When friends or family ask about our honeymoon, Claire takes the pictures out — she tells them how, while walking down a Paris boulevard, we passed a travel agency that advertised: “Ten days in Marrakech, City of 1,001 Nights, 4,000 Francs, everything included.”
“Let’s go to Africa,” I said.
“In the summer?” she said, dubious.
“It’s an opportunity, no?”
“It could be romantic.”
An hour later, we were set to have a honeymoon within a honeymoon. We imagined a mysterious Orient of sultry nights, belly dancers, snake charmers, and magic carpets.
Claire shows them the beautiful pictures we brought home: the two of us on camels in front of desert dunes, the Palace Dar Si Said, the exotic oasis gardens. But I tell them what I remember, what I cannot keep to myself.
The fifth day in Marrakech was so hot and dry the hibiscus flowers shriveled on the bushes before noon and the air smelled burnt, like an empty oven left on too long. My eyes stung from the heat, and the sky was yellow and hazy from distant sandstorms.
In Paris, the travel agent had said it would be hot, but that was what made the vacation package such a good deal. We weren’t worried about the heat: Claire grew up in the Caribbean. But North Africa in August was another story. Instead of balmy trade winds blowing off the Caribbean Sea, a torrid, dusty desert wind prickled our faces like a giant blow-dryer. Now I was miserable, stranded in our hotel room with the TV and the AC on, rushing to the bathroom every ten minutes. She, on the other hand, hadn’t eaten any local food, and was now in the pool doing the aqua-aerobic exercises with some new acquaintances. Faintly, I could hear the megaphone cheering on the women as they tried to firm their buns.
The Club where we were staying was killing me even more so than the heat. It was an artificial, walled-in oasis, lush and green in the middle of the desert, where French vacationers came to sunburn by the pool and sip margaritas and piña coladas. Some guests hadn’t left the Club once in the five days since we’d arrived. To them, the souvenir shop by the lobby seemed local enough, a safer way to prove they had been to Africa than ambling into the labyrinth of narrow streets in the medina, the old city.
The day before, Claire and I had taken the hotel shuttle to Place Djemaa el-Fna, the heart of Marrakech, where acrobats, musicians, orange-juice stands, camels, parked taxis, panhandlers, and water carriers baked under the scorching sun. The medina rose behind, in shades of burnt umber like the earth, its flat roofs smoking with the fires of cooking grills. Faded carpets hung from windows, and a white stork perched in a nest atop a mosque tower. As soon as we stepped out of the shuttle, a man clad in a flowing white robe approached us and offered his services as a guide. Just after we hired him, another man came over and spoke to the first man in Berber, the local tongue. Our guide introduced the newcomer: “This is Bachir. He’s a good man and a good guide. He will take care of you.” Before we could say anything, the first man shook our hands and rushed off. As we walked toward the medina, I asked Bachir why the sudden change.
“He got two sets of tourists this week,” he said. “I’ve gotten no one for the last two weeks. He knows I need to eat, too.”
Bachir led us deep into the souk, a tight maze of shops. He was a pleasant, soft-spoken fellow, fluent in French and English, and, although he wasn’t pushy, he took us to many places where we could spend money. When he saw we weren’t buying much, he told me, “You need to buy. This is low season, and it’s very difficult for us to make ends meet. We live off tourists buying our handicrafts.” I told him we were on a tight budget, that this trip was unexpected, a vacation within a vacation. Bachir looked at me gently and took my hand. “You don’t understand,” he said. “You don’t know how rich you are.”
I looked around, trying to open my eyes to his world: veiled women swathed in black, carrying bags of vegetables; men in striped burnooses or jeans, wearing yellow bâboûch slippers, shuffling along the narrow, crooked streets; merchants in doorways beckoning passersby into their shops to taste their olives and grapefruits. There was the omnipresent scent of cumin, and in the leather-tanning quarter, the skin juices, the dye, the catechin. In the butcher quarter, the blood of slaughtered lambs ran in the gutter, flies hung in black clusters on the meat — the smells of roasted flesh, of life. From the distance came mesmerizing fragments of njarka violin music, Arabic chants, the calls of merchants. The medina was as busy as an anthill, but I noticed no other tourists wandering the streets. I asked Bachir about it.
“It’s too hot for most tourists,” he said.
