There will not be much room for pretty pictures in this entry because I want to convey the message through words the best I can, and because throughout this whole episode, I didn't feel much like snapping pictures.
I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with being led down ominous alleys by strange men in North Africa, but let me assure you that there is a reason why you have not heard this listed among many of your friends’ favorite hobbies. It’s shit-your-pants terrifying - that’s why. So as Dave, Michael, Will and I were very hesitant to follow Mustafa off the main strip of shops and down a dimly-lit, person-less alley in Djemma el-Fna, if for no other reason than that we did not much feel like being murdered. Especially not in an alley in Marrakech. Maybe I haven’t been reading enough Beat generation literature, but it doesn’t seem like many good things happen in dark alleys in Marrakech. Plenty of good things happen in well-lit streets and in vivacious, bustling plazas, but foreboding alleys tend to fall short of the Top 10 Great Places for Good Things to Happen list.
So fuck. We’re being led down this ominous alley by a strange man named Mustafa in Marrakech, and he’s totally beckoning us to come despite our obvious hesitation. Because, y’know, it was, like, horrifying. Of course, being good sheepish Occidentals, we didn’t want to offend our guide by implying that we thought he was going to murder us in a dimly lit alley, so we didn’t want to speak up or say anything that was going to offend him.
We didn’t want to say anything that was going to offend him.
Let me say that one more time, just so that its entire conceptual foundation sits clearly with everyone reading this.
Despite the fact that we were all deeply worried about the whole prospect of being led down a fucking dark, desolate alley in Marrakech by a complete stranger wearing fake RayBans, we were too timid to say anything because we didn’t want to offend him, a man we had never met before in our life, and whom we would most likely never see again.
Yeah, we’re idiots.
So as we Pied-Piper’ly follow Mustafa down the alley, we are very apprehensive. We were shooting each other glances, muttering under our breath. We knew this wasn’t a good idea at all, but we seemed trapped in the moment, unable to get out of it. Such is group psychology.
Suddenly, just in case the austere penumbra of the alley was not scary enough, a child and his burqa’d mother starting following closely behind us, and the child began to sing in Arabic. Actually, “sing” is not the correct word here - “chant forebodingly” is a better phrasal verb to use. So not only are we about to be killed, but our impending doom is being welcomed with terrifying majesty of song. Shit. As we continued to walk down this alley, we agreed in hushed tones that while the alley was already bad enough, there was no way we would go into a building.
Finally, like ancient Phoenician sailors finally breaking through a blanket of clouds to see the glory of the sun once again, we emerged from our alley-based purgatory into another bustling street market.
Well, shit. Thank God we didn’t go into a building right?
We’re still not trusting this Mustafa character. Relieved though we certainly were to not have been stabbed in the kidneys or extorted with any kind of long knife, we did not feel like we were yet out of the woods. Rattled, shaken, we continued on, being led towards a so-called “authentic Berber market” by Mustafa. We follow him around another bend, under a somewhat lower doorjamb, and it just looks like another market, except with a lot of dudes in white coats.
Mustafa turns to us, looking a lot like Giancarlo Esposito in the movie 1994 movie “Fresh”, and says, “Authentic Berber pharmacy.” He then starts up a set of stairs to our left, beckoning us along with him. Dude did a lot of beckoning. He was huge on beckoning. “Come, come. Let’s go!” he said to us, as if there was an hourglass losing sand somewhere. Well shit, we must have collectively thought, We’re in a building. And we’re about to go up some stairs into an even more recessed part of this building. Well shit.
