The Digital Adventures

Chapter 5E

Music: On the Road Again by Willy Neslon and Country Roads by John Denver

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More Delays, Enjoying Hospitality


Bad news met us in Rabat: the Algerian Embassy wanted 48 hours to process our visa applications. The girls, however, got a break; they were told that, as members of the British Commonwealth, they didn’t need visas. We should have such luck. Another two days wasted.

From Rabat, after a brisk morning swim in the Atlantic, which we weren’t to see again for longer than any of us dreamed, we headed east toward Algeria, visas in our pockets and a wind at our back. The land we crossed, lying between the Rif and the still snow-covered Middle Atlas Mountains, and watered by their abundant runoff, was fertile and thick with waving fields of cereal grain and dark patches of vegetables. Bright birds darted before us, and the farmers waved as we passed.

Evening found us on the outskirts of Meknes, the descending un reflected brilliantly off the enameled tiles at the arched entrance to the casbah.

Meknes is Morocco’s largest interior city. Beyond the casbah it is ultra-modern, thriving, commercial, with hotels of Miami Beach Gothic and apartments of imitation Mies Van der R he towering over the massive medina walls, updating its centuries-old reputation as a gaudy architectural showplace, a reputation first established during the reign of Sultan Mulay Ishmail who sought to turn the city into an Arab Versailles-though it’s difficult to see where he found the time with 4,000 worn n in his harem and 876 children to his credit.

  • Photo caption on page 76 of the printed publication:
    Our first gas station in Africa, one of more than 200 where we refilled on our 42,500-mile journey around the world.

Meknes also had the last official campsite in Africa; after it, save for a thin strip along the coast, lay the barren, inhospitable North Africa of endless deserts. But when we reached the campsite, we found that the annual Meknes Fair had just begun, and the camp grounds were taken over with rides, amusements, food shops, Coca-Cola stands, farm equipment displays, livestock exhibits, and booths where the uses of fertilizer and the findings of meteorology were explained. It could have been a state fair in Kansas or Idaho, except for the big display of Russian tractors and the shop handing out Red Chinese propaganda to the dark-skinned men wearing turbans and fezzes. When we explained our problem to the director of the Fair, he apologized and listed five or ten good reasons why we couldn’t camp there while the Fair was in progress-then threw them all away and invited us to stay. He cleared a spot for our tents, saw that they were protected by guards, arranged for us to come and go freely and, to top everything off, asked us to be his special guests at the opening banquet the next afternoon, the first Americans, he said, ever to be so honored.

We slept that night with our camper almost lost beside huge black goatskin tents in a maze of stake ropes as thick as an arm. We were awakened early by the fearsome bleating of a hundred sheep being slaughtered, literally on our doorstep, before being roasted on giant outdoor spits in preparation for the banquet.

The feast began shortly after midday, and we’d all skipped breakfast in anticipation. A troop of Moroccan soldiers arrived to escort us-dressed in our best, with the girls clean-scrubbed and shining-to one of the huge tents where we were eared on immense bright-colored silk pillows heaped around short tables, beside which sat scores of men- mostly in native costume, with a few government officials and businessmen in Western dress-all laughing and joking and shoveling food in with their hands. The girls hesitated a moment searching the sea of chewing faces in vain for other females.

A hundred waiters served us, and a hundred servings they brought: giant oval loaves of rye bread, still warm from the oven; huge, heaping platters of pastry stuffed with a mouth-watering mixture of chopped pigeon, scrambled eggs, brown sugar and strange spices; and lambs, whole roasted lambs, fresh and young and dripping with sweet juices; and platters of baked whole chickens covered with curry sauce.

Our Moroccan hosts ate with their fingers, tearing huge hunk of meat apart with their teeth. They shouted at the waiter for more, and grabbed meat from the platters, swallowing in gulps and tossing bones and scraps on the sawdusted ground or over their heads or out the sides of the tent with complete abandon. They ate for the sheer joy of eating, and it was a wonder to watch them. They ate as if it were their last meal on earth; they ate until their stomachs seemed about to burst-and when plates of fruit arrived they gorged themselves again.

