Friday, March 16, 2012

The Most Nastiest, Dirtiest, Ugliest, Most Beautiful, Wonderful Place in all the World

“Ain’t nothin’ like Atlanta. You don’t know what the fuck you gonna get. This is the most nastiest, dirtiest, ugliest, most beautiful, wonderful place in all of America. You could have all your dreams come true at Magic City, or you could get killed at a stoplight.” Katt Williams said this in the opening monologue of his comedy show, The Pimp Chronicles, taped in Atlanta in 2006. I probably watched this show 15 times in college. I highly recommend it. If he taped another show in Morocco in 2012, Katt would only need to replace Atlanta with Marrakech, Magic City with Jamaa el Fna Square, and America with the world.
“Ain’t nothin’ like Marrakech. You don’t know what the fuck you gonna get. This is the most nastiest, dirtiest, ugliest, most beautiful, wonderful place in all the world. You could have all your dreams come true at Jamaa el Fna Square, or you could get killed at a stoplight.”
Morocco is all of these things. Dirty? Yes. Beautiful? Yes. Ugly? Yup. Wonderful? Absolutely. And unfortunately, even nasty. And that is what makes Morocco so great. In no other place I have visited have I been more alert of my surroundings, vigilant, and, frankly, scared than in Marrakech. But also, never have I been anywhere more stunningly beautiful, thrilling, exhilarating, and eye-opening. Morocco is a beautiful country, especially outside of the big, busy cities. Morocco is roughly the size of California and boasts a variety of landscapes (mountains, deserts, metropolitan cities, beaches), sometimes in unbelievably close quarters to each other. Standing atop a sand dune in the middle of the Sahara Desert, I was able to view a snowcapped mountain in the distance.

As beautiful as Morocco is, it is unmistakably still a Third World Country. Yes, there are beautiful gardens, palaces, and the large business-minded commercial city of Casablanca, but it is impossible to overlook the widespread poverty. You literally can’t miss it. Piles of rubble, packs of stray dogs searching for food, malnourished and unhygienic old men, children in filthy clothes that don’t fit, beggars, entire towns without electricity and running water, and people sleeping in the streets.

Arriving in Marrakech
After a day’s worth of planes, trains, and automobiles we arrived at Menara Airport in Marrakech at 8pm local time. Two of our guides, Farid and Abdul were awaiting us with a sign with my name written on it. This is the third time I’ve had someone waiting for me with a sign at the airport. It is a pretty neat feeling I must say. Unfortunately though, I just watched the movie Taken a week prior, which, in-turn, lead to a lot of worrisome thoughts in my mind, especially when we got into the SUV of two random North African Muslim men named Farid and Abdul. (It was supposed to be a man named Mustafa that was to pick us up. That is what caused the uneasiness.)
Farid and Abdul drove us down the most chaotic, lawless roads I have ever seen in my life. St Louisians love to complain about the shitty drivers there, but here people literally drive wherever they want with no regard to lanes, stoplights, or human life. Two lanes are occupied by three cars, a donkey, two teens on bikes, and a woman on a motorcycle.  Stop signs and lights are merely a suggestion. They may as well say “Please stop. Or not. Fuck it. Who cares.”
Jamaa El Fna Square
We get dropped off in what I can only describe as the most rattling, unsettling area I have ever been in. And that says a lot considering I have driven through East St Louis at 2am on multiple occasions. You could have told me we were in Kabul, Afghanistan and I would have believed you. It is my first time in a Muslim country, so of course it was a bit scary. All we hear about in America is how Muslims are extremists, terrorists, how all they want is “death to America.” Of course, in reality this isn’t the slightest bit true, but at the time that is all I could think about. When I saw Osama Bin Laden’s twin brother zoom by on a mo-ped on my right, and four women in their full Muslim outfits (the kind that cover their entire body but their eyes) on my left, I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. You just FEEL everyone staring at you. When travelling, everyone knows to try to fit in, to try to not stick out and become an easy target. Here, though, that is impossible. You are going to look like a circus clown at a funeral no matter what.
One thing many Americans do when travelling certain places is to say they are Canadian. Especially in places with less than positive views toward the US. Nobody HATES Canadians. We tried it out. After a couple boring interactions, we came across an older man, maybe 60 years old, who asked if we were lost. We said no, but he persisted. He asked where we were from. I answered, “Canada.” 
“Oh, good," he said. Because I hate America. The President, I hate him.”