Now let me explain something. This might not seem so bad to you guys reading this. You might think that because of my humorous tone that this was somehow not terrifying, that we took all of this lightly. Jovially. Jocularly. No. This was very, very scary. I don’t know exactly how to convey the sense we were all having, but I’ll do my best. Simply put, we felt like were falling farther and farther into a trap that had been laid for us. We all knew the risks of following local guides in Morocco, especially ones that you did not make an attempt to solicit – that is to say, guides that “seduced” you into following them. All of the guidebooks and sources of information with any shred of value will tell you that the number one rule in any country like this is do not follow unsolicited guides into unfamiliar places. Despite all of us being fully aware of this fact, and thinking we had some semblance of being in charge of our respective destinies, we had all gotten sucked in. Due to Mustafa’s smoothness and disarming demeanor, we had all become enganchado – hooked – and we didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late. We were all disappointed with ourselves for supposedly knowing better and still going along with him. We felt like we were about to pay for our mistake in doing so, with at least our wallets, and who knows what else. We were truly scared at this point, and we were feeling sorry for ourselves for falling into this obvious trap.
So we go up the stairs into the “Berber pharmacy”. We file into a fluorescently-lit room that is lined with jars of what appear to be different ointments and powders. There are two men, who don’t look particularly friendly or happy to see us, wearing white lab-style coats. Mustafa talks to them quickly in Arabic. Michael asks Mustafa, pointedly, though not intentionally at the time, “Are these your friends?”
One of the men with the lab coat quickly says, “No, he’s not my friend.” He ekes out a half-smile.
Mustafa turns to us and says, “OK guys, I’m going to step outside and have a cigarette real quick and these guys are going to talk to you.” Before we could really assent, Mustafa was gone and the door was shut behind him.
I don’t know if my words here can really demonstrate how frightened and sad we all were at this point. Scared for our physical and proprietary selves and upset that we had let all of this happen to us, been so enganchados. It’s pretty easy to sit here now, write and/or read this, knowing that everything turned out OK, and to think I’m maybe exaggerating or overreacting a little bit. But the God’s honest truth is that we were right there in that lifeless linoleum room, looking at one another, thinking we might be in some serious trouble. We did not know what to do.
I have never been so scared in my whole life. Will, Michael, Dave and I all exchanged glances in that room that spoke Encyclopedia-Britannica-volumes of regret, fear, panic. Not to offend anyone with more delicate lexical senses, but there was one sentence stuck on repeat in my mind at the time, and I’m sure my compañeros would second the motion.
This short phrase (Spanish translation: “Estamos jodidos”) sums up exactly how we felt at the time. Well, there’s no getting out of this one. Estamos completamente jodidos. No hay manera.
And the “Berber pharmacist” went along explaining this powder and that ointment, holding out this jar and that jar for us to smell, but none of us were listening or smelling a goddamn thing that he was proffering to us. We were convinced that something bad was going to happen. Or rather, we were all standing on a precipice of sorts, on the edge of somewhere completely unknown. There was a void in front of us, an uncertain future, and we didn’t know what to do or if there was anything we even could do to change it.
Finally, after what seemed like much longer than the few minutes it was – because we had all pondered way more than a few minutes worth of thoughts in that period of time – the lab-coated man did that goddamn half-smile and said, “Any questions?”
And in one of the most genius questions I have ever heard in my life, Will points to a jar of colorful objects and says something to the effect of, “Yeah, I was wondering – I saw a lot of these things downstairs,” putting heavy emphasis on the final word, roughly containing our collective sense of desperation. “Do you think we could go downstairs and look at these again?”
That’s when, I think, the dude realized we weren’t going to buy anything.
Mustafa eventually came back, led us around the stupid-ass market for a little bit longer, and I actually ended up buying a silk scarf from one of his Berber “friends”. His “woman” made it. “Made” it. Hmm. Anyways, I’m convinced we’re all still alive because of my scarf purchase. If it hadn’t been for the scarf, we’d all be strung up somewhere in a mountain in Morocco. And it’s good quality silk, too.
After a little more walking around, Mustafa finally had enough of us, bid us adieu in one of the squares, and walked off into the night. After all that, guy just walks off. Just like that. And we all thought we were going to be killed. Or robbed. Or something.
But that’s why you don’t follow strangers down dark alleys in North Africa.
*"casi" means "almost", for those who wanna know.