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Africa: Where the Wild Things Are

By ROBERT RAGAINI

© St. Petersburg Times


CASABLANCA -- The airport. An old couple approaches the escalator. His face is weathered and deeply tanned. He wears a rough woolen djellaba, the traditional caftan, and a knit cap. He steps on the escalator, ascends, disappears. His wife, in a light-blue djellaba, is clearly uneasy as she reaches the escalator. At the first step she hesitates, tests the moving hand rail and decides this is not for her.

After several seconds a young man runs over, takes her hand and steps on the moving stairway. Her hand follows him but she does not, so he lets go and rides alone. A young woman tries next: She explains, convinces; they step forward. The old woman bends at the waist for balance like a skier on her first run, then walks as fast as she dares to the top, leaving the laughing girl behind.

This juxtaposition of old and new is evident in most countries, but in Morocco old means something different. In Morocco, old is a single file of hooded women riding burros by the side of a highway. It is a man plowing a rocky field behind a camel teamed with a donkey. It is flat pillbox houses the color of red earth blending into rugged, barren hills of the same color.

In Morocco, new is new and old is ancient.

To experience the country in depth is impossible in a short span of time. What is available is a series of impressions, subjective and strongly felt, of a culture vastly different from our own. It is a glimpse into the distant past at an existence both harsh and humane, indifferent and caring. What follows is a collection of images, briefly gathered but not to be soon forgotten. Children, everywhere children

An hour from Tangier is white, white Tetouan, rising in the distance like Chiclets arrayed on a hillside. A vast plaza in the center of town blazes under the sun while the medina, the old town, remains cool beneath ancient arches that recede down long, shaded alleys. The main arteries teem with shoppers, but on a quiet side street a cat scrunches in a niche cut shoulder-high in the wall. Below, two tiny kittens, hers, huddle together as mothers tug at children who want to stop and play.

In the imperial city of Rabat, the Tour Hassan towers above an unfinished 12-century mosque. The floor of the mosque is unroofed and studded with hundreds of columns. Children, everywhere children of all ages, cluster around robed and veiled women sitting like so many Gertrude Steins on the stone. They race with glee through the maze, kicking balls, spinning tops, seething with energy and joy. History transformed into a fabulous kiddie park.

A narrow channel separates Rabat from Sale, the city on the other side. People gather on both shores to crowd into one of the 30 or more brightly colored skiffs that ferry passengers back and forth. They push their way onboard, remaining standing until the boat is impossibly overloaded, and the single oarsman rows them across.

Nearby, waist-deep in water, three women wash clumps of wool in huge wicker baskets. Men lift the baskets to shore and spread the contents on the grass to dry like white rugs scattered on the lawn.

Two octopuses, wet and slimy, sprawl on the concrete abutment. A little girl pulls away from her caftanned mother, pokes one finger tentatively into the jellylike mass and squeals with delight.

Lying in the hills between Rabat and Fez is the holy city of Moulay Idriss.

From far down a crowded market street comes the sound of trumpets and drums. A knot of people pushes through, followed by women balancing trays of olives, dates and candies on their heads. As I photograph, men shake their heads "no" at me. Others nod "yes." What to do? I approach one and ask, "Qu'est-ce qui se passe? (What's happening?)

"Un mariage," he says. Smiling, he puts his hand on my shoulder and I join the procession, photos permitted. As we walk, four or five veiled women in soft pastel robes pierce the air with unearthly ululations. Ancient towns

Volubilis is what's left of a Roman town that now overlooks miles of newly plowed farmland, soft hills patched with brown and green. One hundred acres of rubble, but what rubble! Marketplaces, shops, houses are easily discernible, and in some the 2,000-year-old mosaic floors seem new. Flowers still bloom in the atrium of a nobleman's villa. A lone donkey feeds in the ruins of the glory that once was an outpost of Rome.

In the medina of Fez, the expectation was to find a vast, walled marketplace filled with small shops. The reality: a virtually impenetrable labyrinth of cobblestone alleys weaving without sign or direction through two- and three-story walls broken by wooden doors and tiny barred windows. The streets teem with life, human and animal, since motorized vehicles are forbidden. All heavy loads are carried by burros or mules -- a traffic jam consists of two animals meeting head on.

Through open doors, dark hallways lead to tiled stairs rising to the apartments above. Spigots pour water into basins carved into the walls, and little children fill plastic bottles.

