Friday, 9 August 2013


Growing up in England with an amorphous circle of friends intersecting at one time or another with aspirant Bohemians - roughly speaking the sort of people I knew at art college - I've encountered a very specific kind of female on several occasions, at least often enough to recognise her as a type. She is generally well-educated, vaguely middle-class, and a committed Islamophile. On balance, she means well and should probably be applauded for at least pissing off Islamophobes, but I find myself uneasy in her presence, as I tend to find myself uneasy in the presence of anyone whose enthusiasm has run away with them.

In two instances which spring immediately to mind, she has been a vocal advocate of feminist principles whilst going weak at the knees over some dreamy eyed young stallion of middle-eastern heritage. 'They're so different to western men,' she tells me, unwittingly suggesting an entire group might share a single personality, and with some hesitation as she reroutes white men to western, but still using the term to mean all you lot. 'They're so much more sensitive.'

Sadly the eulogies turn to complaints once realisation dawns that the sensitive men in question have been raised to regard women as  housekeeping donkeys with whom one may have sex without the need to spend a fortune on carrots - nice to have around, but incapable of conversation and you wouldn't let one run your business.

In case this revelation inspires anyone to bang their souvenir Enoch Powell tin mug on the table or to type out a rousing response of here here, I should perhaps stress that I refer here to very specific individuals, and mainly in respect to the naivety of their female admirers. I've never held to the belief that all of Islam can be summarised as a basic personality type, and certainly not as those two specific mummy's boys to whom I was briefly introduced. I don't believe that everyone within any particular demographic can ever be characterised as being any single thing, this being the error made by my two guileless female acquaintances, mistaking one individual for some exaggerated or even idealised image of that person's entire culture on the grounds that he's got a nice bum.

In Mexico the term is Malinchism, named after La Malinche, the indigenous woman who became both mistress and interpreter to Hernán Cortés during the conquest. It refers to a preference for the foreign over the things of one's own culture or country. Whilst I'm in no position to start pelting the walls of this particular glass house with stones, I like to think I appreciate the new and unfamiliar for reasons other than that it's foreign.

Marian, my girlfriend a few years back, was something of an Islamophile. She liked the art, and would drape her home with rugs and cloths of Islamic design. She seemed to identify with Islamic culture, although the terms of that identification were never entirely clear to me. Certainly her interest was not overtly religious, and I'm not sure Marian herself had really worked it out. She acquired Islamic looking ornaments for the house; she read the occasional book set in the middle-east; she attended belly dancing classes; and we would sometimes watch films like Marzieh Meshkini's excellent The Day I Became A Woman. Still it struck me as a vague engagement, an aesthetic followed at about the level of an article in Time Out magazine, not that there's anything wrong with that.

Marian had been hinting that we might go to Mexico together at least since we first met in the Autumn of 2005, just as I returned from my fifth visit to the country with my friend Rob. Initially it was exciting that someone should apparently be so keen on me as to make such a proposal, but as the relationship developed, I came to realise that it was a bad idea. By 2007, Marian and I had accrued the experience of several holidays spent in each other's company - excursions made not so much because we always had such jolly larks together as we licked ice creams on foreign shores, more due to threats delivered by Marian during those first formative weeks of our union. 'I'll be expecting you to take me to interesting places,' she said. 'I grow easily bored with relationships quite quickly, so you will need to make the effort to keep me interested.'

With these parameters established, we went where Marian decreed. My suggestions were never to her liking, which provided further annoyance in addition to her being burdened with always having to come up with ideas for where we could go next - one of those heads you lose, tails I win dialogues I suppose you would say. We'd been to Oxford, to the village of Théza in the south of France, to Machynlleth on the Welsh coast; each excursion distinguished by Marian generally failing to rise before noon, then spending the rest of the day blaming me for everything that had gone wrong with the holiday, on top of which I generally ended up carrying her bags as well as my own. So as she reminded me that I'd promised to take her to Mexico, I knew by then that I would rather dine from my own lavatory bowl. Mexico was one place she wasn't going to ruin.

