Mohammed the Vth Street
My favorite street in Morocco has to be Mohammed V in Rabat. It’s less than a kilometer long from where the Medina starts to the end, the great cemetery. Rabat is not famous for being a tourist area, it’s the seat of government in Morocco, and the city has but few tourist sites, but perhaps that is what makes this street so nice for me. It’s mostly Moroccans going about their business there. Tourists are certainly recognized, and tolerated, but they are not the main focus of attention here. You dont get the hard-core pressure like in other places. I stayed just inside the Medina, which is a shopping district, but the Medina here is not a tangled maze of narrow alleys, like in other places like Casablanca and Marrakech, but the roads are straight. You can’t get lost here. Along the MV there are all kinds of shops; perfume, clothes, herbal medicine, food of all kinds (with an abundance of dates, figs, nuts of all kinds like pecans, almonds, walnuts), restaurants of all kinds (such as sit down places that serve tajin and couscous, and other places that serve foods like chicken fried, bread and pancake like mixtures and hamburger -like places) jillabah shops(the traditional Moroccan pointy hooded robe), spice shops, sewing shops, pastry shops, and self styled convenience stores. That’s just on MV. The cross streets are filled with more serious seelling of clothes of all kinds, lots of shoes (Moroccan and regular), handbags and leather goods, musical instruments etc. It really gets fun though around 5 pm when people get off work. Then the street vendors come out like ants out of an old piece of wood that you kick by mistake. There are lots of men selling pirated movies for 5 dirham a piece, displayed in elegant bamboo woven trays 1 meter across that are usually used to serve food in fancy restaurants. There are people selling novelties like funny balloons and whistles that make you sound like a clown. Fruits of all kinds appear as if by magic especially small sweet oranges. Not knowing the prices I hold out a 5 dirham coin. The vendor gives me a big bag with about 20 oranges in it. They are so sweet and i gobble them up before the day is through. Later I buy 5 durhams of dates. Again,mits a huge bag, 1.2 pounds and yet i cant stop eating them, they are somgood. There are beggars of all kinds, some horribly disabled, with twisted limbs, or empty eye sockets. Some mothers holding their babies, some old people. Some just sit there with hand outstretched, some are chanting, some look at you and plead with their eyes. Some cute little street boy just walks up tomstrangers and holds their hands.mits hard tomresist hi.mthe kid cleans up. I have a special pocket for 1 dirham coins to give to beggars. They are happy with that. There’s the famous applecart which luckily no one upset ( but almost). A man sells slices of coconut for 1 dirham a shot. Pastry carts appear in the middle of the road. One man is selling cactus fruit for 1 dirham. He deftly cuts a circular cut, pulling out the somewhat sweet gleaming purple mass on a toothpick for you. if it touches your hand or the juice dribbles down your chin, it will be stained for the rest of the day. The popcorn man will sell you a small bag of perfectly salted (to my taste ) popcorn. Sometimes I can’t resist and eat 2 or 3. A man has a tremendous cart 3 x 1 meter filled with peanuts. If you give him 1 dirham, he will take the ones being freshly roasted in a metal box and give you the hot ones. As he waits for customers, he slowly turns the crank like an organ grinder on the tin metal box that is as big as a microwave, but works on a far simpler principle. Walking up the street at this time, there is a pleasant hustle and bustle. You have to wade through the crowd. No one looks at me especially. I am invisible, accepted, and I can observe things unfolding naturally. As long as iI dont pull out a camera. If I do that, everyone tenses, is aware, and on guard. So I keep my camera inside my backpack. I wish I could record it all, understand it all. Climbing the hill towards the cemetery, the crowd starts to thin. As i get near the top I see some 10 year olds playing street football. Some have T-shirts of their hero, Messi, the best player in the world, I was told. If I look past the boys, I can see through the wide arches that lead to the huge cemetery, about 10,000 gravestones I guess, that lies between the old city and the ocean. After the cemetery there is a lighthouse and then the pounding surf of the Moroccan Atlantic. I can’t help but see some metaphor here. Boys playing, gate, cemetery, lighthouses, sea. Is this a poetic summary of life? Existence? Reality? Maybe not, Probably I’ve been alone too long today.
