If you haven’t already, you can read the first part of this adventure in The Red City.
(Mostly) written at Gare Rabat Ville, Sunday, 7:15 a.m.
After finishing up my escapade in Marrakech by reuniting with a friend for dinner, I leave the chaos of Djemaa el-Fna for the last time, and head for the train station. At almost 9 p.m., there are only two trains on the tracks, and only one with a lit sign: Tanger, it read. That’s me…I think. There’s no track for my train listed anywhere that I can find, but there can’t be more than one train going to the same destination this late at night. I climb into the still unlit carriage, and pick one of the many empty seats, setting my backpack on the seat next to me to prevent anyone from joining me unless absolutely necessary. A few more people straggle in, and after about 20 minutes of waiting in the dark, the engines start to hum, the lights flare, and we set off. The announcement reads off the stations that the train will be stopping at in rapid Arabic; I don’t recognize any of them, at least not as places that were on the manifest inside the station. I remind myself that there was only one running train on the tracks, so I must be on the right one, before settling back into my seat and leaning my head against the window, trying not to be distracted by the group of four young men across the aisle, at least one of whom is openly leering at me every time I look over. The one wearing an orange sweatshirt, hood pulled up and over his face, is the worst; he has to completely turn around in his seat to see me. It must be doing some damage to his back, to sit like that for so long. I set the alarm on my phone for 1:30 a.m., stretch out into the second seat which I managed to save, and using my backpack as a makeshift pillow, attempt to get some sleep.
I start to doze, but each time the train pulls into another unrecognizable minor station (Sidi Bou Othmane? Where the hell is that?), I wake up and get slightly more concerned that I somehow made it onto the wrong train. An officer walks along and punches my ticket, but glances so quickly that I doubt if he actually read it. Oh well. I’m here now, so there’s nothing to do about it. I look to my right, directly at the man in the orange hoodie, who is staring again. He looks away, but only for as long as I am watching. As soon as I turn my head back towards the window, I sense his gaze on me once more. It’s now after midnight.
A little before 1 a.m., I start seeing lights outside my window, which stretch out for huge distances in every direction. After all of the darkened stations that we’d passed through, this sign of life makes me feel much better. We are at Casa Voyageurs. I very briefly consider getting off, but now knowing that we are at least heading in the right direction, I feel more secure. I know that there will be stops closer to Rabat than this one, so I lay my head against the window and try to ignore the smoke that fills the carriage each time the train pauses on it’s journey. After a couple of minutes, the train is turned off, the lights go dark, and with the roar of the engines gone, the world seems eerily silent. We sit in Casablanca for nearly an hour. When the lights finally come back on, I look over. Grey sweatshirt across the aisle is smiling at me again, and not in a very friendly way. I look the other direction.
The train jerks forward as we pull out of the station, and I wonder if the stop was scheduled for this long, or if we were delayed. We are supposed to be arriving in Rabat in less than half an hour, but I know that Casablanca is too far for us to make that station on schedule. We next come to a halt at 1:53, the exact time that the train was supposed to arrive at Rabat Ville. I don’t know where this place is, but it definitely isn’t Rabat. Another officer punches my ticket, and appears to actually read it. He smiles, says “merci,” and hands it back to me, without saying anything else. I feel a little better now. The train keeps moving.
We continue to pass through darkness, lights sporadically cropping up with me thinking each time that we might stop, but it never happens. Finally, at almost 3 a.m., an hour after the scheduled arrival time, I start to see buildings outside my window, a few lit signs, and lights inside houses that stretched out for miles. Please be Rabat, please be Rabat, I think to myself over and over. “Rabat Agdar,” the announcement reads out. I sigh my relief, and briefly debate getting off here, just in case they don’t stop at Rabat Ville for some reason. I decide that the other station is probably larger and nicer, so I stay on the train, and a few minutes later hear “Rabat Ville” over the loudspeaker. I glance out my window, and recognize the platform from the last time I was in the city: I made it. The young men across the aisle are also getting off here, it seems. I don’t make any move to get up as the train slows to a stop. Only after they have packed their belongings and disembarked do I follow them down the steps. For once, they don’t look back.
