When my daughter left home to study in America, I found myself submerging into a variety of melancholy so profound I sought help. I saw someone for five weeks to no avail, or so it seemed to me. The therapist was skilful, both forthright and realistic, but an expectation to be promptly cured of sadness, was overly ambitious. I decided I was not depressed and refused the pills purported to alter my brain chemistry. Just the name of the things, Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors, was enough to make me run. And so I did.
I made arrangements to travel to Spain much to the bewilderment of my husband Ted, who after hearing of the plan, stared at me in disbelief.
‘I am fifty two and I have not yet been anywhere overseas. Well—except for Singapore, which is just barely a country. You clearly have no taste for travel, so I am going alone.’
‘What! What on earth are you talking about Emma?’
‘I want you to fund it,’ I continued. After this there was an over-long pause. ‘You won’t come Ted…you know you wouldn’t like it. The time we went to Singapore—you hated it.
‘I was uncomfortable; it was hot, quite unpleasant. I had—’
‘You will hate Spain as well. I will want to look at churches…and art.’ There was another long pause. He was trying to assimilate it, to somehow make it his.
‘Christ! Well—if you must,’ he said, and retired to his study. He had this way of showing defeat in an angry, accusatory way and I fed it with an unwarranted and complicated sympathy for him. Neither of us really liked what the other had become and I felt it would be unfair of me not to take my portion of the blame. It also made me feel somewhat stupid—another reason to escape.
The small group tour consisted of single men and women of a certain age. It was elaborately entitled ‘The Imperial Cities Tour’. It occurred to me it could be re-titled Middle-life Divorcees Pick-up Package, as it wasn’t long before one of the superannuated gallants was trying it on with me. I made it clear a quickie with connecting rooms in a Barcelona walk-up was not my style, no matter how exciting a proposition it seemed to him. With little regret the gentlemen moved onto more pliant turf in the form of a rather extroverted lady with a fondness for flowing caftans and roman sandals.
The only couple were a source of wonder to us all, holding hands wherever they went. If an occasion to separate temporarily presented itself, they immediately locked hands on their return. They were easily affectionate with each other, though congenial with their travelling companions, entirely self-sufficient. They fascinated me, taking every opportunity to watch them, as if I might bask in the secret nature of their affection. The caftan lady, a person of seemingly endless presumption, once remarked on it in their presence. The man was shy but answered anyway.
‘We are hopeless I’m afraid, we fell in love in our twenties and have been unable to be apart for any length of time since,’ the man said, looking to his wife for approval.
Spain offered up its glorious history to me. However, by day twenty I was exhausted by the opulence of long dead Emperors and ferocious queens. I was left longing for something less rigorous and instructive. Queen Isabella, who ruled the country for an inordinately long time, struck me as preposterous. In 1492 she received Columbus to simultaneously fund the discovery of the New World while in the process of conquering Southern Spain. She made the necessary arrangements for Columbus’ trip, while politely waiting in a tent outside the gates of Granada for the surrender of a Moorish Sultan. It seemed to me a feat more appropriate for an airport novel.
This was before the GFC, so the Spaniards were quite satisfied with themselves and I supposed they had every reason to be so. The exquisite, overbearing palaces and gilded tombs made me feel I had seen rather more than I needed. The wondrous moated city of Toledo with its layered history dating back to the ancient Celts and Alhambra, the winding stroll down into the old city of Granada were, for me, the best of my travels in Spain. It appears the Moors had the taste to build their citadels with a gloomy dark stone, so as not to offend God and their subjects with showy opulence.
I had opted for an additional few days in Morocco, including my own guide, at a good price. I separated from the tour without remorse although another sole traveller, a nice woman of sixty-three, who sometimes sat next to me on the coach, shed a tear as we shared contact information. I lost the scrap with the lady’s details immediately.
My guide met me at the airport. Aziz was dressed in a black turban and a white dishdasha, falling to his ankles. A handsome face, straight, slender nose and sensual full lips sat above a slight but wiry build. He immediately provided me with a small bottle of antiseptic gel, telling me to rub it into my hands after handling the extremely dirty local currency, which carries germs unfamiliar to foreigners. In Fes, his home city, he negotiated affably the purchase of trinkets and lotions from the street sellers. I didn’t want to see the famous dye vats as I heard they stank to high heaven—pretty, but smelly. I hoped he would not be offended. He agreed though, saying the locals thought it amusing that tourists wanted to go there. I bought a postcard instead.