We came to the metalwork section, where hand-engraved silver plates, jewelry, and kris daggers were fashioned by eight-year-old boys. Some made furniture and gates out of iron rods, wielding hammers twice the size of their fists.
“Oh,” Claire said.
“Child labor,” I said.
“Picture?” the guide said.
“What do you think?” I asked Claire.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“I can’t,” I said. “I’m embarrassed.”
“It looks so wrong,” she said.
We moved on to a Berber-owned carpet store — the local specialty. It was clear that Bachir wanted us to buy something big, something on which he could collect a nice cut.
Inside the store, ceiling fans stirred the stale air. The salesman, a young man in a pressed shirt, a fez, and glasses, escorted us to a spacious room, where we sat down on a low couch covered by a rug. Mint tea was brought over, and he asked us about where we lived, what we did for a living, and our families. Once we were relaxed, the salesman told us his store was a co-op that sold carpets handmade by Berber and Tuareg women in remote villages in the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara. Every six months, the co-op delivered raw materials — dyes, silks, wools — to these women and picked up the carpets they had woven. Some carpets represented a year of work by a single woman. The salesman went on to explain in minute detail the various traditional styles and weaving techniques, and proudly enumerated the merits of what he considered the greatest Moroccan art form. Then began the show, where carpets came and went: aged and new, Berber and Tuareg, silk and wool, modern and old fashioned. It was a ballet of colors and intricate design. The strong smells of raw silk and wool lingered in the room.
One Tuareg carpet caught our attention. It was red, blue, and gold, with a weave so tight there was an almost magical sheen to it. The design was complex and varied, like hieroglyphics. The salesman told us it had been intended as an engagement gift from a woman to her future husband, and it contained a message: the bride-to-be’s dreams and wishes for happiness — how many children she wanted, how many camels she hoped they would someday own, and so forth.
Once Claire and I decided that this was the carpet we preferred, the salesman took out a notepad and drew a line down the center, making two columns. Then he asked us to write down our price on one side, which I did: one hundred dirhams. He wrote his on the other side: fifty thousand dirhams. It was a tedious process that went back and forth for an hour, and eventually we met somewhere in between. We laughed a lot, and the salesman told us stories about his family, and about Bachir’s nickname — Eagle, because of his hooked nose. He told us about the history of Marrakech — how it was founded in the twelfth century by Yusuf ibn Tashufin and quickly became the most cosmopolitan and enlightened city of North Africa. He also went on about other tourists, about the lack of business during the hot season.
Though we bought the carpet, we didn’t have enough money on us to pay for it. The salesman said we could take the carpet now, and that he’d send his oldest boy to the hotel to pick up the money later in the evening. I was surprised by his level of trust. As our carpet was being wrapped, the salesman asked politely if he could have my Quicksilver T-shirt. “We can’t get such T-shirts here,” he said. “It would mean a lot to me.” I couldn’t say no. I liked how he asked after our negotiations, making it a gift.
When she was done exercising in the pool, Claire came to the room carrying a plate with thin slices of roast lamb, wild rice, and a tomato salad. Her hair was silky and wet, clipped into a ponytail. She kissed me, smelling of sun and coconut oil, and asked if I was feeling any better. “I brought you some food,” she said.
“Thanks,” I said, “but I think I’ll pass for now.” Feeling another sharp cramp, I rushed to the bathroom again.
When I came out, Claire was helping the maid make our bed — both women were smiling, and working in such harmony that it seemed they had made beds together before. It was just like Claire to help, and I was proud to be her husband. After the maid left, I lay down on the bed, and Claire stopped smiling. She sat next to me and ran her fingers through my hair. “While you were in the bathroom, Nedjma asked for cough syrup,” she said.
“The maid. Her name is Nedjma.”
“Does she have a cold?” I asked.
“Her baby does. It seems she can’t get any cough syrup.” Claire sighed. I gently pulled her to me, and we held each other tight.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” I said. “I’m sorry.” And we both lay there a long time, her heart beating against mine.
