Tales of Benshasha - How it began

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As you sit there, waiting for your flight,
In the hope that you won't be there all night,
Refilling you glass at the faceless bar,
Pretending it's normal, the way that you are.
Observing the throng, as if in a trance,
Rehearsing as though it's some sort of romance,
Talking to no one but listening to all,
Silently waiting your final gate call.

On 31 October 1999, I arrived in Morocco shattered, frozen, drunk and wondering just what the hell I was doing. Escape from Oman after fourteen months of utter hell, after finding out that my 'sponsor' was one of the Sultan's prized 'lady-boys' – had left me a little drained and lucky to be alive. Seven hours wait at Kuwait airport, not the most edifying place to spend that long, but made easier (but less sober) by having a bottle of J&B in my hand luggage. Next I had 21 hours to wait in London! Fortunately I had just enough cash to pay for the bus from Heathrow to Gatwick; a nasty shock as I had assumed that it would be free – it wasn't, it was nearly £20!! The remainder was spent on beer, to recover from the shock. By the time I arrived at Gatwick, I was almost unable to walk. Stupidly, I had worn an almost new pair of all-singing-all-dancing-all-American-you-can't-bend-it safety boots that I'd been ordered to wear in Qatar. I didn't – much to my regret – ever wear them other than 'when on parade'. The manufacturers should be sued under the trade's description act, 'safe' they are not.

By the time I got to Casablanca, they were full of blood. Gatwick airport – not the most welcoming or comfortable airport in the world by a long chalk – was freezing as they turn the heating off at night, but I managed to sleep – a bit – and then faced an interminable wait throughout the whole day until the flight at around eight in the evening. I began to relax on the last leg, the one to Casablanca. For a start, I was starving and for the only time in my life, the prospect of an 'airline-meal' was positively mouth-watering. And then – seeing Fatima again began to become a reality rather than a futile dream. For the first time in months I began to feel faintly optimistic – almost excited. The Moroccan stewardess must have sensed my predicament and kept my glass topped up without my having to ask. To put a damper on things, we landed at Tangier and there we stayed for the next three hours while they waited for the wings to de-ice. We were taken off the plane and left to stand in the no-man's land of the exit lobby to the departure lounge, where a howling gale made it feel like an Arctic wind-tunnel. And there I was thinking that Africa was a warm continent! The only point of light relief was watching the customs officers unloading all the booze from the plane and removing it to places of safety, such as the boots of their cars.

We arrived in Casablanca and I got my first pleasant surprise about Morocco: the welcome. Smiles, friendliness, 'have a nice stay' and nobody asking a thing at the customs, let alone strewing all your belongings all over the floor. All the years I have spent going in and out of Arab airports had left me expecting little, and the immediate reaction was that I must have come to the wrong place. I was expecting to find Fatima there, angry with me at having been made to wait so long. Wrong – there was nobody at all and I wondered just what was going on, or whether she'd given up and gone home. I don't know why I didn't call her immediately but just waited in disappointment for another couple of hours. Nobody came and I was getting tired of waiting in airports. The trouble was that I had no idea where Fatima lived, other than 'in Casablanca'. Casablanca is a big place. So, in the end I fumbled through my belongings, found her telephone number and did ring her.

'Where you?' she asked, a little surprised. 'At the airport, didn't you get my fax?' No she didn't. She then told me, 'Get taxi to 'Marché BenjDir, 79 Lahcen Ouider'. I see you. No pay more 200 dirhams.'

Now, nobody in their right mind likes getting taxis from airports at the best of times. Getting them in the small hours of the morning can be even more fraught, and doing such a thing in Casablanca, with no money in your pocket, seemed to me like grounds for enrolment in the nearest loony bin. So – spurning all the offers of 'help', I managed to assume an air of a 'seasoned traveller' (being more than half pissed helped) – someone completely familiar with the surroundings – and find myself a taxi that was prepared to take me into Casa without 'money-up-front', and off we set for the agreed price of Dh 200, which I didn't have. Incredibly, he took me straight to Benj'Dir without any deviations or incident – maybe sensing that I was broke – and my first impression of Morocco hadn't been a complete illusion. As the taxi stopped in an empty street, a small, stooped woman dressed in a djellaba and headscarf stepped out of the blackness of the entrance to a building.

