“Even with all the trouble in the world, sometimes a friendly invitation is simply an invitation, and a humble robe can be a treasure.”
Bill Fink from BBC Travel recently travelled to Morocco and encountered a couple of dodgy-looking blokes on a train. Here’s his fascinating but heartwarming tale with a twist…
Two men on the train invited me to their sister’s wedding, but they didn’t look at all like brothers.
Tall, fair-skinned Achmed and short, swarthy, moustachioed Mustafa entered my cabin midway between Marrakech and Fez. “A thousand welcomes to Morocco,” they said, putting their hands over their hearts.
I gave them a noncommittal nod, wary of yet another scam, having spent most of my time in Marrakech fleeing from touts, tour guides and con artists. Lacking contacts, a guidebook or much cash, I was essentially a refugee in this land, dependent on the good will of people I didn’t know.
The duo asked why I was visiting Morocco. I was too embarrassed to say it was actually just a cheap side trip from my stay in Spain. I didn’t want to admit I chose Marrakech because of a Crosby, Stills & Nash song and that I was travelling to Fez because of the funny hats.
So I made up a story with the old clichés, telling them I had always wanted to visit the land of the Arabian Nights, snake charmers and exotic desert adventures.
“Well, perhaps those tales have some truths. But if you want to see the real Morocco, you must come to our sister’s wedding tonight,” Achmed said.
“Really?” I said, slowly looking them up and down. “I’m supposed to believe you two are actually brothers?”
“We have different mothers. Our father has three wives, you see. And 15 children! What do you think about that?”
“Your father must be a very energetic man.”
“Oh yes! He once played for our national football team. But nowadays, we usually only take one wife here in Morocco. It is too expensive to support all those women.”
“Plus it’s less trouble with one – you don’t have to worry about the other wives ganging up on you.” They laughed.
“You will see all this and so much more at the wedding.”
“You will come, yes?”
They both looked at me intently, awaiting my reply. The rhythmic “ca-chunk, ca-chunk” of the train filled an awkward moment of silence.
I tried to find a face-saving excuse.
“But I’m just backpacking here,” I said, gesturing to my dirty bag on the luggage rack. “I don’t have anything to wear to a wedding.”
They smiled at each other. Achmed said, “Oh, not to worry at all! Of course, we will help you buy a genuine Morocco djellaba robe at the market!”
Mustafa then asked me if I had a hotel already. “No? Of course we will find you a good hotel in Fez, very safe, very clean and very, very good price!”
Ok, I thought, this was the old “help for a commission” scam. They’d lead me to a hotel and market and get a cut of my purchases. Still doubting the wedding story, I shrugged and agreed, figuring it would be a small price to pay for temporary guides.
But when we arrived at Fez, Achmed grabbed me just before we exited the rail station. “I will say goodbye for a moment. You will meet me at the end of the block, by the cafe, in a few minutes. It wouldn’t look good if we walked out of the station together.”
“What, why not?”
“People in Fez are funny. Don’t worry. No problem.”
Confused, I walked to the end of the block by the cafe and waited. A few minutes later, Achmed emerged, leading me to a dingy nearby hotel where he negotiated a rate and had me store my backpack.
We then went me to Fez’s Old Town market, where shouting merchants stood behind stone counters covered with kaleidoscopic arrays of shimmering cloth. He asked me to choose my favourite robe and secretly signal it to him so he could haggle for the best price.
I selected a long white robe with an embroidered collar and a silvery hue, with a pocket on one side and a slit cut in the other. The shop owner declared that such a fine robe could not be sold for less than the absolute final and rock bottom price of 550 dirham – double the price of my hotel room.
“Achmed,” I said, “I can’t pay that much for a robe I’m only going to wear once.”
“No, no, this is a fine robe, you have excellent taste. It will be very comfortable. And useful. You can wear it around your house, in your garden, anywhere. Cool in summer, warm in winter. How much can you pay?”
“I only have about 350 dirham to spare.” [about £32]
Achmed returned to say he was able to purchase the robe for 340 dirham, with 10 left over for a rope belt. “And to get that price, I tell you it was like pulling teeth.” He made vigorous yanking motions with his hand.
After leading me back to my hotel, Achmed promised to return in an hour to drive me to the wedding. I figured now that they had collected their commissions, it would be the last I’d see of the so-called brothers.
Robe in a plastic bag at my side, I sat outside at a nearby cafe. The smell of grilled lamb wafted through the air, the smoke rising to meet the call to prayer from the tower of a nearby mosque. Well-dressed Moroccan men, alone or in pairs, filled the cafe tables, sipping tea and sodas, smoking cigarettes. Not one of them was wearing a robe.
The man sitting at the table next to mine leaned over to say, “A thousand welcomes to Morocco,” with his hand over his heart.
“A thousand thank yous,” I answered, not knowing the proper response.
“So did you meet some men on the train?”
“What? How did you know that?”
“I saw you with them at the train station. Did they bring you to a hotel? Ask you to buy things?”
“Be very careful,” he said, then stood and walked away, inclining his head and tapping his heart again as a farewell.
