Saturday, May 24, 2014

Menace in Morocco

Lynne, me, Jess

Almost every expat I met in Morocco related stories of attempted robbery, attempted rape or a mugging, usually some gloomy tale of felony woe, and for the first time in my years travelling, I felt uneasy in this country. In my mind, Morocco beat out Colombia for dangerous people to watch out for. 

  One weekend I went to visit my friend Jess, a woman from England who organized art exhibits and festivals and lived in Sefrou, a small town 35km southwest of Fez.   

Sefrou medina

Her house was a white stucco, lopsided block of plaster that perched on a hilltop, with the souq and its vibrant colors visible from her spacious balcony overlooking a fast-flowing river. We stopped long enough to drop our things off and collect her dogs for a walk.

On the outskirts of town, a muddy path led into a marshy, wooded area, and as we stepped around watery potholes, tins, bottles, broken glass and plastic bags filled with rotting muck, Jess chattered on about how much she loved the place. It was quiet, the people were fantastic, the souq was brilliant and there was freedom for her beloved dogs, which now stopped to sniff at the debris and wolf down soft snacks before sniffing the air and bounding off again, wagging their tails and barking. She didn’t seem to mind they were eating from this particular dung heap, nor did she seem worried they might slice open their little paws on all the broken glass and rusty tins. I gazed round, making a mental note to not let the hounds near me once we got back to her place.

As I tiptoed around the garbage, she related a horrible narrative about how she had been assaulted there, by five men who had tackled her and attempted to pull off her clothes, with every intention to rape her and perhaps kill her. She fought them off and ran away, luckily, but apparently, attempted rape, mutilation and scarification wasn’t enough to cancel her show, as she continued cheerily every day to walk the same woods alone with her dogs. She was determined they wouldn't disrupt her life.

Later, we met up with her friend Lynne, an American with the Peace Corps, to have coffee and stroll through the souq before buying wine for the evening. Angel came with us, a next door neighbor of Jess, an older man of about seventy who acted as general sidekick, go-fer and bodyguard. We bought some food and vegetables and looked at scarves and robes, but while I was looking at some items on a table, an addled gasoline sniffer locked his eyes on to mine and slowly limped over, extending a gnarly, black stick of wood to me, a hand. Hundreds of tormented addicts sniff glue, gas or shoe polish in Fez, wandering around filthy and stunned, their minds idling with the fumes, and there is little help nor hope for those living and dying on the streets of the city, including the orphan children drifting through the streets with handkerchiefs held to their noses, dirty, bare feet covered in sores and open wounds.

The spectre that now confronted me looked like he was thrown from the seventh floor of an apartment building and hit a few objects on the way down, his skin purple and distended on one side, bruised. Greasy, matted hair stuck to his scalp, his mouth a gaping black hole of broken teeth, and clothes, torn and gummy with sweat, clung to his back. I shook my head at the extended hand, smiled, and moved quickly off to join Jess and Lynne.  Seeing that Jess had some roasted peanuts, I retraced my steps to the vendor to get some of my own. I was back to where I was, searching through the various stalls for the peanut vendor, not paying attention to people as I passed, when all of a sudden POOF! Some enormous force hit me dead center in my chest causing me to gasp and fall backwards into the people behind me and past, my hands waving crazily in circles as I struggled to stay on my feet, winding up in a crouch beside a stairwell leading into a dress shop. A loud ooooohhhh rose up from the onlookers who had seen what happened and were now gathering and forming a circle around me.

When I could finally stand up, I searched the crowd and saw the crazy glue snuffer I had rebuffed; his eyes burned at me with hatred as he stood defiantly with his fist locked in the air, as if claiming victory, mocking me with the hateful glare in his black eyes. I backed up and the bastard started to come at me, albeit in slow motion because the gas that he'd been sniffing thrust him into a lower gear. Two men pushed him back and clasped his arms. I stood in shock.  Lynne, Jess and Angel came back when they saw the commotion and when they saw it involved me, Jess took my arm and led me away, telling me I would be okay and let's just go and get a bowl of soup at a great place around the corner. You'll love it.

gas sniffer

My arms and legs were shaking and my heart felt like it was going to explode, as if separating from its moorings. If he had hit me inches further down I would have had numerous ribs broken, or lost my spleen. As I struggled to comprehend what had just happened, I spotted him again further off, craning his neck towards me, over the others who were restraining him and leading him away, craning his neck and looking back in order to glare at me and let me know he'd do it again, if he could.  His eyes sent shivers down my back.

Jess, Lynne and I moved off and the crowd dispersed, but I couldn’t stop looking around as we had our soup, wondering if he was returning and when and from what direction. Later, while we drank wine at the house, Angel went back to the souq to discover that the madman who had attacked me had been arrested and would stay in jail for one month for busting up a tourist, and remarked that the police advised it would be best if we didn’t come down to the station and give our names. The devil may want to retaliate once released.