Even before leaving the plane in Marrakech, we experienced the hospitality of Moroccans.
A fellow flight-mate latched onto us with a beaming smile after I commented how happy he seemed to be back in his country.
“I work in Qatar. Come for two months to see family. You call me tomorrow. What is your number?”
Grabbing his camera, he asked us to pose on the runway and shot photos of Skip and me standing in front of the Marrakech airport sign while two military police officers bearing machine guns looked on. No photos on airport turf? No such rule here.
Since we had no phone in Morocco, we had no number to share. So he seized a piece of scrap paper and wrote down his email address.
“What is your name?” we asked as we introduced ourselves.
“Jameel,” we thought he said.
“Good holiday to you. See you tomorrow”.
Not sure if he was an emblem of hospitality or trying to sell us something (a carpet? saffron? a camel?), we waved farewell to our new Moroccan friend then looked at the paper and burst out laughing.
His name was not Jameel. It was Azdin. The Jameel we’d heard was his email address: gmail.
Twenty minutes later, we stood in the terminal staring at the conveyor belt searching for our bags. No suitcases appeared that looked like ours. But, wait. Yes, there were. But they were now wrapped in layer after layer of plastic, sitting on an immobile conveyor belt looking like a couple of ridiculous cocoons. Somewhere along the route from Lisbon to Marrakech, an airport employee had the bright idea of wrapping our bags so they were protected from something, somehow. We laughed out loud at the bizarre sight of them and hauled them out of the terminal.
Once through the fast customs procedure (which demanded we showed both boarding passes and divulged our professions), we met Ishmael, the driver from the hotel who, in broken English, welcomed us to Morocco and drove us to the Medina where we were met by Mustafa, the manager of our hotel. He tossed our bags into a rough metal wagon pulled by a young Moroccan man and we all wove through the small alleyways to find our destination.
Here’s where the weird stuff started.
Today happens to be the first day of Eid al Adha (the Feast of the Sacrifice), one of the most religious days in the Muslim calendar. It’s celebrated by sacrificing sheep and cooking them for family feasts. What that meant for us was that on almost every twist and turn along the tiny pathways, we came upon open fires in the middle of the street. Acrid smoke filled the air, blurring the outlines of the archways and curved doorways and plunging us into a cultural experience that felt oddly uncomfortable.
An iron bed frame sat in the middle of one alley, flames curling around the edges as sheep heads cooked alongside blackened skulls. A bucket lay by the roadside, filled with bloody stumps of horns, hooves and bones. All would be used. No sheep would be wasted.
Men in long white robes and long black beards stoked the fires. Motorbikes swerved along the alleys and children with curling black hair ran through the streets. The sounds of the muezzin echoed from the mosques as the sun went down over the city.
I pulled out my camera and snapped a photo. A white-robed man shook his finger at me.
“No,” he gestured, urging me to delete the photo. I did, with a disturbing feeling of doing something wrong, of being out of my element.
Minutes later, we thankfully emerged into an alley which led to a sturdy wooden door and led to the Riad (a traditional Moroccan house) where we were staying. Inside the cool, leafy courtyard, Mustafa sat us down on comfy padded couches, served mint tea and chocolates then showed us to the rooftop which looked onto the illuminated mosque in the distance.
We sat for a while. Took a deep breath. Acknowledged we were back in a country that made us a bit uncomfortable. Then we headed out again, through the heavy wooden door, Mustafa leading the way, past the burning sheep, to find dinner.