Having Wonderful Ramadan in Morocco’s Quiet Zone

I met Abdul after our unofficial guide was led away in handcuffs at the

Merenid ruins, on the north side of Fez, on Dec. 31. We got the message and

drove back to the hotel. We figured the hotel had sicced the police on us

that morning when we declined an official guide. I went back to the desk

and obediently requested an official guide.

Abdul appeared wearing a government guide badge on his brown burnoose.

He was tall and lugubrious, with chocolate-colored eyes and a grim

judgmental expression. But then, it was Ramadan. I don’t know whose

idea it was to go to Morocco in the off-season, at the height of Ramadan,

but there we were, and at the tender mercies of Abdul.

At first we liked him. He was a peculiar combination of insolent and

imperious. He led us around the medina, the covered old city of Fez, and

clapped his hands to keep us to the side when donkeys walked by and berated

us when we were moving too slowly or when anyone strayed. There were six of

us and a baby. He led us down the intestinal passageways, with their

atmosphere of ancient menace, trapped air and claustrophobia, and made us

feel helpless.

In mid-afternoon, Abdul proposed that we go back to his house to break

Ramadan with him. He called his wife on a cell phone, and as it got closer

to 5:30 he became more and more impatient. By this time, I should add, I

was fasting, too. I felt too guilty eating, surrounded by sallow fasting

Muslims with sour Ramadan breath. Isn’t that what religious ritual is

all about, peer pressure? Do you think I chose to be an American Jew? We

drove rapidly through the west side of Fez. Inside Abdul’s apartment

his wife was busy cooking, and his son was copying out Arabic letters in a

notebook. His pretty daughter flirted with us, and I wondered how soon

before she was married off and her charms beaten into the earth.

I sat next to Abdul and his wife brought out a big platter. A nature

show was going on television and there was a portrait of King Hassan II on

the wall. That’s the compass of free speech in Morocco. There are

pictures of King Hassan II everywhere, but no one is allowed to say

anything about the king, though everyone privately whispers that he has a

harem of hundreds of concubines. A guy I picked up hitchhiking in the

mountains later explained that speech is strictly forbidden on three

subjects: the king, the nation and religion. So you’re not allowed to

question the wanton destruction of women’s public talents, or the

notion that the memorization of the Koran at age 6 is religious study. As

visitors, we acted out. We called the King, King HaHa the Second.

Abdul ate three bowls of harira rapidly, then, taking my biceps,

announced solemnly that we were invited to his house the following night,

too. It would be a feast. His in-laws were coming in from the country, with

chicken from the country.

“We’re going to Marrakech,” I said.

“You can leave the next day,” Abdul said. “You only need

a day in Marrakech.”

He drove with us back to the hotel. We were going out at 9 to celebrate

New Year’s, and I lay down to take a nap. I’d been asleep five

minutes when Abdul called from downstairs. I went down and he informed me

dolefully that we had to eat at the hotel that night, their New Year’s

gala at $100 a head. I told Abdul it was none of his business and went back

upstairs. We’d been over this with the management that morning, before

our illegal guide got handcuffed. They said we had to eat the dinner there.

We threatened to check out. The hotel backed down.

Now the hotel was reneging. My friend John and I made a pact not to lose

our temper and went to the front desk to talk to the manager. A short, fat

choleric man with a thick mustache, he kept pointing at an unintelligible

line he’d scrawled across the bottom of my wife’s typewritten fax

when confirming our reservation, a line he said read, ” Dîner

Saint Sylvestre, obligatoire, 900d par personne .”

“Saint Sylvestre is known all over the world,” the manager

cried. “Saint Sylvestre is the feast of New Year’s.”

The manager kept shouting at us, telling us not to shout. I suppose it

was inevitable that we lost our temper. He waved the fax in John’s

face. “You are an American actor. But I tell you, by my god, you will

pay for this meal.” John’s an architect.

Neither John and I had been so upset for years. It wasn’t like we

were going to put our god up against his god. We don’t really have

gods in the United States, just the media. We sat down on a nearby couch to

figure things out, but we sensed we were powerless to stop them charging

us. The Moroccan unit of currency is the dirham, worth about 11 cents.

Basically, $99 a head for bad hotel food, a lot more than our hotel bill.

All my cultural relativism went out the window. I remembered the friends

who’d said, You take your freedom for granted, you have no idea what

it’s like to live in an Islamic country. The culture was grinding,

authoritarian and overwhelmingly masculine.

Our ally joined us on the couch.

“I think you must eat here,” Abdul said.

“I would spit their food out of my mouth before I ate it,” I

said.

