by Michael A. Blum
In 1985, to celebrate my quarter century birthday, I saved enough money to purchase a $2000 plane ticket (from an alliance of TWA, Quantas, Olympic and Swiss Air) that allowed me to circumnavigate the globe for an entire year. I could visit as many destinations as I desired, so long as I did “not travel backwards” or “transit through the same airport twice.”
That year I amassed a book’s worth of adventures in 20+ countries. I learned traveling off the beaten path often led to the most enriching and memorable experiences. Frequently, I gratefully served as an honored guest and the recipient of generous hospitality of virtual strangers who became new friends.
When I ferried from Spain to Tangiers in Morocco, it was towards the end of my one-year journey. By then I had developed a pretty good sixth sense when it came to travel safety and trust. Still, shit happens every day if not everywhere around the world.
The only valuables I carried were a Nikon camera and a Casio Keyboard (I’m an avid keyboard player) which opened numerous opportunities to meet people and to “jam” with local musicians from all over the world. New music friends wanted to show me around their “hometowns” and were eager to share their stories and customs and lead me to places away from the usual tourist traps.
I availed myself of frequent invitations to spend time and in many cases, stay with local families. There’s nothing more enriching than honest cultural exchanges when dining on traditional home cooked meals in private homes.
Towards the 11th month of my sojourning, I was traveling South through Morocco on the famed “Marrakech Express” train from Tangiers. I stopped to explore Fez, Rabat, Casablanca, “On the Road Marrakech” as the CSNY Song goes and where this story takes place.
Anyone who has traveled in 2nd and 3rd world places know they will be accosted the moment they step off a train, a bus, or exit an airport. Local touts aggressively hawk themselves as “tour guides” or literally grab you by the arms to lead you to the “very best” places to stay. Others offer taxi rides to shops with “super special deals.”
So, for each country I visited, it was essential to learn how to politely say “No thank you” which in Morocco is “La Choukran” or if they were more aggressive, a stern faced, “Sear Fhalak” translates to “Leave me Alone!”
Marrakech was magical. Sights, scents, sounds. The main square buzzing with people, musicians, food stalls, and snake charmers who charmed money from tourists using serpents.
As I explored a little further beyond the tourist area, I found myself being followed by a local who looked around college age. Not too much younger than me. He eventually approached me. “Halo You! You from America, yes? I am student. I study English. You want tour? You first time in Marrakech? I give you very good tour.”
He seemed lanky, taller than me, fairly clean cut and non-threatening. I politely tried out the “Le Choukran.” But he stayed undeterred. I repeated “no thank you” and continued walking on my way, but he kept following. “Sear Fhalak! Sear Fhalak”! Nope, that did not deter him either. So, I figured maybe if I ducked into a crowded public restaurant, he would give up and leave me alone.
I was a bit surprised after I was seated to see him enter the restaurant, approach my table and sit down. He surprised me further by saying he was going to “buy me lunch”. “I want to practice English.” Well that was a twist. No such thing as a free lunch, but here was this young Moroccan local offering to treat.
He told me his name was Ali, “like Mohamed Ali” he said. He asked for my name. “Michael” I replied. He immediately chimed in “Jackson! I loooove Michael Jackson!” And in 1985, MJ’s music was like a constant soundtrack everywhere on the planet. I told him that “I knew Michael Jackson, personally.” “Nooooo!” he exclaimed. “Yes!” I confirmed. And to some degree I did, having worked on casting the “Captain EO and the Space Knights” video.
At a $1,000,000 per finished minute, “Captain EO” was the most expensive music video ever made at the height of the rise of MTV. But it never played on MTV because it was also the first to be shot in 3D. It was directed by Francis Ford Coppola who directed “The Godfather” and produced by George Lucas who created “Star Wars”. It only played in two specially built theaters at Disney Land and Disney World in California and Florida respectively. So, there was no way my new “friend” would have seen it.
But I did have the forethought to carry a picture taken of me with Michael, posed with two of the production accountants and a young “friend” of the King of Pop. This was long before the truth of Michael’s more sordid proclivities was known. It seemed as if everyone who asked me my name reflexively answered back “Jackson”
I was a little concerned reaching into my “security pouch” where I only had a bout 150 Moroccan dirham (about $20 USD) on me which I know he could see, my passport, an emergency contact list and the picture. But I showed it to Ali who was gob smacked. “You…YOU KNOW Michael Jackson!!!!”
I suddenly grew ten-fold in esteem and respect. Or so I thought.
Ali ordered us a simple but very tasty lunch. His English was halted but understandable. He was proud to tell me about the best sights in Marrakech. But then he surprised me by asking, “Are you Jewish?” I almost spit out my deliciously sweet mint tea over the chicken and rice dish he ordered.
