As a writer I travel for work, for pleasure, but most of all out of curiosity.
I’ve just returned from my first trip to Morocco, a two-week holiday filled with sunshine, surprises, and moment of intense solitude. I was travelling alone, and after a few days in the tantalising souks of Marrakech, I left the city, heading towards the edge of the Sahara for a few days to stay in desert kasbahs (forts) and enjoy big skies and peace.
In my previous post, I described my first night in a kasbah, hosted by a gracious man called Mohamed who lives in a vast plantation of palm trees. Afterwards, I visited Nkob, a small settlement of dusty streets and tatty cafe’s, where the backstreets are filled with dozens of glorious Kasbahs – hotels and ruins, lying side-by-side. I slept in a tower amidst these mud-brick citadels, and felt like a character in a child’s imagination!
The writer Tahir Shah, who lives in Morocco, once wrote – and I quote, ‘Real travel is not about the highlights with which you dazzle your friends once you’re home. It’s about the loneliness, the solitude, the evenings spent by yourself…… these are the moments of true value. You feel half proud of them and half ashamed and you hold them to your heart.’ I know what he means. Here, at the northern fridge of the Sahara the sun was hot, the air was dry, and most tourists had left for the coast. In the small towns that I visited, the hotels were deserted and only local families walked the streets. I had a lot of conversations with Moroccans – we talked a mixture of Arabic and French, and my trip was much the richer for it. I am not scared of loneliness nor silence: but still there were evenings when I longed for familiar company, or someone to give me a reassuring cuddle.
Many of the writers that I love – like Isabel Eberhardt – travelled alone and wrestled with loneliness and silence. Isabel, an experienced drug-taker who rode across the Maghreb dressed as a man and filled her journals with florid, intense descriptions of her journeys, died in a desert flash-flood in 1904 at the tender age of twenty-seven. The Nomad, the collected writings of her life, is one of the most moving books that I’ve ever read.
Almost two weeks after leaving Marrakesh, I returned to the city for one final evening, before catching my return flight to London. At dusk I drifted back into the souks, to spend the bit of money I had left. Heading towards the spice market, I got lost, of course, and found myself in a dimly lit derb, a narrow passageway, that led into a small courtyard. Unlike the rest of the souk – still buzzing with light, traders and banter – this corner was dark and silent. The atmosphere felt different too: older, heavier, with a thick residue from the past. It took me a moment to realise there were people lining the courtyard: women, silently holding up items of clothing for sale.
As I passed one of the women, I could just make out a Jellaba, the long flowing garment beloved of Moroccans, held out in her arms. I thought it looked beautiful, and though I could barely see it in the dark, spontaneously offered her all the money I had. She sold it to me without haggling, wrapped in a torn plastic bag. I thanked her and walked away. Back inside the bright lights of the main souk, I saw a public information sign, identifying the courtyard as ‘the ancient [Marrakesh] slave market….. where poor women still sell low-end goods at night.’
I love the Jellaba, it’s a faded red and white beauty, and it fits me perfectly.