Walking through the cemetery, I try to imagine who all these people were. I imagine that soon,I will be in a cemetery like this and another man will walk through imagining like I am now. I try to do that, but I can’t, because I can’t imagine really the world without me in it yet. The dates on the stones vary, but some are quite recent. Yet the cemetery seems full. Where will they put the new ones. I am mezmerized by the stillness, the beauty, the finality of these graves. Suddenly a goat appears between the graves and startles me, then I see a cat, and another, and another. The cemetery is not dead, it’s alive.There is an old man wearing a pointy-heady black jillabah and cane. He looks like death, hanging around wasting time until his next job is due. It takes me 10 minutes to walk the width of the cemetery to the sea. There is a big lighthouse, but it’s nothing as grand as the many minerats that dot the city. Down by the sea there are more boys and men playing football. I am amazed at how good they are,mgrabbing the ball behind their back with both feet and flipping it over their heads.Couples sit cozily on the sea wall, snuggling close and kissing at times. They are invisible, no one minds or notices them but me. Lucky guys. I consider the surf and going in, but I have no one to watch my stuff and anyway, the sea bottom is sketched with rocks, not good for bodysurfing. I head back to the cemetery and plunging through it arrive back in the lively street. The boys are still playing. It’s almost time for me to play. I have about 40 minutes. Imsee a barber shop and decide to go in for amshave. During the trip, imlet my beard grow out, but i decide its better to go through imigration clean-shaven. If they choose to do a body search, I will be embarrassed, because I’ve been wearing the same pants for 3 weeks now. The barber welcomes me in and states the price 10 dirhams. Trying to shave a beard off is a pain with a regular razor. It takes forever and it hurts. I sit in the chair a bit nervous as he makes something of a show of putting in a new blade. Technology is great but sometimes we lose something. Having someone shave you is great. First he puts on the lather, but he doesn’t just put it on, he rubs it in with the brush. It’s really like a face massage that lasts a few minutes. You don’t have to pay a lot for a massage, just go to a Moroccan barber. Then he starts shaving. The beard comes off like jelly spreading. I only feel I slight pleasant scratching and hear that scratching sound.. Zwitttt. He knows where to push and pull to make my skin tight. I try to help him by puckering my fsce, but he waves me off. Relax I will do it. I close my eyes and just enjoy. He finishes and wipes off my face with a towel. I start to get up, but he puts his hand on my shoulder. Not so fast. He lathers me up, and does it again.mthis time it goes much faster. Wow, that was a close shave. Really!. Then he signals for me to close my eyes and he sprays some after shave on my face. It stings a bit and smells, well like aftershave. Finally it’s time to go. It took about 10 minutes altogether. It was 10 dirhams well spent. I look in the mirror. What a handsome guy!
I walk a few steps, feeling the cool air slapping my naked skin. I feel alive and relaxed, but I’m a bit hungry now. I stop to get some dinner. Couscous is my favorite, but it’s not Friday so I get tajin, at a new place I haven’t tried yet, a small restaurant with some tables inside and some outside. I sit outside so I can watch the parade of people strolling by. The waiter is super friendly and I wonder if he saw me playing the night before. He looks familiar, but the they all kinda do. I tell hiwith motions that I will play soon to see if he picks up on it. He seems amazed, so surprised. Oh….play here then. I readily agree. It’s always good to have an ally. They bring the tajin out in its traditional container, a ceramic plate with a sloping chimney shaped cover. The tajin here is so different than the other place I ate yesterday. Here’s its all a spiced tomato paste with some chicken in the middle spotted with green olives. Delicious but not as healthy as the regular kind which is mostly steamed vegetables and chicken. I finish up, go back to the hotel and get ready for playing. I’m back in 15 minutes. The young wiry waiter seems surprised to see me, but everything seems to surprise him. Perpetually surprised by life.