We dodged a bullet there. I now see why people say they are from Canada. Nobody can even name the leader of Canada. I couldn’t. (It is Stephen Harper. Whoever the hell that is.)
It is now midnight in Marrakech and we are walking back to our riad after checking out the world-famous square, full of snake charmers, souks, story-tellers, monkeys, and magicians. Walking down dark, dirty alleys you see children just sitting around doing absolutely nothing.

Don’t they have school tomorrow? Where are their parents? Another stand-up comedian came to mind. Dave Chappelle. I’ll let him explain: 
One phrase that kept popping in my head over and over was “eye-opening.”  At times I felt sorry for these people, but it crossed my mind, do they really know any other way of life? In a way, it just seemed like they were used to it; content. It made me realize how things could always be worse, and how, despite all of the bitching and complaining I talk about America, it truly is a great place to live, all things considered.
Afternoon stroll through the rubble.
We are free to travel anywhere we want in the world. Practice any religion we want. Eat and drink anything we desire. In Morocco, this isn’t the case. Our tour guide driver, Abdul, and I had a fascinating, all-the-while depressing, conversation one night at our hotel while making our way to the Sahara Desert. Abdul, who is a 34-year-old atheist in a Muslim country, has faced first-hand the harsh repercussions of living in a nation that is not “free”. Morocco is, by law, a Muslim country. As he explained to me, even if you are not Muslim, you must act as if you are, appear as you are, and claim you are. If not, this is punishable by law. Abdul said a large amount of Moroccans are atheists, Christian, Jewish, etc, but they must hide it, or at least not flaunt it. Just two years ago Abdul, a husband and father, spent six months in prison for drinking a cup of water during the Holy Month of Ramadan. He does not practice Islamic tradition, and told me that he believes the ancient traditions are ruining his country. Problem is, the government requires you to practice it.
A neighbor in his town saw him drinking water, reported him to the police, and he was taken away. When asked by the police why he drank water, he replied simply, “I was thirsty.”
Abdul went on to describe how it is nearly impossible for Moroccans to leave their country to travel – to see the world. He put it this way:

He said, “Brad, do you think you can go to the stars?”

Confused by where he was going with this, I just said "no."

Do you think you could ever go to the Moon?”

Again, I said "no" and asked why.  

“Well, America is our stars and Moon. We will never be able to go.”

Moroccans can’t leave their own country unless they meet very specific, and difficult to obtain, requirements. They must have a steady job, have money saved up, and a clean criminal record. Reason being, they would be flight risks. They are less likely to flee the country to never return if they are financially stable and have a job to return to. Understandable, until you consider that there are no jobs to be had.
Islamic marital tradition has had severe consequences on Abdul’s home town as well. In his broken English he explained how it was ok, and even encouraged that men marry as many wives as they want, without age being a factor. In their Holy Book, the Quran, the Islamic Prophet Muhammad had twelve wives, of which some were underage to say the least. In following the traditions of their religion, even in 2012, men across Morocco still adhere to this ritual. Women were, and still are, looked at as items. Not people, but in a disturbing way, collectibles. Abdul told how in his town there were men that would “have their way” with girls as young as seven or eight years old. The girls, young and naive, were not aware that anything was wrong with this practice, but as time went by they became severely depressed, confused, and suicidal. The same goes for the men. One man in Abdul’s town killed himself because he was so ashamed and depressed about what he had been doing to a young girl. He could not comprehend how this was morally acceptable according to his religion. Abdul, who is also in a band, was moved by this and went on to write a song about this man.
Yes, I’ve read books, news articles, and seen television reports of these types of things happening in Muslim nations, but to witness first-hand how people’s lives are affected is truly a life-changing experience.
Another sure-fire sign that you are far, far from home is hearing the Call to Prayer five times a day played over, in what I imagine to be hundreds of loudspeakers spread throughout Marrakech. The Call to Prayer is both haunting and peaceful at the same time. In Arabic, the chants translate as,
“God is great. I witness that there is no god but God. I witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God. Rise up for prayer. Rise up for salvation. God is great. There is no god but God.”
It can be heard throughout the entire city; at all times of the day and night. It woke me up, startled, twice at 3am The Call to Prayer takes place all over the Muslim world, not just Morocco.

