Morocco – The Meeting Place Of The Dead

EVERY evening when the sun gilds the shining top of the Koutoubia, and the heat of the day is over, Marrakesh wakes up from its drowsy languor and comes out to be amused. All the inns are full of a huge floating population that throngs in and out of the city with trains of asses and mules and camels from every quarter of the Bled, from Fez, from the wild valleys in the Atlas, from the southern plains of the Souss and the Draa, from the rich eastern oasis of Tafilalelt, and once a year from far, mysterious Timbuktu. Dark-skinned Arabs from the cities of the coast, light coloured, blue-eyed Berbers of the eastern mountains, Algerians from the edge of the Desert, Shelluh Berbers of the South, fuzzy-haired Soudanese, negro slaves with one big silver earring, and bearded Jews in dirty black gaberdines—all swarm into Marrakesh and live in its thousand filthy caravanserais. They all wander out in the early evening into the great central square, the Djemaa El Fnaa, “The Meeting Place of the Dead,” which becomes a blend of bizarre costumes and a clash of uncouth dialects and remote languages.

The square itself is a great space paved only with the sun-baked earth of the brown plain in which the city was built. At one end are a few European shops, a café, a post-office, and the sign of a garage,—jarring elements of western progress that has begun to thrust in its ugliness and disturb the mediaeval peace of old Marrakesh, mournful among its crumbling monuments. From another angle, one catches glimpses of the old walls, with here and there a twisted palm tree reaching over them, black against the gold of the sun. The farther end of the square shows only the low roofs of the city and the openings of one or two streets, that plunge into a dark, covered labyrinth lined with a thousand shops. From these mysterious streets that in the daytime conceal so many hushed mysteries, now pour forth streams of strange humanity. Swirls of dust rise from the feet of the asses and camels, and the crimson sunset light, diffused through the yellow haze hovering above the square, casts over the innumerable strange faces the glamour of eastern romance that glimmers in old tales and in poets’ dreams. The magnificent minaret of the Koutoubia, severe with the puritanism of ancient Islam, stretches its long shadow over the frivolities of the square and the passionate sins of the dark streets and close-shut gardens.

This evening young Ahmet has doffed his uniform and appears in a pure white turban, a pea-cock coloured, long caftan, which vaguely appears under the finely woven white djellaba, the graceful flowing outer garment of the Arabs; his bare feet are thrust into loose yellow leather babooches with no heels. The caid’s son, still wearing his travelling djellaba of midnight blue, walks with us through the crowd, haughtily disdainful of the noisy confusion, and only suffering it because the sight may amuse me, a stranger guest. My young guides brusquely push aside the careless pressing throng with the lofty air of two marquises of the Old Régime, and angrily shout, “Bâlek! Bâlek!” to the driver of an ass that is backing his pannier of prickly Barbary figs right into my stomach.

As circulation is difficult for the moment, we stop at the edge of a circle of dusty brown and black faces eagerly grouped around a famous story-teller. He gesticulates dramatically, and little rivulets stream down his comically distorted face, as he singles out some sheepish, brown bystander, and roars directly at him the droll conclusion to the “Story of What Made the Sultana Laugh.” He wipes his face and catches his breath, while a boy collects a few dirty paper bills from the crowd which merrily chuckles its applause. Then the boy rattles a very much blackened square tambourine as a sign that another story is about to begin and the teller of tales recounts, Once in the old time there was a sultan. He had a very beautiful wife. Whenever she asked for anything he gave it to her. She said to him: “Bring me a covering for my couch.” He brought her one. “This is no good,” she said. “What shall I bring thee then?” “Bring me one of silk.” He brought her one of silk. She said, “No !” “Then what wilt thou have?” “Bring me one of feathers.” He said “I will.”

