Monday, October 1, 2012
Strong Stuff [Marrakech]
The sweat trickles down the visitor’s back as the afternoon sun approaches a hundred degrees in Marrakech’s celebrated Djema el Fna, but the unapologetic naked intensity of the heat can seem almost bracing. The elements here may feel extreme, but at least they lack hypocrisy.
The vicious cruelty of the old rulers matched Caligula’s, and the slave market in the Souk Zrabia flourished until the French occupation in 1912. Today men’s aggression is for the most part displaced into commerce and socio-economic hierarchy. The assault of self-interested hustlers has abated since the government has got after them, but their importunities were little worse than the gauntlet of shopkeepers who will go so far as to seize the arm of a foreign passerby. Business here may seem recreational, but everyone knows it is always a matter of getting one’s hand into another’s pocket. The pitches to the visitor are transparent: “it is bad luck not to make the first sale of the day,” “just for looking, no buying,” and always the earnest “for you, a special price.”
Though the beggars are also a result of a greed-based economy, and they sometimes distress the tender-hearted visitor and annoy the rest, but they testify also to the vitality of Muslim charity or zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam. The Arabic word means “that which purifies” [the giver] and such donations are enjoined by the Koran; to give what one ought is a prerequisite for one’s prayers to be heard. Almost always aged, crippled, or holding a baby, sometimes in orderly rows chanting outside a mosque, the appeals of beggars are regularly heard by the more affluent. Certain medicants make a regular circuit of souk merchants, receiving a coin from each. Have they somehow a franchise on the route? Compassionate giving may extend even to animals. Outside the modern carrefour where one may purchase forbidden goods such as cured pork from Savoy and wine, the feral cats find plates of milk and scraps of rotisseried chicken, perhaps left by a worker who recalled the story of Mohammed’s cutting off his sleeve to avoid disturbing his cat Muezza who had fallen asleep there.
Travelers are one of the categories of people to whom zakat should be given, and hospitality to travelers remains strong in spite of the constant procession of foreigners, now decades-old. Though anti-American demonstrations are at this moment turning violent in Egypt, Tunisia, and Pakistan, we are consistently greeted with smiles and waves of the hand even from passing cars. The wanderer lost in the medina’s maze who asks directions will receive warmth as well as aid.
Pleasure may be mingled with suffering, generosity with selfishness, civility with barbarism, but each element is undiluted and manifests without disguise. The head of household (the king even) slaughters his sheep for the Aid el Kebir. The stench of the tanning vats makes a miasma of a whole neighborhood. The diner knows the source of his meat and the stroller the origin of his shoes’ leather.
One reads that Thami el Glaoui, Lord of the Atlas and Pasha of Marrakech, entertained not only the French officials with whom he collaborated, but Churchill as well, Colette and Charlie Chaplin, offering his guests hashish and opium as well as girls and boys snatched from the tribes of the Atlas. He was, not surprisingly, hated even before he turned on the king. The indulgences of his palace were beyond the means of most Moroccans, but a pipe of cannabis was not. If kief is no longer consumed openly, this is the result of government fiat under international pressures. Sebsis and shkaufs (pipe-stems and bowls) for its consumption are for sale in the markets yet today, and the use of alcohol, which I would agree with the imams is less desirable, is surely increasing every year.
Islam itself seems a creed fiercely insistent and singularly simple and direct. When compared to the multifarious maze of Hindu mythology, the subtle metaphysics of Buddhism, the pomp of Roman Catholicism, or the denatured Puritanism with which I was raised, Islam’s requirements are few but absolute. The insurgent dynasties, the Almohads and then the Almoravids were puritan simplifiers out of the desert, and today the Sufis, the marabout cults, and the remnants of Berber animism continue to lose ground to the grand simplicity of orthodoxy. Experiential emotion is replaced by authority and variety by uniformity.
The Shahada, the basic statement of Islamic belief is a single sentence, stark and simple: “There is no god but God and Mohammed is his prophet.” It must impress those of us it cannot convince.
In Paul Bowles’ Moroccan stories one finds the same extreme forms of friendship, sensuality, betrayal, and agony. There is but one sun in the Sheltering Sky, and its heat overwhelms all else. The wanderer in the Djema el Fna can feel in his whole body that animating heat that chastens and mortifies even as it vivifies. Among the multifarious distractions of the square and of the wider world beyond, the joy and the pain of being alive, the love and aggression of the world, are here unmistakable.