The Mirror of Travel:
Seeing Myself in The Face of Morocco
by Kendall Dudley
We travel to lose ourselves and find ourselves again.(1)
— Pico Iyer
If we’re lucky, we get to take advantage of times of change and uncertainty to make course corrections. Travel — whether in the outer world by foot, bus, or plane, or through an inner process of journal writing using travel metaphors — provides a creative lens to see our changes.
What follows is my record of taking a group of eight to Morocco in 2012. Everyone was over 50, employed in a variety of occupations including law, mental health, the arts, community service, and medicine. What they had in common was a desire to look below the trappings of culture and established roles and see what ticked. Our goal was to see what the land and people might evoke in us and how, through mindful attention and creating a journal record, we might live more fully. Here is my experience of those 12 days.
||My first night in Fes, I’m standing at the head of a dark alleyway staring at an illegible sign that may say Riad Dar Tamo, site of my room for the night. It is late, maybe 9 p.m., and weak street lamps give the stucco walls a shadowy B-movie look while I fight back urban instincts to use my cell phone for some kind of bailout. I push forward down the dark path. I’m in Fes, after all, to do this exact thing, to push the edges, to see and do what I don’t do at home and to learn from whatever I encounter. The alleyway is not wider than a donkey and a half, and it weaves, with wires and the juttings-out of the upper stories of houses above. I don’t feel in danger, just on unfamiliar, stony ground.
I knock on the heavy wood door marked #89 and a man (I guess, age 50) in a grey shirt looks at me, white guy (he guesses, 60?) in a blue vest. I confess, “My name is Dudley. I have a reservation.” For a moment I think I’ve disoriented him, but he ad libs, “Dudley, yes, the Internet. Come.” He leads me along the tiled vestibule to the three-story atrium, where a French woman is dragging herself from the TV and says, “Welcome. You are Dudley.” “Yes,” though suddenly I’m not sure I want to be Dudley at this minute. “Would you sign here?” she asks. I scan my options: flee, chill, trust fate . . . I go with trust fate. She peers at my words. “You are Kendall, not Dudley?” she says not unkindly. “I am both. I have two names.” “Just so,” she says.
She has nailed it directly. I do have two names, one I know well (the
Kendall), but the other is still less familiar to me (Dudley) for it’s the name
of my father who I know too little about. Already I’m alerted to a task I hadn’t
realized lay before me, to fill in the missing parts of my father’s life. She
hands me the key to the room at the top. “My husband, he will help you with the
bag, and breakfast is anytime. Just come down.”
At home or away, the journal helps us
“see” what's there.
As I follow husband up the steep irregular steps of this tenth-century house, I realize I am climbing steps that people have been climbing for 1100 years! I am astounded, and with each step, I think of the children who grew old in this house and passed on, yet the steps remain. I am but one more step climber, one more traveler wooed, one more pilgrim who has found his way to Fes not knowing fully why he has come . . . and that is the point. To have just enough intention to make the trip but not so much knowledge as to create “spoilers” that dampen surprise.
So why have I come, and why in this manner? There are many reasons I know about. My deep interest in Islamic architecture and Middle East culture nurtured from my Peace Corps years in Iran . . . my interest in the life cycle and the voyages implicit with each life stage . . . my belief in the vivid language of color and form to convey meaning . . . and my professional yakking to life-design clients and program participants about the advantages of intentional travel. For these “known” reasons I have come to Morocco while suspecting that others lie out of reach. Perhaps there lies my real motivation: to see beneath the surface of my known intentions.
Pico Iyer says, “We search not so much for answers but better questions.” (2) Indeed, living the questions, as Rilke suggests, (3) is a form of the high ideal. Better to set in motion that next life chapter with good questions, or at least some that may take you to the right ones. For me, “Why am I really here?” is a good enough question.
The next morning, I go up more of those same steep steps to the roof, where I am breathtakingly surrounded by the 10th through 21st centuries — soft distant mountains, minarets, grey-brown houses, and alleyways, roof gardens, plane trees, telephone poles, hundreds of satellite dishes, and the insistent drone of Egyptian soap operas. This is the oldest part of Fes . . .
. time has burnished it with additions woven in throughout the years: a house renovation in Andalusian style, an Ottoman influence here, a choice of colors from a French colonial palette there. Like the houses, we bear the markings of our journey even if we’ve forgotten their origins.
Some part of me is aware that it’s raining and I’m getting really wet! I take a quick last look knowing that I will not see this specific sight again. The image saturates my eyes, and as I head carefully down the steps, each one requiring a strategy of its own, I hear Frost(4) and Hallmark Cards saying “I may not go this way again.” Hey, it’s also true I may never get to Zabar’s on Broadway again . . . but I haven’t heard this internal voice before. Hmm, for all my dismissive banter about birthdays being a cultural phenomenon hyped by the card industry, my body has its own wisdom and has been keeping track — there will be just so many Fesian moments to record on my life passport!
