Once Aryan Skynet Goes Live It Doesn't Matter Who Pulled The Switch
A reader expressed some interest in hearing about my trip to Morocco. It isn’t a pleasant memory. Back in the darkness of the late George W. Bush years, I was busily sleep-digging myself into a debt-grave, buying myself things I didn’t need in order to compensate for the meaninglessness of my life. I felt I had to do something radical to break out of the coffin-confines of my cubicle routine and so I decided, without telling anybody, to fly to Morocco and treat myself to an African adventure. Tangier was supposed to be where cool, weird people like Brion Gysin, William Burroughs, “Alfred Chester”, and Paul Bowles went to create and to become themselves. I was still naïve and sheltered enough that the idea of expatriate cosmopolitan degeneracy somehow still seemed exciting and interesting. Back in those days I was wasting a lot of my time with nihilistic rubbish like that and J.G. Ballard.
On the way to Madrid, where I had to change planes, I had to sit next to an annoying young Jewess who was traveling to Haifa to meet her fiancé. She did a lot of peevish sighing and seemed to be particularly irritated to have to spend any time at all in Spain. I remember that, listening to the little radio headphones provided on the flight, I heard Rimsky-Korsakov’s romantic suite Scheherazade, which seemed the perfect prelude to my sojourn in the Islamic world. About my arrival in Tangier, I wrote in the small spiral notebook I kept on the trip:
I was nodding off when we touched ground – unmistakably African ground, by the palm trees outside the airport, the smallest, simplest airport I’ve seen. The security staff and men in officers’ uniforms and kepis all looked like they expected trouble. Kids were running around making fools of themselves. But I’m the strange person who stands out now.
I got into the taxi of a friendly driver named Hassan and the realization that I was now in the Third World was reinforced when I noticed there was no seatbelt, but only a strap on the door to which I could cling. I shared the ride with some Arabs and wrote in the notebook:
… we tore out into the honking Hell of Tangier traffic: pedestrians with no regard for their lives, motorcycles pulling carts full of men and sheep, and everywhere on the sidewalks costumes of every color … Everything is weathered, nasty, authentic, down to the grimy characters everywhere you look. A dead man lay in an intersection with a policeman directing traffic, but a minute later Hassan was kidding with the people in the back seat.
Traffic tended to be chaotic, and gave me a new appreciation for stoplights, which drivers generally honor in the United States. Crossing busy streets as a pedestrian can be a bit of risk in Tangier. I would see, in addition to the corpse, a man passed out drunk on a sidewalk, an ascetic whacking himself on the shin with a stick, and someone urinating against a wall in the open. The city is also full of beggars and sleazy street hustlers. “You … looking for something, meester?” – that sort of thing. This reflects poorly on the locals, of course, but also on the sorts of Europeans the city has come to expect.
On one occasion, a group of youths came down some steps and made a rooster sound when they saw me. I’m still not sure what that was supposed to signify. There is quite a bit of graffiti, both foreign and domestic. On a wooden gate, in ghostly letters dripping blood, was painted the word “RAP”. On one wall there was a large green rendering of cannabis leaves, with the caption “MARI”; on others, there were stars, swastikas, hearts pierced by arrows, a winged horse, an anthropomorphized tree bearing a noose and a swing, and near it the royal arms of Spain. I also saw the rotting husk of the Gran Teatro Cervantes, a relic of the period of Spanish colonial rule. “Restoration to the theatre,” according to Wikipedia, “has been delayed due to disputes between the city officials and the Spanish state.”
Here is another entry from the notebook:
Hiked up Rue de la Kasbah but had a bad feeling once I was up there. Passed a man chattering to himself maniacally, came to a deserted square where a fat cat stared at me evilly and a man loitered a few dozen yards away, probably waiting for someone to beg or rob. Another character shuffled past and asked me in French if I was a Jew. I could tell nothing good was going to happen if I stayed in this place […]
Even after 9/11 – which at this point I had yet to question – I felt no particular dislike for Arabs, and, if anything, viewed them as amusing curiosities. I used to enjoy adventure movies that had North African and Arabian settings, and I had read The Sheltering Sky, of course, like any American who visits Tangier. Partly out of respect, I tried to teach myself a little French and Moroccan Arabic, learning little disconnected phrases like “Hello”, “Excuse me”, and “It’s not possible”, which I once or twice said to street beggars, infuriating one of them. Many Moroccans now speak English, however, so this was mostly wasted effort. Either the locals spoke English or there was no way to communicate – as happened when an irate taxi driver failed to understand anything I said until I hit upon “Gran Socco”. This is an open market area, not far from the hotel where I stayed. It sits at the base of the hill from which the medina, the traditional quarter of the city with its narrow, winding streets and fortifications, overlooks the Mediterranean Sea.
