It was just light enough to discern the draperies over the window. Something had awakened me. I lay still, listening. Far off, faintly, I could hear chanting. I got out of bed quietly and tip toed to the window. We were on the fourth floor of the Del Sol Hotel, next to the beach. I drew back the drape just enough to see outside. Etched against the gray sky of early dawn was a minaret in the distance. The sound was coming from that place. I wondered if it was really a person or rather, a recording played through speakers...the mullah calling the faithful to prayer. It was an incredibly beautiful call, echoing through the streets.
I stayed at the window and watched the light come up in the sky. On the left, the ocean waves lapped gently against the beach. Straight ahead, a man in a robe led a camel up a side street. Down below, another man squatted in the saw grass. I was stunned at the sheer enormity of the scene all around me... the dawn sky, the chanting, the ocean, the camel, the stillness and then some guy dumping his bowels in the dunes. The romance of the moment cut short. I felt as if I had hit a brick wall. I was shocked. I was appalled. I laughed.
Later at breakfast, I wondered why our waiter asked my husband what I wanted to eat. When I started to answer, he ignored me, again asking my husband for my order. I mused at yet another cultural oddity.
This morning we were going to the Casbah and I was excited. We talked about the possibility of taking the train to Casa Blanca the next day. I had recently seen the movie for the first time and had fallen in love with that legend of cinema. I was enthralled with the idea of visiting Casa Blanca. But first, the Casbah.
We decided to explore a bit on our own but every place we went there were people clamoring after us. I think most of them wanted money. Some had things to sell, others were just begging. Some of them followed us for a distance. Some of them were yelling, angry and frightening. I did not know what they were saying. I was fearful because I could easily offend out of ignorance and find myself missing a finger, a hand or my head. My idea of visiting the Casbah went on the back burner and we quickly returned to the hotel and worked at negotiating lunch. With full stomachs, we decided to try it again.
Several young men clamoring to be our guide, again accosted us on the front steps of the hotel. I was on guard at the aggressiveness they exhibited. We selected a young man who called himself John. The Casbah was a three-mile walk up what appeared to be a slight hill. John pointed up the road.
What a marvelous road it was. There was a wide median separating the direction of traffic lanes. It sported tall palm trees, several fountains, and concrete steps with places to sit.
We began our trip on foot, with John in the lead. About half way, we stopped to rest in the median, sitting down on concrete steps. It was a beautiful day, gently warm and sunny. I looked back the way we had come to see our hotel, garishly painted vivid blue and brilliant yellow, blight on an otherwise neutral landscape.
I let my eyes travel the path we had come up the median and I saw them. Two midnight black people, very tall and very thin with hair cropped very short. They were draped in dazzling orange robes with glistening golden earrings. From their carriage and from their grace of movement, I guessed them to be royalty. John informed us they were Masai from the interior. Their sheer beauty and presence of being was mesmerising. If only the homies from the ‘hood could see them.
We hailed a taxi for the remaining journey to the Casbah. John informed us that he learned English while being the “boy toy” of a British woman living in London.
We entered the Casbah on foot from the central fountain. John was quick to point out the hashish area comprised of several open stalls floored with rugs and cushions for hookah smokers. Next were tin smiths, cutting and hammering delightful jewelry out of #10 tin cans collected from the various hotels and restaurants along the coast. Later, in the hotel gift shop, I bought a pair of earrings made from tin cans.
We were led down a series of stairs into the real Casbah. An East Indian woman in a beautiful green sari sat at the edge of the steps, holding a baby to her breast and her hand out for money. Her hand was very clean and her nails manicured. All at once, I got the clear picture that begging was her job.
John forged ahead, giving us history and pointing out interesting sights. I began to understand, that as a mere woman I could not participate in conversation. No man would speak to me directly or look me in the face. If I had a question, I had to flag down my husband who would ask John. Eventually I would get an answer.
I decided to have my own experience. I would make eye contact with every woman I met, exchange some silent knowing and follow the men. There I was, bringing up the rear of a very obvious tourist brigade.
Most of the female population was Muslim, wearing the traditional garment: full-length robe, hood and lower face veil, in black or another very dark color. Some of the younger women wore elegant fabrics: silk and satin, some plain, some elaborately embroidered. Some of them eschewed the veil and even wore makeup. Perhaps they were prostitutes. I do not know, I could not ask. I must have passed a hundred women that day. Meeting my gaze, they all smiled back at me...eyes wrinkling up at the corners, cheeks swelling the edges of the veil. I knew them and they knew me... trailing behind the men.
We moved deeper into the Casbah. John told us some people are born and die in the Casbah and never leave it their entire lives. He took us through aisle-ways so narrow we had to walk single file. You could reach out the window of one, second story structure and touch the building across the street. It grew darker and darker. Sunlight could only penetrate between the buildings for a brief time each day and in some places, not at all.
We passed the weavers and the tanners. Each specialty was a community unto itself, like suburban neighborhoods. We took fresh mint tea in a tiny, dark café at the heart of the Casbah. Robed and hooded Bedouins sat at an adjoining table. One man had an obviously dyed red beard. John said this was a sign the man had been to Mecca. John told us this area was over three hundred years old.
On our way out of the Casbah, we passed through a meat market. This area was wider, perhaps thirty feet from side to side. There were stalls demarked by blankets spread out over the ground. Animal carcasses lay on the blankets. Chickens had their heads and feet still attached. Haunches of goat displayed their hooves. A few sellers sat on low, homemade stools, others directly on the ground, each fanning flies away from their wares. It smelled fetid and of death. As we walked on, I caught the scent of fresh cilantro, a cleansing odor, erasing the smell of decay. My nose followed it like a person dying of thirst in the desert.
On our right, a wall jutted out at ninety degrees from the back wall. Several hooks hung from the ceiling, each holding a partially skinned leg of something that once lived. There was a glass counter with a portly man sitting on a tall stool at one end. He was higher in altitude than anyone else in the market. He was wearing a white tunic and white pants. A black fez with a red tassel crowned his head. He swatted at an occasional fly with an old-fashioned metal fly swatter. I stopped in my tracks and reached for my husband’s coattail. “There’s Sidney Greenstreet,” I whispered furtively. This man was right out of the film Casa Blanca, complete in every detail. The real Sidney has been dead for many decades.
We found ourselves back at the fountain. We hailed a taxi and returned to the Del Sol. We decided to go back to Gibraltar the next morning. I was incredibly relieved to be returning to the English speaking safety of Gibraltar even though it meant missing the train to Casa Blanca.
I have been to the Casbah. It is a fearsome and wondrous place. Traveling in third world countries is scary. You do not know where you are going and you do not speak the language. Your very person sticks out like a sore thumb and you are extremely vulnerable. Nevertheless, I saw the reincarnation of Sidney Greenstreet and I have pictures I will carry with me for the rest of my life. That will have to be good enough. Oh, I also have earrings.