There is the sense of a world unseen, walled away, until reaching a market area. Then, doors open to reveal stall after stall of whatever is sold in this particular place: multicolored spools of thread hung in starburst patterns; dishes, trays, lamps gleaming as they frame rows of shops; dates, figs, raisins and nuts, mounds of them, waiting to be weighed and scooped into paper bags. In a small open square, cosmetics are sold in their natural form, mascara in black chunks, as well as irregular pieces of incense and tiny vials of perfume.

All is motion, buying, selling and, above all, working. At the tannery, vats filled with dye contain hides being cured and colored. Men work them soft and then load them in layers on small black burros. Tourists peer from stairways and roofs, holding mint leaves, provided by the guides, to their noses to counteract the smell of bird droppings used in the tanning process.

Carpenters, tinsmiths, weavers, tailors, potters toil with ancient implements in nooks and crannies. Behind a latticework screen, children's voices can be heard chanting verses from the Koran while a white-robed man walks back and forth holding a switch.

The whirl is different in Marrakesh, with its Djemaa El Fna Square, known for its fabulous performers. In the morning it is primarily a market, though one or two circles of spectators can be seen forming around gesticulating storytellers and a troupe of snake charmers setting up shop: A writhing clump of snakes including a black cobra is dumped on a rug. A man plays a flute, two others beat tambourines, another pulls a snake across his face, and another pokes at the cobra.

I approach and lift my camera and instantly hands are all over me. The tambourines, inverted, are shoved forward while demands are made for money. Before I have time to think, several coins are no longer in my possession and I wander off in a daze.

In the medina every step is dogged by importunate salesmen, haggling, hassling, hanging on. Then a ragged man on crutches, dirty, desperately poor, attaches himself to us and acts as an impromptu guide. After several minutes we offer him two dirhams, about 20 cents, but he refuses until he has seen us to our bus. Only then, after being helpful in many ways, will he accept payment. The countryside

As expected, there are great stretches of near-desert where houses seem to be cut from the earth, but there are also mountain villages, ski resorts, cedar forests, cascading waterfalls, lush and fertile plains.

In the mountains are hill towns reminiscent of Italy and Greece, while the low, flat compounds of the plains could belong to New Mexico. All this diversity can be seen within hours, as geography changes rapidly and colors go from green to brown to deep rust-red. It is a landscape of constant surprise.

For a country that has retained so many of its ancient ways, what is most memorable in Morocco is what is youngest. Children are everywhere. The sheer number is amazing. They play in country fields while groups of mothers sit in multicolored clusters on the ground. Infants are carried on their mothers' backs, tiny faces peering wide-eyed at the world or sleeping peacefully while the women go about their business.

A solitary child attends sheep in a desolate landscape, smiling and waving as we drive by. Gangs of kids, large and small, around every corner in the slums of Casablanca play soccer with whatever's available -- plastic bottles, balls of yarn -- pausing to stare at the stranger with his camera and then return to their games.

There is the noise of children, yelling and laughing, and the sudden realization that almost never heard are the sounds of crying and fighting. Robert Ragaini is a freelance writer living in New York City. If you go

Getting there: Royal Air Maroc, (800) 344-6726 or (212) 750-5115 in New York, has several weekly non-stop flights from New York to Casablanca. KLM, (800) 777-5553, flies to Casablanca via Amsterdam from New York.

Once there: Most first-time travelers to Morocco see the country with an organized tour. Two that offer bus tours of the major cities are Maupintour, (800) 255-6162, and Le Soleil Tours, (212) 869-1040. Forum Travel International, (510) 671-2900 and Turtle Tours, (602) 224-5804, run trekking and other "soft adventure" tours.

For do-it-yourselfers, major American car-rental companies have offices in the international airports. Drivers should be aware that in the countryside, gas stations are few and far between.

Eating there: Moroccan food is among the world's most delicious. Favorite dishes include couscous (steamed semolina with vegetables and meat or chicken), tajines (rich stews cooked with prunes), lemon chicken, mechoui (roasted lamb,) and bstila, a sweet pigeon pie.

More information: Contact the Moroccan National Tourist Office, 20 E 46th St., Suite 1201, New York, NY 10017; (212) 557-2520.

Originally published April 20, 1997



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