The host at my cushion collection was the chief of the Moroccan army, a commanding young general who stuffed me like a howitzer. He yelled at every waiter to put more food on my plate, though it was always full. From one passing waiter, the general grabbed half a lamb and plopped it down on our table, showering it with salt and spice. By the time I finished my end of the lamb, I never wanted to eat again, but then they brought out the poultry, and the general smilingly threw me a whole chicken, curry sauce flying all over. He kept breaking off choice pieces of other chickens and throwing them to me across the table; as soon as I finished one piece, two more came ailing into my lap. I joined the Moroccans in tossing the bones out of the tent, but as the onslaught continued I found myself throwing whole chicken legs out the sides, even burying pieces of meat in the sand with my foot. And everybody else was still going strong. What a meal. When the food finally stopped everyone reclined on the pillows and smoked strong cigarettes and the Arabs told their favorite stories; the air beneath the goatskins was heavy with smoke and laughter and peptic rumbles of approval.

Stuffed beyond belief, we piled into the Toyota for a quick visit to Mulay Idris, a town less than an hour from Meknes, yet centuries distant, a vast medina undisturbed by the progress of the past thousand years. Named for the disciple of Mohammed who brought the Moslem religion to Morocco, the town retains his religious fervor to such an extent that non-Moslems are absolutely forbidden to remain within its walls after nightfall. If we tried to stay in Mulay Idris after dark, we were warned at the Fair, some fanatic mullah would be sure to lead an attack on us; it was bad enough, we were told, going there with unveiled women.

A girl just doesn’t go unveiled in any small town or inland city of North Africa, and it is only in the big coastal cities, such as Tangier, Tunis, Casablanca, and Bizerte, which have been exposed to a hundred years of French influence, and where the women have developed European attitudes, that many have abandoned the veil completely, though most retain it in modified form. Whereas their inland sisters wear shapeless sacks of thick white cotton through which nothing shows but shadowy eye holes, the young Moslem women of the big cities wear form-fitting tunics in attractive shades of pink and blue silk, high-heel shoes, and the thinnest of gossamer veils, just barely covering the nose and lips, and leaving the eyes-which are strikingly outlined with makeup-fully exposed, thus following the letter, though certainly not the spirit, of the Moslem custom. They wield their veils in the same devastatingly effective way that a Lima lady flirts behind her lace abanico or a Hong Kong girl coquettes with her bamboo fan. Inland, however, the women dare not flirt or look attractive to any but their husbands, and the farther east we traveled the truer we found this.

As we gaped at the veiled women scurrying out of our sight, we were conscious of the men of Mulay Idris regarding us with equal attention-though much less affection. Except for an old, one-armed man who offered to guard our car for a dirham, no one greeted us-a sharp contrast to the other Moroccan towns where half the population turned out to bid us welcome. As we hiked up the steep, stepped streets of the town, we had the feeling that we were being watched from behind the thick wooden doors, that in every mosque fanatical men were hatching plots to doom the infidels. The only time anyone spoke to us was when we went too dose to a mosque. In Mulay Idris, as in all Morocco, it is strictly forbidden for a non-Moslem to enter a mosque, again a strange contrast to such bastions of the Arab world as Damascus and Cairo which bid the tourist welcome and are proud to display their mosques. When Willy tried to sneak into the courtyard of a mosque from which a strange chant was issuing, two guards caught him and roughed him up for his troubles. Only the little children smiled at us and posed for pictures and ate our candy-until their parents darted out of doorways to snatch them back before the heathens contaminated them. In 20 years they will probably treat their children the same way. Never have I felt so unwanted and unloved by my fellow men.

That afternoon, we resolved to learn more about Islam, for its hold on its followers and its potential as a world force were more than we had imagined. Six hundred million people, a quarter of the world’s population, live under its awesome power, cut off by their beliefs from the other three-quarters, taught that theirs is the only true way to worship God. A careful reading of their Koran shows they can never accept compromise or coexistence with other religions; only capitulation and conversion. We had always tried to regard religions as benign philosophical systems, each trying, in its own way, to prescribe the means of adherence to a higher law of truth and decency, to control man’s baser impulses, to make for a better life on earth and beyond; but that afternoon at Mulay Idris changed all that, making us feel to the core of our bones that dark forces were at work, that a religion could become the most evil of influences.

