:: Article

Lost in Morocco

By Sophie Parkin.

‘There’ll never find her, not if she’s in Morocco,’ I said to my daughter this morning. Sadly I was talking about Madeline McCann. Morocco is a place I know well. It has hidden caverns, numerous languages from desert dialects and mountainous ranges. In the souks and bazaars you can get lost in the blink of an eye, shrouded in crowds where hoods conceal heads and veils faces, all the kaftans and jellabas are white, brown or black. It is not a place you want to get lost in, not as a child.

I was used to foreign places, food and people. I’d been travelling since I was a baby, not dippy hippies but adventurous spirits led by artistic parents on pilgrimages. So France, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, America, Ibiza, Malta and Tunisia before the age of 7. At eight, my father took us to somewhere far more exciting and foreign, in the true sense of the word: Morocco. That first time of many, it was to Marrakech to stay in a hotel beloved by Churchill — they said he spent more of the war in La Mamounia than he did at No 10. If it’s true I can understand why, for reasons alone of pure pampering. White-coated and brass-buttoned waiters everywhere, squeeze fresh fruit (unheard of in 60’s England), bake French bread, serve huge tagines and sweet pigeon pie. The English kept garden around a Hollywood style pool in the Moroccan heat, complemented by a perfect Tom Collins.

There are a lot of expats in Morocco, but few that mix to the degree that Paul Bowles did. There is a fundamental lack of understanding between people from the West and Moroccans, and it’s not just the religion or the language, for you can speak French and Spanish and be quite understood, even English. We have different sensibilities, customs, humour and understanding of politeness/rudeness, friendship, behaviour. You can read about the pride that a man has in his city, how he sees himself as an ambassador, but when he comes and starts to ‘hassle’ you to be your guide, when you don’t wish for one, you’re rejecting his friendship. You’re making an enemy when you choose to ignore him, or won’t take the time to say, ‘thank-you but no thank-you.’ When Moroccans invite you into their homes to eat, for mint tea, to meet their family, it’s a huge honour, but one they give lightly to foreigners, to refuse is to snub them completely.

We’d driven into the desert, into the middle of nowhere. The heat was intense and I was just wishing I was back in the hotel pool lying on my back drifting beneath flower-filled trees, when gradually what seemed like a mirage appeared. From nowhere, around a corner over a hill, had sprung a magnificent gathering of camels and goats, a market of food and spices and hundreds of people milling around in their large straw sunshade hats, threaded with colour wools, striped woven blankets worn like skirts, jellabas (hooded dressinggowns to us) covering heads to slippered feet. People bumped and pushed, shouted and reached out, yet in that huge desert arena there was no personal space, everyone seemed intent upon squeezing through each other.

At some point I looked too long at the spices, the henna-tattooed faces of the sellers, the exotic, I took my eye off my elder sister Sarah, father and within moments they were swallowed up amongst the crowds and I tried to stand still up on my toes to see them, but they were gone. I looked and I looked and I was lost. I thought to go and stand where there were less people, amongst the camels, so I could be seen in all my blonde haired, green eyed whiteness. It was then that an old man grabbed me by the wrist and started talking at me. My face must have shown my alarm and confusion, he forced my hand onto the fur of the camel and I shrieked at its roughness, and as its spittle dropped out of its yellow toothed mouth, onto my head. I screeched and tried to jump back and then my father was there laughing, speaking to the camel trader.
‘He says he’ll give me 50 camels in exchange for you, quite a good price huh?’
‘I’m not going with him you can’t sell me, I’m your daughter.’ I said to remind him of fatherly responsibilities because I was truly afraid that he’d forgotten. My parents were divorced and my relationship with my father was more distant than with my mother.
‘I don’t know, if he wants to buy you, it’s a good price 50 camels is a lot.’
‘Daddy you can’t.’ I cried and he burst out laughing at my distress, of teasing me.
Now I don’t think he even realised I’d been lost, that I saw the whole of my past short life evaporating into a Turkish Delight commercial, out in the desert, without the delight. I was frightened, really frightened. The story of me being sold to the camel seller went on for years became a family joke.

Years later I was in Tangier walking down into the medina from our hotel with my son, who then was a two almost three year old white blonde, blue eyed poppet, with more than a passing resemblance to the American cartoon character of Denis the Menace. We were with his father, and two close friends venturing into the daytime bazaar of shops and market stalls. A Tangerine (for that is what a native of Tangier is called) had started to ask us if he could guide us through Tangier. ‘No thank you, I know Tangier, I am guiding my friends around.’ I replied and smiled politely.
‘But I will show you places you don’t know.’
‘Thank you but no, we don’t have long.’ When he kept persisting, because some people cannot take a no, someone said can you please just go away, we don’t want you to guide us anywhere, thank you, he retorted, you give me money? No.
Maybe five minutes had elapsed as we walked further down the polished stone steps. My son ever independent said he didn’t want to hold my hand, he wasn’t a baby, ‘I’m a big boy’. So he walked by my side and we chatted in a beautiful blue skied day, of sunshine and palm trees, and then he was gone.

Someone had run up behind us and swept him away as fast as a tidal wave. I screamed quickly and loudly but already everything went into a slow, soft focused motion. ‘Someone’s stolen my child, chase him,’ I hollered. My friend dropped everything and sprinted Olympically after the figure, winding down into the covered souk, threading up and through walkways and whitewashed tunnels. We lost sight of them all. I ran towards my baby’s cries and I screamed and people stared as if I was mad, and in that moment I was mad, grief-stricken even though the loss was too great to contemplate. I didn’t know what I was doing I couldn’t be held responsible for my actions.

When Fred’s shout went up: ‘I’ve got him Sophie’. Within seconds I was there and the man who had taken him, the man who wanted to be our guide, stood, grasped by Fred laughing. ‘It was a joke you know? Ha ha ha Funny joke. I not take your child. You crazy, you imagine, you loco.’

I couldn’t look at him, I was so filled with disgust I wanted to vomit. I covered my face with my son’s body and clung onto him with all my life as his small figure shook against mine and his tears soaked my hair, and the air was filled with the cries of his fear. I don’t even remember what the men said to him before we scrambled away.

If this little ‘set to’ had occurred in any other country I would have gone straight to the police, but I knew Morocco. It only took for this man to have a brother who was a policeman to find ourselves trumped up on a charge and thrown into prison. Then in the late 80’s, policemen weren’t well paid and they would stop your car and confiscate your passport on a made up road block between Tangier and Tétouan — the skill was knowing how much was needed to release it without insulting them with either too much or too little. I’m sure it’s all different now, but the next day we were travelling out of Tangier and I was glad to leave the city for the mountains. I never went back, to the mountains or the cities, I didn’t need to lose anything else.


Sophie Parkin has written seven published books. Three grown-up novels (you can’t say adult otherwise people think they might be pornography): All Grown Up, Take Me Home and Dear Goddess. For teenagers there is French for Kissing, Best of Friends, and Mad, Rich and Famous. She has also contributed to four other books, from short stories, true stories, long stories, to poetry. Mothers by Daughters, Sons and Mothers both published by Virago, Girls Just Want To Have Fun: the Cosmopolitan book of short stories, and POT 05 – Anthology of Poetry ed. Michael Horovitz. Her new book, Bazaar Nights and Camel Bites (Piccadilly Press), a teenage novel set in Tangiers and London, is out this week.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, September 27th, 2007.