Bound in Morocco: Part 1 – “Welcome to Marrakech!”


I

I lay inert, feeling the morphine flooding through my system, sending a warm glow to my face and limbs, as if I was made of ice and had started to thaw. All cares and worries drained away and I felt almost happy, despite the circumstances. When my mind had cleared sufficiently, I thought back over the events of the previous two weeks.
The whole strange affair began one Christmas as I set off for Marrakech on a fortnight’s walking holiday in the warm Moroccan sunshine. We had departed the damp, foggy air of Luton airport on the morning of the 20th of December and three hours later were touching down at Casablanca for the connecting flight. Already, blue sky and sunshine were the order of the day and an announcement told us it was eighteen degrees at the airport.
Our bags would be transferred to the new plane and we had an hour to stretch our legs and go through to the departure lounge. I took the opportunity to smoke a cigarette and visit a luggage shop where I purchased a capacious grey Samsonite briefcase, seeing it on special offer and having good use for such a case. I had taken very little hand luggage, merely a carrier bag with a bottle of water and a book of chess problems, so saw no difficulty with taking it on board.
Whilst speaking to the attractive olive-skinned sales girl, who spoke good English, I observed a Berber-looking fellow examining suitcases. He had dark skin, a large nose and curly black hair, was of medium stature and wore a rather worn navy blue suit. Nothing out of the ordinary but he attracted my attention by glancing surreptitiously in my direction from time to time. I began to wonder if he really was interested in suitcases.
I soon found out. As I left the shop he followed me down the corridor, soon walking alongside me. “Excuse me sir, may I speak with you please?” he said ingratiatingly. I knew enough of Moroccans to know that they usually wanted one of two things. To sell you something or to beg money from you. And they wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
This chap didn’t look like a beggar and I noticed he carried a package, about the size of a large book. It appeared to be wrapped with waxed paper and the whole was tied with string. I supposed he thought he had found a ‘sucker’ whom he could sell to. From experience of the Berbers and their cousins, the blue silken-clothed Touareg of the Sahara, I supposed it contained either cheap jewelry or fossils. I ignored the fellow and increased my pace.
“Sir, excuse please, I wish to speak with you!”
“Sorry, I’m in a bit of a hurry, plane to catch..”
“Sir, would this be of interest?”
He held an envelope open in front of me. It appeared to contain fifty pound notes, about twenty of them. That was of interest all right, I was down on my uppers and I came to a standstill right there and then. He ushered me to some seats down a deserted corridor.
Sitting opposite me, he spoke in faltering English. “My name is Abdul. I give you this money if you take this..packet…onto plane. You give me packet back at Marrakech. I give you same amount again.” He patted a bulge in his jacket.
“Look, you must take me for a mug, it could be drugs or weapons. I don’t trust you.” I remembered the adage, ‘never trust an Arab’.
To my surprise, he laughed and his face lit up pleasantly so that I warmed to him. “No sir, we have already been through security,” showing me his ticket, “and I give you package after we go through it again.”
We discussed the matter for several minutes and I agreed that after we had been through security I would put it in my briefcase, he would give me the money and I would then carry it on board. Then the procedure would be reversed at Marrakech. I asked him what was in it and why he didn’t want to carry it but he waved the question away as if unimportant. It was clear that he wasn’t going to elucidate.
We passed a bored-looking security guard who barely glanced at the screen as our hand luggage travelled through the scanner. I wished he had looked more closely at Abdul’s packet. An attractive red-suited hostess with brown skin and browner eyes checked our passports and I put the package in my briefcase as promised. True to his word Abdul passed me the envelope. My heart beat faster and I couldn’t wait to count it.
Soon we passed along the walkway and up to the plane, a Royal Air Maroc Boeing 737, engines idling. Stewardesses in red greeted us and I found myself in a window seat near the back. Abdul took his seat near the front without ever glancing in my direction.

The CFM56 turbofan engines roared, Casablanca fell away and we were on our way to Marrakech at last.

