April 30, 2002 - Salon: "Save me, wild qahba"

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By Admin1 (admin) on Tuesday, April 30, 2002 - 1:55 pm: Edit Post

"Save me, wild qahba"

Read and comment on this story from Salon by Jeffrey Tayler on his experience in the Peace Corps in Morocco at:


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The Peace Corps had been good to me. No mud huts, no iodized drinking water, no malaria pills. I lived comfortably ensconced within the ramparts of the casbah of Marrakech, one of Morocco's imperial cities, a Berber-Arab fortress settlement 9 centuries old standing clay-pink on the arid brown plain of Al-Hawz, just across the Atlas Mountains from the Sahara. My job was to teach cane skills to the blind and work with the parents of handicapped children. I had not joined the Peace Corps to do good -- I wasn't sure what that really meant -- but because it seemed like a way to author my life, to make something novel out of all the days and weeks and years a life is made of.

Days in the Marrakech medina, or old city, were stiflingly hot, but evenings were cool and delicious: The sun bled itself to a crimson-and-carmine death behind the palms, the streets bustled with strollers and chanting mendicants. Through the alleys, in djellabas of emerald green and turquoise, sauntered jasmine- and saffron-scented young women fresh from the hammams, or baths, their hair looped damp and languorous under the folds of plush towels, their soaps and bottles of bath oils clattering in plastic buckets at their sides. There was nothing I relished more than passing through the auras of these hammam girls, inhaling and holding in my lungs that jasmine, that saffron, stealing something of them for myself. But mostly they lived cloistered in windowless, stone-and-tile homes, homes that opened only onto their own inner courtyards; their lives had already been scripted for them by family and religion.

There were, however, a few secret places in Marrakech where, it seemed, women escaped the confines imposed by tradition. I had found one.

One December eve I was sitting at home with an American friend, whom I will call Stan, awaiting the arrival of another American visiting Marrakech from the States. Soon there was a beep-beep and a din of children's cries. We rushed to unlatch the wooden door that opened onto the ocher-colored alley. At the alley's head, amid a swirl of urchins, a lone American struggled to pull a Samsonite suitcase out of the trunk of a battered rental Peugeot.

Sid, as I will call him, was gregarious and hulking, but his glasses gave him an intense, brainy demeanor. He was the kind of guest impecunious Peace Corps Samaritans welcomed to Morocco with the most open of arms -- a rich guest.

"I wasn't planning on staying with you," he said once we were safely inside again. "I thought I'd be spending a couple of hundred bucks a night on a hotel room. Now I've got this wad of cash I don't know what to do with."

I looked at Sid's bills and cleared my throat.

"I've got an idea."

My idea was La Boite, an underground Moroccan speakeasy of the type that Henry Miller would have frequented had he visited North Africa. To be blunt, it was an establishment of gloriously ill repute, a bona fide den of iniquity no Peace Corps volunteer true to his Birkenstocks would be caught dead near. But never having owned a pair of sandals, I had been to La Boite. And since I had barely survived my first night out there, I decided the experience would be edifying enough in a Marrakech-cum-Gomorrah sort of way to be worth proposing to our guest. He agreed, and repocketed his wad.

An hour later we hustled out the door. The evening call to prayer was wailing from the minarets and mingling with the rattling of carriages, with the "Balek!" shouts of porters and the nasal caterwauls of egg and pepper merchants. The North Star gleamed like a diamond set in blue velvet; the crescent moon hung lopsided above the ramparts of the medina. We slipped down the alley through shafts of moonlight and pools of dark and piled into Sid's Peugeot.

Soon we were sputtering along the rutted lane toward the portals of Bab el-Khamis, from where we picked up the avenue leading out of the medina to Gueliz, the former French quarter. If in the medina our headlights had bounced off silk djellabas, here in Gueliz they hit dusty road: The French quarter was deserted after dark. We stopped at a crossroads and puzzled over the way. I rolled down my window and caught a distant drumbeat on the breeze.

"Follow that drum!"

Five minutes later we were parked at the edge of town. Ahead, La Boite's plain red door flew open and there was an outpouring of Moroccan rai, or dance music -- drums, synthesized lutes, wavering lyrics. A threesome of wiry, djellaba-clad scalawags, groggy-headed and brawling, stumbled into the street. Sid looked down at his wad of bills, then up at me.

"Is this place safe?"

On hearing our English, the scalawags froze in mid-swing and their eyes fell on us. Sid pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "Like I said, is this place safe or what?"

They began taunting us, hooting and calling us Nasara, or Christians. A gaunt, liveried doorman whose face was all warts and toothy rictus stepped out from among them.

"Bienvenue les français!"

"We're not French," I answered in Arabic.

"Ah, ahlan wa sahlan!"

