The reasons why you decide to go someplace are rarely logical. I suppose it could be because you saw it in a movie, read about it in a book, or stumbled upon it in a travel magazine. As a result, you’re overcome by an urge to be there. But why? What exactly is it that we hope to find while traveling through other people’s countries?
One could say the allure of Morocco is that it’s a cultural kaleidoscope. For three thousand years it has been shaped by ethnic groups, like the Bedouin and the Berbers, whose history can be traced back to 8,000 B.C. And then there are the Phoenicians and the Romans and the Arabs and the Spanish and the French. Not to mention the influence of the rich, the famous, and the modern. Every time you twist the kaleidoscope, you can see the country in a new and fascinating way.
But at the moment, with a uniformed bully barking at our guide in Arabic, the view didn’t much resemble anything I’d seen in Condé Nast Traveler or Afar. Sitting here on the side of a desolate desert road, getting the stink eye from a guy with a gun, I was thinking about the opening chapter of Tahir Shah’s In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams, where Shah describes how he and his film crew were imprisoned and tortured by the Pakistani government for sixteen days.
But we weren’t in Pakistan. We were in Morocco, where Madonna comes to do yoga on a rooftop in the High Atlas Mountains.
As Boujeema got out of our vehicle to follow the police officer to his, Chris and I looked at each other with wide eyes, afraid to say anything out loud. In my mind I could see a CNN newscaster with blonde hair extensions and blue eyeliner broadcasting our predicament to pubs and gyms around the world: “The U.S. Embassy in Rabat, Morocco, has reported that two Americans have been held captive for thirty-two days in what started out as a routine traffic stop. Sources say the female is desperate for a toothbrush, while the male is said to be anguished over the thought of not taking his beheading like a man.”
The slam of the driver’s-side door snapped me back to the present before I could imagine what the usual CNN experts-for-hire would say about our situation. Boujeema plopped into the driver’s seat with a sigh. “I apologize for that inconvenience,” he said as he returned a sheaf of documents to the glove compartment. Chris and I watched in silence as he fastened his seatbelt and carefully pulled back onto the road. Apparently, there would be no beheading, and our mini Marrakech Express was on its way once again.
“What happened?” I asked.
Boujeema shook his head in disgust. “They said I was going ninety kilometers in a sixty. They tried to write me a ticket for seven hundred dirhams [almost two hundred U.S. dollars], but I said no. I cannot afford to pay that much.”
“You can say no to the police?” I asked.
“Well, not exactly. It is a negotiation. I explained that I am a professional driver and that the vehicle is not mine. I offered one hundred dirhams and they took it.”
“Does that money go into their own pockets?” Chris asked.
“Of course,” said Boujeema. “They will all share it.” Boujeema shook his head again. “I do not care about the government, you know, because they do not care about me.”
Our speed-trap adventure didn’t feel quite so dangerous and exotic anymore. Instead, it felt all too familiar. And it struck me that one of the reasons I like to travel is to discover just these kinds of similarities. I’ve often felt the same way Boujeema does about my own government. But I’m embarrassed to admit it never occurred to me I might feel the same way as a Muslim about anything. Until this trip, all I’d known about Muslims came mostly from news headlines that featured the words terrorist, immigrant, and ban.
“So, you were going to tell us about what happened to you in the Sahara,” I said.
“Oh, yes, I forgot,” Boujeema said into the rearview mirror. “I was in a car like this one and it became stuck in the sand. I could not move it, so I had to walk for help.”
“Were you alone?” I asked.
“No, I was giving a tour to clients. But they did not want to go outside of the car. They did not want to leave the air-conditioning, so I had to find help.”
As we quickly came upon an RV from Italy, Boujeema signaled then passed it. I craned my neck to see what Italian campers look like, which I saw was just like American campers, but better dressed and thinner.
“So what happened next?” I asked.
“I started walking and very soon my feet got stuck in the sand and I lost my shoes.”
“Your shoes? What did you do?”
“I had no options. I had to keep walking, because it was so hot. And the car, it might overheat, sitting like that with the air-conditioning turned on.”
“What about your feet?”
Boujeema laughed. “Ah! My soles, they were sore for three days!”
I felt nervous asking where these clients were from. When Boujeema said they were Westerners, but not from the United States, I let out a secret sigh of relief. As we rolled to a stop in front of Jemaa el-Fnaa, I took a deep breath. Outside the window a chaotic and mesmerizing world full of snake charmers, water sellers, and fresh-squeezed oranges awaited. The Marrakech Express had arrived.