In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays (Original Harvest Book; Hb333) (15 page)

BOOK: In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays (Original Harvest Book; Hb333)
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He makes me aware of the fragility of Fez, that we should see it well before it vanishes, that we should learn the myriad gestures of its craftsmen’s hands, their patience, their delight in transforming every stone, every piece of wood, every layer of stucco, into an object of beauty. He makes me lament the corroded woods, the broken tiles, the neglected palaces abandoned to time, and the fig tree cut down in the square in front of the library where the students once gathered for discussions, to read their poems and pin them to the tree for passers-by to judge.

The treasure of the library, the illuminated manuscripts, are locked away from my eyes, but Ali is a living spokesman for all I have read about Fez. His softly modulated voice comes from the intellectual and literary past of luminous Fez.

He reminds me of a storyteller I had seen in Fez years before. Ali says he will not be there in the winter. The square where sword swallowers, water carriers, rug sellers, dancers, acrobats, and storytellers gathered is too cold and no place to linger in. But I am stubborn, and on Friday, the Islamic holiday, I go to the square. Even though it has only fifty or a hundred visitors, I find my storyteller standing in the center of an attentive, rapt group of listeners of all ages. They squat on the ground, absolutely absorbed by him, not wavering in their attention for one moment. He is young, wears a heavy wool jellaba of black and white stripes, and a white skull cap, and he carries a stick for emphasis. He has huge glowing eyes, a swarthy skin, and regular features. He is telling the story of Ali Baba with dramatic emphasis, with suspenseful pauses, with a flowing, incantatory style.

Because of Ali’s emphasis on the ephemeral beauty of Fez and the possibility of its vanishing, my recurrent feeling that I am dreaming within other centuries, I seek with even more intensity to hold this dream close at least during my stay. I see the tiles broken into small pieces for the mosaic work, I see the lightness and clarity of the air, I see the old ramparts, the city’s walls, covered with soft verdigris, lichen, and moss. The secret essence of Fez is serenity. It is expressed in its stillness at night, the rare lights, in the tamarisk trees that never look dishevelled, in the figures stirred by the wind, in Cézanne blues, Dufy pinks, pearl whites, and charcoal blacks. The secret essence of Fez comes to me at five-thirty in the morning when I awaken to the
muezzin,
the prayer call, from the minaret. Five times a day this prayer is chanted; it seems like both a lament and an invocation, a consolation and a lyrical thanksgiving. At five-thirty in the morning it takes on a special quality, that of a lonely faith protecting the sleeping city, a prayer which is also a call to awaken those prodigious, dynamic hands, agile and supple, never still and never lazy, resting only at the moment of prayer.

It is Ali who tells me the legend of the name of Fez. It had its inception in the democratic spirit of the founder, Idriss II. When the site was chosen and building began, the king took a pick and gave the first stone-breaking blow. The word for pick was
fez.
During later excavations a gold pick was found, said to have been given to the founder as a symbol. When this legend is questioned, museum keepers are apt to answer with silence—respect for legends being as great as respect for fact.

Ali is not content with quoting Omar Khayyam and the Koran, but he recites his own poetry, poems to the beauty of Fez, naming its trees—araucaria, ginger, bamboo, date, monkey puzzle; its fruit; its flowers.

He has theories about visitors. They should not be treated as tourists. They should be invited as friends to weddings, funerals, birthdays, and feast days.

This makes me accept the invitation of the waiter at the Palais Jamai, who says his wife wants to cook a real couscous for me. We go to a tiny house, climb tiny stairs, and find her cooking in a tiny kitchen on the terrace. She is beautiful, with large eyes and a noble profile. She has been cooking all day. I sit in the living room, with its low divans all along the wall and the round copper table in the center. On the walls hang the blue Fez pottery dishes. Cookies are brought in, made like the domed pewter dish I saw being shaped in the souks. The wife’s mother is visiting. She comes from the north. Neither woman speaks French, but we manage to convey friendliness, and I show my appreciation of the couscous, which is delicious: a mound of millet, saffron-colored, topped by vegetables, chicken, and raisins. We eat from the same dish. The mother’s hands are hennaed, and I notice she is not eating. When I ask Mr. Lahlou why, he explains she cannot eat with spoon and fork. So I say we are the clumsy ones who do not know how to eat with our hands. Then the mother eats, skillfully and neatly, making little balls out of the millet. The meal ends with a large sweet orange, which the host peels and shares with all. And, of course, mint tea. When I am about to leave, the host takes down from the wall the blue pottery dishes and gives them to me. He explains that the tourists are not properly welcomed. The ancient ideal of hospitality is still in evidence. Hospitality is sacred among the people of Islam.

