Monday, December 17, 2007

the other side of the djemaa

random photu --->

It's well past midnight at the Marrakech bus stand. Shawled men form sleeping humps along the base of the bus stand's walls - gently-heaving, hooded figures snoring through arrivals and departures. Just off a bus from the exuberant sea side town of Essaouira we are already overwhelmed by Marrakech's night-time unfamiliarity. Its aggressive traffic, its insistent touts, its magnanimous big-city character that overlooks our foreignness and tourist-status. The city makes no exceptions for faltering explorers. No buses have been found to our particular tiny destination: Ait Ben Haddou, six hours by road from here, across the Atlas mountains. No ebullient taxi driver has quoted an even near-reasonable rate. No fellow confounded tourist has been found to share the cost.

We do not stop trying. There must be a way to get to Ait Ben Haddou. Despite being a speck on the map, the tiny dark blotch that is this dry and dusty town holds promises of ruined kasbahs amidst parched landscapes, deserted winding roads branching off into a lonely village now and again and the understated fame it has gained by being in the neighbourhood of film studios linked to Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. Film-maker David Lean has stayed here. We have even identified the tiny resort we will unwind at, where friends have stayed before us, swimming in an open pool surrounded by ruptured parched earth, under cooling blue skies.

As the night wears on, our persistence in trying to find a bus route eastwards that doesn't seem to exist helps us shake off the coterie of touts that was following us. Nearing one a.m., we find ourselves wedged into a tiny room lined with big maps, three foldable chairs and the chatty proprietor of a bus company. Leisurely, he tells us about his business, his studies in France, the changing city of Marrakech. We nod in agreement to his near-universal moan about a big city's morphing character.

“Tourists have changed it,” he says. “Foreigners have come in, buying houses with their big money and taken away the city I knew”.

We nod in sympathy. We offer him our paprika chips. Every sentiment sympathised with, every chip offered, every strand of culture understood as shared (we are two Indians and one half-Berber, half-Argentine) is inching us closer to a possible bus ticket procured on a full bus. Finally after an hour of crucial small talk, he offers us the modern day tourist equivalent of a signed deal - his gmail address: “to chat”. With it come the three bus tickets.

And now we are free to wander around. Four hours to kill in one of Morocco's best-loved cities and we faithfully follow repeated advice to visit the city's main square – the Djemaa el-Fna. One of us is half-Moroccan and has been here before, ten years ago. Stumbling along, part by instinct, part fading memory, we follow her through tiny winding streets, shuttered tiny shops, suddenly empty, dark, narrow stretches of road till, like a fairy tale glinting out at us from amidst the grime we have gingerly been picking our way through, Morocco's historic centre square beckons us.

From its outskirts it appears magical. It rises from the darkness around it, a gossamer construction of fairylights fed by the robust aromas of street food whirling within it. Hunger, exhaustion and anticipation surge together, urging us onward into the maze of food stalls. Yet the minute we break into the magical circle of light and shade, aroma and smoke, like a mirage, petulant and hard-to-please, the maya shatters. We are greeted, no, not greeted, veritably intruded upon by aggressive touts. “Shah Rukh Khan,” rasps the first and we know our night could only slide downward here on.

This greeting was familiar to us by now, as it would be to any group in Morocco that included an even reasonably good -looking Indian man. A slew of actor names will be offered to you, each one brimming with the possibilities of an entirely different persona from the previous – the chant to the Indian male tourist could be as varied as, “Raj Kapoor, Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan”! It begins as a heckle, then the words wrap themselves around you, visible to vendors and hawkers down the streets you walk and each will conjure up more names of his own or play around with those whose echoes are still swirling around you. The chorus of “Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan” that has dutifully followed us through our travels in Morocco is magnified through the lanes of this vast open square that hosts the Marrakech International Film Festival every year. The festival routinely fetes Bollywood: big stars such as Aamir Khan and Kajol have been paid tribute and attendees have included the Big B. Their apparently impactful presence coupled with the Moroccan's long-standing love of Indian pop culture has resulted in an ironic casting of the Indian tourist as naiive victim: a part we Indians usually associate, in amusement, with the Western tourist bravely navigating our own country. But the stereotype hits closer home than is comfortable in Morocco, as Indian tourists are constantly bantered with, quizzed and typecast – usually in reverse order.

“Namaste, namaste,” said the man, warming up to his act. The historic square was quickly losing its charm. At each step, a new man awaited us, and like hapless prey, we stumbled from the suddenly blinding light of one stall to the next, riding upon a chant that strung together Bollywood star names with broken Hindi.

Being very late at night, most tables have emptied out. The remaining few stalls seat gregarious tourists making absurd requests to the stall chefs – asking for action shots, an extra flourish while tossing the omelette here, a group picture against the tajine pot there. And streaming around us all is a constant stream of poverty and disability, young children wheeling around crippled siblings, begging for a bottle of water, some left-over scraps of food.

Nausea overwhelms us as do the enormous contradictions contained in this vast square. Its ribbon of sudden squalor and misery threaded through the hue of fairy lights and delicate smoke swirls. Our familiarity with poverty in India but our complete discomfort with it here. The cumulative effect of many assertive aromas wears us thin.

After a distracted meal at one of the stalls, half-mindful of the fact that digestion would be affected by a long journey along winding roads in just a few hours, we make our way out of the Djemaa el-Fna. Its lights have dimmed now and morning is breaking overhead, but in these Post-Tourist hours the sordid clamour of the square continues unfolding behind us even as we leave it.