I had gone to Marrakesh because I had seen a movie once. Actually, a few movies, and in them it always looked so particularly strange. I don’t think I’m the type to use the word Romantic but I thought, “Definitely mysterious.” I wanted that. Something foreign; a place that smelled like strong spices and weird smoke. I don’t mean that in a racist offensive way, I mean that it looked like a place that had a culture different from Pittsburgh, PA. Or, you know, had culture at all.
A culture other than “urban commute” anyway, which was how I spent a good chunk of my time at that point in my life. I took the train most days to work, if I didn’t oversleep or need to be somewhere at a specific time. Public transit usually would eat up a good three hours of my day when you factored in the walk to and from the station, the waiting, and then the actual travel time. That was on good days when there weren’t fatalities or suicides. But I didn’t have a car, which was good.
So the idea that I might want to do something more exciting with my life should be understandable if you have ever experienced repeatedly watching the same ugly mass produced buildings slide by you while you’re going somewhere you don’t want to go. In my case, it was the cement colored tech sector the Pittsburgh downtown marketers were dubbing “Silicon Strip”. I had been grinding away there in what I’d been told was one of the last unexploited job markets; a place where a reasonably bright man might still make a name for himself. Because like everyone else on every other urban commute, I knew that to be employable you had to be a wunderkind, and everyone I knew was competing for that title while running out of time.
But Marrakesh. Going there could make me a much more interesting person. Then I would have stories to tell, insights to share, things which might give me an edge in interviews or on dates. Maybe I would accidentally smuggle hashish and end up in an Arab dungeon. Or maybe I would meet a woman that was bad news who’d break my heart, leaving me dark and brooding. Maybe I would discover the meaning of life? Something to single me out from the millions of other drones just like me.
Once I’d thought up the idea I was off and running. It’s funny, as a person, I have never been particularly impulsive. I guess back then I thought I could make up for it by doing something bold for once. I didn’t even shop around much for flights. I think once I made sure my passport was still good I just did a general search and let the algorithm decide. Because it would have felt good. Different. Which would mean maybe I was going to be different. Let’s call that the beginning of my complete departure from the rank-and-file-young-professional-with-a-conscience-and-24-hour-wireless-access.
I took a leave of absence from work, which they and I both knew equated to quitting, because they certainly weren’t going to hold my place for me. But the pretense avoided the awkwardness of goodbyes or insinuation of judgement on either of our parts. For someone who relied on job security for peace of mind, this was huge, although somehow it didn’t feel huge. I guess I figured I was going to come back a different, better person anyway and would then deserve a job that would meet my expectations while recognizing my increased market price. Other than that, I didn’t really have anyone I needed to say goodbye to.
After the long and very cramped flight, the ride from the airport to my airbnb was an unexpected but pleasant surprise. The guy was just waiting for me when I got off the plane. At first I wasn’t even sure he really was there for me, as I hadn’t arranged for a Lyft, but he had a sign with my name on it and was smiling. It naturally made me suspicious, but I shook that instinct off, I figured it was more like the “new me” to take a chance. It was a really good step in the right direction. The guy walked me to a rusty looking motorbike and climbed on. He gestured to the seat and told me to get behind him. I did.
It was amazing. I wasn’t even wearing a helmet and the guy driving made me feel huge. He must have weighed ninety pounds. But it’s hard to take pictures riding on the back of a motorcycle, even if you’re just holding on to the back. It was then I had my first cultural epiphany: “pics or it didn’t happen” is retarded… (as in completely backwards, not in the offensive way).
It turned out the guy on the bike, Mehdi, was also my host. This was convenient but honestly I was a little disappointed. That meant one less person in Marrakesh I could call my friend later on. But then Mehdi showed me my room which had hot tea and cakes already laid out for my arrival. The walls were sweating and there were the necessary cockroaches and a TV from 1987. It was great. I was exhausted and the mattress was clean enough, but I didn’t sleep well. I was worried about what I’d gone and done with my life. The next morning Mehdi looked me over and recommended that I get lost in the souks as soon as possible.
The souks. My god! It was an assault on all my senses at once. That wasn’t as pleasant as I thought it would be, but man, it got the brain going. It actually made me kind of ill, but in a good way. The charcoal soot briquettes they used at the food stalls made dark clouds of smoke that mixed with the smell of toasted sesame seeds and anise. And in between it all, hundreds of cars and motorcycles poked and prodded their way around streams of people and carts full of garlic, ginger, hot chiles or freshly dyed scarfs and hats and everything was red, orange or blue. And everyone was yelling. Sometimes over the traffic, sometimes to get my attention. I don’t know.