We'd been together nearly two years and it had become increasingly difficult to dodge certain bullets, to avoid certain undertakings despite the sure knowledge of a disastrous outcome. Denied my services as Mexican bag carrier, she revived an older threat. 'I may go and spend some time in India, maybe six months or a year,' she offered with studied defiance. 'What will you do then?'

I didn't have an answer that I could give without repercussions, and I had no inclination to visit India. I lived in a world wherein people were required to work for a living, and extravagant experiments with global travel were dependent on not pissing off for an indeterminate amount of time and coming back to find out you've been sacked. This whole deal about being able to afford to eat and have a roof over one's head was apparently one of those things that made me something of a bore.

'What do you mean you've never wanted to go to India?' It was a fairly typical question for Marian, an inquiry presupposing that views other than her own are by definition aberrant. We were once watching a television programme called Grand Designs which each week would follow the progress of someone building their own home from scratch, usually someone with a ton of money, and the more eccentric their ideas the better. This week some guy was working on his own self-sustaining environmentally neutral home, a variation on the thing in which the Teletubbies live but with more solar panelling.

'Oh for God's sake,' I muttered under my breath.

Marian turned to me, more confrontational than surprised. 'Haven't you ever dreamed of building your own self-sustaining environmentally neutral home?'

I hadn't, and she asked the question as though the premise were  self-evident and I was the weirdo here, just like haven't you ever considered that smoking eighty cigarettes a day might be bad for you?

What do you mean you've never wanted to go to India? was the same deal, a question framed with disbelief that an intelligent person could entertain any desire divergent from her own. I had nothing against India, but neither did I find it so fascinating either as a country or culture as to necessitate my going there; and I was painfully familiar with the sort of homeopathy-addled dimwits who visit India in order to find themselves, returning six months later talking the same bollocks as always and telling you that it was amaaaaaaazing. Whilst it may be true that travel broadens the mind, I generally believe it helps if you have something to work with in the first place.

'Let's go to Morocco,' I said.

She had been pushing Morocco for as long as she'd been waving the flag for India. To my way of thinking, the flight would be cheaper, the country was nearer, and it therefore didn't seem like such a massive investment in something I wasn't really sure I wanted to do in the first place. It was a strategic suggestion, a grand gesture intended to at least give me breathing space before either Mexico or India were wheeled out yet again.

'Morocco?' She regarded me with a look I hadn't anticipated. I wondered if she had ever really considered the journey as something that might happen, something other than an ideal, a goal for which one could aim without fear of ever having to worry about what you would do once you got there.

Later that summer, we landed at Fes-Saïss airport serving the city of Fez in northern Morocco, just south of the Atlas Mountains - and whilst you might point out that it's actually Fes with an S, I could never unlearn all those years of Tommy Cooper or Laurel and Hardy even if I wanted to, and if you're going to be pedantic, then actually it should be rendered فاس . This was my first visit to the African continent, and it felt like stepping off the edge of the map to some degree. I had been to Mexico, and by Mexico I don't mean the parts where English people will be served egg and chips if they just shout loud enough; but Mexico seems distantly related to the US, which has always presented itself as a known quantity. Morocco on the other hand is at the edge of the Arab world. I knew it was there, but that was about all.

The first problem introduced itself when Marian attempted to extract dirhams from the airport ATM, and found that her card was blocked from further use. The Moroccan dirham was at the time in quarantine from the European wongaverse by means I don't fully understand, and for this reason the Lonely Planet guide had advised taking either dollars or traveller's cheques and converting to local currency on arrival, all the while keeping in mind that someone in a uniform would laugh in your face if you tried to convert it all back on the way home. Luckily one of us had remembered to do this, specifically the one who didn't trust the supposedly international language of the credit card. The other one hadn't seen the need to inform the bank of her travel plans, deciding they would probably realise she was on holiday as soon as she started making massive withdrawals of funds in a foreign country.