By late afternoon, I was finally able to venture out. I needed to make some plans — I wanted to find an expedition that would take us out of the hotel for the entire day. On my way to the lobby, I passed two tourists in tennis clothes headed for the courts. I overheard one say, “The Club is great, really. Don’t bother with Marrakech — I went with Nicole yesterday: dirt, only red dirt and Arabs.” I failed to see what was great about the Club — I couldn’t even enjoy sitting in the chaise longues by the pool because of the continual blaring of French pop music. I wished we hadn’t left Paris, not because of Morocco, but because of the Club’s atmosphere. Indeed, the AviTour package deal to Morocco was too good to be true. You always end up paying one way or the other. Once checked in, we were punished by the stupidity of the entire club concept — eventually you’d surrender, sit at the bar, and get drunk on overpriced Heinekens, waiting for the complimentary buffet dinner to begin.
In the hotel lobby, the hostess at the AviTour desk told me about a daylong Land Rover trip to the Atlas Mountains: in the foothills, we’d see the monthly open-air souk; on the mountainside, a bled village; and from the Jebel Toubkal summit, breathtaking views of the plateau. It would give us a sense of what was really out there in Morocco, she said. Marrakech is to Morocco, she explained, what Paris is to France: not quite the norm. I signed up and gave her my credit card.
Although it was only ten to seven when the caravan of AviTour Land Rovers pulled into the Club, tiny beads of perspiration clung to Claire’s upper lip. Seven tourists could fit into each vehicle: one by the driver, and three in each of the two rear rows. I sat by the window in the back with Claire by my side. Next to her was a chubby, balding man in a tight Club Loukéa T-shirt — the father of the two teenage girls who sat in the middle row, next to an older woman in a fancy white dress with sweat stains between the shoulder blades. Her husband lingered outside, snapping pictures of the Land Rovers, his expensive camera hanging from his neck and a huge Nikon bag over his shoulder. He took the seat next to the driver, who had left the vehicle to consult with the other drivers in the convoy, all of them squatting in the shade of a palm tree. The teenage girls chewed gum and fidgeted with their bead necklaces, giggling. The woman in the fancy dress fanned herself with an AviTour pamphlet. Whenever her husband turned to her and smiled, she sighed and looked out the window. The father hummed a tune, drumming his fingers.
“It’s really hot in here,” Claire said.
“Once we get moving, it will cool off,” I said.
At last, the driver climbed in and started the diesel engine, and the convoy set forth, out of the Club and into Marrakech. The city looked cleaner in the early-morning light. At stoplights, dozens of barefoot moped riders revved their engines. Buses roared, sending columns of black smoke into the air. Fruit merchants pushed carts full of tamarinds, oranges, and mangoes. A donkey pulled a cart piled high with pottery.
“It’s so dirty and hot,” one of the teenage girls said. “Why did we leave the hotel?”
Outside the city walls, dromedaries and their white-clad cameleers swayed along in the royal palm-tree gardens. The husband took pictures, then changed lenses. On the outskirts of the city, men waited in long lines in front of the textile and pottery factories. The driver told us they were waiting to see if there would be work that day — the first ones in line had been waiting since three in the morning.
Once we got onto the main road across the desert to the mountains, we picked up speed, and air finally circulated into the Land Rover. Unfortunately, the air was so hot and dry that it made the heat even more unbearable. We had to roll up all the windows and ride in a sealed greenhouse under the sun. The engine noise was so loud that conversation was unpleasant and difficult. I was beginning to regret having come up with this expedition idea. I glanced guiltily at Claire, who smiled and pressed my hand. I was grateful.
For three hours we drove through the smoldering desert, at times passing a lush oasis or an olive plantation. I had never been this hot. A puddle of sweat formed on the vinyl seat beneath me. We were all melting in the tense silence.
When we got near the foot of the mountain, we drove by a tamarind orchard where a row of small cement houses, a farming-equipment store, and a decrepit gas station lined the road. The driver braked as a tractor cut in front of us, separating us from the rest of the convoy; we were stuck, following slowly behind. Two men sat on the tractor’s mudguards, one on each side of the driver. The tractor made a sharp right, and one of the men fell off and the rear wheel rolled over his head. It burst, and a pool of black blood spread from the body like a spilled bucket of paint.
The woman in the fancy dress said, “My God, that man is hurt!”
“He’s dead,” I said. “His head’s crushed.”
