A traveler walks the streets of Morocco by night, observing the lives of those who thrive when the sun goes down.
I’m tired, and I hate the daylight. This strange sun reflecting off the white djellabas irritates me. It lights up a city of men tugging at their genitals, smiling toothless smiles. It shows dogs and children, bones pressing against skin, begging for relief. The sun releases the warm smell of urine, and I hate its familiarity. Sunshine gives clear, ugly faces to the staccato voices echoing through the narrow, filthy streets. It is impossible to hide anything under that sweet, burning Moroccan sun. I feel exposed.
Each day I amuse myself with sketching until darkness frees me from an imaginary world that hides me from the sun. The thick, violent sunset is my signal—a multi-colored alarm that assures me it is safe to leave the expensive hotel room.
The evenings are cool by the sea, so I follow the salt scent for a quarter of a mile until I stand on the beach. The growing darkness makes the people handsome. Eyes dominate. They make me feel secure. As long as I don’t have to squint at the sun, which impairs my reading of men’s eyes, I feel safe. At night the only reflections are friendship or danger, not white djellabas.
I listen to the waves slapping the beach. Women in veiled burnooses file past me, clutching their small sons and staring at their feet. I smile at the women. Their silhouettes against the horizon turn them into phantoms, insuring them of a most respected position within the night.
The ocean sounds and phantoms become too familiar, so I walk up to the boulevard just as the night lamps snap on. I love the lamps because, unlike the sunlight, they throw everything into shadow.
The boulevard is stretched with brightly-lit cafes housing lazy men and frightened tourists. I feel sick when I see a table of my tour companions. They’re caressing their cameras and huddling around the candle burning on their café table, as if insisting that the flame and familiar bodies offer some sort of protection. I spit, quickly turn my head, and cross the street.
The winding street to the medina is steep, and though it’s larger than any other road in Tangier, it’s a slow walk because of the crowds. The odor of raw sewage is carried by the sea breeze, and I like the contradiction of the two smells. I bump into many men who curse me and flash their teeth. I pause, stare into their faces, and continue undisturbed.
Children spot me. The smaller ones fleece the crowd using mirrors. When they find a careless foreigner with a bulge in his back pocket, they signal to their comrades for help. Soon, a half-dozen desperate children run around me, hoping to distract me long enough for one of them to lunge at my wallet.
I am amused by their ritual and pretend not to notice the small hand sliding across my buttock. I am ashamed of the boy’s lack of skill. Like an annoyed jackass, I swiftly snap my leg back, creating a thud as my shoe connects with the boy’s face. A scream, some swearing, and four more blocks until the medina.
The entrance to the medina has competing merchants in blue jeans squatting in stalls next to sleepy old men with henna beards. Violent bartering and the rapid-fire tongues of children, along with the shouts of taxi drivers and the hissing of horny young men, produce an uneven din that assaults the ears in waves.
At every step a craftsman pleads in broken English to “make good business, my friend.” I walk under the old stone passageway into the medina proper and turn to face the square.
Children running at breakneck speeds and the rich variety of colored djellabas, even more beautiful under the weak night lamps, fill me with an incredible sense of well being—until I notice the lack of women.
I spin around, pushed to the side by two male couples with their arms around each other’s waists, giggling. It angers me, and I’m tempted to stomp on their bare feet.
Two veiled women approach me, but the crowds are so thick that as soon as I feel a tug on my sleeve, I defensively cock my fist. When I see they are females, it excites me, and I lower my arm. Both women hold out a delicate bracelet of ivory and silver. I shake my head, but the taller woman with dark circles under her eyes giggles, “Is present. Gift. Go. Gift.” They attach them to my wrists.
Flattered, I thank them and walk away. The women shriek, attracting the crowd’s attention. “Two dirham each!” they cry.
“You said it was a gift!” I yell back—an explanation more to the crowd than to the women. The women raise their voices until I can feel the entire medina watching the transaction.
I take a five dirham bill out of my pocket that one of the women snatches out of my hand as the other pulls the gift off my wrists. They disappear into the crowd, but I can hear their squeakish voices detailing their triumph. I laugh and am not ashamed of their skill.
I push through the crowd. I’m frightened, and it excites me. My pace quickens as I squeeze past a decaying movie house featuring Charlie Chaplin, and rows of dilapidated cafes catering to men playing cards and rolling dice. The stench of excrement mingles with the sweet aroma of mint tea as my fear directs me to a café table.
The waiter is offended by my request for wine, so I order a mint tea instead. The tea is hot; it burns my lip. Two card players from an adjoining table look over and laugh. I exaggerate my pain and soon the entire table joins in the laughter. A dark man in a frayed sweater signals me to join his table.
The other card players ignore me. I jump into the game after watching four rounds. They play a form of poker using a forty-card deck, and I lose twenty-three dirham in six hands. I leave without any acknowledgement from the players.
I continue my walk up a dusty hill to the Casbah. The path is dark, and I notice teenagers following me. I pick up a large stone as I draw closer to the ancient fort where the city’s poorest live. I can hear the teenagers’ strained whispers. Rats scurry from wall to wall as my footsteps crunch on the cobblestones.
I feel a strange absence of danger. No one approaches me. I’m watched in silence. Exhausted, I head back to my hotel. I toss my rock into the shadows and listen to it scrape across the cobblestones. I feel defeated.
Leaning back on my hotel steps, I look up at the black sky turning blue. The head of a new sunrise presses against the emptiness inside my chest. Soon, I will climb into bed and try to sleep. I’m tired, and I hate the daylight.
Photo credit: Original artwork by Amy Bassin