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Friday, 20 June 2008

Don't dance with bearded men

Approaching Tinghir


A few days later I was in Tinghir, watching the bus disappear into a greying desert. It was late afternoon and I stood, scratching my head, in a small dusty square. It was then that a small boy approached. ‘You want to come to my brother’s wedding?’ I blanked him out but he was insistent, and then gradually, almost too late, I realised it was more than a scam.

I followed him into a maze of narrow paths and tall, baked-clay walls. The night was hot and black and I was walking into the past. Every so often, as though sensing my unease, the boy would turn. “You will like. You will like.” And I’d grin back, nodding my head, thinking Biblical thoughts, holding on to the story of the Good Samaritan. Occasionally John the Baptist would flash into my head, his eyes staring at me from a plate.

Imagine walking down this at night.

It began with the sound of drums and what I can only describe as a kind of joyous wailing. The drums grew louder and around the corner the wedding party came into view, bringing with it an army of shadows, eyes gleaming in torch light. The boy ran off and began whispering urgently to a white bearded elder. A moment later I was being hugged and swept away down yet more alley-ways to a small courtyard.
There were vast amounts of couscous and lamb, strange smelling pipes, and an absence of women. It seemed the wedding was an excuse for the men to party, free from any who might criticise. I wondered what the women were doing, and whether their party was as good.

And yet clearly their presence was needed - in one form or another. Drums started, followed by the sound of strings and pipes. An unconvincing woman materialised in the middle of the circle and began dancing. Osama Bin Laden in drag. She began pulling up people to dance alongside her. I smiled contentedly, puffed on the pipe, thinking how strange, how pleasant everything was - when suddenly a hairy hand appeared inches from my face. It pulled at my shoulder, forcing me up. A moment later I was dancing a peculiar version of the Twist to music more suited to a ‘belly-dance’.

Men-only-dancing was interesting, my dancing even more so, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The music went on and on, and so did I, wondering when the damn thing was going to stop. Imagine ‘Stairway to Heaven’ played twenty-three times…and continuing. What I didn’t realise - until almost too late - was that here the music didn’t stop until you stopped dancing - at least in this small village of Tinghir.
I slept blissfully in the company of strangers, slowly learning the lesson that hospitality costs little and is remembered forever.

The following day another village. I was sitting on an outcrop of rock. The village huddled in a terracotta landscape beneath a dark blue sky. Someone had seen me. A young girl trudged up the path, heading in my direction. She stopped two or three feet away and held out the most beautiful beaded necklace I’d ever seen. She named her price, which was pitifully small, and even more pitifully I proceeded to haggle. It was then that she gave me a look that humiliates me still, and makes me give that little bit extra to any and every appeal. She just looked and then turned, taking the necklace with her. I watched her retrace her steps and thought of all that she hadn’t and all that had been given to me. If I’d learnt nothing from Morocco, I learnt it now. A generous spirit makes life worth living.

This would be a good place to end, but there was one more lesson still to be learnt.

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