Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Meknes, ya Meknes

As I get ready for work, I finger a row of books on the shelf, tickling the spines of favorite titles like John Updike’s Brazil and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita until I reach a tiny volume. My fingers rest upon the broken and bent spine of Allan Hibbard’s Paul Bowles, Magic, and Morocco, and I’m transported first to the day when I stumbled upon it in a bookstore, lead to it by kismet, in search of some biography, some non-fiction work I never found, then to the days I spent reading it, shaded by an orange tree in the hot Meknassi sun four Augusts ago. I remember those first days more clearly than any that succeeded them: sitting coyly at one of the two outdoor tables at Coin de Feu, watching Japanese tourists – who always seemed to find this tucked-away treasure of a café – from behind my sunglasses, sipping on mint teas and cappuccinos, and flirting with the waiter, whose name I remember but whose face has long disappeared from memory.

Though it wasn’t my first time in Morocco, it was my first time there alone, having just moved my life across the ocean with one giant suitcase and a hiking pack. On my first day, I bought some potatoes, some fruit, two Casablanca beers, milk, butter, cereal, and a pack of Marlboro Lights. I attempted to make mashed potatoes for dinner, failed miserably, and cried a little while I smoked a cigarette in my kitchen. Then, realizing the sheer madness of crying over potatoes, I hoisted myself up onto the kitchen counter, looked out the window toward the sky and all of a sudden it hit me – where I was, what I was doing, and the fact that I’d be doing it for at least another year, and I smiled, suddenly feeling freer than I ever had before. I took photos that first night, of the sunset and of myself sitting on the floor against my bed/couch, walls bare, suitcase as-yet-unpacked (as I had nowhere to put anything).

I remember so clearly the smells of that first summer and fall; my solo trip to Chefchaouen wherein I got harassed – not for my gender but in the hopes I might buy some hash – and got food poisoning on the night before Ramadan began. I remember the scent of the crisp air and how I didn’t want to leave. I remember shopping for a night table on a very hot October afternoon, the smell of Atlas cedar wafting through the air, mixing with diesel and sewage as we rode the truck back to my apartment with my new purchase. How proud I was to have navigated the furniture souk by myself and bargained a table down to 250 dirhams (which, when you think about it, is incredible for a handcrafted piece of cedar furniture – take that, Ikea).

No memories of my two years in Meknes come back as clearly as that first August four years ago. I was barely twenty-three, and still amazed by everything around me. I hadn’t yet experienced the frustration of Morocco; I hadn’t yet been pinned up against a truck on my way home from work at night, saved only by my trusty neighborhood car guardian, the eyes and ears of my block. I hadn’t yet had gut-wrenching food poisoning, or the giardia that hit two months later, wrecking my insides and knocking 30 pounds off my already lithe frame. I hadn’t begun to feel cheated or ripped off for my foreignness, despite my salary being in local currency. I didn’t, at that point, feel the pain of leaving things behind.

I remember the week before I left; everything happened so quickly and I was so ready to just get the hell out of there that I don’t think I took the time to savor everything I loved. I was tied down by obligatory goodbye lunches and teas for those last few days and I didn’t have time to walk the 1,000 or so paces down my favorite street and back. I didn’t get to walk up Rue des FAR, down Ave. Mohammed VI, past the conservatory, where I’d strain my ears for sounds of the violin, then up Rue de Paris, where I’d buy a marrakshia and an espresso and sit amongst lecherous men watching football, hiding behind my sunglasses as I’d learned in that first week and watch teenagers strut up and down the tiny (almost provincial) pedestrian lane, girls dressed up for each other, boys doused in cologne, wondering what I would’ve been like had I come of age there.

My beloved Rue de Paris – when I arrived in 2005, it seemed almost decrepit, but when I left two years later, the storefronts were filling with chic new local additions – Marwa, where I bought my favorite fingerless gloves; Novelty, which called itself a piano bar but which was in fact only novel because it was the only bar I could sit alone unharassed, and where one could find draught beer. I hear Cinema Camera has undergone renovations. I miss the uneven sidewalks, the pathetic-looking potted plants, the ubiquitous cats.

I thought I’d miss Marrakesh and Asilah, but Meknes, ya Meknes, I miss you.

11 Comments

  1. There are very few articles which can transport me to place I’ve never been, or even seen photos of. This one did it in spades! I want to go!

    These two posts by the wonderful Qunfuz had a similar effect on me: this on Palestine and this on Damascus. You’re in good company Jillian!

  2. Girl you made me laugh and you almost succeeded bringing tears to my eyes. You’re a star.

  3. It was a beautiful description of a Moroccan city which was the symbol of the power of King Moulay Ismail who ruled Morocco with an iron fist for more than 54 years. His legacy can be seen in Meknes monuments. Ten years ago Meknes was one of the most frightening cities in Morocco because of the high rate of crimes. Now I think it has become a peaceful city.

    What I think you missed to describe are the people in Meknes, especially your students.

    Well, I hope your stay in Morocco has enriched your experience. Do come back and see what has or hasn’t changed in Morocco as a landscape and as people.

    • I should write something on my students some time; I find it difficult to write about people, whether because I’m keeping them close and private, or because I don’t want to offend them by writing publicly (oddly enough, I’m horrible at photographing people for the same reasons).

      Thank you though. I can’t wait to go back. Soon, I hope.

  4. I believe this is one of your best writings yet, keep it up and you’ll get places.

  5. My best part is “I got harassed – not for my gender but in the hopes I might buy some hash”. Un vendeur de H ne perd jamais le nord :-)

  6. As a foreigner living in Meknes for four years, I really find that your article is amazingly close to giving a true account of the mixed feelings one can have when living here.
    Thanks for putting into words something I would have difficulty expressing myself and thank you also for a wonderful description of what makes Meknes so special ;)

    • Lionel – I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’m surprised we never crossed paths in Meknes, it sometimes feels like such a small place (or did we?)

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