“Through travel I first became aware of the outside world. It was through travel that I found my own introspective way into becoming a part of it.”- Eudora Welty
It was dusk and the air had cooled. Gilded towers pierced the blood-orange sky and ochre-red clay houses came into view. It finally hit me: I was in Morocco.
My fascination with Morocco began with an image of smoke, shadows, and undulating crowds. It was a photograph of the Marrakech night market, the Djemaa el-Fna—and I imagined myself at the center of that image.
I arrived in Fes that night. Although I was tempted to explore the city, I had a goal in mind: to reach Marrakech. There would be other chances for Fes, I told myself. I felt, as young, restless people often do, pressed for time and headed to the train station. The building’s fluorescent lights exacerbated the area’s solemn atmosphere. I heard a shriek. I peeked through the windowpane and found the source: a lanky, blonde androgynous creature howling in laughter.
He sat on the wooden bench, one leg crossed over the other, a grin on his lean face and a notebook filled with tickets, postcards, and drawings. I’m still not sure who or what he had been chuckling about, but it was infectious.
A native Californian, J, had spent the past year in Japan in search of his heritage. He told me that returning to the life he once knew in the US was so unbearable that as soon as his time in Asia had ended, he bought a ticket to Europe and wound up in Morocco.
Maybe it was our shared sense of dislocation – of being between cultures – that made two strangers feel like old friends and journey together on that night train to Marrakech.
The Mecca was chaotic. But I expected that. What I didn’t anticipate were all the tourists from Japan, Europe, and the US, which meant that most accommodations were either fully booked or overpriced.
Eventually, we did find a place. A three-story champagne building with—lucky us—only two beds left.
After checking in, however, I found myself in an empty 14-bed dorm room. The silence was unnerving. I looked out at the street below: a young girl sat waiting for customers at the family shop, pop music blared loudly on the radio, and two children sat on a corner drinking their sodas. I smiled at the realization that Marrakech, a land that had lured travelers with its mystery and exoticism, was like any other home in the world.
I met up with my companion whose room, it turned out, was also vacant. We were the only occupants.
Though still early in the afternoon, stalls were already set up in the square. Sellers, soothsayers and performers were revving up for visitors eager to pay for a piece of the country shown in Hollywood movies or in the words of Bowles and Borroughs.
But not everything was for sale in Morocco. A clear steady voice sliced through the chatter. It was the Islamic call to prayer. And for several minutes, the world stood still.
Sellers stopped selling, food ceased to be served, and men watched over the mosques, turning away eager would-be photographers from invading the private moments of the faithful.
Once the prayer ended, the action resumed. And as the sun dipped behind the High Atlas Mountains, the Djemaa el-Fna snapped into full throttle. The frenetic energy of the day was just a warm-up for a night of myth, mayhem and magic. Torches lit the indigo sky as people filled the streets. Acrobats and belly dancers curled and coiled to the thundering drums. Snake charmers seduced gasping crowds. Clairvoyants beckoned desperate souls with their kohl-lined eyes and crystal orbs. Musicians sang of ancestral journeys and broken dreams.
The city smelled of cinnamon, honey, fresh oranges, and cured meat. On offer: roasted sheep’s head, snail soup, and pigeon pie.
J and I had parted ways. He was on the trail of a beguiling masseuse. Like me, he had an idea of Marrekech that he wanted to experience.
As I wandered the maze of rugs, scarves, and herbs, tenders yelled “Konnichiwa!” and “Mizz Tokyo, Mizz Tokyo…” I realized that few Southeast Asians migrated or roamed Morocco. I became Japanese by default. But when I explained that I was Filipino and not Japanese, locals were curious. “What’s it like in the Philippines? Is it hot like here? Can I visit you?” they asked. Fluent in Arabic, Spanish, French, as well as other dialects, they quickly replaced “Konnichiwa” with “Kamusta ka?” pronouncing the sharp inflections of Tagalog to near perfection.
I later found J seated in front of the inn, staring into space. Breaking his trance, I asked him about his evening. He looked at the ground, tracing circles over the dirt with a dried twig—the night did not turn out as he had hoped. J was openly gay. Having grown up in Berkeley, California, his sexuality was not an issue in a metropolis prided itself in its cultural and sexual diversity. Morocco was different. Though the country was modern in many ways, homosexuality was taboo, and for some, dangerous or exploitative.
We looked on, watching young Moroccans wearing polo shirts and slacks take to the streets. People were now entering and exiting our hotel. It was midnight and techno and hip-hop music filled the smoke-filled sky.
I dug my toes into the sand. I was sitting on a beach in Asilah, a seaside village off Morocco’s northern coast. I had reached the end of my journey. I thought about that night and the photograph that had for so long not only propelled me to Marrakech, but to explore the world. Yes, I had cast myself into that picture—I had made it real. But what stayed wasn’t finding myself in the throes of that frenetic night market, but the fragments of Morocco that wasn’t in photographs or movies or books. What stuck was a country that on the surface, catered to the romanticized notions of its visitors, but in truth, was committed to safeguarding their spiritual life from peering eyes. A place where the new generation looked outwards, walking the tightrope between recreating the nation’s landscape and holding on to tradition.
Just then, a group of Moroccan teens rushed to the shore. The girls—fully clothed and wearing their hijabs–splashed each other. Their laughter rose up to the clear, candy-blue sky as the waves crashed on the shore, like cream spilling onto a bed of brown sugar.