By Henry Reichard
It is difficult to be a tourist, posing as a journalist, without suspecting that one is visiting a landmark merely to snap enough selfies to prove the visit to relatives, or interviewing an official merely to copy down enough quotes to fill a mid-sized magazine article. A strain of superficiality runs through the entire experience: a sense that one is always like the traveller who peers at a fleeting landscape beyond the train’s dust-caked window, noting the mountains and the forests but missing the sycamore standing alone on the hill, the little pond concealed beneath its branches, the fallen leaves resting on the water. We are here in Morocco for two weeks, and doubtless we will see enough of this country to fill our scrapbooks and write our stories. Sometimes it is pleasant to be doing this. Other times, though — when walking through the bustling medina amidst a flurry of foreign vowels, when speaking with a Moroccan man who smiles snidely at the Westerner who plans to become an impromptu expert on Morocco’s native Berbers — at times like this, one cannot walk away without a bitter taste lingering in the mouth.
Last Sunday we were in Rabat. It was our third day in Morocco, the first day we had spent exploring the capital city, a day made for sightseeing, and by 1:00 we had come to our first landmark: the Hassan Tower. Think of an indigo sky lightening to lavender as it approaches the horizon; the vertical glare of the noon sun bearing down on rows of white pillars on which nothing rests; a tower of red sandstone rising forty-four meters above a garden on one side of the pillars; on the other side, the bone-white stone of the mausoleum that holds the remains of Mohammed V, a former king of Morocco; a mosque beside the mausoleum with an emerald roof and doors that pagans are not permitted to enter; the murmur of Arabic, French, and a little English from the tourists walking among the pillars; the palm-breeze from the beach drowning out the sounds and smells of Rabat, leaving only a scent of street-dust and the warble from the birds that flit over the empty garden.
And think of walking among those pillars and gazing up at the tower: wondering whether these are the ruins of a fortress, or a palace, or some other structure you do not know the name for. There are many things in Rabat that have thrown me forcefully into the past — markets filled with fish-vendors and silver-smiths and rug-weavers, an occasional mule-drawn cart pushing through a narrow street — but nothing has displaced me as these ruins did. I looked up at the tower, and for a moment I was adrift: small and impermanent and sharply aware of the centuries these stones had endured; suspicious, too, that there was something hidden in the cracked stone I did not understand, that I would not understand even if I studied the tower under a microscope. I could not help myself. I wanted to brake the train. I wanted to see the leaves on the water.
I walked up to the door at the base of the tower. It was a massive thing: a giant’s door of warped wood, studded with iron, secured with three separate padlocks. I stared at the locks. A minute passed, then another member of our group called out to me. It was late, and we should have left half-an-hour ago, and the rest of the group had clambered on top of the pillars and begun posing for pictures. There were tourists climbing on top of pillars everywhere — there were so many of us that only half of the women I saw wore the hijab. The ruins do not fit into words, and even less of them fit into pictures, which cannot hold the dust-scent, or the birdsong, or even the breeze.
Henry Reichard is a rising senior in Silliman College. You can contact him at email@example.com.