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?”
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.
I dropped the pretence of off-hand politeness.
“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.
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.
“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