On this day of no wind the smoke of the communal ovens can be seen from the window of the hotel, a clean white smoke. And on such days the five golden balls on the tip of the minarets, symbolizing the five prayers, shine like suns.

When two little boys quarrel in the souks, wrestling angrily, Mustafa, the guide, not only separates them but insists they kiss each other’s hair. The men greet each other also with a kiss on the hair when they meet in cafés, and hold hands in the streets as they talk. The whole of life exudes a fraternal tenderness.

“Now when it was the thousand and first night, Dunyayad said to her sister . . .”

Morocco
 

From the diary of Anaïs Nin.

 

At the Club Méditerranée in Moorea, we were really in Tahiti. But at the club in Agadir, Morocco, we are in a French pension. Arabs are not invited. Agadir, after the earthquake which razed it, is all new. The chef de village was a chef de village from a French suburb. The curse of rock-and-roll is not limited to the pool and dining room, for the loud-speakers are set far from the club, to its very edges, to reach every cottage. The architecture is Moroccan, but that is all. The pool is like a pool in Paris or Long Island, the rock-and-roll spoils the meals. The sea is ice cold. The only solution is to travel, to go on tours, and then it is wonderful. We leave early on a Land Rover, with a young French college student as a guide. We drive into the Atlas Mountains in southern Morocco, to solitary mountain towns with houses built out of the red earth. We drive through mountains and flatlands and sand dunes, often without roads. After hours of dust, dry air, extreme heat, we get desperately thirsty, and only then does one understand the deep beauty of an oasis. The green, the fruit, the shade, the water. There are rivulets in which we bathe our feet, fountains at which we drink. After the desert, the trees seem a hundred times greener, the water a hundred times fresher. At one place lunch is served under a tent. The ground is covered with rugs. The tables are copper trays on mother-of-pearl bases. The lamb on a spit is brought whole and we eat with our fingers. Couscous has a golden color. For dessert we have figs and sweet tea. Another time, after a long desert drive, we arrive at dusk at Ouarzazate where we find a beautiful hotel belonging to the Club, native architecture, a sober castle of red earth. A fountain, high and wide, falls from the wall into the pool. A baby antelope greets us and then returns to her bed of straw in the open fireplace. The dining room is below the pool, and as we dine we can see the swimmers like fish in an aquarium. The rooms are named after minerals: Azurite, Serpentine, Quartz, Onyx, Alabaster, Calcite. This is the land of minerals. Children see them on the road, exhibited on tables or sometimes, if they are small pieces, inside of bottles.

The view from the bedroom is a never-ending desert colored a delicate sepia or mauve with silver-grey bushes. The endlessness gives a feeling of infinity. In infinity both death and life are suspended. It is a moment of freedom from both. The air is clear, pure. The silence is soothing, matching the space. Facing us is the walled-in city used in films. One film company has reconstructed the gate.

I want to stay here. I love the women so mysteriously wrapped in black, their rhythmic walk, their proud carriage as they carry their jugs on the way to the fountain. I love the jewelled eyes from behind veils, the children with a beauty so vivid, so dazzling. I love the men, austere, violent, proud of bearing. In the evening the women dance, dressed in many layers of pastel-colored chiffon and layers of jewels. The men ride and shoot long, old-fashioned rifles in the air. I love their secretiveness and their curiosity. They watch us from the roofs of their houses. The windows are small, no more than half a yard high and twelve inches wide, like jail windows, intended to keep out the hot sun. They are grated too. We are allowed into one of the homes built into the hill like a prehistoric cave. The floor is of beaten earth, the shape follows the contours of the hill. On the left there is a dugout for the donkey, on the right a dugout for the baby asleep on a sheepskin. We walk uphill to the bedroom. A rug on the floor, one dress on a nail, one necklace. One holy picture from the Koran, which I have seen on sale in the market. On the corner is a site for the fire and a cauldron suspended over it. The whole place, carved into the earth, was built for shelter, shade, the earth walls and tiny windows keep the place cool and sunless. A life in the bower of the earth, in darkness. As we leave the place, we see that the husband is crippled and that he may allow the visitors in for the sake of a small donation.