From the houses and the store, men and women rushed over, forming a circle around the body. Some stepped back as the pool of blood spread. The Land Rover’s path was blocked by the crowd, and we all stared at the dead man. The driver of the tractor ran over and shrieked, pulling at his hair and beating his chest. Our driver rolled down the window and exchanged a few words in Berber with a bystander, then turned to us. “It’s his younger brother,” he said. Everyone in the Land Rover was quiet. Sweat dripped from our bodies; the stylish woman’s bra showed through her wet dress. The two girls in front of me stopped chewing their gum and exchanged furtive glances. As we sat there in silence, waiting for the road to clear, merchants on foot banged at our windows, shaking silver bracelets and bright pottery. The blood had spread below our vehicle and was already losing its sheen.
At last, a policeman cut his way through the crowd, whistling, and ordered two men to drag the body to the side. We set forth again, and when I looked back, I saw the older brother crying in another man’s arms, his mouth open.
No one spoke until we arrived at the open-air souk. As the rest of the group was led into the market by an AviTour guide, I stepped back and grabbed Claire by the arm. “Wait,” I said. “Let’s go off on our own.” We moved away from the other tourists, toward a different part of the souk. Immediately, a tall man in a faded gray burnoose approached us, jingling bracelets in his right hand. “Silver bracelets?” he asked. “Cheap. Only ten dirhams.”
Claire looked at me. “That is cheap,” she said. “They’re 140 dirhams at the hotel.” Of course, the bracelets weren’t really silver, but they were handmade. He had two kinds: the Berber ones, with intricate silver designs; and the Tuareg ones, inlaid with blue and red stones. I didn’t care much for such trinkets, but at that price they’d make good gifts.
“OK, I’ll buy three,” I said, pulling out thirty dirhams.
The man smiled and shook his head. “I meant ten dirhams a gram,” he said. “They’re twelve grams apiece.”
This was always the story with the Arabs and the Berbers — haggling was the local pastime. It was less about ripping off the tourists than about engaging them in long, circular conversations. This time, I wasn’t in the mood. “Forget it,” I said, pushing past the man. He snatched Claire’s arm. I tensed up. On the back of his hand was a scab the size of a quarter.
“Wait, wait,” he said. “A beautiful gazelle like you — this would look so nice around your wrist.” She pulled her arm free of his grip. I didn’t like the way Moroccans touched strangers.
“No thank you,” she said, and we walked away, but he followed us.
“Let me show you the souk, at least,” he said. “I’ll be your interpreter.”
“How much?” I asked.
“Free,” he said. “My pleasure.” He smiled, and his bony, dry face creased with wrinkles. Claire glanced at me, and I assented, figuring I’d give him thirty dirhams at the end of the tour.
We followed him to the very edge of the souk, where there were fewer shoppers and no tourists. He pointed to an old man who was cutting someone’s hair with rusty scissors. The man was both the barber, our guide told us, and the local medicine man. I was surprised to discover that, here, as in medieval Europe, the barber doubled as surgeon. On a blanket at his feet lay dozens of small jars — herbal remedies. A little farther off, under the shade of an olive tree, half a dozen Berbers squatted, waiting their turns in silence. It was so quiet I could hear the clipping of the scissors and the wind rustling through the leaves.
Our guide led us a little farther, to where a few yeanlings lay in the dirt, bleating. A man stood next to an empty chair, and as we approached, he thrust forth a straw basket full of teeth. Little pieces of red flesh still clung to the freshest ones. He was the dentist, our guide said, and the teeth in the basket demonstrated his experience and skill. On a stained towel next to the chair lay his instruments: needle-nose electrician’s pliers and what appeared to be worn dentist’s tools with the chrome chipped off.
We headed back to the center of the souk, passing through different sections where merchants pushed each other aside to reach us, yelling prices, arguing, grabbing our arms, and pulling us toward their goods: spices — cinnamon, saffron, nutmeg, cumin, curry blends, peppers — silver and copper carafes; rubber boots and plastic shoes; blankets and rugs; chickens and lambs; knives and whips; pipes and hookahs; furs and dried snakes; musical instruments; red, blue, and yellow pottery; engraved silver plates; hats, burnooses, and silk vests; and, of course, jewelry — silver, wood, copper, leather, and semiprecious stones. Our guide gently pushed away the more overbearing merchants, proud to be our escort. Some women wore black izars, their faces veiled, their hands gloved; there was no way of knowing whether they were middle-aged or in the flower of youth. How strange, I thought, to walk across a crowded market completely concealed, almost invisible. We were the exact opposite: Claire’s blond hair and fair skin stood out, and though she wore jeans out of respect for the Muslim fundamentalists, her dress code was still much looser than that of the Moroccan women.
