I said yes to the dinner invite of course. After all, this is the standard goal of travelers—to experience a different culture from the inside, rather than peering in from the outside. It is the same impulse that drove me to Morocco, the same impulse that convinced me to climb a mountain—the desire to ring the meaningful out of each trip. Though I would later feel just as threatened, at the onset joining him and his kinsmen for dinner seemed far less menacing.
I walked back to my hotel as a dozen loud speakers from across Chefchaouen's many mosques broke out in simultaneous prayer to Allah. It was the fifth prayer of the day—the sunset prayer. Walking atop curvy cobblestones while passing colorfully cloaked women and men dressed like Jedi, I realized I had made it to Agrabah—the fictional city I once longed to visit when I had watched Disney's Aladdin as a youthfully imaginative rabble-rouser.
Dining in Agrabah
Candles lit the room above Mohammed's store. As is customary, the two youngest boys worked to prepare the meal, while the other men lounged about on cushions smoking hash. The boys worked quickly, pausing obediently whenever anyone with seniority requested anything—usually more mint tea or hash.
The three Moroccans who spoke some English kept me involved in the French and Arabic conversations floating wildly about the room. They summarized the gist of various exchanges and translated my contributions. All the while, cats plotted in the shadows, aware only of the aroma of cooking.
Hamad, another nomad-gone tourist-rug-salesman, spoke to me in broken English, pontificating on the value of cats as rat controllers. "Cats are very spiritual animals," Mohammed chimed in. I told him the story of my Guatemalan cat, Mish, who I had taken in at two weeks old after her mother had fallen from a tree and died. I related how Mish followed the same fate a year later when she fell from my roof.
"We have a saying here in Morocco," Hamad told me, "Curiosity made the cat fall from the tree and die."
Mohammed II, Hamad's brother, took out a Guimbri, a guitar-like instrument, and began to play. Others grabbed bongos to keep rhythm. Originating from Gnawa, Guimbris are supposedly the ancestor of the American banjo. The melody is played in chorus with a tapping on the face's cow skin drum. Mohammed told me that music was a way of singing to Allah.
The meal was served traditionally with one communal dish in the center that everyone dipped in with unleavened bread. Meat was mixed with a melody of vegetables all heavily flavored by olive oil and complimenting spices. Moroccan life leads up to this meal, where the toils of the day are tamed by the closeness of community within a clan.
The night was progressing perfectly. We sat in a circle smoking, laughing and I felt fully accepted amongst them. It was perfect. Then I started to suspect that everyone was plotting to hurt me...
Escaping From Friends
When everyone had eaten their fill, the communal dish was set in the corner for the cats. More hash cigarettes were rolled and smoked. The candles had burned out. A few flickering lights remained. Now the conversations were in rapid-fire Arabic. Not being able to participate, I was left to my thoughts. Frequently, the group would burst out into seemingly sinister laughter and everyone would glance at me.
What are they laughing about? Why are they glancing at me like that?
"Yes," added Mohamed, "Stay here with us, it will be a very spiritual night…" He added with the tone of an inside joke.
My thoughts began taking turns down narrow, hashish-constructed alleyways.
Why had they really invited me here? Why had everyone been so hospitable to me? They aren't trying to sell me anything? What do they want? Why is everyone touching each other and giggling like little girls?
The constant talk about how "spiritual" everything was, now seemed to have a deviant double meaning. There also seemed to be a strange sexual tension in the air that made me more than a little uncomfortable.
In hindsight and in print, it is easy to see that I was being paranoid and ridiculous. It would be easy at this point to dismiss me as a xenophobic. But not being used to smoking hash, my thoughts had left rationality far behind.
Hammad reminded me of the offer on the table, "You will stay the night with us?"
What was going to happen when the lights were out?
I did not plan on finding out. I had not just survived a mountain to be taken out by a group of guys dressed like Jedi. I abruptly thanked them for their hospitality and stoned off my rocker, hightailed it back to my hotel via dubiously dark streets.
The Sober Daylight
It is in the sober daylight that the mysteries of the night are uncovered. A ghost in a closet turns out to be your pet cat. A sinister knocking at the window turns out to be Christmas lights blowing in the wind. In my case, my own worry that I was being invited to share dinner with sinister strings attached turned out to be just my forgetting the cultural markers of Morocco. Well, that and smoking from hash cigarettes they passed my way.
Morocco is a man's country. True to form of a male-dominated society, both sexes lose out. Men and women repress the natural inclination towards falling in love and showing affection. The business of marriage is decided by family ties and wealth. Love is possible in theory, but just as an accident. It is not the foundation of the institution. Holding hands in public, even with your husband, is rather risqué. Many women have deep-seated resentments towards the husbands they were forced to marry and an uneasy tension between the sexes is clear to see.
The effects of these conditions have become a part of the culture. Men spend most of their time with other men. They giggle, and are as touchy-feely with each other as men and women in the West are. What I had seen that night as men flirting with each other is just how they interact.
The morning after the dinner, I was set to leave Chefchaouen, but not before returning to Mohammad's store. I had promised to come back to deliver prints of the photos I had taken the night before. After a search, I found a Kodak store and printed out the best shots from the previous night.
"You won't really bring us the photos," they had chided the night before. "People like you say that, but no one ever brings photos." They had initially been reluctant to let me take photos, but after I assured them that I would make prints for them, they were transformed into sixteen-year-old girls at the prom. They posed in different positions and insisted I take photos until the battery in my camera died.
The next morning Mohammad seemed genuinely surprised when I reentered his store with an envelope of photos. I felt like I was apologizing when I handed him the photos. In a way I was. I was sorry to have allowed my irrational mind see them as anything other than kind strangers who had welcomed me into their lives for a night.
Mohammad and I laughed for different reasons as he flipped through photos from the previous night. He thanked me and promised to give copies to the others later that day.
I took a final glance at his many spiritual trinkets and walked outside to take one more glance at the mountains. I thought about the previous night and knew that how it ended mattered little. It would be a night I would always remember and be grateful for. I took a final glance at the mountain that had not killed me and walked to the bus station. It was a good morning and the day was just beginning to unfold.
After setting off hitch-hiking post college from Chile to Alaska, Luke Maguire Armstrong made it as far as Guatemala. There for four years he directed the educational development organization Nuestros Ahijados in a mission to "break the chains of poverty through education and formation." He is the author of iPoems for the Dolphins to Click Home About and co-editor of The Expeditioner's Guide to the World. His first novel, How One Guitar Will Save the World, is at large looking for a publisher. Follow him on Twitter: @lukespartacus.
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Surviving Loco in Guatemala by Luke Armstrong
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