Threatening in the streets of Fez.
The sound of ecstatic singing, drums and trumpets floated up from the narrow streets and reached the rooftop where Iqbal and I lay looking at the stars. We had no choice but to lie down after the huge piles of couscous his mother had made us eat. “They’re celebrating a wedding!” Iqbal told me. “Do you want to go?”
I considered the option. Thanks to the insistence of Iqbal’s mother that someone as skinny as me ought to take third and fourth helpings, I was now just inches away from unconscious oblivion. The travel writer in me stirred, that masochistic drive for experience. With the air of a martyr I pulled myself up onto my knees.
“Only if we can drown some coffee first!” I told him.
After a few cups of evil, black fuel in the kitchen we jogged down the gloomy stairs of the building and out into the night streets. I reminded myself that no matter what I had to stay close to Iqbal – in the labyrinth of side streets that is Fez, he was my only hope. I’d already gotten lost a handful of times in daylight and had had to hand over coins to small children to guide me back to Iqbal’s house. And now in the middle of a moon less night I had even less chance of finding my way home.
The wedding celebrations were not hard to find. Every soul still awake was vaguely trailing the entourage and the music echoed through the streets. We turned a corner and came into full view of the festivities. The bride was raised aloft on a gold sedan chair and she waved to everyone in time with the music.
She was surrounded by ten men dressed in bright yellow robes and it was they who sang sonnets from the Koran with spirited gusto. Behind them were four musicians who blew horns as long as their arms. Each time they sounded a wailing chorus it was as though a wave swept through the party, elevating the atmosphere to a fever pitch.
Trailing the proceeding were a group of seven or eight young men who joked, fought and wrestled in good spirit as they walked along. One of them tried to bear hug one of his friends from behind – he received an elbow in the nose for his trouble and as he wiped away the blood he hooted with laughter. The entourage reached the garden cafe where the reception was to be held. At the gate were two huge bouncers whose job it was to turn away anyone who was not from this area.
“Everyone in this neighbourhood knows everyone else,” Iqbal explained. “So it’s easy to control.”
Iqbal had a word with the groom and we were both ushered in under the bouncer’s arm. Just behind us three small kids tried to sneak in and were thrown back into the dust without mercy.
Inside the atmosphere was more serene with the rest of the family gathered. The young men were gathered on one side of the buffet tables and the girls on the other. We took our seats and already I could feel the waves of interest circulating that somehow a foreigner had come to watch.
The band turned up and wasted no time at all in plugging in their electric guitars and breaking into a Moroccan pop number. At once three of the young men near us jumped up and began to strut. Their dancing was distinctly interactive – they turned to face each other, their arms stretched out far to the sides and their chests pouted. They shuffled close and faced off in a game of chicken until one of them broke off in laughter, leaving the winner to twirl in triumph.
I didn’t need to understand Arabic to realise what was going to happen next. And while I tried to decline when the largest of the guys came over and tugged me to my feet, I knew that I had no chance of getting away without a performance.
They wouldn’t let me perform any of my usual outlandish dancing and so I raised my arms to the sides and joined in with their rooster party. The girls were now also dancing on the other side and the band turned up the volume.
For the next hour we strutted and twirled in the Moroccan style and I was introduced to a couple of new dancing games – one team would swoop in like the rising tide and then backstep as the opponents took their turn to advance. I noticed that though they were happy enough to sit down when they got tired and let another young blood take their place, every time I moved towards my seat an insistent Moroccan hand dragged me back into the fray. Iqbal eventually saved me with the excuse that I had to take a glass of the sweet mint tea that was making the rounds.
“You see how many of the girls are looking at you!” He whispered.
It was true. The dim lighting helped no doubt but a number of beautiful women in the blossom of youth were eyeing me up. I struggled to remind myself that no matter how devastating they looked, they all had fierce brothers and cousins to avenge their honour.
“How long does all this go on?” I asked Iqbal. He checked his watch.
“Well, the first prayer is in two hours and then the newly-weds will go to their bedroom together for the first time.”
I looked over at the groom and could read the apprehension in his face as his friends nudged him in the ribs and made suggestive comments.
Iqbal and I decided we couldn’t quite make it till the end of the proceedings and we made a discreet exit before we’d be asked for a farewell dance.
Out in the street I reflected on how fortunate I’d been that Iqbal had taken me under his wing like this – without him I could never have witnessed such a window into Moroccan culture. But there was more to come. Someone approached us with a joint in his hand and insisted that we smoke with him. It’s very rude to refuse an invitation to share something in Morocco and so we acquiesced, though all we really wanted was to get home to our beds.
We resumed our way home through the poorly-lit streets but we’d hardly gone a hundred yards before a large man marched over with a bottle of wine in his hand and grabbed me by the wrist. I figured that we now had to share a glass of wine and let him lead me by the hand.
But when we reached the wall on the other side of the plaza, he pushed me up against the bricks and began to shout in fierce Arabic. Iqbal later told me that he was claiming that he’d met me the year before, that I was a spy from a foreign government and other such make-believe.
Iqbal tried to intervene but this drunken madman would tolerate no interuptions. A couple of his hangers-on assured me:
“Il est tres derange!” I didn’t need any explanation that he was drunk, I just needed a way out of the situation. I couldn’t believe that everyone was going to stand by and watch while my assailant built up the momentum to start hitting me.
I was on the verge of slinging a preemptive strike but was saved from an embarrassing outcome by Iqbal who finally hit upon the winning tactic. He announced his family name.
“Iqbal Daaga?” The drunk asked in disbelief. Iqbal nodded and then the man turned to me and said in English, “Okay, good night, good night!” And he shook my hand, backing away fast.
“What the hell happened?” I asked Iqbal as we walked back home.
“Well, I told him my last name! You see have an uncle that was very well-known in this area. When he was younger he used to take all the drink and drugs that he could find! He was always in fights and he drove a big motor cycle very fast around all these narrow streets.
Well, one day he was very drunk and he drove his bike straight into a brick wall. The bike was destroyed and in the accident my uncle bit through his tongue so that there was a big rip in it. He was so drunk that he took hold of the loose part and pulled it straight off!
And that,” Iqbal smiled as we came to the stairs of his family home, “That is why that man left you alone tonight!”
It took me along time to get to sleep that night. I lay awake thinking about this uncle whose notoriety for wild times and massocism had saved my skin that night.
It happened the next day that we walked through the market past the stall where Iqbal’s uncle now vended fried liver. I couldn’t believe it was the same man from this story.
He was about 160cm tall and with barely an ounce of muscle covering his bones. He shoulders were hunched forwards and he bent over his hot plate to offer us a few pieces of liver. Iqbal explained to him that I was his guest and he nodded before turning to me.
“Bonjour, monsieur!” He slurred and only one thing persuaded me to believe it was really him. He had a thick row of stitches across his tongue.