A la plage.

The beach beckoned.

Soft sand, sunshine and warm water were my reward for what I had endured the previous day, my first day in Rabat.

I’d been threatened.

The threat was vague, but direct, and it was to manifest itself today. I was nervous as I left the hostel, because the man who’d made the threat knew where I was staying and had promised to get me, but I swallowed my fear and walked to Rabat Beach to bathe in its refreshing waters.

Strolling to the beach through the heavy morning air of this fascinating city was not as enjoyable as it should have been, as trepidation settled in my stomach. I reminded myself to ignore my unjustified paranoia, but I couldn’t stop worrying.

The threat which jangled my nerves eventuated after a shopping trip to buy toothpaste and a few other simple items, including the shorts and towel I was taking to the beach.

My suitcase had been delayed on the flight from Nairobi via Dubai, and I had only heavy hiking clothes to wear during Morocco’s summer heat. The problem started when I got lost among the myriad street signs bearing the name ‘Muhammed’, which hampered my search for Avenue Mohammed, where I’d been told I’d find a supermarket.

I made the mistake of arriving in Morocco with no Arabic or French. I then made the fatal mistake of backtracking and criss-crossing a major intersection in my frustrating and sweaty search for the elusive supermarket. Local man Muhammed had found me, and had offered to help me find the shop. Little did I know that he wasn’t doing it out of the goodness of his heart.

Muhammed did guide me to a supermarket. I thought he’d leave me at that point and be on his way. His directness, self-assuredness and aggressive manner had put me off from the beginning, and I was frustrated and surprised when he followed me into the shop.

Once inside, he managed to upset the female staff, make a mess, draw attention to us and make me regret my decision to follow him. At one point, he raced off to menswear to find the shorts I was now wearing to the beach, and proceeded to throw pairs at me after holding them against himself like a Moroccan Mr Bean.

I did manage to buy what I needed, except for one essential item, but once we left the shop and started walking back towards my hostel, the problems began. Mohammed lit up a cigarette upon stepping outside, and he soon realised I didn’t need him anymore. This is when the demands began. He asked for a bottle of water. I bought one for him and one for myself.

Then he wanted beer.

“Have a drink with me,” he said in the same aggressive tone he’d used on the supermarket staff. It didn’t seem right to add alcohol to this situation, but he was insistent.

“Have a drink with me. I’ll call my friends. It’ll be fun. We’ll show you Rabat. Let’s have a good time. I helped you. I found the shop. I found you the towel…” he persisted.

“I’ll buy you some more water,” I offered.

“No!” he snapped, “No water!”

And he persisted with his demands for beer, which now included beer for his friends.

“Buy me dinner,” he then demanded.

“We have dinner together!” and by this point he was virtually yelling at me, ignoring the reaction of people nearby.

“We have dinner, I know a good restaurant.”

No thanks.

“I’ll buy you a snack,” I offered hesitantly. I knew I owed him something, but I was reluctant to keep opening my wallet, lest he see how much money I was carrying, for he knew the true value of the notes more than I did.

“Where are you staying, which hotel, what’s the name?” he demanded. I said nothing. One golden rule I had remembered is to avoid telling strangers the name of your accommodation.

“You’re staying at the hostel near the medina, aren’t you?”

Yes, I was, and he knew its name, but there was no way I was admitting that to Mohammed. Then another demand. More aggressive.

“Buy me cigarettes!”

Oh, hell no, I thought. There is no way I’m buying cigarettes. I’m not swallowing more second-hand smoke and watching him drop yet another butt on the ground.

“No!”

I dropped the pretence of off-hand politeness.

“No!”

“Fuck you,” he shouted. “Fuck you man!” and soon we arrived at the intersection and stopped to await the green light.

“Fuck you man. I know where you’re staying. You are fucking nothing. This is my city…” he shouted, pointing a threatening finger at my face. The barrage continued.

“You’re a fucken cheat man, you dickhead, you are shit…”

The light turned green. I started walking. Mohammad continued the insults, then something happened. He walked in front of me, blocked my path and said:

“Fuck you man. I know where you stay. You watch out shit head. This is my city. I do things my way. Tomorrow, I show you.”

Then he walked off.

Thus, my eyes remained peeled for any sign of Muhammed as I strolled to the beach. I made it safely to the beach, where calm, inviting waters lapped the shore and local families played in the sand and splashed in the shallows.

