Bembo’s Collection of Strange and Wonderful Men
Some stories don’t have a beginning, middle nor an end; their beginnings lie buried in a mystic past, to be unravelled, at best partially, as detail presents itself. One is parachuted immediately into the heart of the action as the event explodes in full intrigue; only in the relative peace of the denouement, does one assemble background detail into a tale to be told…
New friends had become sufficiently adept at smuggling me into the VIP area at the Essaouira Grande Festivale du Music de Gnawa — there was available place front row centre, sitting barefoot on the rug. The band played virtuoso, accessible, poly-rhythmic music with a compelling beat; but, relatively early in the evening and with several days dancing behind one, the sinews of the lower limbs welcomed the change; so dancing in half-lotus seemed prudent for releasing the lumbar region. Besides, one couldn’t possibly disturb those seated behind us. Alas, not so; a man of certain years seated immediately behind me, had another idea. He wanted dancing. By way of encouragement, he prodded me determinedly in the ribs. In my part of the world, this would be considered strange behaviour; finding oneself in foreign climes, one seeks not to transpose one’s own concept of normality. In Morocco, men are readily expressive of physical affection, perhaps this extends to energetic pokes in anatomically sensitive areas often associated with vital organs.
He was insistent, I could compute: ‘Up and Dance’ in the country’s three offical languages, including not to be confused international gesture speak.
As with all creative improvisation work, ‘No‘ proved not to be an option. After at least twelve repeated probes to my right kidney, a short dance with an adjacent young lovely proved musically justifiable and certainly preferable to torture. Although, not quite equally grey as my tormentor, in the demographic bell curve of the audience we were both in the upper percentiles. In the decidedly informal summer street festival surroundings, he and I were likely also the only ones sporting tailored dark-brown suit jackets. — Perhaps, at this paean to the roots of rave, it was somehow appropriate that the older generation of fathers and grandfathers, help kick-start the proceedings?
A brief spell commanding the dance floor with my subtle mix of rhythmic global beat and barefoot jig steps, could just be this imported patriarch’s defensible contribution to help visually augment the rites of a top-class wedding orchestra from Bamako. Seeing as it would be highly visible for several thousand spectators crowding the fish market area behind the barriers, it might even acquire a valued, synergic effect upon the evening. (This above and beyond the repercussions upon my hundred or so fellow VIPs, for whom it could distinctly obscure the view). Of course, it also seemed likely that the implications of potential imperialism in such cross-cultural exchange, played heavier upon my conscience than his.
My benefactor gave his adamant thumbs up. Naively, as I sat down I reckoned that his persecution would now subside. Wrong I was. The twelve or so previous physical assaults to my lateral dorsal region were to be followed by dozens more. What kind of person would do such a thing? The denim clad adolescent daughter of his lady friend had watched the proceedings noncommittedly; his good wife/female acquaintance met my glances with sympathy, but projected helplessness when appealed upon to intervene.
My good friend Lahcen Boujoulija also tried to mediate. This was clearly a man to whom no one ever said “No” ( and who had perhaps blissfully rediscovered a childhood passion as a born-again bully). Sitting, as we were, in the section initially set up for members of the royal family, who purportedly largely ignored the music and amused themselves by taking pictures of one another, I surmised to myself that I had met the Mayor of Essaouira. Although the royals had trouped out before my arrival, a phalanx of 5-6 security agents at the stage apron still made its presence felt, attending among others the Grand Vizier to the former king who was commanding considerable attention in his yachting jacket and cap. My mayor, perhaps professionally jealous, may have calculated that by spurring me to dance in the foreground, he could upstage the Grand Viz’s photo opportunity. Or could he be merely trying to help: decoding my body language, he could see that I was itching to dance; was this just tactile encouragement of the kind he perhaps gave his polo ponies?