We spent a morning wandering in the Medina and I grew to like Aziz’s easy manner and generous smile. I invited him to lunch at my hotel. He arrived at the restaurant, to my surprise, dressed in a fine silk suit and Italian loafers, his luxurious hair falling loose to his shoulders. I had guessed his age at around forty, perhaps a little older. He spoke English with elegant mastery; formal but still indicating an ear for the subtleties of the language.
‘I apologise for my lack of Arabic, Aziz,’ I said.
‘It is no matter, a hard language and besides I wish to take every opportunity to practice my English.’
‘Oh Aziz, your command of English is better than most of my countrymen.’ This exchange felt very relaxed to me, as though I was somebody else entirely. It seemed a sort of revelation to me at the time, that I could feel so easy with a person I barely knew, but be as reserved as I was back home.
‘You are kind.’ He paused while the entrées were placed in front of us. ‘Did you know all guides are required to have university degrees? Some less reputable types take bribes.’ This seemed to make him withdraw a little, looking pained as though this statement described a wound.
After we had eaten he spread a map out on the table to show me his intended route. ‘Tomorrow morning, we will drive from Fes south-west towards Marrakesh and stay overnight before heading to the province of Guelmim. From there, we will head back to the north.’
He traced his finger on the map, through the coastal towns of Agadir, Safi, El Jadida to the city of Casablanca.
‘We continue following the coast to the capitol Rabat, where you could visit the ancient ruins of Chellah and then we will continue on to Tangier. If we have time, we will venture inland to visit the old city of Meknes’
The police stopped drivers carrying foreigners, officially in an effort to halt drug traffickers and other reprobates, though in reality, to procure discreetly wrapped wads of cash for their trouble.
‘I am lamenting the corruption polluting this country,’ Aziz said, as we pulled away from a checkpoint. He kept envelopes in the glove-box, which I regularly filled with cash. It was clearly an embarrassment to him, and I looked away when the negotiations began. The cash did not amount to much, often no more than five Euro’s which in Moroccan Dirhams required substantial quantities of notes. A couple of hour’s north-west of Marrakech, we stopped for lunch. He started to tell me of his sense of dishonour at the shortcomings of his country. When our food arrived at our table he failed to continue and, although curious, I didn’t insist on further explanation.
Later in the car I found a way to restart the conversation. ‘I have heard the King is a good ruler—does he have the people behind him?’ I said.
‘The young King, he has done his best but is not fully controlling the irregularities of his kingdom,’ he said. ‘He has come as close to a democracy as he dare, there are still many from the old guard to answer to. I fear he is overly polite to them, but then I have poor knowledge of government. I think it is difficult task—running a country such as this.’
Aziz’s manners were impeccable. He listened while I spoke of home and children, though I would not be drawn to any great detail, about my husband. Nevertheless, I was flattered by his attention. I inquired as to his own circumstances and he told me about his family, who were originally from Palestine. His mood darkened noticeably.
‘The Israeli’s expelled us from our ancestral homelands. This period for us, it is called Nakba. It was as if we were vermin; a culture of many thousands of years eradicated, virtually overnight,’ he said.
‘It is shameful Aziz, probably not possible without the British intervention,’ I said.
‘Yes. I was two years old when my family left for Fes. I do not remember this, of course, but my father has taught me much about our history. For him I experience a great deal of respect and love.’
‘I wish I was able to say the same,’ I said.
‘He is relatively well-known as an academic in Arab culture and studied at Cambridge. By Moroccan standards, our family are quite well off. One day I very much hope we can return to our homeland and reclaim our stolen lands,’ he paused and sipped his coffee, ‘perhaps this is a dream for one’s pipe,’ he said. I must have smiled a little too quizzically and he acknowledged his error of syntax. It made us both laugh when he introduced such dislocated idioms and we turned into an amusing game during our journey where he would exaggerate his mistakes to my feigned outrage. Once we were discussing religion. Neither of us was particularly interested in the subject and the conversation was grinding to a halt when he made me laugh to the point of tears.
‘Emma, I do believe hell is over-freezing in impatience regarding the second coming.’