Now the sultan lived in the time when birds could talk. He sent for all the birds in the world. They came. He wished to pull out their feathers to make a bed for his wife. Now the owl did not come ; she stayed away until sundown. The sultan said : “Why didn’t you come this morning?” She replied : “My Lord, I have been counting over the men and the women, and I have been counting over the days and the nights.” Said the sultan: “Which are more in number, the men or the women?” “The women are more in number.” “Which are more in number, the days or the nights?” “The days are more in number than the nights.” Said the sultan : “Why are there more days than nights? Tell me, is there not one night for each day?” “My Lord, the nights when there is a moon we count as days.” “And the men and the women? Tell me, doesn’t every man marry a woman?” “My Lord, the man who follows the advice of a woman is a woman!”

The story-teller makes a great deal of this simple folk tale. He acts it out with comic gestures and grotesque expressions. He is evidently a great favourite with the crowd, who follow every word and movement with intense delight. Ahmet tells me he has been a well-known figure on the square for years, and has the reputation of having been specially inspired by the djenoun of story-tellers, who haunt the great grotto of the Ida-Gounidif in the far south country. The story is ended with the consecrated formula: “That is the way I heard the tale from the great ones, and so I tell it to you!” The formula relieves the ragged old narrator of the responsibility of having invented something that might not be true, and so incurring the wrath of the powers of light and darkness.

The two boys with me are fascinated by the old story-teller, but are a little ashamed of the pleasure they take in him until they see how delighted I am with the recitals ; then they promise to tell me dozens of very droll tales, oh, such droll ones!

We jostle on through the moving crowd, mostly of humble ragged folk,—negroes with piles of newly woven baskets on their heads; old women half veiled, balancing big earthern jars on one shoulder; swarms of idle little ragamuffins with shaven polls; swarthy young camel drivers from nomad desert tribes, their eyes lusting for the joyous marvels of the metropolis; and occasionally a lithe-bodied Arab, fresh and white, riding a nervous horse caparisoned with scarlet leather. Everywhere there is a bobbing of white turbans, red sheishas, and muffled hoods, and a flutter and wave of dusty white and striped burnouses, amid the twinkle of the bare brown legs of the very poor. And in the early twilight innumerable faces flash by, some scarred with wounds, or disease, some blind in one eye, some pale with hashish dreams, some dark with strange wild desires, and some beautiful as princes in the “Arabian Nights.”

My two friends and I stop for a moment to watch a small circle of humble and devout listeners, mostly women smothered in dirty white veils, squatting around a saintly story-teller. His blind eyes roll their ghastly whites; he beats a rhythmical accompaniment on his square tambourine; and shaking his long crinkly hair with the vehemence of his recital, he tells of the wonders that befell Joshua and Moses on their journey to the land of the Farthest Sunset, and of how Noah when his ark had rested on the Moroccan mount, Djebel El Goudi, founded the town of Sallee. The women reverently clap their hands from time to time and shout : “God is great !” as though they were at a Methodist camp-meeting.

A larger group of spell-bound spectators stand in mute wonder at the performance of a snake-charmer from the Souss. He pours forth a wild whirl of hoarse, frenzied words on the power of Allah, the greatness of the Prophet, the ways of holy saints, and the dire influences of afrits, demons, ogres, and djenoun. Then, on a high-pitched, wooden pipe he plays a strange weird ancient melody, beginning in solemn cadence like a dance done before the altar of Isis and played by an Egyptian vestal. The black cloths on the ground begin to crawl and move, and one of them sticks up, uncannily swaying to the tune. The rhythm quickens with little starts and jerks. The magician flicks off the cloths and reveals two dark, thick-bodied coils, with swaying, wedge-shaped heads that beat to the rhythm of the pipe and dart out little tongues like forked flames. With the crowd I am fascinated by the swaying reptiles, and held by the deep-rooted racial fear of the serpent. We are assisting at the incantation of some old dark Hamitic religion or a terrible spell of Pharaoh’s sorcerers.