It was in the medina that I would get into trouble. I had believed some tourist propaganda about how friendly Moroccans were and how they might even invite you into their homes – and it is true that there are plenty of friendly people in Tangier – but I shouldn’t have accepted the invitation I received. I happened to be in Morocco on the occasion of Eid al-Kabir, a holiday celebrating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. I had a refreshment at the Café Tingis, supposed to have been a haunt of Paul Bowles and Tennessee Williams. This was one of the few places that were open that day, since it was something like Christmas for the Moroccans; and I remember that on the TV in the café was a broadcast of some sort of boring ritual event – the royal family’s sheep sacrifice, I think. Every café in Tangier serves a sweet, hot mint green tea that seems wonderful for the first several cups, but cloys after a week of drinking the stuff. “After leaving Café Tingis I explored the little winding ways of the medina, coming every few turns into a dead end and going back to try out another alley,” I wrote later in the notebook.
People were butchering sheep in the streets and roasting them over fires. The cobbles and bricks underneath my shoes were slippery with blood and shit and intestines. The smoky air was full of the cooking meat. What luck, I thought, to have arrived in the medina today of all days, to witness this. The animal carcasses hung in doorways, lay in the alleys, and men carried the guts in dripping bags. How picturesque, how Moroccan, I enthused, snapping away with my camera. Finally I came to a little archway giving onto a view of the sea. A youth greeted me, invited me through the arch and out onto a wide terrace lined with cannon. His family was cooking the sheep they’d butchered and seemed happy to meet an American tourist …
The kid was gouging a smoldering stick through the eye sockets of a severed sheep’s head. They asked me what city I was from – New York, Chicago, or Washington? They’d never heard of Kansas City. The boy asked me what sight I’d enjoyed most in Morocco. “This,” I said, indicating the sheep’s head.
An older man in the group invited me to have some food in his home. I went, and he introduced me to his brother, a more sinister-looking character with an arch facial expression. They took me into a little room where I sat on a bench and they tried to sell me some hash. It panicked and angered them to discover that I had no intention of buying any. Then they demanded to know how much money I had on me. I showed them, and one of them took about half of my wad of blue Moroccan funny-money. “Take to Mama,” he said, leaving the room. The sinister-looking brother then took the rest of my money, hoping to keep it a secret from his sibling, and held his hand to my throat in a threatening gesture indicating the stab of a knife. The brothers were keen to impress me with what outstanding entrepreneurs they were and showed me a stack of American dollars they’d earned. The unexpected sight of Ulysses S. Grant gazing up at me from the stack of bills in the Arab’s hand is one of the images that stuck with me afterward.
After the taller, more threatening brother exited the room, leaving me alone with the first brother, the latter then thought to take the remainder of my money and was offended to find that his kinsman had already helped himself to it. This occasioned a little quarrelling between the two, who gave no indication of what they intended to do with me. I don’t remember how long I was there, with at least one of the brothers always in the room to keep an eye on me. It might have been an hour, maybe longer. At the time it seemed like a real possibility that they were going to murder me – across the hall was a room with plumbing where I imagined they might cut me up – and I made a point of telling them that I had been seen not too far from there, in Café Tingis. One of them brought me a bowl of lukewarm, greasy lamb which I ate unenthusiastically with my fingers. It was strange, but despite the fact that the two of them were robbing me, they seemed to want to maintain a pretense of being gracious hosts. Eventually, they decided it wasn’t doing them any good to keep me there and one of them absurdly escorted me away from their home with his arm around me as if he were my tour guide.
Enraged, afraid, and humiliated, I found my way out of the medina and back into the streets I recognized. In the notebook, I wrote that I “didn’t stop until I was back here in the room, the stupid muezzin howling somewhere outside and somebody shouting: ‘Allah! Allah!’” On top of everything else, I later realized that I would have no photographic record of the sights I had seen that day because I loaded the film into my camera incorrectly. I remember growling a bunch of angry, paranoid abuse into the mirror in my hotel room that night. I hated the country and its people and only wanted to be back home in my boring life again. Unfortunately, my plane didn’t leave for another week or so. I got sick from the undercooked lamb, as well, and was bedridden for about a day and a half with the exception of trips to the bathroom. “Shit myself a couple more times,” I wrote in the notebook. “Weak … whatever I eat or drink just gushes out of my ass in half an hour.” Eventually I felt good enough to walk down the street to a pharmacy and request some “medicine pour la diarrhee”. My face was broken out with acne, and in a photograph that I took of myself at the time I look like I could be coming down with a mild case of AIDS.