You just never think! she would rant and rave at me on a more or less daily basis before bemoaning having to do everything for herself, but there was never any benefit to be had from pointing out that this simply wasn't true, so I didn't. Instead I sighed, cashing in a lot more traveller's cheques than I'd bargained for, and resigning myself to being Marian's piggy bank in addition to bag carrier and scratching post. We would have enough to get by for the time we were there, but would have to be considerably more careful with our spending.

For once, Marian couldn't quite work herself up to the full proposition of this all being my fault, and for a second I wondered if she was broken; but I could sense her going over the psychological small print as she made a testy promise to pay me back. She resented that I had known she would dump us both in the shit before we were even out of the the airport, and resented that I'd been right.

'Well, I didn't do it on purpose,' was her best shot, and I thought better of offering comments which would only be weaponised and thrown back regardless of original function. All the same, I hadn't anticipated the change that had come over Marian. She was in a genuinely foreign country full of unfamiliar and troubling smells, somewhere that bore only fleeting resemblance to the beautifully patterned realm of sand, spirit, and Fry's Turkish Delight she probably imagined as she browsed Persian ceramics in East Dulwich. I too was bricking my pants as I tend to do when first arriving in profoundly unfamiliar places, but I'd done this before and had learned how to fake it, how to act like I'm just passing through and it's really no big deal. Additionally, I have a theory that most places to which one may travel will be socially similar once you get beyond the window dressing, so I was pretending that Morocco was Catford with warmer weather and more prayer just as some pretend that every member of the audience is in just their underwear.

Having Marian follow my lead, looking to me to see if whatever we were about to do seemed like a good idea, was peculiar but not unpleasant. The root of her problem had always been gross-overcompensation for an absence of self-esteem, a slipped cognitive disc by which she conflated assertiveness with basic bullying; and at times it was exhausting. Bizarrely, this newly developed humility seemed like a good start to the holiday, and it also seemed like a good idea that she had taken to wearing her headscarf as a hijab in so much as it suggested a willingness to engage with others on their terms. It transpired that Morocco is generally a tolerant and cosmopolitan country, the hijab worn mostly as a matter of preference, and eschewed by many; but I think it made Marian feel a little more secure, which had to be better for everyone.

It was now midday, so we took a taxi into Fez and began to look for a hotel. The first place didn't seem too promising as the proprietor took us up a flight of stairs past workmen taking a break, to a very nearly bare room with just an iron frame bed and a dressing table. I imagined people being electrocuted in this place, and it seems Marian agreed with me. We went elsewhere, at last booking into a much larger hotel, fairly luxurious with rooms big enough to host drag racing events; but the air conditioning was deafening, and it was prohibitively expensive so we vowed to stay for one night and then find somewhere cheaper.

Morocco, or specifically the Ville Nouvelle quarter of Fez reminded me of Mexico City. The general populace appeared roughly similar bar a few regional quirks of dress, and even the architecture and economy seemed really not so different. The weather was warm and people were generally friendly. Truthfully I hadn't known what to expect. I hadn't exactly anticipated the oppressive religious austerity which certain people seem to believe constitutes the entire Islamic world, although I'd wondered if Fez might be something like Marrakesh. Naturally I had never been to Marrakesh but by repute I imagined Islam wrestling with the overbearing presence of the sort of people I generally cross oceans to avoid, new-age tourists boring everyone shitless with weed anecdotes, painted toenails lazily dipped in someone else's culture, probably even fucking jugglers in those novelty felt hats worn by the terminally cretinous at the drippier rock festivals. People who feel the need to find themselves are rarely worth finding, and the suspicion that I would encounter a great many of them in Marrakesh ruled it out as being somewhere I would ever want to go; of course it had been Marian's first choice for the very same reasons, but with much lesser tourist traffic increasing the likelihood of our finding anywhere to stay, Fez became the more practical choice, and to my astonishment, I found I'd already begun to like the place. In fact I think I liked it more than Marian did.