Instead of seeing the beauty and tradition of the tanners of Fes,
I saw mostly suffering.
As I make my way with my roller bag and overweight backpack through the tenth, fourteenth, and more “modern” centuries of Fes to our rendezvous at the Dar Batha Hotel, I feel the vibrancy of the city and its many arresting sights. Is it traveler’s eyes that let me find fascination in the way the rain stains the earthen walls and flows quietly along the stone walking paths? A bicyclist slaloms by me. I note the way that fiber optic and electric cables are pinned to available wooden structures and electric meters like large watches are fitted into the carvable walls. Here centuries are colliding. Men in bright blue suits pick up discrete amounts of garbage from houses, while others in yellow are making repairs to the twisty walkways. No signs saying Danger! Cuidado! or Men Working Above! No, everyone watches where they’re going — they have Fesian eyes that tell them to pay attention to the moment. At home, they have to contemplate each step, whereas in Boston, codes and the anticipation of lawsuits have lessened the need for “paying attention.”
I land at our hotel meeting place and find out that two of our members are stuck in the Rome airport, the result of djinns in the form of labor strikes and cancelled flights somewhere along the line. A nice event to show the irony of careful planning, but I quickly catch myself. When people are upset and losing a day at Fes is not the time to enter the on ramp of philosophical musings. Already, even getting to Fes is providing us friction for defining our edges and recalibrating our tolerances.
I am having to switch from being the traveler through personal space to the leader of a group of eight through a maze of schedules, hotel arrivals, long van rides, weather changes, grumbles and exasperations, mis-timings, the disappointing of some to maximize what I hope is the group’s benefit. We see much, perhaps too much, and while most of us are gluttons for this kind of thing, each of us has our limits for ups and downs, and our own individual capacity for delight. When we are in sync, it is marvelous. When not, we take our council and learn from many sources: pleasure and disappointment, physical comfort and irritation, the sweetness of the tea and the risks inherent in food experimentation, as we each stretch our own zones of routine, comfort, and curiosity.
I am both watching and participating, trying to monitor the shape of each person’s experience and judging when to say what. I am up late reviewing each day and what has spilled out of people’s mouths, trying to discern what needs attention and intervention and what is part of the natural, if complex, unrolling of experience. I discover a distressing need to please everyone and take it hard when someone runs aground. This takes me back 40 years to times I was my mother’s mainstay and guardian, a memory that keeps me up late in Morocco all these years later. The past is not really past, it is merely lying low for the moment.
We encountered rain and it took on greater
dimension than it would have at home.
Our guide Mark Gordon — an ex-pat American who lives in Morocco and runs tours on his own and for a travel company — is a font of knowledge of the facts and the bizarre. He is bright and knows his way around the people and monuments we encounter. He is also a lightning rod for anxieties and countertransference. This guy (age maybe 55?) is more accustomed to saving adventure travelers from the jaws of hypothermia and bravado than he is to divining the needs of a quirky group of 50–70 somethings who poke their heads into journals and talk about process and meaning. Some of whom want miracles! “It is now raining, will it rain tomorrow when we are in the desert riding camels?” one woman asks. He responds, “Yahoo says there is a 60 percent chance of rain near there. But it rarely rains in the desert.” She counters, “But are you sure it won’t rain while we’re riding — if it does rain I don’t want to go!” I remind people they are asking for a degree of prediction that is impossible to offer even in Kansas.
What is really happening here, at this moment? We are midway through our trip. It has rained more than we expected, it’s been colder than we thought . . . people are resilient, but a little disappointed in the weather. Then there is the desert. We have talked about it as one of the lures of the trip, a highlight, but it has many elements to it. For most of us, it represents the unknown. It is literal, storied, iconic, psychological. We are all embarking on this voyage with awareness that we are, to varying degrees, going to an edge. It will be fun, but the shape of that fun cannot be known without our having done it. Discussions of weather and requests for guarantees are largely a sign of a collective anxiety. In polling a few people, it seems clear that the group as a whole feels more anxious than the individuals in it do.
Our conversations at the edge of the desert
wandered into deep necessary places.
Nonetheless, rain or not, we are heading to the desert, and though it is hard to see it yet from our van, we know it is coming. The land is thinning and, interestingly, we start to talk as if no one will remember what we say. “Are you happy?” turns out to be a provocative question as we pass the roadside farms and villages of the Saharan rim. We take turns listening and speaking of the hopes we had and have for love, the present station of those feelings, and the shifts we’ve made to hold these realities.