I would never have recognised her, a million miles from the Fatima that I had known in Oman. She kissed me demurely on each cheek, as she would have done with a total stranger to whom she had just been introduced – not a hug, not a smile, just a look of incomprehension tinged with wariness. Out came my luggage, from the boot and then a nasty shock: Fatima's flat was up 110 steps and, as ever, I had managed to get away with more than twice my baggage allowance – my entire worldly possessions as it turned out – so there was well in excess of 75 kgs! Between us we lugged it all up the steps, with me stumbling and fumbling as there wasn't a single light on the black terrazzo stairs. I was more than half-dead when we eventually made it to the top and nearly collapsed outside her door – still in pitch darkness.

On knocking – so as not to alert the neighbours to my arrival, the door was opened by a not unattractive thirty-something woman. She didn't even try to smile but glared at me with the deepest of suspicion and not the least wisp of friendliness. This was Souad, Fatima's half-sister. Inside the room was another, infinitely prettier and younger woman. She did smile and gave me a coy peck on each cheek. This was Majoubah, Fatima's niece. It did not take long to take in the surroundings, a 3m x 3m room with the corner chopped off. There were divan seats around virtually the entire perimeter. What had been a balcony had been added to this, and there was a tiny kitchen in which had been inserted an even tinier toilet. 'Where the hell do they sleep?' was about all that echoed through my tangled brain. Even when the door had been closed and bolted, there was no kiss, no hug, no nothing from Fatima, just 'Why you come here?' and I wondered whether this could be the same woman who had done so much for me in Oman. I said, 'I came to say thank you and to see you. I love you, not just for what you did for me.' There was little or no response. Souad glared, Majoubah stared and giggled, even though neither of them understood a word that I had said. I sat down and took my boots off. My socks were soaked in blood but this, at least, provoked some sort of reaction other than glares from Souad. She immediately went to the kitchen and heated some water and came back and dutifully washed my bloodstained feet and attended to the raw heels that had been rubbed to the bone. I thanked her as best I could.

Ungraciously, all I wanted to do was to sleep. 'Where can I sleep?' I whispered to Fatima; and with that, blankets were produced from one corner of the room and a bed was made for me on one of the divans. It must have been about 4:00am – I hadn't changed the time on my watch, I hadn't changed my clothes for two days – I as good as died as I lay down, falling unconscious immediately. I woke late, totally bemused and wondering where the hell I was. I opened my eyes to see Souad sitting opposite, glaring at me malevolently. There was no sign of Fatima at all. Majoubah was still asleep on one of the other divans. I should have been scared but I was just confused. The irony of the relief of having extricated myself from Oman, only to find myself imprisoned with a mad, murderous Moroccan woman, dawned on me at the same time as the recollection as to where I was. A stony silence prevailed as my 'Hello' was greeted with nothing. Neither Souad nor Majoubah – when she eventually awoke – spoke a word of English, and I instantly discovered that my vast range of a few words of classical Arabic was totally useless in Morocco. I speak precious little French, either, so an embarrassed exchange of stares and grunts ensued until lunchtime. I wanted to go out and have a look around but the state of my feet made that impossible. I went to the window to have a look out but was forcibly restrained by Souad spitting a 'Là! Mushkillah!' (No! Problem!) at me as she pulled me away. So, I just sat and waited. Over the previous year I had got used to that. Fatima turned up at 1:00pm, dressed a little more recognisably and, for the first time since I had arrived, spoke to me as Souad and Majoubah prepared lunch. The gist of what she said was a somewhat frenetic 'Not possible you stay here.'

Stunned would be an underestimation of what was going through my mind just then, the first of which as 'Just where the hell CAN I go?' The fact that Fatima's English is 'peculiar', to say the least, is not the entire fault. In Oman we had been able to communicate pretty well and mostly by touch, but I was as much to blame as was she for the misunderstandings. She had, she assured me, told me of the situation in Morocco. She had, she assured me, described her flat and who lived in it. She had, she assured me, told me that it was not possible for me to come to Morrocco and stay with her. Something got lost in the translation and my interpretation of 'I have nice flat in Casablanca' hinged on just how you interpret the word 'nice'.