Being as this was 2007 and I didn't keep a diary, much of the detail is now sketchy. Marian took her camera so I left mine at home, reasoning that Morocco was really more her field and whatever photographs she took would logically be superior. Unfortunately, as we later realised, her camera was fucked and had exposed the entire film but for eight photographs carrying a thin strip of detail down one edge.

The second day we booked into Hotel Dar Ziryab on the Rue Lalla Nezha, or at least I believe we did. I'm retracing footsteps using Googlemap which doesn't seem inclined to risk a street level view of Fez, so it's really just an educated guess. The price was better, and the room less like a warehouse and more ornate as I recall, and there was a beautifully decorated communal salon at the top of the building. I seem to remember only being able to stay until the weekend due to prior bookings, and for whatever reason, we later transferred to Wassim Hotel Fez on Rue de Liban, then spent our last day in the youth hostel on Rue Abdeslam Seghrini. When away from home Marian had a habit of changing hotel every forty-eight hours having decided she didn't like the curtains or something, although on this occasion I don't recall our failing to settle as entirely her fault.

Wassim Hotel Fez was distinguished by elevators and a television in the room. In the evening, still reeling from the spectacle of hearing the call to prayer sound across the roofs and towers seen from our hotel window, then the subsequent hush as streets emptied and the entire city fell silent, we sat glued to Moroccan television. We found a channel called Melody and watched a powerfully atmospheric black and white Saudi feature film from the 1950s, although programming otherwise resembled Mexican television so far as I was able to tell - broadcasts in the universal language of Benny Hill and people falling over to a soundtrack of uproarious hysterics.

Our ultimate move to the youth hostel was due either to prior bookings at the Wassim or simply because that was where Marian wanted to be. It was absurdly cheap and accordingly basic, a gated square of tiny rooms arranged around two conjoined courtyards and sharing a communal shower. The upside of this was that the courtyard was full of tortoises, all shapes and sizes, and I sat watching them for hours which was actually more fun than it may sound.

We kept to no strict daily routine, although I usually started off with mint tea which was incredibly sweet and for which I acquired quite a taste. Some days we would begin at a particular outdoor café which served a breakfast of khlea - eggs fried with meat and cumin - also the place at which some enterprising Moroccan tried to persuade me that my girlfriend and I could have an exciting time with him and his wife at their pool. I still wonder if he would have asked had Marian been with me. I expect she was either still asleep or shopping at the time, the latter having turned out to be her main reason for coming. I recall her asking how much available space remained in my bag. She'd already filled a couple of suitcases and needed to assess how much more I would be able to carry. That's just the way it was.

Our first major excursion was to the Medina, Fes el Bali, the mediaeval part of the city which had remained more or less unchanged at least since times when Arabic civilisation made that of Europe seem like a bunch of cavemen playing with their own poo. My first impression as I climbed out of the taxi - impacting upon at least three major senses, not least that of smell - was that we had arrived in Star Wars and would soon encounter Jawas, Sand People and Alec Guinness. It was quietly terrifying, but nevertheless we dutifully went forth because the taxi already had another fare and wasn't going to take us back. We stumbled towards the gates to the old quarter, trying desperately to appear as though we did this sort of thing every day. As it turned out, we weren't the first Europeans the locals had ever seen, and everyone was too busy shouting or arguing or just telling jokes to care about two more. Within the walls we found a labyrinth of streets, very few of them wide enough for more than two people walking side by side. High above us the sun was kept at bay with sheets stretched across the gap between the rooftops; and every ten yards we would acquire a new one-hundred and fifty year old Sid James-faced best friend hopeful that we would be interested in buying his rugs, jewellery, socks, spices, shoes, pens, watches, or possibly even his sister. Marian spoke French much better than I and so was better equipped to judge which were the good deals, but we adopted the habit of politely shooing traders away, something at which I had become reasonably adept in Mexico.