Abdul sat up straight and shook his head. “You must not say

that,” he said. Then he held me by the biceps and asked how many of us

would be coming to his house tomorrow night for dinner.

“Right now, we have enough problems, Abdul.”

“But we have chicken coming from the country. I have called my

in-laws.”

John leaned toward Abdul, crossing his wrists at his chest in a vaguely

religious gesture. “Abdul? No. No. No. No. No.” Abdul stood up

dolefully. I gave him 300 dirhams for the guiding, $33. That’s not

counting his cut of the inflated purchases we made in the market, the

burnoose he got one of us to fork over $120 for that was worth $30.

He started to walk away, then turned back to me lugubriously. “If

you change your mind–”

It was more relaxed in the south. We went to Essaouira on the coast, a

town whose name endeared me because it has all five vowels. My wife and I

rented bikes and rode the 10 kilometers to the dusty settlement of Diabat,

where Jimi Hendrix once lived. We left the bikes with kids in the village

and walked out along the sands, looking for Jimi’s house. A handsome

guy with a goatee appeared between the dunes, leading a camel with two

Germans riding on it, and said to follow him through the scrub, he was

going to Jimi’s house. He insisted that my wife get up on the camel

with the Germans.

Jimi’s crib was an abandoned pavilion of white stone that Aziz said

had been a royal palace in the something century. It had hippie graffiti

going back many years. Sand filled the interior passageways. A drug dealer

in blue harem pants sat out on a broken wall, whittling and listening to

music on a boombox.

The others ate lunch on Jimi’s porch and I sat in the sand

investigating the camel, his huge soft footpads and milky blue eye. He had

a flat, callused, footstool-sized bump on his chest that Aziz said he uses

to grind his enemies into the ground. Now and then Max issued a bubbling

roar.

Aziz asked us to come over to his house for dinner. We did. There was

the usual nature show going on the black-and-white TV, and Aziz’s wife

brought out a ceramic platter filled with couscous. Three of us used our

hands, but my wife used a spoon. She ate a lot of couscous and vegetables but didn’t touch the

chicken in the middle.

“You don’t eat the chicken?” Aziz asked.

“I’m a vegetarian,” my wife said.

“You are not,” I said. “You’re lying.”

My wife gave me an unbelievable look.

She was toasted over that for days. Walking back to our hotel that

night, she said, “Even Sissela Bok would understand that lie.”

I blamed it on all the time I’ve spent hanging out in the

anti-Clinton camp. The camp followers act as if no one lies about anything.

They quote Ms. Bok’s crisp, stupid statement, “Veracity functions

as the foundation of relations among human beings; when this trust shatters

or wears away, institutions collapse.”

Actually, lies sometimes serve to preserve institutions. In his

revisionist treatise on lying, A Pack of Lies , the Australian

sociologist John A. Barnes points out that in many societies, people go

into agonies of shame when certain lies are exposed. In politics there is

an expectation that people lie, that it is sometimes their duty to do so.

Politicians who don’t lie don’t last–Walter Mondale and

Michael Dukakis, whose deficit in that department the Democrats set out to

correct with a vengeance in 1992.

This is not to endorse lying, but to recognize its inevitability. Still,

a politician couldn’t lie successfully if there weren’t an

understanding that mostly people tell the truth. “Coherent public life

would, I think, be impossible if no one ever trusted any politician,”

Mr. Barnes writes. “To maintain a complex social fabric we have to be

prepared sometimes to give some politicians the benefit of the doubt; they

have to avoid excessive, and hence counterproductive, lying.”

Mr. Barnes’ delightful book is filled with examples. My favorite is

the Mehinacu community of Brazil. At the time they were visited in the late

60′s, there were 57 of them and they had lots of adultery. But because

everything could be so easily observed in a small community, and gossip was

rampant, the people constantly lied about adultery, too. People learned not

to believe their own eyes. The social order had a couple of co-existing

realities at the same time, one half-fictional. Lying preserved social

order.

We got home on the 10th. I had cultural readjustment problems. For some

reason, I didn’t want to be back. I called the Moroccan Embassy in

Washington and asked the media officer about King HaHa the Second’s

hundreds of concubines. She bridled. “No, that is not true. I’m

not aware of that.”

I chuckled, but then I turned on the television and the king’s

harem was all anyone here could talk about. I’d worried about being

out of touch and asked my sister to save all the papers. But what had I

missed? Nothing. Everyone was still talking about Monica a year later. It

was hard to say which was worse, not being able to talk about the

king’s exploitation of women, or being forced to talk about that and

nothing else for years.

I don’t know whose idea it was to go to an Islamic country during

Ramadan in the off-season, but I missed it bad.