My worry increased. I knew little about my current location and two men had promised to drive me somewhere completely unknown. And a stranger had just warned me about them.
As I picked over a pastry and sipped a cup of mint tea, a beat-up Honda pulled to the curb. Mustafa smiled and nodded from the driver’s seat. Achmed jumped out of the passenger side and opened the back door. “Hurry, it is time to go!”
“So soon? But where are your robes?”
Achmed laughed, “Oh, we have them in the trunk. We change at the wedding. Get in, we go now.” A car honked behind them.
I wondered what I should do. This could very well be a kidnapping, a robbery or worse. In my moment of internal debate, the deciding factor was my robe. The purchase of traditional formalwear seemed like a totally unnecessary step in an abduction. So I grabbed what had now become my Moroccan security blanket and hopped into the car.
Instead of a short ride to a hotel or convention hall for the wedding, we drove out of town and into the darkness of the desert.
“So where, exactly, are we going?” I asked.
“To the wedding, of course,” was all Achmed would say.
The car jostled along a bumpy road into the countryside. In the front seat, the brothers chatted in Arabic while local music played on the stereo. I began to panic. Should I open the door and dive outside on the road? Where would I run to?
We drove for nearly an hour, finally pulling into a small desert village. The car wobbled along gravel streets; half of its low-slung concrete apartment buildings demolished, the other half under construction, as though recovering from some recent war. My visions of the Arabian Nights were replaced by replays of CNN clips of Al Qaeda hideouts. Was my robe to wear for my beheading video?
I exited the car and stood on an empty street with the two “brothers” behind me. They motioned for me to put on the robe and enter the darkened building in front of us. A few men milled about in the shadows in the alley; one was viciously kicking a mule. Mustafa saw my concern and asked me what I thought.
“Being a mule is a bad job in Morocco,” I replied.
He laughed and nodded.
Feeling beyond the point of no return, I pulled the robe over my head and walked to the door. I half expected to open it and see dark, bearded men squatting around a fire, maybe armed with rifles, gazing with fierce blazing eyes and lurid smiles toward their victim dressed for slaughter.
Instead, I entered a bright, modern room crowded with a dozen sharply dressed Moroccan men in khakis and sport coats, daintily holding cups of tea. They howled with laughter at my outfit. A young girl peeked out of the kitchen and giggled. I stood stunned in the doorway, my bright red blushing face contrasting with my fresh-out-of-the-bag white robe.A peppy older man with ramrod straight posture marched into the party, wearing a similar robe to mine. He smiled, eyes bright with mirth as he crossed the room to take me by the shoulder. He patted his heart and spoke to me in Arabic.
Mustafa translated: “My father says, ‘A thousand welcomes’. He is honoured that you have travelled so far to join us for this special occasion. And he says he really likes your djellaba.“
Relatives began plying me with orange sodas and an assortment of home-cooked sweets. Achmed and Mustafa led me upstairs to the pre-wedding feast on a rooftop patio, where I joined a group of men and boys sitting on the floor around a giant platter. Together we broke bread and dipped it into sauces tinged with mint, saffron and honeyed yoghurt, along with some garlicky, creamy tahini. We grabbed hunks of grilled lamb on the bone, and washed it all down with sugary mint tea as we looked out over the moonlit Moroccan countryside. I felt like I had arrived in an Arabian Nights tale, and the night was only beginning.
After dinner we gathered outside the building for the wedding procession. Drummers warmed their animal-skin drums over small fires to tighten the tops. Trumpeters carrying the traditional brass nefar horns tuned up with a flurry of toots. The bride in a shimmering white gown and jewelled tiara mounted a precarious white throne atop the long-suffering mule, while the groom leapt on another. In a cacophony of clapping, drumming, honking and ululating, this group of about 50 colourfully dressed men, women and children (and one white-robed foreigner) began a midnight march through town. Villagers emerged from their homes, rubbing sleep from their eyes to smile and clap along with the celebration.
Our procession concluded in front of another nondescript cement apartment building, where the wedding party climbed to a rooftop covered in rugs, tables full of yet more treats and an endless supply of orange soda, all illuminated with strings of bare light bulbs hanging from wires. A slick-suited Moroccan band, complete with electric guitars and keyboards, burst forth with music. The brothers pulled me out to the gender-segregated dance floor for a few songs.
Befitting this mixed Arab-Berber wedding, the band left to be replaced by a traditional Berber horns-and-strings ensemble, while the bride and groom re-emerged to the roof with a new set of Berber wedding clothes, the groom dressed in a desert nomad’s robes, the bride in a billowing white dress bedecked with swaths of dangling multi-coloured jewellery. Fuelled by sugar and tea, I clapped, sang and danced along with the extended family as the band and costume changes continued until sunrise.
When the party ended, I dozed in the car as the brothers drove me back to town, trusting they would get me wherever I needed to be. Still wearing my robe, I slept past noon in the comfortable hotel, the only effects from my abduction being a sugar hangover and a newfound appreciation that even with all the trouble in the world, sometimes a friendly invitation is simply an invitation, and a humble robe can be a treasure.