The Chouwara tannery, around which Fes el Bali seems to be built was a great area of ground covered in neat circular vats full of dye, pigeon dung, and possibly urine. Animal hides are dipped and then left out to bake dry in the sun on adjacent roofing and other available surfaces; and the smell is amazing, so powerfully repulsive that it somehow comes out the other side and becomes an almost artistic experience - a Maurizio Bianchi album for the nose.

Having survived the tannery, we took mint tea in some restaurant buried so deep inside the Medina that it felt like we'd entered an underground kingdom made entirely of ornately patterned carpets; we bought spices, and Marian haggled with a rug seller principally for the purpose of seeing what he had on offer. This was the sort of behaviour which made me uneasy. Whilst haggling may or may not be a way of life in the middle-east depending on which story you hear, I suspect people who sell rugs tend to haggle as a means of earning a living rather than providing exotic local flavour for visiting Europeans, so haggling purely for chuckles struck me as rude.

I wasn't the only one to hold this view. We had taken a train the forty mile distance to the neighbouring city of Meknes, through countryside bearing a peculiar resemblance to England but for being thoroughly bleached of all colour. This also afforded a good view of the Atlas Mountains, the domain of Berber and Tuareg tribes, so we had been told. Once in Meknes our first port of call was the market, larger than those we had seen in Fez, and more like the sort of thing we knew from back in England. I don't recall what Marian was trying to buy - although I have a feeling it may have been something prosaic like shampoo, the sort of item someone would sell in order to make a living rather than because they love haggling. She argued with the seller for a minute before storming off, barking away in fluent matron which, hajib or not, probably would have worked better for someone a bit taller.

'What is wrong with your wife?' the trader asked me in English, both aghast and bewildered. 'She is crazy!'

I smiled and shrugged because he was right.

The main reason for our visiting Meknes was the architecture and the presence of one of the few Mosques to allow limited access to non-Muslims, so we briefly got to watch people talking directly to Allah within a building of such sophisticated and elegant design as to make all those European cathedrals seem fussy and hysterical, like the work of talented children who just didn't know when to stop. Meknes in particular underscored that the Muslim world does not suffer a lack of either civilisation or culture, which is something that perhaps a few more people really need to appreciate. No good can come of viewing entire countries as essentially alien, populated by those with whom we have nothing in common, not least because it's a wrong view. As though to illustrate this realisation in microcosm, some young Moroccan struck up a conversation with us on the train as we returned to Fez. Bizarrely, Marian said very little and later told me she had found his behaviour suspicious, but he was really just a young guy genuinely fascinated by the presence of strangers, telling us about his country and wanting to know all about ours. Sometimes there is no hidden agenda, just people very much like ourselves.

It wasn't a perfect holiday, but Marian had for the most part managed to behave like a human being, humbled into shutting up at least some of the time by something too big to be bullied into submission. I think she found the culture shock exhausting, even to the point that we ended up spending an evening at the Fez branch of McDonalds eating McKebabs - or whatever local variant they were serving - just like going out to a bar, except we sat out on the terrace drinking shakes and gazing across the darkened hillside beyond a road which Googlemap identifies as being called McDrive. At around eight or nine a band turned up and started playing. Marian, being environmentally minded, had always frowned upon the burger chain and would cheerfully berate anyone who so much as walked past a branch without spitting.

Don't you care what happens to the rain forest?

'Don't tell Penny about this,' she chuckled, in reference to one of her friends from the belly dancing class.

I never did, and back in England, our relationship resumed its traditional downhill trajectory, we returned to our previous roles, and it took me about eighteen months to claw back the two-hundred pounds she'd borrowed, a sum returned grudgingly in dribs and drabs and by terms suggesting that I was the selfish one; but if nothing else it is at least nice to be able to recall a holiday that wasn't a complete waste of time, a couple of weeks during which we almost managed to pass as a regular couple. I gained first hand experience of a world I might never have visited under my own steam, and it is an experience I will not forget.


  1. I read this, & I'm getting pictures in my head of scenes from "Midnight Express".

  2. Wonderful, Lawrence. You've hit the spot so many times in this article!