The haunted squealing music stops; the uncanny creatures settle down in flat, sinister coils, dull and sluggish but for the darting apprehensive tongues. The magician handles his familiars with careless impunity, and with much high-pitched, excited talk he scratches his arm with their teeth until the blood runs, and horrifies the crowd by making one snake draw blood on the ear of a boy bystander. Then, as a climax to his performance, he thrusts the terrible head into his own mouth. His eyes dilate wildly; he stretches out the serpent’s neck, and, with the noise of a popping cork, pulls the head out of his mouth. Then he calls on the crowd to give a prayer for Sidi Yahia, and they obediently clap their hands, raise them over their heads and chant a brief prayer. And a small black boy takes up the collection.

I turn away with a wondering smile and a shudder down in my spine. I suppose charming snakes is a simple trick to the knowing, but it is an uncanny thing to see here in the heart of an ancient land where one is never sure of what is reality and what illusion.

Another delighted circle is grouped around a company of musicians and Sheilah dancing boys. The players sit on a mat, two of them with curious Moorish tom-toms, which are painted pottery vases with taut sheep-skin bottoms, and two with two-stringed African lutes of quaint plaintive tones. The leader stands apart playing a strange, square-shaped viol with one string, over which he draws a curved bow like those in the miniatures of a fourteenth century Book of Hours.

The leader sits down and three young Shelluh boys, the eldest fifteen, take their places in the centre and dance. They are bizarre little things. Their heads are shaven but for a short square bang, and they wear girls’ clothes and embroidered girdles, and earrings, bracelets, and gaudy bead necklaces. They have an amusing theatrical smile enhanced by cheeks streaked with paint and eyes darkened with kohl. The dance begins as a slow intricate pacing of the three in and out, back and forth; then the time of the music changes, and each standing still or turning in a circle, makes rapid movements with his feet, holding his bare arms balanced as he turns. Then the eldest of the boys, without moving his feet, twists his body in sensual, rhythmic undulations that make the crowd shout with laughter. After this somewhat questionable performance he sings a charming Shelluh love lyric to a wild high-pitched melody, barbaric in its strange intervals, fittingly accompanied by the flat tunk-tunk of the tom-toms.

O, my fair mistress, cry aloud with joy, For, by Allah, the only God, At the sound of thy voice The rose-laurel of the river will turn to a garden rose. At the sound of thy voice The sick man will sit up upon his mat. At the sound of thy voice The old man will throw away his cane.

We move on through the crowd of pushing and jostling idlers and buyers. At the edge of the square, the old clothes sellers sit in front of their patched and ragged little tents, squatting amid piles of gaudy garments—stained scarlet caftans, long scarfs of crimson and yellow silk from Fez, and costly embroidered girdles from Rabat. And nearby are trinket sellers with strings of beads, hair bangles, bracelets, and square silver brooches —things to bring back to the women in far oases or hidden Atlas valleys. And then there are the barbers at the edge of the crowd, working in the open air with just a mat hung up to protect them from the sun. The client squats on his heels while the barber shaves his head, all but one long lock behind the ear, reserved for Sidna Azrain, the blind Angel of Death, when he snatches the faithful Moslem up to Paradise.

In and out among the crowd wanders a crazy old figure in a ridiculously tall, pointed brown fez, his long crinkly hair falling into his eyes and ears. He shouts, and twirls in the air an old Saracenic gun banded with silver. He wears his hair long like all saints, dervishes, and holy beggars. The high pointed fez shows he belongs to the sect of howling dervishes spread through all Islam, who with long, rhythmic prayers and swaying, rhythmic motions, work themselves up to piercing their flesh with hideous skewers, licking red hot irons or inhaling steam from a boiling kettle. But this old fellow is content with howling and juggling his quaint archaic gun, which I wish to steal. In his zig-zag wanderings he is followed by a gaping crowd of Berber and negro children who, walking backward, tread on the mat of a mad old sorcerer, who growls a curse at them.