For most of the rest of my stay in the city, I holed up in my hotel room, self-pityingly reading Dr. Anthony Storr’s book Solitude: A Return to the Self, eating in restaurants near my hotel, and gradually going for walks and exploring more of the city. In the notebook, I remark on the disconnected strangeness of hearing a Michael Jackson song (“The Way You Make Me Feel”) in a restaurant a few miles from where, not long before, I had witnessed primitive animal sacrifices. More than once I ate in a place called Cham’s, which was just a block or two from my hotel. I remember overhearing the name Hitler in a conversation at a table of young Arabs in black leather. At the time, not having yet begun to question my high school history lessons, I found this rather disturbing. It was also at Cham’s where I met a bizarre character whose name may or may not have been Ashraf, which was the one printed on an identification card he flashed. Here is what I wrote about the episode in the notebook:
Went out for lunch at Cham’s, tried the chawarma. A young man at the next table introduced himself as Ash and invited me to sit at his table. Had a bad gash across his nose. Ash said that for years he wouldn’t speak to Americans because of the White House and the Pentagon. Now, right off, he wanted my phone number. He said I was “mystic queer and mystérieux” and asked me if I was a Muslim when I said I didn’t drink. He talked a lot, quite a bit of it unintelligible. Said he had a 178 IQ, was a “dangerous mind” and a sociopath …
He was drinking some sort of sickly-sweet cappuccino and insisted that I try some. Then he wanted to treat me to a plate of shrimp at another restaurant where he was acquainted with the waiter, an ex-boxer who was missing a piece of one of his lips. I was still feeling sick and Ash, happy to have a stranger to impress with his marvelousness, was being pretty obnoxious. “Bible Belt,” he assessed my cultural background.
Said he was an anarchist and didn’t want to live more than 40 years, kept repeating “Carpe diem.” He was desperate that I should appreciate his genius and kept inserting non sequiturs into his speech … Ash could be pretty condescending and didn’t hesitate to remark that something I’d said was stupid or that my musical education was narrow. Particularly objectionable was Americans’ calling a citrus fruit “grapefruit” … I had to visit the baño again and Ash came up to check on me. He was afraid I had malaria and advised me to eat rice, cinnamon, and pomegranate. He told me to go home and not to tell anyone I knew him and that, anyway, the name he had given me was false.
Tangier is a dishonest city. More than once I saw the Moroccan dish tajine listed on the menu of a restaurant, but was told it was unavailable. Another time I entered a strange establishment that presented itself as a seafood place, but only found a couple of gangsterish fellows who shook their heads sullenly when I attempted to order food. On Eid al-Kabir, before the incident with the drug dealers, I had gone to the American Legation Museum only to find it closed. As I started to leave, an Arab poked his head out of an upstairs window and gestured for me to come back. The custodian let me in but then proceeded to hustle me quickly from one room into another without even giving me a chance to examine any of the exhibits properly. He had the idea that I would pay him for letting me in when the museum was closed, but the man was such a lout that I was pretty miserly with my tip. Before I left Tangier, I was able to visit the museum again and explore it at my leisure. I saw the custodian again, shamefaced at my return. He was probably afraid that I would tell what he had done. The American Legation Museum is one of the neater tourist destinations. It has a lot of old maps and pictures, a pleasant courtyard, books for sale, and a room devoted to Paul Bowles, with some of his battered old luggage.
There were also plenty of little moments of humor, particularly stemming from the naïve appropriation of European words and concepts in signage. One will, for instance, see a café with the name Sandwisch 9Avril (which I assume is some sort of allusion to an event surrounding Morocco’s achievement of independence from France on April 7, 1956). Another time, walking along the seedy waterfront, where I saw a group of men gathered to watch a fistfight, an old Arab at an outdoor café table called out to me: “Coffee California!” Here is the entry from the notebook:
The old waiter spoke a little English but still brought me the wrong kind of tea. He asked if I wanted any breakfast but didn’t have a menu to show me; claimed they had “blood in the dish” and “blood with frommage.” I finally figured out he was trying to say “bread”, so I said, sure, I’d have some. It was pretty cruddy, tasteless bread, and slathered in mayonnaise, but I was still happy to have that instead of the blood.
I also visited St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, a dull white building surrounded by palm trees. I was raised an atheist and never had any interest in Christianity, but I did enjoy the comparative comfort of setting foot in a little piece of Western Civilization. Otherwise, there was really nothing to see here. The church was totally empty except for the caretaker, Moustapha, to whom I gave a donation. In the cemetery outside the church I saw the grave of Paul Lund, an infamous criminal who had been friends with William Burroughs. The final entry on my time in Tangier finds me waxing a little bit neoconservative:
Tea and orange juice at Cham’s. Then caught my taxi to the airport, where it stinks and my flight to Western Civilization has been delayed an hour and twenty minutes, they say. A flabby jerk in a maroon uniform handed me one of the cards you have to fill out and then grunted, “Give me money.” People smoking, sneezing; babies whining. They don’t want to let me out of this place … Arabic muzak is the worst. Where’s Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris in a rescue helicopter when you need him?
I had to spend one night in a hotel in Madrid and then remember having to wait a long time at the airport and eating some truly terrible food. I finished a book of early Charles Bukowski poems, The Roominghouse Madrigals, on the plane home. I was fairly out of it after a series of flight delays that had me on my feet for over a day without sleep. I got back to Kansas City in the middle of the night, happy to have a taxi driver who spoke English for a change. I was even reassured to see a seedy black character shuffling up my street in the cold; the sight of a ghetto rat at least confirmed that I was home.