Before I could make up my mind if answering would put me at risk in a strict Muslim country, Ali already decided my ethnicity for me. “You are Jewish. You MUST see the “Mellah” (Jewish Quarter). After lunch, l take you to “Salat Al Azama” (the oldest Jewish Temple in Morocco).
The Al Azama was built in 1492 when Columbus (who many historians believe may actually have been Jewish) left to discover the Americas. The Jews were fleeing Spain from the Inquisition. It was benevolent Muslims gave these Sephardi’s shelter. Fortunately, their strict dietary laws of Kosher and Halal were compatible and interchangeable. For a second I wondered if Ali perhaps descended from a long line of Moroccan Jews? He laughed and proclaimed, “No. I am Muslim.”
I insisted that I pay for lunch or at least split it, but he was steadfast and insistent.
We exited the cafe together and he beckoned me to follow him. He pointed to a Vespa. “Get on. I will give you the best tour you ever had.”
Having paid for my lunch and seeing he owned his own form of motorized transport and knowing there were plenty of very wealthy families in Morocco he could possibly hail from, Ali was gaining some trust.
As promised, we went into the Mellah, stopped at the ancient Jewish Cemetery with Ali pointing out all sorts of other unique landmarks along the way.
“There’s the La Mamounia” a former palace converted into a five-star hotel where FDR and Churchill had stayed. It was also featured in the Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman film “Ishtar”. If only Ali knew how that film lost millions of dollars and went down as one of the ten worst ever made.
Having my arms wrapped around his waist for an afternoon, at this point I guess we were friends. “You must come for dinner at my house,” he decided, “My mother makes the best cous cous and tagine you will ever taste.”
As stated earlier, these kind of dinner invitations most often ended with me feeling full of both delicious local cuisine and gaining insights and precious memories to last a lifetime. Having no other dinner plans, I gave him the “OK” sign and Ali pointed the Vespa out of Marrakech.
“How far is your house” I asked over the Vespa noise. “Not too far” answered Ali. Though I became a little dubious as electric poles, lights and buildings started fading from view. Soon we were on a dirt road where all you could see in any direction was desert. “Hmmm, what did I get myself into now?” I thought. I hope his Mother’s cooking is as good as he claims.
Eventually in the distance I saw some lights and a cluster of single-story structures and what appeared to be a small local village. We motored through some narrow alley ways and he parked the scooter. It felt good to get off the bike. The ride was significantly hotter and longer than I had anticipated. Nothing like a sore butt that keeps vibrating.
“Is this your house?” I asked. “No. But you must wait here, and I will make sure dinner is ready. I will let my family know I have a guest.” He then opened a door to a plain single room with a skylight but no windows. There were cushions to sit on. Pillows to recline. A stereo with record player.
There were posters of bands like Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin and Hendrix. I certainly couldn’t fault him for his taste in American rock music. Ali’s pretty cool. I felt grateful the universe brought us together by chance.
“Sit over here, he gestured, I’ll come back.” He flipped on the stereo, pulled the chain on a floor lamp and exited. At this point I was actually getting hungry and looking forward to experiencing home cooked delicacies and hospitality.
Maybe 10 minutes later, Ali returned. When the door opened, he was balancing an ornate silver tray. On top was a silver tea service with embossed cups and a colorful plate of cookies. He set them on a low brass table and pulled up a colorful cushion with geometric patterns.
He poured fragrant steeping hot mint tea into my cup and proffered the plate of cookies. I asked when we would go meet his family? He answered, “when dinner ready.”
We continued bonding over American music, mint tea, local cookies and stilted conversation comparing life in America versus life in Morocco. He practiced his English. He wanted to learn slang and curse words and jokes. He taught me some in Arabic.
Ali went to change the record and came back with an ornate carved tin box. He removed a small curved bladed scabbard with carved brass handle, and a foil wrapped rectangle that looked about the size of a thick Hershey bar. Initially if not foolishly, I thought he was opening some fine Moroccan chocolate to share. But how naive could I be?
“You are American” Ali said, “you like Hashish…” I was not sure exactly if this was a question or a statement. But immediately my internal warning bells started to go off. He unwrapped the foil to reveal a brick of brownish fudge. He took the scabbard and scraped a shaving off and held it under my nose. “This very good stuff! Very good. The best!”
He then brought out a small hookah and put the shaving into it. Then he lit it. He inhaled deeply and the rich scent of Hashish filled the room. Then he handed the hose to me. “Take. You try. You will like.”
Born a child of the seventies, a musician and traveler, I confess I was not exactly innocent when it came to organic herbal indulgences. Morocco was world famous for its hashish. So, as they say “when in Rome”… besides, strict Muslims are forbidden to drink alcohol, so being pleasantly stoned for dinner might even be enjoyable. I’d talk up a storm and probably get the munchies big time. The last thing I would want is offend my host… so …I took a toke.