Here and there, Claire stopped to buy something — spices and a silk shawl — and our guide translated and haggled for us. As we walked about, he told me his name was Saïd, and that he had a brother who lived in France. Saïd said he came down from the mountains for this monthly souk. He had six children, four of them boys. This was the first time he’d encountered Americans who spoke French. “Few Americans come to Morocco,” he said.
I checked my watch and saw that it was time to return to the Land Rover convoy, so Saïd accompanied us back to the entrance of the souk. I pulled out thirty dirhams in change.
“No, no, no,” he said, hands raised. I tried to give him the money, but he stepped back, shaking his head. Claire and I thanked him and started to leave, but he jingled his bracelets again. “Please,” he said. “Buy a bracelet. Only 120 dirhams apiece.”
We said we didn’t want his bracelets.
“Please, please,” he said. “For you, only one hundred dirhams.”
“No thank you,” I said. “We have no use for your bracelets.” I could hear the Land Rovers’ engines starting, and the convoy leader honked his horn three times. As we moved away, Saïd jumped in front of us, blocking our path. “Please,” he said. “Please, one bracelet. You don’t know. My children have to eat.” He grabbed Claire’s hand. “Gazelle,” he said, “please — just one bracelet.” She shook her head, moving away from him, when suddenly his hands began to shake. He held them forth, and they shook uncontrollably, the bracelets jingling as in a sales pitch. “Please,” he said. “Please.” He was trembling so much that he dropped one of the bracelets. My throat swelled up, and I averted my eyes. Claire bit her lip and looked at me.
“How about 150 dirhams for two bracelets?” I said.
“Oh, yes,” Saïd replied. “Thank you. May Allah be with you.” Quickly, the money changed hands, the bracelets were around Claire’s wrist, and we were walking toward our Land Rover. Saïd followed, bowing, thanking us, his eyes bleary. We got into the vehicle and sat quietly as the convoy drove off toward the mountains to visit the villages. I felt so sad I could almost cry; I wanted to say something to Claire, but my throat was still tight, and I couldn’t find the words.
Soon the paved roads ended; we traveled over rocky paths, sand, and a dried creek bed. Occasionally we’d pass a tiny village on the flank of the mountain — no more than half a dozen houses — where children ran after the Land Rovers, screaming, “Bic, Bic, Bic!” I looked back and saw someone tossing pens from the vehicle behind us.
“I wish I’d known pens were in such demand here,” Claire said.
“Yes,” I said. “If we ever come here again, I’ll buy a hundred Bic pens before the trip.”
The older teenage girl turned to her dad. “You were right,” she told him. “They don’t even have pens.”
The Land Rovers stopped at a small village near the top of the mountain, and we all got out. It was cool up there, almost chilly. The houses were made of dry clay and had no windows, just a door; each was built around an inner courtyard. There were no adults in sight, only a dozen children who followed us everywhere. One of the tour guides warned us against giving them anything. I didn’t understand why until a fat, sunburned woman gave them candy bars, and suddenly they were all over her, fighting and screaming; she fell down, and one of the guides had to disperse the children with a stick. The woman stood up and shook the red dust from her clothes. “Little beasts,” she said. Claire drank from our Evian bottle. A young girl in a purple sweater pulled on my hand. “One dirham for a picture,” she said in awkward French. She was stern, but astonishingly cute, with a thick mane of black hair and eyes so dark you couldn’t see her pupils. I gave her a five-dirham coin, and Claire took a picture of us.
The view from the mountaintop was stunning. In all that vastness, I saw no sign of human habitation, and so little vegetation that I had to wonder how these villagers lived; there was nothing but scorched red earth, cactuses, thorny bushes, and a few shriveled trees. Rock formations of various colors spread down the mountain, and in the distance were a few patches of green around water holes. According to the guide, that was where cultivation was possible.