At times the thrum of the engine acts as our drone instrument, signaling the passage of time and the eternal aspects of our questions. For some, we are telling one another what we have come to Morocco to hear ourselves say. And in the very saying, perhaps we make that real and manageable and changeable if need be. That I am recently divorced rings louder here in me than it does in the U.S. and the word ripples in me as I flash through the vast history of divorces in my family . . . and the reasons why I know so little about my father.
During a lull, I suggest we ride in silence and make notes in our journals. I draw a picture of my father. In my imagined re-creation of his leaving when I was five, I give him a bent back. Perhaps it is the movement of the van that produces that exaggerated line and this wounded interpretation of his departure, but my drawing radiates through me and I feel immensely sad at the loss to him and to me of our decades of separation.
And then the desert. We are mounting our padded saddles and holding onto the pommel as we wait for all of us to similarly be seated before “standing up” — camels take cues from one another, and if one gets up, its neighbor may get the same idea, whether the rider is ready or not. I am starting the odd three-stage standing-up process when I hear Anna moan in terror as her camel starts its ascent. “Hold on tight, you’ll be fine!” our guide calls out. He knows adventure after all. She wails and hugs the saddle. Her camel is paying little attention to her anxiety, but we are all concerned. “You can walk,” I say, “others are choosing to walk.” “No, no. I have to do this,” she manages to say.
This is the desert. The slow endless turning of dunes, pushed by the wind, reconfiguring themselves every day. There is nothing to say. I am in the thrall of the moment, aware of time being measured in eons. I sense a letting go . . . and I experience what it is to be totally present. Every sense is alive. My mind flickers to T. E. Lawrence, the Camel Corps, Rommel, Nilotic slaves, and the trade in dyes, salt, and metals. After my cavalcade of nonsense, I come back to the reality of the chafing sound of camel pads on sands and the steady beat of my heart.
It is night and we are in our Bedouin tent being served couscous with goat, chickpeas, and carrots and drinking wine we have sacredly carried with us. “I need to tell you something,” Anna says. “I came on this trip...to ride that camel.” Her voice rises. “When I was a child, I was trampled by wild horses and have been terrified of large animals ever since. I had to get on that camel.” Her story chills me. What immense courage it took for her to do this. The air is alive as it was in the bus. I say, “This makes me want to tackle my own fear of water — I feel imprisoned by it . . .” Another says, “I have been anxious this whole trip. It is what I do. But I am not anxious about a thing right now. Just being here is all that matters. And I wouldn’t have known that it could be so, without coming.”
I sleep in the presence of the wind and the awareness of stars covering me. (6) I get up around 4 a.m. to pee and watch myself in moonlight standing in the dunes. It is chilly, and gusts of wind blow through me. I take a handful of sand and hold it. I have the idea of taking some home and being buried with it. It is only when I am out of the wind that I realize tears have formed in my eyes.
The hill village of Ait Ben Haddou, seen from a distance. Move your
cursor over the image for a view from inside the village.
We see ruined fortresses and sleep one night in a hotel carved out of rock at the base of a vertical gorge. We see immense long valleys of fig, almond, and palm trees with towns scattered in their midst. And then we arrive at the fantastic hill village of Ait Ben Haddou, site of movie backdrops and UNESCO’s protection. (6)
It is mid afternoon. The sun plays on the adobe houses and tapering towers carved with enigmatic signs and symbols. As we walk towards the village, the towers appear to shoot up from thick walls that hug the hillside. Like the desert, this village evokes iconic forms taken from an alternate mindset. Tracing its architectural roots to sub-Saharan and Malian architecture only fuels my thinking that West Africa has links to knowledge systems that the West has lost or perhaps has yet to encounter. (7)
We come upon men and women outfitted in North Face, filming Jesus and Mary for Moroccan TV. As I watch these storied roles being played out, I wonder how I would tell my own story. How would I divide my chapters, and which ones would I have to rewrite before they yielded fresh insight? I realize I get invested in interpreting events in certain ways. And as long as I do that, I can’t see into the nuances of my life, overshadowed as they are by fixed ideas.
The next day we spend moments in silence as we time-travel over the Atlas Mountains past stone villages, flocks of sheep, cell towers, and women’s rural co-ops. It is on these longish bus rides we collect our thoughts that we may later share during the collective journal writing we do each evening. In this way, we see what others saw and learn from the differences in how we’re wired and how our wiring may be shifting. My own wires seem to be scanning for the meaning that lies behind what I see . . . I am looking more for signs than at the color and surface of things.