I felt the sensation of light headedness and warmth spread through my body. It felt good. Really good. I coughed. Ali laughed. We smoked some more. We found ourselves singing along with Phil Collins to the theme song from “Against All Odds” at the tops of our lungs. Phil sang, ‘how can you just turn and walk away…and leave without a trace…” We sounded so horrible, but we didn’t care. We laughed hard at the lunacy of our stoned, bilingual, wounded animal duet.
Ali then pointed to the hash still sitting on the small tray table between us. “You like yes? You really like!” Then with great aplomb, he pushed the entire brick in my direction. He looked me in the eyes and said one word. “Gift’. “
Shit!” I thought. Panic jumped in. Paranoia. Reality? Like instant buzz kill. What if this was all a set up? What if the local police busted in? I had nightmares remembering the film “Midnight Express” and the thought that I might star in the sequel was terrifying.
No bad deed goes unpunished. I pushed it back. “I’m so sorry… but I can
not accept…ah…gift…” Ali pushed it towards me again. “But you must.” Me: “No, no… LE CHOUKRAN…”
Ali: “Then if you no want gift, how much you buy?” Buy? I had no intention of buying any hash. What have I gotten myself into now?
“How much money you have?” Suddenly my new “friend” was all business. Me: “I don’t carry money on me. Really, I don’t.” Ali: “Why you no have money? You are American!” I answered honestly, if not ironically, “I am afraid I would get robbed.” Ali: “I know you Americans. You have money. So how much you buy?” Me: “I’m sorry Ali. I don’t normally smoke Hashish. I don’t want to buy Hashish. Please take me back to Marrakech.”
Suddenly agitated and flustered, Ali picked up the knife and waved it at me. “You wait here.” Like where was I going to go? I prayed he actually was just checking to see if dinner was ready.
Then the door burst open. Three menacing looking Arab males in their 30’s stomped in, followed by Ali. I wasn’t sure if they were even Moroccans. They had beards and smelled unbathed and all three were physically larger than me. They stood over me. They all had gold chains dangling around their necks.
I slunk into the cushion and hugged the pillow in front of me defensively. “Why you no buy from my Cousin?” one shouted. “How much money you have?” the other asked. “You have watch? Camera?” “No. No, I don’t.”
They seemed very annoyed. Well, angry really. I was inwardly terrified and outwardly trying to play it cool as I could. The door was blocked. No one knew I was there. I really didn’t think they were going to slit my throat, but the thought of getting roughed up and left in the desert definitely crossed my mind. It was four against one. I was still feeling the hash, now trembling and sweating. Things were not looking good. How could my traveler instincts have failed me so badly?
“Well give us what you have!” “I don’t have anything! Just leave me alone! OK? Ali invited me here. We are supposed to have dinner. With his family. Right Ali? Your “UM” (Mom) makes the best cous cous! Maybe your friends here want to join us?” That actually got a chuckle out of the group. But then they got back to business.
I had to think fast! Fortunately, some of my savvier traveling experience paid off. I specifically packed various small items I brought with me just for trading. One would be amazed how far packs of Wrigley’s chewing gum, crayons, colored pencils, Marlboro Red cigarettes, yoyos, baseball caps, or even a magic egg of Silly Putty will go when traveling around the world. And I had one item back at my hotel I knew Ali would be impressed with. A T-shirt I never wore but had not yet traded or given away.
I whispered to Ali. “Ali, what if I have a gift FOR YOU? A valuable gift. Worth a lot? Something I know you would want.” “Like what?” Ali asked curiously. I answered loudly, “You have to promise those guys won’t hurt me. Just take me back to Marrakech, NOW!”
I don’t think the muscle guys spoke good enough English to completely understand me. At least I hoped they didn’t. I sure did not want them accompanying me back to my hotel and taking my Nikon camera and my Casio keyboard. The only two valuables I did have.
Ali thought a moment. He then conversed in Arabic with the three accomplices. My guess is I was not their first tourist shake down. They did not look like they believed my offer or either of us, but Ali convinced them to wait outside. I have no idea what he told them. I could hear them arguing and cursing and smell them smoking cigarettes outside the door.
“So, what gift you have?” I got it. Ali was genuinely interested. “I have a shirt. A special shirt. A shirt given as gift to me by Michael Jackson. It has his picture on it. I will give you the shirt if you take me back to Marrakech.” “Really? Shirt?” Ali inquired. But then he thought, “How I know it is Michael Jackson’s shirt?”
He was either smart, or under the false impression I received the shirt right off of Michael’s back, complete with dance sweat. “Well, he signed it,” I improvised. “Really, you will give me signed shirt from Michael Jackson?” “Yes.” Please Karma, in the name of Allah the merciful, please let this work! Please get me back to Marrakech in one piece.