I chose a spot, lay down my towel and sat for a moment. I drank in salty air for the first time in months and let the stress of the previous day slide away. I swam, sunbathed, swam, sunbathed and ate. Then I swam, sunbathed and drank. Time mattered little. I purged my mind of the ugly threats of the day before and looked forward to the rest of my journey through Morocco and into Europe.

As the sun sank in the sky and the call to prayer rang out over the beach, I decided it was time to farewell the beach and head back to the hostel, before deciding on dinner. In a country like Morocco, there are many inviting culinary options, so I set off with a decided spring in my step.

It was only when I reached the hostel that I realised. I realised what I’d forgotten to buy at the shop yesterday while Mohammed harassed the staff. I’d forgotten to buy sun cream, and I was burnt from head to toe. My face was burnt despite the broad-brimmed hat. My back, chest, arms and legs were red raw. The tops of my feet too. This is going to hurt for days. Then it will peel.

So much for a relaxing day at the beach.

All this for a tube of toothpaste.

What are you willing to endure for a tube of toothpaste?

As much as I endured one hot and humid morning in Rabat?

“Find Avenue Mohammed, there you’ll find a supermarket,” advised the helpful receptionist at the hostel.

“If you don’t find this supermarket, you will find many other shops and you can buy what you need.”

What I needed wasn’t much. Some toothpaste, a toothbrush and other toiletries, a towel and some summer clothes. My suitcase hadn’t arrived on the flight from Nairobi (via Dubai), and I was walking the sultry streets of Rabat in long pants and hiking boots. The directions were straightforward, so I assumed the little shopping trip would be straightforward. I was wrong.

I’d never been to a Muslim country before, so I didn’t realise that almost every street sign carries the name Mohammed. I found an Avenue Mohammed and I pondered which sign to follow at the crowded intersection in downtown Rabat. It was too hot to walk back to the hostel for clarification.

Oh well, I guess I just choose one.

Here we go.

I crossed the bustling intersection with sweat already trickling down my back and collecting in my hiking boots. Avenue Mohammed stretched before me, with shops of all descriptions hugging its curb. From behind my sunglasses, I scanned the street and the shops for my destination. The sunlight wasn’t blinding, but the glasses shielded my darting eyes from locals and disguised my recent arrival to the city. It was a safety tip I’d learned while travelling in Kenya and other parts of Africa: never look lost.

Ten minutes later I saw no evidence of a supermarket, or any shop selling toothpaste. This is the wrong avenue. I needed to return to the busy intersection and try again. I crossed the avenue, to avoid backtracking. I then walked back on the other side of the road, walking into a few shops on my way to pretend I wasn’t lost. I didn’t need a bunch of flowers, cigarettes or a new mobile phone case. I needed to look like I wasn’t lost.

Back at the intersection, I chose another avenue. Let’s see how this goes. I wiped the sweat from my brow then replaced my broad-brimmed hiking hat. I rolled up my sleeves and set to work. Darting, scanning and searching for a supermarket and a cure for my bad breath. The shoe shop seemed a good place to pretend to be shopping, as did the spice shop. The third shop I entered under the guise of shopping was not so useful. Aisle after aisle sold only multi-coloured fabrics in the shapes of burqas, hijabs and niqabs.

Oops, I don’t think I’m supposed to be in here. Get out, get out…before anyone notices.

Soon my problems began. Avenue no 2 did not hold a supermarket, and I had to return to the intersection yet again.

I was spotted.

A sweaty, tired, anxious, jetlagged Caucasian in hiking clothes stands out on the sultry streets of Rabat, and I soon had company.

“Hello,” he greeted me enthusiastically, “how are you?”

“I’m fine thanks,” I said dismissively, trying to be polite but firm and non-committal.

“Where are you from?”

“Australia”

And the questions continued. Normally innocent questions, but in this context they were not. I knew that he knew I was lost. His eagerness, directness and self-assuredness put me ill at ease. He rightly assumed I didn’t speak Arabic and soon discovered I didn’t speak French. He also sensed that I needed something. I was extremely reluctant to accept his help, but I was also extremely hot, thirsty, tired and frustrated. If I tell him I’m just after some toothpaste and a few other simple items, maybe I’ll get what I need and I can be rid of him.

“This way,” he commanded, and we set off determinedly down avenue no 3. My new friend, also called Mohammed, lit up a cigarette and tried to glean as much as possible from me in his broken but functional English. I moved to his left to avoid breathing in his second-hand smoke and berated myself for becoming helpless. Four months travelling solo in southern Africa had taught me a lot, but maybe not enough.