From Marrakech we travelled south to the Guelmim-Es Semara region, on the edge of the Western Sahara. I tried to take in the country-side and the villages as we passed them by. The land, brown and burnt by the fierce sun, had been at the mercy of a long drought and the townspeople were clearly impoverished by the depleted fields. I saw evidence of culverts and diversion drains but these seemed often to be abandoned, as if orders had gone out for the commencement of these infrastructure developments but were stopped as soon as the government engineers had turned their thoughts to other matters.
Children lagged listlessly behind a woman pulling a donkey burdened with what looked like bundles of grass and twigs. In the dusty town squares where Aziz said there was nothing of interest, men sat at outdoor café tables drinking their strong coffees in tiny glasses, resentfully narrowing their eyes at the traffic passing through.
I drank an illicit glass of beer on the roof of our adobe hotel, stunned by the view as the sun set over the dunes of the vast desert. On Aziz’s enthusiastic recommendation, I read Paul Bowles’ story of damaged love in the desert world of ‘The Sheltering Sky’.
One morning we drove to the beach. It was wonderful, the beautiful ultramarine colour of the sea contrasted with dark monolithic rocks rising up out of the shallows of the Atlantic. The beach was completely deserted. There was a small village over the dune but it couldn’t be seen. We removed our sandals and walked along the beach for a kilometre and sat down on the sand, I could feel the sun penetrating my skin and a slaty brine settled on me, reminding me of the beach back home.
‘Are you happy, Emma. Sometimes I think you are taking around with you—you carry something difficult.’
I thought of the woman and the donkey laden with twigs, her straggling, listless children, her husband sipping coffee at the café and puffing on the communal hookah.
‘Oh Aziz, I don’t know, I’m quite ordinary…I have concerns…it’s not more than others have.’
‘We must all find our way, Emma, don’t you think. You are hardly ordinary—I don’t think you are. It is important to learn how to live—like riding a bicycle, you fall off but you remount until you know how to do it.’ He gave me one of his delightful, playful smiles.
‘I have to confess, I’ve never learnt to ride a bicycle, Aziz.’
On our way to Tangier, Aziz made a detour inland to the ancient city of Meknes. He took me to a small palace off the tourist trail. It was now a museum dedicated to a princess dating back to an ancient dynasty. For far too many dirhams, the old attendant opened the steel gate and ushered us through a dim hall connecting to a palisade and an atrium, entirely decorated with mosaic tiles. What appeared to be an impossibly ornate wooden dome provided the roof. It was penetrated by a series of glazed apertures, allowing prisms of sunlight to fill the space.
I was startled by the effect of the spectral light. After the heat and noise of the Medina outside, this cool oasis made me shiver with awe as much as the change in temperature. I felt Aziz watching me; I knew if I turned to him he would look back with the wry smile, now so familiar to me. Instead I stood under the sunlit dome and closing my eyes, waited in silence.
‘It is cool, no?’ he whispered, ‘the walls are a metre thick in some places.’
‘It’s lovely. I feel as if I am inside a dream.’
The attendant had vanished and I remained still until I felt his hand enfold mine, holding it like one might an uncertain child.
‘Come, this is not why I brought you here.’ He led me into another dimly lit hall. I brushed my other hand along the tiled wall, barely breathing, as if breath itself would dissipate the intensity of my feelings. I began to tremble and felt his hand tighten on mine. We had taken off our shoes at the entrance and the only sound was the soft slap of our feet on the tiled floor. We emerged once again into sunlight, momentarily dazzling me.
Once my eyes had adjusted, I saw a heavily laden orange tree in the centre of another atrium, but this one was circular and again, a dome reached above us, with a hole at its peak. The light of the midday sun settled on the tree and illuminated the oranges like lanterns. As before, following the interior shape of the dome, were panels framed by the most intricately carved woodwork I had seen so far. They were composed of Arabic cuneiform.
At ground level, the circular wall was populated with gardens of an endless variety of roses. Some were in bloom, some beginning to bud and others still rich with green wood. The orange tree grew from what seemed like a well, but on closer inspection I saw it was a planter, clad with tiles as all the other visible surfaces below the dome. Every tile was painted with the cuneiform text. Around the base of the orange tree, a shallow channel ran along the floor in which a trickle of water flowed silently from west to east. On the south side of the room a seat curved up from the stone and tile floor, as if it had grown there.