My pulse must have been 140 BPM’s. Again, Ali looked me in the eye and said, “Give me any money you have. I know you have dirhams. I buy you lunch. So you pay me for tea and biscuits. And don’t tell ANYONE.” He gestured towards to door. Seems Ali was running his own side hustle.
I reached under my shirt to my pouch and dug out the small amount of “emergency cash” I had hidden along with an American Express Traveler’s check.
I handed over my $20 dollars in Moroccan dirhams. Ali pocketed the cash. “OK Michael Jackson…we go now”.
We walked out the door. Ali talked to his gang. The men glared at me as I got on the back of Ali’s Vespa. The moment we were in motion and I saw no one giving chase, I began to feel some relief. I had escaped being held ransom in the middle of nowhere by a band of pissed off hash dealers.
We zipped out of the village and down the same dirt road we came in on as the desert sun was going down. The sky was orange and aflame. The air was think with dust. I could hear the Muzeen calling to prayer back in the little town as the light faded and again were in the darkening desert with nothing around.
Just as my blood pressure was returning to normal… Ali slowed and pulled the scooter to the side of the road. “Oh shit” I thought to myself. “What’s wrong Ali?” He simply said, “Get off.” “Get off?” “Yes. Get off”.
“Really? You’ve got to be kidding? You are going to leave me here in the middle of the desert? What about the shirt? We had a deal?” But he didn’t answer. Instead, he turned the scooter around and buzzed off back the way we came. He didn’t even look back.
At least I was alive and unharmed. I figure if I kept walking in the direction we had been heading, eventually I would reach civilization. The evening air was cool. I wouldn’t die of thirst or heat stroke in the brutal desert sun had it been high noon. I began walking in the same direction we had been heading towards, destination Marrakech. I just hoped there were no forks in the road where I would be forced to make a right, left or any other wrong decisions about.
At least a half an hour went by with no signs of life or potential rescuers on the road. No taxis! No camels! No goat herders. Nothing. But then I heard the buzz of a motor bike. It was coming up from behind. Without thinking much about it, I put out my thumb to hitch hike.
When close enough I recognized the driver. It was Ali! He pulled up to me and said, “Get on!” I did. “Why did you leave me there?” I yelled over the scooter buzz. He yelled, “You give me shirt, yes?”
“Phew!” I was glad Ali still had his priorities straight. He really WANTED that damn Michael Jackson T shirt. I might actually make it back to my hotel in one piece yet. “Really, Ali? Why did you leave me there?” And he yelled, “Gas.” He realized he didn’t have enough fuel to make it to Marrakech and back with his prized shirt, so he went home for a refill!
My next concern was how to get the shirt without letting Ali know which hotel I was at. I did not want him or his cohorts showing up to find me for any reason, even assuming I fulfilled my promise to give him the signed shirt. After my recent experience, I was paranoid. Who wouldn’t be?
But then I realized a flaw in my escape plan. I still needed a magic marker or a thick tipped pen to sign the damn thing. There was no autograph on it. Suddenly my situation was looking complicated again. I instructed Ali to pull up at a different hotel just down the street and across from mine. I did not want him to know where I was actually staying. I felt his gaze into my back as he watched me hurry inside. I got lucky that there was also a side exit through their coffee shop allowing me to escape unnoticed and sprint back to my hotel.
I thought about ditching him completely. But what if he and his gang came back to find me? I ran to my hotel’s front desk desperately hoping someone had a magic marker or anything that could write clearly on fabric. I dinged the bell at the front desk. A uniformed concierge appeared. “Sorry Sir, no have Magic Marker.” I don’t think he knew what a Magic Marker was, and I was in too much of a hurry to explain.
I ran to my room to retrieve the shirt. Ironically not only did it have Michael Jackson’s picture on it, it said in big letters BEAT IT! I knew Ali would be waiting. Probably all night if that’s what it took. The thought unnerved me. I went back to the decoy hotel and thankfully the front desk clerk there found me a suitable pen.
I signed the shirt and walked out to see Ali still there on his scooter. I think he was actually surprised I came back. More surprised when I held up the shirt for him to see it was for real. He broke out in a big smile.
Then I balled it up and literally threw it at his face. He caught it. “There’s your %$#$%^ shirt Ali you “YA KA LIB”! Ali taught me that one. It means “filthy dishonest dog” in Arabic. “Now BEAT IT!” He rode off happy and laughing.
Adrenaline still pumping, I turned and ran back into the hotel with high hopes and expectations I would never ever see Ali or his friends again. Cosmically, Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” started playing in the lobby. Thank you, King of Pop, you just saved my life!