II

The flight was uneventful. I was served coffee and watched a Charlie Chaplin movie, in which the roast chicken he is carrying above his head around a crowded room gets speared on a light fitting.
We landed to schedule and I took my time getting off. “Thank you for travelling with us sir” smiled the headscarved stewardess at the exit and I stepped off the plane, horrified to see Abdul arguing with two grim-faced security guards. He didn’t look at me as I passed and when I glanced back I saw him being led away. I had to meet the Haut Atlas Treks representative and fellow travellers but hung around as long as practicable in the baggage hall waiting for Abdul.

With no sign of him and the party waiting I had no choice but to leave with his package and take it to our hotel.

III

We gathered in the foyer and after a smiling “Welcome to Marrakech!” were given a pep talk in faltering English by a dumpy plain-faced Moroccan lady in a red headscarf, the local company representative. We were told to meet there with the walking leader two hours’ later, before dinner. Until then the time was our own.

After the protracted booking-in procedure, trying to make sense of convoluted French phrases that didn’t seem to match our passports, we were given our room keys and I tramped up two flights of narrow steps with my heavy case to find a rather ramshackle but quaint room at the end of a corridor. I dropped my luggage on the floor, closed the window to shut out market and traffic sounds, lay on the bed and gazed at the Islamic design on the ceiling. It was an Escher-like pattern composed of interweaved coloured strips forming rectangles and stars. I was soon asleep.

IV

I was dead to the world when the telephone rang an hour later. I started and scrabbled the phone off the hook. “Hello”
“Mr. Slater?”
“Yes”
“Hello, this is Mohammed, the concierge. There is someone here who wishes to speak with you”
“Who is it?”
“It is better you come and see for yourself”. The phone went dead.
As I headed down the corridor I spotted a cupboard. On an impulse I opened it and found it piled with linen. A chord hung down. I pulled it and a light came on, revealing a small trapdoor next to the light bulb. I removed the linen and clambered onto the shelf which creaked but held. Opening the trapdoor I saw it led into an unused loft space. I went back to the room, took the packet from my briefcase, pushed it into the loft and put everything back as it was. What the hell was in that goddam package?!
Then I jogged down the staircases, which shook with my steps, and into the foyer. There was no-one there. I went outside the hotel in time to see a white-suited Arab get into a dark blue Fiat and drive off, revving the engine unnecessarily.
I waited there for five minutes admiring ornaments and fabrics in an illuminated glass cabinet before giving up and returning to the room.
Entering it, I was mortified. It looked as if a giant hand had swept everything in the room into the air, slashed at random with a huge blade and let it all fall to the floor. Presumably unhappy with the lack of valuables, the robber or robbers had slashed my expensive new Berghaus Goretex jacket as well as a couple of hi-tech walking shirts, also new. Even the bed and bedding was ripped.
I managed to find the manager, complaining bitterly about the lack of security.
“It happens sir, we cannot stop all vandals.” He seemed curiously unconcerned.
“Vandals! Why should vandals want to attack my room?”
“I do not know sir, you would have to ask them.”
“Well, aren’t you going to call the police at least?”
“They will be gone sir, there would be no point”
“Well don’t you have CCTV?”
He laughed, “no sir, no cameras!”
Then he added, “anyway, you said had your passport and money on your person, alhamdulillah.
He placated me by promising to replace or reimburse me for all damaged items. An assistant would go to the biggest camping shop in Marrakech the next day, he assured me.
Later, at the meeting, the leader, short, lean and bald, warned about security and other walkers expressed horror at my misfortune. However, that was quickly forgotten as they tucked into tomato and egg salad followed by couscous with chicken and vegetables, washed down with Moroccan beer and that country’s dubious and expensive wine.
The plan for the holiday was outlined and I retired to a hurriedly-repaired room where I slept intermittently, dreaming of alleyways, mean-faced Arabs and long sharp flick-knives.

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