While we walked, the little girl followed us, asking for more money. When we refused, she pouted, sticking out her lower lip. Claire imitated her, and the little girl laughed. After that, she stopped asking for money and seemed content just to follow us around. When we got back to the Land Rovers, I finished the bottle of Evian. All the children surrounded me, begging for the empty bottle. I gave it to the little girl, who smiled and ran off, the other children chasing her. When we set forth again, I saw the little girl on top of a bluff, waving the plastic bottle at us, jumping up and down. I suddenly was sad I didn’t have a daughter. I wished I had asked her name.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a small gas station to refuel and get some fresh water. Claire went to use the bathroom, and I got out to stretch my legs. When I returned to the Land Rover, a young peddler was talking through the window with the teenage girls’ father. The peddler wore a red wool bonnet and looked confused. He thrust his necklaces and bracelets at the father. “Sorry,” the father said. “I told you I’d buy something, but my daughters don’t want anything.” The peddler frowned, pulled his merchandise back, and went to the teenage girls’ window.
“Pick what you want,” he said. “Everything is beautiful on princesses like you.”
“I don’t like your stuff. Leave me alone,” the older girl said. Her sister giggled.
I imagined I saw a flash of anger in the peddler’s eyes. “Please,” he said, “pick what you want. Anything.” Without looking at him, the older girl rolled her window shut.
By the last leg of the trip, we were all exhausted. Claire fell asleep on my shoulder. Although I was sleepy, I couldn’t stop thinking; something at the edge of my consciousness kept me from sleeping, something I had yet to understand about this world.
On our last night at the Club, there was a huge party that the staff had been preparing for since our arrival. They called it the “One Thousand and One Nights Ball.” Lavish foods were wheeled into the main dining area: tagines overflowing with couscous, wild rice, dates, and beans. Whole lambs were roasted by the pool. The bar churned out multicolored fruit drinks with umbrellas and sparklers, the glass rims salted or sugared, bearing wedges of lime and cherries. Belly dancers moved about the dining room, their red silk veils billowing like clouds, wrists and ankles shimmering with silver and gold coins. There was a juggler and a fire blower surrounded by gleeful children. Musicians in gold turbans played ouds, violins, bongos, and wooden flutes. By the time the fireworks were set off near the pool, illuminating the desert night with explosions of orange and green, the hotel guests were drunk, laughing, and singing sappy French pop songs. We couldn’t bear it any longer, and headed back to our hotel room, hearing the music and shouts late into the night. We felt indecent and ashamed.
When I finally stop speaking, Claire puts the pictures aside, and the guests look away in silence. Claire asks if they want to see our Tuareg carpet. They nod, smiling with relief. One marvels at the richness of the colors, another at the variety of designs, but no one imagines the woman weaving from dawn to dusk for eight weeks, her henna-stained fingers touching and smoothing the thread until they are raw, her eyes squinting at the pattern until she can barely see.
Later, in the quiet comfort of my four-bedroom townhouse, insulated from the outside world by triple Andersen windows and a motion-detector alarm, I lie awake in bed with Claire’s head resting on my shoulder. I think she is sleeping, but then she kisses me softly. “There’s nothing we can do,” she says. I sigh, knowing it is true, feeling it is false.
Saïd awakens at three in the morning and has a cup of strong coffee and some leftover couscous from the night before. His children are still sleeping in the mud house, but his wife has been up for a while to get the fire going and make the coffee. The two of them sit quietly beside the fire. She yawns, waiting for him to leave so she can go back to sleep. He has a long walk ahead of him, at least six hours. She looks at him with worried eyes, remembering how last month he came back from the souk with no money, just a pair of rubber boots for their eldest son.
Saïd walks out into the early-morning darkness, looking one last time at his house, the wavering glow of the fire and, in the doorway, the silhouette of his wife. The village is quiet and dark. A thin new moon hangs above the mountains, and the path is barely visible in the gloom, but he doesn’t need to see it — he knows every rock, every bend, every bush. He walks and walks into the cool night, hearing snakes slither between the rocks, looking up at the shimmering stars above. The night sky turns bluish, the stars dissolve one by one, and the sun peeks above the horizon; long, crisp shadows unfurl. Saïd crosses several bleds where the men are starting to set out with the sheep and the fires glow and the faint smell of burnt coffee reaches his nostrils. As the heat grows stronger, bearing down on him, he pulls the hood of his burnoose over his head to shade his eyes and walks on.
