fruit, bright and pale orange, attached to a brittle, dead-looking vine. It looks out of sync, but very edible; Abdul tells me it’s medicine. What I need is shade.

Abdul enjoying un joint bien merité sur le montaigne

We make our way down dodgily aboard the sharp and slipping stones. Abdul insists I take Seila’s hand, which I’m not able to do without unbalancing the both of us, so he chivalrously takes it, but keeps a pace that only makes their descent more dicey. But we make our way down no problem, having a shaded pit-stop beneath a lonely but friendly tree outside the village, building and blazing a last joint, just to ensure I’m sufficiently cross-eyed before meeting more busied and brilliant women, sun-seared shepherds and terrified toddlers.

We visit the family of Nahla’s sister, Munira, who looks about the same age but is notably thinner and browner, wearing a purple djellaba and thin headscarf covering all of her hear. With a baby about a year old saronged to her back, she busily goes about making some bread and brewing some tea, both of which I’ve a voracious appetite for despite eating myself sick of both three hours ago. Munira’s Dad-in-law who owns the property, Hassan, is a quiet, dignified and thoroughly welcoming man who’s hospitable determination to see me pregnant of bread and diabetic by tea I welcome thoroughly. He has many more animals than do Nahla’s parents, which means both more wealth and work, and a bigger compound with more family living in it. There’s a Dalmatian and a couple of chickens knocking about before the sheep and goats are brought to stable in the setting sun, blissfully baaing away. The living-hut in which we eat and drink has plump pillows, high ceilings, a lick of paint, lights and a smaller flock of flies; plus the toilet’s a hole in the ground, rather than the ground itself as at the in-laws. Abdul accepts Hassan’s kind invitation for us to stay the night there, for which we are grateful.

Hassan’s sheep

Munira’s husband Ali returns home while the twilight is bright. Ali’s about thirty, heavily tanned, stubbly, wearing a cap, a jumper and some jeans. He leaves for work at sunrise and arrives home after sunset, spending all day landscaping in the blistering heat. Despite the arduousness of the day behind him, he greets his children and us warmly and goes about preparing some kif. Untying a rope around a wrapped up sack, he reveals three healthy, pungent cannabis stalks and a brown, parched looking leaf the size of a man’s hand. The leaf is a tobacco leaf, much bigger than I imagined they’d be, which he refreshes with water before ripping a piece off to mix with the kif. Ali spends the next hour, in between sipping tea and talking to us via Abdul, patiently pulling the ‘plainer’ parts of the cannabis plant matter from about the buds, then crumbling them atop of a block, expertly knocks the seeds out of the mix with a gnarly knife. He collects the ground buds into a squared strip of sack, taking the now-dried rip of tobacco, crushing it between his fingers, adding it to the mix to make kif. The pipe we use to smoke it is about a foot long, wooden, with a bowl one side a little smaller than a thimble. Abdul teaches me how to pack: holding it with one hand underneath, you nudge kif into the bowl with the forefinger. He makes it look banally simple; I spill my pipe and burn my finger trying to smoke it. Ali looks at me as to an amateur.

Pa-in-law pops in looking for us in the later evening; Abdul explains we’re to stay here; no offence is taken or seemingly appropriate. He sits and chirps with the famalam. Nahla, Hassan’s wife and another lovely lady of some relation come to the living-hut with us after we’re finished eating (our third tagine of the day) and being fussed over, drinking tea, washing hands and all. The division of labour is rigid: women domestic, men agricultural; both work their asses off. It’s nice to see them sit and socialise, albeit still fussing over Seila, who I forget is oftentimes the only woman keeping company with us men whilst we eat and smoke. Nahla offers to do some henna on Seila’s hands and asks whether we are married. I don’t see what that’s got to do with the price of fish, but I fib the fib I’d been advised to fib and say that we are. Abdul conveys that this traditionally allows Nahla to also tattoo Seila’s feet. So Nahla, baby still strapped across her slender shoulders, retrieves some henna; Seila’s understandably ambivalent having had some forcefully applied to her hand by an overzealous Marrakechian a couple of days ago which burned, so asks what’s in it. We understand it to be the henna plant and oranges. It isn’t erosive but looks excremental. Nahla kneels at Seila’s side, smiling gently, the baby on her back staring me out, as she applies the henna around her foot tattoos. I tell Nahla that she looks so much like her sister, stopping short of saying both are beautiful. We show her some pictures of her likewise beautiful niece, sixteen and an excellent English speaker, from the other day at Nahla and Abdul’s place in Marrakech; she beams at them.

Abdul packs one, two, three, four pipes of kif for himself, I think perhaps in a daze. He realises, and plies me with pipe after pipe to compensate. I note that no women smoke and the older men I ask smoke no longer, Abdul is the only man I know who does, but says only on occasion. I get the feeling that this is a hash-holiday for him, too. Hassan retires, then the ladies put the kids and themselves to bed. Seila’s knackered too, and settles down. Abdul, Ali and I squat in the opposite end of the room, puffing away, and call it an hour later. I bid a hazy farewell to Ali, who, replete with kisses for each of my cheeks, surprises me a little. Abdul settles himself at the foot of Seila and I, persistently passing me packed pipes as I lie back in a contented, dozy daze.

Seila and I both awake intermittently throughout the night to Abdul popping more pipes of kif.

We leave the next afternoon, after a breakfast of bread, eggs and kif. Our trip back to Marrakech is helpfully organised by Ali’s young brother, who’s sixteen year’s old, sharp and handsome, sporting a black jacket, tight blue jeans and black hair curling in a particular way with a neatly kempt goatee. He looks greaser 2.0. He returns on his rackety moped with transport sorted. He isn’t schooled and asks Abdul to teach him some English. So they sit together for the spontaneous language lesson, with a piece of paper, on which Abdul writes ‘Hello’ in old Arabic, what I assume to be modern Arabic, and English. “How are you?” is next. Then, “Are you fine?” which Abdul recites with a comic gusto that the young lad repeats earnestly, concentrating and repeating again. I wonder if this is the English that the Yank taught Abdul or if he’s just as high as I am? He writes the Arabic for the next phrase, then the English, which he recites whilst waving his hands dramatically from his chest: “I don’t care anymore!” I pack up laughing. Abdul smiles nonchalantly, innocently. I try not to laugh, but, hell, it still tickles me to this day.

Hassan and Yours Truly

We say goodbye to everybody, I even manage a handshake from a nipper, though the baby saronged to Munira continues to bore into my soul with her sweet, scared stare. Hassan insists that we visit with our family, several times. He says he’ll slaughter two animals, with gory gesticulation, when we next visit with them. I don’t say yes or no, just chuckle at the thought of my Dad being in this weird and wonderful place, as Hassan kisses my right cheek, then left, then right again, and the left again.

Skyping my parents after our trip, I tell them this and much else about our trip. My Dad reminisces of when, as a child, in the ‘wild country’ of County Mayo, they visited a family: they hospitably slaughtered a sheep for their arrival. I guess the cultural gap is not as wide as we would be led to believe.

 


If you enjoyed this article, I’d really appreciate your sharing it on social media. Peace and chirps, Liam.