Tall Tales from Morocco: Custom.

The following is a short story, inspired by the experience of a mate overseas (cheers bro). It includes some dope illustrations from the enigma Bean Sewer and was originally published on lostravellers as part of their new feature “Tall Tales”. You can cop the story in its original setting here.

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Custom.

The street outside the hotel was a cacophony of noise. Hawkers yelling, kids screaming and god knows what else. One of the robed locals approached as we walked past, a monkey perched on his shoulder and eyes full of dirham: “Hello my friend, you like monkeys? Where you from?”

Like fuck that rabid thing was getting on me. I kept my eyes lowered: “Nah mate, we’re right.” As if my response would make a difference.  “My friend. Please. You look.” That fake injured tone, the postured indignation – I’d heard it all before but you had to hand it to them: these Moroccans certainly were persistent.

It was only our second day and the chaos of the souk was undeniable, if not a little overwhelming. Metalworkers hammered pots, decapitated goat heads leered out from fly infested stalls and the ripe smell of the tannery stung my nostrils. Our friend with the monkey followed briefly until other tourists caught his eye. We didn’t lament the loss and he waddled off to peddle his unique blend of rabies and slavery elsewhere.

It was hot – fucking hot – and the crowded alleys provided welcome respite from a relentless sun, even if they did come at a cost. The souk was a warren and we were soon clueless. I wasn’t sure where we were but I did know that I didn’t want to buy any rugs – and I’d be damned if some slippery gypsy was going to convince me otherwise.

An old man biked past, silent til he saw us then instantly clandestine: “Hashish, marijuana. Hashish, my friends, good Moroccan hash, yes?” His momentum carried him past and I looked to Matt, “What dya reckon bro?”

“Uuh, dunno man, isn’t it like, fucking sketch here or whatever?”

I wasn’t sure, but didn’t really care. Weed was one expense I was willing to foot. It’d been nearly a week too, since that last smoke in Spain. And Morocco was meant to be the home of hash, a Mecca for those seeking the slanty-eyed sedation the brown lumps promised. The old man knew the game, and slowly cycled by again, whispering sweet nothings in the noise: “Friends, you like hashish yes? Good price, very high quality, best in Morocco.”

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Still, the chaos had me unsettled. I felt crowded and on edge – but it was nothing a bit of hash wouldn’t fix. Matt seemed less sure. We walked on, past a heated argument in Arabic and down another alley. Things were quieter here. I looked over my shoulder and, like some malignant apparition, there he was. “Friends, hashish? Very high quality, good price.”

Finally, isolated, I caved. Third time’s the charm – right? “Yeah, alright man. What’ve you got?” Matt interrupted: “You sure bro? This dude looks a little sketch.” Our friend was keen to put us at ease: “No friends, no problems. Here, come with me, we go look.” What was the harm? I shot Matt a look –shutthefuckupman– and he conceded, shaking his head ever so slightly.

We sat down at the table in a small room, just past the alley we had turned off previously. Our friend disappeared out back and Matt seized his opportunity: “You sure this is legit bro? Don’t they set up cunts here all the time?”

I didn’t know; after all, we’d just arrived. “It’s sweet man, don’t sweat it – just get a little hash and then we’ll be out. No worries.”

“Yeah I dunno ay, it’s on your fucking head.”

“Alright man, fuck. Just fucking chill it – be cool. I don’t want him to think we’re sketching out.”

Our conversation was cut short by the reappearance of the old man. He showed us the stuff, making a big deal of lifting it to his nose and sniffing it. It looks good to me, a nice fat nug, and the price he suggests is far cheaper than what it would be in Europe. I nod slowly, reluctant to show how keen I am. “Yeah that should be sweet, reckon you could knock a bit off the price? It’s a bit steep you know, compared to what we’ve been paying.” A white lie, told by a white liar – and not a good one at that.

“No no friend, price is already very good. Come, quick you buy. Best not to hang about. Marijuana is still illegal here, can have some problems – you know?” Matt shoots me a look that could melt steel and I give in.

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His pitch complete the façade drops and in an almost condescending fashion the old man puts the good bud into the left pocket of his stained jellaba and pulls another bag of snicklefrits out the right. The weed is so obviously different that I can’t help but feel insulted. “Hey man, what the fuck – this isn’t the same stuff.”

He leans close and his eyes narrow: “Don’t be rude, with your language – you are a guest in Morocco-” “Mate, it doesn’t matter where we are, you can’t just switch the fucking product like that.” My voice rises in pitch but in interrupting I have overstepped a boundary, and the old man is furious.

“This is not your country! You are guests here, don’t disrespect our custom!! You take and you leave. Pay now please.”

We argue to and fro for a minute or so but he is unrepentant and increasingly irate. “You buy, this is our custom. Don’t disrespect this Morocaan hospitality! You don’t want problems here…” Matt is getting antsy, looking around like the FBI is about to bust in at any moment. The old man looks to door and back. “You don’t want problems here… Morocco can be a dangerous place.”

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Matt finally snaps – “Fuck man! Just pay the fucking guy and let’s get out of here” – stepping away from the table, too incensed to stay still. “I told you this was a stupid fucking idea.” I acquiesce and count out the dirham from the wad in my wallet, throwing the notes down on the table – a final gesture of dissatisfaction that goes unnoticed by our conqueror. He returns the favour and I scoop the small packet off the table: “You leave now, ungrateful guests!”

The ill ease of this exchange fills the room and we rush to leave it behind. Paranoia lurks in the shadows of the souk and we make a beeline for where we think the hotel is. The anonymity of the street is comforting after the intensity of one-on-one interaction and I bathe in it, breathing deep while Matt mutters under his breath. We’re walking quickly, bumping through the crowd and I glance behind me, out of habit more than anything else. Instantly, I am on alert: “Fuck! Matt, is that fucking dude following us?”

Matt turns and confirms what I already knew: a wizened head is wobbling its way through the packed street behind us, unmistakable and elevated from its position above his beloved cycle. The paranoia swells and we increase our pace. “What the fuck do you think he wants? We paid him the fucking money-” “Shut up man, just keep walking. Fuck knows who’s listening.”

We’re deep in the grip of it now. The ghoulish spectre of uncertainty takes the reins and paranoia runs wild. Matt looks behind us again: “You don’t think it was a set up, do you? Like what if- what if he’s guna tip off th-”

“Fuck Matt, shut the fuck up! Just keep walking, shit’ll be fine.”

But even as I say it I’m not sure. Visions of dark prison cells and oozing walls fill my mind – was it a scam? Were things here so corrupt that the cops might turn a blind eye to his dealing for a split of the bribe we would be forced to pay?

A break in the crowd gives the old man the space he needs and he is soon upon us. I turn, hackles up and ready to face my fate – “Hey man, what the fuck do you want? We paid you for that shit, quit hassling us.” And then, equal doses of shame and relief. Our friend is angry no longer, shaking his head while handing over the camera Matt had left behind in our haste.

We eventually find our way back to the hotel and seek respite on the roof. Our doubt lingers, a normal result from moments so crammed with cortisol, and despite his benign motive we struggle to escape its grip. Part of me still expects a knock on the door and we smoke the weed quickly, in one go, and dull the paranoia with overpriced whiskey from the bar downstairs.

The old man’s words reverberate in the empty space between my ears: “Be careful now friends; smoke safe – Morocco can be a dangerous place for new travellers.”

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