Since the tourists have been coming in organized convoys, they stick together in tight packs, led by their city guides to the wealthiest merchants, where they discard their money like orange peels. While the tourists head back to the Land Rovers, arms laden with souvenirs, the tour guides linger behind to collect their share from the merchants. It’s hard for Saïd to snatch tourists away from their groups; they are fearful, with their cameras, their camcorders, their gold watches, their scantily dressed women. Last month, a stout German woman in hiking boots stepped hard on his big toe, and he limped all the way home.
Today he must snatch some tourists away; he must come home with some money. They need to vaccinate the boys: their neighbors’ eldest son died of tetanus, and two of Nacer Khatibi’s young daughters have consumption. They also need an egg-laying chicken. A mere two hundred dirhams would make such a difference. He must succeed. He can’t go home without money. He can’t bear his wife’s resigned gaze, as if she was expecting him to come back empty-handed. If he doesn’t bring home any money, he may have to move away from his family for a few months, to look for work in a large city. Men from his village have found jobs in the textile factories outside Marrakech, but too many of them have come back coughing, only to find another of their children has been called back to Allah.
At about ten o’clock, Saïd arrives at the souk and takes a position by the entrance, waiting for the tourist convoy. As he waits under the hot sun, he speaks to some acquaintances: How’s the wife? The last-born? The mother-in-law? Did you hear from your brother in France? Did he send you anything? Or did he forget you, like all those who leave, buying Nike sneakers instead of sending money home? They forget quickly, drinking away their earnings and fucking French whores.
Saïd and the others wait longer than usual today. Why is the convoy late? The men become anxious and ask the policeman for the time, as he is the only one with a watch — it’s already eleven. The tourists should have arrived half an hour ago. Sometimes they don’t come at all.
Word arrives that Ahmed Khémir ran over his younger brother ten miles down the road, by the tamarind orchard. The story spreads, and people gather in groups of four or five to discuss the news. Poor Ahmed. How will he face his parents? The boy who died was the favorite, the youngest, the one who could read. But beneath the lament, Saïd knows, there is a more selfish concern: Will the tourists be upset by the accident? Will they be in a bad mood? Will they not want to spend?
Finally, in the distance, a cloud of dust rises; the caravan of Land Rovers is approaching with its bounty of tourists. The white men and women pour out, looking tired and unhappy, their damp clothes sticking to their skin, the women’s hair limp, their makeup smeared by sweat. But they liven up as they stretch, chatter, and walk toward the souk, happy to be out of the Land Rovers. Their cameras start to click. Some make faces at the smells of rancid meats and camel urine.
The tourist group sticks together around the guide from the city like a cluster of bees around their queen. Saïd and others try to draw some customers away, holding out their wares, following along, complimenting, begging, hoping. But the tourists are focused on the tour guide, who tells them where to buy — always from the wealthier merchants, whose products are meant only for the foreigners. Suddenly, Saïd sees a young couple straying from the group, moving away on their own, the woman somewhat hesitantly, checking to see if any of the others are venturing out alone, too. Saïd rushes over to them, heart beating fast, grabbing the weakest link, the way to a man’s wallet, the woman’s bare arm.
He tries to sell his bracelets, to no avail. He offers his services, and they accept.
Now comes the dance, the performance; if he plays this right, he might make a sale — he must make a sale. He will show them the local parts of the souk, the places tourists never go. Maybe they’ll reward his efforts to please them. He will bring them to all the better merchants (except those who sell bracelets like his own) and argue on the couple’s behalf, translate for them. He will tell them about his children, his brother in France, and ask them about their lives at home. He will convince them to buy something, anything, so that he can go back to the merchants later and get his cut — but he will make sure the prices are fair. He will show them through his faithfulness that he is the best person to buy bracelets from. He will convince them; he will. There is no other way. He will go home with money, with bills. His wife will hold him at night, stroking his hair as he drifts off to sleep, content. They will protect their children until they are old enough to go to work themselves; they won’t die, like the neighbors’ children. The hen’s eggs will make them strong, give them stamina. They will plow better, live longer.
Oh, yes, all this is possible. Saïd can see the white woman softening. She buys spices; she likes their cuisine. She buys an authentic shawl. Her husband looks at her kindly, approvingly. He smiles at people, gives the money without regret. They look, they memorize the scenery, they try to talk, they don’t have a camera. It must be, it must be, it must be. . . . Until next month, and the following one, and so on until he is too old to walk down the mountain. But then his sons will go down, and their sons, and so on forever.