Hands Across the Waterpipe

 

Strait Into Africa

Somehow, we’d managed to meet up with Hamid and Abdu — I thought of them as Yogi and Booboo — who we’d met the week before on the ferry that took us from Malaga, Spain across the Strait Of Gibralter and over to Morocco. They happened to be Moroccan, were winningly friendly, and like us seemed to be in their very early twenties. With just enough usable Spanish between us along with the helpful Arabic words Hamid wrote down in a little notebook, we managed to communicate in a surprisingly detailed fashion, hitting it off and vowing to see each other again.  And now, about a week later, upon arriving in their home city of Meknes, we’d miraculously met up with them right as scheduled, on the outskirts of the maze-like medina (casbah).

Meknes seemed kind of scary — the kind of place where you might expect to be grabbed and sold into the slave trade or some other swarthy old movie trope. It did not possess the charm or openness of similar areas in Fez or other cities we’d been seeing.  And we were heading deeper into it as the day grew later and darker.

First we were taken into a small teahouse where grizzled Moroccan men sat in a big circle around a fire in the middle of the floor, as if in an Arab tepee.  Goatskin-covered musical stringed instruments hung on the walls. Fresh mint tea was poured. A pipe that was essentially a small hollowed-out branch was passed around the circle.  Each cross-legged man would attach a little clay bowl to the end, fill it with kif (cannabis flowers), smoke it up, and toss the empty bowl into the fire.  The only females there were the two in our party of four traveling Americans, My Future Ex-Wife and a young woman accompanying a home-town friend who was along for half of the journey, with the only local representative of sisterhood the silent downward-gazing woman pouring the tea.

We were invited to Hamid’s home for dinner.  Apparently they were quite well off (which explains how the two friends had managed to be outside the country at all, a privilege allowed to very few Moroccans in the early 1970s). Hamid’s father owned a bunch of farmland surrounding the city. This didn’t mean they had things like electricity or a telephone, but then, as in other cities, that was mostly restricted to the old colonial French district.

The entrance to their home was a sudden nondescript opening in one of the many featureless mud-clay walls we were led along. But stepping inside, the scene was fairy-tale ethno-history fantasy: a fountain in the midst of a charming tiled courtyard, leading to lamp-lit, cushion-filled rooms.  Grandma loaded coal into a clay cooker and prepared a feast that everyone ate in the traditional finger-style manner, balling up some couscous and tossing the balls into our mouths (although the teenaged daughter of the family had a great time popping a ball into my mouth with a red-hot pepper in it — I thought Grandma would bust a gut laughing at that one as smoke and flames were probably shooting out my ears).

Hamid told us that after dinner we’d meet up with Abdu and some of their other friends for something special that we would surely like. He asked if we would like some hashish cookies for later; we said we’d surely like that.

So we set out through the dark, deserted passageways of this ancient neighborhood, guided by the beam of Hamid’s flashlight, stopping alarmingly at some sinister corner among quick whispery shouts In Arabic and on/off flickers of flashlights to, it turned out, meet up with the friends (phew!). This was the first and perhaps only time we saw any Moroccans who were wearing casual Western-style clothes rather than traditional djellabas (long hooded robes).  We then proceeded en masse until finally we reached a small building, somewhat apart from the others and dark except for the upper floor, and were quietly led inside.  We climbed a flight of stairs and were ushered through a curtained doorway. The whole way there, our hosts and the few friends they’d met up with along the way, lurking around the sinister corners, all seemed paranoid that they might be spotted, and there’d been much checking over shoulders by the young Arabs, although we never saw a sign of another soul.  We, on the other hand, were paranoid because it seemed just the sort of scene where one might get killed or kidnapped and we never saw a sign of another soul. 

Passing through the curtains brought us into a fun-house-mirror version of what had been going on on the other side of the world, the collision of cultures counter and otherwise we’d just come from in America, thousands of miles – and seemingly years – apart.  Young adult Moroccans, both male and female, were gathered in this dim, candle-lit room – another unusual social aspect in this particular corner of the universe. They sat or lounged on cushions on the floor. The atmosphere was warm, calm, and happy, very much like a classic “underground” bohemian hangout. Peace signs and the words “PEACE” and “LOVE” were painted in day-glo on the walls. This in a country where we’d seen no evidence of any coverage of the Vietnam War, no mass media, and where most people spoke zero English.  And they were all getting together to peacefully laugh, converse intimately, and get high…on wine.  The forbidden fermented fruit.  We were handed our “cookies” (they seemed like large chunks of hashish covered with crystallized sugar) but the psychoactive portion of this ritual was being fulfilled for the Moroccans by passing around the illegal-in-Islam alcohol.  Sometimes “different” is clearly a matter of perspective.

Some rebellion is socially motivated.  Some relates to behavior from being a certain age.  Some can be an echo of some wild freedom heard of from far-away rumors.  But what is actually rebellious is also highly subjective.

Whatever was going on here (and obviously these young people were no longer remotely young by the time Morocco started producing any young jihadists), we saw compelling, if not clear, evidence that this isolated segment of the “younger generation” had somehow, somewhere – as if through some kind of cultural quantum mechanics – gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

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