Now, like I said, back in Pittsburgh when I used to shop online I’d buy stuff for work like nice suits and travel bookings for conferences. I would spend hours price comparing and doing per-hour cost breakdowns. I didn’t have an assistant like I had been led to believe I would, and so I did a lot of that kind of work myself. I thought I was pretty good at it. Turns out, online negotiating has absolutely nothing to do with an actual Arab marketplace.
Instead of me being in any sort of control, it was like, every time I picked something up or even looked at it too long a whole dramatic production would be set in motion all around me, without me noticing. There were elaborate plots played out featuring multiple characters, heroes and villains, and beautiful girls in trouble, and me as the gaping audience, all just to get me to buy a tassled hat or a teacup. At first I had no idea about any of it, but slowly I got to know the stock characters well: the kindly but greedy old man, the young seemingly sympathetic son, the lurking owner in the back, the suspicious shop next door, the doe-eyed ingenue, and an endless and sordid crowd of extras. In every transaction they all had their part to play, and they would simply switch roles with somebody else the next day. It kept it interesting.
As for the merchants, from them the whole glorious world of language was opened to me. Not just Arabic, French and pidgin-English, but all sorts of subtle body language, facial expressions, and finger gestures. Everything took on meaning and indicated something very specific, if I paid close enough attention. It seems almost wrong to just call it “haggling”. It set my brain on fire. How quickly the thoughts came and went. It was beyond imagination.
The first few weeks learning all these new things were a blur. Every day I found myself lost and wandering through the marketplace, eating just to have a place to sit down. I found out everything was delicious. I finally realized why people like tea. One day I’d somehow haggled a good price for a hammam, which is sort of like a Turkish sand massage and so even my skin was raw and exposed to the weird sun. Maybe all these things combined with the spices in the air and the language in my ears produced a kind of sensory overload that made me kind of perpetually high. I think my senses had been dulled for so long eating WholeFoods, looking at cement and cement-colored buildings, listening to my earbuds, checking my phone and smelling nothing but dude deodorant and laundry all the time that it all overwhelmed me. But whatever it was, for the first time in a long time…the first time maybe ever…I was happy. I was living.
It must have been about a month and some change into the trip that I sort of came out of the daze, if you could call it that. The intoxication of intense life being lived around me finally became second nature and my money was beginning to run low. I wasn’t going to last for too much longer. This woke me up a bit to the reality that II had to start getting some real adventures under my belt if I was going to make this trip a worthwhile endeavor.
Mehdi’s cousin, Youssef, and his wife Imane lived upstairs and they or one of their kids or cousins (I was never sure which) was always checking in on me or making me try something strange to eat. One of them had been telling me about this place called Ait-Benhaddou in the High Atlas mountains.It was supposed to be some ancient city that had been the center of the world once upon a time but now was pretty creepy looking. I decided that sounded like a good place. Hiking up a big mountain named after a Greek demi-god…or was Atlas a Titan? Either way, it was something specific I could later point to. Maybe I would be hurt or need a sherpa or oxygen.
Youssef and Imane insisted I not go on one of the pre-packaged tours because they said they were scams. So with some help from the kids, I somehow figured out the bus schedules. Needless to say my phone had been useless since I arrived and anyway I’d sworn off internet.
I was at the pickup point behind the Koutoubia mosque before 3:30 am and lo and behold, a bus rolled up out of the half-darkness. It was me and a couple of National Geographic reporters on board. Everyone else seemed to be locals who I guessed lived or worked up there in the mountains. The bus was old, but had carpets and curtains on everything. I had by this time gotten really good at sleeping anywhere, so by keeping my head down I was able to snooze until the sun came up and it got too warm. When I woke up I found myself looking down on the smog and dust of Marrakesh through the window to the valley below.
It was still afternoon when the bus got to the end of the paved road. You had to either walk or take a taxi to get up the dirt lane that led into the clay city of Ait-Benhaddou and I chose to walk. It was about five miles, which was just long enough that I passed once again into the hyperreality of an ancient city. I was really thirsty by the time I got there so I went first thing in search of something to drink.. I found a crumbling hookah lounge and let my feet rest as I smoked the sweet tobacco and drank cup after cup of mint tea.
Within an hour, it seemed the cafe was filled with fezzes and men. The air got so thick my eyes started to burn and I couldn’t see or breathe. I jostled to get out, finally stumbling through a side entrance onto one of the endless connected rooftops that comprised the heart of the old city.
With clay walls and ladders practically surrounding me, a scrawny man with snarls for a beard beckoned me over to his blanket. I actually rubbed my eyes like they do in the movies to make sure the smoke wasn’t making them tweak out, that I was seeing what I saw. That crooked man could have been forty-five or he could have been a hundred. His teeth stood like lonely sentries positioned intermittently around his tobacco stained smile. He invited me to sit down. Mosque bells began ringing and the streets emptied out below us. His blanket was empty of any goods, save a small cushion I proceeded to sit down on
“My friend, you have come a long way to get here,” he said knowingly and with a slightly British accent. “Isn’t it about time you got what what you came for?”