The sorcerer’s eyes look dark and fierce through his long unkempt hair; his body, naked to the waist, is almost black, and terribly shrivelled with fasting and vigils, for he is one of the tribe who gain their power over d j inns and devils by prayers to God. There are black sorcerers too who league themselves directly with the forces of evil. Before this old fellow, squat two women, closely swathed in veils except for one eye. One of them asks for a talisman to ward off sickness, which always comes from one of the thousands of yellow and green malignant devils ever swarming over the world. The sorcerer closes his eyes and utters inaudible things, and taking a scrap of dirty paper, painfully inscribes the two interlaced triangles of Solomon’s seal, and under it two cabbalistic signs of an ancient occult alphabet, he mystic initials of holy prophets of Islam. He puts the paper into a bit of hollow reed and the woman slips it in her bosom, and dropping a few coins, fades away into the crowd. The other woman moves closer and whispers something to the strange old creature, whose eyes, as he listens, becomes two sharp little gleams in the growing dusk. In a hollow, tremulous voice he tells her to go write the mystic talismanic word, Badouh seven times on the branch of a living tree, then cut off the branch and write further, “This branch was cut off to separate the heart of Yaccoub from the love of Zulieka,” and, finally, in the hour of shadows, to bury the branch in the neglected tomb of some dead man long forgotten. He shows her how to trace the letters of the spell, but still the woman does not go. She leans over and whispers again in his ear. The weird old mage gathers up a handful of small cowry shells and little coloured pebbles and casts them before him, muttering hermetical words whose meaning was obscure in Solomon’s time. He scans the shells and pebbles and waits for the revelation. For all the events on earth are announced full forty days in advance by an angel who cries them through the four heavens of God, and guardian spirits reveal these things to seers. The old man looks up and gazes long at the first bright evening star behind the Koutoubia tower. Again he looks down at the scattered shells and mourn-fully shakes his head but will tell the woman nothing.

Contact with Europeans has made Ahmet and the cad’s son feel that they should be superior to such things, and they turn away, but with a nervous laugh. It is not that they disbelieve, but that they feel that Europeans know a kind of higher sorcery that is expressed in automobiles and ma-chine guns.

As the short twilight begins to come to an end, the crowd thins out and the gleam of lanterns and glow of braziers light here and there little knots of Moors around the sellers of broiled sausages and mint tea. The camel drivers and wretchedly ragged porters squat in circles about dirty old women who ladle out steaming bowls of thin maize gruel from brass cauldrons. This is the supper of most of Morocco, which is too poor to buy the doubtful smelling sausages or mutton stew cooked with rancid argan oil. For dessert there are always heaps of the prickly cactus fruit of Barbary figs.

My two young Arab friends are too fastidious to enjoy the picturesqueness of the square in the evening and propose the French café, but I decline, and we say “Beslâma!” many times, and with handshakes and kissing of hands, I leave them and stroll about alone. White shadows flutter by me in the dark, and wavering spots of lantern light move vaguely here and there. My old friend, the Algerian arabesque painter, whose whistling tooth makes his guttural language one degree more uneuphonious, has dropped the flap of his tent, but through the slit I see him reading his Koran by candle light, the book held three inches from his nose. The tea and date sellers sit Buddha-wise in their stalls, drowsing over their long hashish pipes.

The uncanny music of tom-toms and lutes lures me into a little Moorish café built of bamboo and thatch. An acetylene flare throws a dazzling colour-less light over the merrymakers and gives the effect of a cinema picture in sharp blacks and whites. I squat on the mat beside two Berber fellows from the mountains, and we all drink sweet tea and mint and listen to the nearly blind ballad singer’s wild recitals of barbaric love and revenge. Between the pauses, the tom-toms and the two-stringed lutes make faster and more excited rhythms, and the tea drinkers sway and clap their hands in time. I try an experimental pipe of kief and vaguely dream of the thousand strange faces that have flashed past me, and the thousand strange hearts full of wonder and fears and desires, and of the throbbing hidden life of this old African city shut within its dead broken walls. But mostly I keep wondering what hidden doom the old sorcerer saw in the shells and wouldn’t tell the woman.