He moved aside and we entered, stepping onto a spiral staircase that descended into a subterranean cavern hung with skeins of hashish smoke and tinted green-red by lights at the bottom. A fat squealing rat scampered above our heads along a pipe. The quickening drumbeat and the siren-like crooning of the sheikhat, or female singers, lured us ahead until we emerged into a mirrored basement chamber. Once inside, amid the murk, it was as if we were standing on the detritus-strewn bottom of an urban river, discerning only aqueous forms washed over by shifting silt.

A woman in a white djellaba materialized at my side. Her flowing raven hair held auburn lusters of henna, her kohl-bedaubed eyes were piercing. Other girls around the wall lolled their heads in our direction, looking up from their beers or hashish (kif in Arabic).

Sid turned to me and shouted above the drumbeats, "I never knew there were places like this in an Arab country!"

The woman in white grabbed my sleeve.

"Wlad q'hab, buy us beer! Beer!"

"What did she call us?" Sid asked me.

"Sons of whores."

I pulled Sid toward a table and we sat down; Stan stood staidly with his hands in his pocket, taking in the atmosphere. The women rushed to occupy the seats around us, and all at once there were hands on our legs, hands moving toward our crotches, fingers running up our necks. Scents of beer and hashish blended with sweat. Drums pounded and sheikhat wailed.

The waiter hurried over to us bearing a tray that rattled with Stork and Flag beers. Sid gestured broadly for more; soon we were sitting in dominion over dozens of bottles and surrounded by women. Leila, in the white djellaba, had high cheekbones, Sa'ida a tight pursed mouth and a shock of black hair; Na'ima wore a décolleté djellaba revealing a deep white crevasse. They were all grasping, lovely and lewd, vim-filled and viper-tongued.

A sassy sprite with topaz eyes and sandy hair plopped down next to me and introduced herself as Sakina. We chatted. Her features were finely etched, her beauty had made her bold and presumptuous; the combination made for a hauteur that nearly melted me.

"Wild qahba [son of a bitch], dance with me, dance!" she shouted. She arose and pulled me out of my seat toward the dance floor. Leila tugged at Sid's jacket and dragged him to his feet, too, but on the way they let go of us. The beat accelerated, the smoke thickened, a white spotlight was bouncing off the rotating disco ball suspended from the ceiling, ransacking the faces of the boozers and kif smokers with spinning splashes of silver.

Sakina and Leila, opposite each other, arms extended straight out to the sides as if crucified on an invisible cross, slowly swung their heads to the rhythm, face downward, then began thrashing the air with their heavy manes, twice to the left, twice to the right, over and over. The tempo quickened, their hair beat the air faster and faster, heads all around the room lolled in the narcotic haze. We -- and everything else -- disappeared for them. They danced entranced, in the thrall of the sheikhat, the drums, the booze, the kif; we, in turn, languished in their thrall.

Later, Sakina said she had run away from a tyrannical father; Na'ima had escaped from violent brothers; others sitting with us talked of fleeing vengeful husbands or of being jilted and disgraced. If they were lying to win our sympathy, their stories rang true nonetheless. In Morocco the world above ground was a sham, a deceit, a sleight of hand with an ever-evasive pea and lost dirham. There was no place for fugitive women outside the home; they could only abscond into a nether world of debauchery and abandon -- or beg for alms.

"Never, never, never will I beg!" Sakina shouted into my ear after telling me her story. "Wallahi, never!" She and the other women lived on commissions from the drinks the bar's customers bought them.

On the sofas around the walls sat men in coarse wool djellabas, men who looked like store owners and shopkeepers, upstanding, traditional heads of families from the medina. In fact, I recognized one Berber merchant from my neighborhood, and we exchanged subtle nods. They sat drawing on hash joints or cigarettes, sipping beers or wine, each with a woman or two. Now and then, those who couldn't hold their booze or smoke staggered over and berated us in Arabic about Christians and tourists and Islam and alcohol.

An hour later, a square yard of empty beer bottles littered our table, and five or six women were crowded around Sid and me. Their Arabic sounded guttural, as if wrenched from their larynxes; it resonated with the Sahara and the passion for life born of scarcity, of hot dry places and the sumptuous, flooding relief of oases.

"You are not a Jew, wild qahba?" Sakina asked. "Jewish Moroccans speak Arabic but look like Christians," I told her no. She shouted over my head to Na'ima.

"Bint-z-zanqa [streetwalker]! He's not Jewish!"

I felt lips on my other ear.

"Take me home. I'll be your maid, your wife, I'll have your baby," Na'ima pleaded with startling urgency, grabbing my lapels, her eyes welling with tears. "Get me out of this place. Take pity on me, God bless your parents!"