He and the cook and the other waiter seem all excited as I take out my instrument. I get all my gear ready and before playing, check with the waiter again. “Ok to play?” he gives me the thumbs up. “ok” and so I launch into my warm-up song. Its always exciting the first few moments. I never know what the reaction will be. Maybe someone will complain. Maybe the people will love it. Maybe (and often) they just ignore me. I play the first song. People on the street seem surprised and curious. Three young women give me flirting glances. I motion for them to sit down but they signal they will come back later. I wouldn’t bet on it but it’s fun anyway. The waiter is looking positive. Everyone seems happy. I start into the second song, but I play only a few notes when I see someone from 15 meters up the street yelling and waving his arms. I look over at the waiter. He too is waving his arms. “you stop, now”. I am confused, but I stop. Ok. It’s a bit of a delay, but I guess someone doesn’t like jazz. I put my horn down and start to put it away. Another man comes running up. He is wearing a Muslim hat and has a long beard. He is yelling at me, but my horn is already away. I don’t know what is going on. Then I see. The men are lined up on their hands and knees outside the mosque. Inside the mosque is full.They have a big carpet laid on the street, and the men are praying. Apparently just before I started playing the first song, there was a call to prayer. I didn’t recognize it and wasn’t aware of the time. By the time I started the second song, they had started to pray. I apologized profusely to the Muslim man. “I didn’t know. I didnt hear it.” He looks at me angrily as if to say, how couldn’t you know. I know you’re not deaf, you’re a musician. Didn’t you hear the call? What he doesn’t understand is there are so many sounds around and other music that I can’t distinguish that call fromma hundred other sounds. I should be getting to recognize it by now. 5 times a day I hear it. First one starts out of nowhere, slicing through the calmness. and then another one nearby,moaning a cacophonous harmony, then another and another until there are 5 or 6 audible. It’s not meant to go unnoticed. It stops you, you can’t think, its disorienting,suddenly it’s like you are wading neck deep through honey, it’s a bad trip, you are disoriented, you must stop and get your bearings. Ah…it’s time to pray. I stop and take it in like a powerful heady perfume. How could I have missed that? Oh yeah I was playing. I glare at the waiter. He told me it was ok to play. He’s still smiling, being surprised by life. Other men are coming up and gathering around. Was I insulting the mosque? They were calling out for someone who speaks English. I understood the situation but now I had to listen to 5 or 6 young men explain it to me in barely comprehensible English. They all seemed not so much angry as concerned. I kept saying ” I’m sorry I didnt know. He ( pointing at the waiter) didn’t tell me”. Finally a pleasant looking young man came up whose English was passable and we went through it all again. He explained to the gathering crowd. People were nodding satisfied. Just a crazy stupid tourist. No disrespect intended. The crowd started to fizzle away. I went to stand by the the young man, my instrument and amp safe in the confines of the outdoor cafe. It was interesting watching the men pray. Kneeling side by side, sandwiched in next to his neighbor, in neat rows, they knelt on the outdoor rug, and ran through their routine. Heads touching the ground, turning their heads left and right. It almost looked like an exercise class. Very communal, group oriented. I could see how it might be nice to be immersed in this life. Everyone pulling together, trying to live a life that was prescribed some 1500 years ago. The 5 precepts, pray 5 times a day, everyone a brother or a sister.
“You can play again when they are finished”, the young man said. ” no one minds your playing. Some even like it.”
“How will I know when they are done?” the young man looked at me like I was an idiot, which i guess I was, but I didn’t want to make that terrible mistake again. ” you will know they are finished when they all get up and go away.” “oh….of course.” while we were waiting I started getting curious about what they were doing. The young man was kind enough to explain that to me.
Are you a Muslim?
Yes of course.
Haaaaah…Why aren’t you praying now?
I pray at home.
Do you know about Islam?
I told him what I knew, the 5 precepts ( accept Mohammed as Allah’s true and final prophet, observe Ramadam, go to Mecca once in your life for the Haj, pray 5 times a day, and give charity) etc.
He was duly impressed.
But there is one thing that I am curious about. Why is Mohammed the final prophet.? I mean I understand that you believe he is.
Yes I know you believe that, but I wonder did God give any reason for that?”
I went into my iphone analogy.
I mean imagine you had an iPhone 3 and then 10 years later wouldn’t you want an iPhone 5. You want to be most current right? Why not have a prophey update ever say 100 years or so. It was a legitamate question and I asked it respectfully, so he thought about it seriously.
“I don’t know, but I’m sure the answer is in the Koran. Read the Koran.
Come’on man, that’s not an answer. I don’t have time to read the Koran. I just want the answer. Maybe the Iman could answer my question. Would you mind asking him?”
He said he would ( but he never did). Other people were looking uncomfortable with my questions, even the stupid waiter had stopped smiling and looking surprised. Finally the worshippers started getting up. Then the rolled up the rug. Just then the 3 girls came back. There were 3 of them perhaps 24, 24, and 21. Two were obviously sisters. They were all excited, flirting with this strange foreigner, but they didn’t speak a word of English, only French and Moroccan. I went for the non sister. Her eyes were huge and heavily made up, which i don’t usually favor, but she had such energy in her eyes that she looked most alive. But we couldnt speak. The young man volunteered to translate.
Tell he she has the most beautiful eyes
He told her and her eyes became even more beautiful.
What’s your name
She told me
Do you have a boyfriend? She didn’t but her friends became inpatient. For me it was a novel experience to flirt through an interpreter.
Tell her I wish to play a romantic song just for her.