Food stalls in the Dhemma-al-Fna at night
We hit Marrakech, drop our bags at Riad Dar Saad on the outskirts of the bazaar, and head for the Djemaa-al-Fna. We are in high gear. This is the finale of our trip and the Assembly of the Dead is calling us, or at least that’s one Arabic translation for the place we are about to see! Electrical and plumbing stalls flash by us as do butchers, hanging meat, and vegetable stalls, each with its own sounds and pungency. The market for painted drums and stringed instruments pulls at us and then come the spice, cloth, and souvenir merchants.
Finally, we are released into the wide sea of space and people that forms the Djemaa-al-Fna! School’s out and many people are milling and roaming, scanning the juice wagons and food stalls. Circles form around palmists and storytellers, snake charmers and acrobats. Japanese in facemasks consider land snails and broth. An animal trainer is almost clipped by a biker, whose black veil balloons out behind her. Actors, some in drag, lure us into being their audience, while drummers, horn, and string players vie for our attention by drawing us away with their rapid twisting beat. Women in black sequin veils sit by pillows with cards that see into the future. This is theater on a grand scale, full of history, ritual, invention, reality, and suggestions of the occult. But which is which, and what does all that mean?
Our last hours together, we meet to write of what we will remember of this trip. We discuss moments we stepped out of ourselves or took on unfamiliar roles. We look at emerging skills and tastes and dreams and pause to capture flickers of the future. We start to say “Goodbye” but change it to, “Be seeing you.” Much is in flux as we make our way towards more familiar shores.
I head back to the Djemaa-al-Fna and seek out the amulet maker. Seeing the low facades of the shops, restaurants, hotels, and parking areas that define the edges of the Djemaa, I’m aware of the “planning” behind all this. During twentieth-century colonial rule, the French decided that Morocco would become a culture park and Marrakech its tourist home. This meant old Marrakech had to retain its antique qualities so that it appeared “oriental” to travelers. What’s more, writers say that Morocco partially came to define itself through the images foreigners created of it. (8)
At first appalled to think of these manipulations of culture, I realize they provide a segue to seeing the effects of my own culture on me. Culture is often invisible from the inside. It is by traveling, in part, by getting on the outside, that I see the system of beliefs that defines me and keeps me bound to feeling “at home” in my culture. (9) And though I know why there are few palmists, card readers, and bibliomancers in America , it doesn’t stop me from believing that there is something of imperturbable value here. My task as a traveler and seeker is to see through the cultural distortions to what may still exist at the heart of things.
This impulse has me talking to the amulet maker who sits on a stool near the used clothing sellers. In his yellow robes, he looks like a shaman as he asks me what protection I desire. I tell him I want health for myself and my loved ones and peace for this troubled world. He pauses and then takes a small brass object the shape of an amphora and sets about breaking and selecting bits of bird wing, ginger, and myrrh, along with pinches of what appear to be herbs, mineral powders, and silver dust. He pauses and the Square falls silent. I watch him open a small blue box. He takes out a pinch of red earth and inserts it into the capsule. He then carefully twists closed the top with a brass stopper and presents it to me in his palm.
While culture strongly determines what it is we value, it is ultimately up to me to sift through the forces shaping belief to see what may be true for me. In the work of the amulet maker, I’m choosing to find great value and to see — in the choices he made — links to belief systems and a cultural heritage I may never understand. But he is teaching me to imagine a larger, more multisourced palette from which to frame my life. Coming to Morocco is not enough! I will have to travel further by reading, reflecting, writing, and conversation. All along I’ll be trying to name those life tasks, the sacred and sublime, that I have yet to undertake. I see them forming a kind of map into the future that shapes my choices, time, and resources. This trip helps me see my unfinished “work” with my father. It sensitizes me to wider spheres of knowledge. Above all, it is helping me pay attention to my life and surroundings in such a way that every day can be a travel day if I’m willing to look at life with those eyes.
One thing I’ve learned is that travel provides a necessary friction that helps me encounter myself in unanticipated ways. It clarifies my interests, fears, values, and desires. Even to make the trip in my armchair and not on the road, I need ways to introduce friction. I use the imagery of travel to describe the inner journey I am to make. I want to be able to identify the “stops” along the way before the train reaches its final destination. (Engage with my father’s memory, explore Islamic folk beliefs and architecture, draw freely every day, experiment with alternative forms of knowing such as tarot and I Ch’ing, etc.) This may mean confronting the border guards that don’t want me snooping around my past or looking foolish. It may mean emptying from the suitcase of the heart a host of outgrown roles, responsibilities, and identities, creating a packing list of “mysteries to explore,” denying visas to sacred cows, and safekeeping insights gleaned from roads already traveled. By whatever means I and others may undertake our journeys, recording it not only in words, but also including questions and images, reveals what we know and gives shape to it. If we are ultimately travelers seeking our right road, let us renew the search with creativity and courage!