The other total misunderstanding only came to light when I went to the British Consulate a couple of days later. When they asked where I was living, and I told them the truth, they looked horrified and said that it was 'not possible'. You cannot, it transpired, stay with an unmarried woman even if both of you are over fifty and have two chaperones. Put bluntly it is this: If you are a Muslim man, you can look at and bonk anything you like – male, female, animal, vegetable, mineral or the exhaust pipe of your Ferrari. But – if you are a woman over the age of puberty, you can look at no man and you can ONLY bonk your husband – and he must be Muslim. Simple – it's in the Koran. Balls, and I went home feeling a bit more determined. It took all of three days to get over the effects of Oman, the journey and the alcohol that made it at all possible. I had, I was told much later, not made the best 'first impression'. Tired, dishevelled, unshaven and well under the 'affluence of incohol', I had left Fatima's half-sister and niece wondering just what the hell she'd been up to in Oman. This didn't come as a complete surprise and there were no excuses, even if there was a damned good reason. Nonetheless, it did little for what was left of my self-esteem. I met Fatima at lunchtime, after I'd been to the consulate, with me in a somewhat different frame of mind. 'Unless you want otherwise, I am staying here, we are doing nothing wrong, and nobody can do anything, things have changed.' Well, it happened that I was (sort of) right. For the previous four months, since the death of Hassan II, I had listened to all the news about the changes in Morocco assiduously. For once in the BBC's history, Morocco had featured regularly on the World Service as (they perceived) the change in the monarch could have far reaching influence on Arab-West relations.

Fatima, on the other hand, had been living in Morocco and had far less an idea of either the reality or the extent of the changes. She was still living under the firm conviction that the infamous Mr Basri was still in charge, that all walls had ears and anyone spied on somebody and told anybody what everybody said about everything. Peace gradually descended in the flat, the glares softened and within a week were replaced by smiles, although with Souad, I was never quite sure whether it was an attempt at friendliness, or wind. Communication remained something of a problem, particularly with Souad, who was wont to shout at me in Moroccan at the slightest excuse. Majoubah soon became a good friend, full of fun, full of mischief but lovely and even though we could not talk, she could easily 'get across' what she meant. In another place and in other circumstances, she would not have been a woman to leave safely alone in my company in a small flat! Despite all this, I was still somewhat imprisoned. All the neighbours, to whom I was never formally introduced, stared at me in that dumb sullen way that cows come and look at you if you stop at the gate to their field.

The concierge just glared and I got the distinct impression that he was 'recording' everything. He was. The people in the street looked at me as though I'd just landed from Mars. I felt decidedly strange. Going out at all required extensive negotiations with Souad and Majoubah, but in the next couple of weeks, I did manage to escape and explore. I found the bars full of drunks and prostitutes where the men from the marché drank their profits away, I found the decaying colonial buildings and the aged colonial tramps. I found the street beggars and one proud Indian man, who ran a clothing shop that wouldn't look out of place in Madras. I liked what I saw – it wasn't Morocco, it wasn't Casablanca – it was life. I saw very little of Fatima. She disappeared for work at 7:30am, came home for half an hour at lunchtime and then didn't return until after 9:00pm. Gradually, I managed to communicate with Souad and she began to soften towards me, proving to have a good sense of humour, only bettered by an even quicker temper.

A strange, slightly lonely and enigmatic life ensued for the next few weeks. People came and went, I met Fatna, Fatima's twin, and several other friends, non-friends and relations. Fatima only began to relax when, after a couple of weeks, the size 11 paramilitary boots had not actually kicked in the door. Life settled down to something like boring. It was not really life and certainly not really Moroccan. Suddenly things took a turn (and proved to be what you might loosely call 'interesting'), when - one Sunday morning - we took Jaceeb, a half-step-nephew, back to his mom in Mohammedia. And, after more than ten years here, that first impression has never left. Yes – there have been frustrations, yes there have been 'bad' experiences and 'YES' the administration can be mind-blowingly complicated, but NOT ONCE has anybody (official) ever said anything that has ever been less than 'Welcome to our country'. It is fantastic.

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