I walk inside the station, which is much smaller than I remember it. More importantly, there’s not a single bench or seat on the main floor, and at this time of night, the other two levels are barricaded off. The café is still open, though, so after I glance around the station, I sit down inside. The server comes over and says “Bonsoir,” but my brain isn’t functioning at this point, and all that comes out of my mouth is “Thé.” He’s gone before I realize that he greeted me, so I spend the rest of my interactions with him being overly polite to make up for it. There are signs saying “interdit de fumer” all across the station, including on the café walls, but each time a man walks in and lights up, the only response is for the server to bring out an ashtray. After about 45 minutes of this, I can’t bear the smoke anymore, so I pay and leave. The large station entrances are open to the chilly night air, so I find an out of the way corner, and join a couple of other late night travelers in sitting on the floor to wait. It isn’t too uncomfortable, but within minutes, the station guards come and force us to get up. The two Moroccans are rather unceremoniously grabbed and pulled up off of the floor, but one friendly night guard explains in French and broken English to me that we’re not allowed to sit. If we want to sit, we have to buy something in the café and sit in there.
He doesn’t know the word warm, so he just keeps repeating that the café is more “chaud” than the rest of the station, and asks me if I want something. I reply in French that I got a drink there earlier, so I’m not thirsty, but I might get something later. Now speaking solely in French too, he asks if I have enough money, and offers to buy me coffee. I thank him, but tell him that I don’t want anything at the moment. He walks off, telling me to find him if I need anything at all. I spend the next two hours walking in circles around the small station, back and forth, back and forth, pausing occasionally to try to read the names in Arabic on the train schedule, check the time, or to glance into the café and judge whether the nausea and headaches caused by the smoke would be worth warming up for. From time to time, the friendly guard will stop and try to ask me whether I take my coffee with milk or not so that he can buy me some, or just to shoo off the group of three young men who are perpetually following me around the station making lewd comments in French in between whining “please, please.” I don’t know what they want, nor do I care. I politely decline the guard’s offer of coffee, tell him that I appreciate it but that I really am okay, and he tells me he thinks I need it because I have tired eyes. “Ça a été une longue nuit,” I agree. As I get more tired, my French is deteriorating, and I’m not sure how much of what I’m saying actually makes sense anymore. It’s at least correct enough that he gets my meaning, though, and he smiles and shrugs before going back to his work.
Just before 5 a.m., he walks over and starts talking to me. We discuss the fact that I’m traveling alone, which he thinks isn’t safe. He notes that there are men “très méchants” around. I nod my awareness. We talk about my family back in America, the trip that I just took to Marrakech, and where I’m going next. I tell him that I am on my way to Meknes, which as it turns out, is his ville d’origine. We talk a bit about Meknes, and then about Ifrane, my eventual destination later in the day. As the lower level starts to open for the 5:15 train departures, I wander off and down the stairs, where, miracle of all miracles, there are benches. It feels good to sit down after hours of pacing, but the entire lower level is open to the platforms, and with the sun still hidden below the horizon, the wind chills me to the bone.
To distract myself from the shivering, I pull out my kindle and spend the next hour reading War and Peace. The Moroccan girl sitting next to me has just finished her book as well; she turns and asks me if I speak English, and then asks for a recommendation. She says she likes classics. I tell her what I am reading, and she has me write the title out inside the cover of her book before thanking me profusely, kissing me on each cheek, and then getting on the 5:45 train going south. I spend a few minutes pondering how unfair it is of me to consider her a friendly stranger, whereas had it been a man in her place I would have made presumptions about his intentions and been far less inclined to talk, before deciding that this realization probably wasn’t going to change my future reactions much and returning to my reading.
By 6:10, I can’t take the cold anymore. I get up and walk upstairs, intending to get more tea, but there isn’t a single table to be had inside the café, and 90% of the patrons are smoking anyways. I walk back downstairs. I see another café start to open, but decide to give them a few minutes before I make my way inside. While I’m waiting, a nicely dressed older gentlemen next to me asks if I too am going to Meknes. He is from El Hajeb, in between Meknes and Ifrane, so we are heading in the same direction this morning. Unlike with most of the other men I have met in the past couple of days, I get a good feeling about him, and contentedly stand there as he chatters away in French. Luckily, I catch most of what he is saying, and we spend the next half an hour conversing about his recent trip to Germany, the rise of China and Japan on the world stage, and whether or not the English language is going to remain as prominent as it has been in recent history. I apologize for my somewhat broken French, and he shakes his head, telling me that French is the language of the past, no longer important. I tell him about an article that I read recently which suggested the opposite, due to the large number of francophone African countries that are on the rise. He remains skeptical. We move on to discuss the importance of cultural exchanges, and I explain to him that I am studying international relations at university, and that I’m in the middle of studying abroad at AUI. He replies that it’s a good university and a good chance for me, and smiles broadly when I tell him about the benefits I feel I’ve experienced from living in Morocco. After almost thirty minutes of dialogue, I excuse myself, and go into the downstairs café to get something warm to drink. I’ve now been in the chilly station without a coat for four hours.