We had been told in Meknes that one foreigner lived in Mulay Idris, an American professor who had converted to Islam and been granted a special dispensation to make his home there. Al was eager to meet him, feeling that it would be interesting material for our articles. But I couldn’t bring myself to disturb him. I knew that some powerful force must have driven him to Mulay Idris, and I was sure he wouldn’t want visitors from home, or intrusions like ours. But what things he must have seen, what tales he could tell-and maybe he will, some day.

On the way back to our camp at Meknes, we passed the ruins of Volubis, the westernmost major Roman city in Africa, an enduring witness to the six-century era when one nation ruled all of North Africa from the Atlantic to the Nile. Where, 1,600 years ago, 100,000 people had lived and worked in a magnificently planned and beautifully constructed city, today storks nest atop the decrowned columns and look down on a jungle of empty pedestals, a silent Forum, and Caracalla’s wobbly, weathered Arch of Triumph. Where once a proud Roman highway, lined with massive Doric columns, had run from Volubis to Tangier and the farthest reaches of the Granary of Rome, today a crumbled strip of uneven rock ends in a weed-filled field, and the columns beside it are no higher than tombstones.

That night the heavens opened. Thunder rumbled across the Tell and lightning flashed onto the mountain tops. And the rains came, pounding, soaking, drenching rains, our first since Spain-our last for 10,000 miles! The next day we were to cross the Middle Atlas through the Col de Touahar near the Taza gap and enter one of the world’s driest regions, an arid waste which, save for a thin strip along the Mediterranean and a few isolated oases, would stretch unbroken to the delta of the Nile. It was a region the rain gods seldom visited; so that night they came to say good-bye.

The road from Meknes led through Fez, the last city before the Taza gap, the last until the border, 150 miles away. Fez, like Mulay Idris and most of the interior cities of Morocco, is completely surrounded by a high wall built to protect it from the nomad tribes. From the outside it has little distinction, but behind the walls is a fairyland. A perpetual river meanders through the heart of the town, bringing bloom to flower gardens along its path, watering bougainvillea and citrus trees, and flowing past tiled public patios and benches where the weary or the pensive can relax. It’s a city for contemplation, founded by the Moslem proselytizer Mulay Idris. Six hundred years ago, after their expulsion from Spain, the most devout Islamic scholars flocked to it. In Fez they built the famed Karaouyn University, and today another dozen medersas cluster around it, teaching the’ gospel according to Mohammed along with differential calculus and international relations. Students from all over the Arab world come to Fez, where they live in magnificent dormitories-cool, tiled complexes of living rooms, patios, chapels, cloisters, and mosques. We talked one young student into showing us the housing facilities; but the classrooms were strictly forbidden, and we could only wonder what the descendants of the Moors were planning for the descendants of those who drove them back to Africa.

It was noon before we left Fez and stopped to cook, and we were all looking forward to the meal, our first since the big feast, and a special one in another way. In our tours of the market places, we’d always been discouraged by the meat, which, since the shops had neither refrigeration nor display cases, hung on hooks in the open air where it was literally covered with flies and by midday had a grayish, pockmarked appearance that was about as appetizing as turkey vomit. A few of the more enlightened butchers would perfunctorily cover their meat with swatches of cheesecloth, but this only seemed to give the flies a better foothold. That day, however, we thought we’d beaten the system by going to the casbah market early in the morning, right after it opened, and choosing the freshest, reddest piece of meat we could find before any flying competitors got to it.

We dug into our lunch, then stopped and stared across the table at each other in dismay, our faces contorted. The meat was so foul-smelling we had to hold our noses to get it into our mouths-where it slipped around like a ball of rancid grease. It was so slimy it couldn’t be chewed; it just squished between the teeth. It smelled and tasted almost like a camel. In fact, I realized it was a camel. I’d been compelled to live off the stuff for a wretched month when I’d crossed Afghanistan by caravan, and I swore I’d never forget the taste as long as I lived.

I went on to assure the others that camel meat was certainly edible, if hardly palatable, and that it would do them no permanent harm. They all said they believed me, but nonetheless half a dozen surprised Arabs found themselves getting a free lunch that afternoon from a slightly green group of harib.

We washed our hands, brushed our teeth, and bade au revoir to Morocco as we headed toward the border. Things were not going well. We were running out of wine, and ahead of us in Algeria was a mine field, a robbery, a revolution, an auto accident, and a breakdown in the desert.

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