The fragrance of the roses was overpowering and I swayed a little. Aziz led me to the seat and we rested, absorbing the strange melancholy of the place. He removed his hand from mine, and I felt the loss of his touch like a disconnection from an electric charge. I turned to see tears slip down his cheeks and looked away quickly, so as not to embarrass him. Later, he explained.
Before this palace was built, a princess had fallen in love with one of the Sultans guards. They had been successful in concealing the affair until the princess made an error of judgement. One night she ordered a pavilion to be erected beside the nearby river, Bou Fekrane. You recall, we passed it on our way here. The lovers met at the pavilion and they supped on oranges that had been cooled in the river shallows. The petals of many roses had been strewn around the pavilion, the heady scent of which, served to encourage their night of love.
The Sultan was informed of the affair, and in his fury he removed the poor guards head for having had the impertinence to fall in love with a royal princess. The princess was so deeply affected by her loss she ordered the building of the palace and lived there for the rest of her days. She never spoke another word to her father. This atrium was hidden—her gardener and servants were sworn to secrecy—until her father’s death and she herself was, still unmarried, in her middle age. She had the rose garden and the orange tree cultivated in memory of her lover.
The orange tree survived for 135 years, outliving her and everyone she knew. She left instructions a new tree was to be planted, upon the demise of the first. The current docent planted this tree twenty years ago, and tends to it and the rose vines, thought to be an astonishing four hundred years old. The gold tinted text, were poems burned into the dark wood of the panels above, by a master scribe. They spoke of the princess’s eternal love and the bitter injustice of tyrants.
I wrote a fragment of one poem down, as translated by Aziz.
You departed from my sight, and entered my thoughts, travelling through my eyes to my heart.
I spent the night at a small hotel in the middle of Tangier’s Medina. When Aziz left me at my hotel I wondered, not for the first time, where he would spend the night. I never did ask him. It was late afternoon the next day when I waved to him as he walked across the hotel lobby, once again immaculately attired in his silk suit.
We waited together at the ferry platform, staring out to the ominous presence of Gibraltar, a black sentinel in the approaching twilight. We could just glimpse the southern headland of Tarifa and the Costa del Sol, once the playground of cashed up British expats and now tainted by the riches of the Russian mafia. Aziz discretely pointed to a customs officer, whose job it was to watch the screen of the x-ray machine as bags flowed through, destined for Europe. The man was lolling in his chair, fast asleep.
Aziz started chatting to a fellow guide who had delivered a young couple for the ferry. Their eyes were bright with quick, secret stares. The young man put his arm around the woman who laid her head on his shoulder and they both wearily cast their eyes, like me, into the murky straights and the lights beginning to illuminate the southern Iberian coast. The shadow of the moon began to materialise in the northern sky.
I thought about what awaited me on the other side of the world—my grim and moody husband. He, doubtless, would have prepared the plainest of meals for himself every night of my absence, probably enough for two or three nights. It had now been over a month since my departure, the vacant space I left there, serving as an accusation, an unassailable void awaiting my indefinite form. Even now I felt the lymphatic malaise regain its shape, merely asking of our mutual unhappiness, the necessary flesh to continue.
I thought that I might in some way have the means of repair or even to leave, but I was no closer to a solution for my moribund marriage than having been miraculously granted the ability to grow wings and fly to the moon. What makes people become so dependent that their individual loneliness forms the bond, as though it took two broken people to make a single whole one? I was certain of only one small thing—I would keep the story of the grief-stricken princess and her lover; beautiful, peaceful Morocco and Aziz, as talisman to ease my own silent regret. I knew that Ted had no such comfort.
We walked down a long narrow ramp to the waiting ferry. It seemed so strange that in the space of thirty short minutes I would be conveyed from Africa to Europe. Cars snaked along the wharf to be swallowed by the ferry below deck. We stood dwarfed by the enormous boat towering above us.
Like an elegant gentleman from a Henry James novel, Aziz bowed elaborately and, playing along, I placed my hand in his and he kissed it as we parted company. His gentle smile warmed me on the deck of the ferry, as it passed through the choppy narrow Straits. It occurred to me he was the most replete human I had ever encountered, and I felt cut adrift.