We soon found a department store and he clarified what I needed. He demanded assistance from the women in the store, and his condescending, aggressive tone only diminished my opinion of him. Then it turned farcical. He found the towel rack and started testing different towels. He rubbed some of them up against his face and compared their softness, while reminding me of the importance of a soft towel. Locals stared at him then at me. I couldn’t claim I didn’t know him, as he was the only person in the store speaking English. The pantomime ended when I selected a cheap towel to use until my suitcase arrived. He didn’t approve, I didn’t care.

He scurried away and left the staff to arrange the towels he’d left strewn all over the shelves. How do you say sorry in French or Arabic? I thought. It was too late anyway because he’d charged off to menswear.

A pair of shorts would suffice for the beach. How I longed for the beach right now, as my body odour overpowered my bad breath. But soon the pantomime sprang back to life. Act II involved my friend throwing shorts at me after holding them against himself like a Moroccan Mr Bean.

What have I got myself into?

Embarrassed and annoyed, I hastily grabbed a pair of shorts, not even sure they would fit, and walked off trying to find some toothpaste. Mohammed had convinced himself that his presence was essential to my shopping trip, indeed my survival, but had forgotten that every supermarket in the world is basically the same. I’d actually hoped he would just direct me to the shop and be on his merry way, but Mohammed was a seasoned performer, and I his latest audience.

Fortunately, Mohammed restrained himself from ‘demonstrating’ the toothpaste and toothbrush before letting me fill my shopping basket, and we made our way to the check-out. Mohammad morphed from comical to agitated in the check-out queue and this signalled a very uncomfortable walk back to the hostel.

He lit up a cigarette as soon as we stepped outside and I copped another mouthful of second-hand smoke. He realised I didn’t need him anymore and this is when the demands began. He asked for a bottle of water. Fair enough, I bought one for him and one for myself. I could already feel the onset of a dehydration headache, and the water was too late but welcome.

Then he wanted beer.

“Have a drink with me,” he said in the same aggressive tone he’d used on the supermarket staff.

Isn’t he a Muslim? I thought. I don’t care if he drinks, that’s entirely his choice, but should I be drinking with a Muslim?

It doesn’t seem right to add alcohol to this situation, but he was insistent.

“Have a drink with me. I’ll call my friends. It’ll be fun. We’ll show you Rabat. Let’s have a good time. I helped you. I found the shop. I found you the towel…” he persisted.

“I’ll buy you some more water,” I offered. I’d hastily gulped down the first bottle myself.

“No!” he snapped, “No water!”

And he persisted with his demands for beer, which now included beer for his friends.

“Buy me dinner,” he then demanded when he knew I wasn’t going to have a drink with him.

“We have dinner together!” and by this point he was virtually yelling at me, ignoring the reaction of people nearby.

“We have dinner, I know a good restaurant.”

No thanks, I thought, there is no way I wanted to have dinner with this angry man.

“I’ll buy you a snack,” I offered hesitantly. I knew I owed him something, but at the same time realised that if I bought him one thing he might keep asking for more. Plus, if I kept opening my wallet to make purchases, he would see how much cash I had. It may have been quite a lot, and it may have tempted him to demand more. I’d withdrawn cash from the ATM at the airport, and as I’d only arrived in the country a few hours earlier, I didn’t really know the value of the notes in my pocket. How much money was I carrying in real terms? I didn’t know. Mohammed would.

“Where are you staying, which hotel, what’s the name?” he demanded. I said nothing. One golden rule I had remembered is to avoid telling strangers the name of your accommodation. It can never end well.

“You’re staying at the hostel near the medina, aren’t you.”

Yes, I was, and he knew its name, but there was no way I was admitting that to Mohammed. Thank goodness for the sunglasses.

Then another demand. More aggressive.

“Buy me cigarettes!”

Oh hell no, I thought. There is no way I’m buying you cigarettes you creepy, scary man. I’m not swallowing more of your second-hand smoke and watching you drop yet another butt on the ground.

“No!”

I dropped the pretence of off-hand politeness.

“No!”

“Fuck you,” he shouted. “Fuck you man!” and soon we arrived at the intersection and stopped to await the green light. He kept swearing at me, and the entire street tuned in for Mohammad’s Act III.

“Fuck you man. I know where you’re staying. You are fucking nothing. This is my city…” he shouted, pointing a threatening finger at my face. Why do people always learn profanity in a second language?

