A LAZY AFTERNOON
It is so quiet here. I sit on the terrace of the house we are renting. A beautifully clear blue sky stretches above me and disappears behind rolling hills and mountains. White wispy clouds drift by lazily and the occasional breeze blows across my face telling me I am still alive. It is so quiet here I feel like I have arrived at some ethereal threshold. There is a timeless quality to things here – even the light doesn’t seem to change but remains so consistent that I feel time itself has stopped. I breathe in and take in the landscape: beautifully green lush grass covers the earth as it rises before me in layers like a painting. There are houses tucked away on the hills and mountains, so discreet that Karim, our translator, has to point them out to me. I squint; casting my eyes in the direction of his finger as he eagerly presses me to see. It all looks the same, green grass, green trees, little clusters of green hedges. But as he gestures and as I begin to concentrate harder, a house so high up I am amazed anyone can live there suddenly comes into view.
Everything here seems to grow out of the land – even these houses. Karim tells me later that these people rely almost solely on donkeys and horses to ferry their weekly goods to and from the shops on the ground where we, the less courageous reside. And there is something so wonderful about that; both their courage and the image of donkeys delivering goods. For these people, presumably, living isn’t simply hemmed in by an overpowering notion of convenience, something that seems to govern our lives in the West and in urban centres across the world. Their lives have some other organising principle and I am a little jealous, though I know also that like lost innocence I could never experience their lives as they do, for my car, the microwave, and my impatience to have everything at my finger tips or at the click of a button has contaminated me such that I am unable to return to any kind of prelapsarian ideal. But that ideal I project on to this place I have arrived at. The donkey carrying goods to people’s homes is a metaphor for the way in which modernity and tradition coexist. Time does not follow a simple linear route with every forward leap being progress simply because it comes after something else: that is the fallacy of us urban educated laymen. Time is like the mountains and hills in front of me. Rough, jagged, with dips and rises, this is the truth and the concrete jungles in which we live provide us only brick and mortar for our imagination.
SPREAD THE NEWS: ‘THE FOREIGNERS ARE HERE!’
Jolt. The minivan had come to a stop. Some of us, half awake half asleep looked up and realised we were here although ‘here’ was a little misleading – indeed this entire trip was to be characterised by the simple truth: ‘when you think it is over: it is not over’. I looked out of the window and must confess kept staring in some odd conviction that I would see something. It didn’t happen. No street lights meant it was dark and the dark seemed to stretch so far that there was a distinct sense of being engulfed by the darkness. I half jokingly commented that I had seen this scene in horror movies: the new arrivals’ vehicle breaks down unexpectedly. They all have to dismount and venture into the wilderness. Invariably someone thinks it is vital to record this misfortune and although the filming begins in high spirits, the recordings grow in their edgy uneasiness until – BAM! Full on frenzy: lots of running, unsteady shots, speaking into camera snot and tears running! For comic relief though our Moroccan guides brought a donkey to carry our suitcases up to the house where the van was unable to get to. A mixture of disbelief, fear, uncontrollable laughter and the urgent need to use the toilet formed a heady brew of utter exhilaration: what a way to begin our trip. The grassy expanse through which we marched, single file taking each step in the dark carefully, was littered with stray dogs who barked with such ferocity and so loud at times that one balked at their seemingly close proximity. Mobile cameras formed our little torches and mocking their little lights were the stars that studded the sky like the drape of a sari I once saw in Pakistan: little silver studs sparkling on satin as black as ebony. The continual barking of the dogs however made admiring the sky a reckless luxury so we kept pace and continued walking for what seemed forever. Reward though was soon granted when we reached the house where we would be staying; a handsome and functional residence up on a hill. The relief that filled the living room when we all collapsed on the couches there was palpable. I wondered whether the ordeal of getting through rabid dogs and the threat of falling awkwardly in some ditch upon some precariously positioned boulder was a ploy to make the arrival at the house of your host even more gratifying. But there was little time for thinking, for food was promptly served and this too would be a theme of our trip. Eating!