In the café, I sit down and order, and the owner – “Tobibo, call me Toby” – strikes up a conversation. He’s not Moroccan, but rather from Sub-Saharan Africa. He asks if I’m French, and I’m not sure whether to be flattered that he still thinks I’m French even after having heard me speak the language, or just to think that he has no ear for accents. Probably the latter. We talk sporadically while I finish my drink, and he asks if we can skype so that he can practice his English. Too tired to do anything else, I smile and nod, with a warning that I rarely if ever am actually on skype, which doesn’t dampen his spirits at all. I say goodbye, and walk down to the platform.
When the train arrives fifteen minutes later, there is only one other person in my compartment, a young man, sitting by the window with his tablet out and earbuds in. I sit opposite from him and by the compartment door, closing it to block out the cool air for the first time in hours. It feels heavenly. Just as I thought we were going to get away with having the room to ourselves, a Moroccan woman walks in with two suitcases and a three or four year old girl, whom she lays on the seat next to me. One more young man joins us before we leave the station, sitting directly across from me and limiting my leg room as well. I quadruple check the train number this time, set my cell phone alarm for 9 a.m., and do my best to get some sleep. I was going to use my backpack as a pillow, but by the time I looked over, the little girl had stretched out her tiny feet and was using it as part of her bed, so I let her have it and double over in my seat, resting my head on my knees. A few seconds later, I feel someone poking me. I look up, and the first man from the compartment smiles and hands me a note reading “Tu as l’air fatiguée, viens prendre ma place, elle est plus confortable! :)” Or, for any non-French readers, “You seem tired, come take my place, it’s more comfortable!” I give him an “Are you sure?” look, and he nods and smiles again. He has translated the note into English as well, but giddy with the fact that for at least the last 12 hours or so, I haven’t spoken any English, but have managed to have multiple actual conversations, with actual French speaking people (i.e., not my French professor and/or classmates), I ignore the English translation. “Merci beaucoup” I whisper, as to not wake our sleeping companions, and go take his seat, which is indeed far more comfortable. Within minutes I am sound asleep, jerking awake only when the train stops at each station. At one point I hear the two men quietly conversing about going to Ifrane from Meknes, and I briefly wonder if they too will be in need of a grand taxi when we arrive, before dozing off again. At 9 a.m., I wake up in an instant, afraid that I may have overslept and missed my stop, even though it hadn’t been quite long enough. I force myself to stay awake after that, though, knowing we’re close. The train reaches Meknes Al-Amir first (the smaller of two small stations in town), and the man still sitting in my seat by the door hands me one more note before leaving. “Je te laisse mon numéro si jamais tu as besoin de quelque chose – Oussama.” This note wasn’t translated - my “merci” from earlier must have been convincing. In English, it reads “I am leaving you my number if you ever need something – Oussama.” The note was followed by his cell phone number. I smile and nod my thanks, still very appreciative of the chance to get a little much needed rest, but not wanting to wake up the others in the compartment. He returns the smile and leaves. I sit for a minute, then decide that I’m ready to get off the train, even if this isn’t technically my stop, and jump down onto the platform as well. Walking to the door of the station, the first person I run into is calling out “Ifrane! Ifrane!” I head over and join four other girls waiting next to his beaten up Mercedes, this one with a seatbelt and a plywood board preventing the front seats from collapsing into the back (this is the primary function of seatbelts in grand taxis, but the plywood is new to me). There are two Asian girls in the backseat with me, and though I don’t know where they are from, their accents match that of the Japanese girl in my French class. They spend most of the ride joyfully taking selfies and pictures out the window, before one falls asleep on my shoulder. I soon started to doze off as well. The hour of rest on the train had been just enough to make my body feel the sleep deprivation of the past two nights, and by the time I get to campus, it is all I can do to make the long walk back up to my dorm room and take a quick shower before collapsing into bed and sleeping for six hours straight.
Now, since this originated as a post about Marrakech, I guess I’ll give my conclusions on the city, in a paragraph written back in that quiet park on Saturday afternoon:
Maybe this isn’t the Marrakech that I was meant to see. It’s not the tourism-driven insanity of the medina, the hawkers with their overpriced trinkets, the snake charmers or the street performers with chained monkeys as their captives. It isn’t something that you’ll find listed in the guidebooks, but this is the Marrakech I will remember. The quiet parks every couple of blocks, providing oases from the rest of the city; the cat lazing in the sun on the bench next to me, both of us on an island in an ocean of trees; the breeze blowing just enough to keep me cool on a warm day, and the locals passing by, for the moment ambivalent about the white girl taking up one of their benches. This is my Marrakech.