Caught off-guard by this outpouring of distress, I mumbled something vaguely negative; I wouldn't take her home. I suddenly felt like an interloper, an exploiter. She drained her drink, paused and, closing her eyes, started rolling her head again to the drum rhythm, the lines of grief slipping from her face. In a flash of anguish, I saw that Na'ima and Sakina and their friends had nowhere to escape to except their own rai-induced trances, the Lethe of kif and liquor, and, once in a while, the hotel bed of some moneyed grandee visiting Marrakech from another town, or the home of a foreigner who wouldn't care about dowries and shame and family reputation.

"You are both Christians?"

Bahija, a new woman sitting at our table, interrupted my sad reverie. Her eyes were boring into mine. "It's haram [forbidden] for us to go with Jews, you know. And I really don't like you Christians. You're all wlad q'hab."

"Well, isn't it haram for you to be in here drinking beer?" I blurted back. "Who am I to talk?" I thought, as soon as the words left my lips.

Bahija stood up.

"This is my fate, for now; it is maktub [written]. God willing, it is also written that I'll find a way to have a good family life." She moved to the bar, peering back at us as though we were, in some way, profane.

Stan sat against the wall conversing with a black-haired woman who sipped a beer and nodded during his pauses. All the wild ones were drawn to Sid and me. Again and again, we watched them stagger in pairs to the dance floor and surrender themselves to the drums and lutes and sheikhat, always flouncing the air with their hair, closing their eyes and shutting out the world around them.

I excused myself from Sakina and walked into the side room to get away from it all, and sat down, thinking of her allure, of Na'ima and her pain, of Bahija and her maktub fate. Across the room a Moroccan in cowboy boots pawed at a woman's breasts through her djellaba. She broke free of him and ran to take a seat next to me. The man walked over, beer glass in hand. He leveled his eyes at mine one instant; the next, he doused us in beer.

I stood up, uncomprehending. He smirked. I punched him in the jaw, beer droplets flying from my jacket sleeve. He sailed backwards into the sofa against the wall. From all sides men jumped up to restrain me, though I was as startled by my own act of aggression as he was. He sat up, oddly unperturbed, and massaged his jaw, touching his inner lip and peering at the blood on his finger.

"I know you Christians well," he said calmly. "I have a jewelry shop on Jami' al-Fna. You think everything is permitted you, you think you can come here and take our women. But it is haram. Haram."

"You don't know me and I didn't take your woman."

He kept rubbing his jaw, a smirk of disdain frozen on his face. As much as I detested him, and even as I wiped beer from my clothes, I felt degraded for having allowed myself to be provoked.

The evening spoiled after that. The haze became intolerable; the beer-scent and sweat fused into a thick barroom fog. The hash smokers eventually slumped in their seats; the women grew irritable. I called over the waiter and he began counting the bottles, tapping each one with his pencil. There must have been 30 or 35: We had turned no woman away.

"Six hundred dirhams," he said.

Sid reached into his front pocket. A startled look crossed his face and he leapt to his feet, racing his hands over his person, through his coat and trouser pockets.

"Where's my money? I had thousands of dirhams!" He blanched. Three bouncers stepped toward us.

"Wild qahba!" shouted Sakina. She poked at his back pocket and he drew out a wad of crumpled bills; we nearly fell to the floor with relief. He counted out the money, added a tip, and we signaled to Stan that time was up. Passing Na'ima, who was slumped hashed-up and boozed-out on the sofa, we left the chamber together and started up the stairs.

"Wild qahba!" Sakina cried, following just behind me. "Ma timsheesh! Come back!"

I hesitated, but kept going after all with Sid and Stan until I reached street level -- if I had stayed who knows what I might have been tempted to do. I was all for abandon -- up to a point.

Puddles of lamplight marked the road back to the medina at one-block intervals. A few hours later, when dawn would make it possible to distinguish a black thread from a white thread, there would be another call to prayer, and the plain red door to La Boite -- the only above-ground evidence of the place -- would have been shut and barred, would have become an insignificant feature of just another building in the French quarter past which crowds would wander all the next day without a thought. But around Marrakech, throughout the medina and along the lanes of the casbah, Berber merchants, Arab shopkeepers, a few errant foreigners and, most of all, women with nowhere to go but down would think back on the door and the world to which it led, a parallel world of haram and forgetting and fading hope where, as above-ground in Morocco, fates had already been written out by an author dwelling afar in a redoubt never to be penetrated.

After La Boite -- and my years in Morocco -- I clung fiercely to my own desire to author my life, but often it seemed little more than fantasy, a silly notion to be swept away by happenstance and whim.

SALON | March 10, 1998

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By Anonymous (cpe-071-070-175-114.nc.res.rr.com - on Wednesday, April 19, 2006 - 10:43 pm: Edit Post

I've been to Morocco and had no idea they had such underground places!

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