“And what did I come for?” I challenged him, but playfully. I had learned the initial moves of negotiating. I figured he would reveal something truly useless, but I might get a good history out of it along with whatever souvenir he was hiding.
“Fame, riches, eternal life…it all depends on you, my young friend.”
“I suppose you have something that will bring me all of those things?”
“No. But perhaps one of those things…”
From under his kaftan he revealed a battered golden box, although it may have been brass. He placed it before me as though he had the hands of an elegant woman, instead of the yellowed fingers and thick ribbed nails of an old beggar.
“Open it.” he flashed that crooked smile at me again. I was starting to feel lightheaded.
“Shouldn’t you be, like, in prayer with everyone else right now?”
“Leave my own salvation to me. Right now we are concerned with you. Go ahead. Open it.”
Maybe it was the altitude catching up with me. But this seemed like it. Like the thing that was going to transform me forever. I lifted the lid.
Inside, set carefully on a tiny silk cushion, was a small shriveled hand that had been cut off at the wrist. Coarse long hair hung about it in matted, pale whorls. The fingers were blackish, the pads of them pressed flat.
“It’s a monkey’s paw.” I said in disbelief.
“A Moroccan Barbary macaque to be precise. Very rare.” He was so sincere.
“I know this story!” I really was excited, and truly appreciative of his sense of humor. I realized I was probably the thousandth young American searching for his soul to pass by his blanket. It was so postmodern and self-aware. I was really impressed.
“Yes. It’s your story, my young friend.”
“No! I mean, it’s that story were the guy makes wishes on a monkey’s paw and they come true in messed up ways. I think it was CREEPSHOW or The Twilight Zone Movie, whichever had the one with Stephen King,”
“Creepshow? How interesting. So then you know what you must do?”
“Well, if this was real I would get three wishes and then…”
“ONE wish!” he interjected, harshly.
“Well, in the movie it was three wishes. I mean it’s usually three, isn’t it? With stories?”
“No. It is not. It is ‘usually’ none!” He chastised me like a boss.
“So how much are you asking?”
“Two thousand dirham,” he insisted.
I thought about it. The initial price was way too steep for a morbid souvenir. Too bad, it really was pretty unusual. I reached out my hand to pick it up. As soon as I touched it a freezing shock ran down my spine. It was a neat trick.
“One thousand dirham.” I countered, the paw in my hand. He spat over his shoulder to announce his disgust.
“This is not a bargain. This is an opportunity.” His milky eyes glazed with disappointment. “I thought you were different…”
Looking back, was I different then? Had I changed at all from who I’d been? I thought the answer was yes. I took out my wallet and handed him his money.
Now an approving smirk replaced his scowl.
“You have taken the opportunity. Good. Now. What will you do with it?”
“It might make a cool keychain”, I said.
“No! It is NOT a keychain.” His anger was real this time as he pulled the box away from me. I thought it must have been a religious thing and I guess it was.
“You do not get to keep the paw. The paw stays with me! One wish. That is what you have contracted for. You make it . Now!”
“Shit,” I thought “I’ve gone and let myself be taken.” This ugly little man had hustled me good. He’d already gotten my money and what did I have? I should have known better, hadn’t I learned anything? I was angry, sure, but more at myself for being so gullible. I must have been fooling myself that I’d learned a damn thing in those souks and sheesha bars and bathhouses in the last few weeks. I was just as mediocre at the game of life as I’d ever been. At that moment, I knew that I wasn’t good enough, that I’d never been good enough. I needed to be better than I was if I was going to make it. Sharper.
With the bitterest words a clever guy can muster I shot out
“Okay, I wish I was smarter!”
The old man’s face registered the words I’d said. I thought he was about to cry. I swear there were tears. But then he just started laughing. It was this really hard, raspy laugh that seemed to come up from his guts or the center of hell.
“Your stories have taught you nothing.” He removed the paw from my hands and placed it back in the box.
“Go home. You have gotten what you wanted.”
And so I went home. Defeated by the shysters all over again. I packed up my worthless belongings over the next few days and said my goodbyes. I left Mehdi what remained of my money, which was considerable. I gave the souvenirs I’d bought to the kids to sell, if they could. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d failed. I certainly didn’t feel any smarter, that was for sure.
I arrived back in Pittsburgh without any fanfare on Monday, November 7, 2016. The next day, to my utter horror and amazement, the wish I had made back on the monkey’s paw came true. It came true for a whole lot of us. And it was horrible. Not because I had become a genius. No. It appeared that overnight, the vast majority of people in the United States had become imbeciles. Sure, I was smarter, technically but only because I was surrounded by morons.
The old man was right. I had learned nothing from the stories.