The author in the Sahara desert near Tinfou, Morocco, 1993
What Drew Me to Morocco, Land of Dreams
Article and photos by GREG BEAUBIEN Nov. 17, 2018
MY FASCINATION WITH MOROCCO began when I was about nine years old. On summer afternoons a movie theater near our house in the Chicago suburb of Mt. Prospect would sometimes let kids see a matinee for the price of a few RC Cola bottle caps. The movies were terrible, low-budget fare you’d never find anywhere else, usually some variation on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves set in an exotic North African or Middle Eastern country. Parents dropped off their children and the theater would be packed with kids going wild. Popcorn and flattened popcorn boxes flew through the air the entire time and you could hardly hear the movie for the kids screaming. The boys went crazy when a sexy woman in a purple harem dress performed a belly dance onscreen.
Movies have always portrayed Morocco as a romantic, mysterious place. In Morocco, a film swept with sensual shadows, Marlene Dietrich finds sexual freedom and leaves the Casbah walls to venture into the Sahara, passing through a bulbous Moorish gateway that is at once phallic and vaginal. Audiences fell for the louche elegance of Rick’s Café in Casablanca and were seduced by the desert’s majestic emptiness in Lawrence of Arabia (a movie set in what is now the United Arab Emirates, but for which some scenes were filmed in the Moroccan Sahara).
During college I started reading William S. Burroughs and Paul Bowles, American expatriate authors who had lived in Tangier, Morocco (Bowles still did) and written novels and stories about the country. “I relish the idea that in the night, all around me in my sleep, sorcery is burrowing its invisible tunnels in every direction, from thousands of senders to thousands of innocent recipients,” Bowles wrote of living in Tangier. “There is drumming out there most nights. It never awakens me; I hear the drums and incorporate them into my dreams.”
I traveled to Morocco for the first time in 1993, when I was 29 years old. From the Spanish port of Algeciras my companions and I crossed the Strait of Gibraltar on a ferry. The water and sky were the deepest blue I’d ever seen. Through the mist over the sea Tangier appeared as a jumble of white cubes atop a cliff. After arriving and fending off the city’s street hustlers we spent the next three weeks backpacking by train down the Atlantic coast to Asilah, Rabat and Marrakesh, and then by taxi over the Atlas Mountains and into the Sahara. Another car took us to where the road ended in the village of M’Hamid, near the Algerian border. I wrote an article about traveling in Morocco for the Chicago Sun-Times. In 1997, I returned to Tangier and interviewed Bowles in his apartment for the Chicago Reader newspaper.
A cafe on the djemma el fna square in Marrakesh, Morocco
In 2004 I started writing my thriller novel Shadows the Sizes of Cities, much of which takes place in Morocco. It was published ten years later, in 2014. My publisher’s name, Moresby Press, is an allusion to the character of Port Moresby in Bowles’s novel The Sheltering Sky, whom he named after the city of Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. For some people, the settings in my novel—Spain and Morocco, with flashbacks to Amsterdam and Chicago—might seem too foreign. But a large part of the book’s audience has been readers who’ve been to Morocco themselves, or have dreamt of going there. Indeed, visiting Morocco is like slipping into a dream.
Sense of mystery
People often think of Arab cultures as being Middle Eastern, and many of them are. But Morocco, located in the northwest corner of Africa, is geographically farther west than Paris or London. What makes Morocco so exotic and alluring? Intrinsically, it’s a sensuous country. In its architecture, design, music, food and clothing, with its warm sun, coastlines, mountains and deserts, Morocco bombards the senses with pleasing sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures. They all come together in the tunnels of the market souks, where goods from spices to rugs are sold and sunlight breaks in shifting beams through the thatch ceilings—or in the outdoor djemma el fna square in Marrakesh, where vendors, acrobats and snake charmers entice visitors and stir imaginations. At night, the aroma of burning hashish wafts from lantern-lit cafes.
Part of Morocco’s appeal is the mystery it holds. Its language is unfamiliar, its homes hidden behind walls, women obscured under veils, men’s faces lost in shadow under hooded robes. Over it all, the call to prayer rises, notes sustaining before descending like steps down a spiral staircase.
A camel stands near a well in the Sahara desert, Tinfou, Morocco.
When I traveled through Morocco in the 1990s, I assumed that I had missed the most interesting time to visit the country—the post-World War II era when Tangier was a lawless “International Zone” loosely governed by a half-dozen foreign powers. Back then, the city’s expats lived cheaply and could indulge their favorite vices with impunity. But as it would turn out, the ’90s were the end of an era, too—the last time that we could lose ourselves in the wonders of travel without always being connected to home, friends and work through cellphones, social media and the internet.
I don’t know how I would feel if I were to go back there today and see the changes that technology has wrought. But one thing is certain: I will always return to Morocco in my dreams.
A writer, editor and author, Greg Beaubien lives in Chicago.