Friday 17 May 2013

o : Taghazout

Atlantica Parc Campsite

Dear o,

Imagine you’re hanging out where you live.  Maybe you’re going for a stroll, or sitting on your balcony/grass/rooftop, or chatting with your neighbour.  A couple of foreigners walk by.  You know they are foreign if not by the colour of their skin, then by the way they walk, their wide-open eyes, their cameras and clothing and nervous smiles.  You go up to them and say, this is closed to you, and indicate they leave.

Imagine you are a retailer, or restaurant server, or mechanic.  The same foreigners arrive at your doorstep and ask how much it is for a pair of shoes, a full meal, or an oil change.  Because of their ethnicity you multiply the price by a factor of 2 or 5, even 10.  Maybe they’ve been around and they’ll barter, or maybe they’ll just nod and resign and pay.  There is one price for you and your kind, and another price for the outsiders.

Are these simply cultural differences, or market opportunism and community safeguards, or a system of rinsing those who choose to be rinsed, or just disrespect?

We’re in Taghazout, Morocco’s surfing capital, a site awash with tanned westerners, dreadlocked Arabs, excellent bays, and fenced-off waterfront development projects.  I write to you from the oceanside campground where we’ll be holed up for a few more days, until out carnet de passage arrives from the UK.  Without it, we cannot continue past Morocco.  It’s a happy place to be waiting, though.  The wind is strong and the ocean is an emerald green with patches of white flickering in and out of existence on the giant Atlantic canvas.  I had my first surfing lesson on these waves the day before yesterday, and got knocked around a few times without ever catching a ride, but feel I've caught the principle.  At least, the principle that I’ve got a little too much weight in the legs… 

It’s easy to get angry and righteous when treated not as a human being but as a walking dollar/euro/pound symbol.  Of course the price should be the same for everybody, and of course a public road is for everybody.  And, everybody includes everybody.  Right? 

Al and I expected and were prepared for the hassling and haggling and ripping off.  When we came here by bus and thumb in 2011 we visited Marrakech, Imlil and Essaouira, and by the time we visited the latter coastal city we were so armoured against the game that we almost missed the chance for a fun, and insightful, night out.  Just outside of our relatively inexpensive riad a young guy made his rounds, up and down the street, and each time we caught eyes he approached us, asked us about ourselves, and then got a little pushy in asking if we wanted to go for a drink.  At the end of every exchange, out came the question, hushed and crouched to give the added effect of him doing us a favour: “You guys want to buy some hash?”  No, we always said, and to get away we had to get a little rude.  He was just another seller, after all, and we were just another couple of wallets.  It was only a matter of time before he’d move on from hash and drinks to his cousin’s wedding, to which we’d be invited – and once there, we’d have to pay a handsome sum to the new bride.  In Marrakech, Essaouira, Fez and other places, these “weddings” occur every night in the high tourist season.  I’m tempted to go to one without a wallet, if only to witness the squeeze, and how it’s done.  I can imagine it’s certainly smooth.  Practice does that.

On our last night in Essaouira we decided to chat with Mr. Hash, leaving our valuables behind and agreeing beforehand that we wouldn’t buy, and certainly wouldn’t join the wedding, but merely talk.  We knew by now the hustler’s best card: friendship.  If you were my friend, you’d buy a little hash – even if you don’t smoke; or these beads, even if you won’t wear them; or my cousin’s wedding, even if you know it’s a scam; in fact, just give me your money, because we’re friends.  We found Mr. Hash on the street, laughing with his friends.  He said hello and shook our hands and opened fire with the cannons of charm.  We agreed to a drink, and he brought his two friends.  Before we knew it, we were going for a ride out of town, listening to Eminem and getting a lesson in the driver’s automotive control.  The five of us arrived at a cliffside vantage point, and talked.

We talked language, music, culture, careers, sports and politics (the Arab Spring had only just turned to its first winter).  We drove on to a beach, and talked some more.  We talked about how easy it was for us to visit Morocco.  We talked about how hard it was for a Moroccan to visit Europe, or Britain, or Canada, or the US.  A ridiculous sum of money was required in advance, like bail for a prisoner, in addition to a complex and bureaucrat-heavy process designed to discourage the less-desirables.  One of Mr. Hash’s friends was a wrestler hoping to make it big; he’d performed in Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey; but the real chance to make it lay far away, in our world, and so he sliced fish 12 hours a day in between bouts to save the money to cross the Atlantic.  His hope didn’t betray the mathematical logic that it would take him 50 years to get the cash together.  Moroccans are for the most part inherently, vehemently social, and like to talk the talk.  Mr. Future Hulk Hogan might have been giving me the yarn, but a quick minute of research shows that the quixotic visa process for Moroccans visiting Europe or North America isn’t a beachfront exaggeration.

We left Mr. Hash, Mr. Hulk Hogan and Mr. Look-at-my-amazing-clutch-control-and-I-only-just-started-driving-yesterday outside of our riad, laughing and joking and asking for nothing.  There was a lot to think about.  Morocco has two economies: one for us, and one for them.  The system is designed to bring money in, yes.  But it’s also designed to protect the one from the other.  If tourists and locals were given the same prices, the prices would rise for everyone.  Not only visas but real estate, furniture, electricity and food would get more expensive, even too expensive, and wages, now an average of 80 dirhams per day, would not magically go up in tandem.  Is it a good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing that depends on perspective?

And what about this word, public?  Does that include us foreigners?  Are there two economies, and two publics?  On our 2011 visit we weren’t told when wandering around, c’est fermée, as we were multiple times when in the medina of Fez, a little beyond the colourful but pigeonholed souqs.  This is not for youYou do not belong.

On the one hand, I get it: we’re the money, the opportunity, the marks.  Keep us in the hotels, in the markets, on the tour-buses – and stop us from the real streets to keep them real and keep them yours.  But on the other hand…

Is this where we start talking about globalisation, that lazy cap to every political discussion?  How do I fit in, with all of my ignorance and education and desire for the bargain and a heritage of pinky-white skin?  How about imperialism, institutional racism, the north-south or east-west divide, corporate-government piracy, or development-money banditry?  It doesn’t help that I’m reading Émile Zola’s L’Argent, does it?  We both know where else this can lead.  Let me stop while I’m ahead. 

While I was going off on that one, here’s what you missed: the impressive Roman ruins at Volubilis where a stork perched in her nest atop a 2000 year-old Corinthian column, feeding her chicks; the gargantuan, intricate seaside Hassan II mosque in Casablanca, built in just six years between 1987 and 1993, which features a retractable roof not unlike a sports arena, has ablution pools that have never been used, and typically has five times more men praying than women, as women are supposed to be at home with the children; and pretty Chefchaouen, where I last wrote, whose paths and doors and homes are part of the rock and meander with the formations of the earth, with a dash of light colours to keep it all cool.

An old Italian proverb says that in the end, the king and the pawns both go back into the same box.  You could make up a new one along the same lines: all surfers get the chance at the same waves.  Maybe, but why am I getting bashed into the sand?



The Hassan II Mosque, one of the few non-Muslims may enter.
Its 210m high minaret is the tallest religious structure in the world.