Sameera’s smile is what I remember. There is a wonderful picture that Farah captured of Sameera throwing her head back in laughter; a moment that caught the generosity of this woman upon whom we all descended. Sameera, I later found out, was in her ninth month of pregnancy and that the day after our departure was her due date. Many of us commented on who, in the part of the world from where we came, would welcome and then treat so generously guests when they were so far into their pregnancy. That alone endeared her to us. But it was more than that even. There was such gentleness in her eyes so that even though many of us could not speak in Arabic with her, we managed to communicate through that human bond that pulls two people together when both have a deep respect for one another. Sameera and her family were people who gave Morocco a type of knowability. We often say that we have visited a country when really we have only ever visited a city or town in that country. In our discourse with one another we metonymise singular visits to singular places as constituting visiting a country. Well people are also part of countries, and Morocco has been served well by Sameera and her family.
THE DAY OF THE TREK
I am not looking forward to the trek. My idea of outdoor activity consists of sitting comfortably in my garden sipping a velvety cup of coffee from my espresso maker. That picture contrasts so dramatically with the picture I have of myself panting violently for breath, sweating something awful and collapsing 20mins into the climb! Such are my feelings the morning we set out on this wretched idea of Somaya’s. I am though pleasantly surprised. The morning is fresh and feels so moist that I wonder whether the dew of fajr has only a moment ago risen up into the atmosphere. I can smell the earth and grassiness that surrounds us as we step off our mini bus, some of us stretching, others looking for a monkey whom we saw only a few metres away as we pulled up to our parking spot; all of us though smiling. As we begin walking I am mesmerised by the scene that lies before us. Mountains rise up ahead and on either side of the path upon which we walk lie green fields. A large pond on one side attracts a herd of horses that come galloping gently down a slope in the distance towards the water. Breathtaking is the scene which feels less like life and more like a painting. There is a scene in a film I saw once where a painting suddenly comes to life before the eyes of a boy who stands observing it in an old lady’s house – the old lady, it later transpires, happened to be a good witch. Oddly enough, it is not the boy with whom I identify, but the painting. I feel I am the observed and presently in a painting that has become animated by the touch of some magical being. The walking continues though and for a long time I do not feel tired, for I have the company of wonderful friends and such a landscape that seems not to tire from presenting one amazing tableau after another. We meander our way through the fields and mountains, some of us oblivious to time while others, clearly more level headed than me, stress the importance of keeping apace, for I have fallen behind with a friend with whom talking comes so naturally that I’d swear I had known her all my life instead of the three days we have now spent together. Like naughty children she and I take our time. But we walk in clusters all of us and as the morning gives way to afternoon I weave in and out of the various clusters of people joining conversations here and there. I have never felt so truly free. I ponder at this sense of freedom and come to realise it is not freedom to do whatever I please – a positive freedom we prize in the West: the thundering Liberty of Western dictum. Instead, this is the freedom to do nothing. I have never felt more inchoate and incipient. I am reduced to some elementary selfhood, shedding with every step my responsibilities of work and study; my sense of life as the endless pursuit of ambitions and goals. The singularity of walking in this most wonderful of settings is enough in itself. Am I still that person who works in London; commutes on the Underground? Who indeed is that person? I suddenly have this peculiar sensation of dissolving into my surroundings and cannot be entirely sure whether this sense of delirious delusion is not some side affect of feeling tired. It is after all 8 hours since we started and even Somaya – the diehard motivator – is looking a little like something out ofThriller! I don’t say that out loud of course; there’s that look in her eye that makes me cautious and the fall from where we are now would most certainly be fatal. We arrive finally at the end point where Muhammed and Mansur have very kindly booked us a table at a restaurant – or so we think. It turns out to be a space on the edge of one of the sources of the river that we saw gushing below us on our walk. The water pours out violently from the mountain and streams past us. We sit only a few yards from it, close enough to surrender our tired feet into its cool embrace. It is of course lovely, but when we reached the end point and asked where the restaurant was and Muhammed nonchalantly pointed upwards, it did feel like an insult after considerable injury to imagine we had to do yet more climbing to get to this restaurant. I remember thinking as I dragged my injured self up those unforgiving stairs that this restaurant better be bloody good! And it was, but the nap I had there was even better. I’d like to think I slept with a smile for I had completed the trek; no violent panting, a little sweat and no moments of collapsing, only an awkward suntan: sunglasses (don’t even ask!)