Return to the Kasbah
My sojourn in a land of veils, desert nights, and hypnotic drumming rhythms ended when the US Sixth Fleet was ordered to steam toward Moroccan shores to evacuate military personnel and sensitive equipment from its naval communications station. Only two years earlier I had been whisked to that secret military base on the north tip of Africa. Our stay in that land scented with cumin and eucalyptus involved us in cold war cat and mouse games with Russia, miracle pregnancies, a cholera epidemic, and finally the military coup that hurried our return to the states.
Morocco was a land I entered cautiously from my first glimpse of its jade river snaking inward from the coast. If I experienced a slight shiver each time I looked down the road that disappeared into dense vegetation directly across from the entry to our base—the road that led to the reputed Soviet base—I had no real worries. My red passport was my entry to everywhere I chose to go and my protection.
I quickly acclimated to the temperature fluctuations: from mornings requiring sweaters against the desert cold until a sizzling sun brought dizzying heat that felt poured out of an oven. Around four, the temperatures evaporated, heat disappearing as quickly as it arrived.
On Tuesday mornings at Sidi Yahia’s souk, I squatted beside dusty blankets piled with dates, kumquats, or cactus pears to bargain for my week’s produce. I learned the practicalities of the metric system—that a family of three doesn’t eat a kilo of radishes in seven days. It took hours to sanitize fruits and vegetables and sift the weevils out of all the flour and pasta products we wanted to eat. I juggled French and Arabic and learned the language of the belly dance.
Saturdays I wandered the Medina’s maze and negotiated the dirham quota for each embroidered djellaba, string of amber, or gold bracelet that would become my Arabic treasures. I learned the mysteries of knots tied into intricate mosaic carpets and sank my toes deep into their woolen surfaces. The brass and iron sellers jostled for my attention.
“Madame, for you a good price, very good price.”
“Madame, Monsieur, entrer; je prépare du thé.”
I juggled the scalding glass and sipped their sweet mint tea. With the third refill they recognized me as more than a short-term tourist. For me, a semi-permanent resident, they made special bargains. Still negotiating for babouches and caftans—future Christmas gifts—and rugs, took most of an afternoon as Khalid inched the price down only a few dirhams at a time each time I shrugged, “Bissef, it is too expensive.”
Fortunately for me, the village pasha chose another American wife to honor —not me—at his banquet by offering her the sheep eyeball. Knowing that refusing would have been a rude breech of etiquette she hesitated, then tossed the morsel into her mouth.
In spite of the tight security of our location, the months passed quietly. A cholera outbreak stopped thirty miles away. When disgruntled militia attempted a coup against the King and my husband and I found ourselves facing rifles with fixed bayonets, I had already delivered my baby—uneventfully, without the special obstetrician I would have enjoyed Stateside. I left the country by plane, the Sixth Fleet not being necessary after the coup was stopped. An armed escort drove me and the baby to the airport. As our route took us through Rabat and past the palace, my driver engaged me in conversation. I missed the captured rebels lined against the palace wall, facing a firing squad.
Today that baby is a young woman who is insisting that I accompany her on a trip this fall to her birthplace. That trip will take courage. I will return to Morocco, to show my daughter the exotic land that she has known only through photographs and stories, the land she assumes I remember as clearly as a roadmap. We will travel from the white walls of Casablanca north to Rabat–perhaps past the same wall of the King’s palace where the captured rebels’ lives ended. I hope I can find my way through passages to an inner court where Moorish lanterns cast arabesque patterns across silk cushions, inviting us to a feast of tagine, chickens roasted with olives and lemon and peppery herbs. I want my daughter to watch dancers who might recall to her memories of her early steps that became belly dancing like her mother could never master. I’ll take her to Sidi Yahia’s Tuesday souk and hope my rusty Arabic is sufficient for buying figs or dates. No diplomat’s protection this trip; I’ll be on my own, a ten-day tourist.
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