The laws of improvisation are unequivocal about one thing: say ‘No’ at one’s peril; one must never block a co-players suggestion. Faced with escalating jabs, not having had one’s own erstwhile ‘no‘ taken for anything, let alone an answer, and risking open-kidney surgery without anaesthetic: my options were reduced to the unfathomable. It was time for a little lateral movement. The fever pitch of the music was rising, the bands had switched to a local icon, in the periphery and beyond the barrier of caged privilege, the dance was exploding. By now, the eruption of a little ostentatious self-expression by yet another over-enthusiastic foreigner, could easily reflect an element of positive globalisation? The Mayor certainly ought to be pleased that his repeated prodding had spurred me and a nearby photo journalist to reveal some of our best moves. Strangely, I’d drastically underestimated my man and his seeming addiction to the abuse of power… Having got us on our feet was not enough; his sadistic streak released, he plucked at our legs at eye-level, quickly gleaning that he got max effect if he aimed at our popliteus muscle just behind the knee. I suspected that had he packed a revolver, he’d have played – ‘Dance, Tenderfoot, Dance’ and fired it off at our feets! He was not to be persuaded to stand up.
For one trained on Clowning and Mummery, the next step was ingrained instinct: fight fire with fire, and give him some of his own medicine. Under his next assault, I collapsed atop him, sitting on his head to roaring laughter from both him and his woman. The narrative gets blurry after a while, but at some point he got hold of me in his arms and rolled around with me firmly embraced in his lap like a newly converted drama student. At one point, I hit him vigorously three times on the head, to more glee. My fingers found his stash of gratuity currency in his breast pocket, there were attempts to stick a twenty to my sweaty brow in the appropriate West African custom. Through the pain in my tender spots, this unusual behaviour was recognisably unique cross-cultural communication between two chieftains in each our field. During a lull in the proceedings he asked for my address, so he could visit me in Norway. I gave him my visiting card; without an aide de camp present he lacked such accoutrement, but finally standing for our embrace on his way to go, he informed me in what I could only understand as appropriately formal French: “Ici, c’est le Pasha de Marrakesh“.
Had I read the social dynamics correctly, I was playing with a man to whom no one, since the age of 18 months, had ever denied a thing. At least this may explain the reaction when during an earlier moment in the evening’s progression of the ecstatic dancing, I finally found myself at sufficient distance, and with Lahcen well-placed as an intermediary, to administer more much-needed paradoxal therapy. Well out of reach, I could respond as one should to a childhood bully; I gave him the presumably international infantile gesture of a double nose-thumbing avec a protruded tongue. Even if not daily fare in diplomatic circles, it evoked squeals of delight – his woman gave clear indication that she had been wanting to do this very thing for years.
After exchanging warm kisses, they departed with the last of the body guards; his people would be contacting my people. From the first time in generations someone had sat upon the head of the Governour ( and traditional tax collector) of the ancient capital of the Almoravide Dynasty. Theatre people have been clearly shirking their responsibilities
PS: Subsequent research has located a rather large block on the map of the Marrakesh medina labelled Maison du Pacha. My rough guidebook further states “a place of legendary exoticism throughout the first half of this century (the 20th). Part of it is nowadays occupied by the Ministry of Culture, but there is little to see. The main section of the palace remains private.” It also informs that the building was thoroughly pillaged after the withdrawal of the French in 1956 as the then current Pacha was a much despised philanderer ( ‘and a personal friend of Winston Churchill’). “Cruel and magnificent in equal measure he was also one of the most spectacular party givers around – in an age when rivals were not lacking. At the extraordinary ‘difas’ or banquets held at his Marrakesh palace – ‘Nothing was impossible’”.
As the young son or grandson of this historic Pacha (1879 – 1956), our man may have grown up in interesting times.
[Wikipedia is even more fun ]
For the sceptical, an alternative possibility: that the legendary shadow of the much vilified viceroy may have acquired Napoleonic proportions, and that had I stayed in the country longer, I may have met dozens of men claiming the identical title, is surely diminished by the fact that my new friend was indeed spotted traipsing in and among the Royal Party…