I see the men threshing wheat as the Mexicans do, with their feet and the hoofs of horses. They sing as they work. They throw the wheat in the air to strain it, to the rhythm of their singing.

One morning at dawn we go to the camel market at Goulimine on the edge of the Sahara Desert. This is in the region described as the Blue Arabs. The caftans are all in special shades of blue worn by no other tribe. The dye ultimately tints their skin blue, and so they are called the Blue People. The camels are of all sizes and qualities. There is much bargaining and examining of the camels’ teeth for age.

The eyes of young and old are always fiery. The eyes of the children burn like sun reflected on onyx.

We are living in Biblical times. There is no change. The children will be corrupted by the tourists. They have learned to beg, even though their parents punish them for doing so.

One guide, in his immaculate blue caftan and stiff white shirt, demonstrates how he climbs a tree and cuts down a coconut without soiling or wrinkling his clothes.

There is always the smell of a wood they burn, which resembles the smell of incense. These lovely, quiet towns in the middle of the desert. The people are silent. There may be the sound of a small flute, the bells on an animal, a religious chant, which take on a sharpness against the silence, a silence we never know because of the multitude of sounds in our cities. People, animals, buildings, stand out vividly against sky and sand dunes, never to be erased from memory because of the slow rhythm, the arresting of attention, the wholeness of the vision not frittered away, shredded by chaos and confusion of our cities. I see the antelope, the children, the riders, the lamb on the spit; as we see the loved one distinct from the crowd.

I remember one night, in a Moroccan hotel built like a Spanish house around a courtyard. The stairs led to a terrace on the roof. I could not sleep. I walked about, went to the terrace. I heard the Moslem chant from the mosque. The stars seemed more numerous, as in Mexico, nearer. The town was asleep, all white and moonlit. That someone was praying for us while all were asleep made one feel mysteriously protected. Morocco spellbinds me again, as once before. It is a deep and undefinable attraction. I once thought it was the labyrinthine shape of its cities, but now I love the desert.

In Marrakesh I find the same intensity of life in the square as I did in Fez. The food stands, with the smell of cooking, the acrobats performing for attentive circles, the water-bearers dressed in medieval glitter with bells on their hats, the dancers leaping in the air, the sword swallowers astonishing the children, the fire swallowers, the rug merchants, the beggars, the veiled women, even the bedraggled hippies begging from the poor Arabs, counting on their religious sense of hospitality. I love the way they shelter themselves in their burnouses and fall asleep on doorsteps. It is hot. We sit on a terrace from which we can see the whole glittering spectacle. It is so rich in colors, smells, and sounds that one’s hair tingles from the passionate intensity.

Coming out of a restaurant, late at night, we have to walk through narrow streets to meet our carriage at the square. The beggars rush at us. They are legless, armless, some on wheel chairs, some blind, some hunchbacked. It is an infernal scene. The eagerness, the rivalries, the thrust of their particular deformity inches from our eyes is Dantesque and terrifying. It is dark. The extreme form of their begging almost paralyzes compassion. One feels one has not enough to give, that they multiply, magnify, devour. There are too many to help. They follow us to the square. The gaiety of the restaurant, the dancing of the women in transparent muslins studded with gold beads, all this is erased by the beggars. The subterranean life of Morocco is tragic and gruesome.

One little Arab boy I remember particularly because he haunted the café, sat at everyone’s table. He was seven or eight years old. He was beautiful but aware of it. He offered himself as a guide. He offered his sisters for sale, access to drugs. He knew a few phrases of English. He was glib, suave, full of charm, and corrupt.

The French guide is a young student, a descendant of George Sand. He has a feminine face, fluid and receptive. He loves Morocco and works hard at instilling respect in the visitors. But the other French tourists annoy me. They talk incessantly. Their trivial talk ruins the silence. It is futile and prevents them from seeing and feeling. When people’s senses are receptive, there is silence. In the desert I felt my senses so alert that smells, and vibrations of air, and waves of unequal heat, and the tremble of leaves in the oasis, the coolness of the rivulets, seem to occupy all my attention. I feel like an animal, keen on the scent. I cannot understand the chatter and childish, noisy games such as throwing water on each other. I swear to return alone.

BOOK: In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays (Original Harvest Book; Hb333)
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