He does know where I’m staying. Why did I get myself in this situation? How did I end up a public spectacle on my first day in a foreign country where I don’t know anyone or even speak the language?

The barrage continued.

“You’re a fucken cheat man, you dickhead, you are shit…”

Wow, his vocabulary is more extensive than I thought. The light turned green. I started walking. Mohammad continued the insults, then something happened. He walked in front of me, blocked my path and said:

“Fuck you man. I know where you stay. You watch out shit head. This is my city. I do things my way. Tomorrow, I show you.”

“I’ll show you,” what does that mean?

Then he walked off

I looked straight ahead, ignored the glares from passers by, and walked steadily towards the hostel. I took deep breaths of Rabats sultry air and tried to calm myself. Don’t look back. Stay calm. Concentrate. Concentrate on navigating your way back to the hostel.

What if he’s following me?

Don’t get paranoid.

But what if he is?

I ducked into the Medina. The hostel was on the corner of the Medina, not far from here. Maybe I can lose myself in the crowds and the maze of streets, and drop my new friend if he is indeed following me. I shot into side streets and narrow lanes and I was convinced I’d lost him.

I lost him, but I was lost.

I now made another new friend. I don’t know if his name was Mohammad. I never caught his name. He was young. Maybe 12. And he knew I was lost.

He motioned me to follow.

Not again, not another ugly interaction with a local, but again I had no choice. I was even more tired, more sweaty, more smelly and more frustrated, so I followed.

We ducked through lanes and alleys crowded with people and stalls and carts and souvenirs and tourists and noise and animals, and the young boy stepped them all like an agile footballer. We ducked and weaved our way through the ancient Medina and suddenly we arrived.

The hostel.

But how? I hadn’t exchanged a word with the boy, or told him where I was staying. It was probably the most popular hostel in Rabat, but it wasn’t the only one.

He knew.

“Oui, Merci,” I said to the boy, relieved to have made it. I guess there are some honest, helpful people in Rabat after all. Thank you young man for restoring my faith in humanity. He smiled, then held out his hand. Of course, he expected a little reward for his troubles. I placed a note in his hand and he demanded more. I placed another one in his hand and he seemed satisfied. He ran off ducking and weaving.

Weary, thirsty, hungry, scared, smelly and fed-up, I walked to the bathroom. I reached for the toothpaste and spread it on the toothbrush.

Aaaaah, clean teeth never felt so good.

Image: William Warby

Australia’s biggest fear.

Australia is afraid. It is home to the world’s deadliest snakes, to poisonous marine stingers and deadly crocodiles. It suffers through annual floods, fires and cyclones, and dangerous spiders lurk in its undergrowth. But something else terrifies Australia: History.

Australians are afraid of their own history. A deep fear of acknowledging its past paralyses Australia and prevents the majority of its citizens from making public statements about the colonisation of the land and the suffering of Aboriginal people.

Politicians are afraid to acknowldge the truth of Australian history.

The current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is afraid. In 2020, he publicly declared that there was no slavery in Australia. He later qualified the statement with obfuscation in order to extricate himself from a PR disaster, but he never acknowledged that slavery did exist in Australia.

On a separate occasion, the PM dismissed the suffering of indigenous Australians when he said,

“You know, when those 12 ships turned up in Sydney, it wasn’t a particularly flash day for the people on those vessels either.”

He was referring to the First Fleet, which carried colonisers from Great Britain and began the dispossession of Aboriginal land in 1788. There were only 11 ships.

Scott Morrison is not stupid. He attended an academically-selective high school and he holds university qualifications. He is also a master of marketing (many Australians argue that’s all he is). Morrison knows the consequences of telling the truth. He knows he has to appease the ignorant, racist, lowly-educated constituency which keeps him and his party in power.

Slavery occured in Australia. It was called ‘Blackbirding’ in some places, and called ‘education’ in others – it was never called slavery.

Blackbirding lured indigenous Australians and people from islands north of Australia to the mainland with the promise of work and high wages. Upon arrival at the farm, the workers were not paid for their work, were treated horrendously, forced to work in stifling tropical heat and horrible conditions, and were prevented from leaving or returning to their homelands.

When indigenous children were stolen from their families, they were ‘educated’ in the ways of the white man then sent to work for white families. Girls were normally set to work as domestic servants, while boys were forced to be farmhands. They were not paid. This is slavery.