Top Two Things Moroccans Love:

Yes, as in the Farmville on Facebook. Every single one of our guides, and their posse, maintained and tended to their farms on a regular basis. They would check hourly, discuss their farms with each other, and ask us if we had any. I am convinced that Abdul brought his laptop on our journey across the country into the Sahara so he could check up on his virtual plants and livestock. They talked shit on each others’ farms. It was fantastic and bizarre. It also resulted in two of the most hilarious pictures of our trip:

Abdul doing push-ups while random man raises some cattle.

Abdul showing off his farm while we are in the Sahara Desert.

Our guide taking a break from refueling to give me the finger.
“Fuck you, man." "Good morning, mother fucker." "Get the fuck out of my car, asshole." "What the fuck!" "Where the fuck are we?" "Fuck, we are almost out of fucking gas." "Good night, mother fucker.”

Cuss words were thrown around as if they were pleasantries. Moroccans apparently can’t get enough of our four-letter words. When Mustafa saw a friend, he would greet him with a warm, “Fuck you, man!”, stick both middle fingers up, and add, “with two fingers!” They’d both laugh, we’d all laugh, and then they’d hug.
One of the best moments was a two sentence conversation between Mustafa, the riad owner, and a German tourist who was checking in. I can only assume that Mustafa thought the tourist was American, because he greeted him with a hospitable, “Welcome. Fuck you, man.” I shit you not. He said that. The German guy, startled for sure, responded calmly, simply, and with a confused look on his face, “Thank you.” It was truly the greatest exchange I have ever witnessed.
First World Problems
While eating lunch in Valencia, Spain, wasting time during our eight-hour layover on the way back home, the topic of First World Problems was brought up. Basically, First World Problems is an internet meme poking fun at things we Americans and Europeans complain about that people living in Third World Countries could not even fathom. In Valencia we found an all-you-can-eat Mediterranean buffet for 10 EURO, which was our best meal of the trip. Of course, we all indulged ourselves a bit too much and ate ourselves miserable. I made a comment about how I ate so much that I may throw up. Andy laughed and said, “First World Problem, man.” Here I was pathetically complaining about eating so much that I thought I may vomit. All-the-while, the day before there were literally people begging us for change, kids sleeping on dirt floors with no electricity, and grown men eating scraps from trash cans. It really put things into perspective.
Some more First World Problems :
I took such a long shower this morning that the hot water ran out.
All the dishes in the dishwasher are dirty so now I have to eat my waffles off a Tupperware lid.
Ew. The string on my teabag just fell into the water.
The restaurant didn’t have Dr Pepper so I had to order a Pepsi.
My pizza box doesn’t fit in the fridge.
This damn software update requires that I restart my computer.

Looking back, the seven days I spent in Morocco were some of the best of my life. Not as romantic as Rome or Paris, as clean and sleak as Stockholm, or as breath-takingly beautiful as the views in Cinque Terre, but perhaps more important. You dont really realize it while you are there though. If you are looking for a relaxing destination to unwind, this isnt it. What you will find, though, is that after you leave you appreciate life more.
I think that is the main thing that will stick with me when thinking back about the people I met in Morocco. Things could always be worse.
In conclusion, in the words of Mustafa, "Fuck you and thanks for fucking reading."