Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Terrorists and Tourists

After the 2003 bombings in Casablanca security was amped up all over Morocco. Cops and soldiers began doing foot patrols through marketplaces and neighborhoods where they didn't usually go unless there was trouble. One cop and one soldier were stationed in front of the school where I taught. The number of police checkpoints on the nation's highways increased exponentially overnight.
Just a few weeks after the bombings I took a bus from Meknès to Beni Mellal and back one weekend. Normally it's a six-hour bus ride. This time it took over eight hours to get there because the bus had to stop at every crossroads in the country while police inspected the luggage stored underneath the bus and checked the ID of every passenger. A lot of people were asked questions about their journey, but not me. My US passport was like gold. They were interested in finding terrorists, not tourists. I noticed that they waved most of the cars through the checkpoints. I guess terrorists only use public transportation.
The ride back to Meknès took about eleven hours. Not only had more police checkpoints sprung up over the weekend, but the bus was going to Fès, which meant getting off in Azrou. I had to take another bus or a grand taxi from there. It was dark by the time I arrived in Azrou. There were no busses and not enough Meknès-bound passengers to fill a grand taxi. After waiting for an hour I bought the remaining two seats just so we could leave. After one minute on the road the driver got pulled over for running a red light. He had to talk to the cop for 15 minutes and pay a bribe before we could move again. It was a long, slow, boring night time drive. Eventually I struck up a conversation with the passengers and the driver. People got out one by one along the road in Meknès until there were two of us left at the end of the route, two blocks away from my apartment. It was 11:30 PM. We got out of the taxi and each grabbed a strap of his bag as we began walking up the street.
Immediately a police paddy wagon rolled up. Two plainclothes cops and one guy in a uniform jumped out and surrounded us closely as they demanded our IDs. They barked a bunch of questions at us, concluded we were not the droids they were looking for, and sped off into the night. As we got to the head of my street and parted ways, my companion gave me a keychain as a gift. It's an inch-thick chip of wood with an Arabic prayer for travelers inscribed on it. Four years later it's in my pocket right now.

Tales from Store 24

In my last year of college I worked at the Store 24 on Boylston across the street from the Boston Public Library. It was no better and no worse than any convenience store in the US. Being in the downtown of a big city, we got some colorful customers, from disheveled drunks to yuppies to three transvestites who usually showed up around 11:00 PM.
My favorite customer was a homeless woman named Mary. She was always very polite, even when other people were rude to her. One time another homeless woman, a mean old bag lady with a wig and a manner of dress that suggested she came from old money, attacked Mary. Mary wanted to use the microwave and opened it not realizing that the other woman already had something in there. She assumed that Mary was up to no good and hit her with her umbrella and shouted all sorts of insults at her. Made a big scene. She was incensed that I would not throw Mary out of the store, so she walked out, declaring she'd never shop there again. Throughout the encounter Mary remained calm and apologetic. She didn't seem to comprehend the woman's rage but she was nevertheless a bit shaken by it. Over the next couple months I saw the madwoman show up a few times, peek in, and leave in a tizzy if she saw me behind the counter.
Sometimes I used to sit with Mary out on the sidewalk. She was always happy to hang out and shoot the breeze, always had a smile for me. She told me about her life story, about giving birth to her son two blocks away on Comm. Ave, about how her kids wanted to put her in a mental institution, about how she didn't see herself as homeless but as someone who chose to "live outside." She disappeared that winter. I got worried when spring came and I still didn't see her. Perhaps her son had her locked up after all. I was relieved when I saw her on a visit to Boston a few years later. She was sitting on a residential street in the South End. She seemed exactly the same. We sat and talked for a while. But when I asked her if I could take her picture, she said she would ask me to leave if I did so. I put my camera down and everything was cool again.
On the day I got hired my boss warned me about TEGLY, or Tobacco-Educated Gay and Lesbian Youth. They were a group of underage kids who conducted cigarette stings on convenience stores. Any clerk who sold them smokes was slapped with a $300 fine, plus another fine for the store. I was told to check everyone's age thoroughly. One night a girl who looked like she was 17 or 18 wanted to buy a pack of Camels. I asked for her ID. She said that she left it in her dorm, but that she really was 18 and a student at Emerson College. I said that I believed her but I needed to see the ID anyway. She got mad and tried to break me down through abuse. I didn't budge and she left in a huff. She returned half an hour later and threw her driver's license at me. I saw Jessica Something-or-other, age 18. As I reached up for the Camels, she grabbed her license and stormed out.
The worst aspect of the job was selling lottery tickets. First of all, the machine was some huge, primitive monstrosity from a time when computers were as big as houses. It broke down a lot. But also it was depressing and ethically questionable. I felt like a drug dealer supplying a bunch of addicts. The same poor and elderly people would come in every day and blow their government checks on tickets. They'd get aggressive if the machine was down that day. In the event that they won a couple bucks, they'd use the money to buy more tickets.
One guy who used to come in and lose every day brought in his son on his eighteenth birthday. It was a big moment for the kid, being old enough now to play the lottery just like his dear old dad. He looked over his shoulder as the kid rubbed the silver off with a coin. As they walked out the door a moment later, he put his arm around the boy and said, "Better luck tomorrow, son."

Cool Cop

Two weeks ago I took a boat from Nador, Morocco to Almeria, Spain. It was an overnight trip, about eight hours long. I hung out at the bar with a Moroccan police inspector. He was unlike any other cop I've ever met, especially in that part of the world. For starters, he boasted proudly that he's never taken a bribe in spite of his low police salary, even when it's meant going without food for days at a time. At first I thought he was full of it because it's taken for granted in Morocco that every cop in the country is on the take. Nevertheless, after getting to know him a bit I started to believe him. And not only was he an honest cop, but an interesting guy too.
He writes poetry and has a book of poems published. He plays guitar with a band. He speaks about half a dozen languages. He's religious, but gives himself some slack for being human. He's pretty sure that God will forgive him for drinking alcohol.
His mission that night was to bring two Algerian terrorists to Spain and hand them over to the Spanish authorities. They were captured in Agadir and were wanted by Interpol for playing a role in the Madrid bombings. As we spoke they were in a holding cell down below in the belly of the ship. After delivering his human cargo he planned to go shopping in Almeria for a day and buy some gifts for his wife and kid.
He asked me to send him a postcard from my hometown so he can put it on his wall with all the other postcards travelers have sent him from all over the world. Yesterday I bought him a one of the hills of Pennsylvania in their glorious fall colors.