Wave Hill walk-off

Another example of exploitation led to the Wave Hill walk-off. Some Australians learned about it in their history classes, some learned about it through the Paul Kelly song: From Little Things Big Things Grow.

The original inhabitants of Wave Hill, the Gurindji people, sustained the vast cattle station. In return, children under 12 were forced to work, accommodation and rations were inadequate, Aboriginal women were sexually abused and forced into prostitution for rations and clothing. There was no safe drinking water, nor sanitation or rubbish removal. In August, 1966, the Gurindji walked off under the leadership of Vincent Lingiari.

Furthermore, many indigenous Australians are still trying to recoup unpaid wages to this day.

The Prime Minister is not the only politician with a selective memory. The current opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, recently omitted a crucial paragraph from a speech about indigenous Australian soldiers. Albanese recognised the indigenous Australians who have fought in many wars for Australia, but it was later discovered he had omitted the following paragraph:

“A continent for which their ancestors had fought so desperately during the frontier wars-wars we have not yet learned to speak of so loudly.”

Albanese was happy to mention overseas wars, but left out the paragraph about the war on Australian soil between British colonisers and indigenous people. He left out the paragraph which concedes that Australians do not talk about colonisation – do not talk about the truth of our history.

Why have we not yet learned to speak of it so loudly?

Albanese’s office later claimed the omission was unintentional. Maybe it was, or maybe Albanese and the Labor party also feel desperate to appease the racist majority-especially since a federal election is expected this year. Thus, the current leaders of both of Australia’s major parties have failed to publicly acknowledge the truth of Australians history.

The national broadcaster is also afraid. The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) initially referred to January 26 as Invasion Day and not Australia Day in 2021. The label Invasion Day recognises the colonisation of the land, as opposed to the peaceful settlement myth perpetuated in some history books. The ABC soon removed Invasion Day from all official publications and replaced the term with Australia Day.

History is political

Politicians determine the curriculum taught to Australian school students. Until recently, Aussie school kids learned that Aboriginal people were ‘primitive’ and ‘savages’. That they were simply ‘nomads’ who wandered the continent living hand-to-mouth, devoid of science, culture or technology. Students were also taught that Australia was ‘settled’ and not ‘invaded’, that the British were ‘settlers’ and not ‘colonisers’.

Textbooks soften the truth. Many Australians learned that indigenous people died in large numbers due to the introduction of disease for which they had no immune system, and not as a result of murder. Many politicians fought, and continue to fight, to keep this version of history in the school curriculum, and while the teaching material has changed, it is not always becoming more truthful.

Apartheid

Apartheid existed in Australia. Most Australians don’t know, or don’t want to admit, that this is true. The incident at Moree pool proves the existence of apartheid. Aboriginal people were officially excluded from the public swimming pool in the rural NSW town of Moree. Summer gets very hot in Moree. A group of Aboriginal activists visited the town in 1965 and attempted to enter the pool with local indigenous children. Three hours of debate and tension followed, during which fights broke out and non-Aboriginal locals threw eggs at protestors.

Moree Council eventually rescinded the by-law and Aboriginal people were allowed to swim at the pool. Aussies are happy to criticise South Africa for its apartheid, but are largely reluctant to admit its existence in Australia. Or, as one white South African once told me,

“South Africa is not the only country with apartheid, the mistake they made was giving it a name.”

Why is Australia so afraid of its history?

Why are so many Australians afraid to tell the truth about their past?

Racism.

Australia is a racist country, and the worst of this racism is directed at indigenous people. Racism justified the invasion of Australia by the British. The notion of Terra Nullius, or uninhabited land, justified the dispossession of the land from the original inhabitants. If no one lives here, they believed, then it can’t be stolen – it belonged to no one. Terra Nullius is supported by notions of cultural and racial superiority. The colonisers saw people on the land. They interacted with them. However, they claimed the land was uninhabited because it was devoid of structure and buildings which in European minds constituted habitation.

Racism is not going away. News outlets carried images of a large group of Caucasian Australian men celebrating their membership of a neo-Nazi group on Australia Day weekend this year. Many citizens and even elected politicians have publicly declared their support for Trump and his rhetoric. Fringe political parties with a platform of racism and bigotry, such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, are winning more votes in elections – which is why mainstream parties are so keen to appease the racists.

Lies

Australians are also fed lies about the consequences of telling the truth. Australians have been convinced that officially acknowledging the truth will cost them their homes, as indigenous people will make endless land rights claims and take back possession of suburbs throughout the nation.

Image:www.worldatlas.com