I went back to my seat and started to take out my horn. The woman were so excited. Just then the waiter, tapped me on the shoulder. He made the universal stop sign, hands making an X. Apparently they hadn’t liked my questions about Mohammed. I wasn’t welcome there anymore. The women frowned.
Wait I can find another place to play, but it was too late, the mood was broken.
I walked away dejected. I had played only, one song and it had taken 30 minutes.
I set off down MV in search of a new spot, but the road was still teeming with Moroccans, and it was too narrow to support a street musician. I walked all the way to the street car area where the road widened a bit. There was a perfect spot, but there was a blind beggar there. He was singing. hmmmmmph, he imagines he is a musician, a street musician. I AM THE REAL street musician. Still professional courtesy. He had been there first and his singing wasn’t half bad. Sounded like some Muslim prayer. Better than most of the noise coming from the minarets 5 times a day. I briefly considered asking him if he would like to team up, maybenincould play some harmony to his chanting, but then I thought the barriers to getting him to understand me would be immense. Anyway, he had a stick, and while he couldn’t see me, I wouldn’t underestimate a blind man’s ability to locate a saxophonist in the dark, what with their ultra sensitive hearing and all.
I moved a safe distance down from him and set up there. Probably here would be ok. It was not ideal as it was too loud and it WAS directly across from the police station, and there was another old man sitting on the stoop there. I asked him through sign language if I could play there by flittering my 10 fingers and then pointing down to the ground ( the international gesture for , “can I play street music here.”) he looked at me like I was insane, backing up a bit and wondering if he would have to defend himself from the crazy tourist, which I took for a yes. I started playing and waited to see what would happen, those first magic moments. The police didn’t seem to mind. Old man Beggar was ok, he even smiled, blind beggar didn’t seem to hear me. Bewildered Moroccans crossing the street and getting off the ultra modern tram had their heads turned. What’s that? Yet they seemed to like it. A small crowd of 10 or more people gathered and they were smiling. Someone put some money down. It was fun. I finished the song and a group of intelligent and smiling young men of about 25 came up to talk. “why are you playing here?” I wasn’t sure what they meant, why am I playing here in Morocco or why am I playing at this particular street corner. I certainly didn’t want to go into the whole Mosque story. “why not?” they all laughed. “right, why not?” but we mean there is a much better place to play on the other side of MV over there. We are all actually part of a circus, a new kind of circus, so we love that you are playing on the street. We want to start doing that too.” they introduced themselves, the 2 musicians,2 magicians, an artist (?), and a clown who happened to be a midget. We shook hands all around. “come’on. we’ll take you there” we crossed the tram tracks and walked 5 minutes down MV towards the parliament. The new place was good. The walkway was wide there and it was covered because the building hung over the sidewalk about 10 meters. The supports were vaulted arches. That made for great acoustics. An idea popped into my head “Why don’t you guys hangout for one song. Hey you can join me in anyway you like. I declare this space a creative free zone.” of course you don’t have to ask performers twice to perform. They were raring to go. I started playing, and the dancer jumped in and started dancing. He was really good. In no time at all there was a crowd of about 30 people. I watched him closely and tried to follow his movements with my melody. It seemed like we were playing and dancing as one. People started clapping rythmically. His movements were a mix of disco, swing, popping dance, and whatever. Who knows? It looked good and it was always surprising. The crowd started clapping and hooting. When he stopped the midget came out. He WAS a clown,a good one at that. He started dancing round. The crowd was screaming and howling. I could hardly be heard ( hey let’s remember who the star is here folks). His funniest move was when he did a kind of sexy hip thrust. But when he did it, it just looked comical, as was the dirty leer on his face. We now had a large crowd, 3 or 4 people deep. Random people came into the center to try their dance steps and all received a polite round of applause, but no one could top the circus guys. They both came out again. I felt inspired so I got into the center with the dancer. I tried dancing and playing with him, leading him around with the movement as well as the sound, but it didn’t work. When he was dancing, people just wanted to look at him. I retreated to the periphery and just played. The mood was not yet broken. The midget came out for a second time and really brought the house (sky?) down when he went into breakdancing and started spinning on the pavement on his back. It was a fitting finale to the performance, just as the song was starting to wind down. A mighty cheer went. It had been a magic moment. The guys made me an honorary member of their circus. We declared it the first performance of the Rabat Street Circus and said our goodbyes. I stayed on and played for another hour. I came up with some nice melodies and rhythms, met some nice people, even made some dirhams, but it was all winding down after the circus. It had been an evening of highs and lows, but however I look at it, Mohammed Vth Street in Rabat, is one of my favorite streets in Morocco, nay, in the world.
Mohammed the Vth Street