Moroccan Winter
By Susannah Gray

It’s late afternoon in Eastern Morocco. Tinerhir, a dusty mining
town some 160 km east of Marrakech, the only place I can make
it to before darkness falls and the unlit road becomes
treacherous, is where todayʼs journey will end. I park my car at
the side of a dirt track littered with potholes. The town’s minarets
stand silent against the bright winter sky and rust coloured mud
houses form an uneasy mix with newer, French-inspired
buildings. As I walk through the town square, a little boy runs up
to me, smiling a beautiful smile, his dark brown eyes lowered in
the coy expression that small Moroccan boys seem to reserve
for foreign women.
“Where you from?” he asks in English. “España? Francia?
Italia? Non?”
With each question I shake my head. His repertoire complete,
he looks confused. For the next ten minutes, as I wander the
streets, he runs ahead of me then dashes back to my side,
pointing, babbling away, trying to get me to follow him. I soon
realise that, except for the young woman holding a baby under
one arm, begging almost imperceptibly from behind a tree, I am
the only woman around. I’ve been in Morocco long enough to
ignore the ubiquitous stares, but in this town of hidden women, I
feel slightly uneasy. As I pass by the woman’s dirty,
outstretched palm, her eyes meet mine with a look of such
desperation that I hand over all the coins I have in my pocket.
In the marketplace, a crowd gathers around a witch doctor. Heʼs
removed his potions from a battered briefcase and spread them
onto a small Berber carpet. He crouches on the ground and
engages his audience with an elaborate performance. I watch,
fascinated, as he points to limbs and organs on a ragged,
plastic-covered picture of the human body and then acts out
various ailments and pains and finally recommends the cure. In
a nearby alley, caged chickens scrabble and peck, not realising
that it’s their turn next on the butcher’s chopping block. At the
next stall, goats’ legs hang from hooks, their detached heads
resting nearby on the open-air counter. Blood mixes with the dirt
and runs down the street in small, sticky rivulets. Flies buzz
Armani jeans and Nike trainers await their customers alongside
traditional tajine cooking pots and thick blankets. A boy, crosslegged
on the floor, cuts keys on an ancient hand-operated
machine; another expertly buffs and shines shoes. A man
wearing a leather jacket over his traditional akhnif robes, the
teeth that still manage to cling onto his gums as brown as his
sandals, tries to sell a laptop. I wonder where he got it from and
who could buy it. Bored teenage boys wearing F.C Barcelona
or Manchester United football team shirts huddle together
noisily, looking at mobile phones. Elderly, weather-beaten men
stare wearily at the commotion. The market typifies everything
that I have seen on my journey across Morocco: a mixture of
enthusiastically welcomed consumerism and immovable,
almost impenetrable, tradition.
As dusk falls, the call to prayer echoes and the streets empty.
Soon the town is bathed in the thick, inky, silent blackness that
you can only find when you are miles away from modernity. Life
in small town Morocco seems to end when the sun goes down,
and I return to my hotel, the Hotel Oasis, a huge, freezing
concrete structure perched at the side of the main road. For
twelve euros, I have a crumbling but clean room, lit with a bare
light bulb and furnished with a huge sagging bed. Cold air
whips into the room through the gaps around the window and I
am grateful for the pile of thick blankets perched at the end of
the bed.
I eat dinner – couscous with vegetables – in the hotel’s rooftop
restaurant, wrapped in a scarf, wearing two sweaters and
cradling hot, sweet, mint tea for warmth. As I eat, the boy
working in the kitchen pops his head out of the serving hatch
every minute or two to check that I am still there, the pervasive
coy smile that I have encountered in every town and village I’ve
passed through on his face. An elderly French traveller slowly
chews at the knee-high table nearby, absorbed in a travel book.
At the far side of the room, a rotund South American prostitute
speaking broken English is wedged between what I guess must
be her client and her pimp – two local men in their early
twenties. As my tea steams into the night, I wonder how she
ended up here, in the middle of nowhere and so far away from
home. I watch her sadly as the trio leaves. One of the men gives
her a small pink mobile phone and a greedy squeeze on her
backside. She giggles and they proceed into the dark.
The morning call to prayer wakes the town and the morning sun
relieves it from the grip of the nightʼs icy coldness. I head off
early in the direction of the Sahara to spend the night under the
desert sky, nestled between the dunes.